Ghost in the Shell Revisited

After my first viewing of ‘The Ghost in the Shell’, I was left with interesting and provoking trains of thought —a.k.a epiphanies—in relation to the development of gender and sexual identity in a high-tech world. This inspired me to delve further into these issues.

Considering Anime is a traditionally Japanese art form and genre, I personally found it interesting how the text represented Motoko as the lead and hero of the film — something which I believe is heavily under-represented in film industries — because I have always thought the Japanese society is more conservative. I naturally assumed men would be portrayed as the heroes and females as the damsels in distress. Yet the film appears to subvert the power dynamics inherent in dominant structures of gender and sexual difference. Motoko is represented as a fragmented female subject embodied with stereoptyical  male characteristics of strength and bravery, which allows her to negotiate and succeed in the high-tech world. Motoko’s incredible competence at her job and her positioning as the narrative’s central protagonist effectively invert the gender roles conventionally allocated to fictional characters. For example, Togusa (one of Motoko’s male partners), is positioned in the more ‘feminized’ role of inferiority.

Furthermore, Carl Silvio highlights the way in which cybertechnology enables Motoko to be ‘superhuman’ and join the elite group of animated, super powered crime fighters who have historically populated the genres of film, television and comic books. In such texts, ‘the concepts of femininity and masculinity as cultural categories embodying the attributes of passivity and aggressiveness, are all but eliminated’ (Carl Silvio). For example, while Motoko and Botau have physical bodies which correspond to the Western ideals of feminine and masculine beauty, both of these bodies represent aggressiveness and martial prowess within the film. As (Silvio 1999) writes, ‘both bodies signify traits conventionally attributed to masculinity in a process that effectively ‘flattens out’ and eliminates the importance of sexual difference within the narrative.’

However, as a Feminist, I find this ironic representation problematic because the film also contains the undertones of the myth that the masculine mind and spirit dominates over the feminine characteristics. There is the assumption that in order to be a hero, you must embody characteristics specifically associated to masculinity. However, what about the characteristics associated to femininity? The characteristics of being caring and maintaining personal relationships? Yet the stereotypical feminine traits are not given the same value as stereotypical male traits are given. The only feminine characteristic that was presented in the film was the continuous explicit and sexualised viewing of Motoko’s naked physique. In fact, we never see the other male characters naked.

As my viewing of Ghost in the Shell was quite superficial, it never actually occurred to me how the Cyborg, could be a significant symbol for gender and sexual identity. It could be argued that such technology can help create a utopian world free of social inequity. As Carl Silvio claims, ‘[the cyborg] may also be potentially recoded and appropriated by feminism as a means of dismantling the binarisms and categorical ways of thinking that have characterised the history of Western culture’. The Cyborg is a representational figure that embodies the capacity of technology to erase gender boundaries and structures of oppression which have historically accompanied them. Thus interestingly, the cyborg is used as a tool to explore an imaginary subject which is postgendered and posthuman.

However, I find this quite problematic because essentially such representation implies that transcending traditional gender dichotomies is only illusory — it can only occur in a fictional world or through the assistance of technology, rather than a genuine social and cultural shift towards the dismantling of gender binaries. Furthermore, the film depicts that cyborg technology has endowed a female character with a marked degree of power. This undermines Motoko’s strength because it is unnatural. It simply implies that as a female, Motoko needed the technology to be brave and strong.

Thus while it seems Ghost in the Shell appears to be a resistant film which challenges the gender binary dichotomies, it fails to provide that such a shift could occur in reality.

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