The new movie Ex Machina has been pushing people’s buttons. It features a seemingly vulnerable robot named Ava, who’s as beautiful as she is mysterious. But Ava’s just the latest in a long line of artificial seductresses, girlfriends and mothers. Why are so many thinking machines female?

Top image: All is Full of Love by Bjork

Warning: Some spoilers for Ex Machina below.

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The first female robot, arguably, was the seductress Maria in the 1927 film Metropolis — who also happens to be one of the first depictions of robots, full stop. So for as long as we’ve been imagining humanoid machines that can think for themselves, we’ve been wondering what it would be like if they had female traits, including female sexuality.

And since then, a surprising amount of artificial brains have had female bodies or personalities. Captain Kirk romanced a slew of android women, the Bionic Woman battled fembots, and the Jetsons relied on Rosie the maid. More recently, the Sarah Connor Chronicles featured a scarily seductive female Terminator, and Her showed a lovable, complex artificial ScarJo.

But when you think about it from an A.I.’s perspective, it doesn’t make all that much sense to have a gender, at all. An artificial intelligence won’t necessarily need a body, as we understand it, and won’t “reproduce” in the way that biological entities do. If an A.I. does use a physical avatar, it’ll most likely be utilitarian, designed to complete a set of tasks.

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So the only reason why an A.I. would actually need to have a gender is to interact with humans — in fact, a gender presentation might appear to be a kind of user interface or plug-in for an artificial intelligence. To perform a particular gender is, in a sense, to compile a program in the physical world.

(The only other logical reason an A.I. would want to identify as male or female for its own purposes is as a badge of legal or moral personhood — or to be more like humans.)

One of the most interesting representations of a computer choosing either male or female attributes, depending on whom it’s talking to, comes in Robert A. Heinlein’s 1966 novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress — the A.I. called Mike is perfectly happy to change “his” name to Michelle and have “girl talk” with a female character, Wyoh. As she explains, “Michelle is much more a woman than Mike was a man” — but when the male characters interact with the A.I., they’ll still get Mike. (Similarly, Holly on Red Dwarf changes genders, and it’s no big deal.)

In Ex Machina, Ava is played by ex-ballerina Alicia Vikander, who uses the perfection of ballet to create a too-perfect set of movements. Instead of moving jerkily, like Coppelia the mechanical doll, she has too much smoothness — but she also projects an intense vulnerability with her big eyes and soft voice.

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One of the central questions in the movie is just how much her femininity is an essential part of what makes Ava a person, and how much of it is purely there to manage her interactions with humans. Without giving too much away, it becomes increasingly obvious as the film goes on that Ava’s body (and persona) were the creation of Nathan (Oscar Isaac) — and to the extent that she’s an individual with her own identity, it’s not tied to her outward femininity.

So in one sense, Ex Machina has no female characters — it features two men, whose attitudes to women are illuminated through their interactions with Ava, who uses her feminine appearance to try and get what she wants but otherwise seems to have no particular attachment to her gender. Looked at that way, Ex Machina is entirely about masculinity and the different ways the men try to exert control, not so much about women’s experiences. Ava is merely the lens through which male attitudes are refracted.

But a lot of the drama in Ex Machina comes from the fact that Caleb can’t help seeing Ava as a damsel in distress, and can’t let go of his romantic/sexual attachments to her outward form. And this gets to the heart of our relationships with artificial beings: we want to see their user interfaces as their “selves,” even if we’re aware that an artificial consciousness would have a more complex and alien notion of selfhood.

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After the seductive dancing of Maria in Metropolis, I don’t think we see a lot of gynoids until the 1960s, when the Sexual Revolution coincided with a whole new host of robot seductresses — besides the robots that regularly seduced Kirk, you start seeing deadly/sexy bots in films like Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine.

Going into the 1970s, the word “fembot” starts becoming more popular, with The Bionic Woman featuring beautiful women whose faces fall off to reveal scary circuitry — the message being that a robot can appear female to hide a terrifying inhumanity. The Stepford Wives became a huge cultural icon, with the fantasy/nightmare of compliant, beautiful robot wives.

