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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Identity, Ethics and the production of Genre as seen in the character of Faye Valentine of Cowboy Bebop

Amy Goh #260354243
EAST 214: Japanese Animation and New Media
Professor Heather Mills, Professor Gye-won Kim
20th March 2010

Identity, and the Production of Genre as seen in the Character of Faye Valentine of Cowboy Bebop

Cowboy Bebop, in its mixing of the Western, noir, and cyberpunk, presents itself as a revolutionary ‘super-generic’ work. However, it takes this a step further, addressing the essentially materialistic issues that occur with such a transformation through the temporal fluidity of its protagonists who are eternally straddling a lost past and a future essential to their survival. In other words, even though diversion from genre verisimilitude makes a production much more appealing and culturally relevant to its audience, this evolution is not an innocent dialectical transformation into an ideal as presented by Hegel’s dialectic1, but operates within a capitalist system of production and is based, thus, essentially on materialist relations of power, hierarchy and profit. Cowboy Bebop, in its hybridisation of genres, utilises the nostalgic attachment to the past apparent in the temporally unstable world of the Western, the dissatisfaction with the present in noir, and the technologically saturated futurity of cyberpunk where masculine structures dominate to address the issue of attachment inherent in the transition to a present imperative in the genre industry. This essay will address specifically the sacrifice generic hybridity makes in its obligation to a present essential to its survival through the character of Faye in Cowboy Bebop, as well as the issues at stake in the production of genre virtuosity.

1 Hegel posits that history is a dialectical process by which the process of change serves to advance civilisation to an ultimate “Ideal”. In this light, the deeply rooted problems of society are seen as transitory issues that will eventually be overcome by evolutionary dialectics.

Faye’s character is a paradoxical one: she confuses ideas of gender, desire, time and identity in her body and actions, transgressing and re-inventing conventional definitions of gendered identity and audience identification present in classical cinema. On one hand, she embodies femininity through her sexually suggestive clothing, yet her actions are crass and language loud. Faye’s temporality is also confused- she is transported from the past to the distinct future through suspended animation, leaving a gap of experiential time where she did not exist as a person. She constantly longs for a past lost which she is sure will reveal her identity to her, yet she is materially tied to the present for her own survival and in order to pay a material debt to the company that preserved her body. In this aspect, Faye embodies the very nature of genre and the sacrifice it makes in being part of institutionalised companies and the commercial production of meaning. In other words, she reflects genre as not merely an innocent form of social communication- a “cultural language whereby America understands itself” (Gledhill 68)2- as posited by Wright, but a product of “popular culture” that is, as a rule, governed by “market pressures to differentiate to a limited degree in order to cater to various sectors of consumers and to repeat commercially successful patterns, ingredients, and formulas” (Neale 177)3. Film is, ultimately, a commodity, and hence, the generic system that structures its place in the film industry obeys economic rather than aesthetic rules. As a result, psychoanalytical anxieties of lost origins re-emerge in this innately disruptive and opportunistic regime. In Cowboy Bebop, Faye’s narrative becomes the platform by which “conscious and unconscious, self and other, part and whole meet” (Williams 711)4 to address the primordial anxieties present in generic transformation when the film product is deducted from the realm of aesthetics and put in the system of market forces and economic relations.5

In conventional cinema, identification and spectatorship is orientated toward the masculine audience in the conception of a central, male subject; in such an axis, the female body becomes the “primary embodiments of pleasure, fear and pain” (Williams 704). Similarly, in the traditional Western movie, the female exists solely as the object of masculine, heterosexual desire for the male protagonist, ensuing female identification with the central hero. As a result, her body is inevitably saturated with sexuality. Her sensationalised body- the portrait of her body in the crux of “out-of-control ecstasy” (Williams 704)- becomes the spectacle by which the instruments of identification can take place in the audience towards the male protagonist. Naturally, this presents the problem of identification in female spectatorship as the female, in identifying with the male protagonist, inevitably undermines her own femininity.

Note: According to Williams, “Body genres” like pornography, horror and melodrama feature a sensationalised on-screen body that “produces” on the bodies of spectators an “almost involuntary mimicry of emotion or sensation of the body on screen”. Here, she attributes the power of such works lies in their ability to evoke fluids in the watcher. It is for this reason that "horror makes you scream, melodrama makes you cry, porn makes you “come”.

