Of Woman BorgBionic betties, radical robots, and the evolution of the artificial woman

Original Illustration by Byron Eggenschwiler

Bitch Media is celebrating 20 years of award-winning, nonprofit, feminist response to pop culture. The original version of this article was printed in the The Wired issue of Bitch magazine, Spring 2008. It appears here with a new introduction from original author Tammy Oler as a part of the special 20th anniversary edition of Bitch magazine.

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Svedka retired its vodka-slinging fembot a few years ago, but we’re still mired in technology that reinscribes the same old gender stereotypes. Honda’s humanoid robot ASIMO is presumed to be male, so he’s designed to do a lot of jobs, not to mention play soccer with President Obama. But Toshiba’s Aiko Chihura resembles a woman, so she’s designed to be a retail assistant. Even when there’s no physical bot, gender is present: Almost every virtual assistant—Siri, Alexa, Cortana, Julie, Cloe, and Jeannie—is coded with female voices to match their female names. New ways of working, yes, but old ways of thinking about who’s doing what type of work. It’s no wonder people became obsessed with whether cute new Star Wars droid BB-8 is a male or a female droid—in this culture, it would definitely change how we see it.

I’m more encouraged by representations of artificial intelligence in pop culture. CHAPPiE, Ultron, and the protagonists of Almost Human have been imagined within predictably masculine storylines. But recent depictions of female-gendered AI have been fascinating. AMC’s Humans self-consciously investigates the way a female synth is desired and feared by the human family to whom she belongs. And Her and Ex Machina are two films about “female” AIs happy to leave behind the men who create, desire, and enslave them. Both Her and Ex Machina are, of course, centered on the experiences and emotions of those men. But it’s no small thing to see films in which female AIs have—while no one was looking—evolved, surpassed men, and achieved autonomy.

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According to Svedka Vodka, the future of adult entertainment will be ushered in by a booze-serving robot babe. Svedka_Grl, the central icon for the brand’s marketing efforts since 2005, is a sleek robot with large breasts, stiletto heels, and a shiny bald head. She vamps in ads with innuendo-laden copy (“I go both ways—straight up or on the rocks”) and nods to gender-bending empowerment (“Madame President and her first lady serve Svedka at all official state functions”). All the clever copywriting in the world, however, can’t hide the fact that Svedka_Grl is no more than a cyber–St. Pauli girl. But the campaign is clearly tapping into a cultural moment—not to mention inspiring copycats like Heineken’s DraughtKeg “futuristic beer delivery system,” a.k.a. an android babe packing a keg in her chest cavity.

From boozebots to bionic superchicks, synthetic women are powerful pop culture figures right now. On television, bionic woman Jaime Sommers kicks terrorist ass while the sexy, power-hungry Cylons of Battlestar Galactica do battle with humans and a young female Terminator fights to protect humans from the rise of the machines in The Sarah Connor Chronicles. And James Cameron has announced that he’ll be producing a film adaptation of the popular Battle Angel manga about an amnesiac female cyborg. As writer Alicia Rebensdorf noted in a September 2007 AlterNet essay, “Fembots are having something of a moment.”

Svedka_Grl and the Bionic Woman may share some of the same computer bits, but they’re light-years apart on the scale of sophisticated female representation, due in part to their respective positions on either end of what scientist Sidney Perkowitz has defined as a “spectrum of artificiality.” At the artificial end of the spectrum is Svedka_Grl, with bionic woman Jaime Sommers at the natural end. Between the static ends of the spectrum is a more challenging category: the cyborg, an integrated body made up of  varying degrees of human and machine. The Cylons of Battlestar Galactica belong in this more ambiguous realm, as complex syntheses of living tissue and machine that fall somewhere between android and bionic humanoid. Android, cyborg, and bionic woman: technology and gender intersect in all three categories.

This fembot moment comes at a time when feminists don’t need to look to science fiction to view the impact of technology on our lives. Androids, cyborgs, and bionic women already exist in various stages of development. Custom-made sexbots known as Real Dolls can be purchased online; Repliee Q androids are the first in a series of service robots being developed in Japan. On the medical front, cybernetic technology is used to repair injuries and develop nerve-responsive artificial limbs, while robotics are increasingly employed for ever-more-sophisticated medical tests and surgeries. Artificial-intelligence expert David Levy created huge buzz about a future filled with human-robot romance with his 2007 book Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relations. As our world becomes more wired and the line between real and artificial becomes increasingly blurry, it becomes ever more imperative to explore the cultural implications of technology and how it can shape, liberate, or confine women’s identities—and synthetic women have a lot to tell us about what it means to be female in this brave new world.

