Anne Balsamo, in her article Technological Embodiment: Reading the Body in Contemporary Culture, discusses four “Postmodern Forms of Technological Embodiment” (224): the disappearing body, the laboring body, the repressed body, and the marked body.
As per Balsamo’s example, these forms apply well when studying the genre of Science Fiction. In this post, we will look at how Balsamo’s theory applies to (you guessed it) Dr. Horrible.
The Laboring Body: Penny
Balsamo defines “The Laboring Body” as a body that “include[s] a full range of working bodies as well as maternal bodies” (227). Penny, represents the laboring body. She is the maternal figure of the story: loving, caring, nurturing, and innocent. While she does not have her own family to tend to, Penny cares for the homeless in her town as a volunteer. Her kindness extends to both those considered “good” and to those considered “evil” as she consoles Billy (aka Dr. Horrible) and goes on a date with Captain Hammer.
The Disappearing Body: Bad Horse
Balsamo defines “The Disappearing Body” as “the final erasure of gender and race as culturally organized systems of differentiation” (230). Bad Horse is a mysterious character, and leader of The Evil League of Evil, who we do not meet until the final scene. Very little is known about the mysterious Bad Horse (except that he has a “terrible… death… whinny”).. Here, we find that Bad Horse is indeed a horse (and we really can’t tell for sure if Bad Horse is male, this is assumed from the conversations between characters). One might expect the leader of an evil organization to be… well, human. Bad horse breaks the traditional cultural expectations to differentiate himself from other evil overlords.
The Repressed Body: Captain Hammer and Billy/Dr. Horrible
Balsamo defines “The Repressed Body” as “repression of the material body functions to curtail the pain by blocking channels of sensory awareness” (228). Captain Hammer is a clear embodiment of this definition. His super-strength prevents him from being physically hurt. Relying on his physical strength allows him to repress physical sensations. That is, until Dr. Horrible’s death ray explodes and Captain Hammer becomes familiar with physical pain, exclaiming “this must be what pain feels like.”
Based on my interpretation of the Repressed Body, Billy/Dr. Horrible could also embody this term due to the inner battle between the character’s personas. Unlike Captain Hammer, who doesn’t hide his identity, Dr. Horrible (the super villain) is an alter-ego that represses Billy (a caring, every day guy). One example of this inner battle between the personas is when Dr. Horrible must decide whether he will steal the Wonderflonium and join the Evil League of Evil or whether Billy will finally make “a real audible connection” with Penny, the girl of his dreams. In this case, Dr. Horrible’s needs supercedes those of Billy, effectively repressing Billy.
The Marked Body: Professor Normal
Balsamo defines “The Marked Body” as “bodies [that] are eminently cultural signs, bearing the traces of ritual and mythic identities” (225). Like Bad Horse, not much is known about Professor Normal (who we do not meet until the final scene). Professor Normal embodies Balsamo’s definition of “The Marked Body.” As the above image depicts, Professor Normal has surgically attached a metal contraption to his face and jaw. This prosthesis identifies him as being a member of the Evil League of Evil.
While Balsamo’s theory applies especially well to fiction, it is difficult to apply this theory to works we have studies this term or to everyday life examples. When considering this theory in examples outside of the realm of science fiction, the lines between the four categories begin to blur. These definitions are restrictive and the lines between them are not entirely definite, indeed, the lines between one body type and another, and the identities associated with these, are often blurred. Since we’re talking about blurring of bodies and identities, it seems useful to refer to Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto. As Kas wrote in her post “because the status is not quo” earlier this term, “[l]ooking through a socialist-feminist lens, Haraway claims that cyborg identities can be useful in negotiating fractured identities that “seem contradictory, partial, and strategic” (519) by illuminating the fact that “the production of universal, totalizing theory is a major mistake” (535). Thus, Balsamo’s categories are somewhat arbitrary and fail to grasp the deconstructionist roots inherent to so much of the posthumanist literature we have studied this term. Haraway’s theory of categorization, or rather, anti-categorization, seems to make more sense.
In which Science Fiction texts have you seen evidence of Anne Balsamo’s “Postmodern Forms of Technological Embodiment”? Are there other forms that she missed? Why did she select these four categories? In what ways might the characters of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog challenge these forms?
(edited by Kas)
Balsamo, Anne. “Forms of Technological Embodiment: Reading the Body in Contemporary Culture.” Body & Society 1.3-4 (1995): 215-37. SAGE. Web. 7 Mar. 2011. <http://sagepublications.com>.
Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” The New Media Reader. Eds. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Monfort. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003. 516-541.