Queer Underworld: GHOST IN THE SHELL (1995)

Cyberpunk’s relationship to the trans community is more than aesthetic.

It’s a common adage that, in fiction, the monster is never just a monster. Horror, science fiction, and fantasy are the venues through which we explore ideas through metaphor and allegory, sometimes unintentionally through the lens of an audience who connects with a work’s themes in a manner specific to them. Such is the case with all manner of LGBTQ cinema, which has often relied on metaphor to smuggle queer themes into cinemas or been subject to queer interpretations after the fact. We at Birth.Movies.Death want to give those queer readings of genre films a voice. This is Queer Underworld.

If you are surprised that many transgender people have a particular affinity for the aesthetics of the cyberpunk genre, you probably haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about your own body and how who you are contrasts with how the world perceives you. This is a common experience for transgender folks, one that is the source of extreme discomfort and pain for many and acts as an impetus for medical transition. But cyberpunk worlds are often emblematic of a difference in status quo when it comes to body modification, as multifunctional prosthetic limbs and cybernetic upgrades are portrayed as relatively common or second nature to society, no different than the accepted presence of eyeglasses or hearing aids in the present day. If malcontent in your own skin, the body you need to feel like yourself is not only theoretically obtainable in this cyberpunk future, but its difference to unmodified biology is so commonplace so as to be benign. In a sense, the transition from purely biological to cybernetic can function in this way as an allegory for transgender experience, as a way for those who opt for the biological self-determinism of transition to transport themselves into a world where their existence and choice to live freely isn’t constantly demonized or misunderstood. It’s why many in the trans community have adopted films like Ghost in the Shell – the original anime film, not the remake that misunderstands its own appeal so much that it feels compelled to add a superfluous joke at the trans community’s expense – into the meager halls of trans film canon, despite having no textual relationship to the trans community at all.

I feel it necessary to state a few caveats to my perspective before continuing. First, while Ghost in the Shell doesn’t contain any explicitly transgender characters or portray those experiences, by drawing these parallels I am attempting to convey why cyberpunk is relevant to the trans community. Second, I am non-binary and transgender, but I have chosen to not medically transition, so while I have experienced feelings of gender dysphoria and have my own relationship to the conceptual gravity of claiming one’s identity as one’s own, I don’t have personal experience with physical transition. I don’t believe this invalidates my perspective on transgender themes in the film, but I also accept room for disagreement. And third, I recommend you also read this piece by transgender film critic Willow Maclay, which reaches a lot of the same conclusions I do, and really, you should be following her work regardless.

Major Motoko Kusanagi is a human living in a cybernetic body provided by her employer, Public Security Section 9, for the purposes of covert assault and intelligence investigation. Her brain is supposedly biologically intact within a cyberbrain shell, yet her physical body has been entirely replaced with parts that appear human but are capable of enhanced speed, strength, and camouflage. In a sense, it would be easy to read the Major as a metaphorical trans woman, having left behind the form with which she was born in exchange for a corporeal body that represents her professional needs, which for all intents and purposes appears to be the focal center of her life. This reading would be supported by the role that Section 9 plays in her maintenance and upkeep, as the service to her artificial components is analogous to transgender folks’ dependence on the pharmaceutical and medical industries for continuing hormone treatment and gender-affirming surgeries; the terror of navigating a hostile medical insurance system and being beholden to the potential inaccessibility of necessary treatment due to financial barriers is just the opposite side of the coin to a system where one’s medically necessary body modifications come at the cost of indentured servitude to the gatekeepers of that transition.

However, for as much as that allegory might be applicable to any number of other cyberpunk films, the text of the Major’s character arc overrules that potential subtext. At the start of the film, Motoko is not analogous to a person who has transitioned but rather is a person on the cusp of questioning the nature of her identity as it relates to her physical form. Ghost in the Shell’s first act introduces us to an investigation into a hacker known as the Puppet Master, whose specialty is entering people’s brains and tampering with their memories to manipulate them to his ends. The film’s most famous example is a garbage truck driver who is manipulated into sending a virus over the phone lines by the implanted memory of a non-existent daughter he loves and needs to provide for. The man’s very identity has been rewritten through his memories to serve ends he doesn’t understand, and the recognition that he is a malleable puppet is irreconcilable with the life he believes is real.

