“Docile Bodies”: Femininity and the Cyborg Body in Marissa Meyer’s “Cinder” (Jessica D. and Mel R.)

In Sandra Barkty’s article “Foucault, Femininity, and Modernization of Patriarchal Power”, she takes Foucault’s idea of docile bodies that we studied in the last week, and performs a gendered analysis. She discusses Foucault’s idea of the panopticon, citing that “[t]he effect of this is ‘to induce in the inmate a state of consciousness and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power’; each becomes to himself his own jailer” (Bartky citing Foucault 1979, 18). Gendered roles in society are so embedded that not only does society at large work to surveil people’s behavior, but individuals also subconsciously surveil themselves. Thus, as we internalize our own surveillance, we become docile bodies (bodies that are “productive” and “obedient”, following bodily norms without a fight). Bartky argues that there are specific ways female bodies are constructed as feminine. While reading this gendered analysis, we began to wonder how Cinder’s body fit into this production. How did her body intervene in feminine scripts that construct the body as “natural” instead of “produced” or “political”? How does Cinder’s physicality as a cyborg intervene in her production of her feminine body? Has Cinder internalized the self-surveillance of her cyborg body in the same way an average woman would internalize femininity? Thus, using ideas from various sources analyzing Marissa Meyer’s Cinder, we argue that Cinder’s cyborg body both reifies and challenges feminine body norms and identity creation. We assert that studying YA fiction such as Cinder is critical in understanding the current cultural climate surrounding girlhood, as the disciplinary practices used to police femininity are incredibly violent to young adult women, as they hit puberty and are expected to transition from children into the “ideal woman”.  For many young women, the anxiety around this is so great that the body becomes the self (Phillips 40). Finding alternative views of womanhood outside of dominant, hegemonic media becomes incredibly important as adolescent women seek to construct their own identities and how they inhabit femininity.

Firstly, using ideas from Leah Phillips article “Real Women Aren’t Shiny or Plastic”, Cinder’s identity as a cyborg intervenes in scripts about the “natural”/“ideal” female body by virtue of existence. Cinder is not fully able-bodied – rather her ability to be able-bodied is relied upon her cyborg elements, without which, we know she would not have a foot, an arm, and later a spine, or even a fully functioning heart. Thus, the audience, and the young adult female demographic the book is targeted at, learns about the multiplicity of bodies. Cinder’s body is stuck in limbo, not fully electronic and not fully human, mirroring the ways adolescent female bodies are liminal. She is made even more liminal at the end of the novel when it is revealed that she is not human at all – but rather Lunar, an alien with the power to change her appearance. Cinder’s body then becomes female yet changeable, and as such offers a different idea of being an adolescent girl (Phillips 41). Though much of society is built upon binaries (male/female, good/evil) and many fantasy stories rely on binaries with the heroic prince’s strength often being a key in success, this YA fiction has a female protagonist with an inherently unstable, changeable, injured body (Phillips 44), echoing the idea that YA fiction has evolved into a genre that takes on discussions of power often centred on the body, and in the case of our class, how the female identity and body intervene in discourses of power. It is important to note as well that though Cinder is based on Cinderella, the story does not give us a reiteration of the unreachable, delicate, homemaker femininity Cinderella depicts but rather exists in opposition to the able body required of Cinderella and adolescent women (Phillips 46). Thus, Cinder’s body offers the audience and young adult women a potential escape from the trap of reaching “perfect” womanhood with its depiction of Cinder as a strong, likeable, relatable protagonist that deviates from the “normal/natural” body and thus, the “natural/normal” self.

Further, Cinder’s cyborg identity interferes with her ability to discipline her body as feminine. As discussed in Jennifer Mitchell’s article, “‘A girl. A machine. A freak’: A Consideration of Contemporary Queer Composites”, “Cinder obsesses over the physical manifestations of her complicated humanity — her hybrid position. When she… contemplates a new gown for the ball, more pressing and specific concerns for skin grafts that would hide ‘her cyborg parts’ (Meyer 31) surface instead” (Mitchell 6). From her awareness of the need to conceal her otherness (as a cyborg) from both Prince Kai and the rest of the population, we know she performs self-surveillance and discipline. As displayed in contemplating acquiring a new gown for the ball, she has been conditioned by society to produce a feminine body. However, her inability to first conceal her identity as a cyborg renders her unable to produce the feminine body non-cyborg females strive towards, particularly in the context of the ball. She has, as such, internalized self-surveillance perhaps more than other humans, in the context of her otherness rather than her femininity. Her body has, indeed, become the self — it simply defies the gender binaries we are accustomed to dealing with.

