Cyberwoman's Origins: Sexy (& Sexist?)
by Echo Fain
Author's Warning: I'm playing Devil's Advocate here, in places.
'There's a very long history of sexy, pneumatic, hydraulic women in science fiction.' --Russell T. Davies, "Torchwood Declassified".
Let's face it, science fiction has a history of being sexist. It's been said a lot recently and while it's possible that robotic women are used to objectify the human female form, sometimes it is more about the question of history. Robotic form fascinates us; it is the same but different. A perfect robotic woman would be woman-like without all the icky human foibles and flaws. Humanity seeks progress and perfection, often at the same time. The more human the gynoid looks, the better we like and/or fear it.
We ask ourselves about the ghost in the machine, about what lays between head and hands in a being that has no heart. Can a woman without a heart be a woman? If not, is that why it's okay to objectify her? Is it okay? If the robot is a woman, does that mean she has a soul?
Pretty philosophical questions.
We'd all like to say that it's because science fiction is a male-dominated genre that it is relatively slow to change and, historically speaking, often contains examples of what sweaty-palmed boys everywhere have found attractive and desirable in the arenas of sex and violence. Sure, okay, that's true. To some extent. But it's only part of the bigger picture of where science fiction comes from. Modern science fiction seems to be the weird Scylla-like hybrid of at least two disparate parents; combinations of science-based fiction, adventure, paranormal, and fantasy are just a few of them.
The female automaton has her true antecedents in antiquity's mythos. As James Strong, the director of Torchwood's first series episode "Cyberwoman" has said, she is an iconic image. She might be the fodder of a teenage boy's wall posters now, but that was not always the case.
Pandora was a woman created of inanimate materials by a vengeful god and meant to be alluring and perfect. Pygmalion's Galatea was carved as an expression of devotion to perfection in womanhood. You can call the Frankenstein monster's bride a sister here. By the definition of 'created', this also includes Eve of the Abrahamic tradition, as the woman who serves as a bespoke helpmeet.
The gynoid or cyborg woman features in many literary works going back to the early 19th century with the robot character Olimpia from the German short story "Der Sandmann" by E. T. A. Hoffman (1816). She was delightfully silent, being capable of saying only 'Ah, ah' in response to all conversation directed at her. She danced beautifully and was lovely to see and was completely empty-minded, the ideal woman for a gentleman of the times. Perfect, obedient, silent and beautiful.
Another literary example can be seen with the android named Andreide from the 1886 novel L'Eve future by Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam.
And we won't even go into Isaac Asimov. That's a different conversation altogether.
The earliest movie with a female robot character was the German film Metropolis (1927), a socialist story concerning the struggle between the working class and their upper-class overseers, those who own the means of production. Maria seems perfect and beautiful and all things that an intelligent but idealized woman should be. Better yet, she has a reputation among the workers as a revolutionary. For much of the story, Maria is, in fact, a created model used to discredit the real woman whom she is made to mimic. The android urges the workers of the undercity to rebel against their 'masters' and the machines, following her programming to mimic the real Maria. She leads the revolution which then turns against her. She dies, burned at the stake, fire providing the revelation of her true identity as an automaton.
Robot women, in many cases, are portrayed as subservient and sexually perfect facsimiles, but the modern movies and television shows in which they are embedded are, in some important cases, social commentary or deliberately tongue-in-cheek forms of sexism. Often the message is missed because of how easy on the eyes a female android or cyborg is.
In 1975, the film The Stepford Wives revealed a satirical version of the Cult of Domesticity lifestyle. It features suburban middle-class men who have replaced their wives with submissive and docile gynoid twins who could and would be all that their husbands desired. This gender conflict story comes from the 1972 novel of the same name, penned by Ira Levin; the film was remade in 2004 but has been stripped of its real meanings, its feminist message lost.
On Star Trek: Voyager, we see a Borg female named Seven of Nine who becomes a sex symbol. This is not the first time a Borg female has appeared on Star Trek as a source of sexual interest. In the Next Generation movie, First Contact, the cyborg species is revealed to be a collective hive mind with a semi-independent Queen at the center.
On Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there is April and the Buffy-bot, both gynoids created as objects of sexual gratification. Joss Whedon seems to have been pointing out the very obvious about nerd men in their early twenties and what they might do if given the skills and knowledge to create android lifeforms. Of course they'll create a robot that is the perfect girlfriend. What else would they do?
In the movie AI (Artificial Intelligence, 2001), there is Rouge City where robot lovers can be procured with ease; Joe and Jane are two android characters who work as prostitutes with meters embedded in their flesh and the ability to change certain aspects of their appearance with little more than the twitch of a finger or a shake of their head. We only see Jane for a moment, but there's no mistaking that she is a sexbot and probably turning tricks in much the same fashion as Joe, who can even play appropriate music for his clients.
