Gender in the Shell: The Self, Society, and Body in Ghost in The Shell
This is an essay written for my Gender Identity in Literature class.
In the penultimate scene of Ghost in The Shell (GITS), protagonist Major Motoko Kusanagi leaps on the back of a spider tank and attempts to rip off the door on the tank’s control panel. As she struggles to tear the door from its hinges, the artificial muscles in her fully cybernetic body strain and swell. Her body is constructed as female, with wide hips and a distinctive bosom, but as her muscles swell under the tension her physique momentarily becomes masculine. The contours of muscles and tendons become visible under her skin. She looks like a body builder. However, the strain is too much and her skin rips and reveals the machinery underneath.
In just a few seconds, GITS shows us how the Major’s body transcends beyond the usual archetypes of gender and humanity. She is woman, then man, then machine (1). Like Donna Haraway states in A Cyborg Manifesto, ‘The cyborg is a creature in a postgender world’ (Haraway, 1985). The Major’s body encompasses all gendered body archetypes, and thus is blind to those archetypes. The profound transformation of the body in GITS has significant implications for our contemporary conceptions of gender and identity. In this essay, I propose that GITS reveals that this transformation of the body initially manifests as a sense of the erasure and deconstruction of self, but ultimately, it is a form of self-empowerment and diversification of the myriad possibilities of expressions (including gender expression) of the self (2). We will explore how GITS states this thesis and how it depicts gender in this essay.
GITS is a 1995 Japanese anime film directed by Mamoru Oshii. We follow Major Motoko Kusanagi and her team at Public Safety Section 9, as they pursue a mysterious hacker known as the Puppet Master. GITS is a highly influential work of cyberpunk, and like many cyberpunk works depicts a near-future society in which technology and late-stage capitalism have influenced all aspects of society. In GITS, cybernetic augmentations of the human body are commonplace. The vast majority of people have cyberbrains, brains which have been cybernetically augmented with electronics that allow for seamless interfacing with the internet. Some, like the Major, have mechanical body augmentations that either improve or outright replace parts of the human body, allowing said parts to perform even better physically. The Major, however, goes one step further. Her entire body is fully cybernetic. The only organic matter that she has left is in her brain, which itself is fully enclosed in a reinforced metal shell. This transcendence of the physical is an important theme in the film, and one we will explore throughout this essay.
The film begins with the Major perched on a skyscraper rooftop in heart of the city. She’s electronically eavesdropping onto a conversation several floors below regarding a mysterious Project 2501. Her partner Batou observes that her cyberbrain has a lot of noise. She jokes that it’s her ‘time of the month’. Irony drips from this line of dialogue. As a full body cyborg, she does not menstruate or give birth, and thus would not have a ‘time of the month’. Her womanhood, embodied in the physical structure and gender expression of her cyborg body, is divorced from her capacity, or lack thereof, for reproduction. As Sharalyn Orbaugh states, ‘the sexed body as reproductive body has no meaning in her cyborg state’ (Orbaugh, 2002).
Despite the erasure of the capacity for reproduction, her body does not become genderless by default. Her body was constructed with the purpose of being physically strong and dexterous and being capable of causing and tolerating a large amount of damage. This physical empowerment, often perceived in society as being masculine, thus causes her body to embody ‘masculinity’, at least in the way society perceives masculinity. To quote Orbaugh, ‘These bodies perfectly incarnate the modernist idea of autonomous subjectivity; in this sense, they are all coded “male,” despite the strong visual dimorphism’ (Orbaugh, 2002). Thus, her quip is not merely a joke, but a reassertion of her womanhood despite her disembodiment, despite the erasure of her capacity for reproduction. Furthermore, the organization she is a part of, Section 9, is exclusively male with her being the sole exception. The men, like her, are trained and cybernetically enhanced. Thus, in the context of Section 9, empowerment becomes even more strongly associated with masculinity. For the Major to assert her womanhood is to disentangle those two notions and to assert her individuality. Her strong assertions of self are important for her, for within her own mind, she is wracked with doubt about her sense of self (which we will explore in detail later).