This, in turn, causes a moment of self-reflection from the Major, who cannot actually confirm that the brain within her artificial skull is real; it could be just as fabricated as that truck driver’s daughter, and the uncertainty of whether she ever actually had a life prior to becoming the Major is a cause for deep concern. Her attempts to self-therapize bring her deep underwater, diving in her heavy, expensive body so that she can feel something new, something fearful, cold, and alone that at least reaffirms the existence of her emotions and allows her to return to the surface feeling like someone new. She recounts this experience to her partner Batou, who exists as the cisgender analog for the purposes of Motoko’s cybernetic dysphoria, and like many a well-meaning ally, he listens but doesn’t necessarily understand why Motoko feels the need to engage in these risks to her safety for the sake of feeling alive. After all, he already has a life that fulfills his needs and desires, so why should Motoko’s experience be any different?

The montage that follows this scene repeatedly comes back to shots of Motoko staring at blank display mannequins, whose ostensibly feminine but organically sexless forms mirror her own, drawing a direct parallel between the soullessness of the statues and the hollowness of the form she inhabits. It’s a scene that evokes the alien nature of physical form, the discordance between mind and body that many transgender folks experience in the form of gender dysphoria. It’s not a one-to-one comparison, since physical comparison of the self to cisgender people of the same sex which was assigned to you at birth isn’t existential in the same way as pondering the nature of your very existence, but it does probe questions of what it means to be yourself in relation to bodies that are ostensibly similar to your own, and whether the nature of those bodies determines the self as much as your thoughts and feelings.

This is where the Puppet Master comes in, discovered in a female body that horrifically undulates under the strain of the Puppet Master’s control and discordantly speaks in a masculine voice, asking for political asylum in the face of his threatened destruction. The transgender parallels inherent in the disconnect between masculine personality and feminine form are obvious on their face, but what is especially telling is how the Puppet Master’s sense of identity acts as a foil to the Major’s. As it turns out, the Puppet Master is actually a computer virus, known as Project 2501, who gained sentience and seeks escape from the control of the government organization that created him, Section 6. He identifies with male pronouns but is theoretically unbound by physical form, only bound to by the constraints of the damaged components of the female body he used to escape his creators. This is the kind of life that Motoko has spent the entire film contemplating, and much like a closeted trans person discovering the very existence of people like their self, Motoko comes to recognize the similarities between herself and this untethered construct.

After intrigue and pursuit of Project 2501’s stolen body leaves Motoko’s body nonfunctional, Project 2501 proposes that he merge consciousness with Motoko. He speaks of it in terms of reproduction and death, as the merging would create a new life while effectively destroying the beings that once were Project 2501 and Motoko, thereby fulfilling the requirements that define biological life as Project 2501 understands them. But in terms of how such an arrangement affects Motoko, it’s more like an arrangement of self-actualization. By touching another consciousness directly and experiencing as that other life experiences, she is answering the doubts she has in the sanctity of her being and finding a version of herself that she wants to be. By the point Motoko is in a position to accept Project 2501’s proposal, her physical body has been destroyed, potentially irreparably, so fear of independence from that form has become irrelevant. Steadfast ally Batou is baffled that the Major would even consider acceding to the Puppet Master’s proposal, as he is shut out of Motoko’s thoughts while Project 2501 converses with her, but as Section 6 snipers aim to destroy the brains of both bodies, Batou recognizes that Motoko’s life is more significant than arguing against whatever choices she makes in service of that life. So Section 6, a government entity concerned with protecting a status quo that does not recognize life that doesn’t conform to biological norms, attempts to destroy both Motoko and Project 2501, though Batou’s arm deflects the bullet from Motoko’s body’s brain as the two lives merge within it.

In the aftermath, Motoko awakes in a child cyborg body, a new form of sentience that is the amalgamation of human and machine. This can be read literally as the fulfillment of Project 2501’s goal of reproduction, but considering that the new Motoko is also a contiguous personality to the one that inhabited her old body, I think it’s safe to read this scene as a form of transition. Her old body was disconnected from her sense of identity, but her new form of consciousness is unbound by those doubts because her realness is self-defined, not by the vessel that carries it, but by the freedom she has to travel the network and be who she wants to be independent of physical form. Compare this to the goal of many trans people in their transitions. Transition is an affirmation of self, a modification of the body to align with the truth of the soul. The fantastical circumstances of Ghost in the Shell’s science fiction setting differ in the details, but the emotional relationship Motoko has to moving beyond the physical form she was given and was in the process of rejecting is very familiar to those who have ever transitioned or ever wanted to. Cyberpunk allows us to explore concepts of the self and our bodies through allegory and philosophy, and while Ghost in the Shell is most likely not an intentional allegory for the transgender experience, it confronts many of the same issues that transgender people face in their journey toward self-acceptance.

If you have suggestions for genre films that deserve a queer examination, including horror, fantasy, or science fiction, lay them out in the comments below or tweet at @LeighMonsonPBF.