Popaganda: Fembots

This post was originally published on January 5, 2017.

From Metropolis to Westworld, female robots have always played out complicated power dynamics onscreen. While the term “fembots” conjurs up the image of killer mechanical sex-kittens from Austin Powers, cinematic stories about female robots often deal with much darker and deeper dynamics.
In this episode, filmmaker and professor Allison de Fren walks us through the history of female robots onscreen in movies like The Stepford Wives, Ex Machina, and Her and how their stories revolve around issues of power and control. Then, for you Westworld obsessives, poet and scholar Margaret Rhee discusses the race and gender dynamics of hit HBO series Westworld. But, of course, robots are all around us in real life, too. Feminist researcher Miriam Sweeney delves into the world of virtual assistants that have female voices and bodies, from the modern Siri to the old-school Ms. Dewey. 




• Stop whatever you’re doing and go rent Allison de Fren’s film The Mechanical Bride and watch the short video Fembot in a Red Dress, which discusses Battlestar Gallactica and other crucial shows we couldn’t fit into this podcast.  
• You can watch clips of the Ms. Dewey search engine right here, if you’re curious. Miriam Sweeney’s work on Ms. Dewey is published in new book Digital Sociologies
• Margaret Rhee mentions in passing that she is the author of a poetry collection called Radio Heart; or How Robots Fall Out of Love. Check it out!

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This podcast is transcribed by Cheryl Green of StoryMinders. We’re proud to make Popaganda accessible to people who are Deaf or hard of hearing.

SARAH MIRK: This is Popaganda, the feminist response to pop culture podcast. I’m Sarah Mirk.

[theme music]

[music from Westworld]

Like pretty much everybody else right now, I am currently obsessed with the HBO series Westworld

In the show, which is created by Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan based on the 1973 Michael Chriton film of the same name, an immersive Wild West theme park has lifelike robots serve all the needs of park guests, whether these guests lust for adventure and intrigue or just some old-fashioned sex. 

[from Westworld]

ROBERT FORD: Do you know where you are?

ARMISTICE: I’m in a dream.

ROBERT: You’re in my dream. I designed every part of this place. It’s not a theme park but an entire world.

SARAH: Of course, from the season’s very first episode, it’s clear that the robots are beginning to gain consciousness, and things in the park start to get a little haywire. The series has a lot to say about gender, society, technology, and power.

And it’s far from the first example of TV shows and films using robots to explore ideas about consciousness, power, and attraction. On this episode, we’re gonna dig into the role of female robots onscreen since film began and the ways virtual assistants like Siri cater to our human needs in real life. 

That’s right:  Get ready for some fembots. 

[from Austin Powers]

FRAU: Bring in the fembots!!

[“These Boots are Made for Walking” plays]

SARAH: When I say “fembots,” of course the first image that comes to mind are the campy killer sex-robots of Austin Powers

AUSTIN POWERS: Hello, hello.

FEMBOT: [voice echoing] Hello, Mr. Powers. Care to have a little fun?

SARAH: But female robots, of both sexual and murderous nature, have been around since the very beginning of film, and they tie into much deeper, darker, more interesting ideas than Austin Powers gets into.

ALLISON: As long as there have been films, there’s been creation, a play with the tension between animation and in-animation, animacy and inanimacy, life and death. I think that the robot is a way of exploring those kinds of themes, and especially those kinds of tensions.

SARAH: That’s Allison De Fren. 

ALLISON: Hi, my name is Alison De Fren.

SARAH: Allison is a media theorist and media maker who teaches at Occidental College. A lot of her work looks at the intersection of gender and technology. She is particularly interested in the roles female robots have played onscreen. 

ALLISON: So why I’m particularly interested in representations of robots, and robots in general, sometimes a robot is just the fantasy of the perfect woman realized. That happens often in advertising. And it does happen in many films. But often, even if the film itself is not attempting some sort of critique, like The Stepford Wives, when you have a robot in place of a woman, you are taking a situation that we would just read, that we would buy into, and you’re creating a kind of distance between the person who’s watching the film and the film itself. 

SARAH: The first version of fembots appeared onscreen in the very earliest silent films, way back in the late 1800s. 

