Essay by Kaleena Ipema
Art by Athena Li
The cyberpunk comic series Battle Angel Alita introduces its female protagonist in the form of a detached cyborg head, fractured and abandoned in the dystopian landscape of the Scrapyard. Although bodiless, her chipped facial features and fragmented torso deliberately reveal enough femininity to identify not just a humanoid form, but that of a young girl. As a visual medium, Yukito Kishiro’s manga constantly signals gender through its visual depictions of Alita’s body—no matter how broken or dismantled, long eyelashes or a partially intact breast always communicate femininity to the reader. Alita is fitted with several different bodies over the course of the narrative, each of which is obviously feminized by the shadows and curved lines of her breasts, hips, thighs, buttocks, and waistline. Feminist critics and cyberpunk authors have “[questioned] whether the bodily transgressions of the cyborg and the bodiless space of virtual reality present women with an emancipatory space where the traditional gender dichotomies are nonexistent, as it was suggested by the cyberfeminists of the early 1990s” (Ertung 77). Although she later becomes a fierce hunter-warrior, Alita is far from occupying an emancipatory space. Problematic constructions of the female body persist in Kishiro’s Battle Angel Alita Vol. 1, restricting Alita’s ability to transgress traditional gender dichotomies.
In her chapter “The Body and Reconstructions of Femininity,” Anne Bordo writes: “[the] body… is a powerful symbolic form, a surface on which the central rules, hierarchies, and even metaphysical commitments of a culture are inscribed and thus reinforced… The body may also operate as a metaphor for culture …, an imagination of body morphology [that] has provided a blueprint for diagnosis and/or vision of social and political life” (Bordo 165). In this essay, I argue that Alita’s body and its construction function as cultural metaphors for idealizing, sexualizing, and objectifying the female body; indeed, Alita’s cyborgian form is a “blueprint” onto which the male gaze projects its fantasies of perverse violence, sexual desire, and patriarchal control. I examine the manga’s visual depictions of Alita’s body, how she is constructed via the male gaze, and finally, how her body operates within male fantasies. My “diagnosis” for Kishiro’s text exposes “a mindset that is thoroughly and insidiously entrenched in the masculine” (Ertung 81), where even Alita’s brief moments of agency and resistance are incapable of achieving a significant shift in the comic’s masculinist construction of gender.
Alita’s character is instantly marked as female—even before we are shown her detached head—by a feminine name, as well as the feminine connotation behind ‘angel’ in the manga’s title. Perhaps the most obvious signifier of gender, however, are the visual representations of her body produced within the manga’s artistry. A notable example in Chapter 1, “Rusty Angel,” features an illustration of Alita with angel wings while positioned on all fours—her thighs and buttocks are filled in as if to represent “skin,” while her torso and arms expose partially constructed metal sinews and joints. Her position is both animalistic as well as sexual, and the nakedness of her bottom half implies the presence of genitalia. The pairing of angel wings with her nakedness also invokes an angel-whore dichotomy—Alita is labeled as a “rusty” angel, associating impurity with her femininity—further soliciting not only sexualization, but also degradation of her figure. The image signals that Alita is not only female in shape, but sexual in nature. Alita’s body is constantly identifiable by her secondary sex characteristics—including breasts and rounded hips—traits that are highly redundant given her robotic nature. By constantly associating femininity with sexuality, the manga exemplifies how “[women] are tied to their bodies in ways that male characters are not” (Cadora 365). Whether through sexually suggestive full-body illustrations or simple sketches of her hourglass silhouette, Alita’s identity becomes inextricably defined by her body and its shape.
In addition to the highly sexualized connotations of the image, the viewing aspect of the manga’s visuality also communicates power—specifically, subordination of the female body. While the reader gazes upon Alita, the downward nature of her own gaze conveys submissiveness, alluding to an unspoken power dynamic in which Alita’s body is nonconsensually watched and admired. In “Straddling the Line: How Female Authors are Pushing the Boundaries of Gender Representation in Japanese Shonen Manga,” Daniel Flis observes how the male gaze operates as a power dynamic in visual representations of female bodies:
[Problems] of gender and power are hardly unique to Japan. Commenting on the sexualisation of women through visual representation in European oil paintings, John Berger stated that “men act and women appear. Men look at women” (1972, 47; emphasis original). In describing the phenomenon of women in Western films being depicted as objects of male pleasure, Laura Mulvey noted that “pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly” (1975, 11). The “active/male” and “passive/female” elements of the male gaze are very common in shōnen manga. Anne Allison describes the male gaze in shōnen manga as containing three elements: “gender (men look, women are looked at), power (lookers are empowered subjects, the looked at are disempowered objects) and sexuality (looking produces one’s own sexual pleasure, being looked at produces another’s sexual pleasure) (Flis 81).