The Rise and Fall of Fembots

Android women may be less technologically sophisticated than their cyborg or bionic sisters, but they are by far the most pervasive artificial women in pop culture. In fact, today’s boozebots are strikingly similar in appearance to their android antecedent, the mother of all bots: Maria the Maschinenmensch from Fritz Lang’s 1927 sci-fi classic Metropolis. Modeled on a beautiful worker named Maria, the Maschinenmensch is a female android with strikingly sexualized features, including sculpted breasts and distinctive hips. While the human Maria is held prisoner, the android Maria fulfills her creators’ goal of fostering discord in Metropolis: She becomes an exotic dancer in a nightclub, and her dancing proceeds to incite full-scale revolution among the men of the city.

Metropolis is an important origin story for female androids for two reasons: First, Maria is created as an object of male desire, and second, both her function and her power reside in her sexuality. The real Maria is characterized as a woman of perfect beauty and saintly character, so when those characteristics are transferred to the android, she becomes idealized femininity in a technological body. In his 1986 essay “The Vamp and the Machine: Technology and Sexuality in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis,” Andreas Huyssen argues that Maria is the expression of male fear of both women and machines in the early 20th century, given that both posed threats to patriarchal control. And though it wasn’t until nearly 40 years later that female androids began repopulating cinema, these fears became central to every representation of the female android in media culture.

Early representations of artificial females dispensed with sophisticated questions about technology and gender in favor of exploiting the sexy and/or comic possibilities of “creating” women. In the films Kiss Me Quick! (1964) and How to Make a Doll (1968), female androids are created as companion sexbots. And three decades before Austin Powers, Vincent Price created bikini-clad android spies in the sci-fi comedies Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965) and Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966). On network tv in the ’60s, men got busy trying to create the perfect android woman. The CBS comedy series My Living Doll (1964–1965) reimagined the Pygmalion story via the android Rhoda, a prototype bot built by the U.S. Air Force and left in the care of a psychologist who attempts to teach her how to be a “perfect” woman by improving her domestic skills and making her more subservient. And, of course, Star Trek (1966–1969) was lousy with mad scientists and their android beauties, including many that became romantically involved with space honcho Captain Kirk. In one episode, a young android  becomes so confused by her inability to choose between Kirk and her creator that she fries her own circuits and catches fire.

Such laughably sexist droids can be understood as a (male) pop culture escape from real-world upheaval—such as the space-race fears engendered by the Cold War and the gains women and minorities were making through the women’s liberation and civil rights movements. In this way, images of the female android reinscribed both traditional gender roles and control over technology right back into the status quo.

Since then, science fiction creators have come to ask more sophisticated questions about identity and technology, and have provided more nuanced images of female androids. Still, the most visible celluloid androids are the ones that never fail to service, seduce, or screw. Westworld (1973), Futureworld (1976), Cherry 2000 (1987), and Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001) all imagine female androids as pleasure bots (although a few of these films make the equal-opportunity move of imagining male android gigolos, too). And even when, in such films as Blade Runner (1982) and Eve of Destruction (1991), fembots do the soldiering-and-killing work that’s usually associated with male androids, they continue to be imagined as overtly sexual objects of male desire. Android eye candy was popular in other media too, including the sci-fi/erotica comics magazine Heavy Metal, which launched in the late ’70s, and Japanese artist Hajime Sorayama’s underground hit Sexy Robot (1979), a book-length collection of his drawings that featured chrome fembots in Vargas-style pinup poses—the most famous of which was featured on the cover of Aerosmith’s 2001 album, Just Push Play.

