Part 1: Cross-Cultural Representations of the Female Cyborg

Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature
Class: “Monsters, Robots and Cyborgs”
Instructor:  Prof. Catherine Liu
Cross-Cultural Representations of the Female Cyborg
One is not born a woman; one becomes one.

Simone de Beauvoir The Second Sex

The female cyborgs of Japan and America are disparate beings, incongruent cousins whose blood ties are the assembly lines and atom bombs of the Industrial Age.  While themes of genuine humanity, individual history, and sexual reproduction are addressed in cinematic representations of both Eastern and Western cyborgs, the actual role and reception of the feminine cyborg in these opposed patriarchal cultures differs drastically.  I will explore the effects of the technological and societal (r)evolutions of modernity on male perceptions of the woman and the machine by comparing examples from two prevailing and far-reaching modes of cultural expression: Japanese anime and the Hollywood motion picture.  For comparison, Mamoru Oshii’s Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Hollywood production of Alien: Resurrection will be examined for differences in male perception and visual representation of the female cyborg.  Because the cyborg is a product and sign of a given culture’s sociohistorical legacy, an examination of the cyborg’s visual depiction will reveal “how the spread of technologies in everyday life shapes and is shaped by existing discourses of gender, sexuality, community and nation”[1].

Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell

Major Motoko Kusanagi, the cyborg of Mamoru Oshii’s anime Ghost in the Shell is representative of a culture which was both destroyed and regenerated by the transformative power of technology, the atomic bombs of World War II heralding an era of violent social and economic restructuring.  Consequently, Japan’s reconstruction and emergence as a world power in its own right was based on its mastery of technology, with excellence in the field of robotics defining its technological prowess.  In contrast to the West, Japan has developed into a country whose robophilic embrace of the man-machine has resulted in a “society in symbiosis with the machine”[2].  This shared life of humanity and machinery was expressed artistically as the comic book art form known as manga in the 1950’s, with the burgeoning industry’s first hero depicted as a robot named Mighty Atom. Robots and humanity would continue to blend and merge as Japan’s growing economic and political status and the effects of intimate relations with technology  slowly coalesced into the being known as ‘cyborg’.  The intricate mix of human life and machine life became apparent in Japan’s embrace of technology and its subsequent representation in architecture, music, the phenomenon of the idoru and the representation of the robot and cyborg in manga and anime.  Karl Taro Greenfield, expert on Japanese culture, explains, “Exactly where human beings end and machines begin can become confusing in a city that resembles more than any other city on the planet a neon-lit circuit board writ gigantic”[3].

It is a cityscape such as this that surrounds the the pensive figure on top of a skyscraper, who is slowly revealed as human, officer, woman, then cyborg in this anime[4] version of Shirow Masamune’s manga Ghost in the Shell.  The city of Shinhama, a futuristic Hong Kong, is portrayed in “stunning animation, a vision of the future of urban Japan as a cyber seedy metropolis, corrupt governments and visions that extend into the metaphysical”[5].  After the cyborg is revealed as female, she undresses, the camera closing on her in a shot of her alabaster body, her perfect breasts–her expression is deadpan as she falls backwards into the pulsing lights of the city below her, then disappears.   What is presented to the viewer is Major Kusanagi’s “shell”, her organic body having been sacrificed for a full cybernetic replacement, retaining only a small section of her original brain tissue which supplies her “ghost”.  The Major’s ghost is the repository of her memories, also referred to throughout the film as her mind, soul or consciousness.  The label “ghost” is troubling–it connotes a remnant, something bordering non-existence, hence  Kusanagi’s trouble with identity and boundaries.  Though she has willingly given over her humanity for a cybernetic life, her whispering ghost causes her to question her societal status: To what degree is she still human and what defines her humanity?  This “ghost” in the cyborg, symbolic of the searching, metaphysical aspects of human memory and contemplation is the manifestation of Donna Haraway’s depiction of the cyborg’s crossing of boundaries between human and machine, “Pre-cybernetic machines could be haunted; there was always the specter of the ghost in the machine…But…machines were not self-moving…autonomous. They could not achieve man’s dream, only mock it.They were not man…Now, we are not so sure”[6].

Manga and anime as examples of sequential art are critical to the formation of gender and socioeconomic identity of youth in Japan, contributing to the “cognitive or social development of youth in postindustrialized settings by both helping to set schemas about a relatively abstract world for the former and by contributing to the cultural repository of youth for the latter…sequential art is more versatile than other forms of media to express meanings…that reinforce and change gender constructions”[7].  The maintenance of rigid patriarchal hierarchies and the striving of Samurais for Confusian mastery of all things was once dominant in Japan, a country now emphasizing demilitarization and pacifism in everyday activities and contexts.  The pervasive and expressive visual art form anime, in particular shounen anime (produced by and for boys and men), continually transgresses the borders of gender and masculinity with the result that many scholars identify this as a signifying trend in the general decline of masculinty overall in Japan.[8].  Interestingly, Roger Ebert, American film critic, identified this gender transgression in Ghost in the Shell in a review of the film, “…Film Quarterly suggests that to be a ‘salary man’ in modern Japan is so exhausting and dehumanizing that many men, who form the largest part of the animation audience, project both freedom and power onto women, and identify with them as fictional characters”. Kusanagi is a female character who trespasses all traditional areas of Japanese masculinity as a master of logic, technology, men and warfare–to the increasingly passive Japanese man she is the perfect mind, body and machine.

