Expectations Vs. Reality (An Essay from 2015)


This is a new series that I am doing where I find old essays I wrote for college, and I am republishing them here. Some of the compositions are rough, some of them are random, but I thought this would be a fun place to publish some edited versions of these old English papers. I hope you enjoy them!

Expectations vs. Reality

The Cinematic vixen ( Marilyn Monroe) and The Hottentot Venus (Saarrtjie Baartman), both women, were sexualized and fetishized before they could even open their mouths. Saarrtjie Baartman is a woman molded and made into a spectacle because of her black skin, her body on display for the masses. Marilyn Monroe is a woman made by the men of Hollywood studio system, they changed her name (Norma Jean) her “look” (i.e., clothing, hair color) and made her into every man’s fantasy. Poets, Jackie Kay and Sharon Olds poems play with society’s expectation of the sexualized female’s physical body and image; and how society reacts to the reality of these women’s humanity.

In Jackie Kay’s poem, Hottentot Venus the men’s sexualization of her body is menacing, “You can see the moulds of my genitals as the Musee de l’Homme—Paris; the rest of me is here now, Natural History Museum, my brains, my wooly hair, my skeleton.” (Kay 2.1490) The men take pieces of her, break her apart and ship her to different corners of the world; Her identity solely based on how they want to perceive her. “Not so long ago people paid handsomely to see my rump, my apron, my non-European genitals. Two Schillings.”(Kay 2.1490) Kay is showing how this woman is seen only as this exhibit, a thing, a body, that they own and pay for so they can poke and prod. Kay depicts that she is more than that, that she wants more “I said the English words I’d heard them say so often. Money. Freedom. My Boer keeper smiled.” (Kay 2.1490) Its heartbreaking this poem, she wants out, but her lack of mastery over the language of her oppressor is taken advantage of like she and her and her body are held captive. The expectations of a sexualized female’s body in Sharon Olds poem The Death of Marilyn Monroe are based on what’s not said. She was no longer a seen as a normal woman at the height of her fame but became a sex icon. What Olds does in her poem is to take all those preconceived notions and images the reader has seen of Monroe, the idolized figure, and turns them on their heads. The men in the poem represent society’s view “The ambulance men touched her cold body, lifted it, heavy as iron,”(Olds 2.1279) When the men touch her, and the reality of the situation hits them, Olds portrays Monroe’s body as the opposite of sexy. It’s dead, heavy, and burdensome. One of the ambulance men moves her hair out of the way; “Moved a caught strand of hair, as if it mattered,” (Olds 2.1279). He is still clinging to the image of her in his head like if he moves that hair back in place, she will become that icon again, that fantasy. The authors of these poems show that the expectations the men held do not quite fit with the reality that they are faced with.

The image vs. reality. What society puts out for the world to see despite what is there, is something both authors, Kay and Olds decide to play with within their poems. “Let them view the buttocks of the Hottentot Venus. My heart inside my cage pounded like a single drum.” (Kay 2.1491) Kay uses the dichotomy of the Hottentot Venus’ image and the reality of the woman, Baartman behind it, who is scared and nervous of the hoards of men waiting to get a piece of her. All while, still reminding the readers of why the men are there, to exoticize her blackness, Kay pushes this imagery by saying her heart ‘pounded like a single drum.’ In Olds poem, the image of Marilyn Monroe is like a ghost that haunts the text. “These men were never the same.” (Olds 2.1279) The men within the poem are dealing with the way they viewed her before and the reality of what she really was. The old adage “Never meet your heroes” always comes to mind, they are disillusioned by her death disturbed even that she, the woman of every man’s dreams, can also die, and that she wasn’t perfect. That in fact, she was an ordinary woman.

Expectations are funny, they have a way of always leading to disappointment, whether it be disappointment in the crushing truth of said expectation as it was in Olds poem The Death of Marilyn Monroe or the disappointment of when your expectations become a reality like in Jackie Kay’s Hottentot Venus. In Olds poem, they’re broken by the idea that she was in fact human. Just a normal flawed woman. “Their lives took a turn—one had nightmares, strange pains, impotence, depression.” (Olds 2.1279) Seeing her dead body was something that physically wrecked them. The change in so radically different from what they envisioned, rocks them to their very core to the point where they are physically affected. Olds humanizes her by showing her in this vulnerable state. Her previous iconography no longer something important, death makes her like every woman these men know. “One found himself standing at night in the doorway, to a room of sleep, listening to a woman breathing, just an ordinary woman—breathing.” (Olds 2.1279) The sudden awareness of the humanity in women, the fact that Olds is showing an awakening to these men’s psyche’s that maybe there was more to Marilyn than sex. In Hottentot Venus, that realization never comes for the men depicted. They reject any notion that she is any more than what they need her for. “Some things I will never forget no matter how I am divided up: the look on the white lady’s face when she poked her parasol into my privates.” (Kay 2.1490) There is no hesitation to violate her, the white lady sees no problem with her actions whatsoever, the poem goes on; “Her gloved hands. Her small stone eyes. Her English squeal of surprise at my size.”(Kay 2.1490) She lets out a “squeal”, the image of the word “squeal” provokes the thought of delight and astonishment, the White lady takes pleasure in what she is doing. Baartman isn’t ever seen as a woman in this poem. Or even as a human being by the people that come to view her. She is treated worse than an animal, her humanity rejected and treated as if it never existed. Kay, the author, lets the audience see the real her she gives Baartman a voice in which we can see her as she really is. “I was wearing a thin skin coloured dress. Hottentot Venus. Don’t miss the Hottentot. Now, what name have I got? Sarah Bateman. Like a English woman. A great actress.” (Kay 2.1491)

