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British Association for American Studies


Issue 13, Autumn 2008: Article 1


Issue 13, Autumn 2008: Article 1

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

Issue 13, Autumn 2008

Gender Representation in U.S. Contemporary Science Fiction Films: The Cyborg Hero

Rocío Carrasco Carrasco
© Rocío Carrasco Carrasco. All Rights Reserved

The figure of the cyborg encloses many different and contradictory aspects and, therefore, its analysis becomes a difficult task. The cyborg was introduced to the academic community as a critical concept by Donna Haraway in 1985 with her ‘Cyborg Manifesto’. From this moment onwards, emerging theory has dealt with this complex idea within different fields of knowledge and has stressed different aspects. In addition, popular culture provides us with many different manifestations of the cyborg. This figure acts as space where anxieties over technology and gender identity can be confronted and, therefore, it has become a cultural icon. Indeed, it is synonymous with our ‘millennial threshold’.[1] For this reason, we need to narrow the focus and delimit the analysis of this contradictory figure. In this present work, I will deal with the cinematic version of it, specifically with the male-cyborg, which is considered here as the amalgamation man-machine that appears as a dominant character in recent Science-Fiction (SF) cinema. This man-machine coupling offers many possibilities of representation beyond the popularised image of the hypermasculine hybrid.

According to this broad definition, the male cyborg is a character that is so intimately linked to the machine that the differentiation from it becomes troublesome. This amalgamation man-machine complicates traditional dualistic thinking and challenges established models of representation. In this sense, it is interesting to refer to Claudia Springer’s definition of cyborg as opposed to robot: ‘while robots represent the acclaim and fear evoked by industrial age machines for their ability to function independently of humans, cyborgs incorporate rather than exclude humans, and in so doing erase the distinction previously assumed to distinguish humanity from technology’.[2] It should be noted, however, that the definition of the cyborg offered here is a simplistic one, yet quite useful for the purpose of this analysis. This intertwining of organism and machine includes both the hypermasculine action hero (those instances of man-machine coupling that result in an aggressive, over-muscled body fused with potent technology) and the virtual hero, a male character that goes beyond ‘physical’ frontiers and enters computer- generated spaces.

With this in mind, I will concentrate on some representative examples of man-machine hybrids that evoke a confusion of boundaries between humanity and technology and that have opened debates about how gender is, or should be, represented in such contexts. Since gender provides the division into masculine and feminine traits defined in every culture in different ways, it becomes more than useful to analyse how it is represented in popular texts that reflect our relationship with technology. Discourses of technology have always been linked to the masculine sphere because of their implied control over the natural world, and masculinity has been consistently defined in terms of technological competence. In this sense, women’s recent closeness to technology has meant a challenge for patriarchal notions. Indeed, the relationship between gender and technology has been broadly theorised in recent decades, especially by feminist scholars.

In spite of the broad definition of the male cyborg offered here, key works dealing with the cybernetic organism will be employed for the analysis of popular SF films. I will make use of Haraway’s consideration of the cyborg as a liberating figure—exposed in her influential essay, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ (1985). Moreover, the hypermasculine version of the cyborg analysed by Tasker and Jeffords (1993, 1994), and the one described by cyberpunk SF texts will be also taken into account.[3] Donna Haraway suggests that the figure of the cyborg has offered a preoccupation for overcoming gender differences in technological societies. She uses, then, the image of the cyborg for social purposes and affirms that ‘by the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorised and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs’ (Haraway, p. 150). In its figure, the boundaries between body and technology are socially inscribed. By the late twentieth century, in U.S. scientific culture three boundaries have been dissolved: that between human beings and animals; that between animal-human (organism) and machine; and that between physical and non-physical (Haraway, p. 151-3). It is precisely this dissolution of boundaries what leads to a positive image of the cyborg identity as its condition transgresses gender dualism that privileges man over woman. In this sense, she argues, the technological world frees women’s representations from patriarchal domination and thus her last remark, ‘I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess’ (Haraway, p. 181). This liberating figure Haraway proposes has gradually acquired notoriety in academic circles and in popular film culture. As a result, there are many discourses dealing with the interface between human identity and machines and how gender is represented in those bodies.

However, in line with those theoreticians that have contested Haraway’s implications about the cyborg being a post-gender metaphor (notably, Anne Balsamo, Jason Haslam and Francisco Collado), it is contended here that male cyborgs represented in a number of influential SF films of the late twentieth century are ironically based upon traditional gender conventions.[4] Specifically, if we consider films like The Terminator (1984) or Robocop (1987), released in the conservative 1980s, we find hypermasculine, destructive and violent male cyborg figures whose ‘armoured bodies’ reinforce patriarchal values in a time when gender dualistic thinking was being attacked.[5] It is precisely their exaggerated bodies and behaviour that has favoured these cyborgs’ consideration as gender ironies. Around the mid-to-end period of the 1990s, however, we find a proliferation of softer images of the male cyborg, inspired by the cyberpunk texts of the early 1980s. It is interesting to note that the iconography that marked the emergence of the cinematic cyborg in the 1980s changed as the SF films gave way to the so-called ‘cyberthrillers’, which were less concerned with the body itself.[6] Thus, 1990s movies like Robert Longo’s Johnny Mnemonic (1995) or the Wachowski brothers’ The Matrix (1999) provide us with male androgynous-looking cyborgs placed in computer-generated spaces and quite unable to distinguish reality from fiction. If we took Haraway’s theories into account, these posthuman bodies would be ideal for the liberation of traditional gender constraints. But as happens with hypermasculine cyborgs, hybrids appearing in virtual reality films of the end of the twentieth century reinforce traditional gender patterns. They do so in a number of ways and ultimately, especially in the case of the male cyborg protagonist of The Matrix, follow the path of the mythical hero that Joseph Campbell already established in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1973).[7]

