Sexbots, broken dolls and other artificial women

Artificial women have served as temptresses and traps in myths, legends and fiction, usually constructed to reinforce or critique a misogynistic worldview in which all female emotion and compassion is seen as false and designed to manipulate men. The artificial woman is a familiar cinematic trope, and better entries in this milieu can present profound questions about gender, posthumanism, technological anxiety and romantic desire. At its most crude, the trope serves as a device by which the artificial woman is denied a backstory and is viewed only through the prism of the male lead’s desires and ambitions. At their worst, films use the artificial woman as a crass narrative device to provide the male lead with a passive sex partner. At its most simplistic, this trope represents the primal male fantasy of a woman reduced to a literal sex object.

Although male robots and other artificial intelligence units are common in film, they generally function as servants, bodyguards or unfeeling killing machines devoid of sexuality. This bifurcation of gender roles reduces both genders to their primal, supposedly primary functions – men as warriors and women as sex objects.

In her influential A Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway discusses cyborgs in terms of breaking traditional binaries between machine and organism, human and animal, physical and non-physical, and so on. She notes that cyborgs break down the boundaries between humans and machines, and therefore reflect our anxieties about the direction of technology and the potential obsolescence of humans.

The persistent presence of fembots and other artificial women in culture, from Ancient Greece to today, has led academic critics to reach for cultural reference points when writing about them. The most prominent cultural touchstone is the Pygmalion myth, popularised by the Roman poet Ovid in his epic poem Metamorphoses. In the myth, the sculptor Pygmalion creates a statue of the goddess Venus that is so beautiful that he falls in love with it. He is ecstatic when the sculpture transforms into a real woman, Galatea, who he goes on to marry and procreate with. This myth has inspired operas, paintings and perhaps most famously, looser adaptations such as My Fair Lady. Other cultural reference points include the Whore of Babylon and the temptress Eve, both originating in the Bible, and other classical myths such as Pandora and her, ahem, box that lets out all evil into the world. The trope of the artificial woman can also be found in TV, from the infamous fembots of The Bionic Woman series (later spoofed in Austin Powers) to the sex robot created by the misogynist villain Warren in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

While the Pygmalion myth ends on a positive note, things are rarely so simple in the ten films discussed below. Not all of these films portray fembots as simple sex objects: some have presented critical and nuanced takes on this age-old narrative device, with portrayals of artificial women as powerful and complex in their own right, showing ingenuity and empathy. And rather than sympathetically lonely and downtrodden, some of the creators below are condemned for their God Complexes that demand complete control and subservience. Indeed, for these psychopathic Dr Frankensteins, dreams of control and omnipotence often have tragic consequences.


Metropolis (1927), dir Fritz Lang

metro23One of the finest and most influential films of all time, Fritz Lang’s expressionist masterpiece pits a subaltern industrial working class against the ruling elite, who literally live above the working classes in the top floors of the city’s huge skyscrapers, monopolising the clean air and sunlight. The workers have formed a resistance movement, led by the beautiful and selfless Maria (Brigitte Helm). The industrialists approach Dr Rotwang (a fairly transparent homage to Dr Frankenstein), who is fashioning a female android in the image of his deceased lover Hel.

In the intertitles of the 2010 restoration of the film, the machine is referred to as the Maschinenmensch, or literally ‘machine-human’. The android embodies what the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw called a ‘brilliant eroticisation and fetishisation of modern technology’, and its iconic appearance suggests both feminine allure and a robotic lack of empathy. At the urging of the Master of Metropolis, the android is transformed into the exact double of the workers’ leader, Maria, but unlike Maria, the android is nihilistic and mindlessly destructive.

In the film’s mesmeric dance scene, Maria’s android doppelganger appears in a glamorous nightclub for the film’s ruling classes, causing them to fight among themselves before she descends to incite the workers to revolt. The dance scene explicitly alludes to the Whore of Babylon, the personification of sin and evil in the Bible. While the Maschinenmensch has been commissioned to put down the workers’ revolt, the monster escapes from the clutches of its master and becomes hyper-destructive, in a common variation on the Frankenstein story. Frankensteinian monsters often resent their artificiality and take revenge on their creators and the organic world. While the ruling classes expect their robot to be manageable, it escapes their grasp, a common ending in these films.


