A Manifesto

This DC comics character’s masculinity shouldn’t be defined by his manhood

DC Comics

When David F. Walker began his run writing the Cyborg solo series, he set out to introduce the character to a new generation of comic book readers and give the character back something that, in his opinion, had been taken away in his origin story: his masculinity. Specifically—his masculinity as it relates to his genitalia.

Victor Stone (codename: Cyborg) first appeared in issue #26 of DC Comics Presents in 1980, he represented a marked shift for the comic book publisher. Though Cyborg wasn’t DC’s first black superhero, he was one of the first to be prominently featured as a core member on a flagship hero team, the Teen Titans.

For nearly 25 years, Cyborg acted as the Titans’ technical powerhouse across a variety of media, including multiple books and a popular television series that aired on Cartoon Network. More recently, he became a fully-fledged member of the Justice League in 2011.

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Not only did Cyborg introduce a culturally relevant technopathy to the League, he also brought some much-needed melanin to a team that has been overwhelmingly white since its creation in 1960.

Aside from Static Shock and John Stewart, the black Green Lantern featured on the Justice League animated series, Cyborg has basically been DC’s only leading black hero consistently seen on TV and in the comics for the past decade. Now, Ray Fisher will portray the character in DC’s cinematic universe in a solo movie slated for 2020.

“He represents all of us in a lot of ways,” writer Geoff Johns said to Newsarama of DC’s decision to include Cyborg into the new League. “If we have a cellphone and we’re texting on it, we are a cyborg—that’s what a cyborg is, using technology as an extension of ourselves.”

Cyborg, as his name describes, was a regular human who, after being severely disfigured in an accident at his parents’ lab, is outfitted with a series of cybernetic body parts. In Walker’s rebooted take on Cyborg’s origin, he similarly loses the lower half of his body, but then goes through a dramatic transformation.

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After suffering from catastrophic amounts of damage while fighting, Cyborg’s internal operating system triggers an emergency regeneration process. Cyborg’s body suddenly sheds his newly-mangled extremities and begins to create new, more organic-looking ones in their place.

“This updated take on Cyborg, with sleek, humanized limbs that grow to replace limbs that he lost, may have been designed in part to address this very problem of Cyborg’s emasculation,” Andrew Wheeler wrote for Comics Alliance. “Even if the restoration is never directly addressed on the page, it can safely be inferred as a likely and intended consequence of this change.”

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In the span of a few seconds, Cyborg’s once hulking tank of a body becomes much more human in shape and size, but along with that transformation comes the question as to whether being more traditionally human actually makes Cyborg more of a man.

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On the one hand, that’s one of the benefits of being a living machine, but, as writer Robert Jones Jr. argued in a piece critical of Cyborg’s history, it can also be read as a form of literal castration.

“This, to me, is the comic book version of the historical castrations that white supremacists often enacted against black men, of whose sexuality (which they exaggerated and demonized) they were enormously envious and frightened of,” Jones Jr. wrote. “Sufficiently neutered, Cyborg is DC Comics’ idea of a black character safe enough to be embraced by white people.”

Jones’s point, though controversial, isn’t without merit. Despite the fact he’s traditionally seen as the team’s hulking tank of a powerhouse, Cyborg is usually characterized as one of the animated Teen Titans‘s light-hearted, bro-iest, non-threatening members. There’s a way in which his character can be read as the stereotypical, light-hearted, gentle giant of a black man—an idea all the more reinforced by the literal and symbolic destruction of most of his body.

The thing is, though, Cyborg’s body (and by extension, his sexuality) can be conceptualized in a number of ways because of its cybernetic nature.

Penises do not an active sex life make and to essentialize a person’s humanity down to their sex organs is to deny them the chance to shape new ideas of what it means to be human.

Neither Cyborg’s sexuality nor his sex life were ever the major focus of DC’s stories about him. On the one hand, you could attribute that to the fact that, being mechanical from the waist down, Cyborg had been more or less castrated. On the other hand, though, you have to remember that superheroes basically never have sex regardless of their race or gender.

But let’s say you buy into the idea that a male character’s masculinity is inexorably tied to his body and his ability to have to have sex. There’s no reason that Cyborg’s body ever precluded him from those things.

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In her 1991 essay “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Donna Harraway argues that because machines are a creation of man and man is a product of nature, there’s no real difference between organic and artificial life.

Harraway originally used the metaphor of the cyborg to encourage second wave feminists to rethink the boundaries along which they drew their personal politics. But there’s a way in which her language is a useful tool to redefine the boundaries along which we define Cyborg’s masculinity and his sexuality. Her cyborg represents the breaking down of barriers between humans and machines and Cyborg quite literally embodies that fusion. While Cyborg may have lost his standard-issue human genitalia in his accident, he gained a much more physically versatile body in exchange.

In nearly each of his appearances, Cyborg’s weapon of choice is a sonic canon that he can make his arm transform into at will. Every part of his mechanical body is composed of a living metal capable of morphing into weapons, tools and, if need be, appendages.

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Cyborg’s at-rest body might not feature a penis in the traditional sense, but in a very literal way, his body transcends the traditional concept of the male figure.

A recurring theme throughout all of Cyborg’s appearances is his struggle to cope with the perceived loss of his humanity. It isn’t just that he thinks and feels differently than he did before, it’s that his body is foreign to him. That inner conflict makes for good storytelling, but there’s a way of pushing the concept further.

As Cyborg, Victor Stone is greater than the sum of his parts. He’s both man and machine and because of that, he has the narrative potential to be so much more than either. We live in an age where gender, sexuality, and maleness are decreasingly less-defined by our physicalities. Instead, we’re working with a better understanding of the ways that all of these things are malleable and prime for re-articulation.

To put it simply: Cyborg’s the single best-equipped person in the entire DC universe to shape his masculinity. He doesn’t need a human body to do it.