Wound Up: Rape, Trauma, and Exploitation Tropes in “The Windup Girl”

April 5, 2015 § 1 Comment

windup girl

Before I read Bacigalupi’s novel, my mental image of a “windup girl” evoked a creature like Olympia from E.T.A. Hoffman’s “Sandman”: delicate and hauntingly removed from the events of the world around her.  Bacigalupi’s Emiko, however, feels and suffers all too keenly. A Japanese windup designed for entertaining and sex work, Emiko is programmed to obey the whims of her masters and clients ─ a twist on the troubling Orientalist trope of the submissive, obedient Asian woman.* While the novel does defamiliarize this trope by depicting Emiko’s internal rebellion against her programming, I’ll admit that I was bracing myself for a biopunk version of “Madame Butterfly” once farang Anderson Lake becomes infatuated with Emiko’s Otherness. Nevertheless, The Windup Girl surprised me by setting Emiko on another narrative trajectory ─ the rape-and-revenge arc of exploitation cinema ─that pushed her apparent white savior to the fringes.

The rape-and-revenge film emerged as a subgenre of exploitation cinema during the 1970s, with I Spit on Your Grave (1978) and Ms. 45 (1981) as perhaps its most famous exemplars. The plot arc was simple: a woman survives a brutal rape and becomes her own avenger, making her attackers pay with blood.

In this iconic sequence from "Ms. 45," Thana, a mute woman who survives two incidents of rape, goes on a Halloween shooting spree dressed in a nun's habit.

In this iconic sequence from “Ms. 45,” Thana, a mute woman who survives two incidents of rape, goes on a Halloween shooting spree dressed in a nun’s habit.

Naturally, Emiko’s graphic gang rape at the hands of a party of government officials (facilitated by her co-workers at the sex club) and her subsequent evisceration of the perpetrators hit all the hallmarks of this subgenre. Emiko’s arc reinscribes some of the chief problems of the original films ─ i.e. that the rape is depicted with an excruciating level of detail that no amount of bloodshed can cover over. (Indeed, we only see the aftermath of Emiko’s rampage.) Nevertheless, I wonder Emiko’s case might provide us with a way of reading the rape-and-revenge protagonist’s transition from victim to vigilante/spree killer in terms of “reprogramming” by trauma.  While Emiko’s handiwork is so frightening that the Thai government suspects her of being military issue, she is no Jason Bourne. Rather than awakening latent training, Emiko’s trauma radically reprograms her understanding of her body and its capabilities. (Arguably, the omitted revenge scene may be the narrative equivalent of traumatic dissociation.) What would it mean for us to discuss trauma and PTSD in terms of cognitive reprogramming? Does this provide a compassionate analogy for helping us to understand the effects of trauma on the human mind, or does the depersonalized, mechanical vocabulary commit another kind of violence?

(*Ironically, while her bodily borders are made perilously open by her vulnerability to coercion, her hyper-smooth skin does not feature pores large enough to permit her to sweat properly, so she is doubly dependent on her pimp for sanctuary and for ice water to keep her from overheating.)

-A.M. Lehr

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§ One Response to Wound Up: Rape, Trauma, and Exploitation Tropes in “The Windup Girl”

  • maxbaumkel says:

    A.M. Lehr, I really appreciate this post and I think your questions are especially timely given the discussions that have been happening around trigger warnings. A trigger warning (or content warning), for those who haven’t (or maybe for those who have) been keeping a pulse on this particular debate, is a warning before a reader, listener, or viewer is exposed to content that is associated with some common forms of violence. Common topics for which one might trigger warn are racialized violence, suicide, and rape, for example. A trigger warning does not exist to simply alleviate discomfort, but rather functions to allow trauma survivors to take measures to prepare and care for themselves before being exposed.

    Anyway, all of this definition is to say that I think configuring trauma as a “cognitive reprogramming” isn’t only a “compassionate analogy,” but in fact deeply accurate in terms of how our bodies involuntarily register and index events, images, sounds, or text associated with trauma. I also think that your suggestion that “Emiko’s trauma radically reprograms her understanding of her body and its capabilities” resonates with disability’s “subjugated knowledge” — a concept that feminist disability studies scholar Rosmarie Garland-Thomson borrowed from Foucault. In other words, we might understand Emiko’s radical reprogramming not only as a product of surviving, but also as a productive adaptation (invoking Darwinian terms) for her environment.

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