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Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women

Author: Anne Balsamo
Publisher: Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 1996
Review Published: March 1999

 REVIEW 1: Andrew Glikman

Cyborgs have long captured the popular imagination. With our most recent images of the cyborg being mere reiterations of male armored bodies like Hollywood's Terminator and RoboCop, cultural criticism has continued its concern with the relationship between bodies and machines. It is from this vantage point that Anne Balsamo interrogates the status of the body in emerging technology. For Balsamo, the conjuncture of bodies and technology represents not only new hopes of "corporeal reconstruction and physical immortality, it also represses and obfuscates our awareness of new strains on and threats to the material body" (2).

While technology may offer liberation and new hope, it also reinscribes the body with norms and disciplines that contain it because it is at the interface of bodies and machines that the boundaries of bodies are being transgressed. Cyborgs in all of their various forms are border cases that, in their acts of transgression (between body/machine, male/female, born/made, etc.), are also made visible as such. They are thus implicated in what Michel Foucault has called "technologies of power" and what Donna Haraway has termed "the informatics of domination." Therefore, in trying to understand the relations of power that are at the nexus of bodies and technology, Balsamo tries to pull together various threads in an effort to create a "thick perception" of the body in crisis and under control. Displeased with Foucault's research on sexuality (a common problem for feminists who appreciate his work on power but are disturbed by the absence of gender as a constituent part of the economies of power he elucidates), Balsamo introduces a new term, "technologies of the gendered body," to capture how material female bodies are discursively constituted in a variety of technologized cultural situations.

Basing her work on various researchers who have investigated how the material female body has been constructed through discourse, Balsamo concerns herself with how deviant bodies are reconstructed, restaged, disciplined, and redeployed. Anyone hoping to find answers to how one can react or resist should look elsewhere; Balsamo offers no escape route. Rather, she provides her readers with insight and criticism about cyborg women as technologies of the gendered body through five major topics: female bodybuilding, cosmetic surgery, reproductive technology, virtual reality, and cyberpunk fiction. In each case, Balsamo's (re)readings of cyborg women challenge the utopian offerings of technology with dystopian realities while concurrently pulling them toward a new utopian. In so doing, Balsamo recognizes the current problems and remaining possibilities to be found at the edges of the machine/body interface.

In examining female bodybuilding, Balsamo attempts to illuminate how "the 'naturally' female body is culturally reconstructed according to dominant codes of femininity and racial identity" (41). Historically situating her analysis of female sport at the point where beliefs about female physiology are articulated to women's athletic performance, Balsamo looks at the ways in which mediated images of female athletes reinscribe strong women into a discourse of inferiority. In such an arrangement, the National Enquirer reports that bodybuilder Tina Plackinger stopped taking steroids because they were turning her into a man. Similarly, Olympic champion Florence Griffith-Joyner was identified primarily for her sexual desirability as an "exotic other" when her fingernails, skin tone, and unusual track outfits received more attention than her sheer speed (she broke time records at the track but magazine reporters preferred to focus on how long it took her to do her nails).

The film Pumping Iron II: The Women, receives the greatest amount of attention from Balsamo. For those who have not seen this documentary, it is a fascinating (if staged) examination of what is considered feminine and athletic in professional female bodybuilding. The film focuses on two competitors, Rachel McLish who represents the positive image of female bodybuilding (muscular but still sexy in a bikini) and Bev Frances who symbolizes the negative aspects of the sport (with her "excessive" musculature and "manly" appearance). Rather than applaud the filmmakers for their attempt to show the complex ways Bev Frances is written out of true femininity, Balsamo chastises them for not paying equal attention to a third contender (and the winner of the competition) Carla Dunlap. Balsamo argues that Carla's victory as a black woman in a filmic world populated by white women is "subversively significant, not with respect to the issue of muscularity versus femininity but with respect to her racial identity" (51). Balsamo concludes that Carla's victory is emblematic of "the film's sexist and racist agenda" (54) since Carla never has her story told while the expected resolution of the film's central gender issue is never offered. It is at this point that Balsamo opts for an easy answer (an "agenda" of the filmmakers) rather than push the boundaries of her own investigation to understand why the issues offered in the film receive no tidy solutions but instead offer new problems (for example, Carla's presence in the film as a secondary narrator and voice of reason seems to indicate that her presence is more meaningful than Balsamo admits). Even so, Balsamo rightly concludes that despite the apparent transgressive and resistant possibilities of female bodybuilding as a site of conscious reshaping of the female body, it is always rearticulated back to dominant paradigms of "natural" beauty and "true" womanhood.