As we have asserted, the cyborg body presents us with both a challenging and supportive embodiment of the feminine body and identity creation. The contradicting nature of Cinder’s identity allows us to escape the realities behind society’s conditioning of our bodies as docile, as requiring to police our own femininity. Despite having been conditioned to police our bodies and our femininity, we can find comfort in knowing that there are ways to escape the hegemonic rendering of the adolescent female body.

Questions:

  1. Though Cinder is ashamed of her cyborg identity for much of the novel, at the end she must get over the inner critical voice that asserts that she is less than human in order to break out of her prison cell and start on her next quest. What does this say about self-surveillance? Does it mean you can conquer your own inner policing voice that has internalized negative views about your identity? Or is self-surveillance in our modern world too embedded for us to distinguish what are our own decisions and the decisions we’ve been conditioned to make?
  2. Cinder’s constant struggle between balancing her different identities — cyborg, female, orphan, mechanic, human, lunar — dictate the ways in which she must monitor both her body and her behaviour, so she may be accepted as a member of society. Are there other ways in which characters in Cinder must uphold a certain type of surveillance (such as Cinder’s monitoring of her identity as a cyborg) in order to function in society, before policing their bodies’ femininity?

Works Cited

Bartky, Sandra Lee. “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power”. Women’s Studies 1020E, Sections 001 & 002 UWO/570 & 571 Kings. Book No. 10711. London, Canada: The University of Western Ontario, 2013. pp. 15-36.

Meyer, Marissa. Cinder, vol. bk. 1, Feiwel & Friends, New York, 2012.

Mitchell, Jennifer. “”A Girl. A Machine. A Freak”: A Consideration of Contemporary Queer Composites.” Bookbird: A Journal of International Children’s Literature, vol. 52, no. 1, 2014., pp. 51-62.

Phillips, Leah. “Real Women Aren’t Shiny (Or Plastic): The Adolescent Female Body in YA Fantasy.” Girlhood Studies, vol. 8, no. 3, 2015., pp. 40-55.

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12 thoughts on ““Docile Bodies”: Femininity and the Cyborg Body in Marissa Meyer’s “Cinder” (Jessica D. and Mel R.)

  1. I completely agree with your main argument, but I wanted to touch on something you mentioned briefly: that the liminal cyborg body can be a metaphor for the changing adolescent female body. I think that this is an important (and really thoughtful) connection to make as the similarities between Cinder’s body and her control over it are so similar to that of the (assumed) teenage reader going through puberty and Cinder’s individualized femininity can be a great example for them. Like Cinder, the teenage girl is experiencing new foreign parts of her physical self and has no choice in the change to her body. While her change is natural, it is still forced upon her, though by biology. She must learn to negotiate these changes while also figuring out how they position her in the world.
    Cinder’s rejection or subversion of femininity and refusal to be defined by her cyborg-ness show a girl who is trying to find her place in the world that she is able to pick and choose what of society’s expectations she adheres to. Cinder abides by some of society’s codes of femininity—she does not want to have grease on her face when she meets the prince—but also shows that it is okay to subvert or out-right reject some (or all) of them—she chooses to buy parts to fix the old car that will aid in her escape rather than a dress for the ball. I think you are completely right to assert that Cinder (and Meyer’s construction and use of her body) is a progressive role model for young girls who may recognize their own insecurities about their body image and portrayal of femininity.

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    1. Hi, thanks for the comment! In our post we outlined the ways in which Cinder’s body is political and produced as opposed to “naturally” existing. We used her identity as a cyborg for the main part of our critique, but I think your comment on Cinder’s body as a physically changing adolescent is interesting. However, I think I’d push back on the idea that Cinder’s body, or it’s changes, are ever “natural”. Bodies, and how we understand them through the medical model – which tells us that gender/sex/sexuality all coincide (in Cinder’s case meaning that because her body (genitals, breasts, etc.) must reflect her female gender presentation, and she must be heterosexual) – make everything produced and political, as our “docile” place in the system is important to keep the system running. We only associate Cinder and her bodily changes with the female identity because that’s how she was designated at birth by an institution. Thus, even if these changes as “natural”, meaning they are not induced, how we understand them, and what we associate them with, are still produced and political. I also think your comment that her change is forced upon her biologically gives food for thought. Would these biological changes matter if our social constructs of gender/sex/sexuality/etc. did not exist? Would her place in the world change at all? I would argue no. Her changes are then always constructed rather than biological as she changes from girl to woman.