Faye, however, subverts this with the autonomy of her narrative and the ferocity of her femininity. She possesses her own narrative independent from the men she surrounds herself with, propelling her story arc through her own actions. Likewise, even though Spike and Jet are her partners, this union is motivated by her own selfish interests- Faye, ultimately, is an opportunist, unafraid to manipulate situations to get her way. Also, Faye does not shy away from using her femininity as a tool to hunt her bounties, understanding the power of her femininity in rendering men speechless and, as such, wears revealing, sexually charged clothing. However, she does this while toting a gun, a blatantly phallic symbol charged with masculine power. In a way, her trademark is that of an alluring smile that glints like a knife’s edge- a laugh, supplemented by the brashness of a gunshot. In this way, Faye re-appropriates her femininity to manipulate men, privileging the power of the feminine in her ability to turn the tables and make the men of her choosing the spectacle by borrowing masculine strength through the form of the gun. Instead of the female body serving as the sensationalised object of viewer fixation, thus, the male body becomes the site of gendered excess by which extreme emotions of pain, fear and horror are inflicted. Thus, she manipulates the politics of power present in conventional genres of excess in her subversion of the spectacle of the female body as the primary site of excess by making her male victims bleed, convulse and crumble in the shower of her bullets. The sensationalised body, here, becomes that of the male, causing the audience to identify with the female protagonist rather than the male specimens on which violence is inflicted. Thus, Faye could be said to constitute a new kind of “femininity of men who hug and the new masculinity of women who leer” (Williams 710). Her militant femininity is progressive in its nature, reflecting a contemporary tendency to privilege the female over the male. In this aspect, she embodies the dialectic nature of genre and its ability to manipulate constantly culturally evolving concepts of gender identity and politics to its advantage in order to seem progressive and hence, attract an audience.

5 The realm of the economic can be posited as “patriarchal” in its structuring of emotive and economic energies and the realm of aesthetics “matriarchal” in its privileging of emotions and feeling. However, it is beyond the scope of this essay to address this issue in an in-depth way.

Likewise, Neale (168) states that genres “do not exist by themselves; they are named and placed within hierarchies or systems of genres, and each is defined by reference to the system and its members” (Neale 168), and that genre virtuosity is a product of the fact that “individual genres... themselves change, develop, and vary by borrowing from, and overlapping with, one another” (Neale 171) in order to “cater for a sector of the market” (Neale 177). The system genre operates under, thus, is a structured regime enforcing controlling operations in order for its own survival. It operates, thus, by the patriarchal control and structuring of power relations through market forces and audience interest, raising up the issue of ethics in the formation of its ideologies. Even though meanings and norms are repeatedly re-worked and revised to produce audience interest, it is done so for “economic imperatives”, and not “self-expression, creative autonomy and originality”. It is, thus, never “(free) from all constrictions and constraints” (Neale 177).

Likewise, the cynicism that saturates Faye’s outlook reflects the materialist values that propel the production of genre hybridity. Even though Faye relentlessly uses her femininity to reassert her gendered power as female, she does not do this out of a shared female solidarity with others of her sex, but rather for personal profit. She is essentially an opportunist, squeezing what she can for her own survival in a profession wherein economic security isn’t assured- bounty hunters, after all, are tied ironically in a subordinate position to the bounties they chase. She understands that as a lone female in a world governed by patriarchal systems (embodied on one level by the dominance of technology and the other on the absence of women), she must operate by cunning and the skills she possesses. In such a world, masculine structures of economic relations dominate; thus, feminine relations of emotions, ideas and feelings are neglected. Faye, however, navigates around this dystopian world presided by technology effortlessly in her ship Red Tail, catching up with her male peers and even standing her ground in aerial fights against Spike. Thus, she utilizes all she has for all her survival, recognizing the lifting of her mask of feminine strength will result in her downfall.

