Find Your Free Essay Examples

In The Novels, Kindred And Zoo

In the novels, Kindred and Zoo City Butler and Beukes use SF as a medium to challenge cultural constructs of gender. Butler’s Kindred is one the earliest neo-slave narratives; uniquely approaching slavery from a black female perspective. Zoo City is rare in its varied use of multiple genres – cyberpunk, magic realism, noir, and allegory to represent gender. In the establishment of alternative worlds Butler and Beukes incorporate aspects of SF and fantasy – time-travel, hybridity – in order to aid the ability of female protagonists to subvert cultural constructs of gender. In these texts, the novels’ female protagonists are represented as engaging in violent and criminal acts, defining their relationships with men and being economically self-reliant. Consequently, they subvert cultural constructs of gender which associate these acts with masculinity. Therefore, in this essay, I will argue that Butler and Beukes represent women as subverting cultural constructs of gender in the novels ‘Kindred’ and ‘Zoo City.’

In the novel Kindred, women are represented as subverting cultural constructs of gender by engaging in violent acts. After being transported to the antebellum South, Dana is situated in the brutal world of slavery. In order to avoid the worst horrors of slavery for Black women – sexual violence – Dana subverts cultural constructs of gender by engaging in violent acts in order to defend herself. When Rufus attempts to rape her, she kills him: ‘I was aware of him trying not to hurt me even as I raised the knife, even as I sank it into his side.’ [Butler: 2014: 290] By adopting aggressive behaviours (denoted in the verbs ‘raised’ and ‘sank’) Dana subverts cultural constructs of gender which associate aggression with masculinity. The system of slavery associates agency with white masculinity; in the text the possessors of agency on the Weylin plantation are white male slave owners and Kevin Franklin. Thus, Dana’s use of violence as a form of agency – killing Rufus in order to retain agency over her body – subverts these cultural constructs of gender. The system of slavery associates passivity and submission with black women; as slaves, they are expected to submit sexually to their white slave masters. Therefore, by killing Rufus Dana carries out a symbolic act of defiance which subverts cultural constructs of the passive black woman. Zaki (p.248, 1990) refers to Lefanu’s observation that this representation of female violence challenges ‘familiar notions of gendered behaviour’. Consequently, we can see how Butler presents women as subverting cultural constructions of gender by engaging in violent acts.

By contrast, in the novel Zoo City, women are represented as subverting cultural constructions of gender by using violent threats. Zinzi subverts cultural constructions of gender in order to be able to navigate the dangerous world of Hillbrow. Zinzi threatens Vuyo when he attempts to hurt Sloth, stating: ‘You can break his arm, Vuyo, but I’ll cave your fucking skull in before you can do anything else.’…. ‘Stalemate,’ says Vuyo grimly.’ [Beukes: 2010: 308] As with Dana, Zinzi’s subversion of cultural constructs of gender is motivated by a need to defend herself from male violence. By exhibiting aggression – denoted Zinzi’s angry tone – Zinzi subverts cultural constructions of gender which associate masculinity with aggression. Brown (p.28, 2014) notes that Zinzi is represented as ‘threatening rather than threatened.’ Secondly, Zinzi uses violent threats as a form of agency – as an Aposymbiot Sloth is a part of her; if he dies, she dies. Thus violent threats act as a form of ‘agency’ where they enable Zinzi to avoid being killed by Vuyo. As in Kindred, agency is associated with masculinity even in 2011; with the possessors of agency in this text being men such as Odi Huron. Thus, Zinzi’s female agency garnered by the use of violent threats, subverts cultural constructs of gender. Therefore, we can see how Beukes represents women as subverting cultural constructs of gender by using violent threats.

