Sexy Robot Women
I have used such a dumb heading for this? Isn't the whole concept of
robot women based on marketing science fiction films to the teen male
demographic? For the geeky teen, as sent up in films like Weird
Science, an artificial woman avoids all those messy problems
of actually engaging with the personalities of girls - and a robot can
not only be programmed to like you, but can look like anything. Predictably,
most robot women are well to the pneumatic end of the attractiveness
spectrum. This is a personal list, so it's selective. I tried to chose
examples which threw light on different aspects of the theme. It's film-centred,
but that seems to me fair enough, we're mostly dealing with visual considerations.
(And:- in case you've been here before, yes, I have changed the list. There was always one particular case of 'making it up to 10', and now in the Spring of 2008 an interesting and striking new example has appeared...)
10 Stepford Wives
Should I have included these at all? 'Sexiness' hardly comes into it here. In the film, they're cyphers for satirical argument, and their sexiness is for the male characters, not for the audience. One could go further and say that the female image stereotyped in the film is a narrowly American one, of the classic 50's housewife shopping while her husband plays golf etc. It feels oldfashioned now - the recent 'remake' didn't really work because its targets had shifted and the story could only really play as comedy. However, the original's 'replacements' still convey a chilling soullessness and the ending has some impact. The problem for me is something I felt all along, that the premise was misskewed because, allowing for the continuing impossibility of building a truly convincing robot woman (or man!), a large proportion of the country club American males of the 50's would have wanted some personality in their spouses . . . wouldn't they???
Maria was the most memorable image audiences retained from a film full of mind expanding vistas, Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Her design is one of genius; despite not an inch of warm flesh or anything resembling it, she has just enough of the right curves to make a bloke pay attention. Few retain a clear mental image of the human Maria, but no one forgets the robot version. And the image is all about the threat of technology. The whole film leading up to her appearance has at one and the same time seduced us with its fantastic vision of the future, but also given us the uneasy feeling that technology will replace us. And when Maria appears, that's just what seems to be happening. If she looks sexually potent, it's the kind of sexiness that conveys the power of something which makes us poor humans irrelevant.
Andrea Marcovicci's character in Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone. What? You can't believe I'm citing such a naff B-movie? Well, I'm fond of it, it doesn't have pretensions, it has Molly Ringwald, and as a minor but excellent element it has Chalmers, Peter Strauss' sidekick who does turn out to be an android in a well handled twist. I can't say more really but there is a little intriguing sub-plot there, in their relationship. Hmm, quite a few of these examples involve surprise androids, don't they?
The makers of Terminator 3 understood the lowest common denominator appeal of robot women more than any others in the list. There's no apparent interest in philosophical questions in the film, but an intent to thrill with special effects set pieces, and plot twists, which I regard as one of Hollywood's most debilitating vices these days. Each Terminator has seemingly topped the previous one, though as films, it's hard to better the tightness and impact of the first. The second Terminator was striking for Robert Patrick's disturbingly cold demeanour and for being stronger than Arnie though visibly slighter. Kristanna Loken in the third film is obviously female hence she throws around Arnie's early model Terminator in entertaining fashion; and she reproduces Patrick's blank demeanour. This is the point of interest: I think she does well, as well as can be expected, but in the end she's up against the real intent of the Hollywood filmmaker, of presenting to us a scary woman. So, rather than being blank, Lokken tends to have a constant scowling frown. This is in fact a very human kind of remorselessness (for contrast, compare what Yul Brynner achieved with his gunslinger in Westworld). It makes for a good film, but maybe not the most convincing robot.
I'm not entirely sure how artificial Max from James Cameron's Dark Angel is meant to be, but certainly her main vulnerability is that at any time she may be caught and treated as no more than an experimental object. You have to wonder a bit about James Cameron, don't you, that he seems to come round again and again to this theme, of the artificial woman? He would say, strong women, I'm sure. He evolved Sarah Connor from the first Terminator film in a familiar way. Does he admire Sarah, for having eliminated some of her humanity, in turning herself into a kind of superwoman in the second film? Much of the first series of Dark Angel is about Max's search for explanations of her origins; for me the second series was the weaker for its expanding and hence overburdening of its mythos. It was a launching pad for Jessica Alba's career and it's hard to see her returning to a niche genre. She was of course amply qualified to portray a perfectly formed robot woman; if the series had true hard SF intentions there wouldn't have been any need for the character to be physically perfect, but few were bothered about its cancellation. Apart from the fans. Never mind, they can just go and buy a box of paper handkerchiefs and hire the dvd of Into the Blue.
Er no, this one isn't really sexy as such. But undeniably a robot woman, so much so in my personal review of this subject that she needs to figure in the list, because her story (an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation) engages with several philosophical questions concerning robot identity, when Data, the 'artificial human' crew member, decides to build a daughter. It has its crudely sentimental moments, and in the context of the series isn't terribly original in examining themes of robot identity and rights. And the actress's (Hallie Todd?) very impressive performance perversely makes her look more human than many of the somewhat wooden actors in the show. But I wanted to list her here because there's a very creditable attempt to portray something which these SF stories rarely do, the complicated process of building a 'human' personality, a process which fails in the end. Most other SF robots are produced fully formed and programmed.
