The Machinations of Gender Dualisms

by Aelysium.

Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies
– Donna Haraway [A Cyborg Manifesto]

Ghost in the Shell Major Motoko Kusanagi

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]

Ghost in the Shell SAC Major Motoko Kusanagi medisc

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]

Motoko Kusanagi Ghost in the Shell

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.

Ghost in the Shell Motoko Kusanagi

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!

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23 Responses to The Machinations of Gender Dualisms

  1. Smithy says:

    Ghost In The Shell is rife with layer upon layer of interesting themes and poignant questions (definitely the manga, though the movies and series do near as good a job at that).
    While the question of what it means and is to be human when one is a cyborg that has near only artificial is more prominent, sexuality and gender identity does get featured.

    Motoko does use her body to its fullest, as a weapon, and that does include using its synthetically perfect curves on few occasions. Mostly GitS:SAC does offer a few hints here and there along such directions.

    While I am very much attached to the physical integrity of my body, I’ve once wondered that if given the chance to have such a cyborg body, I would very likely choose one like Motoko because -as you said- it can do everything the male cyborg body can and following our cultural standards and my own preferences, it is simply more aesthetically pleasing. An interesting duality and raises the question if as a originally male human one would have/choose a female cyborg body, does that change your gender identity or persona?

    So many interesting questions one can find in GitS, if only Masamune Shirow would write another epic tale like that. (Real Drive aka RD Sennou Chousashitsu was good but not the level of GitS or Appleseed.)

    • Aelysium says:

      I would definitely agree, I make no secret of it that GiTS is among my favourites with Motoko probably being my favourite female character in the anime world.

      Whilst you’re right in saying gender identity and sexuality aren’t highlighted (featured) I wouldn’t say they are without presence. Even more so, readers and viewers often discern a lot of meaning that was otherwise not intended by the author but I would still say it’s just as valid.

      The question of whether I’d take a cyborg body is an interesting one which to be honest I’m not entirely sure myself about. Something I didn’t consider is the gender swap you mentioned, I think that would make things a lot more complicated. Even though, as the post addresses, gender would be pointless 😛

      I was disappointed with GiTS 2 Innocence. Oshii scripted a masterpiece with the first but got a bit lost in the second. The manga is definitely a great read as well. Thanks for the interesting comment there 🙂

      • Escapedes says:

        It’s interesting to consider that something may not have to be ostensibly implicit in the original, let alone intended at all, for us to make connections ourselves and lead us to our own pondering.

        Though Ive always strictly opposed the squeezing-milk-from-a-stone approach to analysis, a movie like GITS becoming a facility for thinking – different each time – is something which I’m open to. The implications of gender identity I didnt visit in it much myself, so your post was a fresh read, I have to say. Very well thought out and written; I’ll be giving your blog a look.

        GITS covers topics I’d certainly think we need to see more of in entertainment mediums, as I feel its an issue that already should be popularly discussed. I think we are at a very real risk of letting technology get ahead of us to a point of integration that may not be so wise. Losing touch with our biology I believe would be a turning point for us – whether or not, as people, we want to take that step is a choice that needs to be consciously chosen.

        As social beings, I personally think our greatest fault is complacency; in the manner we’re going now, sitting blindly atop running technological advances, is possibly the greatest foreseeable, definite threat to our current humanity. Flagging the issue as merely science-fiction up until its on our very doorstep could potentially be disastrous.

        • Aelysium says:

          I don’t try to squeeze the proverbial milk out of anything that I can’t write an essay itself on. And for GiTS I could write an Opus. Slight exaggeration but I agree with your sentiments, it’s hard to “squeeze” meaning from GiTS because it just has so much to offer.

          You’ve actually brought up something really interesting which has always been in the back of my mind since watching GiTS. And it’s definitely something manga has always had a focus on – the apocalyptic power of technology. Triggered by early pilots like Akira, Japan has steadily come into a duality with technology – both loving it and fearing it.

          Well, I guess we can only hope humanity will be sensible enough to realise when something is a good idea and when it isn’t. That said, going by anime, we don’t have a very good track record for that 😛

          Thanks for the comment 🙂

      • Smithy says:

        While the GitS 2 Innocence movie is visually stunning and quite intriguing, it’s indeed not as solid in terms of story and action as the other movies, and often gets a bit convoluted. Though GitS: SAC Solid State Society is perilously close to being nearly as convoluted, though no doubt purposely so (the fact in that movie Motoko ends up facing a ghost of herself is simply thrilling in terms of plot depth and how it makes you think about life, self identity and artificial intelligence).