Alita’s downward gaze positions her as the passive female, while the active reader is given non-consensual permission to gaze upon her body. Her sexual position, combined with the deliberate nakedness of her genital area, demonstrates that Alita is “styled accordingly” so that the “male gaze [may project] its fantasy on to the female figure” (Flis 81). The feminine and sexual overtones produced by the presence of angel wings further exposes how the female body is positioned as an aesthetic object for viewing—Alita is thus presented as a “disempowered subject” (Flis 81). The visual and artistic format of the manga genre itself has often been criticized for overtly sexualizing female bodies and encouraging non-consensual viewing; Kishiro’s text is no exception, and “operating in this way, a work that adopts the male gaze can be seen as assisting the perpetuation of hegemonic masculinity” (Flis 78).
The artist’s visual construction of Alita’s body through drawings and illustrations is one of several facets through which the female body is constructed; the male gaze only continues to subvert female agency within the textual narrative of Kishiro’s manga. After discovering Alita’s head in the rubble, Ido ventures to find new parts and cyborg limbs to construct a body for her. Alita is positioned once again as the object being “looked at,” where the “pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female” (Flis 81). On the operating table, Alita remains a passive female as her form is surgically transformed, examined, and adjusted by Ido’s hands. While the male doctor looks, Alita is looked at, consent to which she cannot give in the form of an unresponsive head. As a visually constructed character, Alita’s cyborg body embodies the male gaze within the male author’s art, while the assemblage of her metal limbs by the disgraced cyber-doctor allows the male gaze within the actual plot of the story to build, in a literal sense, Alita’s female body. As a result, Ido creates the ‘perfect’ woman, taking liberty with her feminine characteristics to shape what he imagines a female body should resemble. In essence, the male gaze defines what it means to be female—Ido genders Alita through the contouring and arrangement of feminine features in the creation of her robotic physique. In addition, materially constructing her body functions to gratify his imagination rather than provide true agency for her: “My dream is to make you a thing of beauty, Alita!” (Kishiro 24). Instead of asking Alita what sort of body she would like to have, she is objectified, a “thing” for Ido to make “beautiful” to satisfy his own vision for her body.
The cybernetic operation Ido performs to attach Alita’s head to her body is further problematic. Ido manifests a Frankensteinian image, assuming the god-like role of creator reminiscent of Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein. The freedom of technology offers Ido complete control over the formation of Alita, and he kills other cyborgs to steal their parts in a kind of futuristic grave-robbing to complete the task. His insistence on making Alita “a thing of beauty” (Kishiro 24) also parallels Frankenstein’s perverse obsession with perfecting his creature’s body—in one panel, Ido mutters to himself, “I’ll have you more and more beautiful with each extra part” (Kishiro 14). Ido revels in his role as savior-creator, undertaking Alita’s body as his own special project—she becomes an objectified, mechanical challenge that validates Ido’s own egotistical desire to build a “beautiful” cyborg. His fantasy only serves to expose a fallacy of problematic thinking: by emphasizing beauty as a feminine value, Ido prohibits the cyborg body from being “an emancipatory space where the traditional gender dichotomies are nonexistent” (Ertung 77). Instead, he directly projects feminine stereotypes and male ideals onto Alita’s body. Although a synthetic being, Alita’s body is confined by the same expectations of women within our modern-day society, valued more if they are considered “beautiful” by male standards.
By fulfilling his own Frankensteinian fantasy, Ido exemplifies how the male gaze defines femininity; he demonstrates that “rather than doing away with unequal binarisms, [cyborgs] perpetuate if not aggravate gender inequalities” (Ertung 91). As a construction of the male gaze, Alita not only embodies female stereotypes as envisioned by the male mind, but she becomes a simulacrum for the actual, true woman. In her article “Bodies that [don’t] Matter: Feminist Cyberpunk and Transgressions of Bodily Boundaries,” Ertung cites this concept of simulacrum:
With the invention of the personal computer, the world wide web and the advancements made in the fields of reconstructive and cosmetic surgeries in the last decades of the twentieth century, the traditional boundaries between humans and machines have undergone a radical transformation. Jean Baudrillard, in his article “Simulacra and Simulations,” defines contemporary reality as “an age of the hyperreal” (1988, p. 167). According to Baudrillard, under the postmodern condition characterized by mass communication systems and a consumer society addicted to these systems, the western societies have undergone a precession of simulacra, whereby the simulacrum (simulation) of something real replaces the thing being represented. (Ertung 79)
Ertung’s invocation of Baudrillard’s simulacra in the context of female cyborgs is a crucial way of understanding Alita as a construction of the male gaze. Ido’s obsession with female beauty and bodily perfection demonstrates that her artificially constructed body is “valued over the real; … becoming not merely a copy of the real but…the real itself” (Ertung 79). Alita is no longer truly female, but rather a “hyperreal” creation of Ido’s idealized feminine body. As a simulacrum of what Ido imagines the female body to be, she becomes a “(simulation) of something real [that] replaces the thing being represented” (Ertung 79). Alita’s gender is not real, but a simulacrum, a false construction of femaleness created and perpetuated by the male gaze.
