Gender, Body, and Computing Technologies in the Science-Fiction Film

Gender, Body, and Computing Technologies in the Science-Fiction Film

Rocío Carrasco-Carrasco
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-5888-2.ch303
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The intersections of the human body with the latest technological developments have opened up numerous debates on gender identity. Classical dichotomies body/mind, human/machine, natural/artificial seem to be dissolving in contemporary Western societies, and the limits of the “organic” body become difficult to establish. The growing importance of new computing and communication technologies shapes, then, social order. The world is dominated by technological images that have become part of our daily life and that have created new spaces for representation, such as the virtual world or cyberspace. In this context of blurred frontiers, the concept of gender remains problematic, since it no longer articulates bodily experiences. However, and as it will be contended here, gendered practices still inform computing technologies. Hence, and in spite of its transgressive nature, virtual bodies as represented in contemporary popular discourses—such as US cinema—still reproduce dominant structures of power.

Computing and media technologies are everywhere and extend to the human body, affecting the way gender has been traditionally understood. When in 1964 Marshall McLuhan referred to media as “extensions of man” he was indirectly alluding to the idea that media were instruments of male domination. Indeed, and as some feminist research has highlighted, technology is affected by gender relations. Technology in general has been traditionally considered as a sign of men’s power and masculinity defined in terms of technological capabilities. Nevertheless, current discourses have provided new definitions of technology, of gender identity and of what being human means. This inevitably challenges traditional power associations between men and technology. As Barbara Becker argues, the “difference between natural and artificial, real and virtual, material and immaterial phenomena is not an ontological one, but changes according to technological improvements and methods of communication” (Becker, 2000, p. 361). In the same way, definitions of gender also change with time, affected by technological developments.

Cybernetics, as a set of media technologies, offers grounds from where to analyze gender identity in postmodern contexts. In this sense, “cybernetics simultaneously maps out the terrains for both postmodern discussions of the subject in late capitalism and feminist debates about technology, postmodernism, and gender” (Halberstam, 1998, p. 468). Indeed, cyberspace has offered numerous possibilities for the redefinition of the human body outside traditional boundaries, suggesting a liberation of socio-cultural constraints. This is precisely the concern of many feminist theories that aim at deconstructing the human subject from binary polarization, implying the dissolution of sexualized identities in cyberspace. Specifically, the discipline called “cyberfeminism” sees cyberspace as a gender-neutral site that enables women to communicate and act outside the constraints of male-dominated physical realms. Sadie Plant (1997) and many other cyberfeminists offer optimistic—sometimes utopian—views of the relationship between women and technology in the virtual age. In her essay “On the Matrix: Cyberfeminist Simulations,” Plant argues that virtual worlds “undermine both the world-view and the material reality of two thousands years of patriarchal control” (p. 265).1

Yet, contrary to McLuhan’s technological determinism and his idea that technologies can enhance the senses by displaying a strong affinity between body and mind, and to cyberfeminist postulates about the neutrality of cyberspace for gender relations, popular discourses normally rely on this distinction when depicting the interaction between the body and computing technologies, inevitably adopting gender dualisms. Cyberspace is constructed by existing social, cultural and economic structures, and gender stereotypes and sexed body descriptions are normally employed in order to suggest authenticity to these texts.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Virtual Body: An inorganic entity with human shape made of information and placed in cyberspace.

Virtual Reality Film: A visual text that shows, and normally relies on, cyberspace in the form of computer games, the Internet, digital databases and the like. It allows for a visualization of the complex relationship between humanity and information technologies. Examples may include The Matrix, eXistenZ, Avatar , or Tron:Legacy.

Cinematic Cyborg: An image provided by films (mainly science fiction) in which flesh and machine combine, representing the relationship between material bodies and media technologies.

Postmodern Body: A contested notion that stands as an icon of the fluidity, hybridity and complexity of corporealities in contemporary technologically-driven societies.

Cyberfeminism: Discipline within feminism that sees cyberspace and virtual reality as neutral realms in terms of gender. This school of thought visions a society beyond gendered bodies where women can communicate and act outside the restrictions imposed by patriarchal societies.

Gender Identity: A person’s sense of oneself as male, female, both or neither, resulting from culture and other external and/or internal factors.

Material Feminism: A discipline that considers the physical body as fundamental for the articulation of gender and for the analysis of contemporary human-media interactions. Key authors are Katherine Hayles or Rossi Braidotti.

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