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But arguably, the 1980s saw a huge boom in sexy images of gynoids, with artist Hajime Soryama building a whole career out of shiny sleek robot women. Pinball games like The Machine: Bride of Pin-Bot played off that imagery as well. Movies started to feature more sexualized artificial women, including Cherry 2000 and Weird Science — some of whom are deadly, like Pris from Blade Runner and Eve in Eve of Destruction. Feminine robots have also become a staple of music videos.

In fact, a lot of pop culture representations of female A.I.s focuses on what happens when they turn deadly — which, to be fair, is the main story we tell about male A.I. as well. When a killer robot or computer is depicted as female, though, it’s often wrapped up in our anxieties about femininity — she’s a femme fatale (Battlestar Galactica, a ball-busting crazy woman (Eve of Destruction or a smothering, disappointed mother (GladOS in Portal).

Some female A.I.s are coded as mothers or secretaries, whose femaleness denotes that they’re helpful and non-threatening. (And yet, when the U.S.S. Enterprise’s computer first acquires a pronounced female identity, in “Tomorrow is Yesterday,” this causes the entire ship to break down because the irrational femme computer won’t simply obey orders.)

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But some novels have done a better job of exploring the subjectivity of artificial intelligences that appear female — Virtual Girl by Amy Thompson is very careful to show that when its main character gets a body, she views it as a “peripheral,” no different in principle than a keyboard, camera or printer. Also, some anime and manga representations of robot girls and women have done a lot more to show the complexity of their experiences.

In Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, the Terminator called Cameron seems to have a real identity linked to the body she’s wearing — she “remembers” the life of her human self, Allison from Palmdale, and wants to practice ballet dancing. When she develops a sexualized relationship with John Connor, including one scene where he repairs her and it looks like a sex scene, it’s not clear what this signifies to her, or whether she’s just trying to maintain control over him.

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In the Avengers comics, the robot villain Ultron randomly decides to become female — taking on the appearance of Ultron’s long-time obsession Janet Van Dyne, and suddenly sports outrageous breasts and a sexy persona. (Don’t expect this storyline to make an appearance in Avengers: Age of Ultron.)

Probably the most influential recent portrayal of A.I. with female characteristics, though, is Her, which plays on all our fantasies/insecurities about Cortana, Siri and other real-life mother/lover/helper voices that we hear through our mobile devices. In Her, Scarlet Johansson seems to have a passionate love for Joaquin Phoenix, even having phone sex with him and trying to acquire a flesh-and-blood surrogate. (And meanwhile, she manages his career, getting his book published and organizing his life.) But in the end, she transcends that level of intimacy for something more alien.

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But meanwhile, Person of Interest has pushed the examination of gender in a really interesting direction — everybody refers to the Machine, the all-seeing, privacy-invasive supercomputer, as “it.” Except for the fanatical hacker Root, who insists on using the female pronoun for the Machine, while also ascribing godhood to it.

But one of the most poignant and revealing representations of our relations with non-humans is Lars and the Real Girl, a movie in which a man falls in love with a more or less inanimate sex doll, and his family and friends decide to go along with it. Here, there’s no question about how the doll views their relationship — it’s clearly just about humans projecting their own emotions, desires and insecurities onto an artificially constructed body. And what’s fascinating about Lars and the Real Girl is how closely it resembles pop culture depictions of sentient artificial beings.

Going back to Ex Machina, one of the most fascinating things in the movie is the way that it explores the Uncanny Valleythat space where an artificial person becomes more lifelike, but still not perfect, and starts to seem like a walking corpse. There’s something not quite right about Ava, and the moments when she’s most seductive are also the ones where she peels back her skin to reveal her artificial insides. This conflation of sexuality and creepiness reaches a kind of climax, when we see naked female bodies hanging like meat in a closet. To the extent that the sexiness of female robots is linked to their shiny artificiality, the idea of actual sexual contact with one begins to feel like necrophilia.

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So once you accept that an artificial mind would probably have no need for gender, except as a means to connect with humans on our own terms, then all of our stories about female robots and A.I.s start to feel like cautionary tales about the danger of projecting our own insecurities and emotions onto a vessel that cannot, or will not, share them.

Note: This article was heavily influenced by a panel I took part in at Worldcon last year on “The Gendered AI.” Thanks to all the participants and audience members who raised fascinating points.


Contact the author at charliejane@io9.com.