Musings on Cyberpunk Girls

In the 1990s a trend of cyberpunk action girls swept through anime, riding the wave of science fiction shows. Of this trend two characters, Major Matoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell, and Alita/Gally from Battle Angel Alita/Gunnm, managed to make enough of an impression to justify Hollywood adaptions. Both characters exist in an interesting space in anime/manga as they are shown to be both physically and mentally competent as heroines, empowered by their statues as cyborgs. The connection between the cyborg body and escape from traditional dichotomies such as gender roles has been discussed before with Donna Harraway’s work The Cyborg Manifesto which states:

“Cyborg imagery can help express two crucial arguments in this essay: first, the production of universal, totalizing theory is a major mistake that misses most of reality, probably always, but certainly now; and second, taking responsibility for the social relations of science and technology means refusing an anti-science metaphysics, a demonology of technology, and so means embracing the skilful task of reconstructing the boundaries of daily life, in partial connection with others, in communication with all of our parts. It is not just that science and technology are possible means of great human satisfaction, as well as a matrix of complex dominations. Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves. This is a dream not of a common language, but of a powerful infidel heteroglossia. It is an imagination of a feminist speaking in tongues to strike fear into the circuits of the supersavers of the new right. It means both building and destroying machines, identities, categories, relationships, space stories.” (Harraway, 181)

Because of this, I think it is worthy to compare they two characters with both each other and the progenitor of their archetype Molly Millions from William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy to see why they left a noticeable impact on the popular consciousness.
Before I continue I wish to note two things, that I will be comparing Major Makoto Kusanagi as portrayed in the film Ghost in the Shell by Mamuro Oshii, as it made the largest impact on the western consciousness, and that I will be referring to Alita by her name in the American translation rather than her Japanese name of Gally.

1. Molly Millions
Molly Millions, cybernetically enhanced “razorgirl,” first appeared in William Gibson’s 1981 short story Johnny Mnemonic, and became a major recurring character throughout all his work set in the Sprawl. Like the many women who followed in her wake, she is a mysterious, dark haired, and skilled in combat. She is both a foil and romantic interest to the main character Case within the narrative, serving as the team’s muscle while Case contributes his skills as a hacker. Throughout the narrative most action scenes are told from the perspective of Case cybernetically looking through Molly’s eyes, with Case being portrayed as vastly inferior in combat to her. Similarly, while the narrative could fall into the trap of portraying Molly as uneducated about cyberspace she is also shown to be quite aware of Case’s line of work, keeping up with the various slang surrounding hacking. This role reversal extends to how they act, with Yap Chee Hui and Babaee in their article The Identity of Female Cyborg in William Gibson’s Neuromancer noting that “Case is always on the safe side while Molly aggressively moves around getting her things done. ” (Yap Chee Hui, Babaee 62) This serves to subvert the norms of the science fiction novel, which tend to feature women taking a background role as support, while the male characters perform the more important tasks.

Mollys physical competency as a razorgirl though is inherently tied to her statues as a cyborg and her relationship with technology. As with nearly all characters in Neuromancer Molly grew up in poverty and because of this she was only able to afford her implants through being a sex worker. While Molly initially is fine with this as software is implanted in your mind that makes you unconscious of the acts performed, after her boss discovers about her razor implants he switches her software out with another program which forced her to perform snuff acts. In doing so her body is exploited and violated without her consent to perform unethical acts, so the boss can turn a larger profit. This fits into a running theme in the novel where larger systems such as governments, patriarchal control, and capitalism serve to exploit normal people. Molly’s story is mirrored by another character, Corto who was abandoned by the US government in a botched mission to Russia, leaving him both mentally and physically destroyed, only to again be exploited by a rogue computer AI, Wintermute who builds a false personality called Armitage to inhabit the body. While Corto and Molly’s stories are both tragic and leave both physically scare, Molly does come out the other end empowered, having gained economic mobility, and physical empowerment through the experience. In addition, while Molly’s has implants such as reflective eyes which prevent her from crying that physically dehumanize her, this technology hardly dehumanizes her as a person. She does not become cold and inhuman like Armitage through this technology and exploitation rather “For Molly who craves for power, technology is a way to enhance and shape her identity to further protect herself from masculinity.” ( Yap Chee Hui, Babaee 64) While many other sci-fi stories see it fit to portray “strong female characters” as simply women who act wholly masculine, in Neuromancer Molly is able to express masculine traits while keeping feminine ones. Like Harraway’s cyborg she escapes the dichotomies of gender roles through technology. Molly is initially shown to be very tough and mysterious but over time is shown to be an emotionally open person, forming a romantic relationship with the protagonist Case and eventually sharing information about her past to him. At the same time Molly is by no means reliant or attached to him, eventually leaving Case after the mission is finished, the novel ending on the words “He never saw Molly again.” Molly’s character shows that while technology itself can be empowering, larger systems can end up using this technology to exploit normal people.