Faye’s femininity, thus, is divorced from the collective female body and its fight for gendered equality in the broader political context of social action, serving purely a tool she utilizes for her own survival in order to generate a living and pay her debt. Her interests are, ultimately, selfish and monetarily motivated and thus, removed from her contemporary ‘feminists’. As such, it lacks the empowering nature of feminism in its noble promise of effecting actual historical change. Here, her materialism can be said to reflect the impurity of the generic expressions of ideas. Even though conventional ideas about gender, identity and sexuality are constantly transformed and re-made in the production of a continuous strand of transgressive characters and subjects, this is done not for humanitarian reasons, but purely for the film’s survival in a harsh industry that relentlessly exploits the politics of desire and expectation. Film is, thus, dissimilar from canonized literature in the fact it is not a pure expression of the human heart’s conditions in its material obligations to its commercial market and its position in the generic ‘regime’ where the play of ideas serves as another commodity that can be bought and sold.

However, Faye’s embracing of masculine traits and manipulating of gendered re-appropriations to assure her own survival also results in a melancholy she carefully hides under a mask of ambivalent, cultivated cynicism. She longs for the purity for ‘free expression’ divorced from the present imperative. Her depiction ‘new feminism’, thus, is ultimately removed from her identity. In a way, it is merely a tool she uses for her ultimate goal- the search for a lost past which she is sure will return to her what she loses in sacrificing her own integrity for her survival.

The temporality of Faye’s body is, in this light, particularly interesting in the way it transitions directly from the past to the future through a process of suspended animation done in order to save her life after a space shuttle accident. In this sense, she embodies the fluid nature of time inherent in genre. Genre floats between different historicities and cultural milieus, borrowing and using what it finds useful to construct a new kind of virtuosity relevant and appealing to the culture it speaks to. Likewise, Faye is temporally fluid, embodying both an absent past and a future imperative. Her temporality can be seen, thus, as both ‘too early’ and ‘too late’ in light of William’s discourse in which the temporality of the subject in genre films is connected to the originary fantasy it evokes through its perversions. Even though Faye dances about space dodging bullets and possesses the settings she occupies, the fertility of her actions does not result in any successful bounties gained, thus becoming inherently farcical in their futile nature. This is partly attributed to the temporality of her body itself. In transitioning straight into the future, she constantly evokes a past forever compromised in genre’s obligation to the present. Neale addresses this, stating that the evolution of genre is not a “continuous ‘development,’ but rather in the sense of a ‘struggle’ and ’break’ with immediate predecessors through a contemporary recourse to something older” (Neale 173). Even though genre continues to “change, develop, and vary by borrowing from, and overlapping with, one another” (Neale 171), it does this by the disruption of each of the elements it borrows from. In other words, generic hybridisation is an intrinsically disruptive process that constantly ravages past historicities to propel its own survival in the market. By tearing apart heterogeneous elements in genre virtuosity, thus, genre destroys the integrity of the past it borrows from, rendering the homogenous organic ‘whole’ a wasteland of disparate parts. Thus, even though genre borrows from past historical conventions and present cultural trends, it does so at the stake of the past’s identity. Faye particularly reflects this in the way her progressive femininity is undermined by her psychological immaturity. Her melancholy, in this light, can be seen as a consequence of the brutality of identity disruption inherent in genre transformation. This is particularly apparent in a moment in the episode “Hard Luck Woman”6 where, having recalled a piece of a past while watching the water spurt out of her shower head, Faye walks out of the shower and bumps into Spike. Her mask of feminine power falls away, and she starts like a little girl, stuttering a “sorry… I… have to go” to a startled Spike. This moment is particularly revealing, as it is one of the few instances we see her without her sexually provocative attire in a fully exposed, emotionally vulnerable state. For a moment, we glimpse in Faye’s suddenly unveiled innocence what is truly at stake in genre’s relentless pursuit of an audience- namely, the loss of identity that inevitably results in a regression to a childlike state. Herein lies the innate tragedy of generic transformation- in its ‘evolution’, it inevitably raises primordial, psychological issues that deal with the self, the past and the integrity of identity. Thus, even though generic transformation is imperative- just as the preservation of Faye’s body is essential for her survival in the future-, it is innately problematic in its disruptive nature.

