Kritikos: an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

Volume 1, November 2004,                                                                                                                         ISSN 1552-5112



     Technosubjects On Film: Taking Feminist Technology Studies to the Movies

     Catharina Landström




This paper makes use of popular film to talk about the ways in which gender and technology are culturally imagined.[1] This approach considers popular film to be an important site for the articulation of cultural assumptions. Hence, in order to understand aspects of contemporary Western culture it is interesting to turn to film. Film will say something about what makes sense to the members of this culture.


       In this paper the cultural aspect of interest is the way in which the relationship between gender and technology is articulated. As a way to think through some dimensions in this relationship I will look at The Net, Copycat, Enemy of the State, The Matrix, Minority Report and Changing Lanes. All the movies feature computers as central elements in the narratives and reflecting on the ways in which they are associated with human characters makes it possible to think about how subjects are constructed in assemblages of humans and artefacts.


      Film as an ethnographic site for the anti-humanist


      In this paper the films are approached as an ethnographic field.[2] They are read as locations in which relationships between humans and technology are made visible. They are approached as places in which the researcher spends time observing what goes on. However, differently from the real life field, site films enable a constructivist look at humans, technology and gender because all elements are equally imagined. In real life ethnographies constructivism is mainly an analytical activity undertaken in the analysis of material that has been collected under the conditions of phenomenological realism. In the real life ethnographic situation it is difficult to see humans and non-humans as equals, the self-aware humans will always be speaking for the non-humans. Since the non-humans are usually less vocal the only way to access them in real life is through the human subjects. Looking at film the ethnographer can make up their own mind about both technology and humans. This makes it possible to be constructivist and anti-humanist at the time of observation.


      The anti-humanist perspective of this paper draws on the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1987). Of particularly relevance is their notion of “assemblage” that works as a way to re-think the relationship between humans and artefacts in a way that bypasses some of the problems that feminist technology studies have been running into lately.[3]


      It is the problems generated within feminist technology studies that define the direction of the paper. Recently this field has turned to constructivism but it has proven very difficult to get away from gender essentialism. At the moment much of the research tends to begin with two types of humans, women and men, then the object becomes the study and critique of how technology is gendered masculine and associated with men at the expense of women.[4]  Feminist constructivist technology studies thus become circular in assuming the importance of gender in order to demonstrate it. Even worse, in assuming the fundamental role of opposite genders they also confirm the understanding of women and technology as being mutually exclusive.


      Turning to Deleuze and Guattari makes it is possible not to take the human, gendered body as the unit of agency. In their world subjects are events that appear in a specific dimension of a more extensive reality constantly in motion. Feminist cyberspace theorist Dianne Currier explicates their notion:


            “Assemblages are functional conglomerations of elements, but most important, the component elements are not understood as unified, stable, or self-identical entities or objects. In each assemblage the forces and flows of components meet with and link to the forces and flows of other elements; the resultant distribution of these meetings constitutes the assemblage. While concerned with the meetings of various objects and entities, this is not simply a prosthetic model of connection by addition. For Deleuze and Guattari, a self-identical body or object does not exist as origin, prior to or outside the field of encounters that articulate it within any specific assemblage.” (Currier, 2002: 531)


      It follows from this approach that gendered subjects cannot be thought of as self-contained entities that encounter the world, but must be viewed as the outcome of human and non-human elements interacting in specific constellations and situations. Conventional practices of signification attempt to place the human subject as the causal agent in relation to that which it designates as non-human. It is important to resist this in a constructivist analysis. All the elements of an assemblage come to it as potentialities. They do not come from nowhere as nothing because they are already parts of other assemblages. However, their prior relationships do not determine the outcome of the new assemblages even though they may influence it. What emerges from the new combination of elements is a particular subject, a temporary, metastable event that performs gender in an environment of cultural norms.


      The idea of subjects as effects rather than causes is what this paper aims to explicate. It is because of the extreme difficulty of getting out of the plane of organization in which I as a human interact with other humans and downplay other agents that film should serve as the site of investigation.


