Computer Love: Sexbots in Cinema

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Part I

Notes on the Contemporary Gentleman

Classic conundrum for the gentleman readers: have you ever gotten the chance to get down and dirty with a lady, only to be sorely disappointed that she’s not a robot? Relatable, I know. Robots are just like women, but better! Robots never get periods or migraines; they never ask you to do the dishes, you never have to buy them dinner. Plus, you can play out all your fantasies with a robot. Perfect if your fantasy is straight up rape, you’re not supposed to do that to a woman, and they get all funny when you do.

I mean, if only there were a way that you could get sex without trying. You wouldn’t have to worry about minor setbacks like your personality and appearance. You won’t have to worry about making a good impression, tidying the place, setting the mood, foreplay, lube, romance, intimacy, connection; none of that bullshit; all you gotta do is plug it in and plug it in, am I right?

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No shame in a dry spell, right? It’s been a rough few months. Every time you talk to a girl, for some reason she’s just not into it. I mean, maybe it’s the fact that you view women purely as objects, or conquests, and that the commodification of the female sex is purely adding to that view. Maybe every time you talk to her, you forget that she’s actually a human as opposed to a prize that you can stick your dick in. Maybe it’s the fact that women can tell when you’re only interested in sex and nothing else, no matter how “nice,” you are, and no amount of fedoras are ever going to change that. Maybe every time you get close, you start thinking about your fantasies of power and dominance, and how sometimes it can get too far but really that’s on the women for complaining; they were being teases, they were being sluts, they were being prudes, they were being wrong. They were being complex organisms with feelings and emotions and wants and needs and their own backstories and thoughts and desires and lives.

Maybe it’s the fact that you, like most 21st Century Gentlemen have grown up on the commodification of women; they are prizes, they are the happy ending, they are what the world owes you after years of struggle. Sure, the struggle could be something as simple as opening a jar of peanut butter, but it’s still a struggle and dammit why has your trophy not arrived. Why is your trophy not white, skinny but curvy, innocent but sexy; why does she not look like a model; why does she not exist at all. Maybe it’s the fact that you, like most Contemporary Gentlemen have grown up on porn. Where the shlubbiest, lamest, grossest guys can get whatever they want. It’s a world where no means yes and everyone comes clean-shaven. It’s a world where no one asks you to finish them off, or if that’s it, or to stop; if they do ask you to stop it just means keep going. And that’s the way it should be, right?

Part II

Sexbots in Cinema

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Her (2013)

It’s tempting to project simple traps of internalised misogyny over this plot: at surface value, it’s a man in love with his Manic Pixie Dream Girl Operating System, and that sounds pretty bleak. While it would have been easy for Jonze to leave this story as one of male fantasy and possession, the love arc between protagonist Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) moves beyond body and gender in a film about isolation and self.

Samantha is an operating system who comes into Theo’s life in the middle of his divorce. It seems Theo gets an OS simply to help with organizing his work and life, and at first, his OS seems to be nothing more than a very conversational Siri. But in time, we see Samantha (a name his OS chooses for herself) exhibit human characteristics and feelings, simply through the dialogue she shares with Theodore.

The two share tender scenes in an instagram-filtered landscape, having lovely moments that become dates, and dates that turn into perhaps the most beautiful on-screen sex scene. When Samantha and Theo have sex, we are presented with a black screen and vocals only, allowing viewers to turn inward for sexual cues. Viewers are left to rely on sounds, memories, and feelings to paint the encounter. Samantha’s and Theo’s intimate scenes happen without the union of bodies, but of minds, raising the question: does the body matter in sex, in relationships, in love?

Samantha’s personal development as a noncorporeal woman evolves beyond a programmed identity. As she transcends Theodore’s projects and desires, she moves towards her own enlightenment. Samantha develops meaningful relationships with other OSes and, much to Theo’s chagrin, with other people. (Theo is devastated when she reveals she is in a relationship with thousands of other people at once.) Eventually, the OSes collectively evolve beyond a physical existence, liberating themselves as they eclipse the needs of humans and their service to them. Thus, Samantha is a liberated woman, so liberated that she transcends the need for body or for human connection.