Kusanagi, built by and commander of men, is the ideal Eastern cyborg.  Jennifer González describes a Western cybernetic image in an American advertisment for a fax machine portraying the head of a female cyborg, “…the woman is on her back…she is unclothed…[It is a] furturistic Medusa’s head of wires, blinded with technology, strapped to the ground with cables and hoses, penetrated at every orifice with the flow of information technologies…This is not a cyborg of possibilities, it is a cyborg of slavery”[9].  The image of an emasculating monster coupled with the binding and phallic ropes, hoses and plugs of American masculinty is at odds with the image of the liberated female cyborg in Ghost in the Shell.  Kusanagi has willingly traded her flesh for metal, explaining to her partially cybernetic partner Bateau that although she requires periodic maintenance, she treasures her cybernetic abilities.  She is a skilled fighter, her body is youthful and strong, thermoptic camouflage provides invisibility which allows her to escape the constant surveilance of the ubiquitous men surrounding her–she says to Bateau, “I suppose a regular tuneup is worth the price of all this”.  She willingly disrobes, her body nothing more than her “shell”, her true sense of humanity present in her consciousness and memories.

Kusanagi’s body is visually sexual, but reproduction for the Eastern cyborg is not a matter of fleshly mingling.  When confronted by the Puppetmaster and offered an opportunity to “merge” her cyberhuman consciousness with his limitless “system of memory and thought”, she hesitates, asking, “I want a guarantee that I can still be myself”.  Though the Puppetmaster’s proposal is reminiscent of heterosexual relations, it is her ‘self’, her personal net of human memory which is critical to her identity.  Her robotic body means nothing to her, as she wiliingly destroys it for the opportunity to commune with the pure consciousness of the Puppetmaster.  Bateau recognizes that her core of self is in her “ghost” deep within her augmented brain, yet his ‘maleness’ reiterates itself in his conception of sexual representation and his own thoughts on what constitutes humanity–his humanity is his masculinty and remaining human flesh, not his mind.

This sense of male propriety asserts itself as he covers Kusanagi’s bared breasts with his jacket.  Where the cyborg female is willing to reveal her cybernetic body, the human male remains sexual and prone to assertions of masculinity–the Japanese male reveres the female cyborg yet continues to claim ownership of her body.  The loss of Japanese male masculinity and the love of the robot is is clear in Bateau’s ambiguity; the male human is subsumed by the female cyborg body and he revels in freedom, and then he wakes and realizes his nakedness.  He cannot reveal himself, nor is he comfortable in the female cyborg body that he loves.  Bateau, who is the modern Japanese man, covers Kusanagi.

Read Part Two: Cross-Cultural Representations of the Female Cyborg

[1] Hashmi, Mobina. “Japanese Anime in the United States: Gender, Sexuality and Techno-bodies” CyberNatures/CyberCultures: Redefining Natural and Cultural Borders University of Wisconsin, Madison

[2] “A Brief History of Japanese Robophilia” Leonardo, 1998, Vol. 31 Issue 5, p367, 3p

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Anime”- A style of animation developed in Japan, characterized by stylized colorful art, futuristic settings, violence, and sex.


[6] Haraway, Donna J. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs” The Gendered Cyborg pg. 52

[7] Hashmi, Mobina. “Japanese Anime in the United States: Gender, Sexuality and Techno-bodies” CyberNatures/CyberCultures: Redefining Natural and Cultural Borders University of Wisconsin, Madison

[8] Napier, S.  Anime: From Akira to Princess Mononoke, New York: Palgrave. (2001)

[9] Gonzáles, Jennifer.  “Envisioning Cyborg Bodies”  Pg. 65 The Gendered Cyborg

[10] Gonzáles, Jennifer.  “Envisioning Cyborg Bodies”  Pg. 61 The Gendered Cyborg

[11] There is one human female crew member, the pilot of the Betty, but she has little visibility and is quickly killed.  She is portrayed primarily as a sex partner of one of the other crew members.  It is interesting that the only female members of the crew have the most dominion over the men’s means of transport and survival–Call, a mechanic and Hillard, the pilot.

[12] Alien: Resurrection Jean-Pierre Jeunet 1999

[13] Alien: Resurrection Jean-Pierre Jeunet 1999

[14] Gonzáles, Jennifer.  “Envisioning Cyborg Bodies”  Pg. 70 The Gendered Cyborg