Science Fiction is distinguished by the narrative dominance of a fictional novelty validated by cognitive logic” (Suvin, 1979, p. 63 Darko Suvin (1979), Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre
This article is a look at how science fiction fails to match up to the strides modern media has made in terms of feminism and race representation. Part I of the article deals with sexism, part 2 will tackle racism, and part 3 examines both in light of the Ghost in the Shell franchise. Ghost in the Shell has been around since 1989. It is a cultural phenomenon with visuals that are now iconic, thrown into relief by foregrounded philosophical themes, culminating in a lasting impact on the cyberpunk aesthetic. It started from a manga, was turned into an anime, and most recently starred Scarlett Johanson in a Hollywood remake. However, its inherent narrative quality also overshadows its flaws in terms of racism and sexism, exemplary of the wider problems in science fiction.
When you think of female characters in Science Fiction, Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor probably pop right up. Because of how iconic Aliens and the Terminator Franchise happen to be, and how powerful their female leads, these two characters overshadow the prevalent problems in the larger arena of science fiction. The statistical truth remains that women in science fiction media are rarely fleshed out characters in their own right. They are often relegated to sidekicks, love interests, and feminist tokenism.
A challenge to correcting these problems is that the science fiction genre has a lot of exceptionally intelligent world-building, visual design and storytelling. So social-justice based criticisms of science fiction are met with derision. It seems like nitpicking at masterpieces . However, the audience and authors for science fiction have historically been men. 4 out of 37 science fiction grandmasters are women, reflecting the largely male authorship. This in turn depicts men’s stories and anxieties. Naturally, feminist critiques of science fiction mainly stem from women, given life by the social media age. Men fight back against these critiques by insisting women's opinions are invalid.
The audience for science fiction has traditionally been male as well. Geek culture was originally a boys’ club. Online, there has been an attitude of condescension towards female fans. "Um if you like Batman name 6 villains other than the Joker." Women’s knowledge of these fictional characters is wont to be tested constantly, as if male fanboys are the gatekeepers of their fandoms. Why? The reason is the numbers of men versus women in fandoms. Reader surveys have been conducted by science fiction magazines since 1948 (Adams & Wallace, 2011; Campbell, 1949, 1958; Carnell, 1955, 1964; Hamilton, 1954; Van Gelder, 2003). Generally, these surveys are a form of targeted marketing, focusing on obtaining demographics, and other useful market research assessments. These indicate that the state of readership has improved but was originally largely male. In 1949, 93.3% of science fiction readership was males, 92% in 1963, 67% in 2003 and is finally being reported by CNN as being around 50%.
Part of the reason for the overrepresentation of men in sci-fi may be that patriarchal narratives about science being a man’s realm have bled into creating science fiction. Historically, women have not been encouraged to enter STEM fields and as of 2018 only 28% of the STEM workforce is female. Young adults in their 30’s and 40’s were children in the 80’s and 90’s, times when strong gender disparity and relative sexism were prevalent. Women were brought up with certain ideas about what was feminine and proper, with the classic “blue for boys/pink for girls”, and “arts for women/sciences for boys” dichotomy. The impact of these ideas is hard to measure statistically, but there is some rectification in recent years. There is an increasing trend to women entering STEM, with LinkedIn showing more women entering STEM than any other industry in 2018. Before now, women were largely absent from these fields. As their presence in STEM increases, it also increases in science fiction audiences and authorship. In general, women are entering traditionally male spheres because it turns out interests and ability are largely not dictated by genitals. Surprise?
The mentioned holistic disparities may have translated into limited women choosing to enter the science fiction genre. This is especially sad given that science fiction's origin is often credited to Frankenstein, a story by a woman, Mary Shelley.
It is also possible that the sexism, objectification and dehumanization of women in sci-fi may have put female audiences off the genre. A quick glance at science fiction paperback covers confirms the prevalence of the male gaze. Pictured here are a Hugo Award winning novel cover by Robert Heinlein, and a cover of Kurt Vonnegut’s “The Sirens of Titan”. In both cases, the women have their heads turned away from the viewer, as if to allow guiltless ogling of their bodies. Their stances are showy and unnatural, posed so that they are on display. Science fiction typically tries to do a credible job in basing itself in real science, but boy are those breasts a middle finger to gravity.
The covers of the Ghost in the Shell manga are no different. The artist/writer makes sure that even when the character is arguably clothed, the impression a viewer receives is that she is nude, with contrasting panels covering only things like shoulders or feet.
