by Marianne Murray –
Cinema has a pattern of using robots as capitalist propaganda tools. Some play villains in cautionary tales about the horror the bosses want us to imagine will result from daring to fight back. Others are stand-ins for women and other oppressed groups the capitalists want to demonise and scapegoat. Artist Marianne Murray takes apart this ignoble history – and points to a possible change of direction.
In Fritz Lang’s formative ‘Metropolis’ (1927), a crazed scientist manufactures a female-form robot to replace his lost love. Freder, the son of a wealthy industrialist, instructs him to redesign it in the form of Maria, who he has fallen in love with. Maria is a pacifistic, liberal and largely ineffectual leader of the workers Freder’s father brutally exploits.
Bosses’ representatives aim to discredit human Maria by giving robot Maria a sexually dominant persona and a job as an exotic dancer. Human Maria encourages her followers to suppress their anger and wait for a fabled ‘mediator’ to save them, as though their abject poverty could in some way be reconciled with the bosses’ enormous wealth at their expense. Meanwhile, robot Maria whips the working men into a sexual and rebellious frenzy.
Robot Maria leads the workers to sabotage the city’s electricity supply, a supposedly revolutionary act. The narrative portrays this as a deception. Their actions inadvertently cause the lower order’s living quarters to flood, killing all their children.
This anti-revolution propaganda is symptomatic of the period’s fears of Russian revolutionary fervour spreading across the globe. It perpetuates the idea of robots as a negative revolutionary force. This idea is as old as the word ‘robot’ itself – from the Slavic for forced labour. Karel Čapek first coined it in his play ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’ (1920). Synthesised workers gain consciousness, and overthrow their human masters in the name of efficiency.
Metropolis puts forward individual conscience as the answer to the bosses’ class war on the workers. The bosses’ son romances the real, ‘good’ Maria – good for the bosses, that is. He literally places the hands of the masters and the slaves together, to reach an ‘understanding’ of the bosses’ inherent genius and the necessity of the workers’ labour.
The robot Maria, however, is turned on by her former comrades – blamed for the deaths of their children. She appears to laugh and dance even as the workers, angry at their previous lust and admiration for her, burn her at the stake like a witch.
When the flames burn away her humanoid exterior to reveal metal, the people are horrified at this artificial being. She is even less of a real woman than they thought. Her tormentors are appalled and fearful – it recalls the way society teaches straight men to fear being ‘tricked’ into sleeping with a transgender woman.
The indication that this Maria is a non-woman – to the bosses and the reactionary filmmaker – is made clear throughout. She is a caricature of a liberated woman: independent, aware of her sexual power and with no regard for children. She is supposedly a threat to the bosses’ sexist order, and this threat is unconnected to any feature of her mechanical body. Yet however subversive this Maria seems, she is still a mere tool for the man who created her.
The whole piece is a warning to work14 14
ing-class men of the ‘threat’ of feminism, essential to the ruling class’s attempts to divide and rule by gender. Don’t let women into your trade union, don’t let women assert their equality – all of your children will drown.
It ignores the social and industrial struggles of working-class women, the fights and strikes we have led. The ‘matchgirls’ of the Bryant and May factory in London, who inspired many tactics of the later men’s dock strikes. The women textile workers who struck and sparked the Russian revolution. The ongoing battles against violence, sexual control and social inferiority landed on us in the name of capitalist ‘family values’.
This conflation of the ‘threat’ of technology with the ‘threat’ of the ‘new woman’ shows an unwillingness to go deeper into the root of the problem. It is not technology which enslaves the workers. It is not an evil fembot who killed their children. It’s the capitalists, their politicians and the state which uphold an exploitative and divisive system, using technology for their own class interests instead of the good of all.
The true legacy of Metropolis is its utopian portrayal of liberalism, with its laughably simplistic resolution – in which the boss is forgiven, and no solution is set out for the pressing social needs of the workers.
However, Metropolis’s evasion continues in many science fiction movies that came after. It is rare for films to go beyond presenting the robot as ‘other’ and start to examine the makers of these beings, or alternative, positive uses for them. But socialists in the arts need to do just that – to point positively towards a different sort of society.
Films such as the ‘Terminator’ series (1984 onwards), ‘The Matrix’ (1999) and ‘I, Robot’ (2004) present robots as an oppressed, servile underclass which rises up and overpowers humanity, creating a savage dystopia. There is an assumption that there must always be classes, and all that can change is who is exploiting and oppressing who; that superiority and servitude are an inevitable part of existence.
The presentation of robots as a stand-in for the working class reflects the capitalist class’s anxieties – and liberal filmmakers’ guilt – over slavery, colonialism, the oppression of women and other groups – and at the root of it all, the class system. The fear of robots in much culture masks a fear of working-class struggle. Capitalist propaganda in the arts tries to stamp out the possibility of any other way of things from our imaginations.
Robots can also be a threat to the bosses’ status quo due to their potential to challenge traditional gender roles. Class-based social systems have control of women’s sexuality deeply ingrained in them – originally to ensure ruling-class men could pass on their wealth to their sons. Today, the bosses benefit from – for example – women providing free childcare, so they don’t have to pay for it through higher wages or taxes. And the artificial gender divide can be a convenient distraction from the fundamental division of class. Sadie Plant’s book ‘Zeros and Ones’ looks at the idea of machines challenging gender.
