Nov 23 2011

Of Leather Wasps and the Inevitable Sex Component: Cyberpunk Heroines in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Other Fiction

""){ ?> By Sasha Mitchell


“Damaged, cyberpunk heroine”, “bisexual cyberpunk avenger”, “horny, cyberpunk hacker”… these are your Google results for Lisbeth + Salander + Cyberpunk, as featured in film reviews courtesy of Movieline, Telegraph, and the increasingly horny and irrelevant Rolling Stone (not a fan of the latter, sue me.)

But I am a fan of la protagonista cyberpunk, that bad ass mutha hacktivist/erotic dynamo, who wields her personal traumas as revolutionary fuel rather than continue breast-feeding a chauvinistic society by posing her pierceless, inkless, and character-bereft/Barbie body type (typically while naked but for elongated reptiles or butchered mammalian follicles) so that the dominant gender of the world might beat off before buying whatever alcoholic beverage the Kardashians are pimping and illegally squander finances that don’t belong to them.

Curiously, only a handful of non-film review, Googleable commentary make the connection that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s Lisbeth Salander is cyberpunk.  So what is a cyberpunk exactly?  Those of you who frequent Acceler8or or have partied with RU would know this already, but another search of ye ol’ engines will find you transhumanism virgins the following definitions:

*  “…hackers, rockers, and other cultural rebels, clinging to a cult of individualism in a culture characterized by corporate control and mass conformity. [Those] adept at appropriating the materials of popular culture and making them speak to alternative needs and interests… [who] also know how to tap into the vast digital database to access information about corporations and their secret conspiracies, or to spread resistant messages despite powerful mechanisms of top-down control.”  

* “…marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life [is]  impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body.”  

*  “[individuals that are] manipulated, placed in situations where they have little or no choice… anti-heroes who call to mind the private eye of detective novels. This emphasis on the misfits and the malcontents is the “punk” component of cyberpunk.”

*  “[those who embrace and express the] “dark” ideas about human nature, technology and their respective combination in the near future.”  (This particular site goes on to clarify that: “Clearly, Cyberpunk is not an exact concept. Its meanings vary.”)

So from this we might conclude, a cyberpunk is something of a morphable, hacktivist samurai, enhanced by metal for cosmetic effect and/or simply to exist as more efficacious meat in a world controlled by abusive, self-interested CEO’s.  Not entirely dissimilar to the world we already inhabit.  How lurid indeed.

Fortunately, cyberpunks embrace the lurid —  Lisbeth Salander, in particular, with her dark clothing, dark past, and dark hair (though she’s a natural ginger). Her creator, Stieg Larsson, describes Lisbeth as a 24 year old woman with the stunted body of a primal adolescent, who nonetheless moves with the focused speed of a tarantula and who can successfully integrate amongst neurotypicals when necessary.  I could remark on his further description of her as “Asian-looking” as being redundant to having said she resembles a perpetual teenager, but that might make me sound like the racist I sometimes am.

Is it cyberpunk to be racist?  It certainly isn’t progressive.  But neither, necessarily, are the topical projections for a cyberpunk heroine.  An image search for “cyberpunk” will get ‘cha this.  Note, if you will, how many topless, pantsless, or pigtailed schoolgirls you see here.  Of course, Hollywood reckons the concept of cyberpunk be safe enough for middle America (i.e., Trinity from the mutedly palatable Matrix and whoever-the-hell Olivia Wilde played in Disney’s Tron).  Yes, per the little boys running film studios and the other ones coding visuals of steel-enhanced flesh, you’d think all a cyberpunkess offers is an asymmetrical haircut, hard-on promotion, and novel alleys for fashion marketing.

But Lisbeth Salander (in the book, at least) doesn’t stop there- she demands societal accountability.  That’s why Larsson wrote the Millennium series (under the original title: “Men Who Hate Women”), to avenge the rape of a 15 year old girl witnessed in his youth.  Similarly, our protagonist Lisbeth Salander suffered abuse first by her father, then a host of other paternal figures.  Does she really need to be sexualized to the extent aspiring graphic novelists and Hollywood illustrators would have her be?  Will that reclaim the power taken from her by those who only (mis)valued her sexuality to begin with?

