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“Who am I? Who was I?”: The Posthuman and Identity Formation in Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies Trilogy

by Gough, Philip

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necessary in these fictions as their suppressed presence in the transformed human is
what rises up and challenges cyber programming. In Robocop (1987), technology is
humanized and technophobic anxieties are allayed. This is the popular culture concept
of the posthuman and is adhered to more often than not – technological renegades will
be conquered by humanity. However, as will be shown, this is not necessarily the
situation in Westerfeld’s Uglies trilogy, where humanity can be defeated in its battle
with technology and human identity is the primary victim.

As mentioned above, very little material exists on the role of the cyborg and its
effect on identity in the adolescent novel. In order to supplement the material on
adolescent identity formation and critical materials dealing with adolescent identity in
fiction, I will be referring to a number of commentaries and observations from
popular culture sources. As there has been a great interest in the posthuman and
cyborgs as portrayed in film and television, there is a considerable amount of material
available that often focuses on issues that are pertinent to this dissertation, particularly
the relationship of memory and identity in posthuman fiction. Additionally, I will be
making reference to cyborgs that have appeared in some recent adolescent fictions.

As will be shown, the posthuman/cyborg as it is represented in adolescent fiction
is not the liberating transformation that theory postulates and hopes for; rather it is the
appropriation of science as the source of fabulous extrapolations that become the
tropes of science fiction. As Adam Roberts states, “[t]he term ‘science fiction’ resists
easy definition” (1). Roberts’ search for a definition takes thirty-six pages and, as it is
not the intent of this project to define science fiction, a more abbreviated definition
will need to suffice. For the purposes of this discussion, Robert Scholes’ definition, as
cited in Applebaum, defines science fiction as:


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A fictional exploration of human situations made perceptible by the
implications of recent science. Its favorite themes involve the impact of
developments or revelations derived from the human or physical sciences
upon the people who must live with those revelations or developments. (3)
By appropriating scientific concepts and ideas and placing them within a popular
culture medium, such as the adolescent science fiction novel, authors explore and
discuss issues that are often a concern of the readership. Science fiction often reflects
the hopes, fears and anxieties of a culture concerning the impact that technology will
have in shaping the future world and its human inhabitants. Additionally, within the
context of science fiction, explorations of the self and the nature of what it means to
be human often emerge through encounters with difference that is also considered a
marker of the genre. As a genre, science fiction has until recently been overlooked
critically but it has a few examples that seem to receive continuous attention. Blade
Runner (1982), the works of Octavia Butler and Alien Resurrection (1997) are
amongst a handful of examples of the genre popular with critics and the subject of
analysis, but generally science fiction enjoys greater popularity outside rather than
within the academy. Commenting on the genres that are the subject of film criticism,
Annette Kuhn observes, “science fiction and (perhaps decreasingly) horror stand out
especially as film genres with high popular, but relatively low critical profiles” (5).
The irony is that the foundation of much of the theoretical speculation on the
posthuman and how it questions what it means to be human, challenges identity and
affects subjectivity, is based on popular culture manifestations of the posthuman as
portrayed in science fiction.

In my discussion of the Uglies trilogy, I will be considering three areas of identity
formation that I believe inform Westerfeld’s version of the posthuman: displacement,
memory, and the body. Always lurking in the background of any discussion of the
posthuman is the question of what it means to be human. As each book in the trilogy


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foregrounds different aspects of posthumanism, I will be devoting one chapter to
each. Finally, I would like the reader to be aware that even though the cyborg is the
primary manifestation of the posthuman in the trilogy, not everyone is a cyborg –
although none of the characters are immune to the presence and influence of
technology in shaping their lives.

Of course, as with any work of this scope, there will be overlap and a need to
revisit previous assertions. What is consistent throughout the trilogy is the challenge
posed by posthumanism to the stability of identity, the integrity of the human body,
and the notion of what it means to be human.


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Chapter One: Uglies
In this chapter I will be considering the use of conventional markers of identity Uglies
and how they emphasise the debate between remaining human and an ugly or
embracing the posthuman as a pretty. Also, the structure of the society as informed by
Foucault’s theory of the docile body will be explored. I will also consider the
emphasis on beauty and its relationship to attitudes towards the body in Uglies.

The desire to be posthuman, to be transformed into an ideal version of one’s self
that is beautiful, immune to the threat of disease, and spared the ravages of age, is
something that many have considered. However, as desirable as it is, the thought of
one’s body being physically altered is fraught with anxiety and fear that the outcome
might be something not quite human, with identity and sense of self possibly altered
as well. Adolescence signals a newfound concern for physical appearance and how
one appears to others. Uglies are no different from their real-world counterparts in
this concern. However, for uglies, appearance does not carry the weight of
permanence as it does for their real-world counterparts. Every ugly knows that on
their sixteenth birthday they will undergo the “pretty operation” and be made

In the world of Uglies, anxieties and fears about appearance do not arise from the
inevitability of transformation into the posthuman; they arise from the fear of being
excluded from the process. Tally is a “tricky” ugly, always pulling pranks and
breaking rules, and her fear is “being caught…and never being turned pretty at all”
(Uglies 25). These are the concerns of Tally Youngblood, on the cusp of her sixteenth
birthday, eagerly anticipating the “pretty operation” that will make her beautiful and
reunite with her best friend, Peris, in New Pretty Town.


