A Feminist Reading of Armitage III

Progress for one oppressed group often occurs at the expense of another, and when the members of a group benefit from a given situation, they frequently fail to see the suffering they themselves are causing the members of the other group.
–Keith Allen on Armitage III, at MovieRapture.com

I’ve seen a number of people question whether Armitage III — speaking only of the OVAs and Poly-Matrix, here, for the purposes of this essay — is anti-feminist. This article is a notable example for going into some analytical detail about why the author feels that way, but I’ve seen the offhand comment made any number of times. It seems an obvious criticism to level at a show where a feminist Earth government is literally portrayed as the biggest threat to the protagonist and her people. I mean, you can’t get much more anti-feminist than “the feminist government is the bad guy”, right?

And yet I always felt there was something a little off about this; and it was when I saw that quote, in the review I’ve linked above, that I was able to put it into words. Armitage III is neither a simple story about sympathy for an oppressed minority group, nor a simple rebuttal demonstrating how oppressed minority groups can exercise flawed and dangerous power. It’s about a more subtle message, and one we need to hear more in this society: the complex interaction between the two.

 

Minority Report

Anti-robot riots in which female robots are chained and burned. Is this really feminism?

Anti-robot riots in which female robots are chained and burned. Is this really feminism?

What’s crucial to remember here, and what this whole reading turns on, is the fact that Armitage is herself a member of a minority. A fictional one, yes, but in the context of story-as-metaphor, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that we’re seeing a conflict between a minority group (women) that has gained political power and a minority group (robots) that is still disempowered.

If Armitage III were a story about how Earth’s feminist government made Ross’s life harder, that would be a completely different issue, and the story would be unquestionably anti-feminist. Ross is a male, a human male (despite his cybernetic enhancements), whose place in society and right to exist there is never questioned. He is wanted and threatened with punishment because of his actions, not because of any personal quality about him. Armitage, on the other hand, is wanted and threatened merely because she exists. She’s the target of a campaign of violence designed to eradicate her species because they’re politically inconvenient. She is caught in a war between one set of good intentions — eliminating sexism from society — and another — her desire to live.

This is far from a fantastical scenario. In fact, it’s happening right now on a smaller scale, here in this world. They might stop short of active murder, but a subset of self-described feminists have vocally opposed not only the participation of transgender women in woment’s movements — often, movements that those same women helped to create — but their very right to exist.

In Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology, her treatise on radical feminism and ecopolitics, she compares transgender women to a Holocaust that is threatening to kill off “real” women, and says:

Transsexualism is an example of male surgical siring which invades the female world with substitutes.

(In this context, it’s deeply interesting to note that she also compares them to cyborgs.)

In both cases, “fake” women are held up as a dire threat to “real” women, a Frankenstinian plague, a substitute. Little is said about their own agency, desires and needs: they are only characterised as “the enemy”. Even if that means trampling on the rights — and sometimes bodies — of real, physical people, they must be eliminated; even if they’re not doing any physical harm, ideologically they are problematic just for existing. Their lives, as such, are forfeit.

Is Armitage less of a "real" woman for being cybernetic?

Is Armitage less of a “real” woman for being cybernetic?

Mary Daly is now dead, and anti-trans* feminism has receded somewhat in popularity, but there are still plenty of people willing to take up her mantle. And it’s not just the boundary between trans* and “born” women that is being aggressively policed. White-heavy activist movements frequently, intentionally or unintentionally, alienate minorities of colour. Parents of autistic children fight against the right of autistic adults to speak about their own needs, claiming that any autistic person who can speak is “not autistic enough to count”. There’s constant debate about whether things like asexuality and demiromanticism “belong” in the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (which still discriminates quite heavily against the B and the T) spectrum, and whether they’re “fake” identities crafted just so that otherwise-privileged people can “sneak in” under the LGBT banner.

Sound familiar? It’s the same fear of being “invaded”, the same fear of “fakes”, the rejection of people in need because you see them as somehow less genuine.

