In a Den of Geek article, filmmaker Alex Garland discussed his latest film, Ex Machina. He had some interesting things to say about the story and the robotic main character, Ava, that caught my attention:
It’s partly an argument about the objectification of women in a particular way. In this sense, it’s a literal objectification.
Ava’s not actually a woman. She’s a machine that does not have a gender. So the question is, why is she presented as a girl in her early 20s? It’s because we fetishise girls in their early 20s. In a particular kind of way. Sometimes you read about that being shunted onto the media: advertising does it, film does it. It’s bullshit. It’s passing the buck. We all do it. Men do it and women do it. Right?
The reasons we do that are complicated, and I could make guesses as to why it is. But what seems to be beyond debate is that it does actually happen.
Women (in many countries, like the US) intentionally dress, use makeup and style their hair to fetishize themselves, even in socially- and politically-non-sexual situations (like office environments)—even as they demand to be seen as something more than fetish objects—and men, claiming to indeed see women as more than fetish objects, don’t actively discourage women from fetishizing themselves. And science fiction goes the extra mile: Objectifying women by robotizing them, as shown in Ex Machina, is as old as the first movies, and has become a rather tired trope of the genre that we cannot get away from, even today.
It’s interesting to me how often this fetishization of the female form is played out in sci-fi with robots. Female robots are usually presented as femme fatales, gorgeous and often innocent creatures clearly designed superficially to respond to men’s libidos, whatever their intended function. In a way, they represent the woman it is permitted to want… and because it is not actually human, permissible to take without fear of reprisal—they are female slaves, as Garland points out, literal fetishizations of the female body.
And this happens much more to female-designed robots than male-designed robots. Aficionados can go all the way back to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to see the inventor, Rotwang, capable of creating the first mechanical person, designing a robot in the image of the woman he loved and lost to another man (in the original novel, Rotwang was commissioned to create machine-workers, but chose to create a simulacrum of his lost love first); the robot is eventually given the form of a girl the story’s hero pursues, using sexual allure to provoke a riot… becoming a driving plot-device, not a character. Metropolis presents woman as sexual fetish, as pure story vehicle, a thing for other characters to adore, to chase, to win (or lose).
Westworld features robot women specifically designed to be willing sex partners. In Blade Runner, out of the four replicants that illegally reach Earth, two male and two female, three of them are combat robots—the fourth, the pleasure model, is a female. And the other female hides in plain sight working as an exotic dancer… (okay, let’s just cut to the chase: If you want to see how many female robots there have been in TV and movies, there’s a webpage for that. Trust me, there’s lots.)
A recent movie, The Machine, gives us a male scientist working on creating a robot out of the many prosthetic parts being developed for wounded soldiers; and when his beautiful assistant is killed, he uses her as a template to create the robot’s final form. Though the robot turns out to be a badass fighter, the audience is first shown her in varying states of dress (including fully naked), and characters react predictably when they see the sexy robot and the scientist together… the characters, and the audience, see her quite clearly as a fetish. And it is part of the dichotomy of the character (and a typically sci-fi kick to a man’s psychological nuts) that such an innocent-looking and sexually-alluring creature is also a cold-hearted killer.
There’s a lot of slightly twisted psychology going on here, touching on sex, domination, power trips and revenge fantasies by (and against) women, using robots as the voodoo dolls we can manipulate as we see fit, in order to convince ourselves that we are not sub-consciously visiting these manipulations upon real women somewhere else. This often says more about us as a people than most of us would care to admit.
In Sarcology, I presented a male robot, originally designed for the very psychologically-male-centric aggressive roles of police and combat duties, but who becomes a surrogate for a male character and provides comfort to a woman. In writing Sarcology, I was seeking a turnaround from the usual robot-human gender roles, where male-gender robots are generally used as aggression fetishes themselves, to threaten women (or to stand between women and a threat). The robot in Sarcology graduates from being a fetish object at the beginning of the story to becoming a fully-realized character in its own right.
Will we ever reach a point when our robots are not commonly designed to emulate a gender, male or female, accompanied by whatever sexual baggage that entails? Or would a decidedly gender-neutral robot push even more of our “uncanny valley” psychological buttons?