But the cultural issues at the heart of android representations went largely uninvestigated until 1975, when Ira Levin’s 1972 horror novel The Stepford Wives was adapted into the now-infamous film set in an idyllic suburban town where all the men replace their wives with subservient, idealized androids. Levin’s novel frames the men’s actions explicitly in terms of antifeminist backlash, and both novel and film portray the replacement of women with androids as a tool for reinforcing rigid sex roles. In The Stepford Wives, the tacit conceit behind the creation myth of female androids becomes explicit: In the unchecked hands of men, technology will be used to create “better” women—sexier, subservient private property—and real women will be made redundant.

By the late ’80s, when Star Trek: The Next Generation’s male android Lt. Commander Data blasted off into space with important questions about the differences between humans and androids, the nature of emotion, and what it means to be a whole person, the subservient hypersexuality of female androids (and their dominating male creators) had come to seem clichéd and silly. They became the objects of parody, morphing into the fembots of the Austin Powers films and the tongue-in-cheek Buffybot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) offered an intriguing twist with the character of T-X, a beautiful, lethal killing machine who’s sent back in time to wipe out the leader of the human resistance. While the first two Terminators featured a male android assassin, T3’s switch to a female embodiment underscored the ways that gender can be performance: T-X deploys her femininity to advance her mission (for instance, to entrance a cop who pulls her over for speeding), intensifying it when it becomes advantageous to do so. In other words, the machines recognize humanity’s sex-role stereotyping and find ways to use it against them. That said, T3 was far from a self-conscious critique of gender and technology, and T-X was mainly there to provide fans of the franchise with a piece of android eye candy.

Svedka and Heineken’s retrograde robobabes are more of the same. Ariel Waldman, an advertising columnist at tech blog Engadget, calls them “ready-to-serve robots,” noting that “misogynist undertones run rampant throughout all the ads, so it’s no shock that feminine cyborgs are used exclusively in ads targeting young males; they tap right into stock fantasies of complete feminine subservience.” Although these ads aim to reach out to a technologically and culturally savvy audience that understands the cheeky humor of the Austin Powers fembots, their reliance on hyperfeminized subservience suggests—depressingly—that we haven’t come as far from Metropolis’s Maria as we’d like to think.

From Bots to Borgs

As we’ve become less awed by androids, a more complicated question has arisen: Namely, what happens when you combine robots and humans? Enter the cyborg, which replaced the android in the late ’80s as bot du jour, a change that was ushered in by the box-office success of Paul Verhoeven’s ultraviolent 1987 sci-fi action film RoboCop. RoboCop was a decidedly macho cyborg protagonist, but the film’s (albeit limited) emotional center was the moral question of the difference between man and machine and what constituted humanity.

The genesis of RoboCop was a very different dancing female—a cyborg conceived not in film, but on paper. Female science-fiction author C.L. Moore’s 1944 story “No Woman Born” marks the first appearance of the cyborg. Moore’s story concerns Deirdre, a beautiful dancer who dies in a fire. A scientist manages to save and preserve her brain, and connects it to a golden metal body. Deirdre returns to her career as a dancer and soon realizes that her golden body possesses superhuman capabilities. The story ends with Deirdre questioning her dual nature and despairing about her potential for relationships with “regular” humans.

“No Woman Born” asked profound questions about the intersection of technology and identity, questions that were embraced 40 years later by a growing number of cyberfeminists interested in technology, postmodernism, and gender theory. In her seminal 1985 essay on feminist theory and technology, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Donna Haraway proposed the female cyborg as a way of negotiating fundamental questions of feminist theory and gender identity. She wrote that the complex hybrid between organism and machine “can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves.” Haraway postulated that the female cyborg represents technology’s potential for women; rather than reducing them to their gendered essence, technology could offer women powerful ways to transcend gender expectations—indeed, to question the idea of gender altogether.

But how potent is the image of the cyborg? There are far fewer female cyborgs in pop culture than female androids, but almost all of them evoke the questions Haraway raises—even if they don’t present revolutionary reimaginings of gender identity. The 1993 schlock treatment Cyborg 2 showcases a young Angelina Jolie questioning her cyborg nature, falling in love with a human, and ultimately revolting against her creators, while the popular manga and anime Ghost in the Shell (1995) ponders the implications of collective consciousness and individuality through the experience of a cyborg policewoman. The most famous female cyborgs, however, have emerged on tv: Star Trek: Voyager’s Seven of Nine and the cohort of female Cylons in the remake of Battlestar Galactica.

