Cyberspace and Feminism:
Joseph: As you mentioned earlier, William Gibson cites Lyotard as a major inspiration for his early work, specifically the postmodern sublime which consists of a vision that can never be fully pinned down. An idea exists, beautiful, terrible, but it resists definition. Just when you think you understand it, it eludes. It's outside of our limits to perceive or the devices we have available. Our incapability to grasp this thing takes us back to the romantic sublime. Terror returns.
Cyberspace is an attempt to describe the postmodern sublime, Gibson's neon origami trick. But the trick is that the elusive thing is really fields of power, the military and banking systems that control society, that order our reality. The cyberpunk ethos is to access all the hidden information those systems of power hold, but liberating information is a doomed enterprise. Hack your way through every phial, your identity is still constructed for you by a system you can't change. The cyberpunk's own subjectivity is itself one of the grand pieces of the postmodern sublime. You dig deep enough in the net and you find a glass, darkly reflecting your own face.
Mark: So true. Reminds me of a passage in Entropy Angels
“No, information doesn’t want to be free. You have to pry it out from behind the firewalls. Corps have it easy when they want to steal. They have politicians and lawyers they can pay to steal it for them. I ‘jack it and sell it, like everybody else but without the bullshit hypocrisy. They pretend they’re doing it for the greater good, but they’re lying to themselves so they can look in the mirror without flinching after pulling their hands out of your pocket.”
Cyberspace is postmodern in the sense that it is a deconstruction of space. As the document colloquially referred to as the Hacker Manifesto
states,“The world of the electron…is a space where the hacker can exist without skin color, without nationality, without religious bias” (Blankenship, 1986). Or as Baudrillard (1988) put it, “Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.” Interesting, his book appears in the movie The Matrix.
I have to wonder how many people go online to simply find a place to be themselves without the constraints of others’ perceptions of their physical features. It’s interesting that this cyberspace that allows for non-racism, non-sexism, is often described in the feminine sense. As Nixon (1992) writes, “…The matrix itself is figured as feminine space. The console cowboys may "jack in," but they are constantly in danger of hitting ICE (Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics), a sort of metaphoric hymeneal membrane which can kill them if they don’t successfully "eat through it" with extremely sophisticated contraband hacking equipment in order to "penetrate" the data systems of such organizations...”
There are critics, however. Karen Cadora (1995) states that cyberpunk is primarily written by white, middle-class, patriarchal men (a disproportionate amount in Texas). She believes that cyberpunk's original promise of a post-modern politically-charged revolution has been degraded into a genre that actually reinforces the status quo including a conservative exposition of gender roles. While authors such as Ren Warom, Pat Cadigan, and Melissa Scott try to push the envelope in supporting women and reinterpreting cyberpunk, not every author has done so, and many others believe cyberpunk fell short of its promise to push society forward:
Cadora (1995) writes, “The characters…blur the boundaries between human and machine, human and animal, and the real and the unreal, deconstructing the human body without forgetting the real exploitation of specifically female bodies.”Carlen Lavigne (2013) writes, “Cyberpunk has been both lauded as the quintessential example of postmodern narrative, and derided as vehicle for adolescent male power fantasies… It is utopian; it is dystopian; it is postmodern; posthuman; it is a reflection of the times; it is a protest against the times.”
Feminists expose the hypocrisy in the genre; we see naked female androids but not male ones, we know what the female characters look like in cyberpunk books but can barely get an image of the male ones, and the males typically solve the problem as the women set back as trophies, or look bad ass but don’t actually drive the scene. Do you believe this is changing with modern cyberpunk media, in that it is becoming more sensitive to these issues? We see Dolores as a strong female character in Westworld Season III
despite being named sorrow, for instance, though we could also interpret her as Pandora playing the trope of the destructive fembot. We see the strong female character Ynna in the book Into Neon
. On the other hand, we get mixed messages from the violently sexualized images promoting Cyberpunk 2077
, that despite some of the progressive attitudes implied within the game, typically feature explicit violence against women in compromising positions. In the latter case, it almost seems like adding a few bolts to the woman’s skin to represent her being a cyborg suddenly provides justification for images that would otherwise be too violent and would garner outrage, the cyborg in essence increasing and legitimizing the objectification of women. Thoughts on which way the sub-genre is moving?