      Alien and not so alien worlds


      The first step in any ethnography is to describe the location. Treating the movies as ethnographic sites makes this a question of what can be seen.  The importance of computers in The Matrix (Wachowski Brothers, 1999) is made clear already in the opening scene when green code on screen implies that code and code solving will be important. An overheard phone call between two human characters indicates the existence of a risky plan. That there is something strange going on becomes obvious in the first fighting scene when one character moves in ways that goes against all physical limitations. When she disappears via a telephone line we know things are not what they seem.


      The reality experienced by the human characters is really a simulacrum, a mere reflection of the world as it was before it was taken over by an Artificial Intelligence (AI). The technology enabling this is a computer system that interfaces directly with the nervous systems of the humans who are actually kept unconscious in pods while experiencing 20th century life. This situation provides the setting for a plot in which a saviour is produced by the efforts of a small group of human characters able to get outside of the simulation. The plot revolves around information – finding it, understanding it and controlling it.


      The computer hardware featuring in the simulation is mundane, artefacts in common use today. We see computer screens, hard discs, keyboards, and laptops – nothing futuristic. Other technologies featuring are equally mundane, even obsolete – cars, mobile phones and spin-dial telephones.


      The more alien technology is located in the world inhabited by the AI. The first of these that are introduced is a “bug” that appears to be a small tracking device able to morph into organic form. This is inserted into the body of the protagonist, Neo (Keanu Reeves) and it is later extracted with a strange looking device that is applied to his body. Other strange looking artefacts appear when Neo wakes up from his unconscious state in the pod, gets spotted by a surveillance robot and is flushed out. This lands him in the sewer system, to be picked up by the resistance, who live on a hovercraft. There are more strange devices applied to the protagonist’s body to restore muscle function after a lifetime in a pod. The rest of the technology in the hovercraft sports a more “grubby-high-tech” look. Computer hardware is piled up and linked through visible cords, recalling the image of a hacker workshop in a basement. The most unfamiliar technology are the human characters of whom all but two are cyborgs, with implants that they used to be hooked up to the simulation through. It is these implants that enable the resistance to enter the Matrix in order to fight the AI.


      The real in which the hovercraft moves consists of the built structures of a cityscape featured as ruins on a devastated earth. The devastation originates from a human act of destruction in a war with the AI. Robot technologies play the role of the environment; robots maintain and protect the system that is run on energy from the human bodies in the pods.


      The trope of technology revolting against its human masters is as old as the science fiction genre. Despite the mobilisation of it here, this film does not figure an insoluble contradiction between humans and technology. There is talk about a free human city called Zion, but it too relies on computer technology. The motivation for the AI to chase the leader of the resistance is that it wants the codes for Zion’s mainframe. The humans are driven by the wish to control the Matrix and the AI. The conflict is about who will control the systems.


      In the second science fiction film Minority Report (Stephen Spielberg, 2001) the plot evolves from the consequences of a particular technology, a cybernetic system for predicting murder. This technology is based on the labour of three human “pre-cogs” whose visions of the future (“precognitions”) are recorded in a computer system and analysed by the police, who arrest the presumptive perpetrator before the murder has actually been committed.


      When a short story (by Philip K. Dick) is adapted to a 2 hour and 21 minute film some gaps are bound to emerge, in Minority Report these are filled with spectacular displays of high technology. There are near-future computer hardware, surveillance systems (it features a prison that puts a new twist on the Bentham panopticon), vehicles, weapons (mostly of the non-lethal variety), a fully automated automobile factory, police personal equipment and a cityscape where every trace of vegetation has given way to high-rise buildings and a new mode of track-bound personal transport that moves in three dimensions.


      The police office computer is an amazing piece of equipment; its semi-spherical, transparent screen is a surface with which the human interacts by pointing with special gloves. The human user works with the images on the screen to interpret the exact location of the predicted event. The computer screen is introduced with a classical music soundtrack. The music and the choreography of the scene associate to wizardry. In this scene, the assemblage of computer and human produces a subject with the power to see and control the future. A reality invisible to other humans (the subordinate police officers have smaller screens and no gloves) is revealed and addressed by the man in charge who interacts with the system.