Since science fiction is a largely male-dominated literary genre, and women’s voices have historically been absent from it, female characters are filtered through the eyes of men. Ghost in the Shell has the same problem, with the manga being written by a man, and the 1995 anime screenplay also written by a man, Kazunori Ito. The anime’s creative team consisted almost entirely of men. In fact, based on the IMDB credits, among senior positions only the Ink and Paint department was run by a woman, Makiko Kojima. Finally, the 2017 film had 3 writers attached to it, all of whom were white and male.
There isn’t anything inherently wrong with making female characters sexy. Arguably, there isn’t even anything wrong with a female character pandering to the male gaze. Men like hot chicks, big deal. What's wrong with celebrating beauty and sexuality? Nothing. Unfortunately, the problem is that society is recovering from a prolonged period of rampant misogyny. While modern society is rooted in the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century, American women received voting rights just back in 1920, and in 2019 Saudi Arabian women are treated like children under the male guardianship system. Because of this, objectifying portrayals of women in media are socially irresponsible, because they feed into ideals women are trying to stamp out. Quite frankly, women want to be represented as people in their own right. Women are consuming media too, and they want to see versions of themselves other than male fantasy. The objectification of women establishes physical appearance as a priority for womanhood. It shouldn't be.
"Strong female characters" are a relatively recent invention. Conservative ideals of women staying at home, raising children and being housewives have still not been entirely discarded. The narrative has long been that women are an inferior, secondary version of males, who are the standard. They exist for either taking care of men or providing sexual pleasure. Because of this, writers have often relegated women to the caretaker or love interest roles. These have simply been roles that men, the tastemakers of society, have long preferred. Consequently, men have been writing caricatures of the desirable woman for male consumption.
While there is no rule that says men shouldn’t write women, the goals of a writer change according to the audience. If a writer is creating solely for young men, he will understandably capitalize upon the value of sex appeal. There will be no motive to represent women as they want to be represented, because they are not the target audience. There will be motive to appease young male fans with fantastical, sexual women. However, as science fiction grows in mass appeal, its fanbase becomes more egalitarian and its women fans continue to point out its glaring misogyny. How do creators respond?
Sadly, this is the era of lip-service feminism, where capitalist organizations sell the idea of “empowerment” to women via basic things they should actually be allowed as rights. For example, women get made fun of for wearing too much makeup, so makeup companies market makeup as “fierce”, “confident” and representative of not caring what others think of you. It ignores the idea that being able to wear makeup or not should be a very basic choice, but arguably does not create power, because it is still concerned with fitting into beauty standards.
One of the most absurd examples is this cancer-based ad, calling makeup “war paint” and stating it gives confidence to women dying of cancer. Surely a superficial layer of makeup cannot be some profound defense against facing one’s mortality, but apparently capitalism says it is power.
Science fiction is one of the worst offenders in lip service feminism. It tries to play its cards against the idea that women’s clothing gets policed and slut shamed. It typically creates strong female characters that are unabashedly sexual, continuing to sell men their fantasy whilst also telling women that it is empowering for these characters to own their sexuality. Lara Croft is an easy example of such a character. She likes being sexy, hence she is an empowered character.
Here are examples from the Ghost in the Shell manga, where the female character utters things like "I don't care", "I'll get you fired" and "no peeking" as you watch her. She knows she's sexy. The problem is, these are not real women. They are still written by men. It is one of the modern era's most disingenuous moves for male writers to strip female characters down and then market them as "empowered."
Empowerment happens when women have a choice to dress how they want. When a man makes that choice for them in a fictionalized setting, it has nothing to do with their empowerment. It is at best, an excuse to keep doing what has always been done.
The above are visual problems, but there are many examples of these in screenplays as well. Shown below are examples of sexist writing from modern science fiction scripts. Notice the way women are described almost entirely in terms of their sex appeal, while male characters are barely afforded a physical description, and when they are it is done in terms of power not sex appeal. Men also often have an emotional description. It’s also worth noting that the authors of these blockbusters are all men.
Do female characters talk about anything besides the men in their lives? While prevalent in other genres, this seems to be a problem that sci-fi does not suffer from.
This refers to female characters taking their own decisions in the film, rather than following an authority figure or being shuttled forward via the plot. Diana from Wonder Woman, for example, is influenced into action by her male co-star Steve, and then makes almost every move under his guidance.
No matter how tough a character is written to be, she will at some point need to be saved by a male character, typically her co-star. Rei from Star Wars, for example, is constantly rescued by the men around her. Leeloo from Fifth Element is one of the most powerful beings in the universe, but needs the help of her male co-stars at simply navigating society.
