Masculinity and the Embodied Machine in Deus Ex: Human Revolution

The following is a guest post from Kaitlin Tremblay:

Kaitlin Tremblay has a Master’s in English and Film, with a specialization in gender and genre, and is currently living the fabulous life of a publishing intern. She spends most of her time playing games, painting, reading (mostly comics nowadays), watching old B-horror films, and writing a nerd-culture/feminist blog.

For my Master’s final paper I choose to focus on depictions of the masculine body as a machine and how these inevitably intersect with madness and violence, specifically with “anti-hero heroes,” like Michael Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid. Needless to say, the moment I put on Deus Ex: Human Revolution, listened to Adam Jensen’s gruffy Christian Bale-Batman voice and watched him die, and be reconstructed/brought back to life with mechanical prostheses, my curiosity was piqued.

Adam Jensen looking down at his mechanical fist and arm.

Adam Jensen doing a damn fine Tim Tebow impersonation.

I want to talk about the male body as a machine. It’s common, but it’s a metaphor that speaks volumes about stereotypes of masculinity, especially of the “hero.” The reconstruction Adam Jensen experiences is more like a tune-up that the Impala undergoes in Supernatural than Dr. Frankenstein creating his monster. The difference is that with the Impala and Jensen, both get recreated through mechanical, not biological, upgrades.

When I had originally wrote on masculinity and the machine metaphor, I discussed it specifically in relation to violence and madness: namely, that the heroes/anti-heroes typically depicted as embodied machines are both extremely violent and extremely insane, and that the machine metaphor was the bridge between. Being a frontier cowboy like Billy the Kid, meant creating a dissonance between self and the violence necessary to survive; it is the machine metaphor that encapsulates this, holding it like a nuclear reactor.

A portrait of Malik wearing her pilot's uniform.It’s also worth noting that when Malik tries to get the angsty-Jensen to open up about how it feels to be augmented, she admits to having some neural-augs, herself. Mailk’s augmentations are discreet, hidden: they are implanted in her brain, becoming fused into her body invisibly.

Jensen’s augmentations, on the other hand, replace his biological body, literalizing the machine metaphor. This is a trope specific to masculinity because masculinity has stereotypically being defined alongside notions of physicality and violence.

In The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Ondaatje, the mechanical embodied masculinity was the answer: the frontier world Ondaatje created necessitated a machine-like response in order to survive. The mechanical embodied metaphor/representation of masculinity operates no differently. It’s a dissonance, a reconfiguring of self in terms of embodied subjectivity and violence. Non-augmented Jensen failed. But new, robot-arms Jensen will save the day, repeatedly. It’s the same narrative in Mass Effect 2: human bodies aren’t up to the gruesome job, so we create new, mechanical bodies that can not only do it, but that we can safely distance ourselves from, as well. More on ME2 in a minute, though.

So what does this mean for masculinity and gender studies? Christopher Forth, in Masculinity in the Modern West: Gender, Civilization, and the Body, discusses the Industrial Revolution as the real Crisis of Masculinity (never mind Fight Club), because with the advent of technology meant the eradication of dependence on a man’s supposed strength. Julien Offray de la Mettrie wrote Man A Machine in 1748, a pretty strong indication that this time period represented a shift in attitudes about bodies and their capabilities.

Simone De Beauvoir even talks about this as levelling the playing field between genders: with technology, it doesn’t matter which sex is stronger, because that bulldozer is stronger than everyone. Okay, so she didn’t say that exactly, but she did mention how technological advancements make moot the age-old argument of who is stronger, males or females. Now, I’m saying this is a good thing (unlike Guy Garcia who, in Decline of Men thinks this is the reason why America is faltering as a nation). The more we think about embodied subjectivity in non-gendered terms, the better. The dissonance created by the machine-metaphor exposes the construction and performativity of gender. As N. Katherine Hayles says, “The computer moulds the human even as the human builds the computer” in Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers. As technology changes our conception of humans, it affects our understanding of gendered constructs.