Joseph: Cyberpunk and gender is important—and I’m going to answer this circuitously, because one element we haven’t mentioned about cyberpunk is that it is foremost now a mostly bald-faced marketing scheme. The mostly Texan progenitors of cyberpunk proclaimed it dead several times in the ‘80s and ‘90s and finally gave up, realizing they had created a techno Frankenstein that had embedded itself virus-like across borders, generations, and genres even. Cyberpunk is literary chic. It looks sexy dressed up as a technothriller. It pairs well with crime fiction, cop dramas, whatever really. And boy does it sell. Throw a hacker into your story with some hackable McGuffin and you’re well on your way to a six-figure potboiler.
But we might ask why it performs so well. Now we can get back to the question of gender. Science fiction, and I don’t mean the intensely popularized versions a la Star Wars and Star Trek, is very often a dude’s game. So, the sexual metaphors are going to trend male. The construction of identity often trends male. The challenges, conflicts, male again. Only the consorts trend female. The “seminal” work, Neuromancer
, reads like a male masturbatory fantasy with all the jacking alongside of Case’s exploration of Molly Million’s body, exploration that occurs on and offline.
But you’ve rightly pointed out that some writers attempted to take cyberpunk in a different direction. One of the more important cyberpunk narratives that empowers women is the original Ghost in the Shell
manga. The feminine cyborg body importantly can camouflage, turning invisible. How can this be? Isn’t the nude female figure antithetical to invisibility? Yes, but the cyborg agency and ability to access information qua personality on the net screens the feminine from the controlling male gaze. Major Kusanagi is not limited by her body, mind, or her ghost.
She is free to merge with other personalities on the net. She can harness near unlimited strength, as we see when her musculature collapses in the tank fight. The image of the feminine, then, is illusory. Viewing Kusanagi as female is to miss the complexity of her identity. The purpose of presenting Kusanagi in the body of a little girl by the end of the narrative is to further play with identity. This Kusanagi, while she may look small and weak, is indeed more powerful and more connected than the earlier iteration. She’s the fulfillment of Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto
. All boundaries and limitations are erased.
To fully answer the question of where cyberpunk’s consideration of gender is headed, I would say that cyberpunk is too diffuse to offer a reliable roadmap. Some writers will latch onto cyberpunk as male fantasy, using it to jack in and out and whatever else. But other writers, like Ren Warom will use it to explore new types of agency. Escapology
is particularly apropos here, following Shock, a girl that has undergone gender alteration and completely identifies as male. The new hacking undertaken by cyberpunks alters the body, alters identity, and so too society. Everything is hackable. Just reformat the disk drive and start over.
Mark: A special thank you to Dr. Joseph Hurtgen for sharing his thoughts! Purchase his non-fiction and science fiction books on his Amazon Author Page here,
including his cyberpunk book Tower Defender.
To read more from this brilliant mind, don't forget to check up on his blog, Rapid Transmission
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Baudrillard, Jean. (1988). Simulacrum and Simulation.
Cadora, Karen. (1995). Science Fiction Studies. Vol. 22, No. 3.
Foster, Thomas. (2006). The Souls of Cyberfolk: Posthumanism as Vernacular Theory.
University of Minnesota Press.
Haraway, Donna. (1985). Cyborg Manifesto.
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Harritt, Mark. (2019). Entropy Angels.
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Lavigne, Carlen. (2013). A Critical Study: Cyberpunk Women, Feminism, and Science Fiction. McFarland & Company.
Masamune, Shirow. (1989). Ghost in the Shell
Marcuse, Herbert. (1964). One-Dimensional Man
. Beacon Press.
Nixon, Nicola. (1992). Cyberpunk: Preparing the Ground for Revolution or Keeping the Boys Satisfied
? Science Fiction Studies. Vol. 19, Part 2, No. 57. Available here
Warom, Ren. (2011). Escapology
. Titan Books.