Seven of Nine and her race of Borg quite readily embody the gender-bending, dualism-defeating figure of the cyborg. The Borg refer to themselves as a collective “we,” possessing neither individual identity nor gender. However, if the collapse of these dualisms represents a potential freedom to cyberfeminists, it certainly doesn’t translate to any kind of freedom in the Star Trek universe: The Borg are depicted as aggressively anti-Western individualist villains. After she is rescued by Voyager, most of Seven of Nine’s cybernetic components are removed, although the few that remain give her superior physical capabilities. As soon as the crew disconnects her, so to speak, from the Borg, they immediately assign her gender identity, referring to her as a female individual. And, in a move no doubt designed to bolster lackluster ratings among Star Trek fanboys, the costumers stuffed actress Jeri Ryan into a skintight catsuit that she would wear for the remainder of the series, emphasizing her sexuality to an almost laughable extreme. Although Seven of Nine was a compelling, intelligent character, the confines of the Star Trek universe required her to acquire and retain more normative ideas of identity and sexuality—and, of course, to crawl around in warp engine coils in spandex.

The Cylon women of Battlestar Galactica raise the most interesting possibilities for cyberfeminists—and present arguably the most complex female characters on tv in recent years. Cylons are a combination of organic and synthetic tissue and automation, possessing both individual identity and the ability to download their programs to new bodies via a collective consciousness. The former robotic workers and soldiers revolted against humans and waged a devastating war, and after a lengthy truce, they returned—evolved into new humanoid forms—and attempted to wipe out humans once and for all. A central draw of Battlestar Galactica is the way the series upends convention—for instance, it thrusts humans into the role of insurgents and visualizes machines as religious fanatics. Female Cylons are not confined by any normative gender structures within their own race, and are thus free to take on any number of roles regardless of gender construct, play with their sexuality, and pursue answers to complicated questions about their own desires. To be sure, Cylon women don’t challenge conventional notions of beauty, but they certainly push back on ideas of gender itself—and wield an almost unlimited amount of power. In the end, it may be that Cylons that have come closest to embodying the cyberfeminist ideal of gender/identity liberation.

The Bionic Superwoman

Outside of the imaginary sci-fi universe, there is, of course, a real world full of real women. How might all this integrated technology change our lives and identities? That’s the central question at the heart of mainstream action drama The Bionic Woman.

The first bionic woman appeared on television in 1976. She was Jaime Sommers, a beautiful tennis pro who was fatally wounded in a skydiving accident. Luckily, her boyfriend just happened to be Steve Austin, the bionically enhanced hero of The Six Million Dollar Man. After the accident, Austin convinced the government agents who crafted his bionics to save Jaime’s life. The two bionic humans got to share some good times together, but Jaime’s body rejected her implants and she died. Her character was so popular, though, that the network resurrected her and gave her a starring role in her own show.

Jaime had two bionic legs, a bionic arm, and a bionic ear, resulting in superhuman strength and dexterity. Grateful to the government for saving her life, Jaime enlisted in missions to thwart evil plots. The missions themselves, however, were often remarkably silly: Jaime goes undercover as a nun, a stewardess, a beauty pageant contestant, and a professional wrestler—to save the world! Despite her ass-kicking abilities, the Bionic Woman was confined to fighting for justice in hyperfeminine spaces, prompting many critics to view her character as little more than a bionic Barbie. (Merchandising tie-ins for the show added fuel to this criticism: Bionic Woman dolls came with extensive fashion lines and accessories, and girls could even purchase a bionic beauty-salon playset for their dolls.) Jaime acquired practically nothing from her technological enhancements other than physical strength; she gained no entry into new spaces, nor, for most of the series, did she raise any questions about her role as a woman.

Still, a generation of women grew up as inspired by Jaime’s superwoman abilities as by Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman, and by the end of the series, Jaime’s good-sport attitude gives way to discontent. The bionic woman ends her television run fed up with being a government tool, wondering to whom her body belongs and questioning her very identity.