        The GitS 2 Man-Machine Interface manga is far more entertaining even enthralling than the GitS 2 movie though those two stories of the manga and movie aren’t really related.

        • Aelysium says:

          In regards to your previous comment about people switching genders in bodies, it just occurred to me, that that already gets slight (a few seconds) coverage in GiTS: SAC 1st Gig. The first episode, where the Foreign Minister was said to like swapping brains into Geisha bots. I guess for some people, its an exciting prospect.

          The GiTS manga in general is far better than the films IMO however, no one seems to have read the manga 😦

  2. Cratex says:

    I’ve always thought it was very important that the title used the term “in the shell”. While I’m sure I didn’t “get” many of the layers implied in the stories, it was apparent to me from the beginning what was implied by the title alone.

    • Aelysium says:

      To be honest, when I first watched GiTS at a very young age, I was hardly blown away if not somewhat bemused. As I got older and rewatched it, I found new things to think about with each watch. I’d definitely say that to really scope out GiTS, you need multiple watches.

      As for the title, it’s borrowed from Ryle’s treatise on Descartes Mind/Body dualism which was titled “Ghost in the Machine”. It’s no secret that Oshii and Shirow were both influenced by this book and by the philosophy. And upon reading it, I did see striking similarities. Thanks for another interesting comment 🙂

  3. Pingback: The Machinations of Gender Dualisms | Anime Elysium

  4. This was very interesting until you pointed out the fact that you’re NOT a feminist. Why do so many people feel the need to say this? I can’t comprehend this, especially coming from those as intelligent as you are. It only works to stigmatize the term further. Everyone should be a feminist regardless of sex, gender, religion, whatever.

    • Aelysium says:

      Hmmm, I have nothing against feminism, if you look at a lot of my comments, one would probably consider me feminist if anything. The reason I chose to specify that I don’t label myself as a feminist is because that requires actively looking into Feminist theory and engaging with a feminist mindset. Whilst I support the cause, I cannot say I am actively a feminist, again not because I don’t like the label, just because I don’t think of my arguments or comments as feminist, they just are what they are. In the same way I don’t consider myself a Liberal despite having Liberal beliefs.

  5. Great post. This question makes me think of another anime I saw a while back called Kaiba. In Kaiba everyone is composed of data, and they can go between different host bodies much like the cyborgs in GiTS. The protagonist at one point switches over from a male body to a female body and begins to question his own gender. It’s an interesting look at how gender is effected when sex is no longer permanent. You should check it out if your interested in the theme.

  6. Nopy says:

    I think you would enjoy another anime movie that deals with the same themes and questions: Mardock Scramble. The main character is a former prostitute that has gained a bio-mechanical body after she was saved from death and is now out for revenge against her pimp.

    • Aelysium says:

      One thing I have noticed is the focus on post-technology bloom dystopia in a lot of anime and manga. The Japanese have a strong fixation on technological advance but also the meaning for it. With technology, often comes a lot of moral indulgence. Not that I recall pimps and vendetta in GiTS but that does sound similarly interesting. 🙂

  7. Stef says:

    Let me start by saying: Great post! I’m a little ashamed I didn’t know your blog until now.

    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.

    In addition to what you said next, the opening of the movie shows the audience Motoko’s body on the “assembly line” and makes them see her not as a desirable being, but as an object. The whole process desexualizes her. The nudity serves both as a contrast and a thematic point.

    It’s no secret that Oshii and Shirow were both influenced by this book and by the philosophy.

    Funnily enough, GitS seems to support Descartes’s theory of the mind/body duality. Though as it is pointed out, the cyborgs still have organic brain cells, to which they are dependent for the existence of their ghost (that is, until the Puppet Master arrives). So how much of a duality is there, finally?

    I was disappointed with GiTS 2 Innocence.

    I view it as a welcome addition in the series. I like how the thematic focus shifts from “what does it mean to be human” to “what does it mean to not be human”. With all the doll stuff, that is. They explore themes that have been left out of the original movie.

    • Aelysium says:

      Well I only started a week or two ago so I hardly expect you to have seen my blog! No problem though, you’re here now ^ ^

      I’m not so sure that GiTS does support Descartes theory as much as it does contradict it. Descartes posits that we have an incorporeal mind linked to a corporeal mind. The fact that in GiTS, ghosts are subject to alteration, copying and even creation, I would say that there is no duality. Brain’s are ghosts. However, I think GiTS uses the term ghost to refer to the id/ego/superego part of the brain.

