For the first installment of the Womanhood Issue series, I present the Cyborg.
You may wonder, “What does science fiction have to do with what it means to be a woman?” This is a legitimate question. By the end of this post you will see the lengths women must go to in order to seize the ability to work beyond hegemonic femininity, as defined in the last post.
Before jumping into theory, a definition is required. A “Cyborg” is the unification of “cybernetic organism” and originates in popular science fiction culture. Some examples include The Bionic Woman television series (1976-78), which is the story of a female spy who uses semi-robotic skills which gives her an “edge” above and beyond other female agents. The 1975 film (and 2004 remake) The Stepford Wives portrays an uncanny neighborhood where submissive spouses are not entirely human, and the Austin Powers series (1997, 1999, 2002) parodies the cyborg idea through the “Fembots,” ultra-feminine cyborg women who dress scantily and contain deadly machine guns in their breasts. The underlying theme between the three – very different – fictional characters is that they are all hyper-feminine, but hyper-masculine: feminine due to beauty, perfect domesticity, or sexual appeal; and masculine through the machine, non-traditional “male” careers, and violence.
Since the “Beyond the Binary” roundtable discussion at the Eastern American Studies Association 2014 conference, the topic of female cyborgs has been on my mind. To call a woman a “cyborg” seems extreme, it seems harsh, but it seems liberating. Most importantly, feminist theorists and academics use it and this adds complex meanings. The question arises: is a cyborg a positive or negative connotation?
In real-life, the cyborg woman is one who is a “superior human being… In an attempt to become successful, they often must work harder than the men and thus work towards a much higher level of perfection.” Through Sarah Louise Muhr’s description of the cyborg, in order to become successful, the professional woman leader must sacrifice portions of her femininity in order to grasp masculine characteristics. This cyborg is also evident in popular culture: Meryl Streep as hard-edged Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada (2006), Sandra Bullock as the unlucky-in-love Margaret Tate in The Proposal (2009), and Allison Janney as C.J. Craigg in the television drama The West Wing (1999-2006) where the conflict between the White House press secretary’s personal life and career is a frequent storyline.
How we view real-life professional women is often manipulated through the lens of these fictional characters. No, we do not consciously label these women “cyborgs” in our minds as we watch The Devil Wears Prada or when we hear a speech by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg. However, society does carry strong opinions about these women and their relationship to the rest of culture. They are outside of it. Often the criticism rests in their misunderstandings of “the common person.” In other words, we disparage successful women because of their detachment to race and class. They do not know what it is “really like” to be a mother. They do not know what it is “really like” to be poor/black/Hispanic/single. While these criticisms may be true, they are getting in the way of woman-to-woman support of female success in the workplace.
Why is this woman a cyborg? This problem can be made clear through examples of actual women – maybe women who we do not consider “real” due to their celebrity or influence: Oprah Winfrey, Hilary Rodham Clinton, Beyoncé Knowles, and Sheryl Sandberg.
The “Media Mogul” has received varying forms of criticism that range from Mammy accusations, elitism, and personal attacks on her body. Born to an unwed mother in the South, Winfrey lived with her grandmother and then shifted between her mother and father/stepmother throughout her childhood. Running away after years of child abuse, Winfrey lost a newborn baby at the age of 14. Her disciplinarian father placed many restrictions upon his daughter and she excelled academically. Receiving a full scholarship to college, Winfrey went on to break racial and gender barriers in the early years of her career. She skyrocketed to the “top” and due to the struggles during childhood, determined to present social issues/problems in her massively popular daytime show and through Harpo Studios.
The question is this: why would so much criticism be placed on a woman who wishes to do good things? Valerie Palmer-Mehta argues that Winfrey threatens white patriarchal society through her actions and is thus attacked – not just by men, but women, too – for her influence and her physical appearance. The hierarchy of white patriarchy in America places women of color at the “bottom,” due to race and gender standards based on hegemonic masculinity. She owns an incredibly successful business. She influences politics. She is more than a medial mogul; she produces culture. She is also single, without children, and is overweight at times. Unfortunately, the last three receive much attention. This demonstrates America’s obsession with women attaining feminine hegemonic standards, rather than masculine standards of success.