      Minority Report produces a contrast between the spectacular features of the office computer and the ubiquitous computing that permeates the environment outside. Retina scanning technology operates everywhere; humans are registered and greeted by personalized advertisements or monitored by the authorities wherever they go. The advertisements rely on digital technologies that allow for images to be displayed on a wide range of surfaces - walls, newspapers, packing materials and so on. The camera lingers on the newspapers that update as they are read. 


      Considerably less futuristic is The Net (Irwin Winkler, 1995) another technology centred movie in which the female protagonist becomes involved by inadvertently getting information about a plot to overthrow society. Visually the computers in the Net do nothing that could not be imagined to happen in the everyday many of us experience.


      This is also the case in Enemy of the State (Tony Scott, 1998), a critique of surveillance technologies. The plot revolves from the murder of a politician who resists new legislation that would extend the rights of government and law enforcement agencies to use electronic surveillance technologies against the citizens. The technology in question is visualized as a control room, from which the bad guys (who work within a particular government agency) can control the computerized systems of the city and the nation. There is also a white van that functions as a mobile control centre and facilitates audio capturing over shorter distances. The hardware in this movie looks nothing out of the ordinary, but the shifts in point of view work to visualize the omnipresence of computerised systems that can be used for surveillance.




      In the thriller Copycat (Jon Amiel, 1995) computers play an interesting role. The protagonist Dr Helen Hudson (Sigourney Weaver) is an expert on serial killers who has suffered a nervous breakdown after having been attacked and almost killed by one of her subjects. Her psychological state is conveyed to viewers early in the movie, she is severely incapacitated, she has adjusted to life as an agoraphobic who regularly suffers panic attacks, drinks too much and mixes alcohol with prescription drugs.


      Computers contribute crucially to the protagonist’s agency in this movie. The expert Dr. Helen Hudson is not co-extensive with the human, that part of the subject is not functioning very well, unable to leave the house, to separate hallucinations from reality and to take care of itself in general. To become the murder-catching subject this human has to link with computers, the hardware, software and network. It is when the human element sits down in front of three computer screens, accesses stored information, sorts data and communicates online that the subject, Dr Helen Hudson—expert on serial killers—comes into being and acts.


      Changing Lanes (Roger Michell, 2002) is, like Copycat, not a film about technology as such but about power. It does however, bring home the message that we live in sociotechnical systems that shape our reality. Cars, buildings and computers are the necessary conditions for the events that befall the human characters. The plot revolves around coincidence when a minor traffic accident evolves into a frightening vendetta in which personal ethics come undone.


      Changing Lanes visualizes technology as a structure linked to class. Social position links to computerized systems in ways that consolidate the power of the privileged. If you are in a career job, well educated and in control of your financial situation, you can access and benefit from the computer system. If you are not, there is no point of access, computers run your life and you have no say in it. Gavin Banek’s (Ben Affleck) privileged position is made visible in his material surroundings and in his ability to manipulate the technological systems underpinning the everyday. His office is very bright, modern and spacious with a large oil painting of a beach and a flat screen computer on the desk. He drives a brand new silver Mercedes and speaks constantly on a small, foldable mobile phone. When he really wants to get at his opponent, he finds “a guy” who can manipulate the computer system to control people’s identities. This manipulation pulls the rug from underneath his adversary whose financial existence is obliterated when his credit worthiness is exchanged for bankruptcy and his house-loan cancelled. Banek also enrols the sprinkler system at the office when he needs to get into some crucial but locked away files. By setting off the sprinklers, he is left alone in the office to access the files that turn the tables in the power hierarchy at the office because they contain evidence of the mismanagement of a trust fund.


      Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson) is a character on the lower rungs of the social ladder. His workplace is an open office-scape with rows of old fashioned bulky computer screens and telesales people with phone headsets in front of them. The combination of visual monotony and the physical link of the phone cord between humans and system visualizes a subjugating structure in which humans are purely functional elements. Gipson also drives a wreck of a car of indistinguishable make and uses pay phones when he is on the move. He has no defence against the manipulation of his bank record. The clerk is deaf to his argument that he was credit worthy when they met yesterday and that the current information from the computer system is erroneous. The second time this happens the clerk recognizes that the system has been manipulated but it makes no difference. Gipson then grabs the computer and throws it on the floor. It is when Gipson manages to get at Banek by loosening the wheel nuts of his car that the story turns around, to Gipson’s advantage.


      The computers in this film evoke an image of a widespread subterranean system from which visible elements spring up in different configurations depending on the conditions. It is this substrate that grants social existence to Gipson, his computerized bank record is more real than the clerk’s memory of him from previous meetings. This system is also impossible to second-guess because even when the clerk acknowledges that the file has been corrupted, it cannot be changed back. This extends to Banek who, at a later point, visits the bank to set things straight. The clerk again replies that although there is clearly an error in the system it has to be addressed within the logic of the system, which will take at least three months. 


      In spite of the power expressed in the technology in this film, it is not a critique of technology as such. The antagonism is against the social stratification that determines the relationships humans have with technology.


      The morals of technology


      Despite significant differences in the attitudes to technology in these movies, they all construct the human protagonists as technosubjects because they can only exercise agency when they are somehow in a connection with computers. The differences between the films lie in the quality of the relationships between humans and technology, which ranges from amicable to averse.[5]


      On the amicable side we have The Net and Copycat. In these films the computers enable the characters to define themselves as professionals. That it is the computer networks that allow the protagonists to be put under threat is not the fault of the system as such. The answer to the threats is not to cut off the relationships with the computers but to track down and defeat the culprits who are also humans.


      Enemy of the State and Changing Lanes are more averse. In these movies, the computer systems produce the threats against the protagonists. In the former technology is inherently evil, in the latter it becomes so through the unequal social system. The plots revolve around the protagonists’ struggle to get out of reach of the computer networks. When that happens the conflict is resolved and the films end.


      The Matrix and Minority Report differentiate between technological agencies that can be friends or foes, the bad technologies being the AI and the precognition system respectively. Being science fiction films, they place technology as constitutive to the worlds that the characters inhabit. Both of these worlds are clearly on the dystopic side.


      Gendered technosubjects


      The major question in this paper was about how gender was told in these movies. This question relies on the idea that if we think of gender as performed in everyday life we can think of it as being told in fiction. A look at the films illustrates that the phenomenon Judith Butler calls the heterosexual matrix holds firmly in all of them. Butler’s claim is that gender is the outcome of what we do, rather than something we are:


            “The effect of gender is produced through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and styles of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self.” (Butler, 1999: 179)


      The heterosexual matrix organises meaning in a way that locks gender and sexuality in a configuration where men have to perform masculinity and women femininity in order not to become punishable. It is not a benign cultural belief but a punitive thought figure. Butler says:


            “Hence, as a strategy of survival within compulsory systems, gender is a performance with clearly punitive consequences. Discrete genders are part of what ”humanizes” individuals within contemporary culture; indeed, we regularly punish those who fail to do their gender right.” (Butler, 1999: 178)


      Butler was not the first to claim that gender is something we do rather than are. The radical thing with the notion of a heterosexual matrix is that it takes sexuality to be the parameter that organises gender. In the heterosexual matrix, the feminine and masculine are generated through a presupposition of desire as an attraction between opposites, premised on a dichotomy of female and male bodies and psychological traits.


      The heterosexual matrix’s construction of gender as opposites between which desire flows works in all the movies, even in The Matrix that is set in a world where humans are not born but grown and the simulation provides endless possibilities of morphing. The resistance is comprised of two female and six male characters, all clearly marked as such. They equal each other in fighting skills and abilities but the leader and the protagonist are men. All the adversaries are male. The point of emergence of the protagonist as the One is an act of heterosexual desire.


