The gender politics of being a cyborg

Which are happier: Male cyborgs, or female ones? In today’s New York Times, there’s an excellent piece by Michael Marriott on how robotic prosthetics are evolving — and how people’s attitudes towards them are changing, too. In the past, as he points out, prosthetics were regarded as creepy and uncanny; those with artificial limbs tended to keep them hidden so as not to freak out everybody around them. But as pop culture has grown more obsessed with kewl gadgets and cyborg superheros, the idea of having technology visibly integrated with your flesh has recently become much more acceptable — and even kinda cool. As Marriott writes:

Increasingly, amputees, especially young men like Mr. Clapp, and soldiers who have lost limbs in Afghanistan and Iraq, are choosing not to hide their prosthetics under clothing as previous generations did. Instead, some of the estimated 1.2 million amputees in the United States proudly polish and decorate their electronic limbs for all to see.

Marriott interviews one young guy who thinks nothing of plugging his legs into a wall-socket to recharge while he enjoys a few beers at a party. Yet when it comes to women and their robot limbs, things are much cloudier:

Hope Harrison, a professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University in Washington, had a leg amputated in 1979. Ms. Hope, 43, said she had used a range of prosthetics, but preferred the C-Leg now. She also prefers to wear it with a natural-looking cover.

“It’s one thing to see a man with a Terminator leg,” Ms. Harrison said, referring to the cybernetic character played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the blockbuster movie series. “It may inspire people to say, ‘Cool.’ But body image for women in this country is model thin and long sexy legs.”

Well, there you go: Even after decades of sci-fi novels featuring airbrushed pictures of female robots with big tits, it seems that the cyborg aesthetic doesn’t extend quite as easily to women. This is an interesting enough observation for amputees, who are essential forced to use artificial appendages. But what happens when people start choosing to upgrade their arms and legs with better robot parts? What will the gender politics be for voluntary cyborgs? Perhaps we’ll see the same double standard: It’ll be socially acceptable, and even desirable, for guys to sport lots of chrome — while women who do so will be regarded as overly butch or subculturally weird.

Then again, maybe not. A decade ago, tattooes were primarily acceptable only on men, too — until an explosion of ankle butterflies and lower-back rose-thorn cornices made the female tattoo about as socially transgressive as the minivan.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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