Such is also the case in Balsamo's next chapter on cosmetic surgery. Here, the cosmetic surgeon's medical gaze illustrates the cultural standard of "beauty equals health." As a practice of inscription, plastic surgery involves aesthetic judgment about symmetry and proportion which "literally transforms the material body into a sign of culture" (58). In determining the ideal face, it is the white woman who is preferred to such an extent that other races are often excluded from electing to have the surgery. While the actual application is often along traditional gender and racial lines, Balsamo nonetheless accepts that plastic surgery is "a practice whereby women consciously act to make their bodies mean something . . . women who elect cosmetic surgery could be seen to be using their bodies as vehicles for staging cultural identities" (78).

In her next chapter, "Public Pregnancies," Balsamo describes the maternal body through scientific discourses about pregnancy, the development and application of medical protocols, as well as media and fictional accounts of maternal surveillance. In her analysis, these texts call attention to the relationship between cultural narratives like Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale, and the material conditions of women's lives. When such stories are read in the context of medical practices like laparoscopy, the problematic of women's bodies as a threat to public health emerges as a justification for governing unruly bodies full of drugs like cocaine and diseases like AIDS. Racial divides again demarcate this space so that black women are more likely to be monitored than their caucasian counterparts. Problematically, they are also the women who are least likely to receive needed medical advice.

Of most interest to visitors of the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies may be Balsamo's next two chapters on virtual reality and cyberpunk fiction. Wary of claims that cyberspace elides marks of race, class and gender, she begins with a brief analysis of Mondo 2000 and VR conferences as elements of a subculture formed in and around technology. For Balsamo, Mondo 2000 and the VR conferences -- through their popularization of cyberspace fantasies -- are exemplars of a process through which "cyberpunk is actively engaged in the work of processing cultural meanings" (122). However, in the end, this meaning is not determined by the nostalgic 1960s rhetoric espoused by this segment of the cyberpunk community. Rather, it is a "process whereby technologies are transformed into technological commodities" (122). While conceding that such an ideological critique may be too totalizing, she concludes that VR is nonetheless implicated in a set of meanings that reproduce dominant relations of power.

Many are already familiar with the notion of the body as meat, an encumbrance to fulfilling dreams of life in virtual and cyberspatial worlds. It is this distrust of the body that most interests Balsamo since the subculture of Mondo 2000 and the PR of VR serve as a context for her extended discussion about the biopolitics of virtual bodies. It is here that she again raises the issue of traditional racial and gender markers. For her, what VR really provides is "an illusion of control over reality, nature, and especially over the unruly, gender- and race-marked, essentially mortal body" (127). While it seems as if one can have the body of one's choosing, VR fails to account for the body one already has. In her final chapter of criticism, "Feminism for the Incurably Informed," it is this virtual body through which Balsamo reads cyberpunk science fiction. In a reading of Pat Cadigan's Synners, she offers a scheme to differentiate between the masculinist tendency toward discorporation through technology as opposed to the efforts of feminists to incorporate and integrate technology with their bodies.

While Balsamo's final analysis is far from revolutionary, and while many of her observations may seem dated (for example, contemporary female bodybuilders are electing for breast augmentation -- a connection between issues not foreseen by Balsamo), she nonetheless provides an informative look at the cultural implications and gender trappings we all face when confronted with emergent technology. Anyone interested in an introduction to such issues would do well to read Balsamo's work.

Andrew Glikman:
Andrew Glikman is a doctoral student in the Department of Speech Communication at the University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on the historical, cultural, and rhetorical dimensions of science and technology with a growing interest in the ways scientific narratives constitute mechanisms for governing and controlling populations. 

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