Molly is a tough-talking street samurai. She is muscle for hire. She has surgically inset mirrored glasses that cover her eyes to enhance her vision as well as ten scalpel blades set beneath the nails in her hands. Trinity is a high-ranking officer aboard the ship Nebuchadnezzer. She is one of the key figures in the rebellion against the machines and plays an integral role in the discovery of "the one." She is able to use her mind in order to bend the rules of reality inside of the Matrix. She is capable of escaping deadly agents. Pris is a cyborg, fighting to extend her short, four-year lifespan. She is acrobatic and strong, capable of withstanding scalding hot or freezing cold temperatures. These women exist in the fictional texts of William Gibson's Neuromancer and the Wachowski Brothers' The Matrix, and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, three texts from the genre of cyberpunk. While cyberpunk novels and movies tend to showcase women who are highly capable of taking care of themselves, it is questionable whether these women challenge traditional gender roles or serve to reinforce them.
To begin, I'd like to give a brief overview of what cyberpunk is. While also a subculture, the version of cyberpunk focused on in this essay is a genre of literature and film that largely began with William Gibson's novel, Neuromancer in 1984. Mirrorshades, the first cyberpunk anthology, includes a preface by Bruce Sterling, one of the mai1n contributors to the genre. He helpfully describes many of the central themes of cyberpunk texts.
In this light it is clear that Neuromancer, The Matrix, and Blade Runner are indeed cyberpunk texts. Molly's enhanced vision and razor hands in Neuromancer serve as implanted circuitry. The novel also deals with all other major themes described by Sterling as well. The Matrix and Trinity herself deal with most the major themes, focusing on bodily invasion, implanted circuitry, mind invasion, brain-computer interface, artificial intelligence, and the redefining of human nature. Similarly, Blade Runner has earned the reputation as one of the first movies of the cyberpunk genre. It deals with issues more on the side of genetic alteration and artificial intelligence to redefine human nature.
Within Neuromancer there are two female characters that are primarily focused on. The first is Linda Lee, the girlfriend of the main character, Case. Linda takes on a child-like quality. She wears a ribbon in her hair and is thoroughly dependent on Case. While she is street-smart to and urges Case to take care of himself rather than her, she is killed early on in the book trying to sell an item she stole from Case. Later on in the book she is reconstructed through a computer program by one of the artificial intelligences (AI) and placed in a kind of deserted island scenario, also a computer construct. When Case joins her there for a short while he is unwilling to just accept the reality presented to him. He struggles to find a way out of the construct while Linda passively accepts her surroundings and urges him to as well. Linda Lee reinforces old stereotypes of passive and dependent femininity throughout the novel.
The second character, and the one more prominently focused on, is the character of Molly. She is the street samurai hired by the AI, Wintermute. She is a character who is muscle for hire, a role usually reserved for men in high action texts. Her physical description is a far cry from the traditional feminine. She has "dark hair, cut in a rough shag" and wears "tight black gloveleather jeans and a bulky black jacket cut from some matte fabric that seemed to absorb light" (24-25). Additionally she establishes herself as a violent woman, not to be trifled with. She warns Case upon meeting him that "I do hurt people sometimes, Case. I guess it's just the way I'm wired" and "if you try to fuck around with me, you'll be taking one of the stupidest chances of your whole life" (25). She is a sharp contrast to the character of Linda Lee who appears soft and nurturing towards Case. Molly is also a cyborg due to her vision and weapon-like hands. The cyborg, as Donna Haraway describes in her Manifesto for Cyborgs, can be a space in which binaries, such as machine/organism and physical/nonphysical, can become blurred. Therefore, Molly has the potential to be a liberating character herself.
However, although the potential exists, Molly often falls short. One of the main themes of Neuromancer, and a great deal of other cyberpunk texts, is the escape of the meat. Where Case holds a distinct contempt for his body, escaping it by jacking in to the matrix, Molly instead stays within her body, only enhancing it to suit her needs. Michele Ierardi discusses this in her essay The Beautiful (Broken) Woman's Body. Case is allowed to connect to Molly through the matrix and experience the same things that she does. The link, however, is one-way. It is only through Molly that Case learns to value his body once again. Where she is the brawn, he is the brain. Ierardi tells us,
That the embodied state is ultimately devalued throughout the novel that reflects then on the feminine state and back to Molly. Her embodied state often fails her, as well. Her body, despite its enhancements, keeps getting damaged from when her leg is broken onward. In this way, Ierardi argues, it is "the failure of the female body [that] spurs Case to revalue his own, intact, male body."
In these ways Molly seems to be ineffective as a strong, female character in a cyberpunk novel. She is even captured at the end of the novel by 3Jane and Riviera, forced into the damsel in distress role, to be saved by Case. The character of Molly in Neuromancer falls back into the femme fatale role of film noir: fiercely independent but ultimately destroyed (Kaplan). She has the walk, the talk, and the look, but is more or less dependent on Case in the novel.
