He & It, She & It: Differences in Male and Female Fantasy of Android Lovers

Notes: this piece has reference to sexual abuse and assault. The analysis
focuses on a heterosexual dynamic insofar as a machine can be considered gendered
.

 

What would it mean to love a machine and, in return, be loved by a machine? The potentiality of robot lovers is a ubiquitous trope in science-fiction, not a recent one either, that indicates the cultural belief that artificial intelligence will not only exist in the future, but that human beings will desire to carry out relationships with these machine-entities. The acceptance that the natural course for artificial intelligence is for it to be housed in a human-like body is a correlated trope among science fiction media. Why this seems to be natural conclusion of machine entities is sometimes questioned—in I, Robot, the film based on Isaac Asimov’s well-known work, Will Smith’s character asks about the androids, “Why do you give them faces?”

It is as though once the intellectual capabilities of a machine progress far enough for it to be considered an individual, we as humans feel compelled to grant that entity with a body. Further than that though, compelled to give them a body like our own and with capabilities similar to our own, which in many ways seeks to incur our emotional response towards these entities to be empathy. In the same way that Will Smith asks about why the androids have faces, with confusion and perhaps disgust, in Ex Machina Domhnall Gleeson’s character Caleb questions android programmer Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac, why he has given his A.I. the concept of sexuality.

There’s a question at the heart of these inquiries, one that targets what it means to be an individual, an entity, a person. As the capabilities of computers increasingly races forward with ability for calculation and recall that no human will be able to compete with, the need to draw a line between us, those understood to be individuals, and them, those understood to be merely machines, becomes of ethical importance. As long as a computer remains a machine, or rather, as long as it doesn’t qualify as an entity, it can remain a tool. Being a tool rather than an entity carries on the back of its definition the determination of what ethics are applied to its function—how we humans may handle it for our own uses, for example.

The line between entity and machine surely has to be the capacity for emotion—sympathy and empathy, passionate and platonic love, frustration, pride, wants, hopes and fears. A computer can say, “I am sad,” if programmed to do so and even can do so with complex parameters to define the situations in which an expression of such an emotion is logical or expected. In this example though, few people would believe that the computer “feels” the emotion behind the words.

With these two conflicting ideas, that of entity or tool and the experience of emotions, the idea of engaging in a romantic relationship with an android is intriguing and of two natures: on one hand, questionable in sincerity, on the other, a fantasy. There is a gendered divide that arises when examining machine entity romances or sexual relationships. For men, the possibilities of an android partner conflate a power-fantasy while for women the exact opposite is true, it is a security-fantasy.

He & It, the male perspective on the android fantasy, is riddled with disturbing notions of power-fantasy and especially so in regards to sexual power-fantasy. Browsing pop-media for examples of female androids has an uncomfortable likeness to skimming a porn magazine. The women androids are ridiculously beautiful, over-sexed (for what use does a machine entity have for exaggerated sexual organs?) and, perhaps most disturbingly, obedient. Tammy Oler overviews examples of this in her piece “Of Women Borg,” but I’d like to circle around to the first example of female androids I raised in this paper, that of the entities in Ex Machina.

The programmer of these A.I. entities, Nathan, is drenched with an overt, and disturbing, veneer of threatening masculinity that is obvious from the first scene in which we encounter him, sweaty and confident after boxing a punching bag. A foreshadowing, in fact, of his need to be physically strong in order to grapple his misbehaving creations into submission, but that’s to get ahead of ourselves. Nathan has taken it for granted since he began his project chasing after true artificial intelligence that his creation would be sexual. It certainly fits his purposes—he keeps one of the subservient creations as a maid, cook, and sex toy. She remains silent the entire film, another layer to the utter power-fantasy she encapsulates, for Nathan does not want her to even communicate with his male house-guest.

Nathan created an intelligence, for it is intelligent, complete with emotions and desires of its own, only to bind it into sexual slavery. This is where the concept of entity becomes important, for if this android was a mere machine, his use of it for sex wouldn’t be violation. After all, that would be no different than having sex with an artificial vagina with added body to interact with. But that is not what Nathan has done, somehow that wasn’t enough for him. He created an entity and rapes it, indefinitely and without remorse.

The evidence that Kyoko is not a mere machine is apparent in its (her?) behavior—she sits slumped in hallways, head down, a classic image of someone traumatized. When the opportunity arises, she holds a knife to her abuser and helps murder him. This reflects trauma and revenge; these are the actions of an entity that experiences resentment, hatred, suffering.