Likewise, Faye’s journey back to her homeland reveals the innate ruthlessness of generic production and the primordial anxieties it consequently raises. In this instance, Faye, having remembered a piece of her lost past, ventures back to Earth but, rather than uncovering a kernel of her lost identity, finds the land laid waste and devoid of inhabitants. She is greeted by an old classmate, who starts at Faye’s youthful appearance. She mistakes Faye for a ghost, who ironically replies that she is a ghost, before running away. Here, we see the vampiric nature of genre production and the way it leaves all it borrows from to a process of decay having sucked up what it needs for its own transformation. In the wake of its catapult into the future, thus, it ravages the past, leaving wastelands and deserts in its relentless re-working of past trends for its own survival. As Faye ‘evolves’ in order to survive by claiming a militant femininity, she leaves behind her old comrades and friends, herself becoming a ‘ghost’. Hers is not a successful transition from a past to a future (reflected on a psychological level in the transition from childhood to adulthood), but a violent start up to the present. Thus, she inevitably leaves behind a lost self- a ‘ghost’- in forsaking her childhood for a future that demands her attention. The authenticity of Faye’s identity in the ‘now’, thus, gets called into question, as the audience can no longer be sure of which of her traits is manufactured and which is real. In a sense, Faye ‘fades’ like a ghost, possessing more of a phantom-like existence as her past catches up with her.

Faye’s confusion of temporality, hence, reflects the fatalistic conditions present in hybridisation, revealing genre’s ability to float freely through space and time results always in a confusion of identity and a certain ‘lack’ or gap. This gap lies between “an irrecoverable real event that took place somewhere in the past and a totally imaginary event that never took place” (Williams 712) that is always present in the destruction of temporal and spatial boundaries. This ‘lack’ haunts genre’s transformation like a ghost, saturating the actions and outlooks of all those involved in its creation. Williams defines this as the “insoluble problem of the discrepancy between an irrecoverable original experience (a real event) presumed to have actually taken place… and the uncertainty of its hallucinatory revival” (Williams 712). Just as Faye is constantly seeking for a lost past she believes will reveal her true self, genre will always leaves behind a vacancy- a lacunae- imbued with loss in its evolution. There is always, thus, a nostalgia inextricable from genre tied intimately to its materialism and its need to produce meaningful content in order to be relevant to the present for its own survival. In the formation of “the bourgeois subject (Williams 713)”- that of Faye, in this case- the anxiety of the origin myth is invoked, raising up issues of identity inextricable from the discourse of generic hybridisation.

Genre is always governed by a set of rules and obligations to present industrial, commercial and institutional conditions. The production of new, progressive generic categories guarantees a maintenance of audience interest by re-inventing the subject in order to ensure viewership identification. Unlike canonised literature, thus, the production of generic categories is not a product of a ‘freedom of expression’, but the result of materialist conditions present in the film and anime industry. Faye reflects this by re-working the politics of identification, switching the seat of spectator identification from that of the male to that of the female. Moreover, in her portrayal of a new militant feminism, she projects a progressive idea of femininity, thus remaining culturally relevant to a society in which “the patriarchal unified subject” has collapsed, together with “the dialectics of Spirit, (and) the hermeneutics of meaning” (Wolmark 5)7, ensuing Cowboy Bebop’s continual appeal.

However, the overall ironic nature of all of Faye’s endeavours and the cynicism that soaks her outlook reflects a new self-consciousness that has risen in our post-modern era wherein the look is inverted and the signifier brought to the forefront over the signified. In this light, Cowboy Bebop can be said to be reflective of a new post-modern generic category of self-critical, ironic, ‘avant-garde’ works that has arisen due to the audience’s increasing awareness of culture as a form of artifice and hence, genre’s need to re-invent itself with the creation of another category of desire. Cowboy Bebop reflects this trend, taking an ironical, self-critical stance on genre hybridisation, acknowledging its own need to tear apart past trends to remain culturally appealing, yet constantly reflecting back on the process that makes its cult status possible. In it’s transgressive nature, thus, Cowboy Bebop is able to provide a revealing portrait of the post-industrial world to an audience rendered increasingly disillusioned with the reaping of desire in the commercial market. However, ironically, it is also in it’s transgressive nature that Cowboy Bebop is able to survive in the competitive anime market.

Works Cited

Cowboy Bebop Remix: Anime Legends. Dir. Sunrise Studios. Perf. Animation. Bandai Entertainment, 2008. DVD.

Gledhill, Christine. “The Western” in The Cinema Book. Print.

Neale, Steve. “Questions of Genre.” Print.

Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Print.

Jenny Wolmark. “Introduction and Overview.” Print.

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