Gibson Girls of Cyberpunk

In my first year of teaching Freshman Comp at a local Boston college, I taught a class that I designed myself called “Virtual Realities, Virtual Bodies: Technology and Identity.” Students were asked to examine the evolving role of technology vis-à-vis human and gendered identity. Truth be told, I molded this entire class around one book: William Gibson’s Neuromancer.

Neuromancer is the story of Case, a cyber “cowboy” who, at the beginning of the novel, has been robbed of his ability to jack in and out of cyberspace. Self destructive and suicidal, he is offered a chance to regain his cowboy status if he helps some shady elements procure an artificial intelligence. Eventually, Case comes to realize that instead of controlling and manipulating technology, he is in fact the one being controlled and manipulated by this AI, Neuromancer (the term, if broken down into its components “neuro,” meaning nerves, and “mancer,” meaning magician, hence “nerve magician”).

Neuromancer possesses an interesting conglomeration of women within its pages. There is Linda Lee, the drug addict ex-girlfriend who betrays Case, is murdered (perhaps as punishment for betraying the male lead?) only to return later as a construct within the world of Neuromancer as a means of enticing Case to stay and forget his quest. In this sense, Linda Lee is the temptress of the novel even though she does not perform a single sex act. She is the one being that ties Case to “earth,” yet she is also an enabling and destructive force in his life.

And then there is 3Jane, which appears to be some sort of clone that runs the Tessier-Ashpool complex where Neuromancer was “conceived”-and I use that word literally and figuratively here. Neuromancer, as the AI itself reveals, was first thought up and then made real by Ashpool and his wife. While Ashpool seems to have wanted to store this technology until such a time when he could control it and use it to his advantage, the original Jane nurtured its sense of independence and individuality. She continued to create and manipulate programs for it until it because the free thinking, and perhaps even free feeling being, that puppetmasters all actions of the other characters. Jane, and her subsequent replications, take on the role of nurturer and mother, albeit a dangerous one. Best not mess with Momma’s kittens or she’ll send her pet Ninja after you.

Lastly there is the original Razorgirl, Molly. Part bodyguard, part babysitter, Molly is sent to make sure that Case stays on track and completes his mission. Molly is more machine than woman-she no longer has eyes but ocular implants, razors where her fingernails should be, etc.-and is perhaps the most sexualized of all the characters. At one instance, for example, the reader learns that Molly prostituted herself to fund her enhancements. Her pimp found out about the modifications she was making/had made to her body and, drugging Molly, “sells” Molly to Johns interested in S&M. She is, essentially, raped repeatedly. Molly, however, finds out, and infuriated by the double-crossing of her pimp, kills him. What is interesting to note, is that when she reveals this to Case, she does not get emotional. Rather, she expresses a wry sense of “he done me bad” in terms of a deal gone south: she agreed to prostitute herself for a cut of the profit. The pimp had simply cheated her of money and therefore must pay.

Molly symbolizes, for Case, as a “cowboy,” is already in love with technology, a sort of physical embodiment of his true love. When his nervous system is destroyed, he responds to the literal severing of the connection between him and his love (cybersapce) with a Romeo-esque despondency. Yet, along comes Molly, all walking sex with the added bonus of technological enhancements. Case can’t wait to get his *ahem* mitts on her. Gibson could have let Molly remain in the “helpmate” role, yet he doesn’t. When any action takes place in the novel, it is through Molly’s body that it is accomplished. Granted, it is ultimately Case, wired into cyberspace and hacking into mainframes, that calls the shots, but it is Molly who is physically strong and capable. Without her, Case’s mission would (and does) unravel and fall apart. Literally, time and time again Molly pulls Cases’ proverbial ass out of the fire. Case is the weak and passive “female” character, Molly the strong and active “male” character. It is not until Molly becomes physical incapacitated that Case is forced into action, and even then he is forced to act not because his mission (and thus himself) is on the brink of failing, but because he woman that he has convinced himself he loves is in danger. While this is a gendered trope older than time (princess is imprisoned by evil queen, prince must save her), it is still interesting to note that Case potentially gives up the one thing he thought would make him whole-his ability to jack into cyberspace-for a woman.

Gibson could’ve ended this novel in two ways, one being “happily ever after with Molly and Case skipping off into a hazy digital sunset. Yet, he chooses not to. In the end, Molly skips out of town, leaving Case behind her without so much as a “thank you, kind sir, for rescuing this fair damsel.” It is a “guy” move, and Case (again) is left in the female role, feeling rejected and neglected.

The Gibson Girl, though she may be a wicked temptress, an over protective momma cat, or a razor wielding geisha-cum-samurai girl, is not an entity to be messed with.


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