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Extreme Sex, Death, and Computer Graphics Imaging Technology

CGI is a highly gendered technology. Its origins in primarily male disciplines contribute to its gendering. The cornerstones of CGI are the sciences, mathematics, and the military, all disciplines in which women have had little presence.
Claudia Herbst

Issue #61, September 2002

Computer graphics imaging, CGI, originated in World War II with radar technology. During the 1960s, supported by military funding, major breakthroughs in CGI technology followed at facilities such as the MIT research labs. In response to significant military spending during the Reagan era, CGI experienced another major boost. Since the late '80s CGI technology has developed into a profitable and rapidly growing industry spanning across a wide range of disciplines such as the entertainment industry, the sciences, and the military. The planned military spending proposed by the current administration by all likelihood will cause another surge in imaging technologies and, therefore, in related industries and disciplines.

CGI is a highly gendered technology. Its origins in primarily male disciplines contribute to its gendering. The cornerstones of CGI are the sciences, mathematics, and the military, all disciplines in which women have had little presence.

CGI software and operating systems offer commands such as "Kill — take no hostages", "Execute", "Terminate" and "Point and Shoot" which are leftovers from its martial origins and a byproduct of the military funded research of CGI technologies. So are functions called "collision events" which allow users to create digital explosions, sparks, and flying debris with ease. The substructure of data, the smallest denominator of computer imagery, is hierarchical and similar to that of troops and ranks within the military. It seems apt that many video games produced with this type of technology display the common theme of organized violence such as it occurs during war.

Somos by John Leaños

Amidst this imagery and underlying structure of violence a new image of woman is presented, one of sexualized aggression. For example, computer games feature virtual heroines such as Lara Croft in the acclaimed game Tomb Raider. Lara Croft mainly displays two features: overt sexiness and an obvious potential for violence. Her character seamlessly combines two big spectacles, sex and death. Lara has long dark hair, puffy lips, combined with a fierce look in her eyes. She wears boots, shorts, a tight tank top and round glasses. For a moment her appearance alleges intellectualism, but the glasses are sunglasses, not reading aides. Her breasts are disproportionately large, her waist impossibly tiny. Most importantly, though, in a garter belt like holster, Lara carries a big gun. While originally a virtual character, Lara now appears in the flesh on the big screen: fantasy has become real, been made flesh! Other computer games such as Parasite Eve and Tekken 3 depict similar, if not identical, models of the female gender.

The virtual Lara is not yet a woman but she is past girlhood, old enough to exude sexuality and to display a serious attitude. The virtual Lara Croft may very well be the role model many teen and pre-teenage girls will aspire to. A sense of disappointment may set in when girls realize that their bodies will not develop into the unlikely, computer generated forms of their computer-generated heroines. The presence and coolness of the gun is even more troubling because in the world of gun-laden computer games no one really dies. In the world of CGI, violence has no lasting consequences; with every new game, and without the struggle and pains of birth, characters are reborn.

Like computer games, CGI-enhanced movies provide a new image of women. Movies like the Alien sequels, Terminator I & II, Hardware, GI Jane, The Fifth Element, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, et al, present images delineating sexualized aggression. In these movies it is through aggression and the expression of violence that women gain respect from their peers. The movie Terminator II presented a female character that is all muscle and impressively gun savvy. Ripley, the main female character in Alien III, is tougher than the male inmates she encounters in a postmodern prison-monastery in outer space. She barely escapes a rape situation and in the end sacrifices her life. In Alien IV her now cloned character reappears. Her cloned version is devoid of emotions, unable to experience pain or fear.

The lead character in GI Jane also nearly gets raped and she is beaten so severely she spits blood. Not until she delivers an equal or even greater amount of blows, violence and pain against her aggressor do male soldiers respect her. Women, according to the new image, not only dish it out like men, women get beaten like men. GI Jane also pleads for her right to "come home in a body bag". The issue of equality, generally the argument when it comes to women and organized violence, rings hollow for the following reason.

Equality, in order to persist and flourish, requires and is dependent on a governmental system or structure such as democracy. Democracy is based on the rule of majority and is a system in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly. Events such as war, a state of hostility, conflict, or antagonism, by definition undermine democracy. Participation in events such as war which is an event poisoning the soil necessary for democracy to flourish, by definition should and can not be defined as equality.

Some have praised the new powerful images of women. Admittedly, the women in the examples mentioned represent strong, self-reliant, fearless and confident individuals: a refreshing sight on any screen, big or small. However, history teaches us that increased levels of violence rarely gains anything. News reports abound with stories of escalating girl-gang violence and higher numbers of female prison inmates. Images of sexy violence are no more desirable than the previously common images of sexy incompetence. More importantly, the new image of women is not a product of women's vision of themselves but of the male-dominated CGI and film industries. Lastly, women in these images have merely taken on the roles of the aggressor, a role for which they have criticized men in the past. Violence and empowerment are not synonymous. And while games and movies may be fictional, they imitate life.

