Welcome to the world of cyberfeminism

Cyberfeminism – a term coined in the 90s – describes the work of feminists interested in theorising and exploiting cybernetics and new media

By Kate McIlwee

Donna Haraway boldly argued “I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess” in her ground-breaking Manifesto for Cyborgs, fascinating feminists and forging a generation of tech-savvy women.

Cyberfeminism is an attempt to overthrow the patriarchal regime on technology, and to claim women’s ‘territory’ on the internet and in cybernetic practises. Cyberfeminists argued that women need to take up space in cyberculture and become proficient in using such technologies – or as Haraway refers to as “informatics of domination” – to challenge these systems. Although women had been involved in the creation and development of the computer, their contributions were largely marginalised and their participation often ignored or written out of history. The cinematic and literary manifestations of cybernetics similarly leave out women’s relationship with technology.

Ghost in the Shell (1995) via IMDb

The cyborg has been a dominant image in Japanese and Western popular culture since the 1970s and has reconsidered the way in which identity and gender functions. Women have classically been subjected to traditional female roles, such as the housewife or mother. Futuristic and science-fiction narratives often have the promise of liberation from traditional cultural norms. However, this has not always been the case for the role of women. In many cases, cyborgian women play objects of sexual temptation, housewives, or servants, and the love interest of the men revolutionising cybernetic embodiment. In other words, women have been in supporting roles, rarely embodying cybernetics themselves.

Metropolis speer-headed the science-fiction genre and while Maria is an example of a female-cyborg protagonist, she is portrayed as the archetypal mother, as well as a symbol of spirituality and Christian ideals for the male workers following her – giving her serious Virgin Mary ‘goddess’ connotations. This is similar to the Japanese Full Metal Alechemist, in which Roze is the holy mother of the town Reole and is also noteworthily mute. Another film that comes to mind is the dystopic The Stepford Wives. In the quaint town of Stepford, the females have been turned into robots and controlled by their husbands to be obedient and passive. In Blade Runner all the female characters happen to be artificial (replicants) and are sexualised by the men around them – giving a whole new meaning to the term ‘objectifying women’ since they are being manufactured.

Maria in Metropolis (1927)

Ghost in the Shell is an evolutionary leap into the future of human-machine interfacing, and since being first serialised in 1989 as a manga, still stands out as one of the most iconic science-fiction/cyberpunk films ever created. In 1995, it was adapted into an anime-film written by Kazunori Itō and directed by Mamoru Oshii. The anime is a Japanese-British international co-production. The plot follows the cyborg security agent Motoko Kusanagi. In the year 2029, Kusanagi is the first of her being, with an artificial body but a mind (or ‘ghost’) consisting of organic brain cells housed in the metal titanium shell of her skull. She has been made by ‘Megatech’, who specialise in the production of high-tech cyborg ‘shells’. Her body is a composite of organic tissue and machinery complete with enhanced senses, strength, and reflexes. Kusanagi is a highly skilled officer for an elite secretive division and with a fully augmented mechanical body, it is clear that she is more powerful than her male counterparts. To be both female and strong instantly violates traditional codes of feminine identity. Although there is a cancelling out in the significance of a body’s sexual specificity, it is how these bodies demonstrate their sexual specificity in the first place is questionable.

Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Kusanagi’s cyborg shell is equipped with thermos-optic camouflage, which is a technological innovation built into her skin. This allows her to become invisible by removing her clothes during combat. Other characters also have modes of camouflage, yet they have it in the form of clothing and therefore do not have to be nude. Kusanagi is sexualised and subjected to the male gaze throughout – a gaze that she does not return. While the obsessive objectification of Kusanagi’s body could be a dystopic view on a female place in a technologised society – in other words being an object to humanity – it does not escape the sexual gaze of her male counterparts and the male audience. It confirms what Karen Cadora once argued – that cyberpunk is “very much a boy’s club”. Similar to Kusanagi, in Metropolis, Maria’s naked cyborg body fulfils feminine ideals of sensuality and eroticism. In fact, many films have used the female cyborg as objects of seduction and temptation. For example, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, in which SIC agent Craig Gamble and millionaire bachelor Todd Armstrong use an army of bikini-clad robots to seduce wealthy men into signing over their assets.

