For as long as there have been robots in science-fiction films, there has been clearly sexualised female-gendered robots. The films apply clear gender codes to gender-less machines which allows them to project onto the robots their patriarchal fears of a future society with genderless bodies, female agency, advanced technology and artificial intelligence. These fears are so prevalent in science-fiction films that female robots are specifically painted with the archetypal characteristics of the femme fatale; a stock character rooted in fear of a woman free from patriarchal restraints. These three separate, but very much related fears, make female robots the ultimate femme fatale.
The femme fatale is an archetype of a seductive and untrustworthy woman that is most connected to Hollywood noir films of the early-to-mid twentieth century. Think Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity and Rita Hayworth as the eponymous Gilda. She was devastatingly beautiful and knew it, as she saunters out of the shadows in a cloud of her cigarette smoke with the camera always lingering on her body and the chiaroscuro lighting emphasising her figure. She was also an antagonist; with her most dangerous weapon being her looks. She would use her beauty and charm to her benefit, to manipulate and deceive, and to lead the male hero astray and put him in danger. The supposed control she had over her own sexuality within the filmic world (as a character, and actor, she was subjected to the male gaze and completely controlled and owned by the spectator) and her economic and social independence made her a threat to patriarchal order. This was likely a response to women entering the workforce during the Second World War and gaining financial independence. As a threat, she is therefore regularly ‘defeated’ at the end of the film; usually by being killed, imprisoned or sometimes by way of falling in love with the hero and being brought back under patriarchal control.
In science-fiction films this fear and archetype has evolved to combine with a fear and theme that is a mainstay in sci-fi; the advancement of technology. The association of women and technology has long been present in our culture, largely due to the computer historically replacing low-level secretarial work that was traditionally seen as work done by women. And this association doesn’t stop there; from telephone operators throughout the twentieth century being almost entirely women, to Siri, Alexa and Cortana. Society has got used to interacting with technology in the form of an incorporeal woman’s voice. This feminisation of technology places the fear of the female onto technology and therefore, as Judith Halberstam (Automating Gender: Postmodern Feminism in the Age of the Intelligent Machine) argues, the fear of artificial intelligence ‘was transformed into a paranoid terror of femininity’
One of, if not the, earliest female robots in cinema is False Maria (Brigitte Helm) in Metropolis. She was created in the image of her maker’s lost love with the sole purpose of creating havoc among people of the city. In her most famous scene; her creator, Rotwang, commands her to dance, almost naked, in front of a crowd of leering and raucous men in order to use her sexuality to hypnotise them and make them do what she (or Rotwang) wants. During the dancing, her body is literally an exhibit, intercut with layered shots of numerous male eyes staring madly at her dancing, like many femme fatales of noir films, the men seem under her control but her body is subject to their, and by extension the audiences, gaze. She is a projection of a male view and fear of destructive female sexuality, she is the ultimate dangerous woman; using her sexuality to literally wreak chaos on the city and almost ruin it. However, her actions aren’t her own. Like many female robots, their male creators are programming them to behave this way and do their bidding. Rotwang uses the body of a conventionally attractive woman for his robot because he knows he can use her sexuality to his benefit.
This is echoed in the much later film Ex Machina, as Nathan (Oscar Isaac) claims he created Ava (Alicia Vikander), gendered her female and gave her sexuality in order to seduce Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) and to test her interactions with humans. However, it’s important to note that this is a film about masculinity and two men, that represent very opposing forms of toxic masculinity, trying to assert their masculinity onto Ava. She is an idealised version of their perfect woman (even created from Caleb’s porn preferences) and therefore, even in the filmic universe the female robot is a projection of male anxieties and desires. Unlike Metropolis, a central question proposed throughout the film is whether Ava is insentient and just behaving in the way she is created to or whether she is in control of her sexuality and using a performance of femininity to her advantage, like the femme fatales of noir. She successfully seduces Caleb and convinces him to help her escape, in which she tricks him, kills her creator and liberates herself. This flips the femme fatale archetype on its head as she is trapped and under a man’s control throughout the film and then is liberated (by herself no less) at the end of the film. However, the films ending suggests that Ava’s liberation could have extremely dangerous consequences for society as we have just seen her manipulate, deceive and kill humans. This makes Ava not so different from classic femme fatales as her freedom is a threat to society, but having her escape at the end suggests a pessimism from the patriarchal view and that maybe technology isn’t as easy to control as women are.
The dangers of a free woman robot are also explored in Blade Runner; the only story assigned to the antagonistic female robots, Pris (Daryl Hannah) and Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), is that they are dangerous robots who escaped and the film’s hero Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, is tasked with killing them. They are described as ‘basic pleasure models’ and so, like many of these female-gendered robots, they’ve been created to be overtly sexualised and attractive to benefit their creator. However, they become dangerous when they start to become in charge of this sexuality and use it to their benefit; for their own self-preservation and not to benefit a man. We see both these robots murdered by Deckard in horrifically violent and objectifying scenes, for example, Zhora is gunned down while being chased through the streets in underwear and a see-through coat. They are both subject to the male gaze even, and maybe especially, as they are murdered. In their final moments their sexuality is no longer theirs; stolen back and in ownership of the patriarchy as in death they are brought back under control.
The main female robot, and of course love interest to Deckard, Rachael (Sean Young) is frequently referred to as a femme fatale because her iconography reflects that of the femme fatales from classic noir films. When we first meet her, she has black 1940s-style hair and dress, is walking out from darkness, engulfed by smoke from her cigarette and that classic noir lighting. Her intentionally noir-like aesthetic and her role as the hero’s love interest is where the femme fatale similarities end, as she doesn’t cause any conflict for Deckard and even saves his life.
It seems that Rachael, and the other femme fatale robots, possess many of the markings of a femme fatale but are controlled by the patriarchy in a different way. Women of classic Hollywood noir films are portrayed as free and dangerous and therefore have to be brought under control. However, these robots are created under the control of the patriarchy (to perform some kind of service, usually involving their sexuality, for them), they’re not free or independent in any sense and the films conflict arises when the robots aspire for freedom. They become increasingly rebellious and independent from their makers, using their sexuality to deceive, manipulate and sometimes become violent and out of control. Although the femme fatale’s character arc usually ends in the same way, with them being killed, the robot femme fatale’s trajectory is different. Their storyline suggests a loss of ownership and control that is yet to happen in our society. It shows the fear of this loss of control (a fear historically about women) of the technology that we are creating and using every day. And what better than to project these fears onto what has always tried to be controlled: women. And as Ex Machina suggests, patriarchal society may, slowly but surely, be losing its tight grip on things they fear the most.
by Madeleine Sinclair
Madeleine Sinclair is a film student at the University of Winchester currently working on a dissertation on women killers in giallo films. She’s a big horror fan (the tackier the better) and also loves sci-fi and fantasy. Right now, she thinks her favourite films are Pan’s Labyrinth, The Wicker Man and Deep Red but she is also very indecisive. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @madeleinia and Letterboxd here.
Categories: Feminist Criticism