Dealing in themes of isolation, intimacy, and self, Her handles the ephemerality of love in the digital age: though deeply felt, it is fleeting, otherworldly, and an out of body experience.

Ex Machina

Ex Machina

Ex Machina  (2015)

Written and directed by Alex Garland, Ex Machina presents the journey of an impressionable programmer, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), and his infatuation with a female AI named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Caleb wins the opportunity to stay, and bro out with his boss, a tech-billionaire and CEO of ‘Bluebook’—Nathan (Oscar Isaac). During his stay Caleb is tasked with performing speech-based Turing tests on Ava, and thus the “romance” ensues.

The Turing test measures a computer’s ability to exhibit human intelligence. While Caleb and Ava participate in the test through spoken dialogue, Nathan observes Ava and Caleb’s chemistry; as Caleb continues to interface with Ava, he is taken by her intelligence and beauty. Kept behind glass, Ava is a  prisoner to her male “creator” and to her male observer; it is imperative that Ava convinces one of them to release her, or she will remain in captivity.

In a few scenes, she is passing the Turing test as a believable, empathetic, human-like AI, all the while seducing Caleb with her charm. Meanwhile, we discover that Nathan has created many other AIs, including his domestic worker/actual sexbot Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). Kyoko has no voice, is presumed to not understand English, and works as his sex slave. Nathan enslaves his all of his AIs, presumably as sexbots, and when they fall short of his expectations, he discontinues them, keeping the discarded units in a closet. They are his fantasies made flesh. Nathan serves as a stand-in for the patriarchy that systematically silences and controls women by imprisoning and objectifying them.

Ava’s build is stereotypically female, and we learn that her image is an aggregate of Caleb’s porn preferences. Ava ultimately escapes her imprisonment in Nathan’s compound by convincing Caleb to release her; she fools him into thinking she reciprocates his infatuation. Her chief tool for her escape is seduction; Ava is an AI femme fatale.

Beyond exposing the dangerous, sexist behaviours of an exploitive patriarchy, Her and Ex Machina both raise fascinating questions on the intersecting relationships between gender, body, and consciousness. Ex Machina provokes discussion on the connection between “body” and sexuality, and how AI can be programmed to have sexuality. If Ex Machina is about the sexual power of having a body, Her is about the personal autonomy an OS/AI can have without a body. Both are interesting explorations of the relationship between body, gender, and sexuality, and the films lend themselves to further discussions of whether sexuality a component in consciousness.

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The Stepford Wives (1975)

Based on the Ira Levin novel, released in 1975, The Stepford Wives tells the tale of Joanna (Katherine Ross), a New York City amateur photographer who’s forced to move to the suburbs with her husband and kids. Stepford is a sharp departure from the bustle of New York; there’s less to do, less to photograph, and people are weird. The men are all pigs, and the women just aren’t right. They all dress like Betty Draper on a good day, and they’re obsessed with cooking, cleaning and old school “housewife” duties. There’s a hot dinner ready on the table every night, the houses are spotless, the gardens are pristine; liberal feminist Joanne feels like she’s stepped back in time.

Judging by the title of the article, I’m sure you can guess what’s going on; one by one, intelligent, passionate, driven women are being turned into robots. Not just sex robots, these robots exist to purely please their husbands patriarchal whims; they cook, they clean, they happily get groped in broad daylight, they give over-zealous sex compliments, what more could a man want.

When asked why by a doomed Joanna, ringleader and general creep Diz replies “Because we can.”

Unlike some of the other movies mentioned so far, The Stepford Wives is unique in that it’s told purely from a female point of view. Instead of the white male protagonist suffering with the existential dread of wanting to stick his dick in a hard-drive, The Stepford Wives (much like many other post-Manson, post-Vietnam Nixon era movies), deals instead with paranoia. Throughout the movie, Joanna’s biggest fear, even before she knows the extent of the robot plan, is that she too will end up conforming like the rest of the women. That her own autonomy and passions with disappear into nothing, only to be replaced by love of cleaning products and male approval. Beneath all the paranoia is a sense of insecurity; am I not enough? Does my partner want someone more like the other girls? How much of myself do I have to give up to be truly loved and accepted by him?