 

Colonial Attitudes

Something else that’s important to take into account here is the position of Armitage III‘s Earth with regards to Mars. Mars is a colony seeking independence; Earth is a metropolitan state seeking to control its colony. Feminist or not, in no way can the Earth Federation here be said to be weaker than Mars, or a minority power. Its desire is to own, control and subdue the Martian government and the robot-friendly culture of the Martian people, because it sees them as a threat to its stability and power.

In this way, we see that the “feminism” of the Earth Federation is not real feminism, but a superficial veil over Earth’s true desires. It looks good on television to say “feminism”, but what Earth is worried about is Mars being disobedient. From an Earth perspective, it looks bad if the Martians are allowed to do things their own way — including embracing robots where the Earth population fears and controls them — because people might start to side with the Martian position, and question the Earth government’s way of doing things. By cracking down on the “rebellious” culture of its colony, Earth assures “peace” and “feminist harmony” — by subjugating Mars and genociding an entire race of people.

Having said this, politics is complicated, and it’s entirely possible that at least some of the members of the Earth Federation sincerely believe that they’re doing good. Subjugating their colony does, in a sense, bring peace, and there’s a definite reason to question the particular biases that have led to robotics companies designing their robots in the way that they do. Notice that all the humans we see working in robotics appear to be male.

The design of the Seconds reflects the interests of a robotics industry that is heavily male-dominated.

The design of the Seconds reflects the interests of a robotics industry that is heavily male-dominated.

But murdering Thirds isn’t the answer, because a) genocide is never a socially just solution to ideological conflict, and b) Thirds, Seconds and other robots aren’t the problem. If anything is truly a threat to feminism in Armitage III‘s world, it’s the designers of the robots, not the robots themselves. The Earth Federation may be pursuing its ideals, but its methods are ineffective and brutal; and such a government, no matter what banner it flies under and how progressive it claims to be, should not be excepted from criticism.

Weeding out the prejudiced attitudes that lead to such actions is inherently feminist– inherently equalist, life-affirming, and necessary for social progress. No equality movement can truly move forward by trampling on even less privileged others: it can only perpetrate more abuse. The show calls out that kind of faux-feminism as wrong, and a barrier to true liberation from oppressive power structures.

 

Conclusion

Armitage III is not about how horrible minority groups are. It’s about what happens when minority groups become majority groups, and start to take out their anger not on the original people who oppressed them, but the even more vulnerable minority groups below them, because they’re an easier target. It’s about how power can become privilege, and idealism can become abuse. It’s about not doing the same thing to weaker others that was done to you, creating new marginalised classes in the name of “fighting back”. In order to fight back, you have to actually target your opponent. The Thirds aren’t feminism’s opponent: the sexist society that created them is. Attacking the Thirds for having been created in the image of that society, with no choice of their own in the matter, is not fighting back: it’s blaming the victim.

The Thirds are victims of sexism as much as the women of Earth are. Their whole purpose for being, as well as their shapely figures and appealing faces, has been designed around the needs of men– men who see women as nothing more than disposable, interchangeable incubators. The feminists got that part right, at least. But now the Thirds are autonomous beings, and also still suffering, and the answer to the problematic image they create isn’t to get rid of them– it’s to liberate them.

We’ve proven that Armitage III realistically criticises some variants of feminism. But it doesn’t just criticise them: it presents a better alternative. This series is truly feminist because it celebrates a woman’s desire to live and thrive, and her own fight for her rights — even when the mainstream movements don’t support her. It also illustrates what those movements ought to be aware of in order to make them truly inclusive — truly feminist.

A “feminism” that supports some women and not others isn’t feminism at all: it’s power and prejudice dressed up in a new costume. The “feminist” government in Armitage III is flawed, but it’s also not embracing of all women. The story tells us that women, all women, regardless of their circumstances of birth, regardless of what other minorities they belong to, deserve to survive; and that any government or organisation who would throw them under the bus is wrong to do so, even– we might say especially– if it claims to be fighting for their rights.

I can’t think of a more feminist story than that.