What does it mean to be human?
It’s a question sci-fi has been trying to answer for decades. Cyborgs. Fembots. Mutants. Aliens. Hybrids. Replicants. We’ve labeled the non-human as "other" in a variety of ways as a means of wrestling with our own mortality and where it fits in the evolution timeline. "Will machines overtake the planet?" the Wachowskis ask with their Matrix trilogy. "Will humans one day exhibit extraordinary abilities?" The X-Men franchise wonders. Will aliens invade by donning human skin suits, will cyborgs be able to travel back in time? Genre has been obsessed with qualifying the difference between human and "other," but recently, more and more sci-fi movies are asking a different, no less interesting question …
What does it mean to be female?
It’s a discussion we’re having in the real world, so it makes sense that film would mirror it, albeit in a futuristic fashion. In fact, plenty of sci-fi stories seem fixated on reflecting the anxieties surrounding the ever-changing ideas of "gender norms." There’s Scarlett Johansson in Lucy, playing an average, everyday woman whose brain is unlocked thanks to a synthetic substance. There’s Alicia Vikander serving as a terrifyingly realistic A.I. manipulating human men in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. There’s Jessica Alba as Max in Dark Angel, a series about a genetically enhanced super-soldier fighting for her freedom. There’s Johansson in Under the Skin playing an alien who feeds on men, Johansson in Spike Jonze's Her as a computer-bound A.I. in a relationship with a human man, Johansson in Ghost in the Shell as a cyborg warrior investigating her past.
At this point, we’re not entirely convinced Johansson isn’t some kind of advanced humanoid simply posing as one of the most talented women in Hollywood — but that’s a conspiracy theory for another day.
The fact is, sci-fi has been weaving threads between feminism and post-humanism — the idea that people will one day exist in a state beyond our basic understanding of humanity — for quite some time. Some films have played the discourse for laughs (think of the Austin Powers fembots with machine-gun breasts), while even more have catered to the male gaze (the pleasure models of Blade Runner, The Stepford Wives, the brutal treatment of hosts on HBO’s Westworld) — but a few have dug deeper, crafting female characters with machine-like bodies and superhuman abilities to renegotiate the societal limitations placed on femininity.
We’re using the post-human female form to defy stereotypes and topple patriarchal constructs that objectify and constrain women.
A.I.s like Ava in Ex Machina turn the male gaze against itself, presenting a machine form wearing a conventionally attractive female face. Ava is beautiful and flirtatious, the ideal woman created by a man whose worst egotistical impulses convince him he’s a god. The more she leans into traditionally feminine archetypes, the more she flatters her male captors, the meeker she appears to be, the better chance she has at survival. She’s meant to convince a man named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) that she’s capable of human consciousness, and for most of the film she does, convincing us as well by playing a damsel in distress, appealing to a masculine need to rescue, protect, and control the "weaker" sex.
Garland could’ve ended the story with Caleb and Ava escaping her creator’s lab together, reinforcing harmful gender tropes and positing that even cyborgs, with their unlimited intelligence and resources, are doomed to be defined by archaic dualities. Instead, the film ends with Ava using the same advantages given to her by a man to manipulate and destroy her oppressors. She toys with Caleb’s misguided and sexist need to defend her, she punishes Oscar Isaac’s Nathan for his abusive behavior and cavalier disregard of her bodily autonomy, and she leaves both men to die while she covers her cyborg form with patches of synthetic skin and begins a journey of her choosing — free of the shackles both men tried to place on her.
It’s the Pygmalion myth turned on its head, and it’s happening more in sci-fi.
In Lucy, Johansson plays a regular woman roped into a high-concept drug war. Betrayed by her boyfriend, abused by gangsters who sew a synthetic material known as CPH4 into her stomach, and hunted by men who wish to make a profit off the drug, Lucy is accidentally imbued with supernatural abilities when the substance enters her bloodstream and begins to alter her chemical makeup. She becomes stronger, smarter, faster, and less emotional, which in the film is presented as her becoming less human. In reality, Lucy is evolving, attaining a state of consciousness the men surrounding her cannot begin to fathom. It’s interesting that the origins of the drug come from a natural chemical pregnant women produce to help fetuses develop — an idea that connects superior qualities of post-humanism directly to feminism — and it’s even more interesting that Lucy is the only subject to survive ingesting the drug, though she doesn’t do so by keeping her female form. Instead, Lucy transcends the physical, passing on her infinite knowledge before ascending to a higher metaphysical plane, suggesting that our own narrow understanding of the world might be broadened by discarding traditional ideas of gender, sex, and humanity itself.
Post-human female heroines are often able to defy and subvert men’s restricted view of femininity. In James Cameron’s Dark Angel, Jessica Alba plays a genetically enhanced super-soldier hoping to live a normal life. She confronts the stifling limitations of her sex, wrestling with the fact that she was created with feline DNA, that she is often the object of male fantasies, that men look to control and wield her body for their own purposes. And she rebels, weaponizing her autonomy, recoding herself, embracing the otherness that taints her womanhood. She rejects the male gaze, preferring to label herself a freak, to exist in a heightened state of masculinity.
And though we don’t yet live in a post-gendered world, sci-fi is helping us get there quicker with these women. They’re robots that prove gender is just a construct, something that is programmed by men and can be unprogrammed by women who reject subservient roles. They’re enhanced soldiers who embrace more animalistic natures and seek to survive in a state of gender fluidity instead of having their femininity weaponized and controlled. They’re characters who transcend physical forms and reach unfathomable levels of intelligence that strip them of stereotypical "female" attributes, freeing them to become something more.
And becoming "more" is, at least in sci-fi, the next step in our feminist (r)evolution.