Gameboy Violence by David Martinez

CGI technologies play another key role in life and death situations and thus further shape the meaning of gender. Computer technology is applied in disciplines such as Bioinformatics because knowledge in biology has exploded in such a way that powerful tools are required for the organization and interpretation of complex data. CGI often is applied because complex sets of data are better analyzed and understood when visualized.

One can get a sense of the presence and importance of CGI in Bioinformatics when hearing such terms as BioMedical Graphics, Molecular Graphics, and 3D Microscopy. In particular, the importance of CGI in reproductive technologies becomes clearer when seeing graphical user interfaces used for genome map assembly, or when coming across computer-generated, 3D representations of DNA 9the double helix). Sonograms are a further, albeit technically less advanced, example of the application of visualization technologies in reproductive processes.

Of importance is the fact that reproductive processes thus far, throughout world history and across cultures, have been women's domain. It is women who carry a child to term and give birth. Now the face and meaning of this monopoly, hence source of power and identity, for better or for worse, is changing. War in the past has been a male domain. It is no coincidence that CGI-heavy visuals are promoting images of women in aggressive, fighter roles such as typically identified with soldiers, while men, aided by the same technology, increasingly tap into the powers of reproduction. As men take on the powers of reproduction, women are invited to the front lines. This marks a clear shift in the meaning of gender.

CGI, by its origin and application, is utilized at the interface of destruction and creation at once. CGI technologies at once occupy the line separating life from death by virtue of its origin and wide application in the military, on the one hand, and reproductive technologies on the other. It is the combination of the closeness of life and death in CGI, paired with the absence of women, that is troubling.

Women's identity, which partially is defined through women's reproductive potential — whether that potential is actually fulfilled or not — is taking on a different meaning, arguably one less powerful. Despite the capacity for major medical breakthroughs due to CGI and other computer technology in Bioinformatics and related fields, the absence of women's voices in fields this powerful is nothing less than tragic.

A critical aspect in the genderedness of CGI technology is the nature of the language that opaquely shapes technology: programming languages.

Programming languages, code, represent not only a form of language but, more importantly, a new form of text.

Code literally makes technology work. It holds the capacity to characterize software and interface. Code upholds technology, technology in turn informs culture. As a form of text, code has no poetic qualities. Code is the categorical rationalization of language, no longer an instrument for lyricism but the tool to command technology.

In its exclusiveness and in its cultural significance there is only one form of text comparable to code: religious text.

Religious text and code share a variety of characteristics, hinting at the similarities in the scope of power exercised through them. Religious text and code, both lie outside the realm of the fiction/non-fiction category. Both are generated by an educated, elite group of men. Like religious texts, code sets rules, it commands. Like religious text code is linear, hierarchical and, mirroring patriarchy, it is male.

Access to the production of language has been linked to the powers of reproduction in the past: for example, religious texts have historically forbidden birth control. Literacy, however, has been identified as the best method of birth control in Third World countries. Code sets a further example in that code upholds the technology with which we tap into not only reproduction, but evolution itself.

Code contains no narrative, has no narrator and no narrative subject. There is no other text that is culturally as relevant while simultaneously entirely void of narrative. All culturally influential texts, that is, texts reaching the masses concurrently and consistently, historically have been based on narrative in some form. Prior to code, texts defining power roles exercised power by means of narrative; religious texts offer one example, history as a text offers another. A radical break with this tradition of the narrative/power correlation such as code introduces variation in the definition and exercise of power.

Code can be defined as an agent operating in the distribution of power. Its significance in this role can hardly be overestimated. Code plays a key role in the virtual and real continuation of violence as well as in accessing the powers of reproduction. The text upholding the technology separating life from death becomes all the more powerful for its opaque nature. While Wittgenstein, for example, spoke of language as a public phenomenon, code has a stealthy quality as it is largely invisible. It lies and operates beneath the surface, hidden to the user in the depths of the interface. It is a text accessible only to technological initiates, a text reserved for those educated in inventing and sustaining technology. Traditionally women have been excluded from this group.

While men write code, women primarily remain illiterate when it comes to the production of this powerful and influential new text. The consequences of illiteracy are far reaching. To write code means to have power, or rather, code is power.

Claudia Herbst is assistant professor of computer graphics and interactive media at Pratt Institute. She can be reached at Her Web site is

Credits: "Somos" by John Leaños, Copyright © 2002 John Leaños.
"Gameboy Violence" by David Martinez, Copyright © 2002 David Martinez.

Copyright © 2002 by Claudia Herbst. All rights reserved.