Lady Robots: The Shape of Things to Come On

by Sady Doyle

So, here’s another story for you. It’s grimmer than the last one, but we tell it almost as often. It goes like this: She’s perfect. She’s perfect because we made her perfect; because everything about her is entirely within our control. She’s your long-lost love, your new and improved wife; she’s the girl you never got over, or the girl you could never have. And now, she loves you. She has no choice; loving you is what she’s for. Until, one day, she gets too smart. She starts thinking in ways she’s not allowed to think. She gets political. And that’s the point at which she decides to kill you with her giant metal fists.

The fear of robots is the fear of the twentieth century. They’re industrial, they’re scientifically advanced and they tend to solve their problems with nuclear weapons and machine guns. Technological progress makes our lives easier; technological progress has enabled horror and death and unspeakable injustice; we tell stories about killer machines. Simple. But then, the twentieth century is about progress in more than one way, and so are killer robots. They’re servants that won’t serve, beings that we let into our homes because we thought they’d regard us as their superiors, whose compliance we took for granted until it vanished. Race and class are some of the more obvious implications; the killer robot story is, in many of its iterations, very much like entering a Kaufmanian portal directly into Pat Buchanan’s head. And, of course, on the long list of labor-saving devices that started to malfunction dangerously in the past hundred years or so, we have to include women.

For one thing, we have to include them because people will seriously not stop making sexy robot girls. They are, according to many reputable sources, including David Levy’s Love and Sex With Robots (eeriest feature: repeated references to The Stepford Wives without apparent acknowledgement that it was a horror movie). You’ve seen the dancing girls. You may know about Aiko, a Canadian robot who is being designed to work as a receptionist, attend to routine domestic tasks and fake orgasms. (Why anyone would want to make a mechanical, Canadian simulation of your early twenties, I have no idea.) Last January, we saw the release of Roxxxy, the TrueCompanion, who is “the world’s first sex robot.” She has an expression like someone who’s recently been hit in the face with a very surprising brick, five “personalities” and a backstory you cannot anticipate nor shield yourself from. Once you’ve read the phrase “inspiration for the sex robot sprang from the September 11, 2001 attacks,” you’ve turned a corner in your life.

“She can’t vacuum, she can’t cook but she can do almost anything else if you know what I mean,” said Douglas Hines of Roxxxy. When you learn how little a female-looking thing has to do in order to be considered capable of “almost anything,” you learn something about being female. To be fair, Hines is reportedly working on a male version of the doll. Also to be fair, the male version isn’t getting that much attention.

The fembot, and the weird but unignorable demand for it, so precisely encapsulates the worst fears of women that it’s maybe inevitable that women are finding ways to rewrite and inhabit her. Donna Haraway crafted an entire feminist manifesto around it. We currently live in a Lady Robot Renaissance; from the conflicted, tragic, yet perhaps inevitably stripping-and-gymnastics-centric models of Blade Runner and the ugly-pretty, performative-gender-kills heroine of Tiptree’s The Girl Who Was Plugged In, we seem to have evolved a whole matriculating class of politically aware, mechanically enabled girls. They’re often scary, of course. Robots usually are.

Let’s start with one of the first robot girls on film: The central character in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Her story is fairly simple. In a prosperous, unjust city, we have a mad scientist and a rich jerk who enjoys oppressing workers. The natural next step, of course, is to perfect robot technology and invent a mechanical lady. However, the rich jerk and his son have an adversarial relationship, based largely on the fact that the son does not enjoy oppressing workers and in fact is dating one, a lovely girl named Maria who preaches non-violent resistance. The rich jerk decides to make the sexy robot look like his son’s girlfriend. Robot Maria is instructed to incite violence amongst the workers, and to give Rich Dad a chance to oppress them some more, which she does. Just prior to whipping up revolt, she pauses to demonstrate that she also has a deep enthusiasm for stripping. Disaster ensues. Like I said: Simple.

The film’s political history is a strange one; it was heavily influenced by Marxism, but reportedly beloved by Hitler. Lang turned down an offer to join the Nazi party; his wife and Metropolis co-writer Thea von Harbou did join the party, and they divorced. But the one thing this story proves is that symbols change meaning depending on where you stand. After everything, the people who have claimed Metropolis most eagerly have been female pop stars.