Played by Kendra Kirchner, she's a kind of ultimate woman android being created by Klaus Kinski's mad scientist in 1982's Android, also desired by the less advanced android Max as played brilliantly by Don Opper. This like Dark Star is one of those cheesy cheap SF films with some surprising qualities. Cassandra is peripheral to the action but crucial to the plot, as a sort of robot Eve. She's as 'perfect' as any of the robot women here, but in the event quickly acquires real world motivations. Android may not be a great film, but it's definitely worth a look and worthy of its cult status.
The Sarah Connor Chronicles is a rejigging of the Terminator story which supposedly takes the plotline on from after the second film. Much of this is controversial, and fans have been vociferous. It's a classic example of a pop culture phenomenon of our times, in which fans demand as much 'ownership' of the story as the creators. In this I have some sympathy for the normally much criticised networks; after all, they're actually giving the fans what they want. But the fans find it hard to give them leeway, and accept reality. The reality is that when all's said and done, it's a television show: it can't embrace every single point of continuity even if it wanted to. And creatively, that would be the death of it. Not only do we have to have new actors, but we need new ideas. To my eyes, so far they've done a better than average job, and it's well cast. Which brings me to the 'good' terminator Cameron played by Summer Glau. She's very watchable; she carries over a fanbase from the much-missed show Firefly, in which she played a not dissimilar supernormal weird girl. She has less to work with here, character-wise, but that will probably change as time goes on. There were some early mistakes. The most glaring was to introduce her as able to blend in to the school environment - and it's hard to think of another environment more testing of any difference - and later portray her as blank and constantly puzzling over human nature, in the style of Data from Star Trek. A major worry is that her robot nature will be compromised as the series develops inevitable soapy qualities. Summer Glau's celebrated ballet background brings something very special to all her action scenes. But she also happens to be very attractive, and I hope the writers bring all their intelligence to whatever future episodes concern themselves with the moment when John Connor starts fancying 'her', and that they don't let it get silly.
I used to think I fancied Sean Young, but really it was only this one character, the 'replicant' Rachel from Blade Runner. Many things made Blade Runner the most highly regarded of all SF films, and the sophistication of the concept of the replicants was one of them. While the technology is never really clear, we do understand that they are something like flesh and blood, and designed in such a way that they themselves may not understand their non-human nature. Which begs the question, in what sense are they not 'human'? The film gives us many scenes in which various replicants behave with positively Shakespearean motivation and pathos, notably Roy's last moments. Rachel is compelling in her Pre-Raphaelite beauty; and also in her sense of self, so sure at first, and then eroded as the story proceeds. The end is ambiguous, as to her (and Rick's) future, but in a way, it's the most powerful replication of the human condition portrayed by any of our 'robots', because what we see are the same doubts of existence and self that any individual has.
1 Motoko Kusanagi
Like one or two others in this list Major Motoko Kusanagi isn't, strictly speaking, a robot woman. But she does come as close as it's possible to be, and in fact the question of her humanity, as of other 'cyborgs' and enhanced humans like her, is the core theme of Masamune Shirow's Ghost in the Shell series of which she is the principal character. It's true there's a complication, in the transformation of her character and story as we go from the original manga, to the two feature films, and then the two Stand Alone Complex feature series. These have been hugely brain troubling, dealing as they do with a host of issues arising from near future developments in technology and politics. It's true that all of this is on my mind at the moment because this series is about to come to its climax. Its writing has been hugely impressive, in managing to keep a grip on the intertwining of questions of individual identity, and tensions in the wider political and social worlds.
So, is she sexy? Well, she's drawn that way. You could well regard it as quite cynical, in pushing buttons appealing to all kinds of fanboys - and fangirls, so one's told. Note the modish (and Goth!) purple black hair, and the curves which have become more pronounced as the two series have gone on. However the story is sophisticated enough to hold a convincing argument that we're actually observing aspects of Kusanagi's own complex character. She isn't exactly immortal or invulnerable, but as a cybernetic being her appearance is a matter of choice, and this has been dealt with in certain episodes. Her own relationships and sexuality have been hinted at but only in glancing fashion. You could see it as teasing, but also an aspect of her layered and veiled personality. We do know enough of her back story to appreciate her damaged past, and that her physique and powers have come at a price.
I suppose, in this list, I've reached the point I always intended, of an example which goes so far beyond the simple stereotype as to make the title of the list redundant. Not that the design of Motoko Kusanagi doesn't satisfy all sorts of 'fan service' (you can go look that up if you want, but it means what you'd expect), but Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex forces deeper mental engagement and an appreciation of one of the more complex characters to be found outside the pages of hard SF.
5 November 2006
Links? Well frankly the internet is liberally strewn with sites devoted to most of the characters in the list above so I'll leave you to Google them. However, I'd also recommend this particular Wikipedia essay on 'Gynoids' (ie. female androids) and its further related links for some interesting background and further discussion