Monday, 3 January 2011

TV review: On cyborgs and gender roles

“In general, science fiction has always appealed more to men than women,” reads Encyclopaedia of library and information science. The subject of gender divide in science fiction always fascinated scholars who tried to understand what makes the genre appealing to different people. The main focus of these studies was concerned with the depiction of sexes within the science fiction stories. Later on it expanded to provide information on what men and women found attractive in these stories and how writing from authors of different genders depicted attributes of the genre in entirely different ways. It is argued that science fiction is the genre that marks the human psyche of the 20th century. Therefore by looking at the evolution of the genre, we might be able to understand the social changes that made our world what it is today.

Arthur S. Barron in his essay Why do scientists read science fiction? points out a couple of reasons why men might be attracted to the genre much more than women. He argues that the biggest disadvantage of the genre is that it can be found attractive to the reader only viewed as sociologically involved. It lacks any insight into human emotion or motivation from the literary point of view. But it is the glamorisation of the scientist that wins the hearts of men. “Like other conventional heroes,” writes Barron, “the scientist-hero senses danger with great courage, confronts obvious evil and conquers it, and enjoys the attention of several beautiful women.” The absence of romance and emotional involvement leaves women stranded from the genre and makes it reasonably difficult for them to buy into the seemingly shallow stories. As a result, the marginalisation of the women characters as intellectually unequal to men forced some authors to create an alternative, perhaps improving the storytelling and the genre’s objectives to make them more attractive to both sexes.

The creation of cyborgs – half-machine half-human has elevated the dispute over the role of gender to a very unique theme attributed distinctively to science fiction. “Cyborg imagery seems liberatory,” argue the authors in Science, technology and society: a sociological approach, “because cyborgs can refuse to be either human or machine, and can choose their identities and components.” Authors have used cyborgs extensively to attribute human qualities to machines and vice versa. It is the unique versatility of cyborgs that allowed the science fiction artists to discuss the subject of what makes us human in depth and address some difficult social issues without being too blunt. In the modern age of media superiority, science fiction and its use of cyborgs continues to fearlessly break the taboos of race and gender politics. As the examples listed below will attempt to prove, the sci-fi genre’s constant stare into the future helps us understand where our society stands at the moment and what issues need to be addressed to fight inequality in today’s world.

One of the most recent achievements in television drama entitled Battlestar Galactica (BSG, 2004-2009) has been reported to be probably the most exceptional piece of science fiction produced by a television network. Its colossal story arc spins with an insightful drama about the human condition and tries to answer some of the most difficult questions about the future of our society. The basic premise of the show is very simple, and one might say not that original. It is about humans who create machines that rebel against them. But the story expands with each episode revealing more and more shocking revelations about both sides of the conflict. The machines, called Cylons want to fulfil their desire to evolve. Through evolution they want to become superior to their makers. They create a new type of Cylon: a machine that looks and feels exactly like a human. These new Cylons hatch a plan and at the very start of the series, nuke the human civilisation to the point that there are only 50,000 humans left.

The show portrays strong female characters on both sides of the conflict. The first human Cylon that the audience is being introduced to is a beautiful blond femme fatale named “Six”, whose sex-appeal serves to deceive the humans that she encounters on her journey. The way the cyborg is presented to us relates to some very old-fashioned ideas science fiction has at its core. The beautiful woman seems to be fascinated with a scientist who holds the key to human survival. The portrait of the scientist in BSG relates to what was written by Barron. The scientist’s intellect attracts a beautiful woman and transforms him into a much more interesting being than what he could possibly otherwise. But BSG is not trying to perpetuate old stereotypes of science fiction drama; quite frankly it’s trying to break away from them. As previously mentioned, BSG presents some other very strong female characters, and apart from the beautiful Six, the story introduces us to some other women Cylons who strike with glamour and intellect, but also human empathy and wisdom.

What about male Cylons? Is their agenda any different from the one held by their female counterparts? The show is trying to escape from the general male domination of the science fiction drama that set the standards in the past. The Cylons are presented as a collection of mixed sexes to highlight the universality of their fight. The Cylons are declaring war as revenge for the maltreatment they had to suffer in the past. This introduces a very stimulating dichotomy, letting the viewer decide whom to support in the conflict.

Cylons don’t define themselves on sexual grounds. Their idea of evolution is to be equal to one another and that is thought to make them better than their human opponents, who at various points in the series declared martial law. Yet the conflicts presented in BSG are allegories which can be interpreted on many grounds – one could be understood directly as a military conflict, but it could as well be a metaphor for sexual injustice.
Towards the end of the story, the Cylon cohesion splinters, and about half of the Cylons form an alliance with the human military, much to the dismay of many of the civilians. However over time they learn how to relate to each other and resolve their issues by putting their pain behind them and starting a new chapter of peace with one another. The show produces its own universal solution to resolving conflicts, and uses the image of cyborgs as a metaphor of the oppressed who learn how to forgive. In the end, it is shown that humans and Cylons have a symbiotic relationship; one could not survive without the other. That this happens only after the human/Cylon alliance nukes the other Cylon faction into oblivion is perhaps a foreboding warning for our own time.