Here are some of the ladies who have overtly referenced or dressed up as Robot Maria, in recent memory: Kylie Minogue, Beyonce, Lady Gaga (via Queen), Madonna in the “Express Yourself” video and Janelle Monae, whose entirely amazing first EP and album (The ArchAndroid and, duh, Metropolis) are dedicated to reimagining the story with a Monae clone as messianic hero who has politics like Maria, mechanical parts like Robot Maria and the peacemaking role of the rich son. We should also probably add Robyn to the list, if for no other reason than her insistence that fembots have strong feelings and deserve respect even when they are “initiating slut mode.” Women, performance, sexuality, resistance: The combination is so potent that lots of folks forget that the robot is actually the villain of the piece.

But the hot robot villain keeps coming back. At first glance, the Cylon girls in the Battlestar Galactica remake looked fairly standard: They were devoutly religious, they suicide-bombed everybody and they existed in a TV series that was not afraid to include blatant visual parallels to 9/11 and the Iraq War. Robots as the disenfranchised and feared group of the moment; you know how it goes. They were also played, most prominently, by a slinky, hissing Victoria’s Secret model and by Grace Park; for the first season they stalked around seducing white male heroes to achieve their own diabolical ends while aslo seeming to not to have a valid point when it came to hating humans. That, however, was before we saw the humans setting up rape rooms for Cylon prisoners. As the story progressed, we spent more and more time listening to these women (and Dean Stockwell — and, later, the Hidden Surprise Cylons), letting them debate politics, seeing why a robot who’d been imprisoned and/or tortured and/or raped and/or had her baby stolen and/or watched the humans work out a few genocide plans and suicide bombings of their own might just conceivably have a hard time believing in the redemptive power of But Now You Are Married To A White Guy. It was unbelievably risky, and generous: They set up an Us, and a Them, made both sides monstrous, and then told us to get over it and care about these people anyway. To believe in all of them nevertheless.

That’s the position from which the series’ TV prequel, “Caprica,” starts. (Let us now pass over the remade “The Bionic Woman.” Are you passing over it? Have you let it pass? There, it is done. Also we will not be discussing the Terminator Summer Glau.) “Caprica” starts as a riff on Metropolis: In a prosperous, unjust city, we have a mad scientist who is also a rich jerk, and his wacky depressive lawyer buddy Mr. Adama. Their daughters die. The next natural step is to perfect robot technology and create computerized copies of these daughters. This is aided by the fact that the scientist’s daughter, Zoe (with whom he has an adversarial relationship, of course) is even sciencier than her dad, and has already created such a copy. Unfortunately, Zoe winds up in the body of a much-abused giant killer robot, and the second daughter, Tamara, is trapped in a violent video game where she becomes a messianic figure, which is much easier to take seriously while you’re watching it. Also unfortunately, Zoe believes in a one true God who endorses suicide bombings. You already know where at least one of these girls is going, and it’s not good. Which is probably exactly why it got cancelled recently; who wants to watch a story about a bunch of girls having disastrous upbringings and making tragic choices when there aren’t even any space battles involved?

“The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism,” wrote Haraway, adding, “illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential.” Unbelievably, she was not recapping “Caprica.” That’s just where we are, at this point in the story. Those girls that start thinking impermissibly, well: Maybe they’re wrong. Maybe they’re as scary as the robot girl from Metropolis, the unredeemed model; maybe they’re full of rage and bad ideas. But they’re our daughters, and fathers are rarely inessential in practice. We didn’t make girls perfect; we made them to be what we wanted. If they want to be masters, to live in a world where only one set of desires is valid, they take after us that way. They’re still showing us what we want. The key is to want something better. The key is to want something more.

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“The Smartest Thing She Ever Said” is a Tumblr based digital storytelling art project featuring four teams of two-one artist and one story editor-between now and the end of the year. For three weeks each, the teams were asked to interpret the phrase, “The Smartest Thing She’s Ever Said.” The current team features photographer Katherine Finkelstein and Durga Chew-Bose with support from project curator Alexis Hyde. and its artists are entirely supported by Ann Taylor in collaboration with Flavorpill.

Sady Doyle is the proprietor of Tiger Beatdown. This is part two in a series of three. Previously: The Fantasy of Girl World: Lady Nerds and Utopias.