An action shot of Adam striking out with his fist, a blade protruding from his elbow over his fist.

Deus Ex: HR falls short of this, but it’s a good place to start thinking about it. DE:HR still largely stays within the confines of the masculine machine, especially when you compare Jensen and Malik’s augmentations. Malik’s augmentations don’t change her feelings of embodiment or subjectivity, but with Jensen we’re directed specifically to think about how they shape him. Malik is still separated from machines: she’s a pilot who controls her use of technology, whereas Jensen is conflated with technology.

The Mass Effect 2 example is an apt comparison here, because the character customization available is indicative of how studying represenations of femininity, masculinity and how the machine metaphor can operate to blur the gendered notion of strength and violence. DE:HR exposes the representation of masculinity as mechanized and violent, and ME2 allows for this to be taken further (sidnenote: I’m ignoring the release dates here, but just looking at how the similar narrative is operating in both).

If we’re thinking in these terms, then ME2 shows that mechanized metaphors for the body can expose a dependence on thinking of gender as a natural product of one’s sex. The reconstruction and augmentation Commander Sheperd undergoes is not tied to a specific gender. It is open. Technology recreates our conception of ourselves by recreating how we are represented.

This is why I enjoyed specializing in gender studies: studying representations of gender, both femininity and masculinity, work to expose these categories as artificial constructs, both with the capability to oppress and empower. We’re never going to escape representation. We are steeped in a visual culture, and representation operates as a bridge for understanding and assimilating information, for both good and ill.

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12 Responses to Masculinity and the Embodied Machine in Deus Ex: Human Revolution

  1. BourneApprox says:

    This was very interesting – thanks for this! I never thought of this game in terms of gender and masculinity. I’d be interesting to hear what the author thought of Yelena Federova, the only female character with Jensen-style military grade augs. The other, male bosses are quite vocal during their (awful, grr) fights, taunting Jensen and talking to him before and after. Yelena is completely silent, however, and gets described as being damaged, as as somehow frightening. She’s the most removed from humanity of any of them.

    Also, interestingly, the other male Tyrant, Namir, appears to no longer have external male genitals.

    • Thanks for the comment! Yelena is definitely an interesting character, and one I want to revisit, actually, especially with tying the conept more directly to madness and violence. Her distance from “humanity” doesn’t feel gendered to me, and I think this is key: she’s more aug than human, and with the augmentations all gender/traditional concepts of perceiving ourselves, become blurred or indistinct. And I think Namir’s lack of overt genitalia plays into this thought, too, thanks for bringing him up!

  2. Sif says:

    Very well written – thank you.

  3. Riley says:

    Huh– I never thought about Yelena that way. I wonder if it isn’t also interesting that you have Eliza talking during that scene instead of Yelena, and trying to help you in a way, while also being pretty spooky (“she’s coming, Adam” and all that). Yelena also functions in a somewhat stealthy way in that boss battle, appearing and disappearing, unlike the frontal assault of the other boss battles with boys. She’s a machine, like the other bosses, but she functions in a completely different way, one that is arguably perhaps more challenging than the other battles, if not at least more scary, but also very differently gendered (and also, now that I think about it, the only battle where there’s someone besides Jensen and the boss in the room, also a woman, unless the last one counts as a boss in the same way…) I also wonder what it might say given that the boss battles (sigh/sob) rob you of any options other than stand-and-fight; those are the moments when Jensen has to use his guns and his augs to fulfill the role of a military-grade combat machine most rigidly, and if you want to read him using his body as a weapon as gendered, the most gendered moments. I freaking LOVE DE:HR and love the ideas you’ve brought up in this article! It’s a game that I wish went farther with everything it does/touches on, including gender. I never thought about gender in the game much until reading this; so exciting to look at it through this lens, as evidenced by my intensely rambling comments.

