Disability and Power Through the Cyborg in One Punch Man

By: Linda Kuo April 24, 20200 Comments
manga panel of Genos

Advanced prosthetics, assistive technology, and science fiction stories have raised many timely questions on the role of cyborgs in disability theory and politics. Many people’s bodies are inextricably attached to mechanical elements, such as the cochlear implant, pacemakers, and even fully articulate bionic hands. 

The recent growth in synthetic-organic connections, combined with the prevalent cultural image of the cyborg figure, leads to fragmented and changing social perceptions of disability. Similar to how disability can represent liminal identities as bodies change and societal norms transition, the cyborg also occupies a position that blurs boundaries through hybridization.

Genos in One Punch Man is a cyborg whose body is almost completely artificial. His characterization explores media representations that contribute to discussions about disability through negotiations of humanization and pathways to power. Although Genos retains able-bodied functions, he shows experiences associated with disability through his anomalous body and how technology interacts with the disabled body today

Genos pointing his palm cannon toward the camera

Problems with Artificial Abilities

The value of determination and hard work in typical shounen protagonists works differently for Genos, who has to rely on technological advancements for power. As a cyborg, the transformative power-ups of Saitama and Garou remain out of reach. Although there’s an endearing and comical quality to his serious attitude and dedication towards training, it doesn’t look like he can ever grow stronger “through his own power.” 

The limitations of Genos’ abilities push him towards the sidekick role. He largely fails to defeat his enemies, starting from his first battle and the introduction to his character. Despite the typical shounen formula of earnestness, a motivational tragic backstory, and dramatic destined confrontation, he is still missing a key element that catalyzes his growth. 

Although this narrative reflects the harmful association that people who are disabled or lack a normative body are somehow incomplete or deficit, Genos’ state of power also resists the “supercrip” trope where people with disabilities in media are singled out for doing amazing feats. While an S-class hero himself, Genos lacks stand-out talent compared to other heroes in One-Punch Man. Especially as a shounen character, Genos defies the problematic message that determination is all someone needs to overcome obstacles.

Genos with a half-skin, half-metallic face. subtitle: I have to become stronger.

The problem is that both Genos’s weakness and capacity for growth stem from his cyborg identity. In many forms of media, the cyborg is a character distinguished by the combination of partial identities and potential possibilities of ability, such as Iron Man and Inspector Gadget. 

However, when Genos’ cyborg identity is combined with his personality, it appears to hold him back from achieving greater strength, undermining the cyborg’s symbolic power in transgressing boundaries and furthering power. Genos is in a constant state of fluctuating dis/ability. His body is destroyed multiple times in battle, emphasizing his vulnerability despite being made of metal, as well as calling attention to his anomalous artificial body, as these damages are normalized in the story. 

Genos’ fragility stems from how he sees himself as a disposable weapon rather than a person. He comes close to using his self-destruct function when faced with overwhelming obstacles, and tells Saitama that he’s fine as long as he has the parts. Genos in this state seems to leverage his cyborg functions for maximum violence and destructiveness. 

Genos with parts missing, core glowing. subtitle: All I can do is self-destruct.

This narrative is consistent with common tropes about how prosthetics make people with disabilities less “human” in a negative way, such as with Darth Vader and Immortan Joe from Mad Max: Fury Road. His powerlessness and multiple defeats suggest that Genos forsaking his fleshy body for revenge is a mistake, further punishing dependency on technology. 

The stigma faced by people with artificial augmentations reflect our reliance on defined social identities and the fear in modern society that we would be destroyed or controlled by the technology we created. A large part of fearing disability comes from how we all could become disabled one day, and definitely will if we live long enough, and many people want to separate ourselves from images or embodiments of that possibility. As the lines between human and machine continue to shift, society’s anxiety about maintaining the abled versus disabled binary are increasingly tested.

Extracting resources to make a mechanical body, especially a weaponized one, is also entrenched in anxieties about power. At one point in One Punch Man, Genos defeats the robot G4 and harvests its parts to make himself stronger. He ends up using these upgrades to defeat high-level threats. Strength is relegated to whoever overpowers the other, emphasizing the transactional and mechanical means of “growth” through technology that contributes towards the stigma against bionic body parts. 

Close-up of metallic parts. subtitle: If any of its components are compatible, please install them on me.

If a character’s organic growth through physical training is admirable and reliance on mechanical parts is considered “cheating,” then disability is further edged out of the story. Cyborgification even appears to exacerbate Genos’ trauma from experiencing large-scale destruction in his childhood. It’s clear that a dark side of frustration, failure, and desperation for results still remains entangled in his character.

As Genos’s  storyline moves towards his fated confrontation with the rogue cyborg that destroyed his hometown, we can question what distinguishes that villain from Genos. It’s noteworthy how Genos gave up a large part of his “humanity” to become like his enemy and to emulate the violence he witnessed. While his character illustrates the double-edged sword of developing technology and cyborgification, Genos’ development in the story navigates his complex background while hopefully setting the stage for long-term and fulfilling growth. 

Genos aggravated, Saitama carrying groceries. subtitle: Want help, Genos?

