Robots are not only contemporary figures of fascination; they have been a source of awe, intrigue, and trepidation for several centuries, and within cinema, robots intertwine with the representation of women. With the rise of science fiction films about artificial intelligence, the mechanization of gender in cinematic form cannot be ignored. This female robot even has a particular name: The Fembot.
As a bridge between female and robot, the fembot was first coined in the 1976 television show The Bionic Woman. Since then, the fembot has appeared in numerous science fiction movies from blockbusters like The Terminator to independent films such as Robot Stories. Crossing all genres with a science fictional bent, the word fembot may ring some recognition if you think back to your first viewing of the 1997 comedy Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. Remember when Frau Farbissina, Dr. Evil’s henchwoman, introduces the Fembots, in her shrill German voice? "Bring in the Fembots!"
As a nod to Bionic Women, the fembots in Austin Powers were scantily clad blond bombshells, their lean voluptuous bodies juxtaposed with machine gun breasts; but not all fembots in film follow this archetype. There is a wide variety of cinematic representations of the fembots. As theorist of cyborgs, Donna Harraway once famously wrote, “The replicant Rachael in the Ridley Scott film Blade Runner stands as the image of a cyborg culture's fear, love, and confusion.” Unlike the blond Fembots of Austin Powers, Rachael offers another understanding of the Fembot. As films about AI are on the rise, and our dystopic futures seem close to the present, fembots in film teach us not only about machines, but the transgression of gender.
Whether the rise of the robots seem exciting or frightening news, it is clear that fembots teach us what it means to be human. They teach us about science fiction film. Because fembots are not all made equally. Some fembots in film are complex, nuanced, and complicated characters; other seem like nothing more than objectified accoutrements in the mise en scene to be gazed at. As the film theorist Laura Mulvey taught us, the cinema differs because of the gaze the camera holds for women, and for audience members too.
However, as some fembots return the gaze, and question it, perhaps it time to recalibrate fembots. In light of the release of Blade Runner 2049, we take stock of the ten best fembots in film. We take in mind questions of agency, complexity, and power. We go outside the U.S. too, because cinema is global, and not all fembots are created in the West.
Allison Bechdel made this test for women in film, and a Bechtel test for fembots may include 1. Are they the main character? 2. Do they have an Asian sidekick or foil? 3. Are they the object of affection? 4. Do they die?
Only one film on our list made the cut. This is not to say that the other fembots aren't memorable and should be cherished, but it speaks to the complexity of fembots and her representation. It also foreshadows the future fembots to come.
While most fembots may be viewed for her body, the fembot in Her is an artificially intelligent Operating System with only a voice. Played by Scarlett Johannson, Samantha is the love interest of a lonely writer, Theodore Twombly, who finds intimacy in Samantha as his new Operating System. Unlike other fembots in cinema, you don’t ever really see Samantha, other than the small gadget that contains her.
In director Spike Jonze’s vision of the artificially intelligent future, Samantha is introduced as an efficient OS, helping Theodore organize his emails, for example, to more complex urgings such as going on dates. Because the film relies on her voice, this fembot’s quirky characteristics, and her intelligence comes through: she’s weird, funny, and emotional proving she is not “just a voice in a computer.” While Samantha may seem like at the whims of the man who bought her, we find out at the end (cyborg spoiler alert!) that she is not only in love with Theodore, but also 641 other people. Samantha reminds us there may need to be more variations of the word fembot, such as a word that describes a female robot player. By the end of the film, it’s easy to believe in why Theodore fell in love with Samantha, and why 641 other people fell in love with her. But humor aside, Samantha embodies an emotional complexity and capacity that women, regardless of cybernetic skills, in film are often never represented.
The 1927 film Metropolis by Friz Lang is critically acclaimed as the most iconic science fiction film, yet it would only be nothing but German Expressionist shadows without Hel, one of the early fembots. Depicting a dystopic sprawling urban world, with elaborate haunting shadows of workers and machines, Hel serves as the robotic foil for Maria, a dedicated advocate for the oppressed workers. The industrialist Fredersen needs to continue to control the human workers of Metropolis, and Maria is in his way. In hopes to ruin Maria's good reputation, the robot maker Fredersen is tasked to create a robot in Maria's likeness. Hel is the robot double of Maria, as both characters are played by actress Brigitte Helm.