    • BourneApprox says:

      The DLC, The Missing Link, is interesting as a counterpoint to that too. They fixed one of the big complaints with the first game and took out the mandatory boss fights (you can just get rid of the final boss with a nonlethal takedown). Plus, in addition to disabling all your augs at the beginning, there’s an achievement for finishing the entire DLC without using a single weapon or making a single Praxis upgrade. It also happens to be a DLC which begins with Adam Jensen at his most vulnerable – half naked, strapped to a chair, and being punched in the face by a woman. …Yep, that jibes with pretty much the entire thesis of the article above!

    • Thanks a lot! Yelena is so interesting, especially in how she lends a certain level of “horror” in her stealth and silence. This has given me a lot to think about. I focused mostly on Jensen because my research has been mostly focused on masculinity in this respect, but Yelena is all I can think about now! Haha

      But yeah, the original inability for a nonviolent reaction definitely plays into the violence typically associated with the machine metaphor: masculine bodies become mechanized so they can be greater killing machines. But this also risks a certain loss of sanity/humanity. But this is violence/madness/mechanization is something I want to dig deeper into, especially looking at the boss fights and Yelena.

  4. Samantha says:

    Kaitlin, I’m wondering if you have more thoughts about how gender figures into the representation of Malik. I found her character so fascinating and… *spoiler for DE:HR*

    …went to great lengths to keep her alive during a pivotal scene, going so far as to re-load a save two hours back and re-spec my Jensen so that he could handle the battle to save her.

    • Riley says:

      *spoilers* I spent ages in the Malik-saving scene too, watching walkthroughs &c, and couldn’t not run that mission to save her in other run-throughs too…

      I also felt a strange and distinct sense of guilt when I hacked into her office, which I didn’t feel with anyone else.

      I wonder if Jensen’s relationship with her as a fellow augmented person isn’t interesting when compared with his relationship with Megan, who isn’t augmented… The “gotta rescue Megan” plot is super-gendered, but also rang insanely false to me and kind of bored me- we hardly know her, really, and she’s not too trustworthy. Whereas we work closely with Malik, and I suspect saving her feels like our duty as the player-character, and very organic, unlike (at least for me) with Megan.

      • I did find the saving scenes between Malik and Megan incredibly interesting. Megan is definitely more gendered, and sadly, feels to me to fall more into the damsel in distress trope. I agree: her rescue mission feels more like a fall-back plot device than anything organic.

        Malik is a character I haven’t entirely figured out. She’s not as gendered as Megan is (at least not for me, in terms of visual and characteristic representation), but there is something happening with her in that her augs are invisible and thus not embodied, but she’s also forced into a damsel-esque situation. For me, the Malik rescue mission feeds into the underlying hint of violence and madness that often associated with the mechanized body metaphor: augs can potentially be transforming the way we conceive of humans and gender, but there is a certain risk and violence associated with it. This is also supported for me by just how hard the Malik rescue mission is: this isn’t a typical damsel-in-distress scenario, it’s operating on a different gendered level, and the fight is harder because the bodies involved aren’t fully human anymore.

        But thanks for the comments! I want to revisit this topic with Yelena and Malik thanks to all these great thoughts :)

  5. Rakaziel says:

    Very interesting, I have never considered this from a gendered perspective before.
    Personally I think the whole ‘getting turned into a machine turns you into a psychopath’ message of so many games and films is on the one hand understandable (identifying one’s self with one’s body, and thus percieving a loss of body parts as a loss of parts of the soul, weaponized prosthetics in turn being a metaphor for weaponizing one’s own trauma to turn oneself into a weapon, as a result thinking and feeling more like the anthropomorphization of a weapon than as a human being – calculating, murderous, and with a temper that is either cold or screaming for blood. Which in turn means that someone who chooses cybernetic replacements simply as a way of performance enhancement discards part of their own humanity as weak, from that perspective.) and on the other hand unrealistic (the physical side of humanity boils down to the brain and the hormone-producing organs, thus replacling anything else would only have an effect on someone who identifies their self with their body to a psychotic level to begin with. )
    Given that psychopaths have a reduced fear response, them being the first to voluntary replace their bodies with military hardware makes sense on the other hand, and only the ‘machines make you a weapon’ reasoning has it backwards.