Male power-fantasy surfaces in androids as an opportunity for a man to have a woman who obeys all commands without complaint—objects of desire for men who don’t have to navigate concepts of consent as they would with a real woman. Their lover will always find them attractive, perfect, intelligent. Their lover will never stray, a programmed loyalty that eliminates the need for jealousy or fear of rejection. An android woman eliminates male insecurity by promising the man that, to his lover, he’ll always be everything to her and she’ll never leave.

As Oler succinctly phrases it, “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.” Ex Machina exemplifies this; Nathan has no physical contact with any other humans in his massive, private estate and there are no human women present in the film. If anything, Ex Machina is a warning on this fantasy—no entity, human or artificial intelligence, will accept the dehumanizing abuse of male power.

Conversely, the She & It perspective of female fantasy and android lovers is not a power-fantasy, but a security or safety-fantasy. The stark contrast between what women view as a possibility out of android lovers and what men do is sobering, said mildly, and tragic, if said honestly. Where men would use the programming of an entity to force it into consent, women view that programming as an opportunity to force the respect of consent. In other words, the male fantasy see androids that are ready for sex at any moment and the female fantasy sees androids that won’t force sex at any time.

This safety-fantasy is expressed explicitly multiple times in Marge Piercy’s He, She & It. The repeated reference to this are striking, “He has total inhibition blocks against sexual violence,” one of Yod’s creator tells his future lover, Shira. This is an aspect of the male android’s nature that will eventually raise him above his male peers when it comes to Shira’s desire and her love.

If this wasn’t obvious enough, Piercy brow-beats the fact into us once more with a conversation Yod and Shira have before they engage in sex: “I would never hurt you, I could never hurt you. Believe that.” Shira’s reply? “That would make you different indeed from any man I’ve known.”

Though it could come across as heavy-handed, these conversations between Shira and her android lover instead tap directly into the desire of women to be safe and especially to be safe in the hands of men. It begs women to question, what if? What if there was someone I knew I could be safe with because they are incapable of harming me? What if I never had to fear that my ‘no’ would be ignored? The ease of these desires indicates the generalized fear and victimization of women in a patriarchal society that is fraught with rape culture.

The male android in this book almost ceases to be “male,” an idea that Shira occasionally ruminates on. For women, perhaps the idea of an entity as a lover that isn’t gendered is easier to accept because it means removing the known threats of masculinity they are familiar with. Yod has a male body but what Shira considers a feminine mind.

Shira’s lover Yod comes with other benefits, some that are more superficial like his inability to conceive of age or beauty. Yod is indifferent to Shira’s physical appearance, quieting an insecurity of women that their lover will leave them for someone more attractive or will stop being attractive to them as they grow older. The fantasy extends to Yod being a listener, he’s infinitely attentive and unendingly tender. But unlike the silent entities in Ex Machina, Yod isn’t silenced—the core of his relationship with Shira is reciprocity. They experience a melding of minds while online that reflects their desires for each other, to know and be known.

On these two opposite sides of the spectrum, we see entities that are abused by humans or elevated to a higher status due to their nature. Ex Machina is a disturbing film for women because it reaffirms what many women believe men desire out of them. It is also a disturbing film for men, I hope, because the consequences of male desire in the film is a response of zero mercy from the abused entities. He, She and It has been labeled a misandrist text, not for surprising reasons. All of the human men in the book are insecure, self-inflated with ego, resentful and bitter towards women if not dismissive, and obsessed with their own status. Yod is praised for not being male as a human man is male and is the hero of the story. In machine entities, humans see possibilities for relationships lacking features that humans find lackluster in what is currently available to them. Unfortunately, what this has revealed about what humans find lacking in relationships of this day-and-age is unflattering to our culture. It highlights the deep divide between genders, one which is losing power and authority over the other and is desperate to retain that status, and one that dreams of a future where fear of assault is unnecessary.

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Fuckboys of Classic Literature: Brave New World Edition

            On this day, we have gathered to induct into the prestigious pantheon of Literary Fuckboys the character Bernard Marx of Aldous Huxley’s iconic Brave New World.

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In case you haven’t had the opportunity to read Brave New World or weren’t forced to in high school, and in order to understand Bernard’s fuckboy status, the society in Brave New World is vastly different from our own. It’s often labeled a dystopia but there’s a fairly strong argument to be made that it’s a utopia for those who are subscribers to a system of morality like Utilitarianism where happiness is the ultimate good and outcome.

