Feminism and the Figure of the Fembot (Part 4.3 of 7)

IV. Imperfect Perfection: The Fembot, the Femme Fatale, and the Male Psyche

The cover of a myth book, depicting Galatae from the myth Pygmalion
Galatea, a creature from the myth Pygmalion. A man creates the perfect woman as a statue and the gods grant her life.

Having established the connection between these two liminal models of femininity, only one question remains unanswered: why create these figures that by their very nature cannot conform to societal established archetypes of womanhood in the first place if they must ultimately be destroyed? Janey Place explains the Femme Fatale’s existence as being based in something she defines as ‘myth’.  “Myth,” she argues, “…gives voice to the unacceptable archetype…the myths of the sexually aggressive woman (or criminal man) first allows sensuous expression of that idea and then destroys it.” So to the Fembot is born out of a myth: the myth of the perfectly constructed woman; a manmade Eve that will be just as perfect and just as subservient as her biblical predecessor.

There are several facets of the Fembot myth that codes the figure as an ‘unacceptable archetype’. First, she falls into the ‘power of God’ taboo, much like Victor Frankenstein’s creation. It is not for man to attempt to perfect God’s natural order; therefore the Fembot’s very existence is an affront to the power of this God. The Fembot is also delineated as unacceptable by the sexual nature of her being. Like her sister the Femme Fatale, she is explicitly sexual – that is her function and her primary way of interacting with the world around her. Unlike the Femme Fatale she is rarely the aggressor in sexual relationships, always bent to and submitted under the will of the male creator, but both figures are, as has been previously noted, barren figures, therefore violating the typical female role of motherhood by refusing to take part in it. Yet perhaps their greatest breach of the natural order that these two archetypes commit is daring to function as intentional beings. The Femme Fatale wants to be more than a wife or a mother, wants to own and control things publicly, and wants to be recognized as a legitimate consciousness wielding individual. “Often the original transgression of the dangerous lady of film noir…is ambition…” (Place 56). For the Fembot, the transgression is two-fold. Not only does she want to step out of her prescribed role of ‘woman’ as defined by ‘man’, but she steps out of her prescribed role of ‘machine’ as defined by ‘creator’. She is a machine that dares to think for herself, a machine that takes control of her own programming. As popular culture has shown time and time again, this is an idea that is truly transgressive.

Given that the characters currently under discussion are created out of the larger myths of society, the question remains why they must ultimately be destroyed. Place continues her myth argument by adding that, “…by its limited expression, ending in defeat, [the] unacceptable element is controlled. For example, we can see pornography as expressing unacceptable needs which are created by the culture itself, and allowed limited (degraded) expression to prevent these socially induced tensions from erupting in a more dangerous form” (Place 48). The fashioning of figures out of myth functions as societal control of individual deviance. By allowing these characters limited existence, society allows for a catharsis of thoughts and desires that would otherwise have no outlet. No outlet, that is, except the actual acting upon by those who fetishize it, thus putting the whole social order at risk anyway. The episode ending in defeat for the mythic figure is key however. The archetype must not be allowed to be thought of as acceptable. Just as the gangsters of the mob films of the fifties and sixties must always end up at the mercy of the law, the Fembot and Femme Fatale must be brought to social ‘justice’ and shown to the world as abnormal and abhorrent figures.

This leads to the more particular examination of what specifically society at large, and in this case a society dominated by men, seeks to destroy that exists within themselves that also exists within these figures. According to Place, Film noir serves as a “…particularly potent stylistic presentation of the sexual strength of woman which man fears” (Place 48). She postulates that men simultaneously desire and fear the sexually ‘liberated’ woman. They are attracted to the idea of sexuality without repercussions, of a woman who seeks carnal pleasures over emotional ones – yet they also recognize that such a woman is beyond the control of men and can operate on her own ideas of ethics and morality. Assuming, as many men of the period did, that women had no sound moral ground outside of what was instilled within them based on sexual taboos and the like, the Femme Fatale morphs into a woman shrouded in villainy. “The sexual, dangerous woman lives in this darkness, and she is the psychological expression of his [man’s] own internal fears of sexuality, and his need to control and repress it” (Place 53). So, Place argues, it is not the myth of female sexuality itself that is trying to be crushed but, “This expression of the myth of man’s ‘right’ or need to control women sexually is in contrast to the dominant version… in film noir, it is clear that men need to control women’s sexuality in order not to be destroyed by it” (Place 48-49). Through controlling the sexuality of the ‘other’, the men within these films seek to control the destructive capability of their own sexuality. “The insistence on combining the two (aggressiveness and sensuality) in a consequently dangerous woman is the central obsession of film noir and…represents the man’s own sexuality, which must be repressed and controlled if it is not to destroy him” (Place 57).

This concept resonates all too well in the Fembot trope. Created out of frustration with the ‘flightiness’ and ‘uncontrollable’ nature of real women, the male creator of the Fembot turns to something he can control, technology, for solace and respite. Feeling the drive of his own sexuality and desiring to ultimately control it rather than be controlled by it (and, by extension, control women rather than be controlled by his need for them), the male creator fashions a woman whom he assumes will be entirely under his control because she is only a machine. This is where the horror story begins, because, perhaps by nature of the very femininity she is programmed to perform, in the end the Fembot proves no more docile or easily reconciled than her human counterparts. This ‘failure’ only highlights where the true faults within the system lie; not with the gendered other but within their own actions and desires. Rather than creating something wholly new outside of themselves, it was really something within themselves for which they were seeking compensation.

Works Cited

Place, Janey. “Women in Film Noir.” Women in Film Noir. Ed. E. Ann Kaylan. London: BFI, 1998. 47-58.

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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.