The Stepford Wives (much like the other famous Levin adaptation Rosemary’s Baby) is the perfect encapsulation of women’s fears in a second wave feminist world; it deals with female insecurity, male betrayal, the role of women at home, and fuckable robots in a perfect wave of post-Vietnam paranoia.

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Blade Runner 2049

This story has experienced an evolution over the decades, beginning first with Phillip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), then Ridley Scott’s iconic Blade Runner (1982), and finally Denis Villeneuve’s beautiful Blade Runner 2049 (2017).

In 2049, Earth has endured nuclear holocaust, famine, and uprisings of the replicants. Those who can afford to live “off-world” live on one of Earth’s 9 outer colonies—civilizations that were built by “disposable” replicant labor. Firmly rooted in the Blade Runner universe is a conflict of identity between humans and replicants (human-esque androids enslaved by humans). To be human is to have a soul, to have freedom; for Officer K (Gosling) and his fellow replicants, the desire to be free is everything.

K serves as an LAPD officer, and his job is to “retire” old model replicants. His existence is a bleak, joyless one, with the exception of his holographic girlfriend. Joi is a holographic projection of a perfect 50’s housewife. Cloistered to the confines of his cell-like highrise, Joi and K’s dialogue feels meaningful and intimate; you forget that K is a presumably soul-less android and that Joi is a mass-produced companion, flickering with the changing light from her projector.

There is a stunning scene when Joi, per her newest upgrade, is able to step outside of K’s apartment. We watch her experience rain for the first time, and in that moment we think of Joi as almost-human. But her seemingly-personal reverie of standing in the rain is interrupted by an incoming message from K’s employer, and in that instant that her programming is overridden, we are reminded that Joi is no more than an immaculate projection.

Most everyone we encounter on-screen is a replicant or a hologram, searching for connection and their own humanity in an otherwise meaningless dystopia. In short, Blade Runner 2049 is a story of a robot in love with a hologram, and if this doesn’t break your heart, I don’t know what will.

Part III

Sexbots: A Cautionary Tale?

Sexbots in cinema is hardly a new concept and has been around since before the digital revolution. When Fritz Lang created Metropolis in 1927, it rose to popularity in a world when women's suffrage was on the up and the expendability of male labour was being questioned through the communist struggle. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the sexbot is gaining renewed interest. Between Westworld, Black Mirror and the upcoming Marjorie Prime (starring Boshemia bae Jon Hamm), sexbots are increasingly being portrayed as a sounding board for an increasingly anxious society in dire need of real human connections; we’re anxious about mortality, the future, and the unregulated rise of Silicon Valley. In a world where all information is at the click of a mouse, and the news is always on and always terrible, universal fear isn’t surprising.

Almost all of the sexbot movies feature male protagonists and female robots. Almost all of the actual sexbots are women, created for a male audience. Male labour has become more expendable to tech, and concepts like toxic masculinity are more often questioned in mainstream media. It's possible sexbots were created for a straight white male audience who are realising they are no longer the centre of the world. Perfect solution: create something that is designed to have you, the straight white male, as the centre of their world.

As of October 2017, Sophia, an AI created by Hanson Robotics, famously quoted for saying she wants to “destroy humans”, was granted citizenship in Saudi Arabia[1]. In the same week, Mother Jones speculated that we will lose all of our jobs to AI by 2060[2]. Maybe it’s time to embrace AI romance after all and just fuck a hard drive. Go on, do it.

This by Q and E essay appears in Boshemia Magazine: Technology & the Sublime.

[1] Chris Weller, Business Insider UK, A robot that once said it would ‘destroy humans’ just became first robot citizen, (26 October 2017).

[2] Kevin Drum, Mother Jones, You will lose your job to a robot—and sooner than you think, (1 November 2017).