Under The Skin: Deconstructing Sensuality And Sexuality In Armitage III

She'll blow your mind. But probably not you.

She’ll blow your mind. But probably not you.

Armitage III‘s lurid promo art sets up a scene that we’ve all seen before: the attractive female cyborg whose flesh is on display for the consumption of a hungry male gaze. About half of the reviews I’ve seen of this show never quite get past that point. But as the other half hint at, there’s actually a lot of interesting twistiness in the way the show uses, and subverts, sensuality – and it’s this that transforms the series from being just “brooding sci-fi with scantily-clad girls” into actual cyberpunk.


Played Straight And Subverted

The Seconds are portrayed as stereotypical “sex machines”: we see that many of them are used in the sex industry or as personal pleasure slaves, and they’re often displayed as naked or semi-naked in a way that seems deliberately designed to draw sexual attention – such as the flight attendant at the very beginning of the OVAs, whose butt has been markered with the words “Don’t Touch!!”, presumably because, with her thong-like lower garment, people often do try. One gets the impression, then, that the airline cares about not having their cabin crew manhandled, but not enough to sacrifice the appeal of their look by having them cover up. It seems like a throwaway and even juvenile detail to a first-time watcher, but that little scene actually establishes the role of the Seconds in Martian society very well. They’re tools, machines with a function, and their sex appeal is part of their function – and so is regarded more highly, for example, than the Second’s “right” to not be groped, or even basic modesty. Thus we get an idea, from the very first, of what kind of society this Martian colony is – and this will feature later in the political conflict of the plot.

At first, Naomi Armitage, the brash Martian cop whom Ross meets almost immediately off the shuttle, seems to be a continuation of this trend. You’d be forgiven for thinking – and many people do, going into the series – that she’s being set up as just one more piece of eye candy. However, as we get further into the series and uncover her true nature, we see that Armitage the Third is actually largely a subversion of the stereotypes set up by the Seconds. She dresses in a way that is easy to peg as “sexual”, but never leverages her appearance for sexual purposes. She wears a leather collar suggesting BDSM overtones, but is anything but submissive, both in general and sexually (a contrast deliberately set up with the Seconds, one of whom is collared, leashed, lying on the floor and possibly about to be killed in a violent anti-robot demonstration). And the fanservice involving her, at least in the show proper, is surprisingly little: the publicity materials are very misleading.

So how can a female cyborg who looks like Armitage does be cited as a subversion of the sex-machine trope? There are, I think, two components to this:

  • the fact that Armitage acts within the context of the show as sex subject, not object (I’ll return to that later);
  • and that most of the Thirds’ nudity/revealing dress is not actually sexualised, but employed for other directorial reasons which actually work very well.

Geoff Cowie, of Animejin, had this to say about Armitage’s wardrobe:

In some publicity material ARMITAGE looks like a fetishist’s delight, but on screen the effect is strangely muted. We are seeing a real girl who dresses for effect; a real girl with real behavioural problems, seen further in the later episodes – who is also a robot.

Through these two components, the production of Armitage III has indeed pulled off something quite strange: it’s taken naked skin and made it something that’s actually… not that sexy, and isn’t meant to be. Considering how even the most innocent thing can be turned sexual by the obsessed minds of our species, that’s quite a directing feat.

Let’s see how they did it.


It’s About Vulnerability

One of the ways that Armitage III plays with the skin=sex trope is by overwriting it with another one. Skin=vulnerability is also a pretty powerful association in our society, and as the show goes on, nudity and the removal of clothes becomes almost totally a symbol for this.

The most obvious example is how Armitage throws away her clothes whenever she’s exposing her “true self”. There are two pivotal points where she does this, and they’re sort of bookends: in episode 1, on the crane, and in episode 4 prior to the encounter with the Martian military. In episode 1, she jettisons her jacket and reveals her true nature to D’anclaude, her identity as a Third– an identity over which she’s deeply conflicted, and which renders her, in society’s eyes, substandard; she reveals her incompleteness. In episode 4, she does the same thing to show off the new armaments that Dr. Asakura installed on her body when he “fixed” her– i.e., she reveals her completeness. Given that her whole story is a journey to find that which makes her whole, these are quite important revelations for her, and as such, they make her vulnerable.

This is also consistent with how she uses her visor, a quirk that’s lampshaded by Eddie in the first episode. Armitage puts on her visor at those moments when she wishes to hide her emotional state and put up a front of indifference. Clothes and accessories act as armour for her, a shield against the world, and they’re relinquished when she’s trying to be brave. That would actually have been pretty difficult to pull off without having her clothes be quite revealing: a police officer shrugging off their jacket to reveal a short-sleeved shirt underneath doesn’t have the same impact. The contrast between Armitage wrapped in an imposing-looking cloak (which definitely looks like armour) and what lies underneath, on the other hand, is quite powerful.