Often, tough characters are defined by tragic backstories that made them the way they are. Women characters very often have sexual trauma as part of these backstories. A good example is Sonnie from “Love Death + Robots” who is introduced as a tough, no-nonsense and the greatest fighter of her time. The reason she is so tough is because she was gang raped and then tortured in the past. Dolores is a literal sex robot in Westworld, but her sentience awakens after she relives horrifying simulated rape.
A female character, especially one framed as sexually desirable, is often referred to by slurs such as “slut”, “whore”, “hussy”, “floozy” or the less offensive “bitch”. These insults are problematic because they target being female and/or sexually active as something inherently bad. For example, Guardians of the Galaxy is generally a fun superhero movie, but the only female character in the ensemble is referred to as a “green whore” and threatened with what appears to subtextually be gang rape. "Rick and Morty" also refers to Summer as “bitch” very often, which is strange given she is Rick’s granddaughter and Morty’s sister.
Sometimes sci-fi shows female characters undergoing rape, beatings, and accidents in ways that seem more tonally intense than in the rest of the film. For example, Westworld shows a great wealth of sexual violence, actual violence and pain but largely on its female leads. The male co-stars go through very little of this.
In dangerous situations, most characters are at risk of injury and death. On top of that, female characters are very often also in threat of being raped by lustful villains. This sexual threat is often absent on male characters. Additionally, it is also played up for the male gaze. For example, a 2012 reboot of Tomb Raider put attempted rape into Lara Croft's origin story. This scene was marketed in trailers for the game. The rape was a marketing hook. Normally, no violence is depicted in these scenes. Instead the female character's desirability and physique is subtly emphasized.
Film and TV overrepresents the trope of women “sleeping their way” to achieve something. Essentially, a female character negotiates for a goal using her sex appeal. Ava from Ex Machina is a strong example of this, manipulating Caleb into letting her escape by flirting with him.
Often, female characters are designed to be aesthetically appealing while male characters are designed to be practical. Ghost in the Shell, The Fifth Element, Wonder Woman, Aliens, Jurassic World etc all feature iconic female designs all of which are relatively impractical and designed for aesthetic appeal, no matter what the circumstances. In Jurassic World, the female lead runs from dinosaurs in heels, and Wonder Woman fights World War 2 in a miniskirt and heels. Ellen Ripley wears very small panties for no reason in a gratuitous scene in the otherwise fairly feminist film Aliens.
Some female characters are written to have their personality be overshadowed by their physical attributes, and are often described in terms of appearance or in male reaction to their appearance.
Even if the female character is in a respectable position of authority, her higher ups are often men. Additionally, if she is an expert in her field, she will be the only woman in a group of men. It is as if having a female lead needs to be balanced out by making everyone else a male. This occurs in “The Day the Earth stood Still” where Helen Benson is the sole woman meeting a panel of experts dealing with aliens. The same happens in “The Arrival”. In other cases, the female characters are answerable to male characters, such as The Major (Ghost in the Shell) to Aramaki, and Captain Marvel to her trainer and commander, Yonn-Rogg.
Similar to the previous situation, if there is a female in an ensemble group she is often the “Token female character” or the lone female character in a group of men. Ghost in the Shell is a strong example, given there is no other recurring female cast member in the franchise.
The female body is considered a beautiful in art, and this often designates women as muses but not as creators. In film, female beauty and the female body are often relayed as metaphors ranging from human frailty to fertility to aesthetic. This leads to their nudity being used as storytelling elements. In Westworld, the female characters are nude for substantial more screentime than male characters, a metaphor for their vulnerability. In Ghost in the Shell, the artificial female body raises questions about the nature of reality. In Ex Machina, the female bodies denote sexual conquest and slavery.
There is a Hollywood expectation that audiences won’t see stories with women in lead roles. Historically, when female characters have central storylines, they are still not given the limelight in films. Instead they have a male companion whose eyes the audience is meant to filter the story through. This happens in Wonder Woman via Steve Rogers, Fifth Element via all the male protagonists who lead Leeloo’s journey, in Mad Max where Furiosa’s struggle is seen through Max, and in Ex Machina where Ava’s journey is dictated to audiences by Caleb. Claire from Jurassic World is a troubling example, where her career-driven focus is implied to be “bad” and then she goes through a metaphorical journey with Owen who loosens her up, makes her fall in love and became a caring maternal figure to 2 children.