      Hmm when I say I was disappointed in the film I don’t mean I didn’t like it, it was visually breathtaking. I just thought Oshii’s change from story detail through music and dialogue to character detail through the use of aesthetics was at points contrived if not boring. I still like it. Whilst the second explores themes not in the first, the manga explores them all and more. I’d recommend that if you haven’t read it 😀

      Thanks for the comment!

  8. Kai says:

    GiTS certainly asked us a number of interesting questions. Science had been improving tremendously, and it might perhaps lead to an ideal neutrality between the two genders. In the world of GiTS, bodies are swapped around, memories are stored like hard disk, and some things you seen are perhaps just virtual. In a world like that, an original male could be residing in a female body for all we know. It’s a world where the boundary between male and female is broken,

    • Cratex says:

      Though there is no body, a person’s “presence” on the internet – in forums and blogs – is much the same. You know nothing about me, and I know nothing about you, beyond what we’ve read of each others’ post in various places. I can say I’m a 50 year old man, but am I really a 15 year old girl? Under how many id’s do I post on MAL? On the MAL account I like to from my gravatar I say I have an advanced degree in physics, but do I also have a facebook account under a different name where I act like a fashion designer from New Jersey?

      Actually, this has been going on for a LONG time. Authors wising to remain anonymous, or hide their gender so they can break into what otherwise might be socially taboo genres have been doing just that for nearly as long as popular books have been written, a few hundred years now.

  9. Pingback: Gender, Nudity, and the Power of Characterization – aloe, dream

  10. Seanny says:

    When Yi Hsieh shared your article to Google+, I “reshared” it to my stream with the following comment ( reproduced below:


    This article basically mirrors my thoughts on Ghost in the Shell (the far-superior-to-anything 1995 movie). What I find most interesting about the film is how it takes the exploitative and base anime aesthetics of its era — constant nudity and explosive violence — and subverts it by forwarding a Buddhism-inspired story of transcendence.

    Though Motoko is frequently nude, it’s often without titillation or sexuality. Though limbs are frequently broken and shattered, it’s often without pain. When characters die, their grotesque and alien cybernetic innards are exposed.

    Juxtaposed with the movie’s meditations on evolution, transhumanism, identity, and the protagonist’s own desire to transcend her physical body, it becomes apparent that these exploitative elements are working to disembody the audience and prompt them to think in grander philosophical terms.

    As a uniquely Japanese product that indulges and subverts its own genre aesthetics, Ghost in the Shell is still my go-to title when people ask what my favorite anime is.

    Along similar lines is the recent film, Mardock Scramble: The First Compression, which turns the same exploitative genre tropes on their heads to forward a criticism on patriarchal culture.

    —- (end of comment)

    Regarding manga vs movie… It’s been a long while since I’ve read the manga, but at the time I felt like it was a somewhat haphazard scramble of 80s/Shirow-style sci-fi action sensibilities and transhumanist ideas. What’s wonderful about Oshii’s movie is it was able to refine much of Shirow’s manga into a coherent artistic expression, infused with a distinctly Japanese sense of spirituality.

    Regarding GitS1 vs GitS2:Innocence… I feel like Oshii is at his best when he has a strong collaborator to check him. Kazunori Itou wrote everything of Oshii’s from (Akai Megane and) Patlabor: The Movie (1) through Avalon. Angel’s Egg was a collab between Oshii & Yoshitaka Amano.

    GitS2 was both written and directed by Oshii. Even though many of its ideas were interesting, much of the movie itself was bizarre and incoherent, IMO. There was nobody to pull his wild ideas back down to Earth.

  11. Yi says:

    Love this discussion on gender and GITS. I really like the idea of using cybernetic bodies to completely obsolete defining individuals with anything physical. This theme is recurring throughout GiTS, and can extend beyond gender. Still, I find the application to gender issues to be perhaps one of the more relevant points to today. This post reminds me of a movement to do away with gender labels. After all, gender and sexuality are too complicated to be reduced to a single term or single binary. With today’s medical advancememnts, even biological sex is fluid. Nay, in fact, even before that, biological sex has never been a true binary. GiTS portrays a world where such labels are so malleable, existent, and not imposing. (At least on a surface level…) It does not abolish it, but embraces it for all its complexities and does not dwell on the traditional binary and limiting ideas. It really is so mind provoking.

    The other really interesting aside is the potential relevance to the way we approach net experience and online total anonymity–shaping our own gender, sexuality, and such.

    I want to thank you for such a fascinating discussion on gender. There are relatively very few such posts around the anime blohosphere. It was an honor to have your writing. Thank you. I really enjoyed and appreciate it. ^ ^

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