An Examination of Cyborg Gender Construction

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The relationship between humans and technology has long been characterized by angst. With friction between innovators, adopters, and laggards, technology has always provided mediums through which humans have separated and defined themselves. Cultural values, lifestyles, and even identity have become characterized by peoples’ use of technology. Regis Debray, the theorist who developed mediology, asserts, "Just as there can be no cultural transmission without technological means, so there can be no purely technological transmission" (The Mediums Two Bodies). In this way, humans’ use of technology is shaped by a broader cultural narrative.

In this paper I will examine the implications of cyborg gender construction through a mediological lens. I will begin by providing a theoretical framework and background for understanding gender construction and identity politics. Moving forward, I will discuss body augmenting technologies and their possible implications to gender identity. Once I have outlined the nature of fictive and actual body augmenting technology I will define ‘cyborg’ such that the term can be applied to real and imagined characters in this paper. Upon detailing the meaning of ‘cyborg’, I will critically examine why society has not embraced technology to break through the man/woman gender binary. I will then detail the mediological underpinnings of the visual and narrative cultures surrounding real and imagined cyborgs. Additionally, I will discuss Donna Haraway’s argument regarding the value of technology in feminist initiatives to overcome societal patriarchy. I will conclude this paper by reviewing the cultural narratives shaping cyborgs, as well as the capacity for cyborgs to shape culture.

Gender Identity Construction

The construction of one’s gender identity is not a matter of mere biology. Gender may or may not correspond with sex, and identity may or may not hinge on gender and sexuality. Historically speaking, humans have used science and the arts to justify and define the gender binary of “feminine” and “masculine”. Primatologists have studied the habits of our closest living species relatives, the apes, to understand the societal organization of males and females (sex), and thus men and women (human gender). Psychologists have elaborately defined “normal” and “abnormal” many times over with regards to femininity, masculinity, and corresponding sexualities. Artists have created extravagant frameworks through which to view the binary between masculinity and femininity. And of course, thought leaders of the religious persuasion and otherwise have assertively communicated the roles of men and women in society. The contextual cues detailing how humans should look, act – even feel, have been circulating throughout cultures for thousands of years.

According to essentialism, there are certain biological truths or certainties pertaining to the differences between men and women. In her book The Female Brain, Dr. Louann Brizendine argues, “Every brain begins as a female brain. It only becomes male eight weeks after conception, when excess testosterone shrinks the communications center, reduces the hearing cortex, and makes the part of the brain that processes sex twice as large” (, 2011[1] ). Herbert Henry Goddard, an American eugenicist in the early 1900s, believed women had the innate feminine power of intuition. Accordingly, he took a group of female “intuitives” to Ellis Island to spot “morons” and send them back to wherever they came, essentially to stymie the heritability of low intelligence in America (The Intuitive: Coming Soon, 2011[2] ). Other scientists have argued that women are inherently passive and domestically inclined while men are aggressive and ambitious (You Are a Cyborg, 2004).

Within Western culture, art seems to have paralleled the sciences’ persistence in maintaining differentiated, well-defined ideals of the masculine and feminine figure. Sculptures from Greek and Roman antiquity have been immortalized by Western culture as quintessentially beautiful in regards to their facial and bodily structures. Women appear moderately fleshy and curvy with wavy hair and slender noses. Men appear muscular and angular with wavy hair and slender noses. Imagery within paintings, photography, and film have consistently reflected these standards of masculine and feminine beauty ever since. 

Christianity has established much of the dominant framework from which individuals learn their expected societal roles. Elaborate panels of stained glass, sculptures, and the Bible – hand scribed and later printed en masse – have served as the dominant means of religious transmission for Western society for hundreds of years. The Christian story of humans’ genesis features Adam, a man made in the image of god himself, and Eve, a woman made from Adam’s rib in order to keep him company. In the New Testament, the Virgin Mary, Jesus’ mother, embodies the perfect Christian woman. As her name suggests, she is chaste, and moreover, she is depicted as humble, loving mother. Characters such as Adam, Eve, and the Virgin Mary provide the dominate narratives which instruct how men and women (for those are the only two gender identities recognized in Christianity) should carry themselves in society.