Below is a table with randomly selected, high grossing and well-known science fiction film and tv shows. These shows frame themselves as having strong female characters, but stumble at representing them well. Ghost in the Shell 2017 largely sidesteps some of these problems.
Science Fiction has popularized the idea of multiracial, diverse utopias and dystopias where all races, religions and extraterrestrials mingle. Science fiction often attempts to address real world race relations, but uses metaphors such as alien races instead. There is a lack of courage in depicting black, Asian, native American and hispanic people in science fiction, which has very predominantly been white. There was always the implication that adding minority characters to science fiction would make the work too “political”. A Fireside report on science fiction writers showed that less than 2% of 2000 science fiction stories published every year were by African Americans in 2015.
However, although there is a troubling lack of diversity in American science fiction’s characters, there seems to be no hesitation in borrowing from other cultures to serve as cultural backdrops. Modern science fiction and cyberpunk aesthetic has very recognizably Asian motifs- cramped neon-lit rainy streets, open markets, Chinese and Japanese lettering on billboards, and Japanese technology.
Why is this so? Part of the reason is that Japan has remained at the forefront of technological advancement and because it has produced very influential science fiction anime, such as Metropolis, Akira, and Ghost in the Shell. But it is also true that the west seems to view Asian culture as a symbol of the unknowable, mystical and alien. Black and brown cultures barely ever feature in science fiction, because their colonization is arguably more westernized and their cultures are generally thought of as more developing than developed. They hence cannot count as symbols of the future, or as cultures to be admired, or even as cultures to be understood. The English language is prevalent in fairly large parts of South Asian, Middle Eastern and African countries. Asia, on the other hand, notably China, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore have positioned themselves as economic and technological giants that still retain their ancient past and do not allow themselves to fall too much in the shadow of the west. They retain their language and customs, which make them appear unknowable. Their rapid economic development places them at the forefront of a new age.
However, the way Asian culture is liberally spread across Hollywood films as an aesthetic is at odds with how Hollywood lacks any real Asian representation. There has been an increasing hue and cry about the absence of roles for Asian actors. The few roles that exist seem to substitute white people in lead roles. Asians in side roles often do not speak and have little to do in films but fill up a diversity quota. An example is the X-Men franchise, which often backgrounds Asian characters without ever putting them in lead roles. Interestingly, this phenomenon is not as bad in television as it is in film.
The lack of Asian roles makes the influence of Asian aesthetic doubly disrespectful, given that it is used like a superficial layer of paint to make movies prettier.
Additionally, when other races are represented, the characters are often highly stereotyped. You have over-the-top African Americans speaking in overemphasized slang. You have Asian characters who are great at Martial Arts. Native Americans are wise and spiritual. Another strange phenomenon is when culture is substituted as character traits. For example, an Asian man whose only traits are that he meditates and doesn’t speak English. Similar to that is how Hollywood interchanges different Asian characters and cultures without distinction- for example, casting Chinese as Japanese.
Part of this problem lies with the lack of diversity among science fiction writers, many of whom are white and male. For Asians, the stats are very low even in other genres.
Does America and Hollywood really have a responsibility to accurately depict other races and cultures? Arguably, escapist storytelling shouldn’t have to abide by the sociopolitical climate at all. Nor does America own representation. Other cultures can make and market their own accurately representative films. So why is it important that America do so at all? To start off, America is a diverse country. It depicts certain cultures as “other” or “foreign” but they aren’t other or foreign anymore. Immigrants are as American as any other American, and they should not be made to feel like outsiders.
Ghost in the Shell began from a philosophical manga by Masamune Shirow with decidedly erotic undertones. In 1995, it was adapted into an anime film by Mamoru Oshii. It spawned a tv series called Stand Alone Complex, a second movie called Innocence, and a third series called Arise. Most recently, the movie went through the Hollywood remake experience, in 2017’s live action version of the franchise, clocking in at 1 hour 40 minutes. The movie starred Scarlett Johannson and a predominantly white cast in a futuristic cyberpunk Japan. However, the script takes place entirely in Hong Kong.
A lot of the problems with cultural appropriation have happened because Hollywood has taken a Japanese property and made the lead cast white. Its problems with sexism are partially a result of trying to mimic the visuals of the 1995 anime. Essentially, the film has the worst of both worlds, combining the sexism of the anime with the appropriation tendencies of the west. However, relative to the final film the screenplay is relatively progressive, respecting the agency and authority of its female lead. A lot of the sensitivity of the script seems to be lost when it has translated to screen.