In the novel Kindred, women are represented as subverting cultural constructions of gender by engaging in criminal acts. Slaves who attempted to escape plantations were criminalised – these runaways were known as ‘fugitive slaves’. In keeping with the novel as a neo-slave narrative, we see Dana’s first-person narrative refer to the stories of successful black female runaways, who were also slaves during the early 1800s. Dana states: ‘And there were two important slave children right here in Maryland….Harriet Ross, eventually to be Harriet Tubman. Someday, she was going to cost Eastern Shore plantation owners a huge amount of money by guiding three hundred of their runaway slaves to freedom.’ [Butler: 2014:153] Tubman occupies a position of agency as a former slave enabling other slaves to escape the system of slavery – this representation of black female agency subverts cultural constructions of gender which associate agency with white masculinity during this period. Myles (p.156, 2009) states that black female slaves ‘demonstrated their resistance to white domination.’ That Tubman’s agency goes on to undermine the economic agency of white male slave owners also represents a subversion of cultural constructions of gender in the juxtaposing of female agency with reduced male agency. Furthermore, Tubman’s non-compliance with the system of slavery subverts cultural constructs of gender which as Spade & Valentine (p.xvii, 2011) note associate femininity with compliance. Consequently, we can see how Butler represents women as subverting cultural constructs of gender by engaging in acts of criminality.

In the novel, Zoo City women are also represented as subverting cultural constructs of gender by engaging in criminal acts. Zinzi’s criminality is characterised by cybercrime – particularly 419 scams. This underlines how Beukes incorporates cyberpunk themes in her representation of women as subverting cultural constructions of gender. Zinzi states that ‘It takes a long time to send 3,986 emails, watching the status bar count them off. There is a deep satisfaction in this….It takes a techno-naif to fall for a 419.’ [Beukes: 2010: 277] Zinzi’s first-person narrative alludes to her apathy towards those she victimises; this can be denoted in the noun ‘satisfaction’ which conveys Zinzi’s feeling of pleasure in scamming people. Female apathy subverts cultural constructions of gender which associate femininity with empathy and compassion. Furthermore by being a criminal Zinzi by definition is a transgressive woman – this subverts cultural constructs of gender which associate femininity with compliance. Schmidt’s (p.138, 2016) observation that crime is gendered in fiction reflects the association of criminality with masculinity in society. Therefore, we can see how Beukes uses tropes of hybridity to convey Zinzi’s subversion of cultural constructs of gender with Zinzi’s status as ‘animalled’ a signifier of her criminality. This demonstrates how Beukes uses elements of magic realism to represent Zinzi’s subversion of cultural constructs of gender.

In the novel Kindred, women are represented as subverting cultural constructions of gender in their relationships with men. Dana attempts to define her relationship with Rufus in order to at least partly emancipate herself from the oppressive structures of slavery. She tells Rufus that ‘We should never lie to each other, you and I. It wouldn’t be worthwhile. We both have too much opportunity for retaliation.’ [Butler: 2014: 135] Dana subverts cultural constructions of gender in several ways here. Firstly, by attempting to define her relationship with Rufus Dana subverts cultural construction of gender which associates dominance with masculinity; denoting men as those who define relationships. Rufus as a white male slave owner possess the political and economic power that Dana as a black female slave does not have; and so is expected to define his relationship with her. Secondly, Dana’s use of violent threats denoted in the noun ‘retaliation’ also subverts cultural constructions of gender as aggression and violence are traits associated with masculinity, particularly during this period of history. Butler’s incorporation of time-travel (as a motif) into the neo-slave narrative aids Dana’s subversion of gender constructs. This motif allows Dana to partly subvert cultural constructs of gender during slavery because every time her life is endangered by this subversion she is transported back to 1976. Hampton (p.15-6, 2010) notes how time-travel acts as ‘refuge’ for Dana leading to Rufus being unable to possess Dana’s body. Here we can see how temporality enables Butler’s representation of women as subverting cultural constructions of gender.