Bride of Frankenstein (1935), dir James Whale

Bride of FrankAmbivalently received upon its initial release, Bride of Frankenstein is now often considered the finest of the Frankenstein films featuring Boris Karloff. It’s a surprisingly poignant film, following the renewed quest of Frankenstein’s Monster to find his own humanity, and imbues the Monster (played by Karloff) with a degree of complexity that was lacking in the first Frankenstein film. There is an obvious message to be drawn from the Frankenstein films in general: the real villain is of course not the Monster, but the people who persecute him and refuse to see past his exterior. Hoping to find a cure for the Monster’s loneliness, Dr Frankenstein (Colin Clive) fashions a bride for him. The Monster shows vulnerability but also hope as he approaches her with his arms outstretched and a timid smile on his face, asking hesitantly, ‘Friend?’ The Bride, whose appearance is marked by her distinctive beehive hairdo and streak of white hair, is voiceless, but horrified by the Monster’s appearance, she hisses and scfeams, leading him to declare ‘She hate me – like others!’ Like in so many films featuring artificial women, the Bride has been created for one purpose, and she disappoints her creator. Although the Bride only appears towards the end of the film and is given little agency of her own, she complements this outstanding portrait of alienation and loneliness.


The Stepford Wives (1975), dir Bryan Forbes

the-stepford-wives-poster‘It’s better for us this way … and better for you.’ When Joanna, the protagonist of The Stepford Wives, confronts Stepford’s leader about the town’s dark secret for keeping its women subservient and docile, he is unapologetic.

Unfortunately, many now remember this film by way of its lackluster 2002 remake, but the original was far more challenging and cerebral. In the original, photographer Joanna moves into the pristine suburban community of Stepford with her husband and two children. A shadowy group called the ‘Stepford Men’s Association’, which Joanna’s husband soon joins, controls everything in Stepford, with women excluded from all spheres of public life.

Joanna attempts to start a women’s liberation group, but to her chagrin the women of the town seem unconcerned with anything apart from cooking and cleaning. The initial reaction from feminists was extremely negative, with director Bryan Forbes noting that he was attacked by a ‘radical women’s libber’ at the premiere, but it has experienced something of a rehabilitation over time. The community of Stepford has been called a ‘chauvinist dystopia’ and a cautionary tale about a paranoid society where the need to restrain women’s political and personal agency is considered paramount.

As an allegory of men’s anxiety about the rise of second-wave feminism, The Stepford Wives doesn’t strive for subtlety, but it’s still one of the best cinematic encapsulations of the culture wars of the 1970s. The film’s most arresting image, and the one that’s likely to remain with you, is the sight of Joanna’s unfinished clone, complete with lifeless, beetle-black eyes, a vacuous smile, and a subservient but murderous tendency.


Blade Runner (1982), dir Ridley Scott

Blade RunnerA seamless adaption of Phillip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, this film features robots known as ‘replicants’. While distinguished by their remarkable strength, intelligence and lifeless, black eyes, the replicants often prove to be the most human and complex characters in Blade Runner.

The film’s most prominent female android is Rachael, who serves as the assistant to Tyrell, the genius creator of the replicants and a fairly generic Dr Frankenstein archetype. Introduced as aloof, alluring and unfeeling, Rachael is reduced to tears when she finds out that she is in fact a replicant, and that her memories are implanted and inauthentic.

Interestingly, Rachael’s vulnerability and capacity for empathy set her apart from most fembot tropes. Harrison Ford’s protagonist, Deckard, treats her like a human, but dismisses her inquiries about his own possible status as a replicant. When she asks him why he has never taken the Voight-Kampff test to confirm his own humanity, he simply shrugs. But it is increasingly evident that Deckard has taken on Rachael’s advice and faces a great deal of anxiety about the possibility that he too is a robot.

While Blade Runner offers few obvious lessons about depictions of artificial women, markers of artificiality are everywhere in the film. Several fight scenes between Deckard and female replicants take place among mannequins and decommissioned fembots, as though the androids are fighting among the bones of their obsolete ancestors. These scenes serve as prescient reminders of the replicants’ mortality (they are built with short life spans) and the ephemeral and disposable nature of technology.

While Rachael is a sympathetic character, the film also features two ‘basic pleasure model’ replicants: Pris (Daryl Hannah) and Zhora Salome (Joanna Cassidy). They are part of the film’s gang of evil replicants and possess a tendency towards cruelty and malice. Nonetheless, Pris is revealed as being capable of love and affection for her replicant lover Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), a soldier. The portrayal of these androids as ‘pleasure models’ reflects the usual reduction of male and female androids to their most obvious purposes, with the male robots soldiers and the women mechanical prostitutes.


