Betty awoke with a jolt, so disoriented by the strangeness of her surroundings that she forgot that her name was no longer Betty, but Tara.
The fear ebbed out of Tara’s lined face when she realized the pounding she heard was not someone at the door, but some punk kid’s bass, blaring down the streets of the suburb she was forced to call home.
She glanced at the body depressing the mattress beside her, tamping down the feelings of disgust which always rushed over her now when she looked at her husband, who she used to call ‘George’ but now called ‘Nick’ and who the papers were calling ‘the snitch’.
Nick rolled over, eyes firmly shut. “You alright, baby?”
“I’m fine. Go back to sleep. And don’t call me baby.”
Tara collapsed back into the mattress, her short hair scratching the back of her neck. She thought about the neighbors they entertained at the barbecue yesterday; mostly fat men with skinny wives and noisy, bad-mannered children. The only one she’d really liked was Roger from across the street; his tanned face, easy smile, the way he smoked his foreign cigarettes, smelling like jasmine and charcoal.
She drifted for a moment in that space between sleep and wakefulness; Roger had been so genuine, so real. She liked that.
In the house across the street, Roger, recently Guido of New York City, looked out his window. He smiled, taking another drag on his cigarette. He was supposed to be lying low, staying inconspicuous according to the feds. But he couldn’t stop thinking about the woman who moved in across the street last week; all soft hands, tired eyes and smelling like a garden rose. After all the lies and deceit, it was refreshing to meet someone so honest; so real.
My family has always been a museum family. As a child I remember that our outings included trips to museums five times as often as they did shopping or going to the movies. Vacations were filled with visits to aquariums, zoos, local historical archives, and civil war battlefields, where I would stand on the ground hundreds of men had died upon and feel humbled by the immensity of knowledge which sat forever beyond my reach.
I grew up in a small town called Ellicott City in Maryland, smack dab in the middle of the Baltimore/Washington Corridor. The Smithsonian Museums in D.C. became like second homes to me; I can’t begin to estimate the number of times we visited each site and I can’t describe to you now how much I miss all of them.
My sister and I were always allowed souvenirs from these treasure troves. All too often they were cheap, plastic things with the names of the museum stamped in sparkly ink on one side, but every so often one of us would pick up something really good. One of my sister’s acquisitions now hangs on my wall, a gift from a muse to her author.
I don’t remember seeing the painting in the National Gallery of Art, but we must have passed it. Megan picked up a small, wood-backed print of the piece, titled “Street in Venice”. It hung on the wall next to her bed for a year or so before I noticed it. I gave it a glance at last when my sister, tired of listening to me whine about my lack of ideas for a story writing project I was being forced to do in my English class, gestured to it and said, “I have plenty of pictures; just look at one of them and make up a story to match.”
And so I did. And a lifelong addiction to creative writing was born.
“Street in Venice” is one of the thousands of paintings John Singer Sargent put on canvas during his long career. An expatriate American who spent almost all of his life in Europe, John Singer Sargent was best known in his time for his evocative and sometimes scandalous portraits of the elite and aristocratic. He learned from the old masters of portraiture; Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Diego Velázquez. He traveled extensively in both the United States and Europe, painting genre scenes of picaresque sections of cities like Madrid, the countryside of Holland, and Venice. Shortly after making London his permanent home, Sargent visited and worked with Claude Monet at Giverny, where it is thought he first gained his taste for the watercolor medium, impressionistic style, and his desire to paint murals and landscapes.
According to the National Gallery of Art, Sargent’s “Street in Venice”, painted in 1882, was done on the spot and in the moment. It shows the inside of a narrow back alley near the Grand Canal, called Calle Larga dei Proverbi, which roughly translates to the ‘wide street of Proverbs’. What truth or lesson Sargent’s scene is supposed to teach is up to the interpretation of the viewer. But for me, the girl with tattered skirts and a ragged wrap, out from under which peeks a bright-colored top, her pinned back hair falling into her eyes: she spoke to me, and she continues speaking, of a hard life lived and a defiance to keep on keeping on. The man in the doorway gazes at her, but she pays him no mind, continuing on her way with a tired expression and a petulant kicking of her hem over the cobbled street. She is alone and she prefers to remain alone, carrying whatever she has to carry under her own power.
I feel a kinship to her worn bravado. Chasing a dream is hard work; it’s something you do running on hopes and prayers and very often tears. But I’ve committed, and I’m not looking back or looking for help carrying my burdens. When I succeed, I’ll know that all the long hours, all the loneliness, and all the toil was worth it.
I keep the picture in my kitchen. Not the most auspicious setting for it, perhaps, but I enjoy looking at it in the morning after I’ve stumbled out of bed, tired and threadbare, eyes barely open as I arrange my pills for the day on the counter. That woman hasn’t stopped walking once; she knows where she’s going and she’s going to get there. If she can do it, maybe I can to.
What about you? What story does the picture suggest to your imagination? Do you have a piece of artwork like this that inspires and motivates you? I’d love to hear about it!