Alita’s identity formation parallels the material construction of her body—for example, even her name is determined by Ido. After Ido builds her limb for limb, he also dictates how he would like her to behave: “I did not dig you out of that heap of junk so that you could throw your life away like this. My dream is to make you a thing of beauty, Alita! And fighting is such an ugly thing… I am completely against you becoming a hunter, and that’s that!” Ido’s blatant objectification—“to make [Alita] a thing of beauty” (Kishiro 24, emphasis mine)—is exposed not only in his desire to design her body, but also to control how she wishes to use it. Alita quickly expresses frustration with the constraints placed on her: “I’m not your dress-up Doll!” (Kishiro 36) she exclaims in one panel when Ido insists she avoid becoming a hunter. Ido eventually relents to Alita’s wishes, and attaches her to the Berserker—a strong, powerful body that better equips Alita to fight. However, this body still maintains the potential to be gendered: “The variable muscle structure means that I can configure it to be male, or female, or anything you want, just by inputting values on the keyboard. No need to be so big and chunky” (Kishiro 96). Once again, the male gaze defines femininity, as Ido “inputs values on the keyboard” to restructure the robotic build into what he considers a female body. He reminds Alita of his reluctance to do so well after the second operation is complete: “It might be uglier than your last body, but this one is fit for a warrior” (Kishiro 102), implying that Alita has less value in an “uglier body” while emphasizing his preference for delicate, feminine features.
Even after she regains some agency over her life choices, Alita’s identity remains confined to the limits of her female body. Although human women are largely absent from Kishiro’s dystopian future, female cyborgs take their place as the victims of gendered violence. Gonzu mentions early on that “[there’s] a serial killer on the loose—and all the sicko’s victims are women” (Kishiro 18), warning Alita to be careful whenever she leaves home. Cyborg women are also unexempted from gendered epithets and insults. Alita’s presence in male spaces is often met with cat calls, such as “Can I help you missy?” or “Why’d you decide to be a hunter, baby?” (Kishiro 34, 39). In a gendered body, Alita is bombarded with gendered language that connotes both condescension and sexualization. When she confronts male characters or beats male opponents, they complain “What’s your problem, bitch?!” (Kishiro 122) or worse, threaten assault: “Listen, I don’t take insults like that from anyone—even a woman. I’ll remove your limbs and leave you out on the street…and maybe you’ll learn a lesson about hunter courtesy” (Kishiro 124). When Alita doesn’t respond the way male characters would like her to, she is met with aggression that often involves destroying her body. Men threaten the removal of her limbs and imagine her bodiless in the street, fantasizing Alita as helpless and disfigured. When the male gaze is threatened, the female body is erased until it no longer affects the male ego.
Alita’s hyperfeminine cyborg physique continues to embody deeply misogynistic fantasies of violence. On page 13, a busty cyborg woman leans against the wall of a back alley. Like Alita, the manga genders the woman before any dialogue is spoken, visually emphasizing female traits through its art. Inhaling from a long, thin, quellazaire-looking cigarette, her arm extends to reveal an intricate pattern embedded within the metal of her elegantly shaped body. Her low-cut top and high-heeled pumps portray the vague suggestion of a prostitute, but before we can learn her name or anything about her identity, she is suddenly and violently beheaded in the next panel. Her death is quickly forgotten, however, as the next page depicts Alita flexing the same intricately designed arms, thanking Ido for giving her the “beautiful” new parts (Kishiro 14). The implications of this scene are extremely problematic. Not only does the text neglect to acknowledge the events that transpired—Alita never finds out, Ido never faces consequences, and we never know the murdered cyborg’s name—but it positions Alita’s body as a product of gendered violence. Ido’s actions are alarmingly reminiscent of sexual assault—he selects his female victim based on her outward appearance, then decapitates and disassembles her body for his own personal use. Alita’s cyborgian build originates in the destruction of another female body.