Recent feminist and scientific theories have fiercely criticized essentialist ideology, arguing that human biology and gender have a vastly more complex relationship than the traditional expression of women as feminine and men as masculine. Feminist non-essentialist theory argues that the feminine/masculine binary was not born from science or divinity, but rather culture (Cyborg Manifesto, 1985). The persistent idea of women as domestic, passive creatures, intuitives, and communicators, and of men as ambitious, unemotional sex mongers leaves much of the human experience wanting. Donna Haraway asserts, “Feminist accountability requires a knowledge tuned to resonance, not to dichotomy. Gender is a field of structured and restructuring difference, where the tones of extreme localization, of intimately personal and individualized body, vibrate in the same field with global high-tension emissions” (The Persistence of Vision, p.682). Studying gender ideals within a given culture requires a keen eye to the evolution of the social, idealogical network in which individuals partake.

Cyborg Technology

While the Bible and and Ancient Greek sculptures continue to provide Western gender characters – which is to say, a combination of physicality and narrative – technology has developed in such a way that individuals are theoretically in a strong position to break free of these traditional gender roles. Humans’ relationship with technology has become so close over the past century that boundaries are beginning to blur. Yet, even with the development of revolutionary technologies, gender roles have retained much of their traditional significance. Anne Balsamo notes:

As is often the case when seemingly stable boundaries (human/artificial, life/death, nature/culture) are displaced by technological innovation, other boundaries are more vigilantly guarded. Indeed, the gendered boundary between male and female is one order that remains heavily guarded despite new technologized ways to write the physical body in the flesh. (On the Cutting Edge, p.686)

Just as Balsamo suggests, body correcting and enhancing technologies tend to reinforce, rather than supersede, gender characteristics. Technologically augmented humans become more “equally” man or woman, as is the case with reconstructive surgeries after mastectomy, and often more than human, as is the case with body-perfecting cosmetic surgeries.

While technology has not been used to challenge the gender binary in Western culture, it certainly is defining a new genre of organism: the cyborg. The term ‘cyborg’ was dubbed in 1960 by Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan Kline “for the exogenously extended organizational complex functioning as an integrated homeostatic system unconsciously” (Clynes & Kline, 1960[3] ). More plainly stated, a cyborg represents an organic creature that has been modified with nonorganic, technological features. This paper will focus on human/machine cyborgs, though there is really no limit to the type of animal that may be technologically modified. Wired Magazine highlights ten examples of real world cyborgs. Among them are a monkey feeding itself with a robotic arm, a cockroach piloting a robotic vehicle, and humans playing digitized ping pong with their brainwaves (Top 10 Cyborg Videos, 2009). Not surprisingly, real world cyborgs retain much of their non-machine identity. Within fictional genres, however, the term ‘cyborg’ often becomes the dominant signifier. Moreover, the boundaries between organic and inorganic assume much more imaginative manifestations. Characters retain much of their outward human appearance, but there is no limit to their technologically advanced interiors. Some narratives, like the Terminator, use ‘cyborg’ to apply to human-like robots, while other narratives, such as Ghost in the Shell, use ‘cyborg’ to refer to a human/machine hybrid. For the sake of this paper, the term ‘cyborg’ will refer to a being that appears and acts human and is at least one part non-organic technology.

Unlike other descriptors for human-like beings, such as gods and goddesses, the term cyborg remains entirely gender neutral. No qualifying ‘ess’ need be tacked onto the end of it. Yet for all the freedom the title affords, cyborg qualities remain dutifully attached to the rigidity of the man/woman gender binary. Popular culture seems to dictate that a robot may be androgynous, but a cyborg must be gendered. Moreover, a cyborg must be ultra-gendered. Cyborg men must up hyper-masculinized and cyborg women must be hyper-feminized.

As Anne Balsamo suggests, “gender remains a naturalized point of human identity” (On The Cutting Edge, p.686). While robots are mere machines, cyborgs are part human, which entails that they must express the qualities that set humans apart from non-organic machinery. Furthermore, cyborgs must express most of the qualities that set humans apart from other organic creatures. In a fictional capacity, cyborgs possess curves, muscles, and skeletal structures to make even the Greek gods and goddesses envious. Mentally, fictional cyborgs must possess superhuman intellect, computational skills and awareness.
Cyborg representation in The Terminator
Cyborg representation in The Terminator

Cyborg representation in Battlestar Galactica
Cyborg representation in Battlestar Galactica

Psychologically, however, fictional cyborgs are often found lacking in humanity. Just like the Velveteen Rabbit, Pinocchio, and the Little Mermaid, many fictional cyborg characters yearn to be “real”. Realness, in this sense hinges less upon gender, and more upon feeling love, being mortal, and having a soul. Andrew, the cyborg from the film Bicentennial Man (1999), spends much of his “life” actualizing his desire to become a human. His form becomes clothed, and later skinned, and still later, equipped with the sensory and functional capacity to partake in such activities as eating food and having sex. The film ends happily, with Andrew dying next to the woman he loves.