The movie was at the center of a whitewashing controversy, and so it was widely panned by critics. “This movie wasn’t allowed to be just a movie” lamented the marketing director of the film. However, the film indubitably has problems other than whitewashing. It also features substantial cultural appropriation in its environment while failing to share that environment with an Asian cast, which makes it seem like it is fetishizing a culture as just an aesthetic design choice you can slap onto a set. Additionally, it has problems with the way women are represented. The strong, independent female lead character spends most of her screentime nude. The complaints led to a lesbian sex scene being cut from the film, although it is odd that it was written and filmed to start off with.
Interestingly, most of the criticism of whitewashing is from within America. Americans are angry at the whitewashing, but the Japanese themselves largely seem to be excited about Scarlett Johannsson. Mamoru Oshii, director of the 1995 film, said She has a great physical presence, and can convey a dramatic tone simply by walking with a stern expression. She has so much presence and charisma.” A Japanese YouTuber interviewed people in the streets asking what they thought about the whitewashing controversy, and most of them could not understand it. The contended that she was great for the role, because she was showing an ethnically ambiguous anime character. They said that if not Johannson, they would have cast non- Japanese Asians, which appeared to be a bigger concern. A fan stated "I heard people in the U.S. wanted an Asian actress to play her. Would that be OK if she was Asian or Asian-American? Honestly, that would be worse: someone from another Asian country pretending to be Japanese. Better just to make the character white."
The above is another testament to the fact that Asian Americans are also Americans. They are not the same as the Japanese. Their wish to have their cultures respected and represented should be treated as a desire to stop being exoticized in their own homeland. This also ties in with the racism and bullying that Asians have accumulated in America, having been made fun of for their accents and food. Emily Yoshida writes in The Verge “For us, anime is something from our country, or our parents' country, that was cool enough for white kids to get into just as fervently. We couldn't see ourselves in Hollywood's shows and movies, but we could claim anime as our own, and see ourselves in its wild sci-fi imaginings and cathartic transformation sequences.”
The 2014 script was reworked significantly and is fairly different from the final film. The version being analyzed is a 2014 draft written by William Wheeler. The film has also credited Jamie Moss and Ehren Kreuger as writers but their versions will not be looked at. William Wheeler is quite the celebrated figure in screenwriting, and is generally accepted as a great example of how sensitively men can write women. He has in the past created respectful scripts around strong female characters, such as “Queen of Katwe”. However, it is already a red flag that of the three writers for a female-centric Japanese film, all are white males.
As we will see below, although the screenplay does things quite well, it leaves in traditionally problematic gender/race portrayals that get overblown when moved to film. It is also derived from fairly problematic source material.
At best, the script is gender-blind in terms of character development, agency and power. But simultaneously, it retains Japanese culture as a sort of fetishized backdrop overrun by white people, has almost no other female characters, and cannot divorce itself from needless sexuality even in a character as well-written as the Major. There are a few letdowns in an otherwise great screenplay, similar to the way Ellen Ripley of Aliens was handled.
The script starts off in Hong Kong, with the horrific accident of a human character named Maddy Kisana, 15. Maddy Kisana is the half-Japanese half-white child of Sandy and Albert Kisana. She is meant to be the Motoko Kusanagi of the original franchise. She is damaged beyond repair after her car is overturned, but she and her mother are rescued as their father sacrifices himself and throws them out the car last minute.
Her brain is then placed into the sexually mature form of an artificial female body by her father’s friend Dr, Ouelet. This saves her life. In a timeskip, she then becomes “The Major” in an anti-terrorist group called Section 9, led by Aramaki. She has a friendship with a cyborg named Batou but no romance is depicted. The Major leads an attack on a hostage situation but it turns out to be a trap, and they are attacked by geisha sex robots who have been weaponized. Afterwards, to blow off steam The Major hires a female prostitute at her apartment and has sex.
Later, the Major is called on to neutralize a man terrorizing a street. She makes herself invisible and takes him down. It appears to be a human whose mind has been scrambled. In the altercation, Batou loses his biological eyes and has new cybernetic ones installed. Later in captivity, the man can remember nothing, hinting that his brain was hacked by the mysterious Puppet Master.
In search of the Puppet Master, the Major carries out a raid at a remote location, where she runs into the Puppet Master. He tells her that Section 9 creates cyborgs by killing people, and suggests that The Major’s original soul has not yet been destroyed and resides somewhere, giving her hints.