Now, the future should definitely be sexy; but it would have to be so through greater individual morphological tolerance, not just fancies of lady robots touching each other, or a uniform of long black trenches with slits up to Lady Gaga’s much-debated vagina.  Which brings me to the unavoidable comparisons between Lisbeth Salander and formative cyberpunk heroine: Molly Millions.

Both Stieg Larsson’s and William Gibson’s progeny work in security, prefer their coffee black, and enjoy sex at their initiation.  Both also have a sense of humor about their often-leather clothing:  Millions sporting cherry red cowboy boots with Mexican silver tips; Salander opting for t-shirts featuring ET and slogans like “Armageddon was yesterday – today we have a serious problem.”  And while Lisbeth isn’t modified for sealed eye sockets with computerized tickers and retractable scalpel blades, she was born to purpose.  Though disparate to Millions, who Gibson writes was born to “tussle” (“guess it’s just the way I’m wired,” Molly explains), Salander was born wired for photographic memory.

Yes, both were also employed as subordinate meatpuppets (albeit, Lisbeth not necessarily electively so).  It’s no wonder the cyberpunkess would employ sex for empowerment, but it’s so much more than being “deadly” and “hot”, as Gibson himself admitted (on tweets, apparently… perhaps the douchiest soap box since douche soap… boxes).  But even if Neuromancer was “the first time we had encountered a woman who was primarily a weapon,”  that’s all he saw Molly as, right?  Fortunately, Larsson didn’t limit Salander as such.  He wasn’t inspired by men in his birthing of Lisbeth, like Gibson seemed to be in how he modeled Molly after Bruce Lee and Clint Eastwood.  No, Lisbeth is something fascinating all her own — actually, most like a combination of Millions and Gibson’s Neuromancer hacker protagonist, Case.

So why build characters by just swapping gender roles?  Why not define new genders, where no one’s the weaker because it’s anatomically dickless.  Anything else is luddism, I say — particularly the lingering view of women as legal prey.  And even if luddism is innate (which I’ve sort of already proved by my Asian jab), surely it will be eradicated during enhancement, and rightly so.

Screw labels, Salander effectively communicates.  And so I arrive at this:

* Gibson said it in a short story somewhere.  “Cyberpunk is the stuff that has EDGE written all over it… Now ask me how I’d define EDGE.  Well, EDGE is not about definitions.  To the contrary, things so well known that they provide an exact definition can’t be EDGE.  They probably once were but now they aint.  SO DON’T TRY TO DEFINE IT!!!”

I reckon my cyberpunkess personality would first be modified to maintain a chemical serenity equal to that which occurs prior to falling asleep… which for anxious little me, is unfailingly when I achieve uptmost clarity (and prowess) of being.  I don’t personally care for leather (the wearing of it at least), but I’d probably consider some defensive augmentations, like maybe a kind of concentrated ocular laser that causes the assholes a female unavoidably encounters when walking just about anywhere in human view to suffer acute epididymal hypertension should they voice unsolicited vulgarities.

For further reading on “Formidable Female Protagonists in Science Fiction by Decade” 

  • By Jack, November 26, 2011 @ 11:13 pm

    I did a Google Image search just now for “cyberpunk” (with SafeSearch off) and discovered a disappointing scarcity of topless pictures associated with that term.

  • By sasha, November 27, 2011 @ 9:45 am

    really? because i counted 9 on the first results page via the link provided in the middle of my article.

    my point is: why should cyberpunk be synonymous with inordinately sexified females? or males for that matter? if you wanna side with a naked future, perhaps you should helm that movement and give it a name. i, personally, do not ascribe that to be definitely cyberbunk. safe and fun sexuality free from bureaucratic cynicism, sure. soft porn for the sake of hard-up boys, bollocks.

  • By Ommz, November 28, 2011 @ 5:25 am

    I also do not see these images to which you refer in Google images. Maybe one or two fit the description you gave, vaguely, at a stretch…

  • By Daen de Leon, November 28, 2011 @ 11:26 am

    Lisbeth reminded me of some women I had known in Denmark: goth, intelligent, and angry. Angry at the assumption that they were placed there solely as eye candy for the men; that they had to fight for equality; that they suffered abuse and weren’t taken seriously when they reported it. What Larsson highlighted, and what made such an impact in the Scandinavian countries, is that while those societies are much more egalitarian than others, they are not Utopian; abuses still exist, and there is still much distance left to run before men and women can truly be said to be equal.

