Monster of the Week: The Fembot

The 21st century that they imagined back in 1950.
The 21st century they imagined in 1950.

Have you ever wondered why Siri is a woman?

Well, she’s not a woman, of course. She—it—is a computer program, a so-called artificial intelligence that couldn’t pass the Turing test, which just happens to have a feminine voice.

Of course, presumably in an effort to be gender neutral, Apple also includes a masculine voice for Siri. But I’m willing to bet that you didn’t know that. It’s not like Siri asks how you would like it to present its gender the first time it boots up. It just defaults to female.

Why?

Siri is far from the first feminine robot that we’ve seen, and she’s not the last, either. From Blade Runner to Battlestar Galactica, the play that coined the term “robot” in 1920 all the way to the frontiers of robotics in 2015, feminine robots are everywhere.

It’s a little puzzling why robots should have any gender at all—what is the gender of the computer or phone that you’re using to read this?—but then again, if you think about the human culture that builds them, it’s no mystery at all.

Try googling “female robot” or “robot woman.” You’ll immediately see slender, feminine robots posed in a variety of sexualized stances. Many of the articles that show up on the first page ask when they will be available as sex toys. One of these articles asks, “If men had a choice between real women and female robots that were almost ‘virtually indistinguishable’ from real women, which would they choose?” Related search tags include “sexy robot,” as if “sexy” and “female” are interchangeable terms.

This is as literal as the objectification of women gets.

Out of fairness, I also searched “male robot.” To my surprise—maybe after those last search results Google decided I was into robot sex—most of those search results were also about sex toys. But they were sex toys for men to use, not sex toys that look like men. Men, of course, are not sexual objects.

But, okay, surely not all depictions of feminine robots are sexual. I mean, a humongous company which relies on consumers of all genders to purchase their product in a family-friendly environment would never overtly sexualize their personal assistant robot—

cortana-1361x845—oh. Uh. Hey there, Cortana.

But fine, let’s set Microsoft aside and focus on Siri. It’s a disembodied voice, why should it matter that it defaults to female? It certainly isn’t sexualized.

Think about the kind of tasks Siri does for you, though. It’s a personal assistant. A secretary. This is, historically, a highly gendered role, based on the assumption that women were not competent enough to hold down the corner office themselves. That’s a role that led to a lot of problems—a lot of harassment. Just watch Mad Men.

Hell, watch the Jetsons. Of course the could-have-been-genderless robot is a woman. She’s a maid. It’s not like maidbots come in “Man.”

Now, I don’t think that Apple, or Microsoft, or Google, or any other company with a distinctly feminine personal assistant character is trying to say that women should be subservient, at least not consciously. Most likely they did a lot of focus group testing and found that we, as a society, prefer the female voice. What does that say about us?

Why is the feminine robot—and most commonly the sexy feminine robot—such an established part of our society?

Why impose a gender role based on historical inequality onto a piece of machinery designed to serve humans?

I think you get what I’m driving at, here, but allow me one final counterpoint. The subservience that the female robot trope carries with it has become so common that people have begun to subvert it. People like Valve.

Valve first released its puzzle platformer Portal in 2007. The short game, packaged along with one of their headliners as bonus content, became so well-loved that they released a full-length sequel in 2011. Full disclosure, I’m one of those people who loves the Portal games. They are smart, challenging, and darkly funny. Both games start with basically the same premise: you play a human guinea pig trapped in a testing facility and forced to complete puzzles “for science.”

The main antagonist is an artificial intelligence named GladOS. She’s the one forcing you to do the tests, which become more dangerous and psychologically warped the further you progress. GladOS is a fantastic character—your interactions are mostly limited to disembodied voice-overs from a snarky and unseen robot overlord. As the game goes on, she becomes more vindictive (and more hilarious).

She’s also the only one there, aside from you.

There are no humans employed by Aperture Science.

Spoilers for Portal and Portal 2{ GladOS was once a personal assistant. She earned her position, er, let’s say in the Game of Thrones style. Murder. Lots of murder. It matters, too, that the protagonist you control is female—consider this feminist analysis of the Portal series}

GladOS is a great example of how to avoid the common problems with female robots. She is not even remotely sexual, and there is actually a reason for her to have a gender—her female-ness contributes to how her relationship with the protagonist develops.

Despite the name of this blog series, feminine robots are not necessarily monsters in any sense. I might argue that the overdone submissive or sexualized robot trope is a monstrous way to represent women, but that doesn’t make the characters monsters. Interestingly, the characters who fit that trope most closely are very benevolent—GladOS, who subverts it, is the only one here that I might call a monster. That in itself says a lot about cultural expectations of femininity.

So consider the relationship between gender and artificial intelligence the next time you see a popcorn flick with fembots. Maybe, like me, your eyes will roll back so far that you can’t even watch the movie. But at their core, questions about robots are questions about what it means to be human. Likewise, questions about fembots are questions about what it means to be a woman (to whatever extent you identify as one).

It would be nice if that conversation focused a little more on identity and less on when men are going to start screwing their PCs.

Prompt: What would it be like to be a robot who has been assigned a gender by its human creators? Did the inventors give this robot physical anatomy to go along with their perceptions of what human gender is like? Or maybe this robot was never programmed to have a gender and has to make sense of human gender expression. Create a robot that actually uses its gender or lack thereof to explore meaningful questions.

2 Comments

  • Jeremiah Reply

    It’s pretty sad that so many opportunities for strong villains or even just original minions get passed by the wayside for such an unimaginative, overused, and offensive trope. It seems to me like a crutch for either an uninspired script or filler so that focus can go somewhere else. I love the idea of adding personality to a robot (asexual or not) to make a cool character and having something so inhuman learning about gender and attraction, yet so many examples of the opposites just seem to flood out. It is incredibly common to see characters (the staggering majority of which are female) be portrayed in almost inhuman ways to be sexy, such as the Catwoman cover where her spine is making a U shape in an attempt at eroticism and so many of these fembots, like your svedka model, exemplify this. I like GladOS as an example of a good female robot antagonist and really wish it could be more prevalent to focus on an interesting personality and background than the physicality of the character. I also did a google image search for “male robots video games” and even the suggested search of “male robots for women” with almost identical results (male robots video games first image was a very sexualized female robot) and found that on the first page for “male robots for women” are multiple sex dolls resembling women. Great post as always and wonderful choice with the svedka ad (We got to use this in a women’s study class i took and even a half decade later I still can’t get over how the ad manages to be so absurd and offensive.)

    • Becca Reply

      Yeah, just like any other overused trope, it would be way more interesting to approach it from a different direction. We lose out on so many interesting opportunities!

      Of course, you’re right that robot women are far from the only ones portrayed in those ridiculous, spine-breaking positions. Are you familiar with The Hawkeye Initiative (http://thehawkeyeinitiative.com/, borderline NSFW)? It replaces female superheroes with Hawkeye in those same ridiculous poses, with some hilarious results.

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