Gender in SF – Bodies, Fashion, and Ex Machina

So here comes my late blog post on gender in SF, particularly in relation to robots. As I have posted about previously I’ve recently attended an informal robots discussion group at my university, and attended a talk on bisexuality in SF for LGBT history month. Both ended with discussing gender performance, and how robots have a gender performance.

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Metropolis (Those are not normal breasts)

First of all, there is the question that many feminist fans of SF have probably screamed internally: why do robots have breasts?! It wasn’t something I’d really voiced to anyone until a friend sent me a buzzfeed article on the subject, and my boyfriend defended these sexualised robots quite passionately. I shouldn’t have been surprised really, who doesn’t love looking at a pretty woman, but literally objectifying the sexual aspects of the female body is not a great road to go down. I tentatively brought the subject up again when the robot from Metropolis turned up in a TV show I was watching with my parents. I called her “the robot with the weird boobs” as, really, all robots with boobs are freaking weird, and my father replied a little defensively. Even though, as breasts go, they are weird, my father seemed to think they were perfectly normal. So what is this about? Why is it so “normal” for robots to have breasts? She doesn’t have a vagina, or a womb (obviously the actress in the costume does, but the character does not), she has no nipples to feed young nothing really makes her female aside from her breasts – and possibly a slight hourglass curve to her figure. But to me all this says is: it’s the breasts that make the woman.

*Ex Machina Spoilers Coming Up*

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Ex Machina (still no normal breasts)

One of my all time favourite films Ex Machina goes one step further with the robot Ava and actually make her a vagina. The scene discussing her vagina is downright awkward. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is asking Nathan (Oscar Isaac) why make Ava perform a gender at all, which is a perfectly valid question. Nathan takes the question and warps it to some creepy masculine fantasy and, rather than saying why she performs gender, simply explains that Ava has a vagina with pleasure receptors so that you can fuck her and she will enjoy it. I love this scene for so many reasons. First of all, it’s uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable, from what I’ve seen, mostly for men. It’s almost like a secret fetish Caleb (the everyman of the story) has is being outed and laughed at, but also encouraged. This whole scene is really a great look at why we create female robots, and quite frankly, it’s to fuck them. The scene is honest, uncomfortable, and it’s right to be so. Secondly, I love the idea that Nathan is insisting she will enjoy the sex. It’s oddly reminiscent of a hyper-masculine, basically unskilled sexual partner asking a woman how many times she came. He has boasted of creating an AI with a personality, likes and dislikes, but still believes that as a woman she will always enjoy sexual activity just because her body allows her to. Really, this film blows my mind and I really should have written my dissertation on it but too late now!

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Manic Pixie Dream Robot

As well as the (useless) sex organs given to Ava she also tries to genuinely perform femininity through her clothes. There is an unnerving scene where she surprises Caleb by wearing female clothes, but nothing is particularly sexual about her outfit. She wears a fairly plain dress, a cardigan, and even puts on a wig of short pixie-cut hair. Essentially, she’s performing a very specific, tired trope, the girl next door. She is not hypersexualised, she is attainable, not intimidating, is just one of the guys but is completely willing to take a submissive role to whatever cute, nerdy, awkward boy comes her way, no matter how needy or creepy he is. But this is made even more interesting by the fact she uses this performance to trick Caleb and to gain her freedom. Before freeing herself, she changes her appearance entirely, she has longer, lighter hair, every mechanised part of her is completely covered, and she is in a lovely

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You go girl, leave that fuckboy to starve.

white dress. I have been debating with myself whether or not this second performance of Ava’s is more authentic than her manic pixie dream girl outfit, but she is still using this look for an agenda. She wants to fit in with the humans, she covers herself with skin, she comes closer to a typical female body, even seeming to stand taller and stronger away from Caleb and Nathan. She has her arms on show, she no longer pulls her cardigan sleeves over her wrists, she has gone from awkward teen to a woman. Could Ex Machina be a bildungsroman? We see Ava go from the naked fascinated baby, to self-conscious teen, to sexually empowered woman (let’s not even get into the phallic way that knife goes into Nathan) we are seeing her grow, going through the various stages of female life. We see Ava, essentially, change herself to fit the world around her, no matter how small it is.