Hel is sexually powerful, like the future fembots that would come after her, and embodies an ability to seduce men. One cannot dismiss the evocative scenes of Hel dancing as the wealthy men of Metropolis are transfixed by her mesmerizing glow, and her human-Mata-Hara rotation of her hips, arms, and hands. Later, when Hel is fully dressed, she runs manically to the lower combs of the city, leading the Oppressed workers to freedom and mayhem. Hel, like the fembots that follow her, also dies at the end of the film. But one cannot dismiss that in this German silent film, she is a femot with tremendous power in her gestures, and a leader whether on stage dancing, or leading the working men in the ruins of the city. Hel is an iconic fembot that not only influenced all future fembots in film, but also music icons such as Beyonce, Janelle Monae, and Madonna.
EVE is strong. EVE is quick. EVE is a girl, and an animation. By the time she arrives on the scene, Wall-E has been waiting lonely picking up objects and trash. Gendered as male, although watching the film, one can question whether Wall-E is male or simply masculine, EVE offers an exciting depiction of a fembot. Sure, like others, she is a juxtaposition of threat and attraction but she also embodies assertive characteristics such as bravery, skill, and dynamism. Perhaps named after Eve, as in the creation myth of Adam and Eve, her fembot story is not just of a woman who ate the apple and led us to sin, instead, she led us to the start of nature, and saves the world. She is smooth, round, and white -- her blue digitalized robot eyes, like a new product from Apple, but with personality that moves. A kind of fembot, someone that Wall-E can look up to.
Ava, "Ex Machina"
How do you know who is a human or a machine? The famous test for artificial intelligence the Turing Test occupies the plot of Ex-Machina directed by Alex Garland. Ava, played by Alicia Vikander, is a robot created by tech company CEO Nathan Bateman. A coder from the company, Caleb Smith wins a contest and is asked to test Ava for consciousness. Ava, with CG and metal, but a human face, hands, and feet, fall intimate with Nathan, who soon falls in love with her. But Ava has her own ideas in mind, and the film spirals into surprising twists of who actually has control, and how manipulation enters the calculations of the Turing Test.
Kyoko, "Ex Machina"
Not all fembot films have two fembots, but if they do, perhaps the test should be if they talk to one another. In Ex Machina, Ava is certainly the lead, but Kyoko played by Sonoya Mizuno, perhaps embodies an artificial being that becomes more intelligent. Portrayed as Nathan's servant, Kyoko, is depicted as a stereotypical passive fembot. However, by the end of the film, it is Kyoko with the knife in her hand, and stabs her maker. Kyoko dies at the end, but she saves Ava, who ultimately is the one who kills Nathan.
While Ava certainly shows her complexity, we see Kyoko grow. Refusing to be the Madame Butterfly, Kyoko at the end surprises us. Without saying a word, resistance flashes in her eyes. The end scene includes Ava and Kyoko in a moment, whispering to one another, which helps this film pass the test. Other than that, the iconic dance scene in the film, has Mizuno (a trained ballerina) show her skills while Nathan played by Oscar Isaac moved along, but not as elegantly. Who knows if dance is part of the test? Perhaps if there is another version, the Turing Test will include dance, and a fan fic piece with Kyoko as the central role.
Zhora, Blade Runner
While the fembots in Austin Powers is the first search finding in google, most science fiction fanatics will turn to Blade Runner for its depiction of fembots. The three fembots in the film, Rachael, Zhora, and Pris provide interesting insights into the representation of the fembot.
