The Girl Who Was Plugged In

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"The Girl Who Was Plugged In"
Author James Tiptree, Jr.
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Science Fiction Novella
Published in New Dimensions 3
Publication type Anthology
Publisher Doubleday
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Publication date October 1973

"The Girl Who Was Plugged In" is a science fiction novella by James Tiptree, Jr., a pen name used by writer Alice Sheldon. It won the Hugo Award for Best Novella in 1974.

Plot summary[edit]

The story takes place in the future, where almost everything is controlled by corporate interests. Despite advertising being illegal ("ad" is, in fact, a dirty word), corporations control consumers through the celebrities they set up, and product placement. The protagonist, seventeen-year-old Philadelphia Burke (known as P. Burke throughout the story), is enlisted to become one of these celebrities. She is a cruelly deformed victim of pituitary dystrophy. A suicide attempt lands her in a hospital where she comes to the attention of corporate scouts and is chosen to become a "Remote". A series of modifications and electronic implants allow her to use a sophisticated computer to control another body by remote control. This beautiful female body, known as Delphi, was grown without a functioning brain from a modified embryo in an artificial womb. It appears to be (and is) a physically perfect fifteen-year-old girl. It is controlled through a satellite link by P. Burke's brain, which is still physically located in her original body.

After months of training, Delphi is strategically placed on the location of a minor documentary film, and becomes a media sensation overnight. Nominally an actress in a soap opera, her real job is to be a celebrity, seen traveling all over the world buying and using products, making sure they are seen by the masses. Remote people are used for these promotional jobs because ordinary media stars are too unpredictable and may make their own choices of what to buy that can ruin a company, while a Remote can be controlled—a Remote's speech circuits are monitored and she can be censored or even punished if she doesn't follow orders.

P. Burke loves being Delphi, and her starry-eyed personality makes Delphi a sensation. Paul Isham, the rich, rebel son of a network executive, notices Delphi and falls in love with her. P. Burke falls in love with him too, but of course can't tell him the truth about Delphi. Paul finds out that Delphi is being remotely controlled by electronic implants, and is shocked and incensed. But he misunderstands, believing that Delphi is a normal girl who is being enslaved by pain implants, not realizing that "Delphi" has no mind of her own. He uses his contacts with the network to break into their laboratories, and storms into the control room where P. Burke is, ordering the techs to take their implants out of Delphi. Here he finds a flabby, ugly, deformed woman wired to a console, apparently exerting some kind of coercion over his girlfriend. As P. Burke cries out, "Paul, I love you!" he rips the wires out of her, killing her. Delphi, the body, without the complex computer links which keep it functioning, dies too.

The story is told by Weasel Face (character in the story who convinces P. Burke to be transformed) in future tense, speaking to a modern person. The narrator cynically addresses the reader as "zombie" and "dead daddy", presuming that the reader does not know what's going on behind the scenes and accepts everything at face value. The book ends with "better believe it zombie, it's a great future out there".


The underlying discussions that take place in academia in relation to The Girl Who Was Plugged In are generally about what it is trying to say about the female body and gender embodiment. Heather J. Hicks explains that in this story, Tiptree gives the reader a revolting look at female embodiment in the form of P. Burke. Tiptree describes P. Burke in very repulsive terms. Tiptree uses phrases like “pumped-out hulk”, “girl-brute” and “carcass” as terms to devalue the body of P. Burke. This devalued body of P. Burke is useless to society within the story. This version of female embodiment is shown in contrast to Delphi, the perfect version of female embodiment. Delphi’s physical appearance is described in terms such as “flawless” and “beautiful baby” after she is first brought out to be seen. The juxtaposition of these two bodies allows for a discussion on the way these two types of bodies function within the context of the society presented.[1]

The Girl Who Was Plugged In presents two different types of bodies. Heather J. Hicks explains that Delphi is the body that matters within the society and it is the body that has value as opposed to the body of P. Burke. This idea can be seen in the story through the fact that celebrities, which Delphi is, have to be used for advertisement. This gives Delphi an opportunity that P. Burke does not have. Only through the proxy of Delphi can P. Burke be valued in society and . P. Burke takes the opportunity to control Delphi with absolute glee. Hicks explains this when she states that “P. Burke welcomes the chance to shed the ignominious flesh and bone that have caused her so much suffering” in order to become more valued. This means that P. Burke is willing to get rid of her own physical body in order to move up in society. Social status within this society is so dependent on what body one has in that people with “bad” bodies want to move into “better” bodies. Hicks says that this is precisely what gender disembodiment really means within the context of this short story.[1] In relationship to human embodiment and this story, Scientists at MIT have created a device called sensory fiction that allows a reader to physically feel with his or her body what is happening in the story These scientists decided to use The Girl Who Was Plugged In as a prototype story for this technology, which incorporates sounds, lights and vibrations amongst other things in order involve the body more in the story.[2]