Disability as Growth: Overcoming or Acceptance

Genos’ quest for strength also questions the rehabilitation narrative. Rehabilitation in terms of telling stories about disability can suggest that people with disabilities need to be healed or corrected—that they shouldn’t exist in their current state. This belief falls under the medical model of disability that states how people should be cured, or “normalized,” and that there’s something “wrong” with them.

While Genos’ character resists rehabilitation towards a whole and “normal” human body even though he experiences struggles, his self-destructive and impulsive tendencies reflect how people could be seen as responsible for their own impairments. This also taps into the problem of disability being seen as something that’s just “in your head,” especially in the case of mental or emotional impairments. 

Genos’ cyborg identity compounds this idea because, culturally, cyborgs are often situated as a human mind bending machinery to its will; and willpower, at least in anime, is often depicted as the cornerstone value of humanity. The power of the human consciousness is the main defense against the increasing prevalence and power of technology.

Genos and Saitama sitting in a wrecked living room

In the world where Metal Bat’s “fighting spirit” enables him to surpass his limitations, the construction of willpower is complicated by the lens of disability. If Genos’ source of strength hinges on his ability to find proper willpower, it goes back to saying disability is just a bad attitude

However, spending four years alone as a teenager after a traumatic event does not lead to healthy socialization, and he is set up to change both mentally and emotionally. For Genos’ character to develop in a moving way without being a part of problematic concepts of overcoming disability and physical limitations, the narrative leans into normalization.

The pacing and process of his growth is more realistic than a typical shounen protagonist. Although anything secret or amazing about Genos can be excused by his constructed body, what he has is trial-and-error, analysis, and courage to run into battle. His fights get more strategic and any damage he sustains becomes a learning moment, demonstrating a greater connection and integrative approach towards his body. Genos uses his resources to his advantage, defeating Awakened Cockroach with a weapon developed to stop Sonic while utilizing mindful counters against enemies that outpace him in some capacity.

Genos cleaning a toilet in a pink apron

Even though cyborgs like Genos are often situated in hypermasculine narratives centering violence, such as in Terminator, he is rounded out as a character through cultivating relationships, in contrast to his first appearance as “the lone cyborg.” He is a dutiful disciple, ceding authority and adopting a more submissive role. He expresses emotion and admiration for Saitama that helps him avoid the feared “machine-like” personality. 

Part of his appeal as a character lies in his developing nurturance as he enjoys more traditionally feminine activities like doing household chores, cooking hot pot, and living a domestic life with Saitama. His inclusion of “softer” characteristics could mitigate anxieties around cyborgs becoming more machine than man, although the intersection of gender politics and cyborgification remains more complex. 

Nevertheless, the incorporation of slice-of-life ideals as character growth is a touch of growing consciousness for healthy dreams and healing from trauma. It is slow, quiet, and all the more precious for it. 

Saitama planning to ask Genos to fix his uniform

Perspective and Inclusion

As Genos gets closer to his goals and realizing his values, there is a subtlety to his characterization that makes him particularly compelling. He learns what it means to value strength and heroism beyond mere destructive power, as he sees Saitama’s strong ideals and struggles with depression. 

Genos protects Saitama even though he is already “invincible,” showing how he understands the limitations and complexities of having incredible power as he stands up for him against public criticism. In the same reality as Genos’ hunt for power and revenge, there also exists Saitama’s relatable story of searching for fulfillment and dealing with anxiety about the future. 

The tension of Genos’ life-and-death seriousness is dispelled by the equivalent weight given to Saitama’s problems. Saitama’s struggle with emptiness and disappointment in society illustrates how structural some barriers can be. While we root for Genos because victory is uncertain for him, the scope of the story is wide enough that even if he has a change in mindset that unlocks the power he’s been looking for, that strength is still not the final answer, and disability is never really “overcome.” 

Because the media often associates cyborgs and disability with trauma and failure, fiction needs to do more labor to empower these images. The “revenge coupled with a modified or disabled body” is a common formula for a villain, as seen just last year in Detective Pikachu; however, while Genos’ storyline has yet to unfold, there are already hints that Genos has hopes for his future beyond that confrontation. 

Genos and Saitama

He has added the goals of getting into the top 10 of S-class as a short-term goal and achieving strength like Saitama as a more long-term aspiration. As a “machine” and a living weapon, Genos’ development avoids problematically “overcoming” the limitations of his body, but instead focuses on him trying to live a more satisfying life. His developing relationships with others also help subvert the trope that people with disabilities are isolated and unable to integrate into a “normal life.” 

As Genos potentially develops the capacity to open himself to a future of possibilities beyond his revenge mission and chase after power, One Punch Man pushes the figure of the cyborg (with agency to value the mundane, the peaceful, who enjoys community, who has a special set of arms for household tasks) to hold further potential meanings or representation for people whose bodies are increasingly integrated with technology in daily life.

While the conclusion is unclear, his character embodies various factors and dimensions of meaning that can help us navigate what makes a compelling story while considering how disability shows up in the media. Narratives of disability make up some of the most popular storytelling, stirring up powerful emotions of fear and awe, but further exploring images of anomalous bodies can yield cultural imaginations grounded in understanding and lived experiences.

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