Gender role critique in ‘Neuromancer’ [full 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. The conclusion will concur with Haraway.

There are almost twice as many male as female characters in Neuromancer. Men such as The Finn, Riviera, Hideo and Julius Deane are strong, self-sufficient and powerful individuals within their fields and, even posthumously, Dixie/Flatline also has great prestige. These characters all reaffirm such gender traits for men and seem to offer no criticism of them. Armitage, however, is a character that personifies the brittle, false nature of the excessively macho. His brusque, military efficiency is a distillation of masculine aspirations, yet hollow and vulnerable to collapse if he loses touch with what is grounding him, as his death shows. Armitage’s character critiques the pack-based societal roles found in military or pseudo-military groupings and also shows a major male character being used and discarded, a role usually reserved for women.

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.

Linda Lee is weaker character that Gibson seems ambivalent about. She is Case’s drug and sex partner, but portrayed as distant and as communicating verbally with Case as a man would, e.g. ‘good buddy’ (p.16). She is a girl forced to adopt masculine mannerisms to fit into Case’s crowd, but who ultimately typifies the passive, needy and untrustworthy partner. She lives very much in the moment, fails to see the outcomes of her actions and doesn’t take responsibility for herself, much like Case, though his talent saves him from a similar end. In this way Gibson may be making the point that many of these negative traits are found in both genders.

Lady 3Jane is another character who is subversive of traditional female roles.  She has unconventional sexual tastes, is a scheming psychopath (and patricide) and controls a number of men around her. It could also be said, however, that she has chosen the same effective and masculine path out of the gender trap as Michele, the Turing Cop. She is not a character that the reader is inclined to look upon favourably and is perhaps the clearest example of a critique of this course of action.

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, because past experience has taught her that ‘business partners who become lovers tend to get killed’ (Yaszek, 2008:207), contrary to the 1980s standard of the man leaving the female, e.g. Face in The A-Team (Fiske, 2003). It is Molly who physically faces danger during the final mission. The fact that she ultimately requires rescuing is contradicted by the fact she tells Case she ‘never much expected to make it out of [the Straylight run] anyway’ (p.226)

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.

Late twentieth century fiction had conventions for gender, for example, transgressive females are ostracised or punished (Klinger, 2006). Gibson kills off Linda Lee and Michele, ruins 3Jane’s family and isolates Molly — though she doesn’t seem to care— and all of these women have adopted some form of masculine role. One thing that most of the surviving characters to have in common is a sense of loyalty and decency. They look after their own. This is perhaps the ‘moral’ behind the story — male or female, the minute you betray or use those around you, you forfeit their help. In a dangerous world such as the one he has portrayed this is often fatal.

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).

He offers some hope, however, in showing that through the possibilities of cybernetic augmentation, boundaries are eroding. At the top things are ossified, but at the bottom there is room for change. Just as Chiba is held up as a lawless zone that allows dangerous but profitable technology to be rapidly evolved away from stifling corporate oversight, so the best examples of gender role-breaking are shown to come from similar areas.  Alongside technological hyper-evolution we see societal hyper-evolution. In this Gibson is perhaps highlighting that there is a bright side to the relentlessly grim life his characters are trapped within – they are free to transcend or side-step the fixed gender roles of the upper classes as they become perceived more in terms of what they do (Flanagan & Booth, 2002) than who they are.

© 2009 Geo. S. Willis


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Klinger, K. (2006) The Art Film, Affect and the Female Viewer: The Piano Revisited, Screen, vol. 41, No. 1., Oxford,  Oxford University Press. Available from: Accessed 23rd March 2010.

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Stockton, S. (1995) The Self Regained: Cyberpunk’s Retreat to the Imperium, Contemporary Literature, vol. 36, No. 4. University of Wisconsin Press. Available from: Accessed  20th March 2010.

Yaszek, L. (2008) Galactic Suburbia: Recovering Women’s Science Fiction, The Ohio State University Press. Available from: 18th March 2010.

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