In the Wachowskis’ film, the mythical hero Neo follows a series of stages that shape not only his behaviour but also the film’s overall structure. The film adopts several elements and devices from popular culture, mythology and biblical sources. Specifically, the action of the film is shaped by traditional heroic features, which often privilege men over women and imply, consequently, male dominance. In this sense, The Matrix still adheres to strict gender codes. However, Neo’s role as a ‘virtual’ hero seeks to undermine these codes by using the possibilities of the virtual world to re-write the stereotypical structures of ‘maleness’. While it is true that virtual women have been the subject of critical attention in the work of several feminist scholars, the lack of critical analysis of the virtual male hero in popular productions like The Matrix is apparent. The complex relationship of these virtual male heroes to gender issues deserves more critical consideration, especially since they have come to embody an idea of a ‘new’ type of hero for many people, while clearly also perpetuating gender stereotypes.

Cyborg representation in popular culture and especially in SF cinema ranges from ‘machine-based military model’ to ‘genetically tailored human simulation’. [8] Clynes and Kline already used this term in 1960 to refer to a ‘self-regulating man-machine system’ capable of surviving hostile non-earth environments.[9] Especially after the release in 1977 of Star Wars, a proliferation of cyborgs made from human and manufactured material pervaded the screen. This type of cyborg has also been denominated ‘mechanical cyborg’, due to its techno-human amalgamation.[10] The Terminator (1984), Blade Runner (1982), Robocop (1987), Hardware (1990), Eve of Destruction (1991), Terminator II: Judgment Day (1991), RoboCop 2 (1990) and Total Recall (1990), to name just a few, are cases in point. A generalised tendency of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s was to associate cyborg imagery with violence. Claudia Springer argues when referring to films like The Terminator or Robocop that what separates cyborgs from humans is the cyborg’s greater capacity for violence, combined with enormous physical prowess. Thus, ‘[i]nstead of representing cyborgs as intellectual wizards whose bodies have withered away and been replaced by computer terminals, popular culture gives us muscular hulks distinguished by their superior fighting skills’.[11]

Fear of technology, a recurrent topic in earlier SF films like Metropolis (1926), is suggested in these later films by massive bodies that overpower human characters.[12] This fear—clearly evoked by male cyborgs like the Terminator—nevertheless lessen with time up to the point where it disappears and the interface with technology produces a pleasurable experience instead, as it will be argued later in this article when dealing with virtual heroes. The gradual erosion of the fear evoked by armoured cyborgs is also perceived in the Terminator series. Thus, the destructive Terminator that is sent from the future with the programmed mission to kill Sarah Connor in the 1984 film becomes a protective figure in charge of defending the heroine from the ‘real monster’, the frightening T1000 in Terminator: Judgment Day (1991). The change of roles from villain to hero that Schwarzenegger enacts in the series accounts for the normalisation of technology within U.S. society, not forgetting that by the release of the second film, Schwarzenegger was an actor consolidated enough within the industry as to demand the role of the ‘good’ protagonist. Schwarzenegger again took the role of protagonist in the last film of the series, Jonathan Mostow’s Terminator 3 (2003). By the time this last film was released, the traditional fear of technology was an over-exploited topic and, consequently, another ‘fear’ had to be added to the menacing cyborg character: the condition of woman. The inclusion of the woman cyborg seems to reflect the current crisis of masculinity in the U.S and the perceived threat to men from the increasing power of women within society, a topic that will be also explored at this time by means of the confused identity of those male characters appearing in virtual reality films, as I will show later. Indeed, the ‘humanisation’ of the cyborg is more evident in films that suggest an intimate relationship between human-identity and machine.

Hypermasculine hybrid beings of the 1980s and early 1990s owe part of their image to comic book superheroes and suggest the terrible consequences of human technological progress. Apart from this, they have also been interpreted as embodiments of the political ideology of the times. The 1980s were characterised by a return to the kind of morality that had dominated U.S. culture before the social upheavals provoked by feminism and protests by other ‘marginalised’ groups that took place in the 1960s. Ronald Reagan, elected president in 1981 and re-elected in 1984, became the symbol of this decade, characterised by a turn to the right. Susan Jeffords in Hard Bodies. Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era (1994) argues that this president ‘became the premiere masculine archetype for the 1980s, embodying both national and individual images of manliness that came to underlie the nation’s identity during his eight years in office’.[13] His foreign policy was driven by five beliefs rooted in America’s past. First, he considered the Soviet Union and its Communism as the source of every world trouble. Secondly, he believed that an American military supremacy would finish with the Soviet threat and, thus, he encouraged an immense investment in defence forces and systems. Third, Reagan considered the need for a more interventionist, militarised foreign policy with the aim of making Americans feel good about their supremacy over the world. Fourth, he believed in the privatisation of managed economies. The last force is what was known as ‘Reagan doctrine’, by which the U.S. announced in 1985 its support of any anti-Communist movement in the world.[14] Reagan’s foreign policy caused many reactionary responses due to its emphasis on military expansion and its insistence on gaining total arms control over the world. It also provoked the emergence of many international debates over the U.S.’s use of nuclear weapons, as a result of Regan’s insistence on achieving nuclear supremacy.

All these historical facts, together with the social concerns and anxieties at that time were, consequently, reflected in many cultural products and especially in visual media. Among the most outstanding social and popular issues of the mid-1980s, we could point out the gradual spread of drug traffic and the awareness of AIDS, the latter normally associated with homosexuality and male drug consumers and causing a general panic. Apart from this, the social and political situation in the U.S. worsened with the appearance of many opponents to Reagan’s conservatism, mainly women, people of colour and homosexuals, who mobilised against his policies. International affairs also affected U.S. consciousness, especially terrorism, religious tensions, hunger and famine. However, Reagan was popular, in part because he made Americans feel good about themselves, in spite of all the decade’s perceived threats.

