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Ghost in the Shell: Exploring Gender Identity in Science Fiction

Set against the neon-lit backdrop of a Hong Kong inspired cyberpunk mega-city, Ghost in the Shell is the story of Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cybernetic special forces officer and her exploration of her own identity in an evolving world.

The universe of Ghost in the Shell is defined by the advancement of cybernetic technology, where the line between human and machine has been blurred. The crux of the technology are “ghosts'' and “shells.” A ghost is described as the consciousness that inhabits a body, the latter of which is typically the shell. What constitutes a ghost or shell is never explicitly defined. The primary antagonist is the cryptic hacker known as “The Puppet Master,” a rogue sentient AI with the ability to infiltrate a person’s shell. 

Motoko bears a female body in the barest sense. Her body is feminine only in shape and voice. She lacks organs needed for procreation and has breasts that only serve aesthetic purposes. Her insides are just as undefined as the outside. Her hormones and muscles are both synthetic and are controlled as necessary. Motoko feels disconnected from her given artificial body. This is apparent from her affinity to be in the nude and feel no embarrassment. Even without any sex organs, her more human cohorts still feel ashamed to look at her. They look away and also cover her up.

At the end of the first act is a montage where the audience can get a true glimpse into the psyche of Motoko. Backed by ethereal yet organic Bulgarian harmonies and shot from a jarring mixture of grand landscape and close-up angles, the montage gives a sense of the self-analysis happening in the Major’s mind. 

Motoko melancholically wanders around the bustling city, sitting in restaurants, riding on public transport, and gazing at the decaying yet evolving cityscape. Her robotic movements and unblinking eyes juxtapose the fluidity of the regular citizens around her. Feelings of Motoko’s loneliness and displacement are evoked. Motoko’s identity crisis is further brought forth when she stares at blatantly gendered mannequins in a store front. Just like Motoko, the mannequins are artificial constructs that do not have any inherent sexual identity. Also like Motoko, they have been assigned a rudimentary gender identity. Unlike Motoko, they lack consciousness. What Motoko feels in this montage matches sentiments shared by many non-cisgender people. They are trapped inside a body which they have not chosen and have had their identity forced upon them by society. With this dilemma comes thoughts of isolation and feelings of loneliness, unfathomable to those around Motoko.

The main antagonist, the Puppet Master, is a perpetuation of the themes of gender identity. Not born, but revealed to have emerged from networks of information, the Puppet Master is a consciousness that lacks sexual characteristics and a permanent shell/body. It is therefore untethered to assigned gender identity from society. When the Puppet Master does acquire a body/shell, its identities are mixed. It has a traditionally female body with a masculine voice. Characters in the movie refer to the Puppet Master’s psyche differently from its body. They refer to its consciousness as “his'' and its feminine body as “it”, a confusing combination of pronouns. 

Throughout most of the movie, the Puppet Master’s motives are unknown. However, in the finale, after a fight with Motoko that ends with the two conversing, the Puppet Master reveals his struggles and goals to Motoko. He explains his peril with the fact that he can’t reproduce naturally. Like many who transition and lose their fertility, the Puppet Master is unable to partake in a process essential to happiness and fulfillment available to so many other people. The inability to reproduce would make anyone feel deprived of their humanity. Through his struggles, the Puppet Master serves as parallel opposition to Motoko in both of their pursuits for identity.

Ghost in the Shell’s impact on LGBTQ+ cinema is only in its infancy. As time progresses, there is no doubt that the film will continue to become more and more influential on queer theories. In terms of iconic works inspired by the movie, the list is gargantuan. Perhaps the most notable work inspired by the film has to be The Matrix franchise. The Wachoski sisters have admitted that the epochal Matrix digital rain and the way people access the Matrix through their napes was heavily influenced by the film. Besides these visual connections, the most meaningful link between the two are their themes of gender identity. After all, The Matrix is an allegory for transgender identity based on the Wachowksi sisters’ own experience. Ghost in the Shell is enshrined as a film with incredible visuals, complex characters, and revolutionary commentary on the struggles of those who do not conform to societal gender standards.

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