Cyborgs and Feminists

Yousuf Dhamee

One of the most intriguing aspects of the cyberpunk genre lies in the notion that twenty-first century human beings will no longer be chained to the bodies in which they are born. Gibson's novels, in particular, posit a world where the mind as well as the body can be transformed to suit the needs of the owner. In these texts altered human beings and cyborgs dramatize the ultimate linking of man and machine. Many of the physical adjustments that cyberjockeys such as Case inflict upon themselves are done in order to make jacking into the Net more efficient. The distiction between the world of electronic information and the physical world becomes blurred. As Heim points out, this increased connection between man and machine carries both liberating and sinister implications. The sinister side of cyborg culture involves a mutation if not a loss of humanity. The Net becomes a means of escape, of "fleeing the meat" of the body. Individuals like Case become obsessed with the thrill of being "jacked in." They are no longer content to live in the world of the flesh. Modification thus leads to a form of addiction which makes men unable to live happily in a "natural state." "The surrogate life in cyberspace makes flesh feel like a prison, a fall from grace, a sinking descent into a dark, confusing reality." (Heim, 74) The cyborg-like state creates a sort of dependence on the machine, making humankind subservient to the computers that rule the new world.

Authors like Donna Haraway, however, point out that the concept (and the image) of the cyborg can be empowering, particularly for women. If one examines the representations of femininity within cyberpunk literature (particularly Gibson and Stephenson) it becomes clear that modification can lead to increased strength and control over nature. The character Y.T in Snowcrash, for instance, possesses an instrument called the dentata which allows her a constant safeguard against sexual assault. Because of technology and an implanted device P.T is protected from the "natural weakness" of her gender. In a similar manner, Molly's dagger-like fingernails provide her with a weapon. Both implements are constructed as extensions of "natural" (or at least that which society deems as natural) feminine traits. The notion of the female cyborg , in these male-dominated texts, carries with it the implication of a dangerous sexuality. These are images common in futuristic art of all kinds. One can look to pop culture icons like MTV's Eon Flux or Tank Girl for more examples of this general tendancy. It seems that the cyborg image is used to create a female identity that is at once familiar, frightening and titillating to male viewers.

Haraway, on the other hand, sees the cyborg form as a tool with which to combat the male/female binary that she finds oppressive. "A cyborg is not an innocent; it was not born in a garden; it does not seek a unitary identity and so generate antagonistic dualisms without end; it takes irony for granted. . . two is only one possibility." In this manner one can imagine the cyborg form, when taken out of the hands of male authors, generating differences not contingent on sexualized areas of the female body. Rather than creating a "dangerous" woman, as defined by the male, one could create new forms which challenge traditional notions of both femininity and gender. At the same time women are given the opportunity to come to grips with the innovative technology they are traditionally kept from exploiting. "The machine is us, our processes an aspectof our embodiment." Rather than being dominated by computers, the cyborg woman controls the machine.

Course Website cyborg Body & Self

Last modified 14 April 2005