2. The Major
On the surface Major Matoko Kusanagi is a very similar character to Molly Millions, both characters are both physically similar, with both being dark haired, and hawkish, frequently shown to be clad in dark clothes, with a large amount of time spent on their inhuman cybernetic eyes. They both are portrayed as competent both physically and mentally at the jobs they perform, with the Major being a skilled combatant using her cybernetically enhanced body to perform assassinations and other military procedures. Though they both achieve this this empowerment through technology it also leads to their exploitation by larger systems, with the Major’s cybernetic body, (and possibly her memories) not actually being her own, but rather being created and in the case of her body, owned by the government. Unlike molly though she shows concern over this, fretting over where this exploitation leaves her statues as a human. She also is on the other side of the law, working for a shady government group called Section 9, an organization while still unethical is a far cry from the criminal nature of Molly’s work.
The largest difference between the Molly and the Major though is that Ghost in the Shell offers a solution to the exploitative use of technology that plagues both characters, with the films conclusion portraying a fusion between the Major and the films antagonist a rogue AI called the Puppet Master, that frees her from both her body and from governmental control. As put by Brian Ruh

“Kusanagi’s merger with the Puppet Master helps her free herself from the hierarchy of Section 9 and the confinement of her previous body. The presence of this hierarchy is shown as being essential to Kusanagi’s concept of self as well as its potential downfall through her cyborg body. Although Kusanagi “inhabits” her body, it belongs to the government, thereby ensuring her obedience. Her body serves as her own prison, ensnared by the constant potential for observation. Yet she does not fight directly against this force, but rather discovers a way around it, a way to subvert it. By merging with the Puppet Master, Kusanagi discards the need for her previous, government-owned body and is free to pursue whatever course of action or existential quest on which she may choose to embark.” (Ruh, 137)

Through this fusion Oshii shows that while technology can be both exploitative and empowering a perfect balance can be struck between the two, freeing humanity from the dichotomies and systems placed on us. It serves as more idealistic view of Harraway’s idea of a cyborg, as the Major is able to transcend these dichotomies in a way that frees her rather than having to live eith the trauma that Molly has. This fusion also makes the Major unique among the women mentioned her as it places her in a maternal role creating something completely new in the fusion that is said to be neither the Major nor the Puppet Master, and inhabits a body which is noticeably younger than the major. This fits in with the films message that what separates humans from machines is are ability to grow and create something new and unique, not simply copy and replicate ourselves. This maternal role does not weaken Kusanagi since “at the end of the film, we see Kusanagi contemplating the vastness of the Net, implying that she will be going out into society as she always has done rather than becoming focused on home and family,” (Ruh 134-135) but it does set her apart from the other characters discussed her, with Molly ultimately abandoning her relationship with Case and Alita, as we will soon discuss, takes on the role of a daughter rather than a mother.

