“Technology is not neutral. We’re inside of what we make, and it’s inside of us. We’re living in a world of connections, and it matters which ones get made and unmade.”
-Donna Haraway, 1996
“The male film maker dreams of electric women, women as manufactured sex objects.”
-Marleen Barr, 1991
In the science fiction film, the portrayal of the artificial female differs greatly from the portrayal of the artificial male. By ‘artificial’ we mean anything the film constructs diegetically, is given a ‘human’ trait of some kind -a humanoid body, a human voice, and so on- and registers as a character in the film’s narrative: a robot/robotess, android/gynoid, hologram, or gendered computer. Alasdair McCallum described the difference thusly:
“Although male robots and other artificial intelligence units are common in film, they generally function as servants, bodyguards or unfeeling killing machines devoid of sexuality. This bifurcation of gender roles reduces both genders to their primal, supposedly primary functions – men as warriors and women as sex objects.”
The difference in the portrayal between the artificial female and artificial male in sci-fi is not dissimilar to that of females and males in cinema at large of course -through sexualized imagery; both Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette have been famously credited with saying that “The history of cinema is a history of men photographing women.” The difference, I would argue, has to do ultimately with a certain demographic that has emerged on both the producing and receiving end of the film industry in the last ten years, and their use of the sci-fi genre to engage in what is ultimately an adolescent fantasy. In the last decade, American sci-fi has seen a resurgence of the sexualized artificial female, which often exists as a character with no actual bearing on these films’ narratives aside from providing motivation to a male character as an erotic target (a ‘love interest’), effectively conflating the artificial with the real.
The portrayal of an artificial female humanoid isn’t new, its current form borne of modern abnormal psychology as it pertains to the sexual attraction to inanimate objects. The Galatea myth described in Philostephanus’ De Cypro and later in Ovid’s Metamorphoses recalls the story of a sculptor, Pygmalion, who preferred his statue of a woman -which would later come to life- over any real woman. Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s canonical work Psychopathia Sexualis, begun in 1866, describes the condition as agalmatophilia (colloquially the ‘statue syndrome’), citing a (possibly fictional) case from 1877 where a gardener attempted to have sex with a Venus de Milo statue. A pornographic novel from the late nineteenth century, La Femme Endormie -credited to a ‘Madame B’ and based on Pygmalion- follows Paul Molaus, who after becoming tired of real women, commissions a craftsman to build him an idealized, inanimate female, Mea (“…why should love for a doll cause as many worries as love for a woman?”).
Historically, the condition Krafft-Ebing describes has been classified as necrophilia in that the erotic target is transferred from the living to the non-living. Films such as Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) seek to complicate this by provoking the viewer into distinguishing between attraction to the target because it is fake (self-described ‘technosexuals’) and attraction to the target despite it being fake (the human Deckard’s attraction to Rachael, an artificial female). Yet the viewer wouldn’t make this distinction in the first place if depictions of artificial beings were not woven through with notions of gender and sexuality (I highly recommend Allison de Fren’s Technofetishism and Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto regarding this topic).
A theme that runs concurrently with agalmatophilia in fiction of this kind is one of the male as a ‘creator’ of life and subsequent inability to control his creation. Germanic folklore predating Christianity describes a trio of herdsmen who build a woman from straw that eventually comes to life -known in Lichtenstein as The Herdsmen’s Doll and in Switzerland as Sennentuntschi– kills the herdsmen. The creations in many works derived in part from this myth -the creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein being the best known- are cast as abominations for their unwillingness to obey commands.
The binary between what are essentially objects that a man can control and objects that he cannot control is turned on its head with the advent of photography in the mid-nineteenth century. Sexualized descriptions and images of women date to antiquity, though their mimetic register (sexualized images intended to supplant the real) coincides roughly with the arrival of photographic images. The artificial female in fiction represents a distinctly male-crafted image of the female that is not dissimilar to Sontag’s ‘magic box’: “In the fairy tale of photography the magic box insures veracity and banishes error, compensates for inexperience and rewards innocence.” It is precisely due to the advent of photography that, since the mid-nineteenth century, consumers have not only preferred images of things over things themselves, but have conflated the two, resulting in what Sontag called the Platonic deprecation of the image: “…true insofar as it resembles something real, sham because it is no more than a resemblance.” The notion of the artificial female in fiction, then, has to do with a man’s possession of a (fake) woman, revealing his preference for the artificial over the real, since the protagonist can by necessity exert control over the former and not over the latter -through commands, manipulation, and so on. When that control is lost, the woman is typically discarded or destroyed. In Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2014), for instance, Nathan at one point tells Caleb that the gynoid Ava is manipulating him -suggesting to the viewer that if an artificial female ‘had consciousness’ or could otherwise think for itself, it would inevitably concern itself with manipulating men.
