A Radical Notion: Feminism and the Figure of the Fembot (Part 1 of 7)

I. The Fembot: An Introduction

Photo of a Fembot
Photo by AI WILL DO via Flickr and Creative Commons

“Feminism is the radical notion that women are people”, explains theorists Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler (Mulvaney). Kramarae and Treichler are two of many theorists interested in the figure of femininity in common cultural practices. The field of feminist theory and critique has existed for decades and shows no signs of disappearing. With the rise of the information era, modes of representation have become more numerous and easily accessible. When people can present themselves to the world at large as something other than their physical self, questions begin to rise about what that physical self truly represented in the first place and how individuals communicated and shared this representation with others.

Judith Butler was the first to theorize that “gender is not a performance that a prior subject elects to do, but gender is performative in the sense that it constitutes as an effect the very subject it appears to express” (Butler 24). Butler goes on to cite performances of Butch/Femme and drag as ways in which gender performance is subverted. According to her, these are ways in which people may finally see the edges of the mask of gendered sexuality. These initial theories, published in 1991, have become even more complex with the modern-day figure of the online avatar, a techno-body that is consciously created by a user to their specifications. These avatars communicate the users’ desires of perception, that is, how they want to be perceived by other users on the Internet. In a way, these avatars-as-gender-performances are also drag, in the sense that other users recognize that the avatars they see around them are constructed, completely synthesized and completely unnatural. In cyberspace, all the World Wide Web is a stage, and everyone is performing.

The techno-body, while it may or may not relate to the actual body of the user, is always a gendered body. Whether it is obviously male, obviously female, or pointedly obscure, the bodies in cyberspace still conform to societal expectations of gender. This does not mean, however, that the culturally specific gender stereotypes must be read in the same way. Before the notion of cyberspace came into being, science fiction writers were already playing with the idea of a consciously gendered body, most often in the literary trope of the “fembot”. The fembot character has appeared countless times, in both written fiction and other media forms. She most typically presents as the robotic creation of a man who, for one reason or the other, longs to create the ‘perfect’ woman. The primary function of these fembots is, at least at first, to perform sexual acts for their creators. Yet, by the end of the story, they usually become something much more than their makers originally intended – either too intelligent for the creator to control or too jealous of the life the creator and other human beings lead.

The Fembot closely mirrors a more mainstream archetype, that of the Femme Fatale. Although the two are separated by the great gulf of ‘genre’ and time, their individual conventions inform and influence one another to the point at which they begin to provide meaning for each other in a larger sociological context.

Not human, yet still presenting a gendered human personality, the fembot occupies a liminal space in science fiction. Although read most frequently through the lens of feminist critique, they are much more than a mere platform for the discussion of gender politics. They are, after all, machines, and are often presented as becoming at least semi-conscious by the story’s end. This archetype offers theorists and critics a unique opportunity. When read not just from a strictly feminist point of view, but additionally in context with theories about machine intelligence and debates over technology, the fembot allows us to access a new angle of feminist theory: the woman as machine.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. Ed. Dianes Fuss. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Mulvaney, Becky M. “Gender Differences in Communication: An Intercultural Experience.” Feminism and Women’s Studies: Welcome. Feminism and Women’s Studies, 05 Nov. 2005. Web. 06 Dec. 2010. < http://feminism.eserver.org/gender/cyberspace/gender-differences.txt&gt;.

If you enjoyed this section, you might like to read the rest of this paper:

Published by rsjeffrey

Robin Jeffrey was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming to a psychologist and a librarian, giving her a love of literature and a consuming interest in the inner workings of people’s minds.

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