And then, with Blade Runner (1982), there are Pris the sexbot, Zhora the assassin-bot, and Rachael who believes that she is truly human. They represent three views of a female spectrum in culture and behavior and yet, being replicants, are all subject to the same laws of existence. They only live for a handful of years. Relatively speaking, Rachael's lifespan is going to be just as short as the other replicants', no matter how different she might be.
The difference in how they are treated by the protagonist, Deckard, is telling; the class-driven sexism is hard to miss. Intelligent and classy Rachael has been implanted with false memories and behaves like a human, appears to be in a socially-secure position. Deckard falls in love with her. Less intelligent Pris is very punk, a product of deliberate dystopia who is desperate to survive; Deckard kills her. Also given average intelligence and working as an exotic dancer to hide among the humans on Earth, the extremely dangerous but sexually intriguing Zhora is shot in the back and 'retired'.
T-X in Terminator 3, Cameron from Sarah Connor Chronicles, the fembots of Austin Powers, the classically-named Galatea in Bicentennial Man...the list of hot robot females goes on and on and on, both in literary and televisual formats, and while many of them are unique in their own ways, most are sexualized to make them potent to the human imagination. Many are also less intelligent than their human creators, easily manipulated.
What does this have to do with Ianto Jones? Ianto hid a buxom, half-converted Cyberwoman in the Hub's sub-levels. He is, when he leans in to tenderly kiss Cyber-Lisa, representative of every science fiction writer who ever lifted pen to describe a sexually attractive female whose body was enhanced or even wholly created by metal and whose mind could (potentially) be manipulated by her creator.
Ianto isn't overwhelmed by the cybernetic changes to Lisa's body; he's had time to get accustomed to the differences. He was brave enough to pull his girlfriend out of a conversion unit in the first place and move her (and the unit) to Cardiff from London. He seems capable of seeing the remains of a strong human woman under the metal and cyborg enhancements, even if Ms. Hallett's human heart doesn't really exist anymore.
In this way, Ianto is brother to Mister Universe in the Joss Whedon movie, Serenity (2005), the reclusive techno-geek hacker who marries a gynoid named Lenore. He might even be comparable to Gary and Wyatt from the John Hughes cult classic, Weird Science (1985), who create a perfect woman (another Lisa!) to ease their hopeless need for female companionship in the face of being bullied outcasts.
But. There is a big difference between Ianto Jones and those other lads.
Ianto doesn't want Lisa to be perfect or cyborg or even obedient; he wants his girlfriend back, fully human once again. In this way, he is similar to the vampire Spike, on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who decides he's not happy with his Buffy-bot because he prefers the snarky human woman whose mission in life is to kill vampires and demons, making her his natural enemy.
Ianto Jones isn't trying to save a subservient girlfriend or create an ideal woman. For our favorite tea boy, Lisa represents those things which he lost at the Battle of Canary Wharf. She is a friend and lover who needs healing. We suffer with Ianto as the last shreds of his innocence are lost in the moments before her final death, when he realizes that Jack is right: there is no coming back from a Cyber-conversion, even an unfinished one.
I did the Hawkeye test on the idea of Cyberwoman.
The Hawkeye test is part of the Hawkeye Initiative, designed to draw attention to how hypersexualized and unrealistic female superheroes and protagonists appear in the cover art of books, graphic novels, magazines, and comics. The idea is to replace the female with a male dressed in similar costume and in similar pose. If the male looks ridiculous, then the art is considered sexist.
I imagined a hunky naked male in incomplete cyborg armor, half-converted to a Cyberman, and decided that, yes, it is sexism, but only in the way that eye candy of any kind is sexist. If the roles were reversed, with Lisa Hallett joining the Cardiff team in order to save a half-converted Ianto Jones, the reaction may have been just as sensually provocative. Make your half-converted Cyberman from a handsome man and the results would not change; the horror of a Cyberman is intensified by its newfound hybrid look. It is no less sexist but calls into question whether the episode could have been used as the show's selling point. Could Russell T. Davies have sold 'Torchwood' with the idea of a Cyberman who was a half-naked male?
Either way, the show would have stood out with this unique take on the classic Doctor Who alien hell-bent on upgrading every living creature they encounter. But, sci-fi is always seen as much more exciting when there's sex added to the story and between the two, a half-converted Cyberwoman gets far more wolf whistles than her counterpart, the half-converted Cyberman.
I suppose the producers could have sold the show's premise with the suggestion of a voluptuously three-breasted green alien assassin sent to find and kill Jack Harkness for crimes against another planet's sexual conduct laws.
You know...one of those times when he didn't go back to apologize.
Photo source: BBC Torchwood