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Cyberpunk and Transness

7 min read

For the purposes of this article, Cyberpunk is a genre defined thus – A genre of science-fiction that focuses on far-future worlds where capitalism and/or technology have changed the fabric of society and created a dystopia. There’s often a heavy emphasis on aesthetic and one of the most common themes is that of technology and mankind uniting into one. Examples include – The Matrix, Neuromancer, Eclipse Phase, Altered Carbon, and many, many more.

Cyberpunk is a genre that I’ve always loved – for pretty much eight years of my twenty year life, I have followed cyberpunk media, starting with the great classics of the genre like the Matrix, Ghost in the Shell, and Akira, and moving into increasingly varied media until I found myself reading articles from present-day cyberpunk writers and following movements such as biohacking and extreme body modification (y’know, those guys who install implants into themselves to feel EM waves?) closely, though my own disgust at blood prevented me from carrying out any of the modifications I found so interesting…much to the relief of my GP, I’m sure.

Then something weird happened – I started to doubt my gender pretty openly. And what’s more, when I began to do so, I clung closer and closer to those pieces of media, immersing myself in the fictional net and cyberspace of Gibson and Philip K. Dick as a form of escapism. The reason I think that it’s weird is because cyberpunk isn’t exactly the kind of genre full of escapism. A basic reading of most cyberpunk texts reveal a deep nihilism, an idea that the world is shit, will remain shit, and couldn’t really be anything else. Relatively rare is the cyberpunk protagonist who waves the red flag, much more common is the cyberpunk protagonist who accepts the domination of Zaibatsus and only becomes involved once they or their friends or family are threatened. Simply put, Cyberpunk tends to be filled with people who have accepted their lot, and you’re reading their stories not because they’re feel-good novels, but because they paint interesting thematic pictures.

But still, I read them for escapism. And after thinking about it for a while, I think the reason is pretty clear. Cyberpunk is, almost innately, a genre that transgender people are welcome in. This isn’t to say that every cyberpunk group I’ve been involved in is accepting of transgender people. Nor is it to say that all cyberpunk media is secretly about transgender people and their experiences (though The Matrix’s Lilly Wachowski has suggested watching it with that framing explicitly in mind). Instead, the themes of Cyberpunk are such that it becomes a ready space for transgender narratives, literal or metaphorical, to abound.

What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.

  • Morpheus, the Matrix, by the Wachowskis

Central to many cyberpunk narratives is the idea that the body and the person are totally different entities – not that there’s a soul, though some do have that metaphysical implication. But when Neo wakes up from the Matrix, and finds himself in a puddle of pink person-broth, there’s a clear difference between the Neo in the Matrix, and the Neo in reality – it’s an extremely physical difference, the Neo in reality straight up has mechanical plugs and devices that serve as a constant reminder that this is a real body, forcibly altered to serve machine-society. Ghost in the Shell muses constantly about the body, what the person and the body and their relationship is, and the brain of the protagonist, Major Kusanagi, can be switched from body to body. In Altered Carbon and Eclipse Phase, cortical stacks are devices that allow you to switch from body to body, from changes as banal as hair colour to as radical becoming a different gender (and in Eclipse Phase’s case, a space-whale that lives in the sun) are commonplace, even mandatory.

A persistent, common theme across cyberpunk media is that the body and the mind are two different things – and your mind is what matters, not your body. Your mind is what allows you to go into the Matrix, what lets you change bodies, what is transferred between various bodies. It’s easy to see why someone who feels ‘trapped’ in their birth body would cling to something like that. Despite all the negativity, despite all the sadness and dystopia common to cyberpunk, few other genres have as one of their most common thematic beats the idea that one’s body and mind are not the same thing, and that changing one’s body is not only possible, but often desirable.

