Ghost In the Shell: What's with the outfit, Major?
This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.
I'm sorry if it spoils a surprise to reveal this up front, but I am giving the Ghost In the Shell anime series three stars. I am including Ghost In the Shell, Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence, both seasons of the Stand Alone Complex series, and Solid State Society, the third movie. I am not familiar with the manga, so I'm not addressing that here.
Major Motoko Kusanagi is one of the ultimate kick ass action heroines ever, despite being a cartoon. She's the squad leader of Public Security Section 9, a covert ops division of the Japanese police force, and the men she commands have complete respect for her. You know that scene in The Matrix where Neo lands in a crouch and the pavement cracks under his feet? He's trying to be as cool as Kusanagi... and it's just not possible. She's a cyborg hacker soldier woman of mystery, and she rocks the universe.
She also dresses like a dominatrix-style hooker.
[...] I checked on boxofficemojo.com, and it didn't even make it's production money back. What happened? While I have a couple of friends who will see these films, many female friends I know won't even go. Then if guys won't go because it doesn't have enough t&a, then the films just don't get made. So does it then become terrible that we get near naked shots, enhanced boobage, and impractical clothing for Tombraider, say (though I know, this is from the game), and in return we actually get to see a capable, in charge female action hero? Or is it too much to give up?
This is exactly how I feel about Kusanagi. She's an amazing, strong, wise, moral woman who is unquestionably in command - but to enjoy her existence, I have to look past the fact that she walks around the office in a thong and a bustier. Why would she choose to dress that way? I know that there are women in today's society who do enjoy dressing like this, and perhaps if they are employed in quasi-military organizations and it wouldn't ruin their careers, they would do so at work. As a cyborg, Kusanagi isn't even hampered by constraints of biology or physics when choosing her shirt, or even her breast size. So I guess it's possible that this could be what the real Kusanagi would choose.
Honestly, it is sometimes tough to back up any individual observation of sexist influence on personal appearance. Any particular item of clothing could be a particular woman's choice to live freely and express herself, or something she does from an unhealthy need to be attractive to others. So I can't prove scientifically that Major Motoko Kusanagi, warrior and philosopher, friend and leader, feels that the true expression of herself is found in leotards with no backside coverage.
But I really don't think so.
There are too many images like this, and too few images that are any other way. If we were ever to achieve diversity in representations of women and men in movies and television, I wouldn't have to be suspicious. But we haven't, not by a long shot. I wish I had a sound, logical explanation with footnotes and references that would demonstrate to any thinking person that Kusanagi's outfits are an insult to her character and motivated by nothing but sexism. I don't. I just know how I feel when I compare her appearance to her personality. It doesn't match. It's put on her by someone else, someone who could manage to create her, but who doesn't ultimately respect her as a person.
Bringing it back to d's comment above, then, I have to wonder whether choices like this are commercially necessary. Does T&A really make or break the kinds of films I want to see?
Betacandy started The Hathor Legacy "to demonstrate that there are people who don't like how women and gender roles are presented in movies and TV because she was sick of hearing from film execs that the audience only wants white men in lead roles." With all respect in the world for what the team at Hathor has created, I doubt very much that a demonstration of several hundred people's tastes has the potential to change anything at the level of budget required to make a feature length film that is released into mainstream theaters. Saying "no, you're wrong" in the face of stupidity is admirable, and obviously if Grace and I didn't have similar tendencies, you would not be reading this.
But aside from finding some folks on the internet who can say they'd still buy a movie ticket if Lara Croft were an A-cup, how do we assess whether the films I wish existed could be viable without gratuitous skin?
I doubt there's a database that could be used to do multivariable analysis and test what makes a film a success. Controlling for budget, promotion, name recognition of the stars, and release date, does T&A have a significant effect? How do you create variables to represent acting quality and plot pacing?
Ghost in the Shell may not be the best test case for this, since it's based on a pre-existing text. Imagine, though, a similar movie that pushes the boundaries of art, asks serious questions about the nature of existence, and explodes in righteous violence at all the right moments. Imagine characters so cool that you desperately want to be them, be near them, or at least get a job in their office emptying trash cans just so you can say you're a part of their world. Imagine a woman - or hey, let's get crazy and imagine there are several women - who work alongside men to fight the bad guys and right wrongs, who are friends and trusted team members and who completely kick ass.
Would fans of action movies, or in this case anime, really skip it in droves because the lead woman is wearing clothes?
Or would it just fail to ignite a profitable cult following, because it's a wonderful piece of art but not as suitable for masturbation fantasies? I note without additional comment that the Wikipedia entry on Kusanagi has three sections: Background, Rank, and Sexuality.
What I find intensely painful is that I really do suspect the studio execs are right. I suspect quite strongly that without sex, it won't sell. We get movies that reinforce sex stereotypes, and then the market demands them, and then we get them and it does the reinforcing thing again. When a film deviates from the model, it fails, and its failure is used to excuse not deviating in the future. How long will it take to create change in this environment?
I guess I'm just glad I get any version of Kusanagi, even though she's trapped in a male fantasy. I'm not a big anime fangirl, but there are moments in the first Ghost in the Shell movie that take my breath away with their beauty and artistry. I sometimes find it hard to follow the plot of the later movies and series, but I stick with it, because I can tell there's something big and interesting and worth it going on in there. I love Kusanagi, and Batou, and Aramaki, and Togusa, and the funny Tachikoma robots with the squeaky voices. Ghost in the Shell shows concern for the downtrodden, the unfairly treated, and the marginalized. It's about creating justice, and Kusanagi is a real heroine.
Grace and I met a woman at BlogHer last year who listened to us talk about Tomb Raider, then asked pointedly "But what about the fact that even the actress wanted the breast size toned down?" She wanted us to agree with her that the Lara Croft boob thing invalidated everything strong and fine and beautiful about the movie. It doesn't. There is no perfect movie, and there are very few movies that can't be simultaneously read as good and bad for women. Kusanagi's outfits do not mean that Ghost in the Shell is worthless.
But it does mean that Ghost in the Shell should have been four stars, and it's not.