The Major develops doubts, and in the meantime Section 9 worries she has been hacked and suggest she get her code cleansed by Dr. Ouelet. Batou consoles her, insisting section 9 is not the enemy. While walking with her, she gets hit by a hallucination and sees enemy soldiers, causing her to shoot up a grocery store full of civilians. This makes her agree to having her brain cleansed by Ouelet.
Right before her surgery, she receives a message from the Puppet Master who tells her she is being hacked by Oulet’s company, Hanka. She goes through files in the hospital and finds this to be true, escaping the premises and forgoing her surgery. Hanka forces attack the major, and also perform synchronized attacks on Section 9 offices.
In the meantime, the major discovers Hanka is sourcing children’s bodies to create its Cyborgs, and then changing their memories. It receives a shipment of 200 bodies a month. The Major breaks into a morgue, and is able to trace the family of one of the bodies- “Motoko Kusanagi”. She finds out that this child was originally her, and that her memories have been altered to think she is someone else.
She goes to the apartment of Sandy Kisana, who she has assumed was her mother, and Sandy convinces her she is her daughter. Later, Maddy/Motoko is attacked in the shower and although she escapes unscathed, her mother is killed. It turns out her mother was a machine, not a biological person.
The Puppet Master finds Motoko and unlocks her true memories. She was in a plane crash with her best friend Aoi, and both the bodies survived. Hanka took these bodies and labeled them deceased, then moved their brains and spinal cords to artificial bodies. Motoko realizes The Puppet Master is her best friend, Aoi.
The Major regroups with Aramaki, Batou and Togusa and they decide to take Ouelet down. They attack his lodge, and pretend to shoot his wife and children in front of him. The Major is hell bent on revenge. After Ouelet’s capture, Motoko readjusts to regular life. She grieves for the made-up Kisana family and reaches out to her true biological mother, Hairi Kusanagi.
The script was at first glance unexpectedly progressive in tone compared to the screen version and compared to its predecessors. The Major is a complex, powerful character with many internal contradictions. She wants to feel but can’t. Her memories are largely a lie, but she considers them part of herself. She is a machine that needs little to no human functions such as sleep, water, food or air but she feels a wealth of emotional pain and seeks human connection. Quite importantly, little to no time is wasted on her physical appearance or descriptions of her nude form, which is a strong departure from the source material. It is also very different from similar scripts, such as Ex Machina, which linger voyeuristically on the body. However, the script still sticks to archaic ideas about how descriptions of women need to emphasize youth and beauty. None of this is applied to any of the male characters in the story, all of whom are instead battle scarred/ hardened executives.
“Maddy - the fifteen year old teenager - now occupies the body of a LUMINOUS YOUNG WOMAN in her early twenties.”
“The “new” MADDY KISANA walks the streets, carrying a kit bag. She appears a graceful young woman with flawless skin. Maddy’s new luminescent EYES are wells of intelligence. But behind them lie deep, troubled currents.”- page 4, Ghost in the Shell, 2014, William Wheeler
Although it is heartening to see that some degree of interiority is stressed such as the character’s eyes, the description is largely traditional of female characters- young, flawless, graceful. It is also of note that Maddy is placed into the sexually mature artificial body at the age of 12. Although this is tastefully skipped over, it calls back to how the original 1995 film’s android designs were based around Hans Bellemer’s sculptures exploring erotica in newly pubescent girls.
It is also worth noting that the story starts out with Maddy and her mother being saved by her father and Dr Ouelet. Although the character was then a child, it is still the standard woman owes her life to a man. Again, this is not lingered on enough for it to become sexist, and can be given a pass. Batou, later in the script also brings up to the Major that he has saved her life over five times, imploring her to trust he is on her side.
The way Maddy is scripted is fairly three dimensional. Her wants and desires initially seem simply to serve her department, but are deeper as revealed through subtext. She cherishes the memories she currently has, and cares deeply about the people around herself. Her actions all follow a pattern of keeping people around herself protected, and retaining/nurturing connections with those important to her. When she is hacked into attacking civilians, she begs her team not to let her hurt anyone. She often meets with her mother. She tries to conjure guilt when remembering her father. She respects and banters with Batou and Aramaki. It is also implied that Maddy is a Buddhist, and takes part in ritual prayer. All these function to give the Major a very rich inner life.
Her actions have agency and strategy to them, often rebelling against her superior officers. In the script, she never appears to question her own resolve in light of other characters around her. The men in her sphere exist to support her rather than lead her. Their dialogue to her is constantly respectful, even when they are at higher positions than her.