  • By Dennis Crow, November 29, 2011 @ 5:42 pm

    You can achieve that sparkly twilight state of consciousness, often with a mildly pleasurable electric vibrating flow sensation, by learning to regulate your breathing at a rate designed to decrease your normal blood % CO2. It can take a bit of practice to get right.

  • By Carla, December 2, 2011 @ 1:55 am

    Maybe you accidentally Googled “cybergeisha” because I didn’t see anything like what you described either.

    So…..your point is that “cyberpunk” has become overly sexualized? Um……you waited until now to bring this up? This would have been relevant maybe in, say, 1994.

  • By sasha, December 2, 2011 @ 10:42 am

    my point is that lisbeth salander is cyberpunk, a point not necessarily broadcasted definitively elsewhere. it is relevant considering the american movie version will be hitting theaters in a few weeks. which is the year 2011.

    and im sorry you guys are ocularly disabled, cause i see a fair share of flesh through the link i provided.

    carla, take your midol.

  • By ENKI-][, December 15, 2011 @ 1:16 pm

    NB: the ranking in all google searches depends upon geographic location, previous search history, and a lot of other stuff. Every machine, user, and location combination will get very different results for the same set of search terms, so a variance in toplessness can be attributed to the accidents of the ranking algorithms.

    Back on topic: cyberpunk is, at it’s core, punk. Punk is typically sexually transgressive for the same reason it’s socially transgressive. On the other hand, a certain amount cannot be read into Gibson’s intent in creating Molly. Johnny Mnemonic, where Molly was introduced, was fairly strongly focused upon Johnny: Molly was a plot device moreso than a character. Then, Neuromancer (where she returned) was, according to Gibson, just intended as an update to the classic caper film designed to fit into the style of his earlier short stories. We can write lengthy essays about how Molly shows attributes X and Y because the author is a heterosexual male, etc., but we cannot attribute intent to Gibson other than that which he has expressed (and I suspect that we cannot necessarily even trust that).

    As a character, Molly was crafted as a weapon. But, so was Case. So was Armitage. The effectiveness of these social weapons (which act upon society the way Jacques Vallee claims UFOs probably intend to do) is demonstrated by the existence of all three types as archetypes now. The Matrix has our Molly, and our Armitage (Morpheus begins as a strong enigmatic figure but does progressively break down, demonstrating that his facade of faith hides a mental house of cards — perhaps even intentionally!). I might claim even that Neo is a Case character, not solely in his role but in his (somewhat downplayed) loserdom. Case was at his core an intentionally weak character (and while the author of the above post associates this with femininity, I will not). Much like Shinji Ikari (the OTHER archetype of hero-as-sad-damaged-loser), he is passively dragged from a life of quiet squalor and self-destruction into a life of loud squalor and self-destruction. Neo fits this perfectly, in a way that cannot be said of the Jesus associations tacked on later (wherein Keanu Reeves fails to channel Paul Muad’dib). It’s a fundamentally punk trinity wherein attributes are inverted: the man who is strong and sure is actually merely mad, the hero is passive and unsure but sensible enough to be suspicious, and the love interest is capricious and damaged but strong and clever.

    I will not attribute the Molly archetype’s popularity merely to sex appeal. She is actually the most reasonable and empathetic of the group. She may be emotionally damaged, but she is taking the initiative to improve her life while the others are either passively accepting orders (Case) or acting as a talking head for some greater manipulator (Armitage).

    So, sure, Molly is represented as boyish. On one level, that’s necessary to the plot. On another level, that’s necessary in order to demonstrate that Neuromancer is not another buxom-girls-in-tinfoil scifi novel or another buxom-girls-in-red-dresses noir. In Girl with the Dragon Tattoo it appears to be intended as a shout-out to the original conception of Molly (of course, in films the Molly archetypes are nevertheless almost invariably and impractically buxom, the only indicators of a divergence from standard hollywood representations of femininity being a tendency toward short hair and pants — and this is also the case with the Swedish film adaptation of the novel, though I cannot say anything of the American remake of this Swedish adaptation since I have not seen it). If there’s one thing we can say about Molly is that in any incarnation she did not conform fully to accepted gender roles, and that a fully ‘feminine’ Molly feels wrong (such as in Underworld, which took the style but not the content of the Matrix and was as a result even more lacking).

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