Examine the gender agenda robot-style – from basic love objects to all out grrl power cyborgs – we rate our favourite fem-bot films
In Ex_Machina, out today, director Alex Garland takes the side of a robot under scrutiny by the men who made her. Exploring the gendered gaze of technology, a female life form is created in the all-male vacuum of the tech world. Why is it that in so many films about artificial intelligence, those intended to resemble humans are female, while male machines are more often celebrated for their superhuman abilities? Why is the idea of fabricating femininity so entrancing anyway? Here, we examine the gender agenda robot-style with a top ten of lady-bots, and find they have a taste for breaking the rules.
In Ridley Scott’s cyber punk epic, Blade Runner, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) bounty hunts robotic Replicants in a dark dystopia. Like Ex Machina, the protagonist wrestles with what constitutes consciousness with the help of the Turing test, but falls for Rachael, one so convincing even she can’t tell the difference. The Director’s Cut suggests Deckard himself is a Replicant, adding a further layer of mystery.
Feminist rating: 2/10. A sci-fi movie to define a generation it may be, but on the gender agenda it’s lacking. In the rainy LA of the future, for a woman to be attractive or have a lead part, she must be artificial. This otherwise subtle and challenging movie reduces X-chromosone characters to limited parts. As Deckard puts it at one point, some are “just a basic pleasure model”, bringing a chilling connotation to the word.
SAMANTHA IN HER (2013)
Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with a female voice behind his computer organiser, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). The streamlined version of womanhood with of the fruit-logo kind, she is always alert, always capable, always available as a friend and love object, can help him complete computer games. Sadly, a very helpful lady’s voice does not a girlfriend make.
Feminist rating: 4/10. Well, who doesn’t love their iPhone, right? Poignant as it is, Her proves that men, too, suffer the wrath of the gender stereotype in too many robot flicks. Really into your gadgets? You must be a sad loser. He redeems points by being sweet and for setting Samantha free in the end.
AVA IN EX MACHINA (2015)
When Caleb is invited to spend time at his boss’s woodland retreat, he believes he’s won a prize but he’s introduced to secret project Ava (Alicia Vikander), a prototype robot created by millionaire CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac), and tasked with testing her consciousness against a human standard in the Turing test. Sentenced to decommission for a better model, Ava’s fight explores the grey area between man and machine, as well as the primitive gender relationships of the tech world.
Feminist rating: 8/10. Empathising more with Ava than the men, the film explores Donna Haraway’s argument from her seminal 1985 essay, Cyborg Manifesto that since modern human experience is constructed, there is little to separate us from the machines we create.
RUBY, MARINNE AND OLIVE IN TECKNOLUST (2002)
Tilda Swinton plays the roles of scientist Rosetta Stone and the three Automatons she clones. Interacting with the world online, they need Y-chromosomes to survive, which one, Ruby, harvests from semen after real-life sexual encounters. When the men suffer impotence and infected hard drives, the FBI are alerted, while Ruby falls in love with a man on the outside.
Feminist rating: 9/10. Ruby learns what she knows about femininity from movies, suggesting gender can be learned and is therefore constructed. By making the men and their computers malfunction, she disrupts the power men have with technology, while robots are used to explore patriarchal fears of female sexuality.
MARIA IN METROPOLIS (1927)
The mad, sprawling plot of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis matches the fact that it was the biggest production to date in 1925, costing six million Reichsmarks. Freder (Gustav Frölich) is a rich young member of the elite, who descends into the hellish slave labour workers’ city in search of the beautiful workers’ leader Maria (Brigitte Helm). Yet an evil robotic false Maria replaces her and incites the workers to murder, resulting in their burning her at the stake like a witch, where her flesh melts away to reveal the machine beneath.
Feminist rating: 2/10. Original cyborg Maria evokes no sympathy for the viewer but acts as a symbol of all that’s wrong with the world in an era gripped by paranoia over suffrage for women, industrialisation and Communism. In her erotic nightclub dance, she stands not only for the evil femme fatale, ever misogyny’s poster girl, but for a fear of foreigners, too.
VERA IN THE SKIN I LIVE IN (2011)
A Spanish thriller exploring artificial intelligence at surface level. Wealthy plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard (Antonio Bandares) is developing a weird prosthetic skin on his mysterious prisoner-patient Vera (Elena Anaya). But Vera was once Vincente, a young man who raped Ledgard’s mentally handicapped daughter, and he is using a surgeon’s knife to exact revenge.
Feminist rating: 8/10. Taking the fable of the madwoman in the attic and throwing in a little enforced gender reassignment surgery, this twisted tale plumbs to the depths of human behaviour. But like Ex_Machina, the viewer is invited to condemn the behaviour of those in charge, and Vera ultimately emerges victorious.
THE WIVES OF STEPFORD IN THE STEPFORD WIVES (1975)
Joanna (Katharine Ross) is horrified to find other wives of small-town Stepford think of nothing but housework, marital sex and working a high volume blow-dry with long floaty dresses. Her attempt to set up a women’s lib group are met with rubbery ignorance, and she realises too late that this perfect version of womanhood has been engineered by the men for an easy life.
Feminist rating: 9/10. Joanna might be silenced and status quo restored by the closing credits, but the film explores versions of femininity and whether the text-book example of womanhood is really what women want or if they are being influenced by wider social structures. As the debate over women posing topless in national newspapers kicked off this week, it seemed especially relevant in 2015.
CHERRY 2000 IN CHERRY 2000 (1988)
It’s the now-not-so-distant 2017, and the relationship between the sexes is “strictly business” – android escorts fulfil men’s desires in a male-only, sex-only synthetic paradise. Sam Treadwell (David Andrews) is a rebel in that he wants romance, but his model of a wife, Cherry 2000 (Pamela Gidley), shortcuts during an act of passion. He heads into the desert with a bunch of misfits to find a replacement robot, falling for a buxom flame-haired member of the pack (Melanie Griffith) on the way.
Feminist rating: 8/10. Down with women! Long live women! In a perfect opposite to Stepford Wives, Sam starts with a robotic 70s housewife, all compliant sex and lipgloss, only to find the thing he was looking for was all that she wasn’t – a fleshy, fiery real-with-a-capital-W Woman, and in a town called Glory Hole, no less.
DOT MATRIX IN SPACE BALLS (1982)
In Mel Brooks’ send-up of science fiction movies, Dot Matrix is the gold bodied-roller skating robot chaperone to Druish Princess Vespa. In their escape from Dark Helmet and the Spaceballs, she protects Vespa from the advances of the hunky Lone Starr until he can prove he is a Prince and win her hand in marriage.
Feminist rating: 7/10. No need for the Turing Test here, the feminised version of CP30 was voiced by Joan Rivers, and what’s more empowering than a female comic? Even if she is equipped with a spoilsport Virgin Alarm – as she quips to Lone Starr – “it’s designed to go off before you do.”
TANK GIRL IN TANK GIRL (1995)
Not a robot movie per se but a film that explores the relationship between women and technology with feminist values worth writing home about. Adapted from an anime, a bleach-haired Lori Petty don overalls and a bindi to kick an evil corporations ass riot grrl style with the help of Ice-T playing a kangaroo as side-kick.
Feminist rating: 10/10. Grrl power doesn’t get better than this. Tank Girl hijacks the biggest phallic weapon of choice from the boys and seems happiest firing gunge at their crotches to a soundtrack of Bjork, Hole and L7.