“Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies“
– Donna Haraway [A Cyborg Manifesto]
After re-watching Ghost in the Shell (GiTS), I started considering femininity in sci-fi. A lot of people feel the two don’t mix, claiming they “ruin” the epic thrill of technology and space with themes of love and other empty, stereotypically female things. Individuality, strong personality and gender equality has always suffered in regards to women when it comes to sci-fi and future dystopia. Exhibit A: Blade Runner – a thought platter about the role of machines in the power play of consciousness. One would think that in such a revolutionary film, conventional female objectification would be broken. You would be, blameless, mistaken. For all Blade Runner inspired, original femininity outside of the femme-fatale stereotype is not one of them. One film that has stood out from this though, is GiTS.
Although subtle, there is a difference between sex and gender. The former being a biologically deterministic state, the latter being an artificial social dualism. Typically, the duality we have established for gender identity is one where masculinity is associated with strength and rationality whilst femininity is more emotional, less concerned with logic and technology and more with natural world phenomenology i.e. mother earth. Whilst the mother earth symbol is admirable, I can’t help but feel it is more of a pejorative typecast in the modern sci-fi genre. Rather than the natural goddess imagery, GiTS uses cyborgs to present a new way to liberate femininity from conventional gender identity. As Haraway argues “There is nothing about being ‘female’ that binds women”. Rather than simply acknowledging that men and women possess complementing reproductive organs, our culture has amassed a thick pastiche of oppositional dualisms between being ‘male’ and being ‘female’. GiTS succeeds here where many others have failed – by removing the idea of sex on multiple levels, we remove the essence of gender identity.
“Sex, sexuality and reproduction are the central actors in the high-tech myth systems structuring our imagination of personal and social possibility“
– Donna Haraway [A Cyborg Manifesto]
Our protagonist, Major Motoko Kusanagi, is a cyborg – built, not born. Alive yet hardly containing any living tissue, unnatural and mechanical yet beautifully animate; Motoko is a living machine. She doesn’t have a womb or any reproductive organs. Whilst usually said as a joke, the common aphorisms about how bad women are with technology, actually reflects quite well the dualism we have in regards to gender and technology. By being a cyborg, Motoko reduces these arbitrary distinctions.
Think about it. How much of someone’s identity is linked to their gender? I would argue; a lot. However I’m not so sure that it should, nor that it has to. Motoko, by not being able to be a mother, loses the mother earth romanticism. By having a bionic body, she is faster and stronger than any man, even her cyborg counterparts, and so conventional strength expectations are removed as well. By seeking technology in the becoming of a cyborg, she removes the label of technology as a primarily ‘masculine’ thing. Despite the loss of a gender identity, this is one of the keys to her existential journey in the film. By removing self-referential gender labels, GiTS paints us a picture of the liberating potential of the feminized cyborg.
“Unlike the Frankenstein monster, the cyborg does not expect its father to save it through the restoration of the garden, that is, through the creation of a heterosexual male“
– Donna Haraway [A Cyborg Manifesto]
Despite all this, one could argue that given GiTS’s trivial use of nude body shots and purposeful cast of Motoko with the ‘perfect’ body shape, GiTS falls into typical female theming and objectification. However, whilst there is no doubt later adaptations used her body for little more than titillation, I’d make a case for the original. Despite Motoko being a sexual character, Motoko seems to harbour no sexual or romantic feelings – neither is she ever the object of such things. Devoid of even shame or embarrassed when nude in the company of her male police partner Batou, Motoko gives us no indication that she is aware of herself as a sexual being nor of her obvious femininity.
In a time where ‘gender’ is meaningless, such physical attributes are trivial. Gender thresholds aren’t just ambiguous with Motoko but completely without presence. Refreshingly, this allows Motoko to create a personal identity and relationships (friendships) free from social gender expectations. Her titanium body is neither for pleasure nor reproduction; it is just a body – ineffective to her character or identity. The loss of the mindset of being ‘female’, is actually what allows Motoko to undertake a genuine exploration of herself. This lends her more credibility as a strong, intellectual and attractive woman, than any amount of femme-fatality.
Even with this though, there is still a slight niggling. Why does Motoko need to be sexualized at all? I think this speaks particular volumes about the direction anime has headed in regards to gender identity. Gender identity is so firmly rooted in anime, that it’s incredibly rare to find a case it doesn’t permeate. In anime, objective femininity is actually objectified femininity. The market has hypersexualized the aesthetic. The thing that GiTS so poignantly poses to us, and my guess for her sexualization; is to show the journey of a ‘woman’ trying to find her ‘femininity’ in a world where such labels have very little meaning. As robotics is proliferated, humanity seems to grow further from the old concept of natural as feminine. GiTS shows us the struggle between her concept of traditional femininity and her innate genderlessness. The old concept of femininity as a hypersexualized woman vs. her current state as an identity free of gender. Ironically, Motoko is struggling to find her femininity, when she has been liberated from such trivial matters.
However, from this, a new kind of femininity arises within Motoko, one less concerned with things of the body and more concerned with characterization of her as a being. Irrespective of her gender and irrespective of social expectations, a new kind of feminism emerges from GiTS. A kind of post-feminism. The answer Motoko finds is not that men and women are equal or that woman are better than men, rather, just that people need to identify who they are outside of the sphere of deterministic properties and bias cultural dialogue. A feminism that is actually little concerned with gender, Motoko is a prime example for the neutralization of gender dualisms via technology; if not an attack on modern conceptions of sexism and feminism.
Now, I’m not a feminist, let alone a woman but doesn’t GiTS ask some interesting questions about women and gender dualisms in modern media? The prominence of archaic gender roles? Technology’s capability for physical and mental (cultural) change? Does technology hold the key to gender neutrality? I’m not decided but its certainly interesting to think on. What do you think?
About the Guest Author:
The writer behind Anime Elysium, Aelysium is a super talented, intelligent blogger. It was not only a pleasant surprise, but an honor to see his introduction along with this guest post. Be sure to give his blog a visit!