A few more examples of this, just to hammer the point home:

  • Armitage covers herself heavily after key moments of vulnerability. After attempting suicide in episode 1, we next see her shrouded in a heavy raincloak, dreaming of the recent horrific events and shaken by the fact; she needs the emotional protection. The violent infiltration of Shinora in vengeance for Julian’s “death” sees her in a catsuit, revealing by most standards but modest for her. And, of course, when she’s almost killed in her suicide attack on the robot D’anclaude, and is suffering from life-threatening damage to her CPU and logic board, Ross drapes her in his coat, which she wears for the whole episode as both a physical protection against the cold (the damage has affected her sensitivity to temperature) and an emotional security blanket.
  • The jacket-throwing scene in episode 1 is precursor to a more powerful scene in which Armitage’s state of undress emphasises her robotic reveal. As she huddles, bloodied, tearful, her skin torn and clearly revealing metal and circuitry, she cries desperately to Ross, “Don’t look at me!” He’s seen her wearing this much before, so she’s clearly talking about him seeing the evidence of her robotic nature, yet the fact that she’s lost her jacket just adds to how vulnerable she looks, and probably feels, now that she’s exposed in a more fundamental way.
  • In episode 2, nudity as sexual is starkly reversed, and Armitage’s exposed skin actually becomes horrific. When she’s confronted by two street punks who cut open her cloak, their glee transmogrifies into fear as they look upon her battered and knifed, yet still very much living, cyborg body. Yet what seems like a moment of strength for Armitage is actually one of vulnerability, too, as one of the punks screams in terror, “You’re a monster!”, a comment that visibly wounds her.
  • In episode 3, the “ghost” Thirds in the data centre are naked, a comment on souls, mortality, and the vulnerability of the Thirds that have been almost completely eradicated. The nakedness/clothedness divide isn’t split along gender lines (Julian is naked), but lines of vulnerability: Ross is much less at risk of being destroyed, of becoming bodiless soul/data, than Armitage is.
  • In episode 4, there’s a brief reprise of the “don’t look” scene as Ross and Armitage witness the Armitage “clone” in a tank, not only nude but partially completed, while Wilbur D’anclaude talks about the female Thirds’ defective nature – a vulnerable and horrible moment for Armitage, to be sure.

Now that we’ve set up this understanding, we can also see that Armitage’s general state of exposure is a kind of vulnerability. On the one hand, she’s trying to wear her heart on her sleeve, to say to the world, “this is who I am, and fuck you if you don’t like it”, making it a deliberate act of vulnerability; on the other, it also highlights her immature and volatile personality, an exposure that she probably didn’t intend.

Nudity as vulnerability is also true of other characters. We see Ross’s chest exposed when he’s struggling to sleep, battling nightmares of his old partner’s death. We see one Third naked in bed as she’s being murdered – this is horrific nudity, not sexual nudity, emphasising how unprotected the victim was. And we see Jessica Manning’s model, who has a very deep attachment to Jessica, naked and frightened as she realises that her mentor may soon be dead. After Jessica is taken, we see her wrapping herself in anything she can get hold of – her robe, Ross’s arms – in a desperate search for consolation.


Nudity That Blends In

In the beginning, Armitage does come off as sexually playful – but it’s quickly subverted by her snap into coldness, leading to the conclusion that she’s simply acting out. Though from her initial look and behaviour we might expect a sexually mature woman, as the series goes on we learn that she’s anything but. And as we do, we become used to her appearance and it loses its ability to shock, becoming simply an accent – the muted effect that Cowie describes. It drops into the background.

Part of how this outlandish outfit becomes simply background detail is that it’s not emphasised by anything else. Other than a single, misleading scene in the beginning in which “camera” angles are employed to suggest the idea that she’s not wearing any pants, there is no fanservice. We don’t get Armitage leaping into the air in poses that allow the animators to lovingly render crotch shots, even though she leaps around enough that if they’d wanted to do it, they could have. We don’t get close-ups of her breasts or butt – actually, for all that they’re short-shorts, they do a pretty good job of making her shape look nondescript. Nothing bounces or jiggles.

And so, ten minutes into the first episode, we’ve got this seemingly incongruous scene of a young woman standing in police headquarters, giving a murder report, in little more than a bra and shorts, and it’s already starting to have… not that much impact. It looks almost normal – or, at least, it’s not the most noticeable thing about the scenario, given that she’s also wearing shades, chewing gum, and leaning against the wall when everyone else is sitting or standing at the podium. In that situation, it comes off as just one more part of her persona.

So why do it at all? Because it hints at her emotionally volatile character. Because it’s a device to show us when she’s vulnerable. And because it’s part of the atmosphere.


Putting The “Punk” In “Cyberpunk”

Exposure of skin creates an atmospheric grittiness. Because society encourages us to think of the human(oid) body as corrupt and dirty without clothing, when we see it that way we often feel as if something here is slightly wrong, skewed, unnerving. That’s not necessarily a good thing, but it’s what we’ve got right now. The Thirds’ nudity and even the sexualisation of the Seconds are here for this purpose – not for direct titillation, but, as in Blade Runner and similar cyberpunk dystopias, to add the required sense of sleaze and grime that characterises these worlds. On a meta level, Armitage dresses as she does because those are the conventions of cyberpunk. It’s meant as a code, a symbol for the audience of the kind of world we’re in, not necessarily something that has any effect within the characters’ world. Ross and Eddie each lampshade it once, in the first episode, but as the show becomes darker, no one ever mentions it again or acts as if it affects them. It’s passed into an entirely symbolic realm.

