Unpacking Alita: Battle Angel – Empowerment, Biopolitics, and Transphobia

"And I'm just an insignificant girl"

Alita: Battle Angel is a 2019 film adapted from the first three books of the manga of the same name. It was released in the first week of February, commonly thought of as where movies go to die because the Academy Awards have just ended and anything released in their wake is likely to be forgotten before the next Oscars the following year. 

Alita: Battle Angel had no business being any good, despite being directed by Robert Rodriguez and produced in part by James Cameron. And for the most part, this is exactly how it was treated: it made about half of its production budget back in domestic sales, and while it made more than that in international sales, some sources still project that it was more than $50 million shy of its break-even point (these numbers are notoriously well guarded because studios don't want to publish evidence that their movies were financial failures). The movie holds a 61% barely fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, with most critics finding the plot and characters lagging behind the film's big-budget special effects.

So then why am I here talking about a movie that by most accounts seems to be an unsuccessful dud of a sci-fi spectacle? Well, here's the thing:

I love Alita: Battle Angel.

You could say Alita: Battle Angel is my favorite movie of the year, and you wouldn't even really be that far wrong. I saw it three times in theaters (it was February, after all, where movies go to die, but still, I generally try to see new movies when I take the trouble to go out to the theater), and I talked about it so frequently and passionately that my wife bought me the blu-ray for my birthday. And while this is exactly the type of movie whose few fans would probably call it a guilty pleasure, I wouldn't stop there. There are other 2019 films that I perhaps appreciate the existence of more than Alita, sure—for example, I'm glad that such a politically and economically astute movie as Parasite exists, and I'm glad that such an artistically creative movie as The Lighthouse exists—but when I go to my shelf of movies in order to watch something from 2019, chances are that I'm going to put on Alita: Battle Angel.

So what's Alita all about, then? The broad course of the narrative follows the eponymous Alita, a young cyborg woman, her participation in Motorball, an action-packed sport that is definitely not Rollerball (even if searching for Rollerball GIFs, a thing I just did, turns up a majority of Alita GIFs), her involvement with Hunter-Warriors, a class of bounty hunters, and her exploration of her own self-identity, both as a human and as a machine. Tonally and stylistically, it's essentially 2019's Jupiter Ascending, complete with sci-fi rollerblading. It's big, it's campy, and it's earnest and corny as heck.

The writing isn't exactly deep or nuanced, but it's functional: Alita is a woman whose mind is divorced from her body (at times literally) and who must find a unity between her 300-year-old past and her teenage present. Her core has existed for centuries, but she was dumped in a trash pile and lost her memory, and now she's been brought back to life by a benevolent cyborg doctor Ido and must relearn how to exist in the world. She must navigate her relationships with the men who want to be her father, her friend, her master—it might not be the most original thing in the world, but what it lacks in narrative creativity, it easily makes up for with its emotional sincerity and visual splendor.

And what is it that I enjoy so much about this movie? Well, the most obvious thing is just the tone and texture of it. It reminds me of 2008's Speed Racer (one of my favorite movies of all time, if you're new here) particularly in its corny and earnest emotionalism. This movie is like the speech Mom Racer gives Speed about how when she watches him race it's like watching him make art, and that emotional sincerity is all I ever need in my silly little life.

But deeper than that, it's also a thoroughly empowering film on a few different levels. The most obvious level is the struggle against an immense and unequal power structure. Alita lives in Iron City, essentially a slum, which is owned and ruled by the upper class who live in Zalem, an urban paradise floating above Iron City on a suspended disc. The ruling class in Zalem pay off or coerce key figures on Iron City in order to maintain control and eliminate dissidents, and I won't spoil too much of the specifics, but suffice it to say Alita will not stand by in the presence of evil (a line she repeats throughout the film). 

And while this empowerment against socio-economic disparity is more than enough on its own, there is more specificity to Alita's initial subjugation and subsequent empowerment than this—a specificity which is perhaps more relevant to our current political climate in America. Alita, as a cyborg, occupies a few different bodies over the course of the film. She's initially (re-)born into one, fairly rudimentary body (albeit with a significant history), she eventually finds a new body that is more meaningful to her, and she finishes the film in a third body built specifically to play Definitely-Not-Rollerball. This trajectory foregrounds the film's concern with the politics of the body in two distinct ways.

"Whose body is this?"

First, it outlines some Foucauldian ideas about biopolitics and the power of the state over the body and over life. Hugo, Alita's boyfriend, takes bodies apart; Ido, Alita's surrogate father, puts them back together. People switch bodies, lose or exchange body parts, or have their bodies customized and upgraded for the games. Bodies are everywhere and everything. Alita begins her journey without a body until Ido gives her one that belongs to someone else; this body works for her, but it doesn't fit her, it doesn't properly serve her purposes or match her own mental image of herself. Alita feels wrong in her body, but when she finds a new body that she wants, one that she identifies with, she must fight for it. Ido and others see the new body as too dangerous, as too much of a challenge to the existing power structure.