Philosophy aside, one aspect of the society functioning in Brave New World is that of sexual interaction free of the restrictions of monogamy and puritanical ideals of prudishness. Citizens are encouraged to have many sexual partners to the extent that long-term (here more than a few liaisons) is viewed as unusual and a social faux-pas. In a city where all conceptions are moderated and take place in test tubes, the objective of sex for a biological purpose other than pleasure is eliminated.

On this topic, society in Brave New World is a lot more liberal (and feminist) than our current structure. If you’re resistant to the idea of no more monogamy and sex as a purely functional activity for pleasure because it feels as though it jettisons such beautiful ideas of love, parenting, and intimacy through sex, Bernard Marx is the character you’d identify with at the beginning of the novel.

Bernard is a traditionalist where traditional is a view of society that a western audience has grown up with. Dating and relationships should be monogamous, Bernard feels in woe. There should be commitment and deep emotional bonding. Women are being denied the essential and transformative experience of motherhood!

Well, if you’re a feminist maybe Bernard already seems suspect to you, because the idea that motherhood is a vital and necessary part of a woman’s life is a little reductive of women to being uteri, but at least his rhetoric is familiar.

The fuckboy in Bernard starts peeking out from his identifiable and familiar façade of western thought soon after that. For, as he lusts and admires after a woman named Lenina, Bernard bemoans the sexual freedom of his compatriots.

Open promiscuity and the state of polyamory are disdained by Bernard. Women, if they had any self-worth at all, wouldn’t sleep with so many (or all) of the men they know. These women, in fact, Bernard says, view themselves “like so much meat.”

Telling a woman that if she respected herself she wouldn’t be sexually active, even when her sexual activity is an expression of her autonomy and desires, is a classic fuckboy trap that has a lot of unpleasant layers like working on an archaeological dig of bullshit. Firstly, it equates self-worth with the restraint of sexual behavior. This immediately revitalizes the idea of purity—to respect yourself, you shouldn’t spoil your body in sexual activities. The concept also reinforces the idea that sexual activity is degrading for a woman (not for men, of course), giving men the power to control a woman’s sexual activity with the threat of putting the woman on the fringe of society and marking her as ruined. The fuckboy part of this, when we dig deep, is that all the bullshit is wrapped up in the pretty package of “I’m saying this because I care about you and want you to care about yourself!”

It is insidious sexism because it comes off as genuine concern. I leave room here only with the amendment that a lot of casual sex can be an indicator of depression and qualifies as risky behavior, but that’s true for both men and women. You can have a lot of self-worth and have a lot of sex or no sex and you can have no self-worth and have a lot of sex or no sex. The evaluation of this is for individuals and shouldn’t be intrinsically linked.

At the same time as complaining about women’s promiscuity, Bernard wallows in sorrow on his own relationship status, which is no relationship because women reject him and find him unattractive. It’s hard to imagine how this could possibly be true, right Bernard? Women love when you tell them that they have no self-worth and insult the way they live in emancipated sexuality.

Bernard frames the classic fuckboy position here that women only want assholes and he’s the perfect, respectable, kind, and intelligent man who is actually worthy of their attention. He’s that guy that looks at a woman in a relationship she finds perfectly satisfactory and is happy with and says: doesn’t she know I’d treat her better than him? This completely ignores the reality that Lenina and her friends are satisfied with their way of life—they don’t feel ashamed, they don’t judge others, and they take the frequent changing of partners as a given way to explore pleasure with others.

Meanwhile, alone and bitter, Bernard is the “radical” who feels his beliefs, contrary to society, are the true good ideas and that if only the sheeple would listen to him, they would no longer be blinded by their false beliefs. We’re breaking the ground in another archaeological dig because this position of Bernard not only labels himself as a savior of women but implies that he has no qualms about forcing his personal ideology onto them. But, hey, we get it. It’s not like Bernard, though he respects women, thinks they are capable for thinking about their sexuality and sexual pleasure themselves. They need a man to tell them what’s right!

Brave New World should be re-titled Lenina Deserved Better because Bernard makes it a personal mission of his to forcibly show her the error of her beliefs. This includes preaching at her about the sacred beauty of motherhood, which is already unpleasant, but for Lenina especially so because she finds the natural physical birth process to be disgusting and unnatural. This is not relatable for the reader, again, from a western audience, but imagine being in Lenina’s pneumonic shoes. For her, natural birth is as repugnant as being born in a test tube is for us.

Despite Lenina asking Bernard to stop and leave her alone because his “lessons” are making her uncomfortable, ashamed, and unhappy, he doesn’t stop thinking he’s doing what’s best for her. The entitlement of Bernard to Lenina’s body and mind here is baffling—he wants to groom her to be his perfect partner because he desires her and thus her feelings and desires are irrelevant.

