Beyond gender: The inclusivity potential of cyber-body horror

By Katelyn Gutierrez

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) by Shinya Tsukamoto

“Powerful as the sensations of the jerk might be, we may only be beginning to understand how they are deployed in generic and gendered cultural forms.” 

Linda Williams on the future for genderfluid film bodies, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess”

In ongoing discussions on how cinema hypnotizes and immerses us with sound and moving image, there is particular emphasis on the audience’s departure from the “real world” and into the moving image on screen. Of primary concern to most theorists is the extent to which embodiment and identification occurs between the audience and the onscreen characters, even if the worlds of each are incongruous. The horror genre continues to innovate on scare tactics, diversify the casts of characters, developing inclusive and complex themes, and—albeit on a limited basis—answering the call for diverse representations of human bodies, allowing many to “see oneself” on the big screen. So, what is the role of gender in body horror? Has the focus on representation reached the bounds of a finite view on gender? Are we truly past the time of Clover and Williams, where the very scaffolding for body genres, slashers, and other gory subgenres is built upon the outdated gender binary? (Did you see They/Them, released this year, in 2022? If so, I’m so sad you had to waste eye strain on it.) We’ve got a long way to go in pursuit of body horror that starts in the flesh just like its compatriots in the genre and doesn’t mobilize through gender norms.

Left: Manga scans of works by Kazuo Umezu. Right: VHS sleeve for the film Conton (1987) by Takuro Fukuda.

“It may be through the female body that the body of the audience is sensationalized, but the sensation is an entirely male affair.”  

Carol Clover on film bodies in slasher movies, “Men, Women, and Chainsaws”

This isn’t to say that there aren’t already groundbreaking cyber-body horror works in manga, anime, and film by Japanese directors like Kazuo Umezu, Takuro Fukuda, Shinya Tsukamoto, among so many others. It is my opinion that the treatment of body horror in works by these artists, such as Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Conton, Akira, and Drifting Classroom, are stunning displays of body horror that go beyond the physical body and into the horrifically fantastical, previously marked bodies become depersonalized in some way. For example, the technological horror displayed in both the Tetsuo series of films and Akira are now iconic fixtures in the horror film arsenal for their fusion of cybernetics and human flesh. The most intimate moments in these movies happen when human flesh is torn to reveal the inner mechanisms of a cyborg. The horror of being an alien to one’s self, on top of the anguish written on Tetsuo’s (from either Tetsuo: The Iron Man or Akira!) face, is mighty immersive on its own outside of other elements that further abstract Tetsuo from his humanity. Reminiscent of Foucault’s concept of biopolitical power, these works demonstrate the scientific dehumanization of human subjects and the ruinous quest for absolute power that often transcend the horror genre and into others (i.e. cyberpunk media). This notion, wrapped up in bloody cords born from parasites that overwrite your cells’ code and transform you into a fleshy, imperfect machine—the one that could show the way for a new body for body horror.

Left: “Akira” (1982) the manga, by Katsuhiro Otomo. Right: Akira (1988) film adaptation by Otomo & Izo Hashimoto.

How could this direction lead us into the cybernetic future for body horror? It is an urgent priority to refocus the topic of gender in body genres away from embodiment and toward the core of the genre: The most private aspects of our selves, the true ego, or however one might prefer to put it, lies within us. It’s in our guts, the blood and discharge and excrement, and the ways in which a body can feel pain. Public opinion on gender fluidity in media is performatively positive at best; it is only skin-deep (the puns keep writing themselves) with support still linked to the capitalistic structures that protect the most vocal of bigots. The potentiality of ungovernable bodies threatens the surveillance state, as there exists a potent fear of “abnormal” bodies using their ancient magic to gender-stealth the system and subsume the current powers that be. For now, I hope I’ve left you with something to ponder, explore, have nightmares about, or even encourage you to redefine what makes the perfect horrific body for you.

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