Another point of discussion in relation to The Girl Who Was Plugged In is the relationship with gender of the author and the messages that the story contains. Hicks explains that Tiptree herself can be seen as a metaphorical P. Burke. Tiptree uses the male pen name James Tiptree Jr. in order to take on a body better suited to be successful in the science fiction world. Hicks states that not only is Tiptree’s pen name male, the writing is often viewed as very masculine. This definitely contributes to the gender embodiment that Tiptree is undertaking. Like the consumers in the story, the consumers in science fiction world want a body image that presents what they want. In the story, they want the idealized female body and in the real world, science fiction consumers want a male body writing their stories. The way in which P. Burke is ousted in the end by Paul “suggests a conviction that her own "body" of work would not endure the revelation of her female body”.[1] In this method of analyzing this situation, Tiptree is suggesting that by writing this story P. Burke cannot be successful in her female body as a science fiction writer. Melissa Stevenson sums up this point by stating that “The Girl Who Was Plugged In: is a tale of transformations and masks, the story of a girl who is not who she seems to be, written by an author who was not exactly who “he” seemed to be”.[3] Tiptree is writing about a girl who is masking her appearance in order to be successful which is eerily similar to the way that masking her image is for the same reason.

One notable characteristic on the way that The Girl Who Was Plugged In was written was how the author used a male narrator to tell the story to a predominantly male audience in order to play with readers’ expectations on how the story will pan out. Tiptree essentially tells this story by way of a male narrator to most likely a 1970s male science fiction consumer. Since this story is continuously told through a male narrator, this comes to highlight issues that male readers might have when reading this short story. According to Stevenson, Tiptree utilizes this way of telling the story in order to turn male readers expectations of P. Burke and of the ways the story will turn out upside down. This narrator rebukes the reader on several occasions for having these false expectations. Stevenson gives an example of this with the actual attempted suicide of P. Burke on the park bench. The narrator yells at the reader because he is not interested in P. Burke but rather in the surrounding city. The expectation here is that the life of the ugly P. Burke is relatively unimportant compared to the surroundings to the targeted male reader. Stevenson points out that after this, the reader is rebuked three different times for not focusing on P. Burke but each time this happens, the narration is moved to descriptions of the futuristic soundings, presumably in accord with what the male reader truly desires to read about.[3] This goes back to what Heather J. Hicks states about the importance and success of the ideal feminine body compared to the non-ideal feminine body. P. Burke’s body is considered unimportant and the way the story is written and paced suggests just this point.

Another theme of The Girl Who Was Plugged In is the performance of gender. According to Veronica Hollinger, this story is about P. Burke’s pursuit of the ideal feminine body. P. Burke desperately wants to achieve this ideal body but she cannot due to her physical appearance. According to Hollinger, P. Burke is performing the gender ideal through a distance by controlling Delphi . Hollinger states that P. Burke’s performance here gives her an opportunity that she would not otherwise have given her real body to “mimic acceptable femininity". She also says that P. Burke “is the divinely feminine Delphi as long as she performs Delphi. P. Burke is the actor and Delphi is her role”. This performance was P. Burke’s way to a fairy-tale ending. Delphi can only be feminine if she were to be performed in a feminine way.[4] Hollinger’s entire analysis can be seen in parallel with the analysis of Heather J. Hicks when she discusses how P. Burke uses Delphi to push herself up in the ranks of society. In order to have more opportunity in the society presented, P. Burke must perform femininity through Delphi.

Literary criticism on the portrayal of the body[edit]

The depiction of the body in "The Girl Who Was Plugged In", written by Alice Sheldon under the male pseudonym James Tiptree Jr., has been discussed by several feminist literary scholars, amongst them Scott Bukatman, Melissa Colleen Stevenson, Veronica Hollinger and Heather J. Hicks. The major themes in "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" as seen in their articles referenced in this section are disembodiment and re-embodiment, performance of femininity, oppression of the female body by cultural power structures and the female body in a technological society.

Veronica Hollinger, co-editor of the scholarly journal "Science Fiction Studies" of DePauw University, states in her article "(Re)reading Queerly: Science Fiction, Feminism, and the Defamiliarization of Gender" that women are forced to conform to an constructed ideal of femininity in order to avoid being seen as a failure or to some extent incomplete. To Hollinger, "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" is about ways women experience pressure from society to fulfill the set standards of femininity[5] as seen in P. Burke's desperate desire to disembody by fully leaving her real body, and re-embody permanently as Delphi.[5] In a society where the only way to happiness is by conforming completely to a constructed ideal, P. Burke has little choice but to live through the perfect girl body Delphi.[5] Heather J. Hicks reinforces Hollinger's view in her article “”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” by stating that P. Burke denies her unappealing, real body.[6] Hollinger sees P. Burke as a representation of the body that is utterly insignificant in the eyes of society.[5] She discusses "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" in terms of how gender can act as a form of imprisonment when society expects an unrealistic display of femininity[5]). P. Burke's existence becomes meaningful only when her mind controls the beautiful but "empty" body called Delphi, thus the female body in meeting with technology creates a separation between the body and the mind where P. Burke's only way of fulfilling the feminine beauty ideal is at the hands of technology.[5] The futuristic world in which Tiptree Jr. stages her story has taught P. Burke to idolize the ideal that "the Gods" embody and so P. Burke willingly commits the act of "performing femininity".[5]