    In a humans vs robots scenario the metaphoric fight is almost always emotion vs rationality, turning the all-prevalent forced rationality in daily life into a defeatable monster and thus allowing escapism, and freedom vs The System (a mix of Big Brother paranoia, the police hunting everyone paranoia and percieved-as heartless bureocrats deciding over your life and death) in a way that agrees with their paranoia and turns The System into a defeatable monster, in turn allowing escapism, and of course also turns the fear of being replaced by a machine and dying in and from poverty into a defeatable monster to allow escapism from that too.

    Cyborgs in these scenarios are almost always traitors, either defecting from The System, as the audience wishes to, or abandoning their humanity for better performance as a (supposedly paid) tool of The System.
    Sometimes they are also brainwashed, ultimately pandering to the same paranoias as any zombie apocalypse movie.

    And the incompetence of the protagonists’ enemies is a mountainous as in Equilibrium, In Time, or The Matrix (with the exception that The Matrix has a more of a vampire metaphor than a zombie one).

    And it is a shame, really, adding the sugarcoating and dumbing-down of mindless escapism ruins the good scifi these films could have been. Granted, most more realistic endings would be bleaker than that of 1984, but it would make people actually Think and not only wallow in a sense of false overconfidence, while reality they just paid the very system for sweet lies.

    Warning, lengthy but relevant rant comes here…

    And as for 1984 being realistic, look around you.
    Big Brother is here, including all propaganda and an amount of surveilliance Orwell never could have had nightmares of, the only real difference being that the constant war against ever new enemies for the sole purpose of ensuring the loyalty of the populace by exploiting tribal us-vs-them instincts and in alternately displaying the government as the monster and as the savior from worse evil, a good cop – bad cop routine consciously built to induce stockholm syndrome in the populace.

    Because if we look at how the plutocrats have taken the positon of aristrocratic feudal lords, forcing us into serfdom through wage slavery, and maintaining the illusion of democracy with paid puppets, and that we would have no chance to survive a repeat of the French Revolution due to the technology gap between civil population and military today, and the second amendment has utterly failed in that regard, only being used as a carrot (and paranoia is the stick) by the weapons lobby to sell more guns, then we might get depressed, and might either revolt in spite of it, resulting in us getting gunned down by drones and more ‘anti terror’ laws put in place, or commit mass suicide like self-immolating monks, and that would damage the masquerade, the illusion that it works any better anywhere else.

    And then they might have to slaugther so many people in ‘terrorist attacks’ to scare the populace back into submission (and mutual mistrust within the population, “divide et impera”) without losing face that the other big players might get nervous and we could get a nuclear world war. Because if they drop the mask they would have to kill even more people to scare the rest, and that could make the other nuclear powers just a little bit too worried about them.

    Ok, maybe my views got a little pessimistic, but that is what commenting on 3AM does to me – I get a little sidetracked and I feel I extra tired when I connect the dots.

    • Rakaziel says:

      Noticed I left a sentence unfinished. – The main difference to 1984 is that the eternal war against interchangable enemies to keep the populace divided in paranoia and scared into submission is performed by the media, and that is only the tip of the iceberg. Want to keep blacks from voting? – Jail them with extreme prejustice in the “war on drugs”, as ex-convicts can not vote. And it even helps maintain that useful wage-slave level of poverty for their relatives and provides cheap workers to put them into even more of a vice and provides an incentive for more state subsidiaries for the prison industry, paid from tax dollars, but I think I now really digress.

      And for the record, I am not even a American, but I assume you are, thus the specific examples. As to why I then refer to us in the plural in all these things? – We are all humans, and America is setting a very bad expample for the rest of the world here, that the other plutocrats seem all too eager to follow for their own gain.

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