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Battle Angel Alita and Cyborg Feminism

2010 November 2
by Sarah Jackson
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.
Scanned page section from Battle Angel Alita Vol 6, copyright Yukito Kushiro 1996 (reproduced under fair dealings review exemption)

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.

Genderfun

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.
Scanned page section of Battle Angel Alita Vol 6, copyright Yukito Kushiro 1996 (reproduced under fair dealings review exemption)

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.

Cyborg Feminism

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.
3 Responses leave one →
  1. November 2, 2010

    I was pleasantly surprised to see this article! I have been a fan of Alita since I was about 15 (I’m fast approaching 30!). The books are simply brilliant. You have done a great job of explaining why here so I’m not gonna wax lyrical on it. I would only add that one of the things that made me love Alita was the fact that she also has “negative” qualities to her. She is a fully-rounded character. She is arrogant, quick to anger and supremely over-confident as well as compassionate, brave and kind.

    I’m gonna end up dragging these comics out of a box to re-read tonight!

  2. Stephen B permalink
    November 2, 2010

    Yay, cyborgs! I have so much time for Motoko Kusanagi, the female-shaped cyborg from “Ghost in the Shell” (especially the tv series, which is extremely nuanced and challenging in places). I say ‘female-shaped’ because she’s the one who has gone furthest into the machine side of things in that story, and even the doll body she wears can be unexpressive a lot of the time – not bothering to look at people when speaking, often showing no expression.

    There’s a scene where she’s hiding in a cupboard with a (only slighly cyborg) man who is in love with her, and even after watching many hours of the series up to that point you *genuinely can’t tell what she is thinking*. As always, she stands there unreadable, apparently completely untouched by his proximity.

    Part of it is the allure of the unknowable or mystery woman, sure. But it’s a great example of how cyborgs can transcend gender, by making the outer shape and previous body chemistry totally unrelated to the sum total of who they are now.

    I’ve seen the anime of Battle Angel Alita, but the manga looks as though it covers deeper issues (I found the opposite to be true with Ghost in the Shell, where the tv series asks very profoud questions on identity in a much more accessible way). Can’t wait to see what Cameron makes of it, but I think you might be right about it him turning it into Kick-ass chicks with nice CGI backgrounds…

  3. ken permalink
    December 22, 2010

    Cyborg feminism, strong female lead character…

    Now we know why Hollywood refused to make the big-screen adaption of this manga.

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