Expanding the Horizons: Ghost in the Shell

This week I continued my autoethnographic reflection on Ghost in the Shell. Last week I examined the representation of Motoko as a female cyborg character in the film. This week, I did examined further literary analysis in this area.

As I mentioned last week, I was surprised by the portrayal of the protagonist by a female character. Due to cultural gender stereotypes, it is usually rare to depict and perceive a female character as a hero. Yet the film clearly challenged my assumptions as it appeared to subvert the power dynamics inherent in dominant structures of gender and sexual difference. Such representations seem to step from the genre of Cyberpunk fiction. As Nicole Atkings (2015, p.1) writes ‘it has been known to herald itself as a genre that obliterates traditional stereoptypes and gender roles’, thereby liberating female characters. Thus it seems by creating a cyborg that is a strong and brave female, Ghost in the Shell subverts conventional prejudices associated with gender, biology and sexual difference.

On the surface, it may be argued that Ghost in the Shell appears to be a subversive and unconventional Anime film which places a female protagonist in a position of power. Indeed, the representation of the Cyborg, raises the possibility of using technology to transgress sexual difference and gender polarities. This reflects Donna Haraway’s notion in her Cyborg Manifesto of a cyborg without human limitations (Lu 2006, p.9). The cyborg is a genderless creature; a product of a post-gender world, ‘where there is a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves’ (Lu 2006, p.9). Thus Cyborg technology can be recoded and appropriated by feminism as a means of deconstructing the binaries and categorical ways of thinking and to overcome structures of oppression, creating a world free of social inequity. The destabilisation of the female identity through the construction of a female cyborg can help women liberate themselves from the binary system which continues to oppress them.

However, as I mentioned last week, while I initially thought Ghost in the Shell was a great feminist text, I also found the constant nudity of the female character (Motoko) quite confronting as such explicit images are never revealed in cartoon form. I did not appreciate the overtly continuous sexualised images of Motko’s body. Especially considering we never saw explicit nude images of the male body as the male characters were always dressed. This left me feeling confused by the portrayal of Motoko; Motoko subverts gender stereotypes, yet she is also quite sexualised. As Amy Shirong Lu (2006 p.11) writes ‘although the female protagonist is represented as ‘asexual’ in her personality to some degree, which is considered by some as an “equal” treatment with the male characters, the ways the characters are visually represented are quite different and therefore put this “equality” into question’.

This echoes Atkings (2015, p.1) assertion that ‘cyberpunk does little to alleviate the strain of representing the female form without sexualising it. Cyberpunk almost never portrays an unattractive female cyborg; instead they are represented as unattainable and unrealistic well-endowed ‘Barbie dolls’. This suggests that the Cyberpunk culture creates female cyborgs as a means to provoke arousal. Thus while Cyberpunk is meant to be a genre that can liberate women, arguably, the genre ensures a heteronormative narrative of male desire.

Thus, according to Yoshie Endo, while it may appear on the surface thatThe Ghost in the Shell radically subverts the power dynamics inherent in dominant structures of gender and sexual difference, the film in fact covertly reinforces a heteronormative and patriarchal narrative (Endo 2012, p.507). The film represents a society where high technology only reinforces gender polarities. This is because as a female who is constantly depicted undressed for the satisfaction of the male gaze, Motoko simply satisfies a male heterosexual desire and as a result, is denied a certain level of agency in her role (Endo 2012, p.507). Thus I do not believe the film endorses a complete cyborg feminist view; I dare say, the ‘technological denaturalization’ (Endo 2012, p.509) of Motoko is limited.

Such analysis prompted me to question whether Donna Harraway’s theory is correct. Can the denaturalisation of the female body through the creation of a female techno-bodied cyborg really destabilise the inherent gender binaries that exist in our society? In my opinion, as robots, cyborgs are not self-controlled. They are coded and reconfigured by human beings to serve their purposes. Thus, while the consciousness of the cyborg can be disconnected from the gendered body (which according to natural feminist theories, defines subjectivities and in turn perpetuates gender binaries and inequity of power); it cannot be separated from the subjectivities of those who code cyborgs to life. Thus the ‘disappearance of the body and the downloading of consciousness into an abstract, computerised realm’ (Endo 2012, p.511), will be dictated by the present as well. Thus it seems quite difficult for a cyborg body to reach an unmarked, denaturalised, post-gendered entity that is free from the contemporary system.

Such fictional depictions of the functions of women in society can be problematic within the real world. Anime, as a media platform (with an extensive readership), can become an important vehicle in influencing and maintaining Japanese’s own sense of womanhood. In my opinion, Japanese women should try and take control over this media platform as a means to truly challenge the gender binaries. While cultural texts have been dominated by the male voice as a means to maintain the status quo and privilege the male hegemonic narrative, since the emergence of shojo (girls) manga industry during the 1960s-1970s, Japanese women have created their own sphere where they have potential to possibly resist, subvert and reappropriate the existing patriarchal ideology that constructed them within limit social participatory rules (Atkings 2015).

Upon reflection, I appreciated my ethnographic study of Ghost in the Shell. I was forced to look at an area of study I would never have thought of delving into. It was interesting examining the portrayal of women in Anime, particularly in relation to Cyberpunk’s technological female cyborg.


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