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Anne A. Balsamo observes that cosmetic surgery is a form of control that exploits
the desire to correct aspects of the body that culture has deemed abnormal or not
meeting a standard that has been “decided” for the body. “When a woman internalizes
a fragmented body image and accepts its “flawed” identity, each part of the body
becomes a site for the “fixing” of her physical abnormality” (56-57). In Uglies this
view is not restricted to the female population but applies to males as well. All
members of the ugly community are “abnormal” and through conditioning come to
not only believe, but to accept their “flawed identity”, and are eager to undergo the
surgery that will make them “normal.” The natural body is viewed as something
pathological and the only cure is to replace the natural by applying technology to
“augment nature” and create a “natural” beauty (Balsamo 71). Most people will
naturally resist change, especially when it has to do with the human body; the human
body is the most visible sign of identity, “the most tangible feature of what it is to be
human, encapsulating our humanness in form and providing an outlet for humanity”
(Scott and Dragoo 2). But in Tally’s world, the natural body is a liability and there is
virtually no resistance to having the body reconfigured so that it conforms to a
cultural model of normalcy. This view of the body as malleable runs throughout the
trilogy as Tally experiences the various modifications and enhancements applied to
and placed within her body. To be “natural” in Tally’s world is considered abnormal.
The natural body is replaced with a construct based on a cultural concept of beauty;
sameness and conformity are substituted for identity and individuality.

In Uglies it might be said that identity is not so much formed as imposed.
Everyone between the age of twelve and sixteen is conditioned to believe they are
ugly and eagerly await their sixteenth birthday when, courtesy of the state, they will
be transformed into pretties: everyone is beautiful and therefore everyone is equal.


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One of the justifications for the pretty operation is that, in the past, human appearance
was the source of many of the world’s problems:

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Shay recited. “Everyone judged everyone else based
on their appearance. People who were taller got better jobs, and people even
voted for some politicians because they weren’t quite as ugly as everybody
else. Blah, blah, blah.”

“Yeah, and people killed one another over stuff like having different
colored skin.” Tally shook her head. No matter how many times they repeated
it at school, she’s never really quite believed that one. “So what if people look
more alike now? It’s the only way to make people equal.” (Uglies 44-45)
Ugly children are trained to practice remaking themselves with morphing programs
that create symmetrical faces and desirable features chosen from a catalogue. Bodies
can be refashioned in the program, as is hair, skin tone and a myriad of other markers
of physical identity. But the image and the exercise is a fiction, and in reality the
remaking of the body is carried out according to guidelines reached by consensus
with other cities and administered by the Pretty Committee. Shay considers the
activity a waste of time and tells Tally, “It’s stupid. The doctors do pretty much what
they want, no matter what you tell them” (41). Naomi Jacobs writing on subjectivity
and agency argues that:
Although individuals may believe they are freely choosing and freely acting
from a position of integrity, their choices and actions merely duplicate subject
positions to which they have been “called” [and] this sense of unity or selfidentity
is itself a mark of the extent to which the subject exists in a state of
subjection. (93).
By participating in the exercise of recreating one’s physical identity, the individual is
practicing self-surveillance and ensuring the implementation of the state’s agenda.
This is part of ugly training and another way to objectify the body and discourage
subjectivity: there is no point in becoming attached to a body that the individual is
trained to regard as temporary. Shay objects to participating in the “game” and tells
Tally, “Making ourselves ugly is not fun.” But the well-conditioned Tally reminds
Shay, “We are ugly!” (Uglies, emphasis in original, 44).


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In Uglies identity formation in the posthuman world is treated as an act of
objectification that happens when the individual places their image on a screen that
they can then observe from a distance, as it is and as it might be. The computer scans
Shay’s face and “[s]econds later, two faces appeared on the screen. Both of them were
Shay, but there were obvious differences. One looked wild, slightly angry; the other
had a slightly distant expression, like someone having a daydream” (41). The new
person that is created on the screen is an ideal, one that only exists as a digital
manifestation. Not only is the mirror image objectified, but it is also contrasted with
the ideal, so that rather than morphing Shay’s face, a new one is created and her real
face is left on screen as a reminder of the shortcomings and frailties of the human
body when held up against the ideal that she is taught only technology can provide.
This is a placebo that technology makes possible as a means of alleviating the anxiety
and inferiority about an individual’s identity and subjectivity that is the result of
social conditioning. The act of playing the game provides hope and a relief from the
imposed despair of being an ugly. But in reality, and Tally acknowledges this, the
image on the screen will never be imprinted on her body because it is an image
created by an individual and in this society physical identity is determined by
committees in consultation to ensure that everyone is equally beautiful and no one
looks better or worse than anyone else.