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Even when she’s not the robot the female character is massively sexualised.

I think it’s interesting to note that this is never something that happens with typically male robots. For example in one of my other faves, Forbidden Planet, Robby the Robot claims to be gender neutral, not man or woman only robot. But Robby has a distinctly male voice, and above all is called “Robby” for all intents and purposes the gender neutral robot always has male characteristics. What is it about SF that insists on othering the female body? Even female writers have used this othering as the basis for stories. From Gilman’s Herland to Russ’s The Female Man the female body is separated, seen as something deviant and made strange from the norm. Being a woman in SF is dangerous as well. Think of the abortion scene in Prometheus when Elizabeth (Noomi Rapace) has to reprogramme a medical robot to remove an alien fetus because it can only perform surgeries on men.

The female body is both idolised and feared in many SF texts. But why is that? When really, most people feel massively more threatened by men. Is it the idea that, as with Ava, a form we venerate as a society could possibly turn on us? Or is it just more of the same old pressures from society to have women who can do it all? Do we want women that can go from kind to femme fatale and still be the programmable Stepford wife? Or maybe it’s just that robots in general are unsettling, and we have so much discourse and debate around women anyway that literally objectifying them is much more worrisome than when we do the same to men.

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7 thoughts on “Gender in SF – Bodies, Fashion, and Ex Machina

  1. Something to be said about Forbidden planet maybe that creators at the time may have aimed for a male audiance because it is Sci-fi. Just like some people believe reading comics or playing video games is a typically male thing to do so are sometimes marketed towards men. Over sexualized women in those media are a symptom of that.

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    • Oh they’re all definitely targeted towards men, I was going to get into that but I feel like that’s something for another blog post, the whole concept that SF is a boys club is a little annoying, especially as most SF fandoms have massive female audiences. It’s almost definitely about the makers of these films maybe misunderstanding their audiences a little, but with the way gender is used in Ex Machina I think it’s getting a bit more complex. So maybe there’s hope for hypersexualised male robots aimed solely at female audiences! Fingers crossed haha!

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  2. Still love reading your writing 😀

    I’m not a sci-fi aficionado as you know, but my thought is this: women in sci-fi are feared because they are powerful. They are a threat in a similar way to the hag in folklore; she is hard to understand and she has a wisdom that cannot be easily attained, yet she baffles those who believe women are maiden, mother or crone by taking on aspects of the third without being the others first.

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    • Thank you so much! Luckily I still love writing ^_^ I definitely see what you mean, women’s bodies are presented as something terrifying in most sci-fi, there’s a lot of anxiety around birth as well – probably because the male authors find it alien – but like I said about Ex Machina she wouldn’t have been trusted had she not gone through her maidenhood stage. Usually I’m on the lookout for a lot of classical references in sci-fi, but folklore is such a good reading of the genre!

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  3. Sexuality and machinery is always an interesting concept. Men have long been known to ‘sexualize’ their cars, boats, etc. primarily in giving them traditional female names; and I’d honestly suspect the sexualization of these particular automatons stem more from that than anything else (though there’s some obvious objectification going on that you highlight here). Excellent, thoughtful piece. And you’re right: it’s the kind of subject you could probably go on for in a much longer work, too.

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    • I hadn’t even considered the fact that men sexualise objects in that sort of way, it is really interesting, I’ve never met a boat or a car that hasn’t been a “she.” Can’t believe I didn’t connect the two! Maybe if I do make it a longer piece I’ll look into the psychology of objectophilia.

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      • Well, a longer piece would give you the chance to “flesh out” some more ideas on the subject. Heck, even the 70’s flick Demon Seed might be worth consideration, if you’ve ever seen it.

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