Transforming Boundaries

Femborgs and History

So who is she anyway, this cyborg queen? From what mythology does she arise?

In Envisioning Cyborg Bodies, Jennifer Gonzales presents this nineteenth century image of the Mistress of Horology and asks: is she trapped by the technology or liberated through it? My answer is: both. Gonzales notes that "Her impled space of agency is tightly circumscribed." Certainly, she can't move about very effectively, but to compensate, she always has time within her control. Of course there will be sacrifices, there will be scars, but we must seek ways to minimize the sacrifices and balance them with adaptive advantages. In this early female cyborg, the balance is clearly a bit of;, she doesn't have a tremendous advantage given the extent of her constriction, and it is not so surprising that a man drew this image.

There is a visual history of connection between woman and machine. Many early machines were highly feminized. Fear of technology was correlated to fear of female sexuality. Feminized robots and female cyborgs could "fuel male illusions of ownership and control over technology and the Other, to compensate for his own loss of control within industrial and information economies."

Yet Frankenstein's monster, often considered one of the earliest cyborgs, is deeply rooted in male identity. And in the 20th century, the majority of popular cyborg images in fiction and film are based on extensions to a male body.


More powerful and independent female cyborgs have been makingmore conspicuous appearances in our visual landscape: in the 70's TV's bionic woman shortly followed the bionic man. In Aliens, the main character Ripley dons this cyborg apparatus for female nurturing role, protecting the child Newt. More recently the powerful Borg Queen made her preimer in Star Trek: First Contact. Star Trek:Voyager's Seven of Nine is a former "borg" learning to reintegrate her humanity.


But femborgs are still largely confined to the world of obscure sci fi or fashion, like the overtly sexual designs by Thierry Mugler. They still take a back seat to their well known male counterparts: the Terminators and Robo Cops. And they still fit rather neatly into what a friend once called "every geek boy's wet dream."

There is still conflict between desire and deep rooted fear of the female cyborg. As Sadie Plant notes: "Masculine identity has everything to lose from this new technics. The sperm count falls as the replicants stir and the meat learns how to learn for itself."

Donna Haraway's "Cyborg Manifesto", and Sadie Plant's "Zeros And Ones" were a call to arms for women to "climb into the belly of the beast". In the 80s their writings empowered a whole generation of cyberfeminists. They helped women reclaim technology and the history of pioneering women technologists, and elucidated on the link between woman->hybrid->cyborg. They warned that technology was NOT solely a male prerogative, but that if we didn't take an active role in shaping it now it would become so in the future.

Donna Haraway, noted for launching cyborg conceptual terrain into the realm of cultural criticism, says that cyborg identity "is about the power to survive not on the basis of innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other."

Technology has long been a male dominated persuasion. Perhaps this is in part because it is often seen as a force with which to conquer nature, which is in itself is such a profoundly feminine, creative force. And yet: humans are creatures of nature, no matter how much our culture has tried to separate us from it, all of our actions and constructions are ultimately a product of nature. This is not a value judgement: nature is neither good nor bad, but it is the rule. You never know, as George Carlin says, perhaps humans are really just nature's way of making plastic.

For many, the metaphoric lesson in Mary Shelly's Frankenstein is that man's drive to conquer nature can produce destructive monsters that can't be controlled. For me, the lesson is: don't let the man produce the monster by himself. When Frankenstein wants to pursue his reanimation experiments to the next level, his wife asks him to walk away from the research. The man just discovered how to cheat death: unlikely he will walk away. Would you? I wouldn't. Why does she not, instead, ask to walk with him, in his journey of discovery? Perhaps together they could have found a point of balance, between the life affirming possibilities of his experiments and the destructive capabilities of its potential.

Transforming Boundaries