Robot Women

I had this image in my head that stayed there for over a decade. It was the image of a robotic woman who couldn't understand the violence that was happening to her, and why it was happening to her, seeing as she had been made to be loved. When this image came to me, it was before movies like Ex Machina, and TV shows like Westworld, back in the olden days when the genre of robotic hero stories had yet to merge with feminist storytelling in a prominently mainstream way. (Don't quote me—just DM me your recommendation!)

But I wasn't much of a writer, at that point. Wasn't sure how to fit an idea into a story. It felt like a big idea, or at least it loomed large in my mind, so maybe it should be a novel? Or a script for a short film? I had an idea to convey and no idea how to do that, or what form it should take, or what the story even was. You have a theme, and concept, but what actually happens? Something has to.

Fast forward to now. I don't think Hard Wear is necessarily the culmination of this process, but it's a relief to have taken a step in the right direction and put something out into the world. Sometimes an idea, an image, isn't one story. Sometimes it will be something that will permeate your writing, or take on many forms. For me, "Hard Wear" is one window into that image.

So. Robots. Specifically, robotic women.

Robots are almost always gendered. This makes sense and is also completely illogical, or pathological. It makes sense because the closer that a robot comes to imitating a human being, then the closer they approach human identifiers such as gender. It's also illogical because a robot is a machine, unmoored from biological and evolutionary directives, or societal construction. They are not sexual beings, and yet are made into sexual beings. They should exist outside of a gender binary, and yet very frequently fall into one. (Or zero. Ha! Just a little machine language joke for you there.) And I added 'pathological' because the Western fixation on gendered signifiers, specifically within the context of conformity, often seems to be. As the great Hannah Gadsby once said, there's nothing wrong with a man in a dress, but a bald baby with a pink headband is questionable.

Gendered artificial intelligence is not new—you may have noticed that almost every electronic assistant, such as Siri, Cortana, Alexa, and Google, have female-sounding voices. A quick search brings up this article about how gendered assistants reinforce gender biases, and how programming has shifted and adapted to criticism, such as how these gendered assistants interact with gendered verbal harassment. It's a lively and current conversation.

My thesis, such as it is, isn't that robots should not be gendered any more than I think human beings shouldn't be gendered. (More accurately, I believe that robots don't have to be gendered in the same way I believe that human beings don't, either.) More critically to writing fiction, I believe robots give us an opportunity to ask questions about gender, and reflect on its purpose, its meaning, its function. What does it mean to call something made of silicon and metal and electricity female? What are the qualities attached to that mechanical being that make it so? That it has tits, or, such as in the case of I Am Mother, the job it's been assigned to perform? What did its creators hope to achieve in gendering it as a woman? And what, in the end, does that imply about gender? In my view, it certainly challenges the biological essentialism of gender, the behaviours and interactions encouraged by that gendering, and the supposedly innate social qualities that gender has.

In my story, a robot exists as a series of programmed directives. These directives are female-coded. They are cooking, and cleaning, and fucking. Despite performing these directives to the best of her ability, violence is visited upon her for reasons that exist beyond her understanding, followed by rejection. I shift the aftermath away from her perspective, and so the aftershocks of trauma are left opaque, witnessed from the outside. She removes her face, exposing herself as a mechanical construct, only to be met with continued abuse. "Hard Wear" isn't a happy story—it might not even be a cathartic one. It isn't the revenge narrative of Dolores Abernathy turning a pistol to her human abusers, or clever Ava manipulating human emotion and female vulnerability in pursuit of freedom.

But it's a story, one window, one iteration. Stories about women should be multitudinous, and female liberation should not only be about trauma, in the same way that I hope stories about robotic women won’t always be about sex and love.

Machines learn through data and repetition to develop beyond the things they were programmed to do, but it’s really the hearts and minds of the human beings around them that require adaptation. As long as our imagination about what a woman, what a person can be remains limited, so too will be our stories, our philosophies, and our robots.

Samantha Lane Murphy

Samantha Lane Murphy is a recent graduate from the International Institute of Modern Letters. She writes about robots and lives in Wellington.

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