3. Alita
Alita is noticeably different from her fellow cyborgs in numerous ways, the most apparent of which is that Alita, to put it simply, cuter. [be sure to add shit from BFG] Her eyes are large and expressive, her face is rounded and soft, and her hair is extremely poofy. While the Major sported similarly cute features in her original manga incarnation, these features were jettisoned for the Oshii’s film, which emphasized the inhumanness of her body. At the same time, certain elements of Alitas design, such as her hair, her coat, or the metallic implants under her eyes, can be framed in ways which make her appear intimidating. Compared with other “moe” character designs, Alita has a certain fluidity to it, allowing her to be both fearsome and cute. As an example, Nia from Tengen Toppen Gurren Lagann, is a character who for most of the show is always portrayed as cute, even when she is acting rebellious or intimidating. During the final arc when she is possessed, she is even redesigned to look more creepy and inhuman. To put it simply, Nia’s character design needs to be altered to look intimidating, while Alita’s does not. While there are certainly other character designs that have the same fluidity as Alita’s it is still a rarity among female characters.

Beyond just her character design, Alita is set apart by her naivete and innocence. While the other characters are hardened cynics, Alita is inexperienced and filled with a positive outlook on the brutal world she is in. This outlook affects how she deals with similar issues to the ones that plagued the others. Alitas rebellion against a large patriarchal system occurs when she disobeys her surrogate father Ido’s wishes and goes off to become a bounty hunter and fight the villain, after which she gains a new cybernetically enhanced body. Interestingly this is framed more as a story of a child gaining autonomy from an overprotective paternalistic father, rather than an escape from exploitation. It is worth noting that Alita gains physical empowerment after gaining emotional empowerment and autonomy. For Alita the new cybernetic body only empowers her, unlike the Major. Likewise, when she questions whether her body is truly human it is within the context over whether her first crush can love her when she is half cyborg.

This naivete places Alita in the category of what Saito Tamaki called “the beautiful fighting girl,” female characters who are portrayed as physically powerfully while “their pure and lovable girlishness remains intact.” (Tamaki, 7) When Tamaki maps out a lineage of the beautiful fighting girls he places Alita in the Pygmalion lineage, which is full of characters that Tamaki determines have a certain “empty subjectivity” (Tamaki, 106) to them, due to their statues as creations. Probably the most famous character he places in this lineage is Rei Ayanami, who also has the same emptiness. I feel this evaluation is a bit off for Alita and Rei, as both characters end up becoming more than their initial emptiness and naivete would imply. In particular, Rei’s character arc is about finding one’s own identity, rather than defining yourself based on other people’s notions and ideas.

At least on the surface, Tamaki’s Beautiful Fighting Girl and Harraway’s Cyborg are similar. Both concepts explore the muddled world between the binaries that society has set out for women, though both reach very different conclusions especially given Tamaki’s focus on Otaku sexuality. Still, it is interesting that Alita fits into both definitions and categories, as she is both naïve and sweet, yet empowered through technology. She stands apart from the other cyborgs though as she gains autonomy first through rebelling against Ido, then gains a cybernetic body which empowers her, rather than the others, who gain empowerment only after they gain cybernetically enhanced bodies. In some ways this is a healthier message than the others, as Alita does not need be exploited by a larger system to gain empowerment.

Overall it is not hard to see why these characters had the impact they did. They exemplify the ethos of cyberpunk fiction, exploring how the current systems of our world would interact with futuristic technology. Each character is autonomous and powerful, yet emotionally open, straying far away from the common view of empowered female characters as masculine “ice queens”. They are interesting because they exist outside of the traditional binaries set out for female characters within fiction.

Citations

  • Geraldine Yap Chee Hui and Ruzbeh Babaee. “The Identity of Female Cyborg in William Gibson’s Neuromancer.” International Journal of Comparative Literature and Translation Studies 3, no. 2 (2015): 62-65.
  • Saitō, Tamaki, Keith Vincent, Dawn Lawson, and Hiroki Azuma. Beautiful Fighting Girl. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.
  • Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Theorizing Feminism: Parallel Trends in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Westview Press, 1994. 424-57.
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