The appeal of the artificial female in fiction also has to do with its narrative and thematic disposability. Fiction that addresses artificial humanoids, artificial intelligence, and the like ostensibly explore what distinguishes a real human being from an artificial one. “As to whether or not he has any real feelings is something I don’t think anyone can truthfully answer,” David says of the computer in 2001. The subject is apocryphal, however, since machines only do what they’re designed and programmed to do. They don’t have human thoughts or feelings; they only seem to. Neuroscience has long established that the human brain does not process information in the same way a computer does, and neither can do what the other can do. Rather, the buried conceit of AI fiction is: Are machines worthy of our empathy (’empathy’ as in our projecting human qualities onto them), and if not, why bother to create machines that look, sound, and behave as we do at all? The answer is a resounding no. Machines are designed to obey commands. Even the etymology of the word ‘robot,’ originating from the Czech noun robota meaning ‘compulsory labor’ or ‘unpaid labor’ (and by extension, ‘slave labor’), supports this.
These films take this conceit of obedience and superimpose it, when convenient, on images of females. The artificial female exists at the pleasure of the male creator by supplanting a real female while having the same ‘thoughts and feelings’ as a real female, except when it is revealed that they don’t, in which case they are then referred to as machines again with no thoughts or feelings. In the film Looker (Michael Crichton, 1981), for instance, an advertising agency uses holographic images scanned from surgically-altered fashion models rather than actual models to sell products. The models themselves -who are no longer of any use after being scanned into a computer- then die under mysterious circumstances.
This is in keeping with Stratton’s notion of ‘cultural fetishism’: male psychosexual fetishistic constructs that have cross-pollinated with the capitalist project of increasing consumption. The artificial female in science fiction is thus a ‘futuristic’ variation of Galatea in a register where it exists as a form of social or sexual capital. This conflation of real and artificial originates, however, in male adolescence, which is characterized largely by the male’s lack of social and sexual capital. Therefore, it inevitably reflects a timidity and immaturity toward sexuality, since an adolescent boy’s social exposure to the opposite sex is dwarfed by commodified (and largely eroticized) images -television, film, fashion photography, cheesecake, ‘lad mags,’ pornography, and the like. The artificial female in fiction is thus most often written within an adolescent boy’s episteme, which is shaped by the boy’s experience with these images: the female is not just physically attractive but is also obedient, affectionate, and often times a simpleton and/or a mute, bolstering the notion that the woman exists for no other reason than to be sexual -or to suggest the possibly of being sexual- with men.
The male viewer’s engagement with the artificial female onscreen mirrors the male protagonist’s in that it is largely transactional. It is the same motivation men may have for hiring a prostitute: sexual gratification without any kind of social commitment. Artificial females in this sense are more comparable to pets rather than to romantic partners. The title of this blog entry is derived of course from a line of dialogue from Blade Runner, describing a replicant, Pris: “A standard item for military clubs in the outer colonies.” Another artificial female, Rachael, serves as the erotic target of Deckard, who is attracted to her primarily because her programming -advanced relative to other replicants- enables her to better imitate a ‘real’ female. Though the initial attraction is based on mimesis, the sexual encounter is based on a transaction between real and artificial. The infamous ‘love scene’ between human and gynoid establishes Rachael -despite her perfect mimetic resemblance to a real woman- as a machine that obeys commands. This is set against a ‘romantic’ scheme composed of lighting through Venetian blinds and Dick Morrissey’s tenor saxophone on the soundtrack.
Deckard: “Say ‘kiss me.'”
Rachel: “Kiss me.”
Deckard: “Say ‘I want you.'”
Rachael: “I want you.”
This particular fantasy coincides in part with the profusion and legitimization of ‘geek culture’ or ‘nerd culture’ in the last ten years, which in turn has emerged as a dramatized -and glorified- subject of its own in popular media. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010) dramatizes the life of a sociopath whose ‘genius’ leads him to financial success. The Big Bang Theory -wherein an attractive female neighbor serves as an erotic target for the socially-inept male protagonist living across the hall- averages 19 million viewers a week and has been the most-watched sitcom on television since 2013.
