Neuromancer: Let’s Hear It for the Girls

Brigitte Helm during the filming of "Metropolis"

Since I could not make up my mind as to which topic interested me more, here is a second essay on the June book for my reading group, William Gibson’s Neuromancer.

Let’s Hear It for the Girls

In his stories set in the Sprawl, Gibson uses several recurring characters; the most emblematic is arguably Molly Millions, also known as Sally Shears, Rose Kolodny, Steppin’ Razor, Cat Mother, etc.  This deadly cyborg and free agent first appeared in the 1981 short story “Johnny Mnemonic” and would go on to be a central character in the novels Neuromancer and Mona Lisa Overdrive.  Because she is tough and dangerous, and because she features prominently in the stories, an initial reaction was to dub Gibson’s fiction post-feminist.

This evoked disagreement, and a number of authors [1, 2, 3, 4, 5  as mere examples] pointed out ways in which Molly and the more vulnerable Linda Lee’s characters fit with a traditional patriarchal mindset common in the literature that inspired it, such as science fiction and hard-boiled detective tales.  These are valid ways of examining the characters, but I would argue that we should not miss the forest for the tree.

I first read Neuromancer when it came out in 1983 as an 18-year-old fan of both science fiction and detective stories; what struck me as a woman was not only Molly’s character, but the fact that there were several female characters and they did not feel like tokens nor like accessories — as they did in a majority of the book I read.  The character of the lone woman in a man’s world is not that rare; after all, SF/F is enamoured with the theme of the Exceptional Character.  What is more rare is any kind of gender balance and the presence of characters who just happen to be women, rather than being present in the story in order to fulfil a “female role.”  Molly Millions, Linda Lee, Cath, 3Jane Tessier-Ashpool, Marie-France Tessier, Michèle the Turing cop — they represented a variety of roles, they had agency, independence.

mind map: Wintermute and NeuromancerMarie-France, 3Jane, Cath, and Michèle can be directly compared to male equivalents (John Ashpool, 8Jean, Bruce, Roland & Pierre) and not found to be lesser or sexualized versions; in fact, they outshine the male versions.  Although there are more unique male named characters (Case, Armitage/Corto, the Finn, Dixie Flatline, Rivera, Maelcum, Aerol, “Julie” Deane, Wage, Lonny Zone, Ratz, Hideo, Terzibashjian) than female ones, it can be argued that Molly is counterpart to several of them. She dominates most of them at one time or another, or receives their willing cooperation and even allegiance (e.g., from the Panther Moderns and the Elders of Zion).

Molly is repeatedly referred to as “a 1940s femme fatale” in discussions of the book written in the last decade or so, but is this fair?  She is tough, independent, she initiates and terminates her sexual and romantic relationships, and might even appear like a traditional male hero in female guise, but she also shows noble impulses, a sense of justice for the underdog, sensuality, and protectiveness.  She is sometimes in need of rescue, but no more than Case, and is more often acting as the rescuer herself; she is not merely deprived of agency and waiting passively when she is in need of rescue, but plots her own actions towards regaining the upper hand.  [Edit: Also, a femme fatale character puts the male protagonist in peril, whereas Molly has Case’s back.]

By contrast, only Linda assumes a more traditional dependent role, and her image is used as an anchor to pull Case.  She appears soft, nurturing and supportive, but betrays Case and is used to manipulate him.  She is the most traditional but the least “real” female character, since for most of the book she is a construct of the AI called Neuromancer.

Concentrating on one or two characters and trying to fit them in the femme fatale- and girlfriend-shaped cookie cutters inherited from the hard-boiled detective genre does Gibson as well as his readers a disservice; in some measure, he uses and even co-opts the tropes to serve his own plot without pushing the same message.  No, he is not a flag-bearer for a feminist revolution in science fiction, and no, women did not have a parity of numbers in his Sprawl stories, but the distance between his predecessors and him towards gender equality was considerable.  If his stories are still found wanting in that respect, let them be road markers of the distance covered and that which remains.

Works Cited

[1] Nixon, Nicola (1992): “Cyberpunk: Preparing the Ground for Revolution or Keeping the Boys Satisfied?” In: Science-Fiction Studies, vol. 19 (July 1992): 219-235.

[2] Booker, M. Keith (1994): “Woman on the Edge of a Genre: The Feminist Dystopias of Marge Piercy.” In: Science-Fiction Studies, no. 64, vol. 21, Part 3 (November 1994): 337-50.

[3] Merrick, Helen, and Tess Williams, eds. (1999): Women of Other Worlds: Excursions Through Science Fiction and Feminism.

[4] Fernbach, Amanda (2000): “The Fetishization of Masculinity in Science Fiction: The Cyborg and the Console Cowboy.” In: Science-Fiction Studies, No. 81 vol. 27, Part 2 (July 2000)

[5] Thomsen, JoAnna (2000): “Cybergrrrlz: Cyberpunk Women of Neuromancer, The Matrix and Blade Runner.” Final paper for the Women’s Studies course “Cyberfeminism & Technoculture” at the University of Minnesota.

Mind map is from the “Neuromancer by William Gibson” study guide on the New South Wales Department of Education and Communities and Charles Sturt University online English node site.

Picture of Brigitte Helm resting between scenes during the filming of Metropolis obtained from The Hitless Wonder Movie Blog.

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One thought on “Neuromancer: Let’s Hear It for the Girls

  1. Hi Sophie,

    I was thinking about almost the same topic recently and I encountered your essay after some Googling. I thoroughly enjoyed it! Many thanks!

    Checking the date, I see it’s been over 3 years since you wrote it. I hope I’m not too late to the conversation. I am fascinated by the complexity of Gibson’s major characters and I agree that a shallow characterization does a lot of injustice.

    I’d like to say a bit about the motivations that the author assigns to the characters. For Molly, the unmistakable motivation is her constant push for self-improvement. She starts from the lowest of the low and endures great suffering and humiliation. But instead of wasting away the money on pain-killing drugs like many a street youth, she pays for her own cyborg enhancements. In a non-scifi setting this might feel perverse but in the Sprawl world, where the boundaries between the “internal” and the “external”, between the human and the non-human, are blurred, we must understand it as a cyberpunk way of improving the Self, or should we say in humanistic parlance, “self-actualization”. Befittingly, she embodies great self-discipline, staying away from street drugs, always keeping herself fit, alert and ready.

    The way I read it, this constant upward push is the defining ethos of Molly, to the point that she sees Case’s downfall as “bad luck” whereas it’s actually the consequence of his own hubris. Molly, as does most human beings, tends to project the self onto others, so maybe she downplays the flaw and weakness of her man, not just because he’s her man. She trusts the human potential and thinks man can rise about his luck just like she does. But in the end she must leave Case. Despite their romantic attraction and comradeship, their motivations are incompatible. Case is motivated (or rather, prodded along) by the subconscious torrents of self-hate. Her “edge” can’t wait for him.

    If we see such how Gibson put in Molly the upward motivation, usually considered a “masculine” or “heroic” trait (as you wrote in the post), we may better appreciate his depiction of women characters. In fact, she’s the only one with such traits in Neuromancer.

    Yeah, so much for my ramblings. Just my thoughts — nowhere close to your coherent summary.

    Best wishes,
    –M.

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