Where Neuromancer fails, however, The Matrix appears to succeed. One of the main reasons for this is the queering that goes on within the movie. The main male protagonist, Neo, is feminized throughout the film. He is compared to both Alice, from Alice in Wonderland, and Dorothy, from Wizard of Oz, as well as awakened with a kiss from Trinity like Sleeping Beauty. He is also the person whose body is most often shown being penetrated by various machine parts to plug him into the Matrix. Where Neo is feminized though, Trinity is anything but. Most of Neo's actions are a direct result of hers in the film. She has a tremendous sense of agency and rarely deviates from her mission or goal. Matty Strickler provides an excellent explanation of her skin-tight costuming in his essay Tumbling Down the Hole.
Additionally Neo is fairly on dependent on Trinity throughout the film. She saves his life more than once and aids him in the rescue of Morpheus. She is the one who resurrects him from the dead and helps him to fully realize that he is "the One."
The question remains, though, whether or not she is in charge of her own destiny. The Oracle told her that her destiny will be to fall in love with "the One" and that is precisely what happens. However, this seems less important in the face of the agency she displays throughout the rest of the film and Neo's dependence on her more often than her dependence on him. The relationship that she and Neo share is queered, just as their characters are, to take up what appears to be a reversal of gender roles.
The other women featured in the film are Switch, the Oracle, and the Woman in the Red Dress. Switch's character is also queered in the film. She appears as a very butch woman. Her hair is cut very short and her style of dress, white clothing compared to all the other characters' black, separates her out as different. The Oracle and the Woman in the Red Dress, however, are disappointingly stereotypical. The Oracle, a woman of color, takes on mammy-like characteristics, only reinforcing stereotypical race and gender roles. The Woman in the Red Dress also reinforces gender roles. She is a sexual object with long, wavy blond hair and a skin-tight red dress, there only to be gazed upon by the audience and the characters in the film. Additionally she is incapable of speech, as she is a computer program created by the character of Mouse, disempowering her further.
The female characters of The Matrix are far more empowered than those of Neuromancer yet still could be improved in the characters of the Oracle and the Woman in the Red Dress. Trinity and Molly seem to mirror each other in their style, yet Trinity escapes the boundaries that require strong women in these texts to be a femme fatale and undermined by the male protagonist.
The third text I want to look at is Ridley Scott's Blade Runner as it too was one of the defining movies of the cyberpunk genre. The female characters of the movie are Rachel, Pris, and Zhora. All are cyborgs, or replicants. While Rachel works for Tyrell, the head of the corporation that constructs replicants, Pris and Zhora have illegally returned to Earth trying to extend their lives and pass as humans. Pris and Zhora are very much femme fatale characters as Blade Runner is also within the genre of film noir. Pris uses her sexuality in order to get the character of Sebastein to lead her and Roy to Tyrell. Furthermore she is specifically referred to as a "standard pleasure model" replicant. Zhora also uses her sexuality to get her places on Earth as she takes a job at a strip club despite the fact that she is a combat model replicant. Both also seduce male characters, distracting them from their goals, Pris with Sebastein and Zhora with Deckard. This is a distinct characteristic of the femme fatale (Kaplan). They both, however, are killed by the male protagonist, Deckard, without any chance of succeeding in their goals, their success is very short-lived.
Rachel, unlike Pris and Zhora, doesn't fit into the "strong woman" character. She is introduced in the film as a kind of assistant to Tyrell but seemingly and independent woman. As she takes the voight-kampf test from Deckard she answers questions quickly and precisely, as though she's out to prove just how human she is to him. She appears confident in her ways throughout this scene. Later in the film she goes to confront Decked in his apartment and he informs her that her memories are false and that she is, indeed, a replicant. Following this scene, Rachel's independence seems to give out. She is, as Simon H. Scott in his paper Is Blade Runner a Misogynist Text, "viewed as a vulnerable, almost childlike and subservient female." Additionally, Rachel, also unlike Pris and Zhora, survives the film only under the protection of Deckard.
While cyberpunk texts often have strong and independent female characters, such as Molly or Pris, those characters can often fall back into the femme fatale role of film noir, doomed to failure by the end of the novel or film. Other female characters tend to be passive and dependent, such as Linda Lee or Rachel. They merely reinforce stereotypical gender roles. This is, however, not true for all cyberpunk texts. The Matrix, through the characters of Trinity and Switch, proves that there is the possibility to break away from the femme fatale or damsel in distress female characters. It is unfair to say that all cyberpunk texts reinforce gender roles. The opportunity to expand them is there, it just needs to be taken more often.
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