Everyone has a favourite cyborg, right? Well mine is Alita, from Yukito Kushiro’s manga series Battle Angel Alita
. She is a strong female character in both senses of the word: strong because she’s brave, independent, tough, smart and compassionate, but also in the enjoyable ‘I-can-punch-your-head-off’ way.
What’s the story?
The series is set in a 26th century dystopia, and revolves around the city of Scrapyard, grown up around a massive heap of rubbish that rains down from Tiphares, a mysterious city floating above. ‘Surface dwellers’ are barred from Tiphares, and must make lives for themselves amid the scrap. Alita is found in the garbage heap by cybernetics doctor and part-time bounty hunter Daisuke Ido, who rebuilds her body and takes care of her. She remembers nothing about who she was or how she came to be in the Scrapyard, but she does discover a talent for killing which leads her to join Ido as a bounty hunter. The story continues over nine volumes as Alita attempts to rediscover her past and struggles to reconcile her identity as girl and killer, human and machine, individual and soldier.
Copyright Yukito Kushiro, 1996
So far, so Nineties. So why am I writing about Battle Angel Alita
now? Well, because James Cameron
is about to start making a live action/CGI film adaption of it and I want AS MANY PEOPLE AS POSSIBLE to read it before that happens. While there’s a lot to love in Cameron’s films, I am concerned he’s going to turn an intelligent, philosophical and political story about identity into Hot Robot Chick (With A Heart Of Gold) Kicks Ass In The Future.
First of all, Alita is no balloon-breasted manga stereotype – while she does have an unnaturally ‘perfect’ body and is beautiful in a childlike way, she is very rarely drawn in an overtly sexual style, and spends most of her time fully clothed, often in a trenchcoat and suitably stompy boots.
Secondly, though tiny and feminine (at times, anyway) she is supremely strong, still a powerful cultural dream in a world where violence against women is epidemic. Refreshingly she rarely relies on guns, instead using a cyborg martial art – sidestepping the ‘bigger than yours’ approach to women kicking ass.
Thirdly, the series further departs from convention with a powerful female protagonist that a) never uses her beauty, sexuality or other feminine wiles to get the upper hand and b) is never raped or nearly raped or avenging somebody else’s rape.
That said, the series does explore issues around bodily integrity, control over the boundaries of the self and the intimate operations of power, and there is a definite gendered aspect to this. For example, at one point troubled genius and desert DJ (yes, DJ – it’s complicated…) Kaos saves Alita’s life by repairing her body and she wakes up naked on an operating table with his hand inside her.
I’m not saying that Battle Angel Alita is a feminist work, or that it will be everyone’s cup of tea – it is extraordinarily violent, for one thing. For another it is inescapably problematic that Alita derives her physical strength from mechanical bodies created or enhanced by men – Ido, Kaos and mad scientist Desty Nova. Nonetheless, when the chips are down she is often saved by her resourcefulness and her connections with others.
Yes, I know she has a gun in this one. She just doesn't use them *all the time*, ok? Copyright Yukito Kushiro 1996
In the last few books her key relationships are with women – her Tipharean ‘operator’ Lou and 13 year old professional gambler Kokomi. At the start Lou is everything Alita isn’t – silly, chatty, timid – but she is inspired to a tremendous act of rebellion to save her friend’s life. Kokomi is also inspired by Alita, and though they end up fighting on different sides she is similarly independent, brave and rebellious.
Another thing I love about Alita is that although she is a powerful and inspiring female character there is nothing maternal about her impulse to protect others. Her power is not rooted in her female identity because her ‘femaleness’ is superficial. And in my opinion the real triumph is that she is not like a man either. She has masculine and feminine qualities, but neither is she purely androgynous.
Whether or not Alita fits the bill as a feminist hero, cyborgs and feminism go way back. In 1985 Donna Haraway
wrote her ironic Cyborg Manifesto
, which pointed a way forward for feminism which didn’t rely on the artificial unity of ‘femaleness’:
There is nothing about teeing ‘female’ that naturally binds women. There is not even such a state as ‘being’ female, itself a highly complex category constructed in contested sexual scientific discourses and other social practices. Gender, race, or class consciousness is an achievement forced on us by the terrible historical experience of the contradictory social realities of patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism.
The cyborg is an interesting political metaphor for Haraway, allowing for the possibility of connection but resisting the reductive tendencies of identity politics. ’Woman’ (like ‘Black’ or ‘disabled’ or ‘working class’) is never a whole identity but a partial one – individual identities are made of myriad aspects and intersecting experiences, part natural-biological and part social-cultural construct. Haraway sees a way through this old problem of collective action by suggesting a cyborg feminism which finds its common ground in a desire to resist and subvert a patriarchal system and not in a shared female identity.
Haraway famously concludes her Manifesto with the words “I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess.” I have nothing against goddesses (on the contrary, they rawk) but linking women’s power to nature or to their bodies is a dangerous game.
Alita is radically free from biological determinism in the way that only a cyborg can be. Every part of her is completely remade or regenerated in the course of the series, only her consciousness remains continuous. She is not her body, she is not even her brain. Alita is her memories and her relationships, her actions and her choices.