Similarly, the cyborgs in Blade Runner, seek to obtain a longer life and overcome their manufactured expiration date of four years. When Roy, one of the cyborgs, meets his maker and requests a longer life, his maker merely marvels at the technical ingenuity Roy represents in his current form. In an apparent reference to the Christian idea of life, death, and afterlife, Roy admits he has done “questionable things”, but “nothing the god of biomechanics wouldn’t let you into heaven for” (Blade Runner, 1982)[4] . The film ends with the “retirement” of two rogue cyborgs and the expiration of Roy, the third rogue cyborg. Given their human form, “retirement” and expiration look identical to murder and death, respectively.

In Ghost in the Shell (2004), the main character, a cyborg woman named Motoko Kusanagi seeks to understand her human essence. As the film title alludes, Kusanagi has a (highly advanced) machine body and human “ghost” interior. Human brain cells are the only organic part of her being. Mysteriously, some cyborgs are discovered without a single human brain cell, yet they carry themselves as if they had a “ghost”. Kusanagi seeks the Puppet Master, who she suspects has some connection with the ghostless cyborg hacks. Upon finding the Puppet Master, Kusanagi learns that the internal entity is Project 2501. The movie ends with Kusanagi and Project 2501 technologically connecting whilst their shells are destroyed. The recovered ghost is a combination of Kusanagi and Project 2501, and this entity is housed in a female child shell. To use terminology typically reserved for organic creatures, Kusanagi and Project 2501 procreate.

The films mentioned above suggest that fictional cyborgs depart somewhat from gendered narratives. Cyborg men and women are both depicted as comparably intelligent, able bodied, and sexually desirable. Furthermore, cyborg men and women are equally subject to existential crises. Perhaps as Balsamo suggests, “‘Looking good’ connotes greater intelligence, competence, and desirability as a colleague” (On the Cutting Edge, p.691). Their overstated beauty may signify their technologically advanced abilities. However, their exteriors take on superficial importance in the overall plots. Good looks and intellect will not give these cyborgs what they’re looking for: humanity.

Cyborgs in Reality

Real human cyborgs, conversely, already enjoy full humanity. Artificial limbs, buoyant breast implants, UV blocking contact lenses, or pacemakers have yet to make anyone immortal, or for that matter, deny anyone from participating in the myth of the “soul”. The ordering of relationships is clear: humans may be augmented by machines, but machines may not be augmented by humans. Real cyborgs, which are first and foremost human, are locked into an elaborate cultural history. Likewise, their technologized bodies – regardless of how hi-tech or modern – are deeply embedded in culture.

Un-technologized humans all share an organic point of conception, development, growth, and decay – assuming, of course, they live to old age. The technologized human, conversely, may be developed in a test tube or high-tech incubator. Their growth and maturity may be marked by biotechnologies and surgical implants. In today’s world, Donna Hathaway asserts, "Any objects or persons can reasonably be thought of in terms of disassembly and reassembly; no 'natural' architectures constrain the system design" (Cyborg Manifesto, p.301). Moreover, Haraway says, "The cyborg is a kind of disassembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self" (Cyborg Manifesto, p.302).

Indeed, the manual engineering of the cyborg body parts, and the collective cyborg body, provide a new framework through which to understand human identity and gender within culture. Who is making the decisions on what needs to be modified, fixed, enhanced, or taken away? What are the aesthetic standards for technological enhancements? What are the functional standards for technological enhancements? Anne Balsamo states, “Like the techniques that enable scientists to encode and read genetic structures, [new] visualization technologies transform the material body into the visual medium” (On the Cutting Edge, p.685). In the famous words of Marshall McCluhan, “the medium is the message”. Or, the visually technologized human body functions as the mode of cultural expression as well as the actual expression. With regards to cosmetic surgeries and the female body, Anne Balsamo notes:

In examining the visualization technologies... we can witness the process whereby new biotechnologies are articulated with traditional and ideological beliefs about gender – an articulation that keeps the female body positioned as a privileged object of a normative gaze that is now not simply a medicalized gaze (‘the clinical eye’), but also a technologized view. (On the Cutting Edge, p.687)

According to Balsamo, just as human women are the primary “objects of the gaze”, so too are cyborg women. This is certainly true for women (and men) who undergo cosmetic surgery with beauty and fashion in mind. However, not all cyborgs are products of cosmetic modification.