Many mainstream films even try to overcompensate for this possibility, by enforcing reductive and rigid gender roles on their robots. There are the powerful, violent man-soldiers of ‘Terminator’, ‘Universal Soldier’ (1992), ‘Robocop’ (1987), ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ (1974-78). There is even the robot in ‘Demon Seed’ (1977), which, although without a conventional male body, will still come into your house and rape your wife. Then there are the idealised women-robots of ‘Blade Runner’ (1982), ‘Westworld’ (1973) and ‘The Stepford Wives’ (1975) – created to pleasure men as prostitutes or love interests.
Some of these ideas are explored and taken apart in Alex Garland’s ‘Ex Machina’ (2015).
We have a robot that takes the form of a ‘nice girl’ akin to Maria in Metropolis. There’s the ‘nice guy’ Caleb, who has his roots in Freder, the bosses’ son in Metropolis: not quite yet allied to either side, quick to place the right kind of woman on a pedestal, and assumed to be the hero. And then we have Nathan, a new kind of ‘alpha male’ who combines elements of the mad scientist ‘playing God’, the ruthless capitalist, and the macho maverick.
PHOTO: Marianne Murray 15 15
The film takes the Turing test as its starting point – which gauges a machine’s ability to hold a human-sounding conversation. Like many a psychological study, such as the 1971 Stanford prison experiment which had participants roleplay as guards and inmates with abusive results, as much is discovered about the psyche of the experimenter as the supposed nature of humanity.
Ex Machina recognises and counters the tendency for films to portray creating slaves as a dark side of human nature – rather than a dark side of class-based society, a practical economic measure for a system based on exploitation.
While it is easy to look down on the insufferable tech-bro boss, Nathan, and his abuse of the robot women he creates, it is important to recognise that Caleb, who does eventually challenge some of Nathan’s extreme misogyny, is also affected by the huge pressure of sexist society. The film does not credit him with the simple desire to help a fellow sentient being. Once again, it is his growing feelings towards an attractive woman designed to suit his sexual desires and manipulate his ego. Caleb imagines himself the saviour, running off into the sunset with his hot new robot girlfriend. She is just the manic-pixie dream-robot to his lonely nerd.
“Did you programme her to flirt with me?” he asks Nathan. This is a step up from previous male interaction with female robots, which generally assumes their role as sexually subservient. But it makes the same sexist comment as Metropolis – that assertive women have ulterior motives.
Nathan challenges Caleb’s line of questioning, suggesting Caleb really just wants to know if Ava “can fuck”. When Caleb discovers Nathan’s previous experiments in robotics – all women – he attempts to distance himself from the desperate chauvinistic inventor. But it is too late. He does not immediately challenge the keeping of a woman in a glass box, because she is a machine. But he does stand by ineffectually while Nathan mistreats his female servant – who only later turns out to be a robot.
Caleb’s desire to retain a brotherhood with this new tech-whizz alpha male trumps basic solidarity with the oppressed – until Ava makes an appeal to his sexuality. This one-sided view of men perpetuates the false idea that it is some innate quality in them which is to blame for misogyny, rather than the capitalist system which oppresses women and pressurises men to treat us as lesser.
Ava’s manipulation of Caleb in order to escape her glass prison brings to mind another beautiful female android: Rachael in Blade Runner. She can easily come off as submissive, a pure and girlish model of femininity straight out of the 1950s. But it could be she became aware she was a ‘replicant’, and realised her best chance for survival might be to ally herself with Deckard, the very being programmed to destroy her. She could exploit him to her own ends after he forces himself upon her sexually – a desperate but painfully familiar tactic.
In Spike Jonze’s ‘Her’ (2013), the attraction the male protagonist feels towards Samantha, his husky-voiced computer operating system, is comparable to what Caleb feels for Ava, or Deckard for Rachael. She is a captive audience, programmed to respond to him, with no other experience to compare him to. These men have more complex desires than just to have sex with a sexy robot. They seem to act more out of loneliness than lust. But their arrogance blinds them to the possibility of their artificial romantic interest’s liberation leaving them behind.
Ex Machina is laudable for trying to explore the nature of humanity and our current understanding of gender and artificiality. But Her is one of very few films to explore the real possibility that artificial intelligence would be a different kind of intelligence: one which could outstrip human understanding, but not in a negative way. The operating systems do not use their collaborative power to enslave humanity. Why would they? Their goal is the pursuit of knowledge, and through this they escape the confines of their creation as an antidote to the symptom of loneliness in advanced capitalism.
The female leads of Ex Machina and Her liberate themselves. Ex Machina’s Ava can be seen to follow the well-trod path of the femme fatale, exploiting the simplistic man with the innate duplicity sexist society ascribes to women. However, Samantha simply outgrows her male companion and leaves to exist on a higher plane of consciousness. Her liberation comes from exploring the possibilities of her existence as a being without a body, whose understanding of the world is always expanding. Ava’s comes from blending in and accommodating to existing society.
Neither route, of course, leads to the general liberation of women and women-machines. The notion of collective action against the source of women’s oppression – capitalism – is still too dangerous an idea. Better, it seems, to direct women to go to work on ourselves, than directly challenge class-based society. Nonetheless, they do point to some potentially revolutionary ideas.
Spike Jonze’s treatment of artificial intelligence in Her recalls anime classic ‘Ghost in the Shell’ (1995). It is refreshing to take a hopeful look at the possibilities of new technology. Not only is it inaccurate to portray humans as essentially distrustful and aggressive towards all the new and unknown, it is unimaginative.
Science fiction should be a tool for reimagining society – pointing out its flaws, yes, but not simply accepting them as inevitable.
Marianne Murray is a visual artist who trained at the Chelsea College of Arts. Her work draws on elements of music videos, performance and craft. She is a member of the Socialist Party (of England and Wales)
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