Deckard (Harrison Ford) finds Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) in the dressing room scene. His job is to retire Replicants, and posing as representative of "confidential committee of moral abuses," Ford acts like a protector of exploited women. The scene has the camera focused on Cassidy's body, adorned with sparkles, and as she showers. She is a "skin job" and a Replicant made for pleasure. In the scene, it's uncertain if one knows if she is a Replicant, and we watch her as she puts on her clothes, then asks Deckard for help. While we are watching her through the gaze, she turns around and attacks him viciously, and expertly. Interrupted by other dancers, Ford follows her through the 2019 Los Angeles, and ultimately kills her as she falls violently into glass doors. Zhora's death perhaps exemplifies what happens to powerful Fembots at the end of the film. Yet, still the scenes with Cassidy are victorious and powerful, her performance is mesmerizing in its strength. It also shows how the fembot can overturn the gaze.
Pris, Blade Runner
No one can forget the iconic somersault only a fembot could do. Played by Darryl Hannah, Pris is another pleasure bot in Blade Runner, who catapults into the scene. Earlier, when Pris first stays at genetic designer, JF Sebastian's home, she playfully shows what a Replicant can do with her somersaults, and friendliness that is laced with knowingness. Later, when Deckard enters Sebastian's toy filled house, she sits with Sebastian's dolls all around. As audience members, we know that Pris is not a doll, but as he looks around, he is fooled and peers at her powered face, her black eye make-up. Abruptly, she gives a scream, and somersaults onto his neck, a scene parodied in Blade Runner. Yet, like Zhora and other powerful fembots, Pris dies at the hands of Deckard. But one cannot forget her somersaults and playful complexity.
Young-goon, I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK
Okay, she may not be a cyborg per se, but Young-goon (Im Soo-jung) is a young woman working in a factory constructing radios who believes she is a cyborg. The South Korean film, directed by Park Chan-wook, plays with reality and fantasy with Young-goon's belief in her cybernetic being. She is institutionalized in a mental hospital after she tries to connect to a power cord and the outlet for recharging. Unlike the other fembot films, Young-goon though is the lead character in her story. The whimsical romantic and strange comedy offers interesting insights on technology in a delightful way. With imagination, and her desire of a cyborgian collapse of "not feeling guilty," the scenes with Young-goon and her cyborg hand guns offers a comical release of women paving and enacting their own revenge.
The Fembots, Austin Powers
Sure, they are the first search term for fembots, and often derided in most journalistic articles about fembots and the representation of women. But the blond bombshell killer robots of Austin Powers also offer some interesting insights on gender. According to the gender theorist Jack Halberstam, the fembots offer a "automated femininity" that deconstructs naturalness. I know, some gender theory when thinking about a '"low-brow" film, but there are tons of interesting things about the fembots. Played by actresses Cheryl Bartel, Cindy Margolis, Donna W. Scott, Barbara Ann Moore, and Cynthia LaMontagne, the fembots are iconic fembots because while they get "out-sexed" by Austin Powers, they also set the stage for more fembots in the series (Elizabeth Hurley and Britney Spears) yet they roll in a pack together. As Halberstam says, their femininity as robotic offers another view on how gender is constructed.
Finally, this short science fiction film, Punzi, is a Kenyan film directed by Wanuri Kahiu. The film screened at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, and won best director, screenplay, and picture at the Africa Movie Academy Awards. An evocative Afro-futurist account, the central character Asha is a cybernetic character that lives in a time thirty-five years after World War III—The Water War.
As the characters are allotted limited amounts of water, the scenes include delicate rationing and recycling of water, even in the bathroom. Asha is a curator at the Virtual Natural Museum, and soon finds herself with an anonymous package of soil. As communication is faciliated by technological screens, Ashe finds herself not being believed that there is soil outside of the contained community. However the authorities attempt to destroy her, and Ashe escapes to the outside. The end scene show Ashe planting the dirt, and she lies down to protect. In an overhead shot, we see Ashe lying down, with a vibrant green tree growing from her body. The film says a lot about natural and machine divides, along with ecology, technology, and science fiction. But it also passes the fembot Bechdel test, as Ashe is not the love interest, overly sexualized, nor is she killed. Instead, like the tree, she grows.