In both poems Hottentot Venus by Jackie Kay and The Death of Marilyn Monroe by Sharon Olds the authors play with society’s expectation of the sexualized female’s physical body, and image; and the reaction of society to these women’s real humanity. In the case of Olds, she takes the death of a sex icon and ignites life to her humanity within the men that handle her remains. While Kay shows the humanity of Baartman through the inhumane things that she is put through. Both women depicted in these poems are fetishized and are seen as nothing more than what their bodies have to offer. But the authors gave them back their humanity with their words.

Vampires and Women: Octavia Butler and the Literary Canon (An Essay from 2015)

This is a new series that I am doing where I find old essays I wrote for college, and I am republishing them here. Some of the compositions are rough, some of them are random, but I thought this would be a fun place to publish some edited versions of these old English papers. I hope you enjoy them!


Vampires and Women

Octavia Butler’s novel Fledgling, written in 2005 was a force to be reckoned with. Butler, who is an acclaimed Black female writer in the science fiction and fantasy genre, wrote the first of what would have been a trilogy though she had died in 2006 before she could finish the last two novels. Fledgling is about a Black female vampire named Shori who wakes up alone in the woods, with no memory of who she is or what she is. Throughout this book, she is tasked with rediscovering her roots and making connections with forgotten family members along the way. Butler’s novel Fledgling and the short story Bloodchild should be included the canon of Women’s Literature because it deals with the complex issues of love, sexuality, and friendship within the literary veil of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

Octavia Butler is a Hugo, and Nebula Award-winning author. She became one of the first African-American women to gain fame within the genre of science fiction. Gilbert and Guber, writers of The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women stated; “According to many feminist and African American scholars, Octavia Butler transformed science fiction conventions by grappling with the racial and ecological problems that today confront all human beings.”(Gilbert, Guber 1307) Not only did she tackle the robust ideas of race and religion, but also her writing deals with the views of love, sexuality, and friendship heavily.

The theme of love is prominent throughout this book. In many of Butler’s works, her depiction of love tends to be on the unconventional side. Renee/Shori’s (the protagonist in the novel Fledgling) relationship with Wright is the perfect example of the theme. Wright finds her walking on the side of the road, and immediately Shori/Renee feels drawn to him.

“I surprised myself completely by instantly wanting to go home with him. I went around to the passenger side of his car and opened the door.”(Butler 8) This moment isn’t quite loving yet but an infatuation a longing. Shori/Renee is a vampire, she is a woman alone, small, and has lost all of her memory. But in her the initial contact with Wright she holds power. Shori/Renee has agency of herself and knows that she has the power to control the situation. She sees Wright and her infatuation is determined and based on her extreme hunger. But after she feeds, she feels a deeper connection; “He tasted wonderful, and he fed me without trying to escape or to hurt me. I licked the bite until it stopped bleeding. I wished I could make it heal, wished I could repay him by healing him.”(Butler 12) Similarly in Octavia Butler’s short story Bloodchild while unconventional, love plays a major role in that text. The story that takes place in a colony on another planet. We follow a family who is dealing with the struggles of cohabitation with another alien race called the Tlic. Gan, a boy chosen to be a carrier of T’Gatoi’s young. “‘Yes.’ I leaned my forehead against her. She was cool velvet, deceptively soft. ‘And to keep you for myself,’ I said. It was so. I didn’t understand it, but it was so. She made a hum or contentment.”( Butler 2.1320) In both the short story and the novel, there are examples of complex relationships. Relationships that aren’t easily defined, Butler, use the genre of science fiction and Fantasy to manufacture relationships that on the surface seem strange and “inhuman” but show a complexity of love that transcends into something relatable to the reader.

