She turns on

Fantasy, fear and female automata

Text by Shumon Basar


She has eyes, liquid gold, and an argot just this side of human. She lisps. Her hair lacquers in vertical, electrostatic lines, a sound of silvered solar cells. That skin. He spent so long on that, her freckled skin, partly dreaming and wholly scheming, calculating the exact moment a touch would register on the inside of her heart; that infernal contraption that insists on having a mind of its own. "Not my mind," he cursed. He curses a lot - at the sun and the moon, at the gods of invention and genetic coding. He curls his fists around her wrists.


There is a fantasy that has stuck around for millennia. Man creates life, without women co-authoring. A non-sexual birth, in Petri dishes or super-charged subterranean chambers or cosmic alignments. Artificial Intelligence, clones, immortals, exceptions. Post-humans engineered devotedly by humans, blessed by the holy conjunction of hubris and science. Note: many of these mutant manifestations aspire to recreate woman anew. Mary Shelley may well have fabricated the literary Dr Frankenstein so that he could piece together his ugly, unloved, monster-son; but when men method their own ungodly Creation Myth, it is often a "She" they conjure: daughter, lover, wife. Saviour.


Cinema - that 20th century art form for the desiring masses - provides one of the most fertile settings for history's enduring experiments with man-made women. What is the appropriate noun? Female automata, gynoid, cyborg, actroid. All have featured prominently in their silver skin on the silver screen. These modernist manifestoes reach backwards into time as much as leer into the future. The word "robot" is attributed to Karel Čapek in his 1921 play, R.U.R. But as early as 1st century AD, the ancient Greek mathematician and inventor, Hero, described animistic machines in his treatise, Pnematica and Automata. They reappear through Ancient China, Middle Ages Islamic dynasty and 18th century French courtly life (in the guise of a mechanical duck that excretes). By the time cinema establishes itself as the dominant entertainment pastime, Freud's theories of the unconscious have flourished as virally. At the core of one of his most famous essays, "Das Unheimliche" ("The Uncanny"), is Olympia, a mute female automaton mistaken for a living woman. For Freud, E.T.A. Hoffmann's story The Sandman (1840) embodies the essential components of modern male fetishism and pathology - with mechanical Olympia beating as its heart and a hard-on. So, let me draw a personal, selective genealogy of some of cinema's most telling female automata, androids, cyborgs and gynoids.

If, as Freud postulated, "fantasy realised is nightmare," then what nightmares are these male-made synthetic women trying to fantasise away?


She is a voluptuous metallic cast of a girl, as if naked, expressionless and embellished by Art Deco extrusions. Inventor Rotwang manages to transform her, with rings of electricity, into Maria's evil-double. Soon, she unleashes chaos on the city, driving men to murder, out of delirious lust for her. The city is Metropolis, the eponymous title of Fritz Lang's 1927 dystopian masterpiece, and Maria (who is also referred to as Maschinenmench, Machine Man) is the first robot depicted in cinema. It becomes she. She incites urban havoc and is simultaneously the diabolical product of the same modern forces that made Metropolis the modern city par excellence. Steel, electricity, systems, seduction. Maria's beauty bypasses the rationality of male workers and collectivises them (on the 10th anniversary of the Russian Bolshevik Revolution). Ultimately, false Maria is tied to a stake, set afire and gradually transforms back into her hard, robot form. Real Maria, a cipher of kindness and soft femininity, has been returned from a nightmare where she was a representation of Kali: destroyer of all worlds, and of men.


She is the daughter of Professor von Braun, architect of totalitarian computer-ruler Alpha 60. Her black hair falls to her shoulders, to the delicate woven white collar, above which her fiercely outlined eyes betray this. Natacha does not know the word "love" nor "conscience". Nor does anyone else in Alphaville, Jean Luc Godard's 1965 sci-fi noir, because the overlord Alpha 60 sees and hears all things, and it does not like the idea of love. Lemmy Caution, an interstellar Gallic grimacing detective, has fallen for Natacha and her icy innocence. For her dearth of human affection. Lemmy introduces Natacha to the poetry of Paul Eluard, the Surrealist sage of lamenting love. Because Alpha 60 has also banned poetry in this light forsaken city. Slowly Natacha thaws. All this time, she has been missing something, that humanising gene. Physical beauty is not enough. But, love and conscience, make us human. All it takes is a man in a grubby raincoat on an Orphic mission, and the defective quasi-woman is saved from her curse. We know when it is broken. When, in the final scene, Natacha (played by Anna Karina) turns to the camera (and therefore to her newly divorced ex-husband, Godard), to shed her first ever tear, and stutter the words: "I … love … you".


