Following our midterm, the readings this week challenge us to think differently about what constitutes the terms feminism/feminist, gender, and intersectional feminism. In terms of our midterm, I keep thinking back to Alenda Chang’s suggestion that we think about nonhuman forms of care that relate to the world around us—both environmental care and critter care. Of course, it rather naturally fits our project that we also take up the idea of space, place, situatedness, and environment. After all, the project we are creating is a playground—the environment in which we are playing with feminist care. By expanding our notion of care to “kin”–as Donna Haraway has it in “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Platationocene, Chthulucene”–our project engages with feminist technologies and methods that extend beyond identity politics and reformulate the notion of feminism in terms that look to places other than the experience of gender for its foundation.

With this, the cyborg emerges in Haraway’s work and points us to another kind of division present in culture that is reflected in the cultural binary between humans and the natural world. The cyborg disrupts what people take as a given, that which seems perfectly common—this is one of her many jobs. The cyborg, then, is another one of Sara Ahmed’s feminist killjoys. To be a feminist killjoy is to interrupt what, on the face of it, is not a problem or a contentious point and turn it into one. But on our Fem Tech playground, the feminist killjoy doesn’t need to be a killjoy in the sense of actually killing joy. Our feminist killjoy is, true to Ahmed’s intentions, playful and agential. She is also both a cyborg and a goddess, reaching out to claim new tools and technologies while also being cognizant of the various mythologies related to gender.

Once we, as feminists, place pressure on the category of gender as a binding principle, it forces us to reassemble the hierarchy of intersections that aggregate when we mobilize intersectional ways of being and analyzing texts as well as situations. The centrality of gender to intersectional feminism has meant in practice that women of color’s experiences are overlooked because more emphasis is placed on gender than on race or class in particular. Theories that centrally include race are far and few in between. Jasbir Puar’s contribution to intersectional feminism is the idea of assemblage, which asks that feminists differently conceive of the term intersectional—rather than the traffic intersection that defines an event or moment of collision between identities, the assemblage is instead about a process of movement between and among identities.

The Feminist Tech Playground that we are creating already works with Puar’s concept of the assemblage, for in setting up each play station, we account for them as working parts of care that feed into several identities. The playground as a physical space proposes that we can construct, reconfigure, and build the care we need. We go to play in spaces that allow us to assemble the kinds of care that support our particular assemblage of identities. What we have yet to do is properly define how each play station addresses these identities and introduce more than one way of encountering the same kind of care so that people with different ways of identifying have access to our model of care. This is to take a step back from each play station to inquire about the identity composition of our participants.

Moving back to Haraway’s figure of the cyborg, it is worth pausing to think about how the figure has seeped into popular culture and the ways women cyborgs are portrayed on screen, for it reveals cultural anxieties about women’s contact with technology. To my mind, the contemporary science fiction female cyborg is the equivalent of the femme fatale of film noir. The female cyborg is doubly dangerous because she is both beautiful and technologized. The cultural anxiety already inherent in culture about the differences between people and machines is evident in films like The Terminator (dir. James Cameron, US, 1984), starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, but when the cyborg is also a woman, as T-X is in Terminator 3 (dir. Jonathan Mostow, US, 2003), she provokes more uneasiness than a male cyborg does. T-X can transform into any person she touches, molding and reconfiguring her technologized body so that she can kill—her job is to assassinate the target, John Connor. This is not a case of film spectators saying, “Look how powerful she is because she is technologized,” although a spectator might mistakenly reach this conclusion based on the feeling of seeing a female cyborg take control. This is much more a case where spectators say or think, “Look how dangerous and perverse she is because she is technologized.” The power the female cyborg has is not grounded in women’s empowerment. It is instead a kind of masquerade (a la Mary Ann Doane) wherein she uses her technological form much in the same way she uses her body. She uses it not because it is empowering to do so, but because she has no other option.

