James Tiptree Jr.’s “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” examines the ways technology can intervene, expand, and complicate the relationships and boundaries between a body and a person. First published in 1973, it is steeped in the cultural questions of the day regarding women, their bodies, and their agency. Written by an author who used an assumed name and gender, it considers the idea of a created self that exists concurrently, but in some ways separately, from the corporeal self. “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” speaks about the hope offered by, and the inevitable failure of technological transformation in the face of a shallow and unyieldingly capitalist society.
“The Girl Who Was Plugged In” thrusts us into to a corporately-controlled dystopic future, where celebrities referred to as gods are taste-makers who influence consumers through product placement. It is a macabre world, grotesque in its superficiality, and even our narrator is crass and unfeeling. As twisted reality show/soap opera hybrids unfold for the public, every action, every product used, every piece of clothing touched is controlled by mega corporations, most notably GTX.
In a roaring crowd where the beautiful gods are momentarily seen, Philadelphia (P.) Burke, a 17-year-old “tall monument to pituitary dystrophy,” (Tiptree 2) is stumbling. She is a tragic, oafish figure, who we can see immediately has no place in such a society. The narrator refers to her as “a hulk” (Tiptree 7), and an “it” (Tiptree 13).She collapses within a few paragraphs, as a result of her unsuccessful suicide attempt.
A mysterious man appears to her at the hospital and offers her a chance to live among the gods, and a life she could not have previously hoped for. She agrees without question. Burke undergoes a transformation, but it is one of fusion and simulation, not of physical metamorphosis. She is put into a sauna-like room, and fitted with electrodes, made to act as the remote brain to a living doll, Delphi, a beautiful blonde 15-year-old, described as “porno for angels,” (Tiptree 5).
While Delphi is awake, P. Burke experiences life as her. “The brimming joy is all that shows of P. Burke, the forgotten hulk in the sauna next door. But P. Burke doesn’t know she’s alive—it’s Delphi who lives, every warm inch of her” (Tiptree 7).
Delphi becomes wildly popular and well-loved. As such, P. Burke wants to unhook less and less, and must be forced to maintain her human life with food and exercise, against her wishes, during Delphi’s sleeping hours.
Burke is disposable, only useful as the brain behind a body that is more acceptable than her own. Her imperfect form renders her valueless. The remote technology strips her of her true personhood and constrains her physically into a closet, and yet it provides her with pure delight, and freedom and affection that she was unable to attain in her former state. Only through the avatar and artifice of Delphi is she deserving of such pleasure; only in a manufactured body is she assigned significance.
Heather Hicks writes, “Tiptree’s novella serves up perhaps the most despairing rendering to date of the woman’s body in the technosphere,” (69).
Paul, the morally-driven and rebellious son of a GTX official, falls in love with Delphi, and it’s both P. Burke and Delphi who have feelings for him in return. When Paul tries to free Delphi from the clutches of GTX, he finds P. Burke, and frees her from the cabinet. Appalled by her appearance, and unable to see beyond it, he inadvertently kills her in the process of attempting to free Delphi. P Burke writhes on the floor, as we saw at the story’s start, this time with no hope of resuscitation, while Delphi is later resurrected with a new remote.
Veronica Hollinger writes, “P. Burke’s performance-at-a-distance of femininity is a consumer-driven masquerade in which such performance provides her only opportunity, within the constraints of an ugly and abjected female body, to mimic acceptable femininity-and thus to qualify for the kind of fairy-tale ending, marriage to a handsome prince, which is (almost) P. Burke’s reward for successfully performing the masquerade.” (32)
However, P. Burke is ultimately denied her happy ending, as a direct result of the revulsion her true appearance inspires.
James Tiptree, Jr. as writer is also a performance. Alice Hastings Sheldon began publishing fiction as James Tiptree, Jr. in 1968. Throughout her life, she was a US Army Airforce Major, a CIA Operative, a Doctor of Psychology, and a professor. It was wasn’t until 9 years after her first publication, and 4 years after the publication of “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” through the obituary notices for her mother, that fans deciphered the truth of her identity and her gender. (Leith 412)
Sheldon was a trailblazer in many respects, as a SF writer, and in her life, defying gender conventions of the time. 1973 is widely known as the year of Roe V. Wade and the legalization of abortion. It is a progressive anniversary we celebrate, but it was a hard won and contested victory, indicative of the tumultuous nature of the time. Right in the middle of second-wave feminism, women’s bodies and the rights afforded to them were debated issues. At that time, Sheldon was already 58 years old and had lived much of her life railing against rigid gender norms. Her pseudonym allowed her to achieve success that would have been much harder to earn writing Science Fiction as a woman, and she was surely very cognizant of this fact.
Hicks calls attention to this, viewing “The Girl Who Was Plugged in” as “an allegory of writerly disembodiment that its representation of writing, technology, and women’s bodies can most productively be read. In this reading, Sheldon herself becomes P. Burke, ‘the invisible creature next door’, which powers the public persona-in this case, James Tiptree, Jr.-that consumers desire.” (Hicks 73)
Today, as opposed to 1973, opportunities to perform and manipulate alternate identities abound. Viewing Internet culture, in addition to the continued melding of human and machine by technological advances, Tiptree’s version of the future seem, in some ways, prophetic.