Shortly after this quip, she stands up and removes her overcoat, revealing her skin-tight flesh-toned thermo-optic camouflage suit. Her physique and body are revealed. The silhouette of her hips, nipples, and groin are visible, but the male gaze seems almost absent. The shot of her almost-nude self is visible for barely a second before we cut away to a different shot. The Major fills the frame. There is no focus on any particular part of her body. The Major herself undresses casually. She looks almost bored.
Her emotional detachment from her body makes sense given its mechanical nature. The title sequence shortly after this scene depicts the manufacturing of her body. The chronology is unclear. Is this a flashback to the manufacturing of her current body, or the manufacturing of a new one? The inability to distinguish between the two is emblematic of the commonality of bodies and thus the detachment of the body from the self. Bodies are now endlessly swappable (3). The body is commodified and objectified by the film, but not in a sexual sense or as a form of titillation, for the nature of objectification has changed. Haraway states that ‘the result of sexual objectification is illusion and abstraction. However, a woman… does not exist as a subject, … since she owes her existence as a woman to sexual appropriation’ (Haraway, 1985). This dynamic is different for the Major. Her existence is not tied to her body, given it is swappable, so to objectify the body is not to objectify the individual. She no longer owes her ‘existence as a woman’ to ‘sexual appropriation’ (4).
While her body is not sexually commodified, it has become a consumer commodity. During an iconic montage in the film, the Major spots another person with the exact same physical likeness as her. In the TV Series GITS: SAC, it is explained that her physical likeness is modeled on commercially available cyborg bodies, allowing her to more easily blend into public spaces. Interspersed with this montage are shots of store mannequins; a visual metaphor for the consumeristic commodification of the Major’s body. Her bodily expression is out of her control. A corporation somewhere designed and built a cyborg body and made it available for purchase, and through this business decision, societal notions of feminine aesthetics (and the Major’s body as a physical manifestation of these notions) have been shaped. Her body is the very expression of consumer desires.
The transformation and deconstruction of the self in the film is not limited to the physical body. Later in the film, Section 9 encounters a garbage collector whose cyberbrain has been hacked and used by a hacker to enact their plans. In the process of this hack, the garbage collector has had his memories wiped and replaced with fictitious ones. He believes himself a married father, though he is neither.
This encounter causes the Major to reflect on her own sense of self. Her heavily weaponized body is a property of the government and thus to resign from her job entails a returning of said body (5). This body, including the augmented brain, is what allows her to perceive the world and to form memories of what she perceives. In a cyborg world where the body can be owned by a government and corporation, what is considered self, separate from society, grows tenuous (6).
As seen here, the implications of technology do not end at the physical, but also encompasses parts of consciousness. Memories can be falsehoods, albeit still claiming to be real. In the framework proposed in Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, this could be seen as a second-order simulacra, where the delineation between real and artifice is fading (Baudrillard, 1991). The Major might doubt her memories here, but she is still ostensibly human. The full implications are not yet obvious. For now, identity (and thus gender) is not fully deconstructed.
The implications become clear when we encounter the film’s third-order simulacra, where the ‘real’ is a meaningless concept: Project 2501 aka the Puppet Master. Section 9 discovers Project 2501 as a broken female android body on a highway. Upon running diagnostics on it, the body awakens. They ask for political asylum. They identify not as an AI, but as a ‘living, thinking entity created in the sea of information’ (Oshii, 1995), the hivemind of society made manifest. Their voice is masculine, but their body is feminine. The film explains that they hacked a manufacturing plant to manufacture that specific android body for them to inhabit. As a being made from information, their gender expression is not bounded by the physical or biological. They can choose whatever they desire. They state, ‘so man is an individual memory system only because of his intangible memory and a memory cannot be defined, but it defines mankind’ (Oshii, 1995). According to Project 2501, memories shape the self and thus, with the digitization and externalization of memories now possible in this cybernetic world, the memories that shape the self and the identity of the self are blurred.
The self, however, is not erased. After all, Project 2501 identifies as a sentient life-form and explicitly asks for asylum. They believe themselves to be a distinct living being, even if they were birthed from the collective volume of information from society, with no lineage or point of origin. GITS does not erase the line between self and society. It attempts to redraw it.
How the line is redrawn is not immediately shown in this act of the film but left to the final act. Mid-conversation, Project 2501’s body is stolen by a rogue government agency. Section 9 proceeds to attempt to reclaim it, leading to the penultimate scene described in the introduction to this essay.