With this in mind, perhaps Balsamo’s statement can be expanded upon to account for the broader spectrum of technological enhancements. Both women and men, for example, undergo reconstructive surgeries to restore their identities after certain cancerous removals. Breast implants and testicular implants are common surgeries for women and men, respectively. Likewise, facial reconstructive surgeries emphasize identity restoration. The utilized technologies are carefully engineered to achieve maximum realness in terms of look and feel. Balsamo highlights that a number of plastic surgeons – who perform both cosmetic and reconstructive surgeries – study art history to better understand classical standards of beauty (On the Cutting Edge, p.688). In Western cultures, ancient Greek standards of beauty are directly emulated by surgeons for women as well as men.

Do the biomedical engineers who create technology gaze upon the human body in the same way as the surgeons who install the technology? Do technologized humans look to model ancient Greek beauty ideals of femininity and masculinity? Some external biotechnologies are much less specialized in terms of their realness, which immediately removes them from traditional, organic human standards of beauty. Gender identity and beauty standards are so often bedfellows, possibly due to their mutual connection to sexual expression and orientation. Perhaps beauty standards follow sexual expression as form follows function (Sullivan, 1896). The general rule of thumb for biomedical technologies: body parts traditionally key to gender identity maximize realness; body parts that are not key to gender expression have limited realness and maximized functionality. Likewise, internal biotechnologies focus purely on functionality. Regardless of which body parts are disassembled and technologically reassembled, real human cyborgs value gender identifiers for their aesthetics, and non-gender identifiers for their performative capacity.

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Cyborg Potential

With this set of values in mind, could our culture evolve in such a way that traditionally non-gendered parts of the human body can be co-opted by cyborg technology to break through the traditional man/woman gender binary? In the Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway states, “Cyborg writing is about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other" (Cyborg Manifesto, p.311). Certainly the strong polarity between feminine and masculine does not account for much in the “middle”. Furthermore, and more accurately, human identity cannot be captured on a linear binary scale. Gender expression and human identity may be affected by peoples’ sexual orientation, ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status, education, and so on. Interconnected nodes in a social complex network would be a much more accurate lens of analysis for understanding gender identity. Because of this, the technologization of human bodies – the creation (rather than birth) of cyborgs – provides an interesting opportunity to re-think the mediums of of cultural identity and communication. Cyborgs, according to Haraway, have the potential to liberate us from the often oppressive, and at the very least restrictive, traditional gender binary.

Whether cyborgs exist in the realm of reality, fiction, or theory, our capacity to select what and how to enhance on the human body has the potential to send reverberations across connecting cultural mediums. Haraway ruminates on the re-appropriation of vision when she writes, “Vision in the technological feast becomes unregulated gluttony; all perspective gives way to infinitely mobile vision, which no longer seems just mythically about the god-trick of seeing everything from nowhere, but to have put the myth into ordinary practice” (The Persistence of Vision, p.678). The discussion of vision technology empowers people to imagine and rethink the eyeball as well as the cultural gaze. Haraway writes:

Histories of science may be powerfully told as histories of technologies. These technologies are ways of life, social orders, practices of visualization. Technologies are skilled practices. How to see? Where to see from? What limits to vision? What to see for? Whom to see with? Who gets to have more than one point of view? Who gets blinkered? Who wears blinkers? Who interprets the visual field? What other sensory powers do we wish to cultivate besides vision? (The Persistence of Vision, p.681)

As we can see here, in a broader context, designing cyborgs facilitates the discussion of what qualities empower people, how these qualities empower people, and who may have access to the technology that enhances these qualities for people. If enough people in society gain access to certain cyborg technology a societal power shift could occur. Perhaps if women gained access to certain cyborg technology, the patriarchal structure reinforced by Christianity for so long would topple.