If we consider gender and its representation on screen during this decade, we can see a backlash against feminist precepts, as noted by many critics. Susan Faludi points out that in many films of the 1980s it is ‘as if Hollywood has taken the feminist films and run the reels backwards’.[15] In these films, women return to the home, their new quest being to achieve traditional marriage and to escape the workplace, something they had been fighting to enter not so long before. This backlash in the movies was supported by a powerful political force that campaigned against feminism and also against the Equal Rights Amendment, the Gay Liberation Movement and abortion demands. This movement attempted to stop the feminist tenets as they thought they were going too far and had misplaced their initial aims. In short, the 1980s backlash in cinema meant a return to traditional roles, embracing what Faludi calls ‘the Pygmalion tradition’, and thus, during this period, we see men redefining women, and reclaiming them as their possessions and property.[16] This return to traditional roles can be clearly seen in action films that show violence and in which men are seen as superior figures, and women, consequently, are reduced to a secondary position, as happens in films like Predator (1987), Die Hard (1988), Robocop (1987), and Lethal Weapon (1987), among others. In them we see that independent women are silenced by being pushed off-screen.[17]

The 1980s ‘Reagan Revolution’, then, with its conservatism and militarism, influenced the representation of masculinity in many films of the decade. Healthy white male figures with hard bodies came to represent the country’s solution for all its internal and external conflicts. These films presented the U.S. cinema-going public with an image of masculinity that accurately epitomised the political agenda of the Reagan Era. This highly popularised portrayal of the masculine ideal, linked to hard bodies and endless activity, offered visual pleasure to mass-audiences and also helped the construction of the U.S. popular culture at the time.[18]

A clear example of this is Schwarzenegger’s character in the Terminator series. The warrior cyborg figure of the Termiator contributes to the shape of popular masculinity in the Reagan era. It evokes notions of power and supremacy, thanks both to its close link with technology and to its exaggerated masculinity. In this sense, the ‘ungendered’ ideal proposed by Haraway is far from reachable. Instead, this figure can be equated with Klaus Theweleit’s description of the fascist male soldier as an invincible armoured fighting machine.[19] In fact, several critics, among them Springer or Foster, have analysed cyborg imagery in line with Theweleit’s psychological analysis of the fascist male soldier or ‘FreiKorps. The Terminator’s change from a bad cyborg in the first movie to a good one in the second and third responds, as suggested earlier, to the normalisation of technology in everyday American life. The previous fear of technology had lessened with time, but nevertheless a residual fear of technology is present in the whole Terminator series and this conflict is reflected in the conflicted cyborg imagery. For, as embodiments of the popular vision of masculinity, these muscular cyborgs can be said to disguise and/or calm the male fears towards AIDS and others threats of the body. By offering a strong healthy body on screen, the sense of wellbeing that the Reagan philosophy sought to promote among Americans is precariously assured. It is at this point where critics like Yvonne Tasker and Barbara Creed have highlighted what they consider to be an hysterical over-compensation for a real masculinity in crisis.

It is clear that the violence and the extraordinary physique of the Terminator cyborg body and its contemporaries have been interpreted in different ways. Some critics believe that a mockery and humiliation of the male condition can be achieved by means of a visual exaggeration and, as Tasker argues, ‘critics have seen stars like Stallone and Schwarzenegger as “performing the masculine”, drawing attention to masculinity and the male body by acting out an excessive caricature of cultural expectations’.[20] I agree with Tasker’s statement in the sense that this over-muscled body on screen stands for a utopian ideal that does not correspond to the actual realisation of average men in U.S. daily life. Accordingly, Andrew Britton, in his influential essay ‘Blissing Out’, assumes that Reaganite entertainment is ‘the quintessence of entertainment: it creates the pleasurable obviousness of feelings that it tells us are untenable’.[21] The irony consists, then, in the consideration of this ‘non-frequent’ body as a mark for a masculinity that does not correspond to the majority of U.S. citizens. Extending this argument to films like The Terminator or Terminator 2, the cyborg body would amount to an irony, since its physical human side is intended to imitate ‘real’ men and become undistinguishable from them. Therefore the Terminator’s ‘racial’ definition according to his enemy Kyle Reese in The Terminator also becomes ironic: ‘they look human. Sweat, bad breath, everything. Very hard to spot’. Indeed, only dogs can recognise the Terminator’s non-human condition.

This contraposition between ideal and actual masculinity has been explored by many critics. For example, Kenneth MacKinnon’s Representing Men: Maleness and Masculinity in the Media (2003) analyses male representation in different media, assuming that there is a gulf between masculinity as it is experienced in society and that form of masculinity called ‘hegemonic’. This can easily be seen in these cyborg films showing hypermasculine man-machine amalgamations. Yet, MacKinnon argues, this hegemonic or ideal masculinity is not above history and social change but it is altered in the same way society is. Thus, ‘[w]hile some aspects remain, the ideal as a whole may be reshaped to meet different social needs in relation to gender’ and consequently, a wide variety of masculinity can be found represented in movies, television, advertising and mediated sports.[22] To this argument it must be added the fact that the definition of cyborg (understood as a man-machine amalgamation) also varies, like masculinity, depending on time, context and environment. Thus, as this article shows, the hypermasculine version of the cyborg that appears in the Reagan era gives way to virtual cyborgs placed in contexts where technology does not represent such an imminent threat. As suggested above, the changing nature of the cyborg can be appreciated if we follow the trajectory of the Terminator character.