The film has a robust amount of action sequences, and in most of those the Major’s gender fails to come into play. Most of her moves are described as masterly and lethal. There are instances that tend towards traditionally feminine language, such as balletic, graceful arcs and delicate pirouettes. However, for the most part this is laced into more powerful moves and so does not seem to have a negative impact.
“Maddy is brutal and balletic. She SMASHES the target plates in numerical order, (1) chest, (2) abdomen, finishing by CRUSHING the (7) plate on the droid’s forehead with a swift KICK.” –Page 4, Ghost in the Shell, 2014, William Wheeler
In a RAGE, The Major snarls forward. Disarming, attacking, smashing heads, noses, breaking arms, she FIGHTS her way UP the STAIRS to the second floor.”- Page 97, Ghost in the Shell, 2014, William Wheeler.
The film does not entirely neglect the Major’s sex appeal. Although the infamous nude tower jump from the anime is completely clothed in the script, there are many instances where the male gaze casually slips back in. While the script descriptions are clinical, they still have the intent to translate visually. For example, the major is shown in the shower early on. Later, there seems to be a relatively out of place lesbian sex scene.
An open HOLO-SCREEN reveals contacts Maddy recently scrolled through. These include LIA/ESCORT, a dazzling French-Hawaiian woman. IN HER LIVING AREA DANCING and LIP-SYNCING with slow, sexy gusto, Maddy performs the song for the live LIA (20’s, exotic), who now sits in a short cocktail dress on Maddy’s sectional. Lia smiles as Maddy moves CLOSER. She breathes on Maddy’s neck.
ON THE BED Lia places a THIN TUBE in Maddy’s ear canal. She blows a POWDERED SUBSTANCE into her ear. Maddy’s face opens in pleasure. Their two NUDE FORMS writhe as they grind into each other.
Maddy kisses neck, collarbone, breasts, working her way down Lia’s body. Lia clutches Maddy, wrapping her legs around Maddy’s back as she CLIMAXES.”
Tonally, this occurs immediately after a funeral, and appears both out of place and fails to really say anything about her character. To that end, it appears outright gratuitous. It is arguable meant to make her seem more human, but the script does enough to establish her human side without needing this. This also seems to draw from the manga, which was littered with very technical and heavy dialogue even over things like gratuitous sex scenes that came out of nowhere and were very out of place.
Additionally, there is also a scene where the Major is attacked in the shower. What ensues is a naked fight scene, although her body is not described. It is left up to the filmmakers’ imagination. This is later swapped out in the actual film for a fight in a strip club.
There is also a scene where Batou receives new cybernetic eyes, enabling him to see through walls. The first thing he does is spy on women in bathrooms.
“Batou penetrates two wall-faces to hone in on the WOMEN’S RESTROOM down the hall. Two attractive women chat by the mirror. One enters a STALL and begins to lift her SKIRT...”- Page 39, Ghost in the Shell, 2014, William Wheeler
Beyond the major, there are no female characters in the lead roles. Among side characters, there is a stripper and a mother, both which are symbols of the major’s emotional connections. There is an orphaned girl in need of rescuing, and a nurse. These are fairly clichéd ways of depicting female side characters. None of them are in positions of power, and all of them are vulnerable.
Everyone in the force and the corporations at any level of authority is male. Everyone who benefits the major by building, arming or rescuing her is male. In the end, after the major is damaged, she is cradled and carried away in the standard bridal style affect by Batou. The filmmakers recognized this, and made changes. In the movie, Ouelet is female, there are female characters shown at every level, and the major is never carried but walks even when injured. However, the movie also inserts nudity where it is not present in the script. It is to be noted at the very least that the script substantially tones down the explicit sexuality of the source material.
The Ghost in the Shell manga was notoriously erotic, featuring ceaseless upskirt shots, gratuitous nudity, gratuitous sex scenes, detailed vulvas, and skin tight clothes.
The anime film and tv show had very similar issues. Although they toned down the sexuality of the manga, they still retained voyeuristic camera angles and unsettlingly sexual clothing. The major often wore nothing in the anime film, and was often covered up by Batou, and she wore what appeared to be underwear armour in the anime series. Neither befitted her rank or matched her serious and powerful character.
It is also important to note that Mamoru Oshii, director of the film and anime, drew inspiration from Hans Bellemer’s sculptures on female sexuality for her character. The sculptures often features disembodied women with grotesquely exaggerated sexual features and hints of childhood and youthfulness.
Hence, although the script is not perfectly feminist, it does successfully avoid a lot of the worst qualities of its source material. Although Johannsson is clearly made to be as nude as possible in the film, that decision is not made in the script.