We continuously construct and revise our identities online. We create personas on social media and on dating websites. We use sims and avatars and icons to represent us, and are identified by these markers daily. We elaborate on and embellish our positive traits and experiences, and diminish and hide our negative ones. We fabricate ourselves and our lives, in varying degrees.
At the extreme end of this spectrum, we Catfish, hiding fully behind a created character. This construction of an avatar is one point of entry for my project. A person can live an alternate life behind a screen, have love affairs with people who have never seen their face, in a way similar to the affair between Paul and P. Burke.
This is but one aspect of the ever-expanding levels of posthumanism and cyborgology that has developed since Tiptree’s writing. These scientific developments are often applied to feminist discourse, held up as ideologies of hope and transcendence.
“Cyborgology is particularly appealing, for rather than attempting to reconcile opposites through the construction of some tenuous and poorly defined “equality” between separate and allegedly antithetical subject positions (male/female, for example)-something that second wave feminism arguably failed to bring about-the figure of the cyborg holds out the prospect of moving beyond such intractable oppositions and differences.” writes Kaye Mitchell. (113)
But, just as the promised transcendence for P. Burke was inevitably a fatal failure, while technology has the potential to radicalize varying aspects of society, including gender, often we use it in the service of traditional norms, at times employing exaggerated versions of stereotypes masculinity or femininity through the use of avatars.
“Such imaginative appropriations of technology do not necessarily permit us to transcend the dominant (patriarchal) ideologies of our everyday existence; rather they can serve to reinforce and perpetuate such ideologies,” Mitchell concludes. (114)
Today, while we have progressed in so many ways technologically, we find ourselves again revisiting and defending women’s agency over their own bodies, struggling with what an acceptable and valued body looks like.
This failure of the avatar is another very visible part of my project. Once the avatar is created, I want to simulate, through a variety of methods, a slow unraveling of the creation.
This project will be, largely, a “choose your own adventure” type story, with outcomes in the form of media and text based on previous responses. It will be very interactive fiction. The first step will be to build a narrative in this form, and then to create and add in the required media. Some subsites will be text; some will link to videos or images, others will link to bots. I will use tools for interactive fiction or role playing games, like Quest, TADS, Twine, etc.
Part I Introduction: As the start of the story introduces the reader to a woman who does not fit the standards of the society she is a part of, the first subsites of the project will include video or rapidly flashing text and/or sound, introducing the user to this reality, in some form of visual assault. The message will be along the lines of: you are not enough.
Part II Avatar Construction: I will use varying methods to allow the user to construct an avatar. My coding is rudimentary, but I can do enough to set a name, and also to allow the user to choose some components of the look of the avatar (i.e. height, eye color). Some aspects will be pre-assigned to the avatar, as was done in the case of Delphi. Through words and image, I also want to stress a fusion between the avatar and the user.
Part III Engagement: The site will then simulate engagement with another person, some of it through click-through conversation and type writer text, and some through the use of a bot that will be programmed with minimal responses via a website like Pandorabots. The bot can link back to the main story site, giving different links dependent upon what the user types. There may be more than one bot as the story develops. Possible other forms of engagement: an e-mail and an autoresponder, a Twitter account, a fake dating website profile. There are a lot of possibilities, and some of it will be dependent on my technological limitations, and where the narrative goes.
Part IV Unraveling: An extension of engagement, pretty soon after the interaction begins, the simulated conversant will want to meet the avatar in real life. This will end with the discovery that the simulated person has secrets of their own, through some combination of sound and image, in attempt to replicate the grotesque scene where P. Burke was discovered in the sauna room.
Hicks, Heather. “‘Whatever It Is That She’s since Become’: Writing Bodies of Text and Bodies of Women in James Tiptree, Jr.’s ‘The Girl Who Was Plugged in’ and William Gibson’s ‘The Winter Market,’” Contemporary Literature, Vol. 37, No. 1, Spring, 1996. Jstor, Accessed 15 October 2016.
Hollinger, Veronica. “(Re)reading Queerly: Science Fiction, Feminism, and the Defamiliarization of Gender,”Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 26, No. 1, On Science Fiction and Queer Theory, Mar., 1999. Jstor, Accessed 14 October 2016.
Leith, Linda, “Alice Hastings Sheldon, 1915-87,”Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3, Science-Fiction Film, Nov., 1987. Jstor, Accessed 14 October 2016.
Mitchell, Kaye. “Bodies That Matter: Science Fiction, Technoculture, and the Gendered Body,” Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 33, No. 1, Technoculture and Science Fiction, Mar., 2006. Jstor, Accessed 14 October 2016.
Sturgis, Susanna J. James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips, Review.” The Women’s Review of Books, Vol. 23, No. 6, Nov. – Dec., 2006. Jstor, Accessed 15 October 2016.
Tiptree Jr., James. “The Girl Who Was Plugged in,” originally published in New Dimensions 3, Doubleday, 1973. Accessed online: http://www.f.waseda.jp/sidoli/Tiptree_Girl_Plugged_In.pdf
*note: this version says 1974, but all of the critical texts list the first version printed as 1973