Cybernetics are something played as either really cool, or really bad. The Deus Ex series positions them as a wonderful creation that’s been tainted by corporate control, while Cyberpunk 2020 quite literally believes that changing your body will consume parts of your soul and make you less human, until you become more or less a shambling zombie of cybernetics devoid of humanity. Of course, Cyberpunk 2020 (a tabletop RPG) has rightfully been criticized for its pretty blatant ableism on that point – to suggest that someone who opts to get functionality in their disabled limbs is literally making themselves less human for taking that option is, at best, an unintended ludonarrative failing that needs correcting.

However, by and large, cyberpunk media sees cybernetics as something that is commonplace, good or otherwise. You can have limbs swapped out, organs replaced, cosmetic changes done to more or less any degree you want. For many transgender people, the idea of living in a society where radical bodily changes are possible and more often than not seen as temporary or cosmetic would be incredible.

Those possibilities, however, are rarely explored in cyberpunk, and even rarer are they explored in any level of tact. Unfortunately, being a genre largely written by cisgender people (mostly cisgender men, if we’re being accurate) means that the opportunity is often lost or used in a completely different way. Obviously, if it doesn’t further the plot or build the world in a unique way, it’s not exactly advisable for your story to suddenly veer into monologues about the transgender experience and how it relates to the cyber and/or punk you’re exploring. However, quite a few stories barely explore the idea, or only how the strangeness of false bodies and constant replacement of human bits with robot bits affects the main character directly, with nary a mention of how the concept of gender might be affected in such a world.

And then there’s the outright hostility or mockery of transgender people within cyberpunk – such as found in the opening pages of Johnny Mneunomic.

One was black and the other white, but aside from that they were as nearly identical as cosmetic surgery could make them. They’d been lovers for years and were bad news in the tussle. I was never quite sure which one had originally been male.

  • Johnny Mnemonic, page 1, by William Gibson

So yeah, the point I am making isn’t that all Cyberpunk media is inherently Transgender, at least not in the sense that each narrative is secretly about some young person blossoming into their own and exploring their gender.

But it’s also a genre full of modification, body-swapping, where the dark dystopia is cut through with shiny and chromed bodies designed to the exacting specifications of their inhabitants.

It’s a genre where one of the principle, defining movies that propelled it into the mainstream was made by two transgender women (regardless of if she was certain of her identity at the time of making the Matrix, Lilly explicitly said the Matrix should be viewed with the Wachowski’s transgender experiences in mind) posit a false self and true self, and the discovery of one’s true self coincides with the taking of a pill. Where questions of humanity and artificiality and if there’s a difference between mind and body become central to stories – where one’s mind can be transferred from body to body. It’s a genre that takes the notions of body, of mind, of identity and self, and plays with it all heavily, or directly declares that if you want to completely change your body, that’s ok.

Cyberpunk is rife with stuff that, with quite literally no tweaking at all, fit comfortably into a story about someone trying to figure out ‘who they really are’ and what they want to be in the world – man, woman, neither. That’s why I found escapism in the dire situations of Cyberpunk media, that’s why it’s a genre that’s captured my attention. For all the darkness, drabness, the dystopia, Cyberpunk has incidentally created dozens of worlds where I could change myself entirely in a few days, instead of months-plus-paperwork. It fascinated me because the potential for it to be an expression of trans-ness was brighter and more garish than any of the neon-tinted cities. Because the potential for explorations of the self, of humanity, of what it means to change your body in such radical ways as transition present themselves so clearly, it’s honestly a little baffling so few have tackled it directly or metaphorically.

When viewed with a lens of dysphoria, of disliking your own body to the point of wanting it completely, utterly, physically changed, Cyberpunk opens up a vast array of possibilities, of possible narratives, of arcs and ideas and variations on the ideas that the forefathers of the genre presented. It’s not an inherently transgender genre, but it is a genre that just so happens to align heavily with the escapism of wanting new bodies, wanting new selves to live as. It’s not hard for me to understand why I fell head-over-heels for it.

Maybe the next generation of cyberpunk writers will be like me – people who found it right when they needed it most, needed stories about how you were more than your body.

Who knows?

I know I’ll be contributing to the genre, best as I can. Seems only right, for all it did for me.

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