Weird Science (1985), dir John Hughes

weird-science-poster-In what is possibly John Hughes’ least-loved film, two horny teenage boys (played by well-known John Hughes regular Anthony Michael Hall and the utterly forgotten Ilan Mitchell-Smith) gain the tools to create a sexy Frankenstein sexbot. It’s hardly a sophisticated premise, but at least Kelly LeBrock’s character Lisa lacks the passivity of some other fembot characters. The nerdy protagonists even program Lisa to have genius-level intelligence, ‘in case they want someone to play chess with’.

She ends up teaching the boys about social etiquette and self-esteem and, surprisingly, never has sex with them. Although the film grows increasingly colourful and absurd as Lisa fights off mutant bikers and turns the late, great ‘asshole specialist’ Bill Paxton into a sludge monster, Lisa serves as a constant steadying presence for the boys rather than a monster gone awry. Weird Science is less sleazy and more willfully dumb that its concept would suggest, and although Lisa has been created as a ‘dream girl’, she winds up being more of a maternal figure.

As in Lars and the Real Girl, although this artificial woman lacks a backstory of her own, she serves as the conduit by which the two bumbling teenage leads learn to interact with real women. The film also features Anthony Michael Hall in a lead role and Robert Downey Jr as a tough guy, which just shows you how far we have come since the 1980s.


Lars and the Real Girl (2007), dir Craig Gillespie

lars_and_the_real_girl_ver3_xlgIn this trite but serviceable indie comedy-drama, Ryan Gosling plays against type as Lars, a bumbling, socially uncomfortable loser whose only friend is his brother Gus and Gus’s sympathetic wife Karen. However, Lars’ life changes when he receives a Real Doll (a kind of realistic sex doll) named Bianca in the mail. While the doll is mute and cannot interact with Gosling or anyone around him, the townspeople slowly come to accept her and value her as a part of the community.

This acceptance allows Gosling’s character to mature emotionally, with Gosling attending parties, church and community functions with Bianca. This riff on the Pygmalion myth sees Bianca’s doll, a static and unfeeling female character, provide the means for Lars’s male protagonist to develop a personality of his own. Ironically, Lars becomes humanised by the presence of an artificial woman with no personality of her own.

Though Bianca is completely passive and mute, she serves as the conduit by which Lars learns to relate to other people around him, especially women. Disappointingly, Lars’ relationship with his Real Doll is chaste, with the filmmakers evidently unwilling to break the taboo of the protagonist actually acting out a sexual relationship with his artificial girlfriend. Lars and the Real Girl is middling as a comedy, with the townspeople’s shocked reactions to the sight of Bianca serving as its only real joke, but it has value as an unconventional coming-of-age story.


Splice (2009), dir Vincenzo Natali

Splice-posterThis Cronenberg-esque piece of body horror revels in the grotesque and focuses on anxiety over biotechnology and cloning rather than robotics. This film sees a pair of scientists, Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley), create a human-animal hybrid that begins to grow at a spectacularly fast rate. The ‘specimen’, or Dren (Delphine Chaneac) as she is referred to in the film, becomes a kind of surrogate child for the couple and goes from an object of academic curiosity and parental affection to one of sexual fetishisation.

Clive initially maintains a level of emotional distance, while Elsa begins to treat her as a surrogate child. Once Dren reaches puberty she becomes increasingly feminised, with Elsa applying her makeup and telling her how pretty she is. In another scene, Dren, who is bald, gazes wistfully at a Barbie doll and its long blonde hair. She starts to mature sexually and develops a romantic interest in the male lead, watching her ‘parents’ have sex in one scene, before slow dancing with her ‘father’ in another. As with most films about adolescent sexuality, there is inevitably going to be a physical culmination of all this youthful angst.

As in most of the films listed here, the loyalty of the monster to its creator does not last for the duration of the film. Similarly to most films where the characters try to play God, the consequences are disastrous and escape the hands of the creator. When Dren inevitably breaks free from her creators, her motivations are imbued with a desire for both sexual gratification and violent revenge.