Shay tries to convince Tally to join her in the wild but Tally is determined to
become a pretty. “We don’t have to look like everyone else, Tally, and act like
everyone else. We’ve got a choice. We can grow up any way we want” (89). But
Tally is the good citizen and believes that she is ugly and there is only one alternative
for her. “I don’t want to be ugly all my life. I want those perfect eyes and lips, and for
everyone to look at me and gasp” (92). Tally does not want to go with Shay to the


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Smoke, a community of runaways who have rejected the pretty operation, and be in a
place where everyone is ugly but, as Shay points out, this “means no one’s ugly” (92).
But there is an acknowledged difference amongst uglies as the nicknames attest. They
are not recognized as difference that defines self but merely verbal ways of
reinforcing the ugly conditioning of finding fault with the body. Shay, however,
rejects the nicknames – she is “skinny” and Tally is “squint” – and insists that when
they are together they refer to each other by name (36). Shay tells Tally that she is
joining the Smoke because, “[i]t’s about becoming who I want to become. Not what
some surgical committee thinks I should” (92). “You’re still yourself on the inside,
Shay. But when you’re pretty people pay more attention” (93). This is the cultural
belief that beauty implies power; how those who are beautiful advance in the world
while those that are not are left behind. But Tally fails to grasp the irony of her
statement. The pretty operation is designed to neutralize the power acquired through
beauty by making everyone equally beautiful. When everyone is equal, beauty loses
its meaning because, like identity, beauty is defined through difference. Through
degrees of difference, a concept of beauty is conceived and identity is formed in a
similar way. The implication of the transformation is that it has the same effect on the
concept of beauty as it does on identity by reducing it to sameness and effectively
robbing the terms of significant meaning.

An imposed identity, programmed and designed by the Pretty Committee removes
responsibility for identity formation from the individual and places it firmly in the
hands of the state. Tally has to do nothing other than show up at the hospital with
nothing more than her willingness to be transformed. However, as David, the boy she
meets in the Smoke, tells her “You are all brainwashed into believing you’re ugly”
(276). In order for the agenda of the city to be successfully applied it needs a


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compliant population. After all, asking a person to “give up” their body and replace it
with something over which they have no control is a bold step that requires an
immense amount of trust on the part of the individual; where trust cannot be won, it is
put in place through other means.

The primary function of Uglyville is to produce docile bodies. A docile population
is less likely to consider or take part in civil disobedience that might threaten the
stability of the city. As Michel Foucault argues, “A body is docile that may be
subjected, used, transformed and improved” (Discipline & Punish 136). This is
precisely the agenda of the city, to create docile bodies through conditioning and
education and then transform uglies into pretties that will result in an easily controlled
population. Of course, there will always be those like Shay and her friends who reject
the offer of beauty and equality in deference for individualism and are satisfied to live
outside the city as natural humans or “randoms” as they are referred to in the trilogy,
but they are few.

Segregation defines the environments and residents of Uglies. By segregating
people there is no fear of offence or contamination. As Foucault argues, the control of
space is control of the individual. This is analogous to Foucault’s example of the
prison, a defined space that is then broken down incrementally into sections and then
further into cells. Tally’s city is similar: it is an enclosed and clearly demarcated
space, separate from other cities, and within the city there are “communities” that
house one strata of society that is physically separated from other communities.

The world of uglies is well defined with no zones of transition and environment is
a marker of identity. This form of social identification is a direct result of imposed
posthumanism. “Disciplinary space tends to be divided into as many sections as there
are bodies or elements to be distributed. One must eliminate the effects of imprecise


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distributions, the uncontrolled disappearance of individuals, their diffuse circulation”
(Discipline & Punish 143). Membership in a community is determined by age, and
identity is defined by appearance. It is quite simple to determine a person’s identity –
either by how they look or where they live, as the criteria are synonymous. It is also a
simple means of identifying those who do not belong. A structured society that is
conditioned to obey all rules and to never transgress boundaries makes control easy to
maintain and interlopers easy to identify. These segregated environments and an
absence of interaction imply a sense of otherness about the various environments that
invites human curiosity; however, the only humans in the city are uglies and the
constant surveillance of the boundaries of each community makes violation rare. Only
the “trickiest” uglies, ones who pull pranks, are able to violate boundaries undetected;
Tally is one of the trickiest.

Foucault also notes that the creation of docile bodies is practiced in institutions:
schools, hospitals, workplaces and prisons, to name a few (Discipline & Punish 138).
These function as defined spaces where particular activities take place and the people
who occupy these spaces are identified within it. Equally important as the control of
space, Foucault argues, is the control of time. The imposing of schedules allows the
state to “exercise power over [individuals] through the mediation of time” (Discipline
& Punish 162). Not only are there schedules within Uglyville that organize and
control the uglies but also all of the citizens of the city are regulated through a rigid
schedule of transformation based on age. This use of “serial space” creates a
hierarchy that makes the indoctrinated eager to move on to the next level (147). As in
institutions, the successful completion of a task is rewarded: in school it is a passing
grade; in the workplace a pay cheque; and in Uglyville it is being made beautiful. But


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