Racial Representation Critique
TThe film has been at the center of a massive whitewashing scandal. It sort of deals with this idea by having it be revealed that the major was originally a Japanese woman named Motoko Kusanagi, and her brain was placed in the cyborg body of a white woman. This explanation has not appeased fans, and is viewed by many as a convoluted excuse to avoid casting a Japanese actress.
No other cast members except for Aramaki and Togusa are Japanese, and Togusa is a character of no real presence in the script. Batou and the Major carry most of the story and are both white. Batou’s race is not explicitly mentioned, but his style of talking is very similar to American vernacular and distinct from the way everyone else talks. Dr. Ouelet, the villain of the story, is also white. The Puppet Master, who is meant to be The Major’s Japanese childhood friend, Aoi, is a Caucasian redhead.
Additionally, it has been suggested that the film could have worked if its white cast had been moved to a different location. Yet the script clings to Asian-ish motifs and has its white characters populate these settings. It sets everything in Hong Kong. The script mentions Buddhist prayer and burial ceremonies.
“Maddy treks up a cobblestoned street towards a TEMPLE atop a hill. INT. BUDDHIST TEMPLE - DAWN 8 An incense bundle burns as blue smoke rises into the clouds. Upon an alter, MONKS chant in prayer. Among the acolytes, Maddy sits chanting and meditating. Among the bowed heads, Maddy’s is the only one with slim cables emerging from her skull and re-entering her spine.
There is also an open market selling fish, complete with the oriental image of a wise monk dispelling wisdom.
“Maddy wanders past morning fish-peddlers as she listens to the Satsang (talk) of the patois-lilt of a Jamaican Buddhist sage named PAZU. PAZU (in her earbuds) “We walk the world saying “I” do this. “I” like ice cream. Who is this “I”? Is “I” my name? My history? Or is it perhaps none of these...?”
As expected from any story with an orientalist bent, there are geishas. Robot geishas hold people hostages and attack the major. There is no reasoning behind their being geishas. It appears to be an act that was intended as a nod to Japanese culture, but instead comes off as reducing Japanese culture as an accessory. At least there are no samurai right? Wheeler hasn’t forgotten those.
“Borma grimaces at similar indecipherable forms inside the hotel lobby. He spots the flash of a home-rigged CYBORG with two SAMURAI SWORDS where its HANDS should be... BORMA: (whispering back) Nasty black-market shit...
The Samurai feature is a prop and novelty. While showing Asian motifs and cultures is not inherently bad, it appears disingenuous in this movie because of its white cast and clear stereotyping. The film does nothing to make the cultures it uses less “otherly” and instead only serves to make them more so.
The same happens in an exoticizing vignette that shows a Ghost Festival, showing an offering to dead ancestors. Similar things happen when she quirks an eyebrow at robots being given a traditional burial. The Asian customs and traditions exist as a backdrop but come off as quaint and disconnected from the major herself. There is little to no hint of any of the background Asian cultural elements within her own life or the lives of anyone in the lead roles. These are just things the major happens to stroll by, as if to reinforce the otherness of the setting.
“Drizzle colors the street. Alone again, Maddy walks aimlessly along the old city streets. Hong Kong’s GHOST FESTIVAL is ending. She watches a TEENAGE BOY lights a GHOST EFFIGY which burns brightly. Fruit and nuts have been placed underneath it. It’s an offering to dead ancestors.”
Essentially, the film wears Asian culture as a design theme that no character gnuinely interacts with. It is intended as futuristic world building, but comes off as lazy because many of its descriptions are of present-day Asian societies and customs. Does the film truly believe that these are futuristic elements, or is it just inserting them as something visually novel for white audiences to marvel at?
The script by Wheeler has attempted to water down a great deal of misogynistic and voyeuristic elements. However, it has still retained many of them. The script does not do so well on the race representation front, whitewashing the cast and failing to respect the cultures it is drawing from. As a character, the major is complex and dynamic. As a story, the script is compelling, emotional and action-packed. But in the socially aware society of today, it has made mistakes that has cost it dearly in the US market.
American scriptwriters need to stop seeing other cultures as alien, and write about them through genuine research and with a desire to understand them. Simply painting out the bare bones of their aesthetic is not enough, and both exotifies and isolates minorities in America.
Similarly, women have come a long way in terms of Hollywood representation. This script gives us a beautiful, heartfelt character that women can look up to but then peppers her with very traditional failures in writing female characters. Hopefully, the audience response sends a message to Hollywood producers that people are ready to embrace change for social justice in film.