The novel’s non-linear chronology through the time-travel device creates parallels between Dana’s subversion of cultural constructions of gender in the 1800s as well as in 1976 – demonstrating how patriarchal ideas continue to define gender constructs even in the twentieth century. Kevin, as with Rufus expects servitude from Dana; requesting that she type up his manuscripts – a request she refuses: ‘He really had asked me to do some typing for him three times….The third time when I refused again, he was angry. He said if I couldn’t do him a little favor when he asked, I could leave. So I went home.’ [Butler: 2014:117] Kevin’s anger towards Dana’s refusal to accept a position of servitude in their relationship demonstrates that the cultural constructs of the submissive woman endures in 1976. Therefore, Dana’s defiance towards Kevin represents her as subverting this cultural construct of gender. Consequently, we can see how Butler represents women as subverting cultural constructs of gender within their relationships.

In the novel Zoo City, women are also represented as subverting cultural constructs of gender in their relationships with men. Zinzi, like Dana, defines her relationships with men. After a one night stand, she states to ‘Baby-faced dealer’: ‘It was wonderful. You were great. Now get the fuck out of my house.’ [Beukes: 2010: 264] The expletive and Zinzi’s commanding tone convey her as having a dominant and authoritative approach in her relationships with men. This subverts cultural constructs of gender; dominance and authority are traits associated with masculinity (Hortwitz & White, p.159). Furthermore, Zinzi’s non-monogamy (she is still in a relationship with Benoit at this point) and unemotional attitude to sex also subvert cultural constructions of gender which as Charlebois (p.2, 2011) notes associate heterosexual monogamy and an emotional attitude to sex with femininity. Schmidt (p.138, 2016) notes how Beukes ‘upends’ gender roles in her representation of Zinzi. Thus, we can see how Beukes represents women as subverting cultural constructs of gender in their relationships with men.

In the novel Kindred, women are represented as subverting cultural constructs of gender by choosing to be economically self-reliant. Dana refuses Kevin’s offer of financial support despite being dissatisfied with the agency. She states that: ‘I didn’t quit. The independence the agency gave me was shaky, but it was real….my aunt and uncle told me that even people who loved me could demand more of me than I could give – and expect their demands to be met simply because I owed them.’ [Butler: 2014: 116-7] Dana’s economic self-reliance denoted in the noun ‘independence’ subverts cultural constructs of gender which as Hortwitz & White (p.159, 1987) note associate dependency with femininity. Myles (p.156, 2009) states that Dana ‘understands self-sufficiency as freedom’. Furthermore, Dana’s awareness of the gendered power dynamics that can be produced by female dependency represents her as subverting cultural constructs of gender which expect women to have a compliant attitude to patriarchy; not to critique it. Consequently, we can see how Butler represents women as subverting cultural constructs of gender by choosing to be economically self-reliant.

In the novel Zoo City, women are also represented as subverting cultural constructs of gender by choosing to be economically self-reliant. Zinzi offers financial support to her boyfriend Benoit: ‘I’m getting the cash tomorrow. I can pay for fake papers, for your plane ticket.’ [Beukes: 2010: 255] Zinzi’s offer of financial support – denoted in the noun ‘cash’, and the verb ‘pay’ – represents her as economically self-reliant; revealing that she is not financially dependent on Benoit. As with Dana, Zinzi’s economic self-reliance subverts cultural constructs of gender which associate femininity with dependency. With both Zinzi and Benoit economically self-reliant, their relationship as a ‘partnership’ subverts cultural constructions of gender which associate femininity with subordination and masculinity with dominance. Therefore we can see how Beukes represents women as subverting cultural constructs of gender by choosing to be economically self-reliant.

In order to survive contemporary and patriarchal societies women adopt behaviours associated with masculinity throughout the texts – engaging in violent acts, making violent threats, participating in criminality, defining their romantic/sexual relationships and being economically self-sufficient. In doing so, they subvert cultural constructs of gender and emerge to survive the oppressive worlds of the Weylin plantation, California 1976, and Hillbrow 2011.