While we’re on the subject of Blade Runner, this is a good time to note one of its particular influences on the show. Just as D’anclaude is likely a visual Expy of Blade Runner‘s Roy Batty, Armitage is quite possibly a visual Expy of Pris.

Both Pris and Armitage obscure their eyes just before laying the smackdown.

Both Pris and Armitage obscure their eyes just before laying the smackdown.

The everpresent collar, the stockings and garterbelt, the scruffy blonde hair, and a personality that swings wildly between playful affection, detached logical deduction, and uncontrollable spurts of violence: they’re there in both. It’s even possible that Armitage’s black visor was inspired by Pris’s warpaint: as we see in the screenshot above, it does take on a visorlike look, particularly during her final scene.

If Armitage was indeed inspired by Pris, then we have to credit her appearance in large part to (classic) punk, as Pris’s own costume was directly influenced by punk and new wave:

…a wonderful calender [sic] of air-brushed, stylized portraits of new wave fashions – heavy rouge, different hair colors, features and clothes heavily accented. Sometime later Ridley stumbled across that calender and asked if he could borrow it for awhile. It wasn’t long before he had his head together with Charles Knode, who is one of the most resourceful costume designers I’ve ever met. The punk look then became the style for Pris and for some of the background extras on the street.

The backs of the original OVA boxes on VHS describe Armitage III as a “New Wave” thriller, and it’s possible that this is one of the influences they meant. Of course, it’s also possible that it’s just sales babble. It is the box blurb, after all. And even if her character design wasn’t directly Pris-inspired, I defy you to Google Image Search “punk rock” and not find something that looks like Armitage in the first row of thumbnails. I’ve even done it for you.

Punk, of course, is more than a fashion choice: it’s a whole subculture with a lot of complex ideologies behind it. And while Armitage doesn’t self-identify as a punk, she’d fit in well with them. She’s as anti-authoritarian and nonconformist as you can get while being a cop (in fact, many would argue she’s more anti-authoritarian than one ought to be able to be while being a cop); she believes in mercy for the abused and equal rights, but she’s not afraid to take violent action to attain those things; she aims to cause outrage. In that light, her dressing this way itself seems like a subversion of the idea that robot women are expected to be passively sexy. She wears her clothes as a badge of individualist pride, a middle finger to the idea that her worth or weakness should be defined by what she wears.

And so we set the vulnerability aside for now, and see the strength in her choices.


Sex Subject

Armitage’s clothing may serve to reveal her vulnerabilities, but one way in which she’s never vulnerable is sexually. She wields her emotional states like weapons, often ones with a significant blast radius, and her romantic/sexual interest in others is no different. Her expressions of it are not quite calculated – she’s not that good at holding her emotions entirely in check – but they are controlled, to a degree, and never exploited. When it comes to matters of intimacy, she always takes the lead – from the initial tacklehug scene in the spaceport, to kissing Ross, to getting his consent for sex. If you take off your shipping goggles for the two hours required, it’s possible to watch almost to the end of the series without knowing whether Ross considers Armitage anything other than a friend: he never hits on her, never initiates any kind of intimacy or even reacts to her expressions of it until the very end, when she kisses him and, finally, he kisses her back. She’s just not someone you hit on.

In that sense and many others, she’s a clear reversal of the trope set up by the Seconds: robots created as humans’ sexual fantasy, to serve them, to submit to them. The way Armitage dresses is irrelevant to her sexuality because she makes it irrelevant: she doesn’t allow anyone to treat her as a sex object because of how she looks, or for any other reason. She defuses the supposed sexual charge of her appearance by virtue of her own power. Here is a woman who is sending the message, “I can wear whatever I want because you wouldn’t dare touch me without my permission”– she’s as impervious as if she were wearing full plate armour, simply because she chooses to be.

Now that’s agency. And the fact that Armitage possesses agency is important in a plotline sense, because the tension between whether robots are merely helpless objects for male titillation and use, and thus in the eyes of the Earth leaders anti-feminist, or whether they can make choices and should have the right to do so, is a pivotal part of the story. Not only that, but as the show is Armitage’s story – the story of, as director Hiroyuki Ochi says, “a girl born as a robot, and what society would look like to her”, the story of her discovering her place in a world that despises her – it would be a much inferior story if she were passive.


If, after all this, Armitage’s appearance still feels a little “off” or disturbing, then remember: it’s meant to. This is cyberpunk, after all. If it doesn’t make you feel a little shaken up and unsure whether the reality you’ve just temporarily stepped into is a good place to be, it’s not doing its job.