Written by: Andrew McGee Professional video editor and independent filmmaker with a passion for all things sci-fi.
‘Cyberpunk’, a subgenre of science-fiction, is generally described as ‘high tech, low-life’; it conjures up images of bustling neon-lit streets deep in corporate-ruled megacities, with violence, drugs, and shifty characters around every rain-soaked corner. Thematically, it explores futuristic ideas of bodily augmentations, artificial intelligence, and what it means to be human, all against a backdrop of extreme social inequality. Classic examples include Blade Runner (1982) and Ghost in the Shell (1995), as well as William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer (1984). (Side note: I’m directing an exciting short cyberpunk film and we’ve launched a Kickstarter to make it happen, you can find out more at the end of the article — I’d really appreciate your support!) It’s an iconic vision of the future many of us love to engross ourselves in, with ideas that continue to resonate, and we’ve become familiar with the style and all it encompasses. With the hype around the upcoming video game Cyberpunk 2077, and the aesthetic even creeping into films like Detective Pikachu (2019), cyberpunk is more present than ever. It’s even common these days to see it, somewhat ironically, in advertising — it could be said that the ‘punk’ element has been lost somewhat along the way.
As forward-looking as cyberpunk might be, it’s a future steeped in the past; its seedy urban streets, hard-boiled detectives, and bleak world view are all rooted in Film Noir, a staple of cinema in the 40s and 50s. As a result, what we understand as ‘cyberpunk’ has remained rather static in the last forty years, and one of the biggest consequences of that is its representation of women. (Please note that I’ll be looking at on-screen cyberpunk, as there are far more diverse voices in literature, not to mention many more stories — cyberpunk’s expensive to create on screen but obviously not on the page.) A lot of cyberpunk media still depicts women primarily as prostitutes and strippers to be viewed or used by male characters, or as supplementary characters who are defined by masculine traits or high-tech weaponry; objectified women are part of the aesthetic, and the genre has become fetishised. Just look up any cyberpunk art pages on Instagram and you’ll see hundreds of semi-naked, cybernetically modified women in sexy poses.
Altered Carbon (2018) fares pretty well with its strong female leads, yet aside from the usual brothel shootings and cyber-strip clubs, it also features dozens of mutilated bodies, most of them being young women. The concept of bodies as disposable and replaceable doesn’t quite justify this emphasis on casual and frequent brutal violence against women, and distracts from the show’s stronger qualities. One narrative strand sees Lizzie, a prostitute whose accidental pregnancy is forcibly aborted when she’s almost beaten to death, tortured and driven mad in VR. When she’s ‘cured’ and brought back in another body, Lizzie goes on a bad guy killing spree, dressed in a latex BDSM costume against a soft rock soundtrack. The message of subverting sexualised violence on the men who abused her is obvious, but the passive ‘coolness’ of the scene doesn’t sit right against the reality of her suffering. Overall, the series stops short of really tackling any issues of gender, and with all the body-swapping, you think there’d also be some exploration of transgenderism. If cyberpunk is an extension of the worst of our society, that of course includes its intrinsic sexism and misogyny. Yet that aspect of it is rarely interrogated in any meaningful way, and beyond that, it’s rare to simply see a story told in these worlds with a female protagonist. For a genre so interested in the body and to what extent it defines our identity, there’s a real lack of actual exploration about physical form in terms of gender and sexuality. Although a recent film such as Blade Runner 2049 (my favourite film of that year) generated debate as to whether it considered gender in a complex or simply sexist way, it nevertheless did so via a male perspective.
I was really looking forward to Love, Death & Robots (2019), a major sci-fi anthology series recently released on Netflix. Every episode features stunning animation in a variety of styles, and there are a few real stand-out stories. But it has a real problem with women, which is most obvious in the episode The Witness.
Although perhaps the most visually incredible episode, this story involving a woman fleeing from a murder is awfully gratuitous. The protagonist loses her clothes over the course of the chase, which is interrupted by a surreal narrative-stopping scene at the brothel she works in, while the camera takes an extremely indulgent and violating view of her body, aligning us more with the male pursuer. The extended sequence of her stripping performance until she’s entirely naked is relentlessly aggressive in its voyeuristic camera angles, quick-cut editing, and strobing lights, while the pursuer remains fully clothed and enjoying his time with a couple of latex-clad women.
