GREAT NEWS~~~ !
In a wonderful turn of events, humans have decided to engineer robots in the image of woman. Yes!!! Score!!! We need more representations of women in the tech industry… even if in robot form…
But alas, fair reader, it seems that rather than produce a “woman” robot with the look of an actual human woman— you know, like, a human woman who, in the event of an apocalypse, might not bother to carry a makeup bag around with her— we have decided to reproduce and embody our cultural biases and constructions of female beauty onto these “women” robots. Yes!!! Score!!
Oh wait, this is a huge bummer and just one more reason for me to not get out of bed in the morning.
But really, with Donald Drumpf (#makedonalddrumpfagain), a front-running presidential candidate, seriously contending that women should be “punished” for getting an abortion, can any of us handle much more? Also, how can society be moving simultaneously backward (back alley abortions are about to become new again!) and forward (we’re making robots…) yet somehow managing to enforce sexist bullshit within the context of both our regressions and our advancements… ?
Let’s talk robots!
The Traffic in Robot Women
As Gayle Rubin so aptly describes in her landmark work “The Traffic in Women,” women are subject to “a systematic social apparatus which takes up females as raw materials and fashions domesticated women as products” (Rubin 158). Rubin wrote this in 1975, and while we may find it to be somewhat less accurate in this day and age, (keyword: somewhat. It’s true, many U.S. women no longer feel we must be domestic housewives! Wow… progress!!!) U.S. society continues to “[take] up females as raw materials” and fashion them into ~~WOMEN~~… often still “domesticated” in other ways (is shaving your legs a choice if you feel like less of woman when you don’t do it?)
Yes, as famed theorist Simone de Beauvoir wrote, “every female human being is not necessarily a woman; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious… reality known as femininity” (de Beauvoir 148). What constitutes femininity? Well, all we must now do to understand this is take a gander at the “women” robots that are being constructed. Take Sophia, for example (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W0_DPi0PmF0).
Homegirl’s got permanently plucked, perfectly shaped eyebrows and a bit of eyeliner to boot! This video, posted on CNBC’s YouTube channel, is actually titled “Hot Robot At SXSW Says She Wants To Destroy Humans” … … … Because this machine has been molded in the form of a woman, CNBC has dubbed it “Hot”. I almost have no words! Almost.
All things considered, I don’t really mind some plucked eyebrows. If my physical form was going to be eternalized, I’d probably prefer some sculpted brows. Yes, society in its consequences is real and we are all subject to those consequences. Sophia, however, is not the worst of the bunch. Let’s have a look at Bina48!
Another “woman” robot— this time, a woman of color, which is pretty rad!— But… innovators, engineers, whoever is responsible for Bina48’s design… help me understand this robot’s eye shadow and mascara! Her straightened, highlighted, salon-style haircut.
In a 2014 public dialogue between Black trans activist Laverne Cox and famed Black feminist scholar bell hooks, hooks questioned Cox about her overtly feminine appearance; she problematized Cox’s perceived submission to and affirmation of a white supremacist patriarchal male gaze through her aesthetic presentation. Cox responded:
I think the important thing to remember for me is that a lot of trans women do not embrace this kind of femininity. A lot of trans women don’t wear high heels and don’t wear make up… This trans woman does(!)… Am I feeding into the patriarchal gaze with my blond wigs?… If I’m embracing a patriarchal gaze with this presentation, it’s the way that I’ve found something that feels empowering. (The New School. “bell hooks and Laverne Cox in a Public Dialogue at The New School.” Online video clip. YouTube. 13 October 2014. Web.)
Cox went on to describe her experimentation with multiple aesthetics, including androgynous and masculine ones. The point here is— Cox feels empowered by straight blond hair and high heels— and she rocks that shit! Bina48 could hypothetically also be empowered by such a look… But Cox also acknowledges that not all trans women (or cis women) will feel empowered by embracing femininity. So… there is nothing inherently wrong with a feminine-looking robot! The real problem arises when the only “women” robots we see are ones that embody the same version of feminine beauty that Cox embodies.
The larger question that emerges is: Why must we perpetuate limited notions about women’s bodies even within this robotic context…? Is there something we’re trying to achieve here? (I’ll return to this later) Or are we simply failing to examine such designs critically?
When we create “women” robots whose faces are permanently made-up, we effectively send the message that the “default” woman is one who wears makeup, one who invests extra time and care into her outward appearance, one who cannot simply exist in her natural human form— but instead, must necessarily alter that form. If you think this sounds ridiculous, take a moment to picture a “man” robot in your mind. What do you see?
Maybe something like this Japanese-made android, whose face is modeled after… you guessed it! A “natural” male form. This rendering of “natural,” however, is truly evocative of a relatively un-altered human face. (Where that mascara at, tho???) It’s true, one could argue that he looks like a classic anime hero (floppy hair, perfect skin) but his appearance is not nearly as made up as his counterpart. Now, let’s have a look at her:
This “woman” robot is gendered accordingly. A hair clip, mascara, thinner eyebrows, pinker lips…
I honestly shouldn’t be so surprised, right? By and large, society operates under a strict gender binary which assigns various roles and dictates certain actions and behaviors to individuals based upon sex assignment at birth. We still live in a world where “man is defined as a human being and woman is defined as a female” (qtd. in Freeman 226). This is true of our human experience, so why wouldn’t we, situated within that experience, also situate our robots within that gendered Hell?
Just like we gender real women and girls, we have now taken the leap and are imposing these processes on robot forms. We are reproducing the idea of “man = default” and “woman = other” in robots. But it’s probably not such a big deal… I’m probably just mad about this because I’m a woman, right? (:
Is there something we’re trying to achieve here?