Ironically, and what really places Bernard into the fuckboy hall of fame, is that later in the novel when he does become desirable to women and they proposition having sexual relationships with him, all his strains of “they think of themselves as meat” evaporates! Poof! He sleeps with new women every day and brags about it to his friend, conveniently forgetting all of his preaching on the indispensable concept of monogamy.

These women’s desire for him rather show good sense instead of a lack of self-worth. It’s wildly coincidental that when they want him instead of another man, there’s no problem with freely enjoying sex, I’m sure. The sexual double-standard is the cockroach that survived the nuclear apocalypse.

Welcome to the pantheon, Bernard Marx, you’re a fuckboy with fuckboy logic through and through. I like to imagine that the island he gets shipped off to at the end of Brave New World is a bunch of fuckboy intellectuals holding symposiums where they moan about their own sexual worthiness and the tragedy of how feminist theories of sexuality has ruined society. And yes, in my imagination they are wearing fedoras.

We Have Lift Off: Mercury 13 Launches Women Astronauts Into History

PicsArt_01-30-01.54.08Following Rocket Girl as the second book in my women in science bender, The Mercury 13: The Untold Story of Thirteen American Woman and the Dream of Space Flight by Martha Ackmann may be the new love of my nonfiction collection – just thinking of those skillfully woven citations and footnotes has my heart a’twitter. Ackmann manages to do what so many nonfiction books fail to – present a work that has both a strong research base and a strong narrative. Paired with her ability to deliver information objectively while still communicating the emotional impact of it, Ackmann may be one of the best nonfiction authors I’ve read in recent memory and she does justice to a story that has spent too long untold.

Recounting the story of thirteen women who aspired to join their male counterparts in the race to the stars, Mercury 13 uses pilot and initial testing candidate Jerrie Cobb’s experience as a lens to both explore the broader societal implications of sexism in the space race and the personal stories of the women who experienced it firsthand.

As someone who has spent countless tear-filled hours in the library writing research papers, it was so satisfying to see how much time and effort Ackmann devoted to her own investigation. The book is absolutely saturated with information; often a chronic complaint from a citation and footnote fetishist like myself, Ackmann makes sure that her facts are clearly stated, correctly cited, and easily located in the end notes. But for how data-heavy this book is, it never feels dry or dull. Until you’ve tried to convince someone that the function of the compression system in the legs of an astronaut’s G-suit is interesting, you don’t understand how difficult a task making information exciting is, but Ackmann accomplishes it effortlessly.

Usually when a book is so well-researched, though, the story suffers – the author is so burnt from the actual research that they give one big “fuck it,” slap their data onto the pages into a rough approximation of order, and send it to their publisher in a self-loathing- and caffeine-fueled rage. So imagine my surprise when I was reading Mercury 13 as much for the story as for the information. With such a large history to tackle, choosing Jerrie Cobb to be the focal point of the book was a smart decision. She gives readers an anchor to ground the information they are receiving in and serves as human context for the massive amount of data Ackmann crams into this slim volume. While numbers themselves are often looked at with indifference, the excitement, anger, and pain they cause Cobb and her fellow female test subjects makes them palatable and adds substance to Ackmann’s account, even making me tear up near the end of the book.

For how emotional the personal accounts were, though, Ackmann never let her own emotion or opinion shine through. When discussing a prominent NASA director who called the female astronaut candidates “110 pounds of recreational equipment” for the male astronauts to use sexually, she was able to keep her professional objectivity while my blood pressure skyrocketed so fast that my vision blurred. In true scientific form, Ackmann allowed the information to speak for itself, which made a bigger impact than her own words ever could.

After closing the book, I want to beat down the door of every school room filled with young girls and throw it at them like it’s goddamn candy at a Fourth of July parade. I want to take every person who has ever told a girl that women don’t make good scientists or innovators and forcefully jam this book into their colon. I want to scream incoherently into the wind as the pages of this book rain down on me from the heavens. God bless Ackmann for her account of the Mercury 13, which finally tells the story of women who were kicking ass in a time when they weren’t even allowed to fly a plane without heels.

The DUFF

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When I sat down to read The DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) by Kody Keplinger I was prepared to be enraged. In fact, I was planning on being enraged because rage keeps me young (this is supported by the evidence that I was recently carded while trying to buy beer and the drinking age here is 16. So I’m supported by science).

And yet here we are, and I’m about to seriously praise a book called The DUFF. You have to hear me out, because when I saw the title I was offended too.

This is what I thought when I saw the title: “Great, I bet this book is about an ‘average’ girl who thinks she’s fat because she’s a size eight and somehow is going to end up with a ‘hot’ guy after she goes through a makeover routine and her bitchy friends will learn their place. Haha, I’m so glad that YA books are tackling the actual issues of body size image in teenagers, in a way that has nothing to do with a girl learning she’s pretty through the attention of a man. FKLJFLJS:KFJ:Jhjd:KFDJS.”

I stand corrected though, because while the book DOES feature an average looking girl with two traditionally attractive friends and ends up involved with a traditionally attractive guy, there’s attention to real issues facing young women.

Here’s a few issues that The DUFF tackles, and does so in a way that I respect:

-using casual sex as a coping mechanism for depression

-slut shaming being common and representitive of internalized misogyny

-the fact that feeling ugly is more of a matter of self-perception than physical appearance

-importance of platonic friendship

-calling out ignoring platonic friendship for romantic relationships as shitty behavior

-ocassional thow-ins of blatant feminism that are kind of awkward but I support that they’re in here

-divorce between two people, not because on of them is the ‘bad guy’ but because people change and may no longer be satisfied in a marriage

-divorce ending in a positive relationship between two people that doesn’t end with the “they got back together” fairy tale trope but supportive behavior

-friendship between girls who have different interests and appearances but have a strong bond

Even ONE of these being handled respectfully by a YA book is rare and just look at this list! I’m in shock, I’m still in shock.

Let’s talk about ugly as self-perception. A lot of times in YA books, an average girl finally realizes she’s attractive because she recieves attention from a male gaze. This is a really slimy way of increasing a girl’s self-confidence not only because it implies that worth depends on the male gaze (vomit) but also because it tends to focus on girls who are already ‘average’ on the traditionally attractive scale. What about girls who aren’t traditionally attractive?

The Duff doesn’t follow this. The main character, who does feel like the ‘ugly’ one of her friends, realizes through TALKING TO HER FRIENDS (not a man!!!) that they all feel like the ‘ugly’ one. Her friend who is tall feels ugly because she’s so tall (while the MC feels like she’s beautiful being tall), as an example. And this is completely true. A lot of our insecurities are viewed as enviable by other people.

The heart of the issue is that anyone can feel unattractive and that envying a girl that you think is more attractive than you is a waste of energy because she’s envying someone else. The book addresses the fact that all women are torn down by misogynistic culture. Actual quote from the book “It was just one of those titles that fed off of an inner fear every girl must have from time to time. Slut, bitch, prude, tease, ditz. They were all the same. Every girl felt like one of these sexist labels described her at some point.”

Preach.

Not to mention that the MC begins the book as an awful slut shamer. She goes around calling girls whores if they act in a more sexual way than her. But by the end of the book (okay, with a little help from a male character, but props to giving a male character a line that shows women who have sex aren’t whores. In fact, he has less internal misogny than the MC, which is interesting) Bianca realizes how awful this point of view is. She wants women to support each other because all the labels, shown in the quote, are sexist, from the prude end of the spectrum to whore.

I feel like I had this internal awakening, a little later when I was at University, and the pride I felt for Bianca in that moment was palpable. I wanted to give her a high five. She broke out of the stupid thinking we’re fed from society, and that isn’t easy. I love that it is shown as character growth.

But I have to say, I think my favorite issue in this book is the use of sex as a coping mechanism. There are a lot of books in YA literature that address self-mutilation, drinking, and drugs, but I haven’t read one that tackled sex so earnestly. Don’t get me, or the book, wrong. Sex between teenagers isn’t always dysfunctional. But we do need to address that casual sex, especially a lot of it, CAN be a sympton of depression. Again, I want to stress that it doesn’t have to be, but it CAN be.

Bianca’s sex reflects this. She does it to get away from her troubles at home and begins a cycle of sex and shame that is common in these situations. She needs the high, but is overrun by guilt afterwards, leading right back into her needing the high. There’s not a lot of romanticising her behavior during this phase of the book.

It’s so important to highlight the way sex factors in as a behavior of depression so YES! THANK YOU!

The DUFF isn’t a perfect book. I wish that it had a cast that wasn’t just heterosexual, “attractive” white people. But what it gets right, it gets right, and I won’t tear a book down for making steps in the right direction. So thank you for defying all of my expectations.

I give it a “YES GIRL YES” on the “how well does the main character react to sexism” scale.

(P.S. Don’t see the movie because it undermines every single thing that the book does right and instead DOES make it into a romcom where the main character doesn’t have self-destructive behavior etc etc)