In addition, other films of the 1980s offer a completely different vision of the cyborg figure. For example, in Steven Lisberger’s Tron (1982) the goal of the main character, Kevin Flynn, is to escape from a computer-generated space in which he has been trapped. Although armoured and scared of the technological world in which he is placed, his cyborg condition is different from the hypermasculine Terminator and anticipates the prevalent cyborg figure of virtual reality films. These virtual characters have positive, intimate relationships with technology and eventually discover their artificial nature, which deeply affects their personality. This dehumanisation of the male body and the consequent identity crisis become key motifs in many subsequent SF films.

Hypermasculine and idealised cyborg bodies seem to provoke illusions and fantasies on the part of the spectator, who subjects them to what may be termed a ‘voyeuristic gaze’. These bodies can, therefore, be analysed using film theory that approaches the body as an erotic object. Steve Neale, for example, explores male characters as objects of the look, proposing thus new interpretations of the male image in the visual media. Masculinity is studied in relation to notions of spectacle and passivity. Therefore, spectacular masculinity, where the male body becomes the passive object of the spectator’s voyeuristic gaze, in fact rebels against Hollywood’s long-held ideological structures, which traditionally associate maleness with activity and femaleness with passivity. Technical devices such as the fragmentation of the on-screen male body by means of close-ups or other camera movements allow for the enjoyment of these stylised male bodies. This pleasure in looking, Neale argues, endows the male spectator with a ‘narcissistic identification’ with the powerful body on screen, involving ‘fantasies of power, omnipotence, mastery and control’.[23] All this implies, according to Neale, a homosexual connotation between male spectator and the male figure, which is, nevertheless, repressed by patriarchal society.

Moreover, the appearance on screen of hypermasculine bodies as spectacle has been considered by some critics as a ‘feminisation’ of the male body, an instance of how traditional Hollywood norms dictate that the object of the gaze must be a female figure.[24] Richard Dyer’s ‘Don’t Look Now: The Male Pin-Up’ (1982) explores the conditions under which the eroticisation of the male body becomes acceptable, and the conditions under which women are allowed to look. He believes that different codes of looking are used to reaffirm gender roles and he explores the ways to achieve this. He is especially interested in Nancy M. Henley’s Body Politics, particularly in her discussion of eye contact. Images of men aimed at women, star portraits, pin-ups or paintings of men, he claims, are in a particularly interesting relation to these eye-contact patterns.[25] Men as spectacle, Dyer argues, violate conventional codes of looking, which can be illustrated by three instabilities of the male pin-up. The first is the contradiction on the part of the male model between the fact of being looked at and his attempt to deny it. The second is the violation on his part of the association: object of the look/passivity and subject/activity. The male image, although an object, is associated with activity and action. Even when he is posing and relaxed, his muscles are emphasised and he still promises activity. The last violation arises from his impossibility of becoming the phallus, which has always been considered a symbol of male power. The penis has always provided an association with the phallus and power, as only men possess it, but his point is that the penis cannot achieve all the power suggested by the phallus. That is the reason which explains the excessive quality of the male bodies, emphasising muscles and phallic symbols, which attempt to represent the ‘phallic mystique’, something difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.[26]

Both Dyer’s and Neale’s pioneering articles have contributed to new interpretations of the male image on screen, anticipating many current debates about masculinity in the visual media. Yet, their theories are generalised in the sense that they do not make any kind of distinction among spectators, as if all of them shared the same race, colour and sexual preference. Moreover, they do not take into account contemporary historical and cultural facts which, I consider, are of great importance for any analysis of masculinity on screen. In fact, images of manhood develop with time and are affected by contemporary socio-cultural anxieties.

In contrast, Amanda Fernbach’s cross-disciplinary study of the fetishisation of masculinity in SF films engages with psychoanalytic, cultural and social discourses. Fernbach’s theory about fetishism is applicable to society’s contemporary behaviour. Socio-cultural anxieties at the turn of the 21st century are suggested in the depiction of a fetishised masculinity. Thus, her account of the representation of idealised masculinity at times of cultural crisis takes into account U.S. context of postmodernity and is thus more useful for the present analysis of the cyborg hero than either Dyer or Neale’s approach. Fernbach considers two main models by which masculinity is fetishised: the hypermasculine cyborg and the console cowboy. Despite their differences, both are creations of fetishistic fantasies. The start of Terminator 2, Fernbach contends, shows us a world—2029 Los Angeles—where straight white masculinity is no longer at the centre of things, but is on the margins. Thus:

Ordinary masculinity lacks, and the technological Terminator represent a fetishized, idealized masculinity that is a desirable alternative. In Terminator 2, the Terminator represents an idealized phallic masculinity heavily dependent upon technofetishes to ward off the anxieties of the male spectator faced with the prospect of a future vision of castrated masculinity.[27]

Despite this fantasy of fetishisation, the fear of lack and castration still remains, since the Terminator’s body is constantly being wounded and revealing his artificial nature. At these moments ‘the Terminator’s performance of masculinity resists and destabilises dominant patriarchal and heterosexist positioning that would claim masculinity as self-evident and natural’.[28] At this point it can be affirmed that the hypermasculine cyborg deconstructs traditional masculinity through performative excess.

All these different readings of the hypermasculine cyborg suggest the complexity of this figure and the great amount of theoretical debates it arouses concerning gender. In general terms, those theories are most successful that suggest that the Terminator’s extraordinary techno-body reflects the incredulity of its excessive masculinity, which is considered as something abstract and unreachable. The Terminator’s cyborg body epitomises the mood of the times and echoes contemporary fears about cultural changes, especially those affecting gender. However, Fernbach’s analysis ignores much of the specific cultural and economic context behind the examples of fetishism. The body of the virtual cyborg hero does something different by blurring the lines between genders.