The typical protagonist of these recent works -like that in the fictions involving the artificial female- is often a socially-inept man who wants friends, popularity, and sex but lacks the wherewithal to get them. The writing, however, will compensate for social ineptness by making the man a ‘genius’ or creative in some way -which lends itself to the protagonist ‘creating’ a perfect woman instead of going to the trouble of finding a real one. These fictions portray the artificial female as superior -or at least less ‘troublesome’- to a real female. Her (Spike Jonze, 2014) suggests a world where ‘sex’ with an artificial female is preferable to sex with a real female, and by implication, where masturbation is preferable to sex. The protagonist Theodore is first seen engaging in what is essentially phone sex with an anonymous female -an experience he finds awkward because of her strangulation fetish. In a scene later in the film, photographed identically, Theodore has simulated sex with Samantha, his AI computer system with a female voice. However, at the same time Theodore at no point has sex with anyone onscreen, and thus by pairing these two scenes, Her suggests that masturbation to an artificial voice is more pleasurable than masturbation to a real one. Further, the film portrays Theodore’s ex-wife Catherine as overbearing and unpleasant. In a scene where they meet to finalize divorce documents, she scowls at him and belittles him. The character exists, for the most part, to bolster the idea that Theodore’s fake companion is better than any real one.
These films will occasionally portray both fake and real women indirectly ‘competing’ over the man. Weird Science (John Hughes, 1985) depicts what at first seems to be ‘progressive’ material in that the artificial female Lisa ostensibly inspires enough confidence in the film’s socially-inept male protagonists to meet and court women, and the critical reception of this film describes it as “not really an ‘adolescent male fantasy’ but actually about ‘adolescent male fantasy.'” This only happens, however, when the two males can ‘out-alpha’ the film’s villains through the threat of violence. In the end, the real females cannot help but compare themselves to the artificial one in vying for the boys’ affections. Thus Weird Science is largely a skirmish between male teenagers for social capital in the form of females -real or fake. In Her, Samantha expresses jealousy over Catherine due to her having a physical body, which is in several ways the inverse of Electric Dreams (Steve Barron, 1984), wherein a man competes with a (male) artificial intelligence for the affections of his female neighbor.
In Ex Machina, Ava exists solely to suggest the possibly of being sexual with its male creator, another ‘genius’ who instead of forming relationships with any real women, builds his own. The film, like the artificial female it depicts, appeals directly to the socially-awkward viewer: “Does she make you feel anything?” Nathan asks Caleb, implicitly asking if whether or not he is attracted to her. Ava later asks Caleb what are largely irrelevant questions such as “Are you married?” and “Is your status ‘single?'” and suggests that they go out on a date. Nathan later answers the viewer’s unspoken question (“…and the answer to your real question, you bet she can fuck.”). Both men serve as ciphers to the target audience, and the film itself appeals to the audience’s narcissism: Caleb stands in for the young man who is at once socially awkward, particularly around women, and thinks of himself as thoughtful and misunderstood. Nathan stands in for the young man who was perhaps once like Caleb, and eventually overcompensated for his insecurities by shielding his feelings with irony and aping the behavior of the ‘alpha male’ -both of which become easy to do after removing oneself from social life and no longer being obliged to interact with anyone, as Nathan has.
Much of Ex Machina‘s narrative centers on Caleb and Ava’s ‘attraction’ to each other, making Caleb a ‘surrogate’ for the male viewer. Consider an obviously provocative shot where the viewer sees the action from Caleb’s point of view: A monitor screen that records Ava, lying supine on a bed and slowly turning to regard the camera (and the viewer). This shot -which recalls Manet’s Olympia (1863)- is gratuitous in its appeal to the male viewer’s libido.
Ex Machina only teases the male viewer with the same fantasy that Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017) in many ways provides, largely with the character of Joi. Joi is a holographic image that exists solely to be a companion to the protagonist K. She is programmed to fawn over him, and follows him everywhere he goes. Or rather, he takes her everywhere, literally keeping her in his pocket on a small device that oddly resembles a pregnancy test. Like Ex Machina, 2049 of course answers the unspoken question: ‘Can they have sex, and if so, how.’ This is done by way of Joi superimposing her image over a hired prostitute Mariette (perhaps an allusion to ‘marionette’). As an aside, the spelling of the name ‘Joi’ also provides an implicit reference to POV pornography for the male viewer: JOI is an acronym for ‘jerk off instruction,’ wherein women provide ‘instructions’ to the viewer on how to masturbate while viewing them.