In his famous Lecture 11, the final lecture in a series he gave at the College de France in 1976, Michel Foucault described biopower in this way:

"To say that power took possession of life in the nineteenth century, or to say that power at least takes life under its care in the nineteenth century, is to say that it has, thanks to the play of technologies of discipline on the one hand and technologies of regulation on the other, succeeded in covering the whole surface that lies between the organic and the biological, between body and population. We are, then, in a power that has taken control of both the body and life, or that has, if you like, taken control of life in general — with the body as one pole and the population as the other... We saw the emergence of techniques of power that were essentially centered on the body, on the individual body. They included all devices that were used to ensure the spatial distribution of individuals bodies (their separation, their alignment, their serialization, and their surveillance) and the organization, around those individuals, of a whole field of visibility. They were also techniques that could be used to take control over bodies. Attempts were made to increase their productive force through exercise, drill, and so on. They were also techniques for rationalizing and strictly economizing on a power that had to be used in the least costly way possible, thanks to whole system of surveillance, hierarchies, inspections, book-keeping, and reports - all the technology of labor."

As he says, power has taken control of the body; power structures developed techniques and technologies of discipline, regulation, surveillance, and control focused on individual bodies in order to control populations. In Alita: Battle Angel, these techniques and technologies are manifested in an evolved form to accommodate the existence of cyborgs, people who can change and replace their bodies at will. These bodies may belong to the people who inhabit them, but Nova, the ruler of Zalem, effectively controls them all, not only socio-economically—nobody leaves Iron City to go to Zalem—but also biologically, as the "watcher behind the eyes" who can literally inhabit a body and speak through it, directly taking control over it. He regulates access to the highest quality bodies and body parts, reserving them for his loyal servants. He decides who lives and dies through his control of the Hunter-Warriors, an organization of professional killers who not only act as surveillance over the population, they even have the right to kill if Nova deems it necessary. He decides who matters through the games, offering fame and publicity to the winners. He is the center of this societal panopticon, exerting his biopower over all bodies around him. "I don't need your permission to live," Alita argues, but structurally she does need permission to live, everyone does. But when Alita discovers a new body, one that was lost in centuries-old wreckage, one outside of Nova's technologies of control, she discovers that with the right body, any power structure can be toppled.

The second way these discussions of the body are politically significant revolves around contemporary transgender discourse. Alita's character arc mirrors the experience of dysphoria, or psychological disconnect between body and mind, felt by many transgender people. While the initial body given to her by her surrogate father figure is significant to Ido (he built it for his now-deceased daughter), it has no such significance for Alita, and she increasingly finds herself dissatisfied with it. It's what her father wants her to be, not who she truly is. This dysphoria becomes even more palpable particularly and significantly palpable after she discovers a new body, one which shares some of her history and which she feels an immediate attachment to, both emotionally and psychologically. She was born into one body, but it never felt right, it didn't fit her or her purpose in this world, and now she finally knows how she can be happy in her own body. But when she asks Ido to let her have it, he says no. He sees this new body as a weapon and thinks it's too dangerous to give to Alita. 

This corporeal fluidity among many transgender people is similarly threatening and felt as dangerous to transphobes and other gender reactionaries. Trans women who haven't yet (or don't want to) undergo gender confirming bottom surgery are pejoratively referred to as "traps" because transphobic and homophobic straight men are afraid of being confronted with genitalia that doesn't match their expectations; they feel a trans woman's outward presentation of femininity is a "trap" to lure them in to "betraying" their heterosexuality (YouTuber ContraPoints has an excellent video on this important and complex issue). Transphobes also find trans bodies dangerous in public restrooms because they misunderstand trans women are perverted men invading an intimate women's space. While Alita's gender is never in question, her body is treated as threatening in a similar way, particularly after her transition into her final body. Ido's hesitation to allow Alita to inhabit this last body even has direct parallels to the kind of "benevolent" transphobia of a father warning his daughter not to transition because her life will be "harder" for her.

These parallels become even clearer when we consider linguistic arguments against accepting trans people. I promise I won't made anybody read this awful article if they don't want to, but The Federalist argues that by making gender distinctions slippery, the "Trans Agenda" is "moving steadily towards erasing all gender distinctions in the law" and that "erasing gender distinctions... would serve to legally un-define what it means to be human." This argument is obviously fallacious to anyone with any knowledge of history or linguistics (the law had no such struggles when we stopped using the second-person singular pronouns "thee," "thou," and "thine," and replaced them with the similarly "slippery" and ambiguously singular and plural "you"), but it serves to highlight the anxiety over the fluidity of how we define "humanity"—an anxiety that Alita is only too familiar with. In what is probably the emotional center of the film, she asks Hugo, "Does it bother you that I'm not completely human?" Hugo responds, "You are the most human person I have ever met."—but the anxiety is still there; society still tells Alita, as it tells trans people, that because of her non-conforming body, she's not human. Her existence, like the existence of trans people, is perceived as a threat to accepted definitions of humanity—or, more specifically, to the transphobic ideology of humanity.

So what's the final message to be taken away from this multi-layered thematic structure? Where does the idea that power structures exert control over individual bodies in order to control entire populations intersect with the idea that non-traditional bodies threaten popular conceptions of humanity? What's Alita's message, the message of a hero who resides in the theoretical space between threatening techniques of state control and threatening an ideology of intolerance? It's that one of the most threatening acts to the socio-economic inequality of the dominant power structure is to demand respect for your bodily autonomy. She may be "just an insignificant girl," but that doesn't mean she doesn't have power.


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