In addition to being a material product of gendered violence, Alita’s body also functions as an object onto which the male gaze can project its violent desires. Not only do the hunters threaten Alita with disembowelment when her skills intimidate their masculinity, but her nemesis, Makaku, also threatens to physically destroy her. Makaku is already constructed in opposition to Alita by extremely emphasized masculinity—his unnaturally pronounced abdomen muscles and inconceivably large size rivals, in both a literal and figurative sense, Alita’s delicately proportioned feminine frame. Makaku’s perverse masculinity is that much more threatened when defeated by a small female cyborg, and he swears revenge after she wounds him in a fight:
I want you, girl. I must have you. I am unable to ignore the pain of my crushed eye—but I shall not kill you. No! My wish, instead, is to tear your limbs off one-by-one while you still live, and fashion you into a screaming pendant that I shall wear over my chest at all times! I can’t imagine a greater joy than to hear your shrieks and laments every hour of the day! (Kishiro 143)
Like Ido, Makaku also invokes the imagery of rape—he “wants” Alita and “must have her”—in a perverse form of sexualized aggression. Makaku repeatedly fantasizes about tearing “[Alita’s] limbs off one-by-one,” a fantasy that is not only spoken, but enhanced by a visual representation of Alita as said screaming pendent. What is perhaps even more disturbing than Makaku’s violent fantasy is Ido’s reaction to it. He says: “I noticed…something off about the way Makaku acts toward Alita. He appears to be tormenting the weak, but that’s not it! …. Is it possible? Is Makaku… in love with Alita?!” (Kishiro 144). That Ido could possibly associate such intense violence with affection signals an incredibly distorted concept of love, not to mention an alarming tolerance for abuse and toxic masculinity. The visual format of the manga once again functions to satisfy the male gaze, providing an outlet for male fantasies to express visions of violence. The visual representation of torturing Alita validates Makaku’s threatened male ego, bringing to life the destruction he wishes to inflict on her female body.
In this essay, I have established how Alita’s bodily construction within the manga’s artistic representation and Ido’s material operations conform to the male gaze, transforming her into an object onto which male fantasies project their desire to control and destroy. At first glance, Alita’s narrative arc from disembodied head to powerful hunter-warrior suggests that she gains agency through the acquisition of a body. However, as I have shown, her identity and choices continue to operate within the confines of the male gaze even after she becomes a hunter. With the strength of the Berserker, Alita threatens male egos with her feminine presence, faces gendered violence, and remains identifiable by female sex characteristics. Her constructed body reflects a simulacrum, a simulation of femininity designed and adapted to satisfy male standards of beauty. The concept of replacing the real is not so futuristic, however, as Ertung points out in her article:
Anne Balsamo in her article “The Virtual Body in Cyberspace” convincingly argues that both cyberspace and the cyborg often function to recreate traditional identities. She says: If we look to those who are already participating in body reconstruction programs—for instance cosmetic surgery and bodybuilding—we would find that their reconstructed bodies display very traditional gender and race markers of beauty, strength, and sexuality. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that a reconstructed body does not guarantee a reconstructed cultural identity. Nor does “freedom from a body” imply that people will exercise the “freedom to be” any other kind of body than the one they already enjoy or desire (2000, p. 495). (Ertung 82)
Although Alita’s resistance toward Ido’s feminine vision for her body suggests female agency, the male doctor’s reconstruction of the Berserker body indeed “does not guarantee a reconstructed cultural identity” (Ertung 82). As Balsamo and Ertung point out, reconstructions are already replacing reality in the form of cosmetic surgeries and other bodily enhancements. Simulacra are all around us—airbrushed celebrities bombard our television screens with skincare ads, and their photoshopped faces watch us from magazine displays at the grocery store. Reality is replaced with digitally edited female bodies, leaving women to scramble for better skin, bigger curves, and thinner waists to achieve this simulation of perfection.
Deconstructing Alita’s cyborgian body has demonstrated that Battle Angel Alita is not only a missed opportunity to portray a protagonist who transcends gender stereotypes and oppression, but a reinforcement of the sexualization and objectification of the female body. The question is complicated, then, as to how female bodies can disengage from the male gaze, male beauty standards, and violent male fantasies: “How can… women discover themselves when any conception of who they might be has already been decided in advance? How can she speak without becoming the only speaking subject conceivable to man? How can she be active when activity is defined as male?” (Plant 327). Some authors such as Ertung and Flis have argued that female authors of manga and cyberpunk fiction have managed to “[create] spaces where female characters may be represented in new ways” (Flis 94). Yet, while feminist cyberpunk and female authors may be transforming the genre, an overwhelming majority of texts still perpetuate degrading representations of women in comics. As such, the answers to feminist questions are unlikely to be found in Kishiro’s manga, and until female bodies can break free from male constructions, female protagonists will continue to operate and identify themselves under the watchful eye of the male gaze.
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