There’s certainly potential for trippy sci-fi sex scenes and stories about sex-workers, but The Witness is simply degrading with nothing to say, removing itself as far as possible from aligning with its protagonist’s perspective. It’s a shame, since the art style really is spectacular. Good Hunting seems to be trying more earnestly for a feminist angle, with a story about mystical, beautiful creatures being misunderstood and exploited by fearful men. There’s a lot of folklore and mythology behind wolf and cat-people, which the story could have subverted in a way similar to Angela Carter’s short stories. But ultimately we follow Liang, the male character’s perspective, while Yan, the wolf/woman/cyberwolfwoman, remains largely passive throughout. She’s deconstructed and reconstructed by evil men, then once again reconstructed by a kind man, which enables her to hunt other evil men. Again, the lingering camera doesn’t do it any favours, with an odd emphasis on her breasts and bottom as she’s being reconstructed. Even in these potentially empowering moments, we’re still made to focus on her sexuality. She’s losing her humanity, but not her sexiness. It certainly doesn’t help that the anthology is overwhelmingly directed and written by men (an industry-wide issue directly tied to representation across the board), but here’s hoping Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s involvement in Season 2 will lead to stories that are more than just visually compelling.
Elsewhere in cyberpunk cinema, Tron: Legacy (2010) and The Fifth Element (1997) both fall into the ‘born sexy yesterday’ trope with its female characters, while Blade Runner has its issues — Deckard essentially rapes Rachel, no matter what the sexy saxophones or subtext say. In terms of more recent blockbusters, Alita: Battle Angel (2019) does allow us to share the likeable titular character’s perspective of her new world and evolving body. But despite being a largely romantic coming of age story with a heavy emphasis on physicality, there’s a peculiar absence of sexuality. It’s more interested in bodily upgrades with awesome weaponry and maybe that’s for the best, but the substantial amount of time spent on the sexless teenage romance falls flat anyway. Duncan Jones’ Mute (2018) leans heavily into the noir side of things, and like Altered Carbon, it’s all there — the strippers and prostitutes blending into the neon background, and romantic interest Naahdirah acting only as a vessel to motivate lead character Leo. In her very limited screen time, she’s sexually harassed so Leo assaults the harasser, they later have sex, it’s later revealed she worked as a prostitute, and eventually her asphyxiated corpse turns up which makes Leo sad. You can see the problem. There’s also very little in the story that actually necessitates a cyberpunk world, except that Noir films can’t be made these days without being a parody, and so sci-fi becomes a default stand-in for the tropes. The result is absolute style over substance.
Ready Player One (2018) does have something to say about our physical bodies in contrast to how we choose to be perceived virtually, but that angle is diffused in a laughable bad scene. In a shocking reveal, our hero Wade meets Artemis, the girl he’s falling in love with in the virtual world of the Oasis. She’s warned him that he’ll be disappointed to see her in real life, and it turns out the beautiful girl he meets online is in reality… a beautiful girl with a bit of a birthmark on her face. But the whole thing plays out as if she’s Two Face from Batman. There’s probably something to say about the live-action Ghost in the Shell (2017) but I can’t be bothered to sit through it again (cool trailer though). The original anime certainly has plenty to analyse, although that’s a whole article in itself. Ultimately, the representation of women in cyberpunk falls short of what we should expect from a genre as supposedly progressive as sci-fi. It seems like a missed opportunity to look at the existential and personal implications of a robotic body, or robots designed for sex, rather than simply using it to indulge a male gaze in a cool-looking setting. There’s so much to be explored about sexuality and gender while reflecting current sensibilities and issues, which is what sci-fi does best; what about the increasing visibility and discussions around the transgender community for instance (and being trans is pretty cyberpunk in itself).
Or let’s just see more female protagonists. Women-led sci-fi films have recently been paving the way for fascinating stories with films like Arrival (2016) and Annihilation (2018), as well as stories exploring gender and sex in ways no other genre can like Ex Machina (2014) and Under the Skin (2013). With the strides current media is making in representation, especially in science-fiction, cyberpunk is falling behind when it should be at the forefront. Now for the plug! As a filmmaker with a love of sci-fi and cyberpunk (despite the few thousand words above), I’ll actually be directing a short cyberpunk film interrogating everything discussed, called Venus. It’s a story about identity and objectification in a dark future with a progressive take on gender, in which a young woman is uploaded into a body designed for sex and violence. I’ve co-written Venus with my writing partner Tara Shehata, and it’s being produced by Claudia Kaleta. Cyberpunk isn’t the cheapest of genres to bring to life, so if you’d like to see more progressive live-action cyberpunk stories, with plenty of the action and atmosphere we love, then please do consider backing it on our all-or-nothing Kickstarter! We’d be incredibly grateful for any support, and for less than the cost of a cinema ticket you’ll receive the completed film along with other bonuses, while supporting independent filmmakers and original sci-fi storytelling. You can find out more on our Kickstarter campaign page, which ends very soon on June 27th.