I’ve got some news for you
Fembots have feelings too
– Robyn, Fembot

To tell the absolute truth, they probably don’t have feelings, though. At least not emotions of the messier kind, the kind that real women have to live with.

A fairly recent conversation brought up the idea of fembots and the very real implications of fembots and what fembots mean for how we view women and how we view the control of women. In essence, why are fembots 1. so darn fascinating to men? 2. so darn problematic as an image or symbol or perhaps even idea.

In the face of vague thoughts and discomfort, I do what I always do when mildly (or wildly) uncertain. I picked up a few books and articles and started reading up on the phenomenon of women as objects and objects as women.

The list reads as follows:

  • Turned on: Science, Sex and Robots by Kate Devlin, Bloomsbury Sigma
  • My Fair Ladies: Female Robots, Androids, and Other Artificial Eves by Julie Wosk, Rutgers University Press
  • Tricky Design: The Ethics of Things edited by Tom Fisher and Lorraine Gamman, Bloomsbury Sigma
  • The Vamp and the Machine: Technology and Sexuality in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis by Andreas Huyssen, Duke University Press
  • The Gospel According to Woman by Karen Armstrong, Pan Books

According to the book My Fair Ladies by Julie Wosk, one of the earliest fantasies around artificial women came from the myth of Pygmalion.

The Roman poet Ovid was the first person who’s written account of Pygmalion survives, although as far as I understand it, there are several other sources recounting the myth as well. According to the myth, no women were good enough for Pygmalion. He found them “defective by nature”, primarily because they were sexually promiscuous and intellectual featherweights (in other words, they were stupid).

For some reason, despite women being so defective, Pygmalion decided to sculpt a woman in ivory. Of course, to Pygmalion this image of a woman was superior to any real women, and so he proceeded to fall in love with his own creation.

To Pygmalion, his own creation was so much better than the faulty real women around him. She didn’t talk back and presumably didn’t object when he kissed her etc. We all know what it’s like. Women before they rebuff men are so awesome. After the rejection, though, they often turn into whores and sluts. Anyway, I digress. I’m sure Pygmalion wasn’t slapped around by women because he was a creep and tried to kiss them without consent. It’s not in the myth anyway, but in my mind I’ve rewritten it a bit.

Anyway. Pygmalion offers prayers to the goddess Venus to give him a woman (give him!) just like his statue. Venus decides to cut out the middle (wo)man and simply makes Pygmalion’s statue come to life. Good for Pygmalion! A creature he has created, fully under his control and much better than any real woman who might actually have a mind of her own.

In all the myths, stories and media about created women, the theme of control and perfection returns over and over and over, and the idea of a created woman being somehow superior to the real thing runs through all stories of fembots that I’ve so far read about. Sometimes the fembots rebel, but in those instances the story becomes a tale about technology running amok.

I shouldn’t withhold the fact that there are stories where fembots are used as empowering tools for women, but in those instances the fembot is usually replaced with a real woman impersonating a fembot, and the story is more about how difficult it is to live up to a mechanical ideal and the restrictions imposed on women in society than it is about technology having a mind of it’s own.

A woman created by a man and under the control of a man loses her terrifying sexual powers (more on that later). It isn’t a coincidence that fembots under the control of a man are often wholly unaware of their own sexuality. It’s also not a coincidence that constructed women who run amok are very conscious of their sexuality and use it as a tool or even a weapon to snare men.

In his article The Vamp and the Machine, Andreas Huyssen writes the following:

The myth of the dualistic nature of woman as either asexual virgin-mother or prostitute vamp is projected onto technology which appears as either neutral and obedient or as inherently threatening and out-of-control.

It’s the virgin/ whore dichotomy that dictates what women are either virtuous or they’re sluts. This dichotomy wasn’t created by Christianity, but it was carried along by it and reinforced by it. The reason I bring this up is because we have such a long history of viewing women this way that it’s become a truth in itself. On occasion it’s worth revisiting the origins of the “truth” to untangle it and shine a light on why it’s even there. According to Karen Armstrong in her book The Gospel According to Woman, Christianity has been a strong influence and reinforcement of this view.

Because God created man as a rational being, and sex has the potential to make man irrational, sex is dangerous. This was an idea that has survived for a long time in the Western world, upheld by the church as the sole bearer of culture throughout the Dark Ages. Although the idea that sex is dangerous has lost some of its influence it’s still present.

The reason I’m pointing this out is not because I enjoy harping on Christianity 1 but because the idea of sex as irrational and through Eve and Original Sin, female, has been with us a long time. And because sex is irrational, it’s a dangerous thing. And that dangerous thing is exactly why men are trying to control women. Unpacking sexuality, men, women, fear of sex etc will take a much longer post so I’ll leave it here for now. Well. Almost.