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  2. I really like your bringing up of the idea of self-policing and surveillance throughout the novel and in real life. I believe that it is possible to conquer your inner policing and internalization of the social expectations and views which are forced upon you if you are aware that it exists. By this I mean that not every individual is consciously aware that a) there are social forces being applied to their bodies, b) they have internalized these social positions, and c) are actively self-policing in order to conform to these social expectations. If an individual is aware of all of these social forces being enacted upon them, they are able to actively resist and challenge them. Perhaps, Cinder is able to conquer her internalized self-criticism and devaluation because she has finally realized that she has the ability and agency to resist the social confinements placed upon her due to the fact that she identified as a cyborg. Throughout the novel, Cinder becomes increasingly aware of the social inequities which surround, shape and affect the daily life of not only herself, but others around her. With this increase in consciousness, she is able to identify and challenge the internalized stigmas surrounding her identity.

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    1. Laura I like and agree with your comments that it is necessary to be aware that social expectations exist and to be aware of how social forces shape one’s self-policing. Cinder is aware that cyborgs are “other-ed,” considered lesser to humans; she is aware of a hierarchy of value that exists in her society and that superiority is ascribed to humans. As Cinder comes to terms with this she is able to see the inequality in society and think differently about who she is within her society, what social values are worth, and how she wishes to act. This leads to a continued consideration of the self in relation to the social conditions that define members of a society.

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  3. Jessica and Mel,
    I find your analysis of Cinder’s body consciousness through a feminist framework using Foucault’s Docile Bodies to be very convincing. I agree with much of your post, situating Cinder’s self-consciousness as a result on her internalization of feminine beauty norms and body standards. However, in response to your first question, I must argue that it is not that Cinder ‘gets over’ her internalized criticism of her body form, but rather she must simply silence her negative self-perceptions in order to focus on survival.
    Foucault’s conception of docile bodies is such that we as individuals function within society in ways that produce us as docile, and these ways are often implicit and unconscious. In this manner then, it is difficult to eradicate the self-policing that we perform on our selves, as much of this policing occurs instantaneously and without conscious thought. Therefore, if we are to view Cinder’s internalized self-consciousness of her non-conforming bodily form, which I agree is an important interpretation, then even as she subverts societal norms, we must be aware that she is still always self-policing herself as docile. In this manner then, there can never truly be a “natural” state, as one’s state is always, unwaveringly policed by oneself and others. Viewing identity in this way thus can be a bit disheartening. However, a space for positive progress can also emerge here.
    Cinder’s obvious defiance of societal powers as she plans to escape, her attempts to save the Prince from Lunar evils, and her decision to escape the prison cell at the end of this novel all work to highlight Cinder’s individual power even within a docile body. As such, though her body form remains a critical site upon which Cinder places her internalized hatred, she is able to function despite this disadvantage and thus shows agency and power. Her ability to silence and work around her negative self-concept highlights an important idea: becoming conscious of one’s disadvantages is the first step in over coming them. If we can all become aware of the ways in which society has embedded norms and expectations that produce us as docile bodies, we thus complete the first step in overcoming these forces. Once we recognize that a “natural” body is never indeed natural, we can begin to work towards eradicating the forces that work to naturalize certain bodies so that body variations no longer produce ‘abnormal’ subjects, but rather body variations themselves become the ‘norm.’

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    1. Hello,

      I agree with your point that Cinder does not, at least in this first book of the series, ‘get over’ her self-consciousness while still simultaneously asserting her individual power. While Cinder does defy traditional gender roles in the way she does not care about physical beauty, she still wants to conform to the societal construction of a normal human body. In other words, she wants to appear fully human – not as a cyborg or as a Lunar.

      It is a potent image when Cinder wears a dress to the ball but it is dirty, illustrating that when she must she will halfheartedly conform to societal standards of beauty but never truly conform to them in spirit. However, the fact that Cinder never is the one to tell Kai that she is a cyborg demonstrates that she believes society will view her as lesser and in turn internalizes this perception to view herself as lesser. The fact that she is Lunar is further complicated by the fact she is Princess Selene, the one Lunar that is actually beneficial to the Commonwealth because she is capable of overthrowing Queen Levana. While this will lessen her internalized criticism, this fact will also increase the necessity for her to rebel and therefore increase her individual power.