Yet, and taking into account the broad definition of the cyborg proposed here, the hypermasculine cyborg is only one among the many possibilities for man-machine amalgamations during the1980s. If we consider films like Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) or Tron (1982), the depiction of the male cyborg is, as suggested before, of a very different nature. The image they propose anticipates, in my view, the posthuman aesthetic present in uncountable films of the mid-to-end 1990s where cyborgs usually appear in virtual realities. According to Springer, ‘rampaging muscle-bound cyborgs were replaced by slim young men and women jacked into cyberspace, inspired by “console cowboys” in cyberpunk fiction of the 1980s’.[29] Hence, Johnny Mnemonic (1995), Hackers (1995), Virtuosity (1995), The 13th Floor (1999), Strange Days (1997), Dark City (1998), eXistenZ (1999), The Matrix (1999), The Lawnmower Man (1992), Nirvana (1997) and The Cell (2000), among many others, are set in virtually created spaces and share many aspects and devices when representing this dehumanised cyborg body. In my view, these films consciously alter the traditional limits between genders, a motif that is copied from written cyberpunk texts of the1980s. Indeed, and as happened with cyberpunk, virtual heroes are normally depicted as less physically impressive than previous embodiments of the cyborg.

The inability to distinguish any border between genders is suggested in contemporary SF films by ‘new heroes’, placed in cyberspace and unable to cope with a reality that transcends rational boundaries. The novelty of this male cyborg resides precisely in his androgynous appearance and in the relationship between a physical body and its virtual existence, a recurrent motif in contemporary SF. Some researchers on this topic have argued that gender and other aspects of social identity are considered irrelevant in those virtual worlds. Sadie Plant, specialist on cyberfeminism in the UK, for instance, argues that virtual worlds ‘undermine both the world-view and the material reality of two thousands years of patriarchal control’, probably in reference to the differing representations of a body where sexual differences are not so sharply marked.[30] This complete rupture with traditional male appearance has led to their consideration as feminised characters, reinforced by the fact that the virtual space they enter is normally associated to the feminine or ‘matrix’. Thus Fernbach affirms, when dealing with the fetishisation of masculinity in cyberspace, that ‘unlike the stereotypical figure of the male cyborg, these console cowboys are feminized by the technoprosthetics that enable them to enter cyberspace, also referred to, of course, as the matrix’. Console cowboys entering this space would, consequently, show feminine traits as ‘the feminized technospace of the matrix is sexualized in cyberpunk’.[31] In the same way, many contemporary SF films depicting these created worlds often show androgynous characters following those behaviours traditionally considered as ‘female’. This idealised ‘heterotopia’ has been a basic reading of cyberpunk.[32] However, this ‘genderless’ utopia is, in my view, partly paralysed in the visual media and, consequently, the total rupture with traditional visual and behavioural gender codes does not take place in virtual reality films.

The Matrix, main object of study here, offers virtual characters placed in this supposed idealised space for gender representation. Its male protagonist, Neo, presents an androgynous look and body. Neo perfectly embodies this androgynous appearance not only because of his more neutral body but also because his complex personality identifies him rather with those characters delineated in works in which the status of the self is problematised. Neo’s sense of self, like the world in which he is placed, is considered unstable, plural and fragmented. This plurality of the self also implies a plurality of traits ending up in the fluidity of gender features. In fact, Neo’s representation on screen is visually different from that of other invincible male heroes. His shaved face and his slim body show his lack of prominent male features. Challenging Plant’s argument, the notion of the body as site of gender difference is here contested, since the typical muscular body is replaced by those androgynous features. Moreover, we learn that characters can be trained to defeat the enemy just by downloading specific computer programmes into their memories. Indeed, many of the qualities that Neo displays are based on these programmes which are genderless in that they can be inserted into any female cyborg’s memory as well as that of a male. Not only an ambiguous physical appearance characterises this apparently new hero, but also his constant doubts and fears make of him a different male type. Furthermore, the loss of boundaries does not only take place within his body but also in his mind, as he is sometimes unable to distinguish whether he is awake or asleep. All these elements imply that cyberspace favours the depiction of more fluid gender traits.

Yet the constant emphasis on the blurring of frontiers within The Matrix causes the hero’s feeling of insecurity and loss. Neo, in same way as many other posthuman bodies placed in virtual realities, are scared to loose his body and, consequently, his identity. This is a consequence for the interface of humans with computer technology, since it ‘involves transforming the self into something entirely new, combining technological with human identity’.[33] This transgressive worldview is partly resolved, according to Collado, by means of ironic overtones as he contends in his article ‘Fear of the Flesh, Fear of the Borg’ (2002):

the Wachowski brothers make use of a variety of cultural references, frequently following cyberpunk features, in order to stress the human fear of the machine but, fortunately for many viewers, some of those motifs and references introduce an overall adventuresque, ironic and apparently optimistic view that clearly contrasts with the film’s apocalyptic and highly transgressive view.[34]

However, the lost of the self and the human interface with technology is normally considered a pleasurable experience in virtual reality films, a comfort that users of computing technology associate with the comforting security of the mother’s womb (not to forget that the word ‘matrix’ means originally both mother and womb). The act of connecting the body to computing technology is also considered in popular texts as a sexual act, a metaphor for orgasm. Springer argues at this point that ‘[i]nstead of losing our consciousness and experiencing bodily pleasures, cyborg imagery in popular culture invites us to experience sexuality by losing our bodies and becoming pure consciousness’.[35] In this sense, the previous fear of technology decreases with the interface man-computing technology but, at the same time, provokes an anxiety on the hero. This ambiguous relationship towards technology is one of the film’s main topics. While technology is normalised through the cinematic cyborg (suggesting in some sequences the pleasure of the interface), it is still the source of his problems and insecurities.