BSG was not the only show that appeared on TV screens in recent years to redesign the old fashioned concepts in sci-fi storytelling. Dollhouse created by Joss Whedon is a masterful mixture of some familiar ideas with exceptional narration and plot entanglement. The story of people who are programmed to be someone else has been used many times in the past. What is very special about Whedon’s reinvention of the concept is his powerful dramatisation and character development. His ways of approaching the subject feel very fresh and tend to surprise the viewer with every episode. The main theme of the show deals with the possibilities of the human brain – the subconscious abilities to adapt different skills and personalities in a matter of a single click. ‘Dollhouse’ is a hidden place where people have technology embedded into their brain, and are being wiped of their memories, ready for a new persona. In other words, a doll – a state of being that truly exemplifies the term ‘tabulsa rasa’. Then, through their use of the same technology, the dolls can become people who are used for different assignments. Many of the assignments involve sexual or emotional engagement; therefore the dolls must be very physically attractive. More than this, they can actually be ‘uploaded’ with the persona of – for example – a spouse long dead, and in this way they are programmed not only to care and satisfy the person to whom they’ve been assigned, but in some cases they truly are someone who actually loves them.

The role of the scientist in Dollhouse once again goes through a peculiar make-over, which is very typical for sci-fi genre. The scientist is not only glamorised, but is given god-like qualities to create new lives and satisfy everyone’s deepest needs. The humans that are to become dolls themselves are selected on sexual criteria; every one of them needs to be sexually appealing in order to be able to serve every potential desire. Just like in the case of BSG, the cyborgs of Dollhouse symbolise the oppressed. They are treated as sub-human. They are empty shells whose only role is to serve. Yet as the show progresses, there are a smattering of individual “dolls” that prove to be something more than mindless automatons. The main character of the show, nicknamed Echo, develops a personality of her very own and eventually emerges as a person with almost god-like abilities. Her unique brain adapts to the artificially engineered structure implanted by the scientists and evolves into something spectacular. The woman is superior to all other dolls and goes beyond the capabilities of the scientists themselves. This strong representation of a female character certainly challenges some of our societal bias. The woman symbolises the strong, relentless spirit of the female psyche. She serves as an antonym of the way her gender is portrayed in normal life: as weaker and in need of protection. Echo is reluctant and disobedient. She is a heroine few men would be able to compete with.

To contrast with Whedon’s praise to the feminine with his cyborg Echo, we should refer to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) whose central themes revolve around the main character’s masculinity. Rick Deckard is the film’s hero and is hired to chase down three “replicants” – cyborg slaves who escaped a distant colony and then hide somewhere on Earth. The humanoids that look exactly like humans are to be recognised by their inability to show any empathetic emotions. During his investigation Deckard learns that the cyborgs can exemplify human responses that many actual humans would be deficient in. Regardless of the many doubts that the man is faced with, he accomplishes his task and kills the escapees even though his blind devotion to the task almost destroys him. He finds out he might be a cyborg himself but his life is saved by a trusting replicant woman who shows a level of devotion that he has never recognised in any human being.
Why Blade Runner’s masculine point of view is so important in contrasting it with BSG and Dollhouse? Simply because it is so different. The future that Scott predicts in his film is less hopeful for the mankind. Deckard’s search for integrity reveals his inability to understand the world he lives in. He trusts unquestionably in what the Tyrell Corporation tells him and seems to be at odds with the facts he discovers on his journey. He is shocked to find out that the cyborgs are more human than humans themselves, and becomes emotionally lost when he learns how important the female cyborg is to him. The film concludes that no matter how great humanity might think about itself, it is far from perfection. The cyborgs represent the abuse through which human tyranny conquers the planet. The character of Deckard is presented in relation to Rachel – a humanoid he falls in love with. Unlike him, Rachel very quickly adapts to the situation and accepts who she is making Deckard’s boyish fight with his identity seem fruitless. If one was to conclude the portrait of genders by looking at their representations in Blade Runner, the manhood would be seen as insufferable and pitiful. Blade Runner by accepting Deckard’s point of view loses much of positivity represented by characters like Rachel. The film is sad and gloomy, just like the masculine particle of the sci-fi universe.

Science fiction certainly plays important role in challenging conventional gender roles as the genre very often appears to be playful with the concepts. The creation of the cyborg allows the authors to unleash their imagination and embody the creature with anything they like. From the empathy and wisdom like in BSG, through sex-appeal in Dollhouse, to sadness and confusion presented in Blade Runner. The utopian and dystopian visions of the future worlds express the desire for change and make the character of cyborg a key element to that process. Defining the role of a specific gender play secondary role, if any role at all. The characters presented in the examples prove that the definition of masculine or feminine changes completely once applied to the cyborgs. Women are strong and independent, men weak and bewildered. The challenge of such definitions is what makes the modern science fiction a genre of impressive complexity and insight into our social identity. However, it is the emotional engagement that the science fiction brings what captures our hearts and minds and to that we are and always will be equal regardless to our sexual characteristics.           

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