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  4. I really like your idea of linking the liminal cyborg body with the liminal teenage body. I think that that opens us up to reexamining one of the final scenes, where Cinder is saved from Levana’s glamour by her cyborg parts, and readers are told she feels strong and “on fire”, appropriately enough for this blog. Later, in the cell, Dr. Erland helps her realize that rather than a disadvantage, her cyborg parts will be a huge asset when paired with her Lunar abilities, because jail cells aren’t meant to hold that combination.
    Throughout the narrative, Cinder learns bit by bit secrets about herself and her body that have been kept from her: why she received cyborg parts, how old she was when it happened, the fact that Linh Garan experimented on her, and finally that she is the Lunar heir to the throne. At the beginning, she is very much in the dark, and angry about her lack of control over her mysterious body. It is only after she has learned about it that she is able to embrace it, and her awakening returns power over her own body and fate to her.
    Returning to the cyborg-as-teenager idea, this can be seen as an argument for empowerment of young women by demystifying their bodies and returning control over them through education.

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  5. Hi Jess and Mel,
    This analysis was very well thought out and I really liked how you drew comparisons between Cinder’s cyborg body and the struggles young adult women go through on a daily basis. No one is perfect, and I think it is fair to say that no one is completely happy with their body. This is a very unfortunate thing, and Cinder opens up doors for young girls to embrace what they have in a non – conventional way. Before diving into one of your discussion questions, I want to push a little bit on what you said about “Cinder’s identity as a cyborg intervenes in scripts about the “natural”/ “ideal” female body by virtue of existence”. What I would like to push on is what it means to be a “natural” female. Can we categorize a natural female from an unnatural female? Is it fair to say that Cinder goes off script from the natural female simply because she wears work boots rather than high heels, or is it because she has cyborg parts? I know that you are not necessarily trying to make a claim about what it means to be a natural female, but I just wonder if we can even use this term? For me, to say “natural female body by virtue of existence” would be someone who was born a female, which Cinder was. Interestingly, her cyborg parts make her no less a natural female, but less of an ideal female. To me, to say “ideal female” would be to say a woman or girl who actually engages with feminine things such as dressing up and being more like her step sisters. What I am getting at is that I think it is fair to say that Cinder’s character changes the script of the “ideal” female in that she shows that girls really can do anything boys can, such as be a mechanic. Another interesting thing Cinder does that “goes against” the typical Cinderella story is that she says no to the prince at first because she has her mind set on building the car and leaving the city. So in this regard, she certainly is not an “ideal” female, which is very inspiring for young adult readers, but she is a “natural” female.
    To touch on your discussion question about surveillance being so far embedded into us, I do think it is hard to distinguish what decisions are our own. Cinder is told that her Cyborg parts make her different, and she never thought otherwise because that is all she has ever known. We don’t really know, but maybe Cinder got the idea to hide her Cyborg parts from someone else, maybe the decision wasn’t made on her own free will.
    I think Cinder’s ability to take control of her own body is inspiring to young girls reading this novel. Further, the way that Cinder subverts the traditional princess narrative is very important. The way that she goes against conventional “norms” of what girls should and shouldn’t do will hopefully allow girls to feel like they can take off their heels and put on work boots if that is what they choose to do.

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  6. I enjoyed your description of Cinder’s body as “in limbo” and I think that does a great job of summarizing her hybridized identity. While I agree that Cinder’s liminal electronic/human body is similar to the liminal state of female adolescent bodies, I would argue that this idea of liminality can offer some other insights about how Cinder experiences girlhood. In my 2nd year intro to girlhood studies class, we read an article about american girlhood in the second world war. Entitled “Fragilities and Failures, Promises and Patriotism”, the author Lisa L. Ossian argued that as a product of severe wartimes challenges, English and American girls that grew up during WWII occupied liminal spaces between childhood and womanhood (Ossian 163). At a premature age, young girls were responsible for performing domestic tasks around the house and entering the labour force in order to compensate for the disparities that emerged in their households during war times (Ossian 163). The striking connection between the experiences of these American and English girls in WWII and that of Cinder as a young woman growing up in New Beijing is that the combination of the stressful nature of their external environments and their marginalized positions in society caused them to become stuck in this transitional stage between girlhood and womanhood. Though girls in WWII were confronted with challenges brought on by the war, Cinder and the community of the Eastern Commonwealth were also subjected to difficult times as they battled the letumosis plague. As a product of the plague, cyborgs were recruited to the cyborg draft, subjected to horrible treatment during experimentation, and were used as tools to find a cure that would benefit the human population.