Another way disembodiment and oppression of the female body is seen in "The Girl Who was Plugged In" is the words used to describe the main character, i.e. the description of P. Burke: “That’s good, because now you can see she’s the ugly of the world. A tall monument to pituitary dystrophy. No surgeon would touch her.”.[7] In the opinion of Scott Bukatman, of Stanford University, Tiptree forms the body into something unclean and decaying through phrases such as "dead daddy", "rotten girl" and "zombie".[8] The crude use of words used for the main character only gets worse as the story progresses to emphasize an unappealing display of female disembodiment.[6] According to Bukatman, the body in "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" is a dominating and central figure, but it also serves to represent a definite limitation.[8] This relates to Hollingers statement of P. Burke's re-embodiment as Delphi becoming an actor/role relationship where P. Burke imagines herself an actor that must fulfill a role (Delphi), a clear parallel to our own society's failure to recognize the individual women as separate from the constructed cultural ideal of femininity.[5] Stevenson view is that to the deformed and shunned P. Burke, her life as Delphi is the only one that's real, because her real body left her excluded from the category "human" in the eyes of society, making her unable to form emotional connections or experience love until her disembodiment and re-embodiment as Delphi.[9] Consequently, P. Burke feels more human in the beautiful vessel Delphi than in her own body, because society finally accepts and recognizes her existence.[9] In other words, P. Burke is dependent on technology to be able to participate in society.

While Hollinger reads "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" through the ideological lens of gender as a performance,[5] Hicks believe Tiptree connects female disembodiment with women's relationship to technology.[6] Delphi, made for the sole purpose of advertising, is the living example of the perfect woman and through her work for GTX she participates in reinforcing the cultural ideal of femininity she's created after.[9] In Hicks opinion, Delphi's body are used in a capitalistic aim for the purpose of advertising to such an extent that her body becomes synonym with the products she advertises.[6] However, Stevenson also points out that while Delphi is beautiful she does not have an identity without the connection to P. Burke, and so they are both dependent on each other in order to function in society.[9] Bukatman also argues that the act of merging with a machine, like P. Burke merges with Delphi, is in feminist science fiction an act of defeat, as opposed to the romanticized approach of cyberpunk where it is seen as necessary and a source of power.[8] Bukatman also points out that technological advances in science fiction are synonym with the furthering of a patriarchal power structure, as seen in the control of the female body in "The Girl Who Was Plugged In".[8] Bukatman states; "In this sense, Tiptree's title refers to the state of being plugged in to male definitions of the feminine image and being; plugged in to the power structures of male technology.".[8] He also points out the negative impact of altering your identity in Tiptree's story and states that it serves as a symbol of oppression rather than liberation from society's conventions.[8]

Finally, Stevenson and Hicks discuss the interesting and noteworthy parallel between P. Burke and Delphi, and Alice Sheldon and her pseudonym James Tiptree Jr. Stevenson points out that by writing under a male pseudonym Sheldon was able to obtain a more "attractive" exterior with which she could connect to the male dominant science fiction writing community[9]). Hicks believe that Sheldon herself experienced a form or disembodiment where she could only fulfill the ideals of the science fiction community by assuming a male persona.[6] By the numerous ways Tiptree touched on essential feminist topics in a single short story, it becomes clear why she was one of the most prominent feminist science fiction writers in her time.


Commonly cited as an example of proto-cyberpunk. As P. Burke starts on Delphi's first assignment, Tiptree explains the global satellite computer system and how it operates, so that P. Burke can operate Delphi when she's on the other side of the world.

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  1. ^ a b c Hicks, Heather (1996). """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 37 (1): 70–73. 
  2. ^ Heibeck, Felix; Hope, Alexis; Legault, Julie. "Sensory Fiction". Vimeo. 
  3. ^ a b Stevenson, Melissa (2007). "Trying to Plug In: Posthuman Cyborgs and the Search for Connection". Science Fiction Studies 34 (1): 95–96. 
  4. ^ Hollinger, Veronica. "(Re)reading Queerly: Science Fiction, Feminism, and the Defamiliarization of Gender.". Science Fiction Studies 26 (1): 32. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i Hollinger, Veronica (1999). "(Re)reading Queerly: Science Fiction, Feminism, and the Defamiliarization of Gender". Science Fiction Studies 26 (1): 23–40. 
  6. ^ a b c d e Hicks, Heather J (1996). """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 37 (1): 62–93. 
  7. ^ Tiptree Jr., James (1973). "The Girl Who Was Plugged In". New Dimensions 3. Ed. Robert Silverberg. Garden City, N.Y: N. Doubleday. pp. 60–93. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f Bukatman, Scott (1993). Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction. Durham: Duke University Press. pp. 316–320. 
  9. ^ a b c d e Stevenson, Melissa Colleen (2007). "Trying to Plug In: Posthuman Cyborgs and the Search for Connection.". Science Fiction Studies 34 (1): 87–105. 

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