Which is where 2007’s bionic woman begins her journey. Set in a contemporary U.S. cast as a skeptical post-9/11 world, the revamped show sees a brunet Jaime Sommers beginning her bionic life already loaded down with a set of identity issues. A brilliant, savvy 24-year-old who dropped out of college and became a bartender to care for her teenage sister, Jaime is on the verge of major life changes when the series opens: Newly pregnant, and having just become engaged to her supergenius neuroscientist boyfriend, Jaime is involved in a nearly fatal car accident, loses her baby, and becomes a bionic humanoid at the hands of her fiancé.

This Bionic Woman swaps one set of real-world identity and control issues—becoming a mother and a wife, the threat of losing independence—for a complementary set of technologically inspired issues. Does Jaime own and control her body, or does the government? How can she balance her bionically induced ability to save the world with the imperative to take care of her little sis?

In this modern-day superwoman tale, bionic improvements are extensions of existing technologies that exacerbate societal pressures on women to “do it all.” The physical abilities Jaime gains—and her subsequent adventures in male-dominated spaces—come at an alarmingly high cost: a tightening grip of paranoia, constant feelings that she is a bad caregiver, a precariously short bionic lifespan of five years, and the need to turn to her male creators again and again for repair and guidance.

Despite its nod to girl power, The Bionic Woman poses a pretty bleak question about Jaime’s existence: Does it suck being a superwoman, or does it just suck to be a woman? Critics suggested that this vision is an empty throwback with little feminist merit.  Tech writer Annalee Newitz took the show’s “retrograde feminism” to task in a September 2007 AlterNet essay, arguing that the show is even less feminist than its 1970s predecessor because it imagines that “women only become powerful through their sexual relationships with men...even when women are powerful, it’s probably because men implanted something inside them that the men continue to own and control.”

The Bionic Woman has undoubtedly fallen victim to its own attempts to woo multiple prime-time audience demographics. At the heart of the show, however, is the warning that the tools we use to improve our lives and expand our opportunities may, in fact, serve to enforce impossible expectations—because we haven’t yet thoroughly investigated, let alone changed, cultural ideas of what it means to be a woman in the wired world. (It’s noteworthy that, with rare exception, all synthetic women in pop culture—android, cyborg, and bionic—have been white, an unfortunate reflection of real-world inequity with regard to access to technology.) And will more access to technology continue to bury women in the attempt to do it all? The Bionic Woman engages with these questions, but suggests that we won’t like the answers very much.

The Future Is Now

Fembot, cyborg, and bionic supergirl: All three represent an attempt to imagine and define a better woman, whether she be reconstructed, improved, altered, or replaced. By casting a critical eye on wired women, we can question the way we’ve all expected technology to improve our lives and help us aspire to perfection.

The changing fortunes of the fembot reflects the struggle to imagine and define the perfect woman for a pop culture world that is still malecentric. Thanks to real-world changes in women’s status and power, the Stepford fembot largely became obsolete by the end of the 20th century. This is also a reflection of the gains women made in control over their own representation as well as an evolution in the understanding of what men desire in women. (The reality that a man might desire a smart, independent, free-thinking woman would surely come as a shock to Captain Kirk.) Even the Svedka_Grl bears this out to some limited degree, as the techno-bunny does, after all, express a few sassy opinions. In the barrel-scraping world of booze advertising, even this represents progress. If, indeed, synthetic women have been by and large male fantasies, then the evolution from fembots to cyborgs and bionic women represents progress, even if those representations often fall short of being feminist.

The appeal of Haraway’s cyborg is readily apparent: Freed from the confines of gender identity, women and men would have the power to radically reimagine their selves and their relationships. Yet there is hardly any precedent for imagining a gender-free world delivered via technology—it’s simply still too alien in our culture. The Bionic Woman, however, is a popular female fantasy. Both the original and updated versions of the series represent critical moments in this history of wired women, because the action is seen from the machine-woman’s point of view. This shift from object to subject represents a big change, one that has been accompanied by hopes that a technologically enhanced woman could be a true feminist superhero. Critics would do well not to dismiss The Bionic Woman as empty feminism, but to engage with the way the show pushes back on naive hopes that technology can free us from what we increasingly expect from ourselves.

 
by Tammy Oler
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Tammy Oler has been contributing to Bitch for over a decade. Her writing about pop culture and fandom has appeared in Slate, Ozy, Vulture, and Geek, among others.

This article was published in 20th Anniversary Issue #70 | Spring 2016

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