Cathy J. Cohen, in her work “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens” discusses a hierarchical society in which “the systematic relationship among forms of domination [requires] the creation and maintenance of exploited, subservient, marginalized classes [as] a necessary part of… the economic configuration” (Cohen 442).
So… why must we perpetuate limited notions about women’s bodies even within this robotic context? It’s because we are creating a new “exploited, subservient” workforce— and we want this workforce to be female. These robots are being made in the image of women because society is accustomed to women being subjected to submissive, subservient roles. Indeed, these two qualities are hallmarks of traditional femininity!
Who could be better to order around than a woman? I mean, a robot. A woman robot.
Julie Wosk, in her 2015 work My Fair Ladies, points to our long history of creating robots in the image of woman. Referencing a 1949 film, she notes:
[The protagonist] calls the robot a perfect woman… because ‘she does what she is told, she can’t talk, can’t eat.’ This obedient creature is just want men want. When given verbal commands, Olga [the robot] walks, sits, and even allows men to take off most of her clothes at bedtime down to her sexy but mechanistic-looking undergarments (Wosk 137).
It seems that we (and by we, I mean dominant powers… who could that be?) have been fantasizing about creating the perfect robotic woman for a long while… On the topic of sex, Wosk writes: “[Olga] may not be used sexually in the film, but she can easily be touched” (Wosk 137). Some contemporary films take robotic sexualization even further.
This is Ava, the robotic protagonist of the 2015 film Ex_Machina:
The plot of the film revolves around Ava’s creator bringing in a layman computer coder, Caleb, to spend time with Ava. At the end of a week, Caleb must tell Ava’s creator whether or not he feels that Ava has consciousness. Ava, trapped in a room and yearning to see the outside world, ends up using her feminine (robot) wiles to seduce Caleb into helping her escape. Basically, she must flirt with a man to attain freedom… As Shelagh Rowan-Legg writes in a critique of the film:
Ava, a robot designed as a woman, has the only option of using her programmed sexuality to escape from her prison. Sadly, too often in film, a female robot (as, well, so many female characters) is assigned sexuality and used as an object of sexual desire as opposed to male (or male-voiced) robots, which are used as representatives of the future of artificial intelligence that will surpass humans.
Indeed, if this were a film about a “man” robot, would anyone expect one of his most important assets to be his functioning dick? Because, yes, I have yet to mention that Ava is revealed to have a functioning vagina. As her creator tells Caleb mid-way through the film: “You bet she can fuck.”
If Ava was a “man” robot, would we see his escape route engineered at the hands of a horny computer-coding woman? Would the story of a “man” robot revolve around his ability to convincingly flirt with a woman? Probably not, right? Wouldn’t that be strange… If a “man” robot only mattered in relation to WOMEN??
And on the topic of functioning vaginas in robots, Ex_Machina is not just fiction… sex dolls and “women” robots are converging in real life. One aspiring sex robot creator, Matt McMullen, proclaims: “We’re focusing on ways to incorporate emerging technologies with what I’ve already done with [my brand of sex] dolls. The hope is to create something that will actually arouse someone on an emotional, intellectual level beyond the physical” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wLVOnVsLXqw).
Another video poses the question: “Will Sex Robots Make Real Women Obsolete?”
Apparently, all women are really good for is sex (: Ha…
You know, on second thought, scrap this blog post. Let them eat robots. I mean cake. I mean— let them make sex robots. Let them make “women” robots in whatever damn form they please. And if those robots make me, as a woman, “obsolete” to any men, let those men be satisfied with their robot slaves. I just worry for them when the robo-pocalypse begins, ya feel me?
But in all seriousness, I know I can’t stop the wealthy dudes of the world from trying to craft sex robots or “women” robots complete with permanent eye shadow and lipstick. At the end of the day, they’ve got money and they’ve got their (often super creepy— Matt McMullen, wtf?) laboratories and they’re going to do what they want, or what they think will make them money.
And anyway… what if they were modeling “women” robots after a diverse range of women? What if sex robots were crafted to resemble human women who have just woken up in the morning, make-up-free with messy hair and pimples that come and go? Would any of that be better? Or does the real problem exist in something else? Like the fact that sex robots almost certainly would make them money? Or the fact that we, as a society, are taking the objectification of women to a new and improved(!!), even more horrifyingly literal level.
But so what though, right? If you’re asking, “so what?” I invite you to contemplate a different world with me.
Instead of factories full of headless, naked, doll-like female forms, imagine headless, flawless, naked silicone male forms. Their arms and hands pressed backward to position against a bed or wall. Imagine— instead of a wall decorated with disembodied breasts, a wall filled with eight different varieties of big, hairless, penises— all different colors to please any customer’s taste.
Does such a world seem unimaginable? If so, I ask that we contemplate one final thing.
Why is it so obviously imaginable, so unsurprising, that women’s bodies are being molded in parts, tided up, handled and exchanged? Is it because we are so used to the idea of women being trafficked that we have gone numb? Or because, as Rubin points out, our kinship system has historically been based on the exchange of women between men, (daughter becomes wife) so it just seems normal to see men trading female bodies between them? If we can’t imagine a wall of dicks hanging behind the man pictured above, is it because we would never reduce a “man” robot to his robotic sexual organs?
To all the Matt McMullens of the world— if you succeed in making a “woman” robot that you want to fuck, how can you be sure she’ll want to fuck you? Will you care? Or is your ultimate goal to make something that looks just like a (porn star) woman but: