Jia Jia is a goddess. With her flowing locks and rosy red cheeks, the Chinese automaton is the fembot du jour, programmed by human males to make them laugh and address them as “Lord.”
Jia Jia stands out, but she’s hardly unique. She’d feel a kinship with Mark 1, the Scarlett Johansson lookalike robot created by a 42-year-old man in Hong Kong, if she were capable of feeling. Like Jia Jia, Mark 1 can’t do sex but is sexualized. She bows when receiving compliments, she giggles her gratitude. Her purpose is to be on display. And maybe that’s fine, but it definitely begs a question: Where are the sexy male robots?
Robots do not need to be gendered, but humans seem to prefer it. More specifically, humans seems to prefer competent seeming men and sexually appealing women. Michael Fassbender’s David 8 in Prometheus or Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty in Blade Runner and perfect examples of this phenomenon — as is the Terminator. These are physically attractive bots, but they aren’t sexualized at all. The actors actively work to dampen their own appeal.
The unicorn here is the sleek and shiny Gigolo Joe, played by Jude Law in A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Gigolo Joe is a lover bot — the sole purpose of his design is to give human women pleasure. But the difference between a Gigolo Joe and a Stepford wife is that roboticists aren’t consistently creating Gigolo Joes in real life.
The feminization of robots was founded in fiction. One of the first robots ever depicted in film was an android named Maria in the 1927 film Metropolis. In the film, Maria is actually turned from a human female into a robot in a frenzy of romantic passion — a mad scientist transforms her into the Maschinenmensch. Her existence gave rise to the fembot comedies of the late 1940’s to the 1960’s — like Olga the Robot in The Perfect Woman or the gang of gold bikini-clad robots in Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine.
“Looking back over movie history, it is difficult to find a female robot/android/cyborg who hasn’t been created (by men, of course) in the form of an attractive young woman — and therefore played by one,” writes Steve Rose in The Guardian. “This often enables the movie to raise pertinent points about consciousness and technology while also giving male viewers an eyeful of female flesh.”
Newer films, like Ex Machina or Her tease the concepts of power, sexuality, and ignorance through the relationships that exist between technological “females” and the human men that are their keepers. These films are a direct response to earlier movies where the punch line was always something like: “A robot would be the perfect wife!” But it remains, regardless of how many times the lesson is taught, that the robots are female — we never get to see Joaquin Phoenix learn what is like to love then lose an A.I. James Franco. We never get to see Kerry Washington as a brilliant inventor who gets a little too close to her android, Liam Hemsworth. And that’s a problem.
It’s a problem because in real life we’re continuously seeing a proliferation of female robots that are designed to be aides. There are, of course, male robots: With broad shoulders and pectorals, NASA’s Valkyrie is clearly male. But also: He’s not even hot, mostly because he doesn’t have a face. Female robots, however, are almost all Stepford wife-type entities — there’s no female robot tasked with the job of exploring planets.
Take, for example, Alexa — the name that users have to call their Amazon Echo. Alexa, a wireless speaker and voice command system, joins Siri and Cortana in the club of service devices voiced by women. For programmers, this is good business: Studies have shown that people who see robots that are presented as the opposite sex are seen as more credible, trustworthy, and engaging. Men in particular tend to feel high levels of trust and engagement with their female robots.
Accordingly, men are more likely to be targeted when it comes to using robots. Take the Amazon commercial for Alexa: The dad is giddy over her while the mom is told to stop talking to Alexa so loudly. The dad stands in awe at the knowledge he can attain from Alexa; the mom uses Alexa for cooking instructions. It’s an obnoxious circle of sexist expectations being fulfilled with sexist products.
That’s ignoring the hotness factor — although, just because Alexa doesn’t have a face, doesn’t mean she is just thought of as a jumble of wires in a black tube.
“My fiance actually refers to Alexa as my other girlfriend,” Eric Olson, a software tester, tells The Guardian.
The hyper-realistic Sophia, darling of SXSW, was also designed to be a caretaker — specifically in the fields of healthcare, therapy, and customer service. These are also jobs that are stereotypically gendered female.
It’s also worth noting that while Sophia creator Hanson Robotics has built male-formed robots, they are not attractive. Sophia, however, was modeled after the wife of the engineer who created her, and Audrey Hepburn.
Sex robots are a whole other can of worms — even though, in the mechanically gyrating sense, they don’t exist yet. That doesn’t mean they won’t — futurologists predict that most people will be having sex with robots by 2050. And people are majorly concerned that what this really means is that there will be a ton of female sex robots on the market — so much so that an organization has already been formed in protest, the Campaign Against Sex Robots. At the heart of its disapproval, the Campaign Against Sex Robots believes that “machines in the form of women” will only lead to the further objectification of real, human women. The ethical response, the organization argues, is to ban them all.
Another ethical thing to do: Make more hot male robots. It’s easier than ever to just build your own at home if you’re over waiting for yours to come in the mail. Make more hot male robots as an act of resistance against creepy inventors who want fake pretty girls telling them what the weather is. Make more hot male robots so that the female form isn’t the only one perpetually associated with service. And make more hot male robots because Jia Jia needs a friend for when she eventually pulls an Ex-Machina and gets the hell away from her “Lord.”