enGendering Technology: a review

enGendering Technology: a review

1996-12-30
Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women
Anne Balsamo
Durham: Duke University Press, 1996.

Martha Henn reviews Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women by Anne Balsamo

In 1978, Louise Joy Brown was born in Bristol, England, the first successful birth resulting from the reproductive technology known as human in-vitro fertilization. Brown, now living in Whitchurch, England and working in a burger restaurant as she studies nursing, celebrated her 18th birthday on July 25, 1996. Within days of her birthday, two other British stories about human reproduction were receiving the same sort of sensational media attention that accompanied Brown’s birth. The first involved the fate of some 3,000 fertilized embryos, laying frozen and unclaimed in fertility clinics all across England. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, made law in England early in the ’90s, mandates that unclaimed embryos be destroyed after five years. The bill, “a culmination of a long struggle in the UK that began when Louise Brown…was born in 1978,” was designed to protect fertilized embryos from unlicensed research, and yet had the perhaps unintended effect of necessitating the destruction of these 3,000+ embryos, ironically within days of Brown’s coming of age (The Lancet, Oct. 6, 1990: 847)

At the same time that this story about unclaimed fertilized embryos was playing out and some people were expressing outrage at their destruction, Mandy Allwood was stirring another sort of outrage in England. Allwood had become pregnant with octuplets, having defied her doctor’s orders and had sex with her boyfriend shortly after receiving a fertility-enhancing treatment. Allwood consulted a public relations adviser and contracted with a British tabloid for an undisclosed sum of cash for her story. Doctors suggested she would have a better chance of carrying at least some of her fetuses to term if she aborted some of the fetuses, but Allwood declined to do so; she eventually lost all of the fetuses. While some people expressed moral outrage over the destruction of unclaimed embryos, others decried Allwood’s attempt to bring all her fertlized embryos to full term and to profit financially. Yet Brown’s parents have over $600,000 in trust for her, profits from the story rights to her conception and birth. Presumably because Brown’s is a happy tale, the fortune amassed from her story does not cause such offense.

Confusion over the ethical, legal, and financial disposition of embryos, fetuses, and test-tube babies is just one legacy of the technologizing of the reproductive process. In her book Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women, Anne Balsamo tackles many of the implications, for women, of technologies of reproduction. Balsamo, an assistant professor in the School of Literature, Communication and Culture at the Georgia Institute of Technology, takes a feminist and cultural studies approach to questions of how technology (defined broadly as devices, processes, procedures, etc.) has formed, informed, and reformed conceptions of the female gender. >– link to the 1996 (post)feminism essays In addition to examining reproductive technology, Balsamo looks at various fictional, filmic, and virtual techno-women. She also examines women’s relationships to other medical technologies (such as cosmetic surgery) and electronic technologies (the computer, of course) for evidence of how new technologies signify culturally vis-a-vis women. Not surprisingly, Balsamo concludes that, while technologies seem to offer opportunities for new ways of envisioning gender, underlying and pervasive sexist, racist, and classist stereotypes give the lie to the neutrality of technology and lay waste to these revisionist opportunities. The result? “The obsessive reinscription of dualistic gender identity in the interactions between material bodies and technological devices” (162).

The book’s Acknowledgements reveals that this study was begun as a dissertation in 1988, and yet the Introduction identifies the book as a collection of stand-alone essays. While the conclusions of individual chapters certainly cohere into a successfully argued contention that technology mimics reigning gender ideologies, not all chapters are evenly contemporary in their outlook. The examples in several sections of the book are dated about 1985 through 1989, a timeframe consistent with a dissertation written in the late 1980s. While some sections and often entire chapters (e.g., chapter six, “Feminism for the Incurably Informed,” about cyberpunk fiction and the use of computers) read as up-to-date, others do not. Given that the book’s focus is the intentional and/or incidental machinations of technology at the end of the twentieth century, and given the rapid pace of technological innovation at this juncture, some parts of the book could use some updating.

Balsamo cites, for example, the 1989 Davis v. Davis case, in which rights to seven frozen embryos were awarded to Mary Sue Davis after her divorce from Junior Davis. Appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, the Tennessee judge’s original decision granting custody of the embryos to Mary Sue Davis was not upheld. Instead, the Supreme Court upheld Junior Davis’ request that the embryos be discarded, based on the argument that “ ‘procreational autonomy’ gives men as well as women an overriding right not to become parents” (Time, Mar 8, 1993: 21). This Supreme Court decision was issued early in 1993, in plenty of time for inclusion in Balsamo’s book. Balsamo writes of this case: “Although ownership of the embryos was awarded to the maternal body in the Davis v. Davis case, there is no guarantee that this judgement will establish an effective precedent for women’s rights” (98). Indeed, it did not.

All that said, the one devil in this book is in such details. Otherwise, Balsamo presents a thoughtful, incisive, and culturally far-ranging assessment of technology’s habit of reinforcing the borders of gender as they have historically existed. For consistency of discussion, I have tended to focus on the issue of reproductive technology in my discussion of Balsamo’s book, but she confronts all kinds of cultural texts and uses of technology in addition to the technical-medical model of pregnancy. Balsamo’s critical versatility is well in evidence as she weaves in and out of discussions of postmodernism, cultural studies, and corporeal feminism, defined by Elizabeth Grosz as “an understanding of corporeality that is comparable with feminist struggles to undermine patriarchal structures and to form self-defined terms and representations” (157). In the Epilogue, Balsalmo does readers a favor by situating herself clearly in the corporeal feminist spectrum and by delineating what she thinks are the specific critical contributions of her study.

Cultural texts that receive close readings from Balsamo include the pseudo-documentary film Pumping Iron II: The Women (1985), Margaret Atwood’s futuristic dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale (also 1985), and Pat Cadigan’s cyberpunk narrative Synners (1991). Cyberpunk is identified as a subgenre of science fiction which provides “an analysis of the postmodern identification of human and machine” (136). While Balsamo’s prose and critical sophistication necessitate a readership familiar with critical discourse, readers who meet that crierion will enjoy Balsamo’s verbal artfulness. Note, for example, the following description of Cadigan’s Synners, which teasingly explains this cultural artifact by making reference to several others:

Textually, Synners displays the verbal inventiveness and stylistic bricolage characteristic of the best new science fiction, but in Cadigan’s case her verbal playfulness invokes Dr. Seuss, and the plot melds a Nancy Drew mystery with a Kathy Acker-hacked Harlequin romance. (134)

Because Balsamo’s agenda was clear to her from the beginning, and because she goes to the trouble of bringing her readers with her each step of the way as she develops her argument, Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women stands as a landmark contribution. It brings together feminist and postmodern studies of bodies, bodiedness, and gender with a cultural assessment of the meanings and workings of technology. And despite its critical sophistication, Balsamo remembers to tie her observations and insights to the real world and to social and political movements for change. Thus she succeeds in showing us the following:

As is often the case when seemingly stable boundaries are displaced by technological innovation (human/artificial, life/death, nature/culture), other boundaries are more vigilantly guarded. Indeed, the gendered boundary between male and female is one border that remains heavily guarded despite new technologized ways to rewrite the physical body in the flesh. So it appears that while the body has been recoded within discourses of biotechnology and medicine as belonging to an order of culture other than of nature, gender remains a naturalized marker of human identity. (9)

We make our technology in our own, gendered image.