The optimism of imaginative writers is countered to some extent by a more millennarial and troubling vision of gender and its future. A 1999 cover of the New Yorker magazine, in an issue devoted to ‘Style’ at the millennium captures this well. It depicts a robot undergoing what seems to be a complete servicing (Roberts 1999). A mechanical claw tightens a loose screw in its head while others apply lipstick to its mouth and matching polish to its incongruous long nails. Yet another attachment brushes the robot’s hair. ‘It’ is a ‘she’, and ‘she’ is made to look apprehensive rather than cosseted by all this attention, as well she may. An equation is being made between style, which has increasingly become an ambivalent shorthand for many aspects of modern societies, from politics to computers, and femininity. The cartoon depicts femininity as style only: the body and its differences are dispensable. A minimal visual code, and a bit of affect — bewildered and a bit frightened will do — can, the artist implies, make a woman of anything. The image suggests that these superficial adornments are all that is left of and for femininity at the end of the twentieth century. Does it also imply that the work of feminism and of modernity in denaturalizing the body has gone a tad too far — or not far enough? The robot’s femininity, like the Cheshire Cat’s smile in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, lingers on uncannily, as both accessory and affect, commerce and sensibility, while the living ‘body’ of femininity has disappeared.
African-American legal theorist and essayist Patricia Williams puts such questions in the context of the ‘grotesque’ representations of gender in the United States, which are tied, she argues, to the fetishization of racial embodiment. Through the language of disembodied little sounds she describes listening to her mother as she ‘does her face and hair’:
I can hear the anxiety of her preparations: the creaking of the floorboards as she stands closer then farther from the mirror; the lifting and replacing of infinite bottles and jars on the shelves; the click of her closing a compact of blush; the running of water over her hairbrush; an anonymous fidgety frequency of sounds. She is a constancy of small motions, clatters, soft rattles and bumps.
(Williams 1991: 196)
Performing the same ritual herself, Williams (rather like the New Yorker cartoon) realizes that when ‘I am fully-dressed, my face is hung with contradictions; I try not to wear all my contradictions at the same time. I pick and choose among them’ (ibid.: 196). Her ironic reflection on the meaning of ‘choice’ echoes the mixed message of the New Yorker cover.
Can the machine become a labour-saving fantasy for the feminist imagination, taking over the jobs that marked femininity as too embodied but not quite human enough? In the utopian feminist writings of the 1970s technology was positively appropriated as a way of releasing women from reproduction: Marge
Piercy’s novel Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) pursued the analysis of Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex (1979 ) by making gestation and childbirth an out-of-body experience, and ‘mothering’ a task shared between men and women. The dystopian future, in which women are valued only for their capacity to reproduce, is sketched out in Margaret Atwood’s bleak fiction, The Handmaid’s Tale (1986). In a countermove, certain feminist thinkers have tried to build a new version of ethics on the psychic and social relations that they believe flow from women’s role in child rearing, if not childbirth. The media debate about the uses of increasingly sophisticated reproductive technologies erupts into the public domain with each new ‘discovery’, and is mirrored by profound disagreements within feminism about the benefits of such technology. At the same time, the pro-natalist, anti-abortionist and often fundamentalist opinion in the United States, by no means a male-only stronghold, has helped to carry laws which protect the foetus to the extent of criminalizing the pregnant mother-to-be who drinks or smokes, thus disaggregating the rights and identities of mother and unborn child in novel and frightening ways, and giving a new twist to a long tradition of contradictory representations of motherhood as both idealized and pathologizied. Technology has altered not just the fact of motherhood, but also profoundly affected its representation as an aspect of gender. The spread of birth control and the legalization of abortion in the 1970s seemed to offer more autonomy to women in every aspect of their lives, not simply in respect of sexuality and reproduction, and thus to shift the relations of power between men and women. But the enhanced possibility of ‘choice’, through the availability of contraception, and to a lesser extent abortion, has provided, as an ironic corollary, a further instrument of state control of poor mothers, who may have their benefits withdrawn if they have additional children while receiving state support. It is possible that, paradoxically, maternal femininity has become both more liberated and more regulated.
In a ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ feminist theorist Donna Haraway pursues the metaphor of the ‘cyborg’, that ‘hybrid of machine
and organism’, as a way of ‘imagining a world without gender’, one which both short-circuits and supersedes unresolved and perhaps unresolvable debates about origins and differences, nature and culture (Haraway 1991: 149—50). ‘Cyborg imagery’, Haraway suggested hopefully in the mid-1980s, was ‘a way out of the maze of dualisms’ in which gender, and feminism too, had become enmeshed and imprisoned (ibid.: 181). Haraway’s essay turns on its use of irony and contradiction; it was conceived in a ‘postmodernist, non-naturalist mode and in the utopian tradition’ (150) and set its face determinedly against the recreation within feminism of a new ‘organicism’, for gender or for femininity, against any theory which essentializes gender by turning to myths of goddesses or of fecundity. If feminism must have a myth, Haraway suggested, it has to be one which incorporates its own critique of identity, it must embody the components of modernity it might make use of, including technology, and it should emphasize women’s — and feminism’s — radical heterogeneity. Haraway’s model is one which tries to make incommensurable elements connect: she envisages a working alliance that can live with the discomfort and difficulty that we have suggested is the condition of femininity, indeed of gender.
Haraway herself has been criticized for suggesting that ‘women of colour’ — a politically crafted category that comprises different ethnic and diasporic groups in political alliance — can be imagined as one type of ‘cyborg’. For those subjects still struggling to be regarded as ‘human’ by states and societies, the anti-human, post-gendered metaphor may not be as liberating as it looks. Nevertheless, blurring the boundaries between the human and its others has remained a tempting strategy for what Haraway evocatively calls ‘the imaginative apprehension, of oppression, and so of possibility’ (149). When Patricia Williams imagines a world without racism or gender hierarchy, she crosses over into an animal world as fabulous as Haraway’s cyborgs, a world, rather like the femininity she inhabits, ‘ambiguously natural and crafted’ (Haraway 1991: 149). Williams’s fantasy landscape is arctic; it is significantly without sound or affect: a world of polar bears, of ‘white wind’, ‘shadowed amnesia; the absence of being. . . cool fragments of white-fur invisibility. Solid, black-gummed, intent, observant’ (Williams 1991: 236). Her polar bears are the poetic expression of creative paradox, not so much a dream beyond the reach of the brutal ideologies of gender or colour, as its necessary correlative: a country at once familiar and alien, on whose strangely silent shores one can pause to regroup and reconsider the ‘complexity of messages implied in our being’ (236).