If Donna Haraway is correct, cyborgs have the capacity to inspire and realize a societal restructuring that frees us from the feminine/masculine gender binary. Yet, for the most part we continue to use cyborgs in fictional and real narratives that tend to reinforce culturally traditional ideology. Why aren’t we using cyborgs in a more innovative capacity? Perhaps one reason we haven’t ensconced into this technologically and culturally revolutionary territory hinges on the restrictions and availability of current technology. Perhaps, also, the functionality real cyborg technology offers hasn’t become culturally important enough to influence our ideals and standards regarding gender expression and beauty, and thus the greater organization of our social network.

Donna Haraway positions her dream within the context of our cultural network when she writes:

This is a dream not of a common language, but of a powerful heteroglossia. It is an imagination of a feminist speaking in tongues to strike fear into the circuits of supersavers of the new right. It means both building and destroying machines, identities, categories, relationships, space stories. Though both are bound in the spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess. (Cyborg Manifesto, p.316)

Yet in Haraway’s bold proclamation she seems to suggest a heteroglossia that can be controlled and selected by feminist cyborgs, rather than culturally inherited. She further articulates her prioritization of the individual’s power and control when she suggests abolishing standards of physicality and societal roles in favor of unique needs. Individuals within the Western cultural network would cluster together based on affinities rather than their conformity or rebellion from Christian notions of good/bad and natural/unnatural.

Regis Debray states, "No tradition has come about without being an invention or recirculation of expressive marks or gestures. No movement idea has occurred that did not imply the corresponding movement of human bodies, whether pilgrims, merchants, settlers, soldiers and ambassadors” (The Mediums Two Bodies, p.2). Accordingly, cyborgs too are the direct result of cultural mediums of communication and human expression. Thus, cyborgs exist within a culturally inherited (rather than controlled) context. The success of their cultural embrace in the future hinges upon their relevance within culture now. The diffusion of innovation[5] that may occur as a result of their technology being adapted may well influence future traditions – lifestyles, value systems, and human/machine identities.

Could new forms become beautiful to us because their underlying functions become important to us? With the breast-less Amazonian women in mind, could we evolve to value new or different functionality as a culture? Could we design and implement any given functionality we chose? Quite often intended or designed functionality doesn’t reflect actual functionality. A wall may be designed as an opaque barrier, but a wall is often used to hang art or provide accent color[6] . In other words, a designer can control a concept, but not the cultural embrace of the resulting product. Will Donna Haraway’s imagining of a radical cyborg gender revolution come to pass? Almost certainly not. Can cyborgs effect our culture? Yes, cyborgs can – and will – effect our culture, but not in a capacity that we can control or fully predict.

Works Cited

50 Posts about Cyborgs moderated by Tim Maly, 2010

Balsamo, Anne. “On the Cutting Edge: Cosmetic surgery and the technological production of the gendered body,” in The Visual Culture Reader (New York; Routledge, 1998), p.685-695

Blade Runner. Dir. Ridley Scott. Warner Bros, 1982. Film

Bicentennial Man. Dir. Chris Columbus. Touchstone, 1999. Film

Corona, Laurel. “The Intuitive: Coming Soon,” on (2011)

Ghost in the Shell. Dir. Mamoru Oshii. Manga Enterntainment, 1995. Film

Haraway, Donna. "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York; Routledge, 1991), pp.149-181.

Haraway, Donna. “The Persistence of Vision,” in The Visual Culture Reader (New York; Routledge, 1998), p.677-684

Kunzru, Hari. “You are a Cyborg,” in Wired Magazine (2004)

Rogers, Everett. Diffusion of Innovation, 5th Edition Free Press (New York; Free Press, 2003)

Rowe, Aaron. “Top 10 Cyborg Videos,” in Wired Magazine (2009)

The Female Brain: Book Review,” in (2011)

Further Reading

Dieterich, Leah. “Dear Breast,” in Thxthxthx: a thank you note a day (2011)

Evans, Ruth. “Surviving in an Alien Environment: Human + Christ as Medieval Natural-Born Cyborg,” in Quiet Babylon (2010)

Haraway, Donna. Companion Species Manifesto. (Chicago; Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003)

Kelly, Keven. “Kate Moss Suffers from Roborexia,” in io9: We Come From the Future (2008)

Raven, Paul. “One hundred years of cyborg solitude,” in Futerismic: Near-future science fiction and fact since 2001 (2010)

Rees, Alex. “H&M’s New Lingerie Models are Computer-Generated,” in New York Magazine (2011)
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  5. ^ Rogers, Everett. (2010). Diffusion of Innovation, 5th Edition. Free Press.
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