      However, The Matrix is in no way as cliché as Minority Report in which the amazing technological equipment in the protagonist’s home, including three-dimensional video projection, serves to establish an image of  “fractured” masculinity. The strong boss in charge at work with a hollow inside, emotionally messed up. Failed as a father, failed as a husband this character (played by Tom Cruise) has retracted into his own world of drugs and memories.


      The most original take on gender is to be found in Copycat. Differently from many other serial killer thrillers the potential male hero is killed off in a totally unrelated incident. Although ostensively about a copycat serial killer who murders women, we do not see any woman actually being killed while numerous men are brutally slaughtered.


      The difference between the movies within the heterosexual matrix regards the degree of stereotyping feminine and masculine, and here they divide into compliant or critical.[6]


      In the compliant camp we have Enemy of the State, Minority Report and Changing Lanes. These films construct gender in a way that only ever existed in a fantasy about the 1950s. This is not to deny that side characters can be more up to date, but the notion of the idyllic marriage where the man and breadwinner really belongs, organise the plots. All these stories end with the protagonist coming home to his wife and (with the exception of Minority Report) children who have been waiting for him.


      On the critical side, we have The Net, Copycat and The Matrix. The Matrix breaks with the mould in that its female characters are to a certain degree the same as the male. The movie does this gender sameness in a very traditional heteronormative manner in which there are no other types of close personal relationships, other than that of the heterosexual couple. The Net and Copycat are more interesting. They start out moving down traditional paths but then take an unexpected turn. In The Net the protagonist’s male love interest turns out to be the bad guy that she has to kill (several times). In Copycat there are different kinds of relationships between many different people; the two police officers; the protagonist and her gay male personal assistant; the assistant and his lover, etc. These movies do not resolve the conflict through the reestablishment of heterosexual domestic bliss.        


      Female technosubjects


      One surprising aspect emerging from the reading of subject construction in the human-technology assemblages in these films was that female and male technosubjects were differently constructed. For example, in comparing The Net and Enemy of the State one notices that, although they are very similar in that computer networks are used to strip one individual of their agency, they differ in the way subjects are produced.


      In The Net the protagonist is a computer expert Angela Bennet (Sandra Bullock). She is a technosubject from the outset. She is first introduced sitting in front of a computer in a home office, playing computer games and speaking to somebody on the phone about the game, pointing out its emphasis on mindless violence. Through the conversation we are informed that her task is to find the bug in the program, she is a beta tester. Rapidly she identifies the problem and copies the bug to a floppy disk, still speaking on the phone. Winding up the conversation, she declines an invitation to dinner, claiming to have a previous engagement. After hanging up she orders pizza online, moves around in the house (turns on a simulated fireplace), returns to the computer, buys a holiday trip online and logs into a web chat where she appears to know everybody. The problem is that she has put too much trust in the on-line world, with no visible existence off-line; there is little real-life support to mobilise when threatened. The male protagonist of Enemy of the State (Blair Underwood) knows very little about computer systems. This becomes his weakness, and it is not until he gets help from an expert that he can begin to fight back. In The Net, the protagonist is of the system, a system that enables her subjectivity but that can be invaded. In Enemy of the State, the system is a threat, a dangerous structure without any positive functions.


      In The Net and Copycat, the women protagonists are positively connected with technology. They emerge victorious when finding a balanced partnership between that which is considered human and that which is considered technological. In contrast the solution for the male protagonists comes from their dissociation from technology (excepting The Matrix).


      In life outside of fiction, women are construed as opposite to technology. Women do not fit in to engineering communities, technologies associated with women are considered less technologically interesting, and women are thought not to experience pleasure with technology. Feminist technology studies testify to this in numerous case studies.[7] That femininity and technology fuse into successful technosubjects in film while they are constructed as mutually exclusive in real life is a fascinating phenomenon.