In spite of all this innovation in terms of cyborg visual representation, most SF films depicting virtual worlds usually place the male hero—here considered as cyborg—at the same level as the traditional one whose mission was to free humanity from a bleak fate. In films like The Matrix or Johnny Mnemonic, we still find in the masculine character a sense of leadership, control and success, which was present in heroes of ancient mythology, folk tales and literature. There are two basic readings of the cyberpunk literature: on the one hand, as an idealised and innovative text opposed to traditional narratives and, on the other, as a discourse that reproduces old and oppressing values. It is also the case, however, that the conventional heroic behaviour found in many virtual reality films, inherited in part from cyberpunk written literature, does not necessarily have to be shown by means of the typical hero’s body, but, instead, it is found working in androgynous and even feminised bodies. As Collado and Salvador contend in their analysis of the limits of cyberpunk:

Cyberpunk radically sticks to some of the basic ingredients of the postmodernist understanding of the world: within its bleak landscapes, protagonists frequently appear as parodied copies of the old American motif of the solitary hero who comes to face the problem a community has, fights and defeats the existing danger, and then goes back to his lonely life.[36]

Thus, The Matrix follows the heroic pattern described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell established a quest structure for folk tales, myths and religious fables in which the hero must overcome three stages in order to succeed: departure, initiation and return. The Matrix is one more example of Campbell’s mythical quest, and Neo embodies, at least partially, some of the conditions of the traditional hero. He is a hero of his own time, and his adventure quest in the film consists in crossing the threshold from one world to another, after which he becomes a useful social being. His behaviour is heroic as long as having the chance to choose his own destiny, he decides to have the red pill that will allow him to enter ‘wonderland’. Neo is at all times the key for plot development in the film, and as such, perpetuates traditional dualistic thinking. He is even represented in the film as an image of Jesus Christ—he is told so at one point in the film—in so far as he is the one who has been elected to save humanity.

Neo overcomes, then, the three Campbellian mythical stages—departure, initiation and return—that become the structural basis of the film. Traditional gender positions are, in this case, but mere patterns to be followed and imitated by the characters. Specifically, Neo needs to imitate the traditional hero structure to be considered as such, since the created world he is inserted in is but mere appearance and bound to be dissolved. In these places where everything is fluid, the need of rescuing traditional gender pattern seems to be logical. Once more, the film shows that gender becomes a cultural performance and, therefore, Neo faithfully follows the ‘monomyth’ which is, according to Campbell, a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: “separation-initiation-return”.[37]

The mythical hero’s departure stage, with all the incidents it implies, can be compared with Neo’s behaviour at the beginning of the film, since he encounters inexplicable forces right from the beginning of his appearance on screen (his computer is able to anticipate the knock on the door and encourages him to follow a white rabbit). He is, likewise, literally called to adventure, yet in a very contemporary manner; that is, by means of a mobile phone that enables his communication with the father-figure of Morpheus. The achievement of ‘supernatural aid’ is embodied by Morpheus, a tutelary figure who guides the hero in hid adventure and offers him the key to discover ‘the truth’. The crossing of the first threshold that is suggested in the film in a sequence where the female protagonist—Trinity—leads Neo to the door where he will meet his spiritual mentor. The entrance to the ‘zone of magnified power’ in the film evokes the ‘uncanny’ described in many gothic tales. This can be observed in the depiction of a spacious castle-like flat with a big main door and old-fashionable furniture. The setting in a stormy night and Morpheus’s look—a tall strong Afro-American man dressed in a black leather coat—reinforce this suggestion of danger and the mysterious. Morpheus represents the above mentioned guardian and it is not until Neo assures that he wants to start the ‘mythical journey’ that he gives permission to Neo and both cross the door that will lead the protagonist to the starting point of his mythical journey.

Neo’s entry to the real world is similar to the events of the stage that Campbell calls ‘the belly of the whale’ [38]. The womb image is symbolised by the capsule in which Neo has been inserted all his life, after literally being swallowed into the unknown, represented this time by the world of the machines. He trespasses the first threshold and is literally reborn in another world, in a sequence that evokes to perfection the ‘belly of the whale’. In The Matrix Neo, like the mythical hero, defeats the ogres (the agents) after having overcome a series of trials and adventures. ‘The road of trials’ is the first incident Campbell describes in this unfamiliar world, and is represented in the film by Neo’s training, once inserted into load programs—the fighting and the jumping ones—which remind us of the ‘fluid, ambiguous forms’ of the ‘dream landscape’.

The superiority of women in the film—shown partly by Trinity’s strength—resembles Campbell’s consideration of women as goddesses. We observe, therefore, how Trinity saves Neo from his enemies on one occasion and ‘resurrects’ him by kissing him. Moreover, the presence of the Oracle—normally implying a superior being—is also embodied in the film by a woman, whose visionary powers are out of question. Neo, like the mythical hero, suffers the apotheosis when he is almost to die. The ultimate boon is symbolised in the film by Neo’s final destruction of his main opponent, Agent Smith. When he has finished his mission, he returns to the virtual world where he belongs in order to show people the knowledge he has acquired in his quest. This corresponds to what Campbell calls ‘the magic flight’, by which the hero, triumphant in his task, returns to his world ‘supported by all the powers of his supernatural patron’. Thus he crosses definitely the ‘return threshold’ with the aim to show people a world without borders or boundaries.[39] Campbell’s ideas can be read successfully, then, into the Matrix trilogy. The protagonist of The Matrix follows quite faithfully the mythical pattern proposed by Campbell, with the only slight changes that the insertion of contemporary values and images allows. Yet, as it has been suggested above, The Matrix goes beyond Campbell’s mythical patterns –which uphold gender stereotypes- by including a virtual hero that blurs the limits between male and female.