In keeping with the narrative-thematic disposability of the artificial female, Joi ultimately serves no purpose in the film. It is only in the third act where she has any effect on the narrative by being fridged -that is, she exists ultimately to be ‘killed’ in order to motivate K to avenge her ‘death.’ As with Samantha’s exit from Her, Joi’s exit from 2049 seems intended to land with the viewer as a dramatic turning point or ‘stakes-raiser’ for the male protagonist, yet it’s predicated on the male viewer’s conflation of living and non-living and his emotional supplanting of real females with fake ones.
2049 also implies that an artificial female is comparable and preferable to a real female by having the former be able to do something that only the latter can do: produce offspring. It’s revealed early in the film that the gynoid Rachael became pregnant and gave birth, apparently, to an artificial child. While narratively this is an example of the ‘miraculous birth’ trope derived from the New Testament, and while synthetic DNA is more or less a reality (at the microorganism level), these are immaterial since the notion of a fake woman conceiving and giving birth reinforces the idea that a real woman is obsolete (or soon will be) in the mind of the male viewer.
Why science fiction films have experienced a resurgence of this fantasy in the last ten years is difficult to say. The answer is larger than mere ‘nerd culture’ and is perhaps symptomatic of the internet’s normalization of social awkwardness and ineptitude. Social ineptitude has been largely legitimized in part by social media’s proliferation of pop-psychology and pop-sociology in the last five years (self-diagnosis, the Myers-Briggs Test, Susan Cain’s Quiet, and so on) that take a romanticized view of introverts as ‘creative,’ ‘misunderstood,’ ‘only interested in deep conversations,’ ‘preferring to express themselves in writing rather than by speaking,’ and so on. While there isn’t anything inherently wrong with this, in only one or two generations the fabric of social life has become practically woven through with introversion chic: Texting and emailing instead of speaking on the phone or in person is arguably the most noticeable instance of it. All of this takes its social toll when it is inevitably used as social capital in the form of excuses -rather than explanations- for anti-social behavior.
Many socially-inept straight men obviously see social media as a device for meeting women, and as ground for strict control over a specific performative persona and the development of fantastical, ‘idealized’ versions of the women they might meet online. The presence of the artificial female in these films ‘rewards’ anti-social behavior through dialogue and plot points, reinforcing the notion that women -real or artificial- would prefer an introverted, insecure sociopath (who believes himself to be a misunderstood genius) over anyone else: Consider a scene in Ex Machina, where Nathan asks Caleb (and by extension, the male viewer): “…you don’t think I know what it’s like to be smart? Smarter than everyone else;” or a scene in Her where Theodore describes a couple he sees in public to Samantha: “She’s only dated fucking pricks, and now she finally met this guy who’s like…so sweet,” to which Samantha replies: “You’re very perceptive” (the bulbous white videogame figure in Her represents the ‘alpha’ in the mind of the sociopathic nerd; when the figure hears of the protagonist going on a date, he exclaims: “I’ll fuck her brains out and show you how it’s done.”); or a scene late in 2049 where a colossal hologram of Joi addresses K directly, saying “…you seem like a good Joe.”
Just as the majority of male protagonists in these films are introverted, insecure, often ‘nerdy’ types, it goes without saying that their fake female counterparts are doll-faced, doe-eyed, statuesque beauties. The male fantasy demands that not only a machine obey orders, it must look and sound attractive while doing so. Just as these films devote a good amount of stage direction to the male’s preference for the artificial woman over a real one, they devote as much to the artificial female’s preference for the socially-inept male, again characterizing the females as pets rather than as partners: How exciting it would be for Daryl Hannah to follow you home after randomly meeting her on the street, or to come home every night to Ana de Armas gleefully waiting for you. This is part and parcel with the commodification of bodies to which socially- and sexually-inexperienced boys are exposed in adolescence: a perfect female companion can be yours provided that you have the resources to acquire/build one.
That acquisition/building is taking place, arguably, onscreen in narrative filmmaking as a substitute for what has not taken place in reality. Studios continuing to remake films from the 1980s is due in part to both the supply and demand sides of the market -now largely comprised of adult men in their 30s and 40s who form a majority of those employed by the tech and film industries- which reveals a latent desire on their part to live out a lifelong adolescence. An adolescent boy’s understanding of cultural production or entertainment is through the conflation of social/sexual capital with economic capital, which results in commodified images -a very specific image in this case- to be bought and sold. Thus it doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that the artificial female has reemerged in science fiction in the last ten years.