In Fledging the theme of sexuality oozes through. Nothing goes hand and hand with vampires more than sexuality. In the novel, Shori/Renee has to have what they call symbiotes to survive. Symbionts are what vampire’s call the humans that they choose to be in their, family and they feed on them to survive. They need around three or four to make sure they have a healthy rotation (pun intended), to not bring any harm to their humans. The act of taking blood is depicted as a very sexual experience. When Shori/Renee first meets Wright (her first symbiont), they immediately participate in the ritual. “A moment later, I bit hard into the side of his neck. He convulsed, and I held on to him. He writhed under me, not struggling but holding me as I took more of his blood. I took enough blood to satisfy me…He sighed and held me, leaning back in his seat and letting me lean against him.”(Butler 12) The act of taking blood can be a metaphor for women being able to partake in sexual fulfillment and not be ashamed. She says she is “satisfied,” Butler uses that word to bring emphasis to her fulfillment.

The relationship between Shori/Renee and her symbionts is one she gives full agency to them. In the case of Celia and Brook (two of her new symbionts) who both were apart of Shori/Renee’s father’s, and brother’s family, who were both murdered. Because the bond between a Symbiont and their Ina (Vampire) is for life, (they are physically bound to one another) Shori/Renee gives them a choice on whether to join them or not. “‘If you know any other Ina, and you would prefer to got to them, you should do it now, while you can,’”(Butler 108)

Butler gives all her female characters agency in their relationships. She has Shori/Renee present the offer, instead of having her bite the two girls without their consent. The relationship between the Symbionts and their Ina (vampire) isn’t just one based on sexuality alone. Octavia is sure to show the development of trust and friendship throughout the novel, depicting a loving relationship between all members of Shori/Renee’s surrogate family. That isn’t often seen in literature between male and female characters. Shori/Renee’s family is one made up of Wright (male), Celia(Female), Brook (female), and Joel (male). Butler uses this odd family dynamic to show the difficulties of human relationships and especially the challenge of friendship between genders. “I glanced at Brook, feeling almost angry with her. ‘Ask me questions when you want to know things. Tell me whatever you believe I should know. Complain whenever you want to complain. But don’t talk to other people when you mean your words for me, and speak the truth.’ She shrugged. ‘All right.’”(Butler 122) Butler shows the hard part of relationships, especially new ones. They doubt Shori’s strength and ability to protect them. In this, she lays out the rules for Brook and doesn’t shy away from saying the hard stuff. But after this rough patch, Butler shows the friendship and trust beginning to grow. “ ‘ I didn’t ask what you knew. I asked whether you believe that I or my people murdered my families?’ He glanced back at his fathers and brothers. ‘I don’t. I don’t even believe you could have.’

‘Then stop scaring my symbionts. If you have questions, ask them.’

‘You’re a child,’ one of the older men said. ‘And the two women with you are not your symbionts.’

I looked at him with disgust. He had already heard me answer this. I repeated the answer exactly: ‘They were my father’s and my brother Stefan’s. They’re with me now.’”(Butler 145) Butler uses the line “They are with me now.” Twice in the text, Shori/Renee takes ownership and then claims them as her family, friends, and lovers. At this moment in the story, she truly accepts her matriarchal role in this mismatched family.

In the short story, Bloodchild friendship is depicted as between characters as something strained. In the world she creates, friendship doesn’t thrive due to the circumstances of colonial life. “One of my earliest memories is of my mother stretched alongside T’Gatoi, talking about things I could not understand. Picking me up from the floor and laughing as she sat me on one of T’Gatoi’s segments. She ate her share of eggs then. I wondered when she had stopped, and why.”(Butler 2.1308) This failed friendship, and the burgeoning one in the novel shows how Butler’s writing seeks to introduce readers to the idea that there isn’t just one side to personal relationships. But several levels that can’t be defined by pure emotions. Both Fledgling and BloodChild show this dynamic of love and family in its genuinely complex form.

Octavia Butler’s novel Fledgling and short story Bloodchild should be in the Women’s Literary canon, because of what the texts add to the literary canon in regards to the themes of love, sexuality, and friendship. Butler uses science fiction and fantasy to show the complexities of life through a fantastical lens. Her use of unique relationships and her new handling of would be stereotypes; Is what makes her a writer that should not only be included in the canon of this survey class but also in the broader canon of Literature.

Works Cited

Butler, Octavia. “Bloodchild.” The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women – The Traditions in English: Early Twentieth Century Through Contemporary. Ed. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Vol. 2. New York: W.W. Norton, 2007. 1307-320. Print.

Butler, Octavia E. Fledgling. New York: Seven Stories, 2005. Print.

M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Vol. 2. New York: W.W. Norton, 2007. 57-65. Print.