The aforementioned spider tank guarding Project 2501’s body is successfully disabled (though not without enormous damage to the Major’s body), and Project 2501’s body is successfully recovered by Section 9. Motivated by her own self-questioning and the uniqueness of Project 2501’s identity, she ‘ghostdives’ into them, digitally connecting their consciousnesses together. Project 2501 makes an offer to the Major: merge their consciousnesses permanently and be reborn as a new being. As a purely digital entity, Project 2501 can only make copies of themselves, devoid of mutations that give rise to genetic diversity needed for life to flourish. The Major, as a human, possesses this capacity. Though she no longer reproduces physically/biologically, through merger with Project 2501 she can birth diverse digital offspring that can spread through the net. Through this merger and hybridization, they will transcend the boundaries and limits of both physical and digital realms.
Throughout the film the Major questions what has become of her identity through the technological transformation of her physical self. What has been gained? What has been lost? Has she truly transcended her human limitations? In this moment, we see an answer.
This merger of ‘cyberspace’ and ‘meatspace’ (i.e the real world) allows one to free the other of its limitations and constraints. The self is not erased. Instead, it is understood as part of the ebb and flow of information in society. As the self absorbs information and is transformed by it, it too outputs information, either by itself or in the aforementioned digital offspring, and gently alters that ebb and flow. Through the merger, the Major transcends the physical self. She is free of the constraints of bodies, whether those constraints are ones created by laws from authoritarian governments or digital permissioned systems controlled by corporations. She can operate as an entity of pure information, free of gender connotations for without the physical body, there is no performance of gender, and thus, in Judith Butler’s framework, no gender (Butler, 1990). She is free to transform herself and to be rebirthed in whatever form and identity she pleases (she can also choose to move between bodies, as seen in the final scene, that allows her to perform as different identities).
This ability to choose is not disregarded by the film. Project 2501 does not merge with the Major without her consent. She is asked if this is what she desires. The self is not erased, because the self can choose. Whether it is the ability to choose that gives rise to the conception of self or the conception of self that imbues the right to choose, the film does not answer. With the deconstruction of all other conceptions of the self as seen throughout the film, it seems to imply they are one and the same.
The Major agrees to the merger, and in the final scene we see her transplanted into a new body (7), that of a young girl, signifying her rebirth. She walks out, gazes over the city and remarks, ‘the net is vast and infinite’.
In GITS, technology is fundamentally a positive transformation of the self and society. It perceives and depicts technology not just at the level of the digital systems that we have created from said technology. As seen in the case of the garbage collector, these systems are means of exploitation and control and are symptomatic of the pervasive nature of technology. However, that is not technology’s fundamental implication. Instead, the fundamental implication is the transformation of society so that it is not composed of systems of class, gender, or ethnicity, but as pure flows of information to and from individuals. Through this flow, individuals learn, grow, transform and birth new entities through which the cycle repeats. Boundaries of identities, prescribed as they are, are transcended. We become free, like the Major, to choose for ourselves what we are and what we will become. The diverse possibilities of what our identities and ourselves can be are very much like the net: vast and infinite.
1 — We will explore the other implications of the scene later in the essay.
2 — The self here we are considering is the self-perception of the individual, which should not be confused with an ‘objective’ self, which the film does deconstruct.
3 — In the spinoff TV series GITS: SAC an episode features the Major undergoing a body swap routine. She goes through the process casually, clearly used to the procedure.
4 — This obviously has various social implications, but as this film focuses on self-perception, it does not delve deeper into this. The spinoff TV series GITS: SAC has a more sociological focus, and thus does delve into these implications.
5 — “True we can quit, but we’d have to give back our cyborg parts and augmented brains to the government.” — The Major
6 — Again, there are a myriad of social implications (control and censorship, the means of production vis a vis the means of reproduction as controlled by a corporation) of this that this film does not explore in detail. One example of a work that does explore this is the cyberpunk videogame Deus Ex: Human Revolution. One sidequest involves rescuing victims of sex trafficking who are chosen specifically because they have been cybernetically augmented. The capitalistic consumeristic commodification of the body becomes fetishized, and thus the sexual commodification becomes even more exploitative.
7 — It is worth noting that from this point in the film, till the end of the sequel to this film, the Major is never depicted in her old body.
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