She is a tennis pro who is nearly killed by a skydiving accident. A mysterious organisation saves her life with bionic implants. Soon, she has a bionic right ear; a bionic right arm; and superhuman legs that allow her to run as fast as a slow car. Jaime Sommers becomes the Bionic Woman, a 1970s spin-off from The Six Million Dollar Man. The same subdivision of the CIA, the Office of Scientific Intelligence (OSI) has rebuilt her with the same advanced technology used to rebuild Steve Austin, her former lover. In return, she has to dedicate her life as an agent to OSI. Jaime's cyborg self is the result of advanced American military research. Her recuperation, her enhancement, is also her weaponisation. Her decoy day job as a schoolteacher doesn't stop the fact that she will spend the rest of her life seeking out morally dubious targets as well as be one herself. If Steve was the first cyborg Adam, Jaime is the partnering cyborg, Eve. Fifteen years on, and Motoko Kusanagi freefalls into the anime classic, Ghost in the Shell. She may have wires that plug into the back of her neck - an echo of the electrolysis that formed her - but that doesn't detract from her impossibly curvaceous manga figure. If you are going to be assassinated point blank, it may as well be by a thing of elegaic beauty. That way, death can creep a little closer to sex.


She at first wears her hair tied up, tightly wound in 1930s coil. Her shoulders extend like runways, a silhouette prickly with supermodel swagger, and taut pencil skirt stricture. Rachael Tyrell does not know she is a replicant. Why would she? She has tactile memories of being a 6-year-old girl. And then Agent Deckard arrives in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), to subject Rachael to an "empathy test". She responds with all the shrill wit of a first rate intelligence, at one point replying, "Is this testing whether I am a lesbian or a replicant, Mr. Deckard?" The empathy test is a sci-fi reimagining of the Turing test, Alan Turing's famous means by which artificial intelligence is to be gauged. In Blade Runner, the replicants have exceeded their servile denomination. They now want to live forever. And they will kill in order to do so. In this advent, the law asserts its right to destroy them. Rachael, however, is an anomaly in this bio-system. She is a replicant that may be more human than machine or indeed other humans. And, it is secretly inferred - via an origami unicorn - that Deckard may well be a replicant also assuming he is human. Inevitably, Deckard falls for her/it, despite or because he knows what Natacha truly is (or, is not). He undoes her repressed hair. They fuck like animals (real, not robotic). Once again, we're with Orpheus and Eurydice: Rachael and her saviour escape always-torrential Los Angeles, 2018, disappearing into the horizon. But, who will die first?

Twenty years after Blade Runner, Osaka University unveiled the first of a series of "actroids" - androids with strong human likenesses. Most recently "Geminoid F" has been acting in a play with a human counterpart, performing with over 60 facial expressions and breathtaking lifelikeness. In Prometheus, Ridley Scott's 2012 revisitation of Alien territory, Michael Fassbender's robot-character David acts human to parry the calm assurance from actual humans around him, while Charlize Theron's stoical Meredith Vickers, like Deckard, appears in flashes to be some cyborg invention of her father, Peter Weyland. Confusing? Good.


She emerges in the doorway: white sawn off top, blue boy's trunks, backlit by neon pink smoke. The stuff of home DIY sorcery meeting soft porn search. Lisa has been Frankensteined by two teen nerd virgins - Gary and Wyatt - who have made their desktop PC do much more than play Pac-Man. Playboy pin-up, Barbie doll, Eddie Van Halen, government mainframe - of these things are sexual-beings made. Weird Science (1985) presents Lisa as the ultimate adolescent wet-fantasy turned flesh. Kelly LeBrock fulfilled this role supremely for millions of real-life teens (myself included) that drooled at the dream scenario: smokin' hot older woman as your own love/life guru, insatiably prone to sharing showers. Woah.

1985 also saw the publication of Donna Haraway's influential essay, "A Cyborg Manifesto". She used the concept of the cyborg to offer a political strategy for the disparate interests of socialism and feminism, writing: "We are all chimeras, theorised and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short we are cyborgs". This liberation call does not immediately tally with Lisa's more base function on earth (or in Gary and Wyatt's bedroom). But where does it fit with the invention and sexual success of RealdollTM, which, since 1996, "has been using Hollywood special effects technology to produce the most realistic love doll in the world". Part with $6,000 and you can choose, online, from 10 female body types, 16 interchangeable faces, and minutely customisable details including make-up, pubic grooming, cornea colour, tan lines - and elf ears, should that float your personal boat. In fact, the atomised selection process could be straight from Blade Runner's Tyrell Corporation or Prometheus' Weyland Corp. In reality, it is located at San Marcos, California. The company's name? Abyss Creations. As deep - and safe - as your deepest female fantasy fear.


Only when he falls asleep in this tangle of wires, wattage and spent Kleenex does he let go, and tell himself: she is salvation, serenity, cold sexual perfection. My antidote to mother and sister. She will be siren and shorthand for something missing. He hopes to never live long enough to see her die. She is learning, without knowing, what hope is, and why She is His. §


  • Female Automata – Shumon Basar #1
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