Commenting on the traditional quest story, Margery Hourihan claims that the hero’s dominance of the events in a narration reinforces accepted views of the way the world is: ‘[the hero] embodies the privileged terms of the interconnected dualisms which have shaped Western thought and values’.[40] Thus, this character must be white and the symbol of an elite, namely a prince, king, leader or representative of his people; unquestionably male and inscribing dominance over the opposite sex, considered as different and dangerous; young and implying adolescent relationships, especially towards women, standing for the power of reason and the strength of human intellectual energy; and finally a man of action proper, namely his skill, courage, dominance and determination. The features ascribed to this hero are present in almost every story following the quest pattern. Neo follows as well this heroic type since he is a white, young, and upper-class male who works as a computer programmer, and who shows, at least occasionally, the features of a man of action.

Neo is at all times the example of a mythical hero. He does not only follow Campbell’s typology of the traditional hero, but he is also associated with other prototypes of masculinity in critical formalist works like the heroes in fairy tales that Vladimir Propp analyses in The Morphology of the Folk Tale (1928), or the hero of romance in Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (1957). Moreover, this reproduction of the discourses of white male supremacy is but another inheritance of cyberpunk literature.

In fulfilling these traditional behavioural models, Neo cannot evolve completely into a different type of hero, and no significant evolution in the assignment of innovative elements dealing with the hero’s task can be registered in the Waschowski’s film. The insertion of traditional motifs may suggest, at some points, a contradiction, if we take into account the film’s portrayal of the latest technological motifs as well as the constant inclusion of postmodern issues. The contradiction is also perceived in the film’s inclusion of the hypermasculine father figure of Morpheus, a character that is considered as a semi-god and whose instructions are essential for the hero’s accomplishment of his task.

The novelty of The Matrix resides, therefore, not in Neo’s adventure and final task but in his androgynous look, in his sometimes cowardly behaviour and in the fact that he collaborates with powerful women characters like Trinity. This is reinforced by the technological and innovative setting in which he appears and by his condition as a cyborg. Virtual spaces in contemporary SF films offer, then, a clash between an innovative representation of masculinity by means of an external androgynous body and the perpetuation of traditional values taking place precisely in these contemporary bodies and worlds. Springer argues that ‘the construction of masculinity as cyborg requires its simultaneous deconstruction’. She contends that the paradoxical desire to preserve masculine subjectivity in the figure of the cyborg requires the destruction of the male body and its replacement with electronic parts; either physically, using hardware, or psychologically, using software. Yet, by escaping from its close identification with the male body, masculine subjectivity has been reconstituted, suggesting an essential masculinity that transcends bodily presence. Thus, ‘[i]n a world without human bodies technological things will be gendered and there will be patriarchy’.[41]

After this analysis of some significant male cyborgs appearing in recent SF cinema, it can be affirmed that the innovative and liberating figure proposed by Haraway in her famous ‘Cyborg Manifesto’ is not achieved in these texts. Male cyborgs are still powerful figures that epitomise the anxieties of the times. Thus in films like the Terminator series, where the border man-machine becomes problematic, the superior physicality of the male cyborg can be read as an ironic reaffirmation of gender boundaries. Even in films where many boundaries have been dissolved, like those between reality and fiction, between machine and man, and even those between hero and cyborg (the latter traditionally associated to the villain), we find virtual heroes with androgynous appearances that still follow the traditional path left by mythical heroes. As suggested here, Neo embodies the so-called new hero while at the same time perpetuates traditional gender stereotypes, a paradox that makes us think about the meaning of the very concept ‘new hero’. Clearly different from violent male cyborgs such as the popular Terminator, cyborgs appearing in contemporary virtual reality films do not disassociate themselves completely from conventional patterns of representation however, but instead old norms are inscribed in new digital spaces and disguised under posthuman aesthetics. Thus, while the definition of the cyborg varies according to the times and the current technological improvements, gender dualism still remains and gender positions are perpetuated in these images.

Universidad de Huelva



[1] Adam I. Bostic, ‘Automata. Seeing Cyborg Through the Eyes of Popular Culture, Computer-Generated Imagery, and Contemporary Theory’, Leonardo 31 (1998), 357-61, p. 358.

[2] Claudia Springer, ‘The Pleasure of the Interface’, in Patrick D. Hopkins ed, Sex/ Machine: Readings in Culture, Gender, and Technology (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), pp. 485-500 (p. 486).

[3] Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth century’ (1985), in Simians, Cyborg, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991) pp. 149-181. Hereafter references made within the body of the text; Yvonne Tasker, Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre and the Action Cinema (London: Routledge, 1993); Susan Jeffords, Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994).

[4] For discussions of the interface between gender and technology in popular movies, see Jason Haslam, ‘Coded Discourse: Romancing the (Electronic) Shadow in The Matrix’, College Literature 32.3 (2005), 92-115; Anne Balsamo, ‘Reading Cyborg Writing Feminism’ in Gill Kirkup et al, eds, The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader (New York: Routledge, 2000), pp. 148-59; and Francisco Collado, ‘Fear of the Flesh, Fear of the Borg: Narratives of Bodily Transgression in Contemporary U.S. Culture’, in Ramón Plo and María Jesús Martínez Alfaro, eds, Beyond Borders: Re-defining Generic and Ontological Borders (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag C. Winter, 2002), pp. 67-79.

[5] Scott Bukatman, Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), chapter 5.

[6] Christine Cornea, Science Fiction Cinema: Between Fantasy and Reality (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), p. 129. As Bukatman accurately notes, the real advent of cyberpunk (with the publication of William Gibson’s Neuromancer in 1984) was preceded by at least three films that had an important impact upon the cyberpunk aesthetics: Blade Runner, Tron and Videodrome, all released in 1982 (Bukatman, p. 137). These films recreate a context of visual pastiche and their characters share many aspects and devices when representing their dehumanised body. Still, they rely on popular visions of the body at work in the 1980s. Tron, for instance, is considered to be one of the first SF films dealing with cyberspace and where ‘the disembodiment of cyberspace meets the hyperbolically embodied figure of the athlete’ (Bukatman, p. 303).

