Female robots seem to be emerging everywhere, especially in today’s movies and popular television series like “Westworld.” My new exhibit, “Picturing Female Robots and Androids,” on view at the New York Hall of Science until October 22, features large color prints of facsimile females, including mannequins and dolls. They range from ancient dolls and early female automatons to today’s ultra-lifelike female robots that look so real they can easily fool the eye.
These simulated females in films like Metropolis reflect familiar ways of depicting women’s identity: as saints and sirens, nurturing caretakers and alluring temptresses. But they also reflect changing cultural views of women. As seen in the exhibit, women historically have often been viewed as pretty playthings to manipulate and control, yet in today’s films and television like Ex Machina and “Westworld,” female robots endowed with advanced artificial intelligence want their freedom and autonomy.
The exhibit is based on my book My Fair Ladies: Female Robots, Androids, and Other Artificial Eves, and many of the images reveal men’s fascination with using the tools of science and technology to create their idea of “The Perfect Woman.” In the two film versions of The Stepford Wives (the 1975 film starred Katherine Ross and 2004 remake starred Nicole Kidman),the men of Stepford, Connecticut replace their career-minded wives with beautiful, sexy, adoring robot wives who love to cook and clean. These remote-controlled women fulfill the men’s notions of perfection: they are compliant, always available, and only say soothing things that men want to hear.
The films were based on Ira Levin’s satirical 1972 novel The Stepford Wives which was published when America was in the midst of the upheavals of Second Wave Feminism and the Women’s Movement. In the novel, the men of Stepford relish the idea they can control their robot wives, and find them far preferable to real-life women with minds of their own. These images not only reflect men’s dreams but also nightmares, as in James Whale’s classic film Bride of Frankenstein where the monster’s hopes for a companion are crushed when this artificial female takes one look at him, lets out a big shriek, and runs away.
Today’s dolls for children are changing too. Mattel’s Fashionistas line of Barbie dolls provide additional choices to the traditional Barbies with their hard-to-emulate idealized figures. The new dolls show the diversity of women with their varied body shapes (“curvy,” petite, and tall), and varied ethnicities and skin tones. (Interestingly, while the new weightier Barbies are called “curvy,” some of the new Ken dolls are called “broad.”)
The exhibit also pictures adult-sized female robots endowed with artificial intelligence, which are also usually cast attractive young women in their 20s. Right now they are being used in conventional female roles such as receptionists but university and private commercial labs are also working on robots that they envision will someday serve as care takers and companions for children and the elderly.
Continuing with this lifelike trend, sex doll manufacturers are developing dolls with artificial intelligence. The new dolls will not only always be available for sex but will also be capable of carrying on conversations specially tailored to their users’ backgrounds and interests.
The exhibit raises some provocative questions: Will these lifelike robots challenge our sense of human identity or will they enhance our lives? Will robot versions of the always-compliant “Perfect Woman” created by men seem preferable to real women, and will people prefer robot partners to real ones? We’ll just have to wait and see.