Fair warning: the following ramble contains very mild spoilers for several movies (Metropolis, The Machine, Ex Machina, Under the Skin, Beyond the Black Rainbow, Blade Runner). If you are a rigorous anti-spoiler fascist, you can go now. For the record, I would recommend pretty much all of the movies mentioned, especially to people who enjoy weird shit.
It’s well-established that a society’s popular stories tend to reflect the concerns of the day. Because science fiction is cosmetically pretty far removed from reality, it’s often used to explore especially thorny topics while keeping a safe distance. And as the borders of possibility continue to be widened by technology, it’s unsurprising that we’d see stories about people with inhuman abilities. What’s more revealing is the way that sci-fi cinema combines these abilities with female sexuality and male control.
We’re now hearing that sex robots are coming to a future near you, becoming the stuff of ‘normal’ reality. But inhuman hotties have been a presence in the movies for a century. The prototype is probably Metropolis, a 1927 black-and-white considered to be one of the masterpieces of its time (99% on Rotten Tomatoes, folks). The female android in that movie, Maria, is created as a result of romantic obsession and basically becomes a stripper. The Stepford Wives, The Perfect Woman, Westworld; all tales of men building the ideal sexually pliant woman. As Wikipedia puts it, these 20th century robo-babes are “designed according to cultural stereotypes of a perfect woman, being “sexy, dumb, and obedient””.
But that got old. The 80’s gave us Rachel, Deckard’s (conflict of) love interest in Blade Runner, who asserts free will and challenges her non-human status. Now we see characters like those in 2013’s ‘The Machine’ and 2015 critical darling Ex Machina, in which female AIs become self-aware and rise up against their exploitative male keepers, ultimately suggesting that they are the life-form of the future. Ex Machina is kind of a more evolved, feminist take on the Blade Runner relationship. Like Ex Machina’s Ava, Rachel is submitted to a complex Turing Test, and ultimately saves herself when her interrogator falls for her, using a traditional male-female dynamic in her favour. (A totally different approach is Spike Jonze’s Her, which is way too complex to do justice to here). Beyond robots, we have the alien manhunter in Under the Skin, superpsychic Elena in the trancey Beyond the Black Rainbow, and queen bitch Alice in Resident Evil (to name a handful). Like their fictional predecessors, these are super females engineered by men, and their sexuality is foregrounded. But these women don’t stay docile.
In Western philosophy, men are associated with the rational mind, order and reason. Women are associated with the irrational body, nature and chaos. If you want a demonstration, head into the toiletries aisle. Men’s shit is all ‘POWER’ ‘MAGNET’ ‘IMPACT’ ‘TURBO’ in steely greys and chromey silvers, all arrows and angles and techno-jargon. Women’s products are apparently milked from lilies. Bitches get clean by bathing in fruit salad. Women are Mother Nature, unpredictable, unruly. Men are Father Time, regulating and civilised. The animal nature of the body is a threat to the ordered civilisation of the mind. Women need to be watched or we’ll break science, we’ll disrupt the precision of society with emotions and periods and crazy hysterical silliness!
So the superwoman is created, governed and monitored by a man, wielding the power of science to create his perfect female. But good science fiction uses unreal situations to play on very real anxieties. A female body manufactured by science can harness both the power of nature and the power of knowledge, more powerful than a mere (hu)man. In a world where information is power and technology is strength, the neat hierarchy of mind over body, male over female is destabilised.
Women are often victims in pop culture (just watch any episode of CSI or its crime procedural siblings). Under the Skin, Beyond the Black Rainbow and Ex Machina especially show horrifying glimpses of the predatory tendencies of men. The 21st century sci-fi female exploits assumptions, playing up her supposed vulnerability and challenging the narrative of the female victim. Let’s remember that these films are overwhelmingly written and directed by men, so the female characters are created by men both within the story and in reality. These are men depicting the triumph of the future-woman, questioning their own institutional power and the storytelling legacy of the previous century. The future is female, and this is presented as both liberating and scary.
The threat of the feminine gets tied up with the fear of the monster, the android, the inhuman, but in the end the arrogance of the maker is exposed, and the new woman asserts her humanity, refusing to be a tool, an object. These are movies set in the future that are about the present. It’s about the fact that in 2016, female sexuality is still a little scary. About recognising and challenging the way we fetishize and objectify female bodies. And about a time when the limitations of the body and mind are being renegotiated, and what that means for how we understand ourselves, as men, as women and as human beings.