Wednesday, April 13, 2011

"Keeping the Boys Satisfied"?

Despite its relative recency, cyberpunk as a subgenre tends to produce the type of works that we might quickly classify as “men’s” or “boys’” books. This seems a little perplexing at first blush: Women and men (girls and boys) are equally human after all—there’s no logical reason why one gender should prefer playing with the boundaries of that humanity more than the other. Furthermore, as Donna Haraway discusses in her article (and Jasmine discusses in the post below), one could even argue that the melding of biology and technology ought to cross gender lines by its very nature. Still, the trend persists.

The Psychology student in me is tempted to chalk this phenomenon up to social influence norms—we perceive gender norms that tell us, from the moment we’re old enough to comprehend them, what should interest us and what shouldn’t, which toys and books and colors and classmates we’re supposed to like and which are inherently unsuitable. In most cases, these norms are quickly assimilated—a young girl chooses to play with a doll rather than a toy truck because she wants to, not because she’s trying to conform to social pressures. Young children are honest that way.

I imagine that literary tastes evolve in the same way. A boy entering the age at which he begins to pursue novel-reading independently (perhaps middle school) might find himself ridiculed if he chooses a book with too heavy a romantic subplot, or with a female lead. Similarly, a girl might find herself struggling to make friends if she shies away from whatever “chick-lit” media is currently popular in favor of, say… a sci-fi, cyberpunk “boy book”. Older children can be cruel that way.

Although arguably attributable to these norms, I believe that other factors contribute to the perception of cyberpunk as a “male” subgenre (and to the perception of scifi as a principally “male” genre) as well. As Nixon points out, many science fiction works (particularly the older ones, the “classics”) are clearly aimed towards a male audience, with “macho” ideals and female characters relegated to sexual icons, sidekicks, or shadowy background figures. To give a specific example, Nixon describes the cyber matrix we see in Neuromancer as a “feminized” world, making the cowboys’ hacking into a sort of sexual metaphor. (While I personally did not notice this comparison, I can see it in retrospect and I suppose one could make an argument for a subliminal interpretation— a particularly appropriate explanation considering the Freudian themes that Nixon applies to cyberpunk as a whole). Similarly, our hero is very much the “lone Cowboy” figure, promoting the “masculine” ideals of individuality and ambition against the “feminine” collective. While Molly is arguably a strong character who doesn’t necessarily conform to cyberpunk’s darker female stereotypes, she lacks depth. I’ve not finished the book, yet, so I apologize if this changes, but it seems that we never really get into her head, or come to appreciate or honor her motivations. She reminds me somewhat of the character of Trinity from the Matrix—a fighter, yes, but after introducing the hero to his new environment, she steps into the background and remains there, as a key but shadowed support figure except for instances in which her body is objectified sexually.


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