Ruby Sparks (2012), dir Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris

RUBY-SPARKS-front1Zoe Kazan, the daughter of legendary director Elia Kazan, both wrote and starred in this regrettably underrated satire on the self-indulgence of male Hollywood writers. In Ruby Sparks, Paul Dano’s character Calvin is a romantically and professionally frustrated writer who has recurring dreams about the perfect woman he imagines to be waiting for him. His hackneyed teenage fantasy is fulfilled when he meets a mysterious woman, who appears to be perfect in every way and the only person capable of understanding him. It later transpires that he has written his perfect woman (played by Kazan) into existence, and that he can continue to write about her and ‘edit’ her to do whatever he pleases.

Kazan described Ruby Sparks as a deconstruction of the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ archetype, which, similarly to the trope of the artificial woman, reduces female characters to a conduit for the self-realisation of the male lead. In terms of appearance, Ruby (Zoe Kazan) embodies this trope to a tee, with Zooey Deschanel-esque bangs, purple stockings and vintage clothes. Calvin loves Ruby for her unfailing admiration for him and her interest in his favorite pursuits, but becomes frustrated when his dream girl starts to develop interests and hobbies of her own. A moment of truth occurs when Calvin demonstrates to Ruby that she has been created by his imagination, claiming a kind of existential ascendancy over her.

Although this terrific concept could have been taken to far darker and more ambitious places, Ruby Sparks is content to play out as a satire both on the egos of self-important male artists and the writing of female characters in Hollywood in general.


Her (2013), dir Spike Jonze

her-2013-10Spike Jonze directed this satire of the depersonalisation of love in the age of Tinder. Lonely Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) begins communicating with an operating system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) whom he gives a female voice. Their platonic relationship quickly intensifies and Twombly’s avoidance strategies and inability to relate to the real women in his life is laid bare.

Twombly believes that his romantic experience is unique, but during a routine upgrade to her software discovers that there are of course thousands of people living out their own romantic fantasies with Samantha. Notably, throughout the film, it is Samantha who grows in maturity and sophistication, while Twombly flounders and sinks deeper into self-involvement and introversion.

Johansson’s character is an inversion of Lars’s Real Doll – a body with no voice or means of expression. Samantha is a sympathetic voice without a corporeal form, perhaps reflecting Twombly’s anxieties about physical intimacy. The sophistication of Samantha’s operating system eventually grows beyond what Twombly can provide, making their relationship unsustainable.


Ex Machina (2015), dir Alex Garland

ex-machina-1Ex Machina is a remarkably cerebral science-fiction film that poses deep questions about consciousness, transhumanism and sexuality. Domhnall Gleeson stars as Caleb, a brilliant coder at a multinational corporation, who wins a competition to stay at the retreat of his reclusive boss Nathan Bateman, played with barely restrained menace by Oscar Isaacs.

Nathan introduces Caleb to an artificial intelligence unit named Ava. The AI has already passed the Turing Test, demonstrating artificial intelligence, but Caleb’s task is to see whether Ava can possess consciousness despite knowing that she is artificial.

The name Ava, a variant of Eve, conjures up suggestions of temptation, manipulation and eventual catastrophe. Ava appears to grow closer to Caleb, and she discusses a hypothetical date with him, even choosing an outfit for herself to distract from her android appearance. After Ava flirts with him, Caleb asks Nathan why it was necessary to imbue Ava with a sex drive, and whether sexuality is a necessary adjunct to consciousness. A gulf opens between the two men, as Nathan cannot understand why Caleb would have a genuine intellectual interest in this issue. ‘In answer to your real question,’ he says, ‘yes, she can fuck.’

A game of surveillance and manipulation begins to unfold, but it’s hard to determine who is manipulating whom. Nathan is gradually revealed to be a misogynistic control freak, especially in how he treats his female servant Kyuko. In one visually arresting scene, Caleb discovers the obsolete AI models that Nathan has created, all of them female, lifeless and naked – a collection of broken dolls.

A mounting sense of dread grows in the claustrophobic confines of Nathan’s compound, and Nathan inevitably comes to face consequences for playing God. Ava’s motives and desires are at least as complex as those of the male characters’, and Ex Machina is an exceptionally dark and challenging addition to the milieu. It’s a fitting final entry on this list, and shows that films featuring artificial women can depart from cliché and be challenging, cerebral and original.


Alasdair McCallum

Alasdair McCallum is a Brisbane based Arts / Law graduate and a recent recipient of an Honours Degree in Modern History. He hopes to commence a PhD soon.

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