A great little segment by PBS from the Makers series is worth a watch and can be found here.
Hilary Rodham Clinton:
While there is much to say about this powerful political figure, it is too much to include here. For a start, she did not come from such humble backgrounds as Winfrey. Clinton was born into an upper-middle class family, attended Wellesley and then Yale, and was met with success at many turns in her life. Aside from critiques about her political decisions (fair game) or her personal life (not really fair game, but in America it is almost a professional sport), of utmost concern here is the criticism over her hair. Many words have been written about her hair and many words have been written in condemnation of those who write about her hair. Regardless, someone, somewhere is writing about Clinton’s hair and taking time away from actual, real-life issues.
That we do not concern ourselves with Speaker John Boehner’s overly-tanned body or Vice President Joe Biden’s great teeth proves an obvious dichotomy. We cannot make sense of a woman in power. We do not know what to talk about, so we talk about her hair. This occurred often on The West Wing, as first lady Abby Bartlett (played by Stockard Channing) would repeatedly sneer at questions about her dresses, rather than political issues she was involved with. Clinton’s authority worries those who do not have a language to describe her actions. The possibility of another presidential run places her in an unnatural state with few words to define it.
Ms. Knowles has managed an incredibly positive position while claiming the role powerful female performer and role model. Some disagree with this assessment. The challenge here is to come to terms with female sexuality and female authority. For many people these do not go hand-in-hand, and at the core of this argument is the idea of the cyborg. Knowles is beautiful, talented, in charge of her career, married to hip-hop legend Jay-Z and participates in many levels of philanthropy. She is also a mother. She is the epitome of the woman who “has it all.” Yet, the criticism she receives, like Clinton, is rested in how she portrays herself in public.
Many will argue that part of the celebrity’s job is to be known by the world, thus should receive this kind criticism. Possibly true, but little attention is placed upon her philanthropic efforts and business strategy.
The COO of Facebook received a waterfall of admonishment when she published her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead in 2013. Many decriers cited her narrow-focused argument not including women who do not have the financial ability or social structure to succeed in a world like Sandberg. They said the COO has help with raisin her children and caring for her home. They said that she was disconnected from “normal women” and placed high standards upon women who never want this lifestyle.
The problem is, like other minority groups, Americans expect women at the top to speak for all women. Sandberg’s book is not a manual for “how to be a woman.” It was a manual for women who wish to participate in a certain sector of the public sphere, who need guidance from a woman who has done it. Sandberg’s argument is that she has seen too many women who have the potential to be a leader, reject the option because they – from the beginning – do not actively, aggressively reach for it since they are afraid.
Not everyone will be a leader. Not everyone will be the COO of Facebook.
Let us let go of this need for female leaders to be the spokeswoman for all women.
Sandberg’s phenomenal TED talk titled, “Why We Have Too Few Female Leaders” from December 2010 can be found here.
This is an area of research that requires more contemplation. It is impossible to fully hash-out the problems and benefits of the feminine cyborg in one blog post. The take-away here is that women at the very top of leadership take on various feminine and masculine traits in order to attain successful appointments in their careers, but as a result open themselves to harsh criticism because they do not remain within the boundaries of gender norms. Rather than condemn them for their “limited” abilities or actions, women should be affirming these roles as accomplishments for American womanhood.
 Sarah Louise Muhr, “Caught in the Gendered Machine: On the Masculine and Feminine in Cyborg Leadership,” Gender, Work, and Organization. Vol 18, No 3 (May 2011): 341.
 Valerie Palmer-Mehta, “The ‘Oprahization’ of America: The Man Show and the Redefinition of Black Femininity,” in The Oprah Phenomenon, edited by Jennifer Harris and Elwood Watson (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007): 65-84.
 Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013).