[7] Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973).

[8] David Tomas, ‘Feedback and Cybernetic: Reimaging the Body in an Age of the Cyborg’, in Mike Featherstone and Roger Burrows, eds, Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/ Cyberpunk: Cultures of Technological Embodiment (London: Sage, 1995), pp. 21-43 (pp. 21, 36, 36).

[9] Clynes, Manfred E. and Nathan S. Kline, ‘Cyborgs and Space’ [1960]. In C.H. Gray ed, The Cyborg Handbook (London: Routledge, 1995), pp 29-34 (p. 30).

[10] Jennifer Gonzalez, ‘Envisioning Cyborg Bodies: Note from Current Research’, in Gill Kirkup et al, eds, The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader (New York: Routledge, 2000), pp. 58-73 (p. 57).

[11] Springer, ‘The Pleasure of the Interface’, pp. 492, 493.

[12] Ibid., p. 493. Fear of technological development is not new in SF films but it is a topic inherited from Romantic writings where we found the tension between human-machine embodied by creatures like the monster created by doctor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) or the creature Olympia in E.T.A Hoffmann’s Der Sandman (1816).

[13] Jeffords, p. 11.

[14] Mary Beth Norton et al, A People and a Nation: A History of the United States (Boston: Houghton Miffin, 1991), pp. 592-4.

[15] Susan Faludi, ‘Fatal and Foetal Visions: The Backlash in the Movies’, in Susan Faludi, Backlash: The Undeclared War against Women (London: Vintage, 1991), pp. 140-70 (p. 156).

[16] Ibid., p. 167.

[17] Ibid., p. 169.

[18] Jeffords, p. 12.

[19] Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies: Women, Floods, Bodies, History (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), p. 212.

[20] Tasker, p. 78. Roger Horrocks deals with male images and stereotypes in a section of his book Masculinity in Crisis: Myths, Fantasies and Realities (London: St. Martin’s Press, 1994). When analysing the rich body of images about men that are provided in recent years by the figure of Schwarzenegger films, he refers to his physique, which reflects ‘the considerable amount of narcissism about the male musculature in our culture’ (Horrocks, p. 160). However such a body, he will later continue, ‘can be seen both as a massive penis, but can also be construed as quasi-female’ if we consider the bodybuilding enlarging of pectorals and narrowing of hips (Horrocks, p. 160).

[21] Andrew Britton, ‘Blissing Out: The Politics of Reaganite Entertainment’, Movie 31/32 (1986), 1-36, p. 7. In this sense it is interesting to refer to Judith Butler’s affirmation that ‘sex’ is a socially constructed category and forcibly materialised through time (Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits on ‘Sex’ (New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 2). Her argument is that ‘the regulatory norms of “sex” work in a performative fashion to constitute the materiality of bodies and, more specifically, to materialise the body’s sex, to materialise sexual difference in the service of the consolidation of the heterosexual imperative’ (Butler, Bodies That Matter, p. 2). In this sense, the category of gender, very much like that of sex in Butler’s analysis, becomes a cultural performance, that is, the effect of a set of contested power relations based on ‘such defining institutions’ as phallogocentrism and compulsory heterosexuality (Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), p. viii). Butler proposes in this work a performative theory of gender that disrupts the categories between bodies, sex, gender and sexuality.

[22] Kenneth MacKinnon, Representing Men: Maleness and Masculinity in the Media (New York: Arnold, 2003), p. 115.

[23] Steve Neale, ‘Masculinity as Spectacle: Reflections on Men and Mainstream Cinema’, in John Caughie et al, eds, The Sexual Subject: A Screen Reader in Sexuality (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 277-287 (p. 279).

[24] Ibid., p. 286.

[25] Richard Dyer, ‘Don’t Look Now: The Male Pin-Up’, in John Caughie et al, eds, The Sexual Subject: A Screen Reader in Sexuality (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 265-76 (p. 267).

[26] Ibid., pp. 270, 275.

[27] Amanda Fernbach, ‘The Fetishization of Masculinity in Science Fiction: The Cyborg and the Console Cowboy’, Science Fiction Studies 27 (2000), 234-55 (p. 137).

[28] Ibid., p. 238.

[29] Claudia Springer, ‘Psycho-Cybernetics on the 1990s’, in Annette Kuhn, ed, Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science Fiction Cinema (London: Verso, 1999), pp. 203-18 (p. 204).

[30] Sadie Plant, ‘On the Matrix: Cyberfeminist Simulations’, in Gill Kirkup et al, eds, The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader (New York: Routledge, 2000), pp. 265-75 (p. 265).

[31] Fernbach, p. 244.

[32] Foucault used this term in 1967 to refer to places and spaces that are formed in the very founding of society, ‘a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted’. Foucault, Michel. ‘On Other Spaces’. Diacritics 16 (1986), pp. 22-27.

[33] Springer, ‘The Pleasure of the Interface’, p. 486.

[34] Collado, ‘Fear of the Flesh’, p. 14.

[35] Springer, ‘The Pleasure of the Interface’, p. 487.

[36] Francisco Collado and Sergio Salvador, ‘Post-Human: The Cultural Limits of “Cyberpunk”‘, Miscelánea: A Journal of English and American Studies 19 (1998), 21-37 (p. 25).

[37] Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973), p.30.

[38] Ibid., pp. 90-92.

[39] Ibid, pp. 219-29.

[40] Margery Hourihan, Deconstructing the Hero: Literary Theory and Children’s Literature (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 58.

[41] Springer, ‘The Pleasure of the Interface’, p. 494.