      One dimension of this phenomenon may be the amount of work done to keep the heterosexual matrix in operation. One thing that sets The Net and Copycat apart from Minority Report, Enemy of the State and Changing Lanes is that they do not present the heterosexual nuclear family as the reward to follow the resolution of the conflict. Characters in movies are not driven by personal wishes to perform gender in a way that makes them acceptable in a heteronormative community, and the protagonists of The Net and Copycat do not have a life after the film conflict is resolved. In real life, performances that contradict the meanings generated through the heterosexual matrix are contrary to the ideal life everybody learns to envision.










      Butler, Judith (1999) Gender Trouble. Feminism and the subversion of identity. Second Edition. New York: Routledge


      Currier, Dianne (2002) ‘Assembling bodies in cyberspace: Technologies, bodies and sexual difference’, in Mary Flanagan and Austin Booth (eds) reload. Rethinking women + cyberculture. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 519-538


      Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix (1987) A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London: The Athlone Press


      Emmison, Michael and Smith, Philip (2000) Researching the visual. Images, Objects, Contexts and Interactions in Social and Cultural Inquiry. London: SAGE Publications


      Geertz, Clifford (1973) The Interpretation of Culture. New York: Basic Books


      Hines, Christine (2000) Virtual Ethnography. London: SAGE Publications


      Kleif, Tine and Faulkner, Wendy (2003) ‘’I’m no athlete [but] I can make this thing dance!’ – Men’s pleasures in technology’, in Science, Technology & Human Values, Vol 28, No 2, Spring, 296-325


      Kvande, Elin (1999) ‘‘In the Belly of the Beast’: Constructing Femininities in Engineering Organizations’, The European Journal of Women’s Studies, Vol 6, 305-328


      Lohan, Maria (2000) ”Constructive Tensions in Feminist Technology Studies”, in Social Studies of Science, 30/6, December, 895-916


      Ndalianis, Angela (2001) “The Frenzy of the Visible: Spectacle and Motion in the Era of the Visible”, in senses of the cinema, 3


      Slane, Andrea (1997) “Romancing the System: women, narrative film, and the sexuality of computers” in Terry, J. and Calvert, M. (eds) Processed Lives. Gender and Technology in Everyday Life. London: Routledge


      Wajcman, Judy (2000) ”Reflections on Gender and Technology Studies: In What State is the Art”, in Social Studies of Science, 30/3, June, 447-67




      Changing Lanes (Roger Michell, 2002, Paramount)


      Copycat (Jon Amiel, 1995, Warner Brothers/Regency)


      Enemy of the State (Tony Scott, 1998, Touchstone Pictures)


      The Matrix (Wachowski Brothers, 1999, Warner Brothers)


      Minority Report  (Stephen Spielberg, 2002, DreamWorks)


      The Net (Irwin Winkler, 1995, Columbia Pictures)



        [1] This is not a film studies paper and it does not say anything about the films as aesthetic objects. Some of the movies used in the present paper have been analysed in very interesting ways by film studies scholars. Examples of analyses with an interest in technology are Ndaliani 2000 and Slane 1997.

        [2] This move is informed by anthropologist Geertz’s (1973) idea of “thick description”, Emmison and Smith’s (2000) approach to visual research and Hines’s (2000) virtual ethnography.  

        [3] Wajcman (2000) and Lohan (2000) provide different takes on the difficulty of combining feminism and constructivism in the study of technology. Neither one would agree with my diagnosis. 

        [4] An example of this is Kvande’s (1999) article on the difficulty that women engineers experience expressing femininity in their male dominated work places.

        [5] I am choosing somewhat unfamiliar terms to denote a difference in order not to produce a binary because I do not think it is analytically beneficial to introduce an “either—or” dichotomy to capture the differences that derive from technological entrenchment in the first place.

        [6] Again the terminology is chosen to avoid the implication of an exclusive binary, it is perfectly possible to find many different degrees and forms of doing gender in relation to the heterosexual matrix.

        [7] See Kleif and Faulkner (2003) for a very illuminating study of the ways in which women and technology are constructed as less compatible than men and technology.


Kritikos: an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

Volume 1, November 2004,                                                                                                          ISSN 1552-5112