Gender role critique in ‘Neuromancer’ [short version]


Set in a future that is arguably dystopian and not too far fetched, the representations of power, race and gender within William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) can be seen as a reflection on and critique of the state of those that were current at the time of writing. As LeBlanc (1997:2) points out, ‘cyberpunk, as a genre, it is not only about the near future— it is about our own time.’

Donna Haraway, whose Cyborg Manifesto (1991:2) posited that the ‘cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world’, also claimed that Neuromancer offers a radical critique of current gender roles. In arguing where Gibson is implicitly criticising, accepting or ambivalent in this respect, this essay will examine his representation of men and women and search for underlying bias in the characters’ descriptions and fates and their adherence or subversion of the gender roles assigned them.

Case is a traditional —if unwholesome— [anti-]hero that Gibson wants us to like. Someone who has paid harshly for a mistake, Case’s killing of three people in Chiba is glossed over as part of his downward spiral and not dwelt on. It is in relation to Molly, however, that differences emerge. In a reversal of traditional roles, Case is the passive, non-violent, controlled one, though he has to ‘will himself to passivity’ (p.72) to receive Molly’s simstim sensorium. Despite the contention that Molly is just a vehicle for him (Stockton, 1995), Gibson portrays the power and control as belonging to her.

The few named female characters include Molly, Linda Lee, 3Jane, Marlene, Michèle and (Flanagan, 2000) the Matrix itself. Women are depicted as sexual objects, from the ‘free’ Linda Lee and Molly to the ‘forced’ wives of the sarariman, who are required to wear sackcloth and sport artificial bruises (p.154) and the meat puppets who endure sexual (ab)use, though technology can cancel-out their conscious awareness of it.  Molly’s recollections of her ordeals are possibly a reminder that no matter how they try to fix it, actions such as these always leave a mark somewhere.

Conversely, the reader is meant to like Molly. She is portrayed as good, strong and independent. She is not a sexual trophy for Case, she is his bodyguard. This is a major contravention of the protection and safety role that men traditionally occupied in relation to women. Molly is the one who initiates the first sexual encounter with Case and in another transgression of generally accepted gender roles, it is Molly who leaves Case at the end of the novel.

She would not have the ability to truly break away from the female stereotype, however, without her body’s enhancements. To become a street samurai, a ‘working girl’ (p.41) she first had to be another kind of working girl, a meat puppet, in order to be able to afford the expensive surgery (Cavallaro, 2000). Molly sacrifices and utilizes her body in order to attain the power and status generally afforded only to men. This kind of trade-off had been the norm for decades at the time Gibson was writing.

All of these factors seem to suggest that Molly is a strong new type of woman, however she can be perceived as a cautionary tale, i.e. be like her and become isolated. Therefore, although Gibson seems to be criticising women’s various sexual or abused roles and celebrating their liberation from them, he nonetheless includes a corollary.

Overall, Gibson seems to criticise current roles such as the militaristic macho man and the sexually abused woman and encourages subversion in liked characters, i.e. Molly and Case. However, subversive but unliked characters are punished and as Kamioka notes, even though Gibson ‘hates’ the status quo, ‘his balancing act accepts [it] … as inevitable and unchangeable.’ (Suvin 1991 in Kamioka, 1998:65).

© 2009 Geo S. Willis

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