II. Techno-Politics and Gender Politics: Conflict in the Fembot
The question then becomes how our attitudes towards technology inform our attitudes towards gender as seen in the figure of the Fembot in popular science fiction literature. The Fembot is a figure composed of equal parts machine and programmed femininity. In each narrative, the Fembot becomes a site for debate, either between herself and her creator or others around her. The way in which this liminal creature is treated as an ‘intelligent’ or ‘conscious’ machine is dependent upon which theories of computer intelligence the author is drawing from. The topic of machine consciousness has been debated most notably by the likes of Alan Turing and John Searle.
Alan Turing postulated that a machine’s intelligence could be proved by passing what he called “The Imitation Game”, what has since become better known as the “Turing Test”. The original parameters of this test involved a human “interrogator” asking questions of two other subjects that he cannot see or hear. One of these subjects is a human being and the other is a computer. Both are trying to convince the “interrogator” through their answers that they are a certain gender, male or female. Turing postulated that the questions of “‘What will happen when a machine takes the part of A in this game?’ Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman?” successfully replaced and answered the original query of “Can machines think?” If a computer could successfully convince the human “interrogator” that it was a human being of either gender, it had proved its intelligence (Turing).
Since its inception, theorists in the AI, or Artificial Intelligence, field as well as in the humanities have hotly debated the “Turing Test”. Many argue that it takes no intelligence to imitate behavior. They argue that any computer can be programmed to perform a task such as the one described above; doing so does not prove consciousness. While Turing argues that “the polite convention that everyone thinks” should be equally applicable to technology, others like John Searle argue fiercely against it. In his essay Minds, Brains, and Programs Searle postulates that the claim that because one “attribute[s] cognition to other people [one] must in principle also attribute it to computers” is so flawed that it is barely worth refuting. “The problem in this discussion is not about how I know that other people have cognitive states,” Searle argues, “but rather what it is that I am attributing to them when I attribute cognitive states to them…it couldn’t be just computational processes and their output because the computational processes and their output can exist without the cognitive state” (Searle). For Searle, the question is one of intentionality. In his opinion, a computer has no acts that are intentional – they are only the response to pre-programmed stimuli and represent no actual thought. Computers are tools, and as tools they don’t have any intentionality driving the work assigned to them by more mentally advanced beings, namely humans.
It is within this discussion that the link between arguments about machine intelligence and the issue of femininity becomes clearer. Throughout history, philosophers have postulated that the female gender does not have the capacity for independent thought. They have been barred from voting, owning property – they have been so disenfranchised that in fundamental ways they have become property at various points in human history. Like the machine they are a thing to be owned for the benefit of the owner. Private whims and pleasures are inconceivable, unless linked to the pleasing of the ‘master’. I argue that this attitude towards woman was and is at least partially informed by the idea that women, just like the property they are being leveled with, have no intentionality. The very concept that they are incapable of the level of necessary thought to make rational decisions based on relevant data is another way of saying that they lack the ability to direct themselves. It is the exact opposite of Turing’s proposal: if we can’t prove that they think, then it’s safe to assume that they don’t.
I love waking you up just before I disappear into the freezing black of a winter’s morning, when I’m dressed in something flattering, professional, and uncomfortable, and you’re still naked, nestled between the sheets and our electric blanket like a flower petal pressed between two pages in a book.
I love waking you up, the light from the living room slipping in behind me through the bedroom door like a shy child, erratically illuminating pieces of the scene: your tangled mop of brown hair, your muscled arms, the rumpled sheets from where I fell asleep without you the night before; and I know I must look like a shadow as I creep towards you, my sock-clad feet rustling over the cheap brown carpet.
I love waking you up, especially when I know you only came to bed two or three hours ago, when I can tell you’re in a deep sleep by your heavy breathing, by the stillness of your limbs, and by the way you don’t roll over when I sit next to you on the creaky mattress, and I reach up to touch your forehead or your ear or your shoulder to try and bring you shuddering back to consciousness.
I love waking you up because you look at me through those tired blue eyes, realize who and what I am, and you smile and reach for me and say, “Good morning,” and I let you pull me down onto your bare chest while pretending, for the moment, that I have decided not to brave the cold and the boredom that lies ahead and instead stay at home in bed with you.
I love waking you up because when you hold me there, with the sheets bunching up between our bodies, and you tell me that you love me, and you tell me that you don’t want me to go, and you tell me that you miss me, I can whisper all the things I want to say to you when you’re awake, all those intimate confessions, all those things I’m too shy to admit to feeling for fear of your rejection I can say them then because I know that you never remember what I say to you when you’re in this half-conscious state as I wake you up to say goodbye. I can be honest and I can believe you because I know you’re too tired to lie to me then, too tired to invent what you think I want to hear.
I love waking you up. I love saying goodbye and I love closing the door behind me and hearing you turn back over to sleep and I love knowing for certain that while you might not remember me going, I remember you saying you’d miss me and I know you actually meant it for once.
“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.