Ghost In the Shell: What’s with the outfit, Major?

Major Motoko Kusanagi is one of the ultimate kick ass action heroines ever, despite being a cartoon.

(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.)

Kusanagi is 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.

Our commenter d, who became a guest poster recently with her take on Speed Racer, had said this a while back after reading Grace’s review of The Quick and the Dead:

[…] I checked on, 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.

This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.

10 thoughts on “Ghost In the Shell: What’s with the outfit, Major?

  1. BetaCandy

    You know, this whole thing tied in with a recent article I wrote explaining precisely why I left film:

    But more importantly, it reminds me of a conversation had in a screenwriting class. This was the mid-90’s – just before Buffy existed – and the prof was saying the usual line about how young target males want to watch men in lead roles. I brought up Xena – which a LOT of guys admitted to watching on the sly – and pointed out that heroic female leads had the *advantage* of being eye candy for the lads WHILE being heroes they could identify with, and that I felt boys could make that transition if given a nudge. (Audiences, esp. young ones, are INCREDIBLY malleable – that’s why advertisers want them. They’re also fickle, which means you should always be trying new things, not repeating the formula that worked for last generation.)

    His argument was “no.” No logic, no reasoning. Just “no, they couldn’t.” It was so obviously a fact in his mind, he didn’t need to support it.

    My point being, even when we make a concession to the eye candy angle in order to secure a lead, the film industry doesn’t interpret that as people wanting to watch women. Hell, they don’t think Alien proved people were content to have a lead female – no, the alien was the *real* star people went to see.

    Between our two sites (and Feminist SF and a few others), no, we don’t have enough participants to “prove” a trend in the market. I whole-heartedly intend to, someday, and maybe now that I’m beginning to make real business world plans to that end, bloggers like us should get together somewhere privately and start planning our world domination.

    But even if we get the numbers, they will STILL do a twisted version of the Sherlock Holmes routine and think to themselves: “Okay, we know they can’t really want to watch women, because that’s impossible. So having eliminated the impossible, we must consider what’s left, however improbable. They’re under alien mind control? Estrogen deficient? Communists?”

    Head, meet brick wall.

  2. Nika

    I agree! Finally, I’ve found a few people who share my views. All I’ve found (especially on the Major and female heroines, in general) is that either she has been completely sexualized and is not worthy as a role model or there are the ones who love how much women are sexualized (the Charlie’s Angels band wagon, if you will). I personally love this show because of the plot and all of the characters Major, Aramaki, Batou, Saito, Borma, Paz, Ishikawa and even the Tachikomas. However, as this is a discussion of the implications of the Major’s sexualization and the show and movies’ abilities to be taken seriously I will say my analysis. Motoko Kusanagi is a warrior, a strategist that would make the Chess Master seem like a blubbering idiot and a hacker unparalleled except by the Laughing Man. She commands, as you say, the complete respect of her men not as a woman but a professional. If there is any word that could describe her fully, “intrepid” would come closest. However, all of this analysis of her abilities as a commander and warrior would be surprising if all we took into account was her apparel. Here is my belief about how the Major would dress, were she not drawn in an industry that tries to appease fanboys for bucks. I believe she would dress provacatively, and normally. Sometimes wearing clothes that make her look sexy while other times opting for clothes that are form-fitting but not necessarily sexy. In other words, she would dress like a normal woman. And as far as her work attire I would more likely envision her in laid back clothes or a business suit. It is a shame that so far anime artists have to sexualize the females but it’s getting better! Claymore and Vexille showed promise in their portrayal of their female warriors. However, the Major is unquestioned as one of the best heroines anime has to offer. And if anyone were to question this they only need to see the end of GITS: SAC Episode 21 when she shoots the living hell out of the DEA commander. To me that was one of her defining moments where she demonstrated 1) what happens when you anger the Major and 2) her devotion as a commander (I can tell you quite a few of those shots were for her comrade, Togusa) in keeping her crew safe and making sure they are taken seriously! Oh, also, she doesn’t fall down crying and losing her emotional control in the worst moments, either. I’ve watched many a promising anime heroine fall into sobs and ruin their track record as a serious warrior. Don’t get me wrong, crying is not a damnable offense. Crying in the heat of battle, however, is. When I think of a warrior, a true soldier, I don’t think of a cold-hearted jerk who doesn’t cry. I think of a jerk who is steel-eyed in war and once that is done will let the emotion hit. Take Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan. He didn’t topple over crying while his men counted on him. He waited till things had cooled down to sit down and let the cold truth of all he’d lost, his feelings of guilt, his sadness at being away from his wife, hit him. That’s another thing about the Major that I love. She is compassionate, but she’s not sensitive. For some reason Hollywood likes their women sensitive and fragile and while Motoko does have her weaknesses (we all do) I would hardly call her fragile!

  3. Randa

    Several particular elements of her character should be highlighted. Her dress is particularly interesting, as she generally wears only a leotard, coat and boots. This dress, while seemingly provocative, is not sexualized by other characters in the narrative, and seems to imply a freedom from traditional conceptions of femininity. She is both overtly feminine, and clearly non-female. In the famous first scene of the film Ghost in the Shell, when she is told over her internal radio that she has a lot of static on the brain today, she responds, “Yeah, it’s that time of the month.” Of course, as a full cyborg, she does not menstruate; “the sexed body as reproductive body has no meaning – or, at least, should have no meaning – in her cyborg state” (Orbaugh 2005, 67).

  4. Skye

    I had definitely considered that answer, yep! And now that I’ve seen the first episode of Arise, I’m leaning that way. What’s with the military gal whose shirt is open down to her waist?

  5. Optical

    I found your post by googling the question of why the major dresses the way she does.

    I’ve been thinking about it and at first it was jarring. But I’ve concluded that it’s for this reason: Almost every female robot that gets hacked and becomes dangerous in the series is a sexed up service robot. The major looking just like a hooker could be commentary on the role of women, with the metaphor of the role of robots. It could also just be she’s cut from the same cloth as the geisha robots, and love dolls etc. etc. and it’s her “Ghost” that makes her different.

    I think the series is far more interesting for it’s philosophy than for it’s surface symbolism.

    Great article, thanks.

  6. Skye

    Optical, I agree, the philosophy is the deeper aspect and well worth examining. But I also like the ideas you raise about her outfit linking her to the service robots… especially knowing more about her background now, how she was an indentured servant to the military who paid for her body.

  7. Randy

    At the possible risk of being the only guy to post on here. After reading all of this when I was just wondering why she runs around in skimpy clothes at work, and still not really having an answer, I find I have an opinion on the matter. The 1995 movie and all three “Arise” movies with the red outfits all benefit from her not walking around looking “inappropriate.” (still looking for “Innocence”)
    I chose the word inappropriate quite carefully because it is the word I think best fits. Would you get fired if you went to work dressed like she does? Some might jump back with, “But it’s anime!” My question would then be… And your point is? Was the movie not anime? Was it lacking somehow, I found it not to be. In fact, my question now is, why did they go and screw it up? If they wanted it to be sexier or overtly sexual then why not add in more private life like Arise: Innocence? Added to the character in Arise 3, it added to the story also. It wasn’t just skimpy for the sake of skimpy. If it wasn’t needed to get the fanboys in those movies than why is it needed at all? Can you see I’m still trying to figure out why she is wearing lingerie in the other movies, maybe I am missing something here. For the record here, I felt this way long before my daughter was born, and really long before she became a tween. Honestly I would have watched most or all of the series long before 2010 -15ish if I saw the 95 movie first, or if the lingerie at work thing made any sense.

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