    This example demonstrates how cyborgs were viewed as less than human, and subjected to widespread oppression that condemned Cinder to a life of servitude and catering for the human population. Cinder, as a young female assumed to be around the same age as her stepsisters, was forced to work and serve Adri and her family while Peony and Pearl got to bask in the glories of girlhood by enjoying ample leisure time and having the privilege of attending prestigious events like the annual ball. Cinder experienced a decompression of her childhood due to the increasing trauma in New Beijing that dually devalued her body and marked her body as a necessity in order to to survive the traumatic epidemic. Cinder, then, is not only physically liminal in that she is identifies as a cyborg, but she also occupies a psychologically liminal space between childhood and womanhood due to the discrepancy between her age and the “adult” roles and responsibilities she was forced to take on.

    OSSIAN, LISA L., and MIRIAM FORMAN-BRUNELL. “Fragilities and Failures, Promises and Patriotism: ELEMENTS OF SECOND WORLD WAR ENGLISH AND AMERICAN GIRLHOOD, 1939–1945.” Girlhood: A Global History, Edited by JENNIFER HELGREN and COLLEEN A. VASCONCELLOS, Rutgers University Press, 2010, pp. 162–178, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5hj493.16.

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  7. Your discussion question about Cinder’s constant struggle between balancing her different identities – “cyborg, female, orphan, mechanic, human, Lunar” – and how this struggle dictates the ways in which she must monitor both her body and behaviour in order to be accepted as a member of society led me to think about how it could possibly be due to all of these contrasting identities that Cinder is able to conquer her internalized surveillance. It can be argued that one cannot be a typical female and also a mechanic. Similarly, one could say that a person in this society cannot be simultaneously Lunar and cyborg. How can Cinder be an orphan, but still have the means to be the sole source of income for her adopted family? These qualities do not often exist within a person at the same time, especially not in this dystopian world.

    The struggle of abiding by all of these different and contradictory societal identities overwhelms Cinder, making her wonder how she can possibly be all of these things at once, “to be cyborg and Lunar. One was enough to make her a mutant, an outcast, but to be both?” (178). Clearly, the implications of her heritage are not even conceivable to Cinder yet at this point. She is familiar with the expectations that come with being a cyborg, but her knowledge of the way to act as a Lunar is limited to the rumours that she has heard about them. She believes that Lunars are supposed to be cruel and savage, and because she is neither of these things, Cinder is at a loss for what it means for her, personally, to be Lunar. She does not want to begin acting horribly just because that is how humans believe Lunars are intrinsically. And so, she refuses to act in accordance with these expectations. This choice is what begins her overcoming her internalized surveillance, which ends in the final pages of the book when she decides to stop believing that being cyborg is a bad thing – a hindrance – and start believing in what she can actually do to potentially save the world. All of her many identities are what make Cinder capable of making a difference, and she finally realizes this when she decides to forget about acting the way people expect her to, and instead act the way that she wants. The novel ends with these powerful words, “The whole world would be looking for her – Linh Cinder. A deformed cyborg with a missing foot. A Lunar with a stolen identity. A mechanic with no one to run to, nowhere to go. But they would be looking for a ghost” (387). Cinder has released herself from her internalized surveillance and is allowing herself to move forward as a multi-faceted, complex person.

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  8. I enjoyed your analysis of Cinder using Foucault’s idea of docile bodies and self-surveillance. I would agree that our society unconsciously participates in a self critique of our bodies, constantly aware of the bodies of others. I also liked the connection made between the self-surveillance of bodies and the changing feminine body. The idea that “the anxiety around this is so great that the body becomes the self,” was very intriguing to me, as I would argue that it really emphasizes the significance of appearance to young girls.
    Though I would argue that there is an unconscious policing voice in existence within us all, it is possible to change your view. We have been conditioned to feel a certain way about our bodies, but conditioning can be broken. This is especially apparent in body positivity movements today. The idea that girls need to be “less” of themselves in order to fit in is slowly changing with the body positivity movement. I would argue that it isn’t an easy process to conquer the policing voice, but it can be done. Cinder is able to conquer her insecurities about being less than human at the end of the novel. This is inspiring for girls as it demonstrates the fact that though we will always be surveilling ourselves to some degree, we can change the mindset and response to what is in front of us.

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