The idea that women are irrational has been with us for as long as recorded history. Aristotle was not only one of the great philosophers, he was also a massive misogynist who believed that women were defective men. This idea, carried across the ages with Christianity (again, culture bearer through some really difficult times in history) where sexuality also became a part of the package, reinforced during periods of Western history – I mean, just read Kramer’s and Sprenger’s Malleus Maleficarum for a terrifying view of women2 – and eventually you’ll land in contemporary stories where the only salvation from women’s irrational and out of control sexuality is the control over women by men.

I could probably write an essay about the Drow3 on that topic.

Technology under the control of men, is logical, rational and efficient. Technology out of control is irrational, illogical, and destructive. Fembots, meaning women, under the control of a man is subjugated and innocent. As soon as control is lost, sexuality usually returns and is usually used as a weapon.

Huyssen in his article draws another conclusion that is relevant. In the 18th century most machines could assume either gender. As a society, we hadn’t yet made the connection between nature as technology rather than divine, or human as mechanic. At the turn of the 18th century, the increasing technologization of human culture and human body gained traction. With the enlightenment we stepped away from the natural order as God given and started to entertain ideas of human rights and human equality. With the industrial revolution, we also started perceiving a threat to human nature by technology. The idea that bodies were mechanical and not divine took hold.

And Huyssen concludes, as soon as technology became potentially dangerous, it also became associated with women.

Historically, then, we can conclude that as soon as the machine came to be perceived as a demonic, inexplicable threat and as a harbinger of chaos and destruction […] writers began to imagine the Maschinenmensch as woman.

Huyssen continues:

Woman, nature, machine had become a mesh of significations which all had one thing in common: otherness. By their very existence they raised fears and threatened male authority and control.

I could go on. I do really recommend Huyssen’s article, because it makes clear a lot of the issues around woman-created-and-controlled-by-man.

In other words and as a TL;DR – fembots are ultimately the longing to create and subjugate woman. To control her actions and her sexuality. To – as it were – remove the otherness of women, and make them safe and perfect. It is to turn women into objects. The perfect path to objectification.

Because discordia is a blog about games and because there’s an example of fembots in one of my favourite games, Mass Effect 3, I just have to bring up Dr. Eva Core and EDI in this post. They’re actually quite good examples of a modern day interpretation of technology out of control and thus dangerous and technology under the control of man and therefore safe.

In Mass Effect 3, during the mission to the Martian archives, Commander Shepard runs into Dr. Eva Core. Eva Core is an AI inhabiting a woman’s (very sexualised) body. During a very brief scene, Shepard battles Dr. Core who has previously managed to kill an entire base full of people. She’s technology, she’s out of control, and she’s evil. I can only assume that she’s been using her very sexualised body to disarm people’s (men’s) defences against her.

Dr. Core ends up stealing a bunch of data that Shepard needs to save the world. Shepard chases Core across the Martian Archives and Core ends up seriously harming and almost killing a member of Shepard’s crew. She does not do this until she’s been revealed to be a gynoid (female human looking robot). Thus Core is established as not only evil but evil technology.

Shepard and their team defeats the robot and brings the body of the gynoid onboard the Normandy.

it could have ended there, but it doesn’t. EDI, the AI that’s been previously unshackled by Joker, Normandy’s pilot, decides that she wants to live in the gynoid body. She takes control of the body under alarming circumstances, but being a good and wholesome AI, she ousts the evil AI after a short battle. As Shepard, I can berate her for it if I want to. EDI is very much unaware of her sexualised body. She also happens to be under the control of the good guys (and I’m deliberately using the word guys here) and she’s fairly naive as women go.

She seeks out the help of Shepard to become more human and she’s capable of starting a relationship with Joker, still with the same innocence and naïveté that she displays in the face of Joker’s quite obvious objectification of her (“I would have baked a cake!”).

There’s a lot more to unpack here. Cerberus, the illusive man, the influence of Shepard, but it kind of shows pretty clearly that this is a story that we keep retelling. I don’t think any of the above were conscious decisions on the ME3 team’s behalf, but it does indicate how strongly these ideas live in our culture. How hard it is to disrupt them, and perhaps also how hard we need to try.

In essence – fembots express a desire to construct the perfect woman and to control her. This is accomplished by turning her into an object – literally objectifying her – because a real woman can never be as perfect as a constructed woman.

A real woman is too chaotic, too emotional and too much of her own person to be entirely controlled by man, and as long as she is, she poses a threat.

  1. I believe faith can be a great comfort to those who believe in something greater than ourselves and I respect that belief wholeheartedly. This is about the church as a culture carrier, not about religious belief. The church and faith are not always the same thing, in my limited experience.
  2. Or take my word for it and save yourself from having to wade through hundreds of pages of misogyny.
  3. The only matriarchy in D&D and it’s completely malfunctioning. The only times Drow have managed to have productive societies they’ve been run by men. And don’t even get me started about Drizzt.