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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.