This unease extends to the present. We have only to look at the inverse problem of a female AI device becoming human in Her (dir. Spike Jonze, US, 2013) to see that in popular culture, technologized women are dangerous and deceptive. Samantha, the AI who comes so close being human that protagonist Theodore falls in love with her, turns out to “belong” to many people and not just to Theodore. She makes him vulnerable to a kind of consumerism and post-9/11 security panic that crushes him. If she were fully human, she would not be able to enact the same kind of destruction. Theodore believed Samantha because of her technological form and it is on this basis that she ends up turning on him. Cyborg women provoke entrenched ideologies and anxieties about gender, sexuality, and women using technology.

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Figure 1. Theodore configures AI Samantha for the first time.

What could this mean for our own project? How can we disrupt the notion of cyborg women and their conflation with danger and, many times, with death? One approach is to create an arts and crafts project that deliberately seeks to dismantle the notion of female cyborgs as dangerous. Can we craft our own female cyborgs in ways that intervene? Can we re-appropriate cyborg women in popular culture through images for our own purposes? How does the new cyborg woman act in culture? If, as Haraway suggests, we are all already cyborgs, then every time we call attention to our own technologized bodies we are taking a step in the right direction. When Haraway notes in “A Cyborg Manifesto” that, “Cyborg writing is about the power to survive, not on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them [people who are culturally defined as outsiders] as other. The tools are often stories, retold stories, versions that reverse and displace the hierarchical dualisms of naturalized identities,” she intends that we take action to re-craft and rewrite our own stories (175). Our own cyborg stories might take the form of fiction, fan writing for popular television shows and series that we watch, or it might just come from our own experiences of being cyborgs.

Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin,” Environmental Humanities 6 (2015): 159–165.

Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in Late Twentieth Century,” Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991).

Jasbir Puar, “‘I Would Rather Be a Cyborg Than a Goddess’: Becoming Intersectional in Assemblage Theory,” PhiloSOPHIA 2, vol. 1 (2012): 49–66.

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5 thoughts on “Cyborg Women and Popular Culture

  1. I love love love how you brought up Sara Ahmed’s feminist killjoy as a cyborg-goddess! In “Living a Feminist Life” Ahmed talks about the need for killjoy community-building; I feel like this could be a way of “making kin” as Haraway says.

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  2. Really happy that you brought a film analysis to this question. In my own research I’m very interested in this question, as I am looking at Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner, both which are telling similar cyborg stories and have pretty interesting engagement with gendered cyborg characters. Your questions are so pertinent to a lot of my own research questions: “Can we craft our own female cyborgs in ways that intervene? Can we re-appropriate cyborg women in popular culture through images for our own purposes? How does the new cyborg woman act in culture?” I might even additionally add: what is a cyborg woman? how do we know she’s a woman? what race is she? is she more than human or less than human?

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  3. I think its useful to think about Haraway’s notion of the cyborg and how it contrasts to the female-cyborg in popular fiction (perhaps because she is a woman, rather than the dominant white-male perspectives that are commonly visualized in movies). I agree that the idea of re-writing these tools within the playground is an idea that we still need to address. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves how we are technologized and then make an effort to subvert it.

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  4. I thought your proposition about using arts and crafts to re-signify the female cyborg was quite interesting. As I mentioned in an earlier response, the cyborg essentially depends upon an expanded notion of “body” that is not isomorphic with the physical form. Consequently, an artistic project would probably have to focus on the utility of the object that augments—or extends—the body beyond the discursive constraints of nature/technology. I myself am unsure as to how we would do this within an overtly feminist context, but I think it would be interesting to discuss further.

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  5. I really liked that you brought up Prof. Chang’s suggestion of including non-human approaches to care as well. Thank you for putting this week’s readings in conversation with our final project. And making clear how we’re both already embracing some of this week’s ideas (like assemblage) and how we could include others (like the feminist killjoy as a cyborg goddess).

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