Roboticised culture and hard-edged sexuality are evidently prevalent in the science fiction and cyberpunk world. Ghost in the Shell shares that peculiar tendency in many adult animations to give us women who are both strong protagonists and almost continuously nude. However, like Cadora suggests, the literary manifestations of cybernetics often fail to represent female body-relates issues, despite the promise of what the figure of the cyborg seems to offer.

Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Ghost in the Shell is dominated with Kusanagi’s profound humanist crisis concerning her cybernetic construction and what it suggests about her identity and humanity. The ability to transform the material body into something akin to coded information makes it more amenable and vulnerable to social control. Kusanagi expresses her concerns that her cybernetic shell and auxiliary computer brain is technically not owned by her. This is similar to the Japanese Gunslinger Girl, in which young female cyborg-assassins have been brainwashed to serve positions of authority and are a part of a larger system of control. Katherine Hayles wrote in How We Became Posthuman (1999) that “when bodies are constituted as information, they can not only be sold but fundamentally reconstituted in response to market pressure.” This is seen when Kusanagi sails down a canal and observes two doppelgängers of herself. The first is a woman in a coffee shop and the second is a naked mannequin, both with identical faces to hers. Since she is created by a corporation and almost entirely owned by the government, it becomes clear that there are multiple editions of her body that exist in commercial and cosmetic sectors.

“Not only does the embodiment of advanced technology question gendered-identity but also ethnic-identity" – Kate McIlwee

Kusanagi’s ‘liberating’ cyborg body confuses and obscures her sense of identity and ‘uniqueness’. This echoes Kumiko Sato’s claim in her essay How Information Technology Has (Not) Changed Feminism and Japanism: Cyberpunk in the Japanese Context (2004), arguing that amidst the evolution of technology, Japan seeks to retain its uniqueness and re-connect with its old ties – i.e. seeking ‘Japanism’ and reconceptualising a non-Western form of modernity. Not only does the embodiment of advanced technology question gendered-identity but also ethnic-identity. Kusanagi’s reflection of her identity mirrors a reflection of Japanese identity – where tensions between uniqueness and re-constituted modern technology are present. Further to this, many critics have commented on the Western appearance of Kusanagi and the remake of the anime – where they ironically casted a Western Scarlett Johansson as Kusanagi – implying that corporeal ideals and technology are largely caught up in a constituted Western identity. Technological progress is changing our conceptual modes of thinking and learning, but there are ethnic and racial differences in ‘our’ conceptual modes of thinking. A drawback in the cultural studies and cyberfeminist theories around these human-machine interfaces is the tendency to categorise an entirety of humanity without deliberate examination of cultural diversities encompassing technological progress.

The character of The Puppet Master, is actually more apt at breaking gender binaries in the figure of the cyborg than Kusanagi. The character is astonishingly beautiful and ethereal, and also alludes any specificity in gender. The only hint to a gender binary is its mission to fuse with Kusanagi to create a new life form. This want to reproduce, perhaps, points towards its possible masculinity. It wonderfully describes itself as a “living, thinking entity who was created in the sea of information.” It is able to mask a singular identity by constantly changing substrates and hacking into the computer brains and bodies of others. The ability to exist immaterialised through cyberspace or through multiple materials could liberate one from corporeal limitations of space, anatomical decay, confinements of gender and identity, and eventually death – which Haraway, among so many critics, hoped for with the cyborg. An exploration on cyberspace in mainstream film is, however, another complex topic for discussion.

The Puppet Master in Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Cultural products such as Ghost in the Shell engage with the notion of cybernetics, helping us come to terms with the evolving fusion between the body and technology. These narratives allow us to work through the fears and desires of a particular historical-cultural moment. Ghost in the Shell uses the figure of the cyborg to offer liberation from biological embodiment, yet it also displays the potential for social control over technologised ways of being. At times, the anime echoes critics of ’techno-euphoric’ cyberfeminism, who see issues with the cyborg’s marketable profit, it’s democratic accessibility, and the role that technology plays in the maintenance of the patriarchy. At other times, the anime reflects Haraway’s theory, arguing that the feminist cyborg challenges gender and ethnic binaries and the ‘grids of control’.