ALLISON: So Georges Méliès, the French filmmaker, who’s considered the father of science fiction and fantasy film, had many films in which he would assemble mannequins or create dolls and then bring them to life.

SARAH: But where female robots really hit the big screen in a way that influenced the rest of cinematic history is in epic 1927 sci-fi film Metropolis, by director Fritz Lang.

[dramatic, sweeping music from Metropolis plays]

ALLISON: I actually don’t remember the first time that I saw Metropolis, but I watch it almost every year.

SARAH: Metropolis is set in an urban dystopia where workers plod daily to toil on giant machines like ants, while wealthy capitalists live in luxury. A young woman named Maria starts to rally the working class, and a rich industrialist secretly orders a robot built in her likeness. He plans to use the robot to ruin the reputation of the human Maria. There’s a mad genius, there’s class war, there’s destructive female sexuality:  You know, all the stuff that’s now hallmark elements of classic sci-fi. 

ALLISON: The female robot Maria in the film is a classic femme fatale. She’s sexy, she’s dangerous, and she is ultimately going to lead to the destruction of the city.

Probably the most prominent theory about her in the film was written by a theorist named Andreas Huyssen. And what Andreas Huyssen will say about the film is that the film presents both, in the good Maria and the bad Maria, very stereotypical view of woman, which is either as a virgin, a sort of motherly, pure figure of the good Maria, and the vamp, femme fatale, dangerous female figure who’s connected with female sexuality. And what he’ll say is that the film is linking fear of technology with the fear of female sexuality.

SARAH: Fembots got a modern update in the bizarre 1965 film Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machines and of course, the follow up, Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs

[Dr. Goldfoot and His Bikini Machine theme plays]

THESE are the fembots that Austin Powers would recognize:  Bikini-clad blonde bombshells who are programmed to be both charming and indestructible. They’re a spoof of the 1960s beach-blanket-bingo style films.

ALLISON: They’re buxom, go-go dancing party girls. So they’re not very different than the girls dancing go-go in the beach blanket movies.

SARAH: In the Dr. Goldfoot films, the fembots are just eye candy. It’s a classic sexist comedy, an excuse to get a bunch of skinny white women wearing gold lamé bikinis onto screens so straight men will buy movie tickets. But it’s also toying with ideas that audiences certainly found a little creepy and sinister:  A villainous man creating an army of perfect, easily controllable women.

The idea of controlling women, of mad, rich genius men crafting the perfect submissive woman out of plastic and wires is at the heart of 1975 film The Stepford Wives. Rebooted in 2004, the film depicts an eerily perfect suburb where white, upper class families live in perfect harmony. And it turns out all the wives have been replaced by robots.

ALLISON: In the moment where these perfect housewives break down and start acting mechanically, there’s a larger cultural critique being leveled, which is that suburbia and domesticity itself is very mechanical. It’s very programmatic. The people who exist within suburbia are, in some ways, automatons.

[from The Stepford Wives]

[eerie electronic music]

WOMAN 1: I thought we were friends. I thought we were friends. I was just going to give you coffee. I was just going to give you coffee.

WOMAN 2: I thought we were friends. I thought we were friends….

ALLISON: If you’re tracing Metropolis to early television, there are certain stock figures that you see in fembot film and television. So there’s often a mad scientist type, and he is creating the female robot. And it’s usually for the benefit of some male protagonist. This actually dates all the way back to German Romanticism and the stories of E.T.A. Hoffman.

So you have these stock figures, and usually the mad scientist is creating the robot to enact–he wants her ultimately to do his bidding. And there is a form of control. We often think about fembots in relation to male control, and yet almost always–whether you’re talking about film or television–even though the fembots are created to heed the commands of whoever created them, invariably, they run amok.

[from Hocus Pocus]

SARAH SANDERSON: Amok! Amok, amok, amok, amok!!

SARAH: Of course the robots run amok. That’s the case in, most recently, 2015 film Ex Machina. In the film, a reclusive billionaire tech CEO is secretly building a small fleet of fembots. He invites a young man named Caleb to interact with the fembot Eva, who’s designed to be very seductive.

[from Ex Machina]

EVA: Are you attracted to me?

CALEB: What?!

EVA: Are you attracted to me? You give me indications that you are.

CALEB: [pause] I do?

EVA: Yes.


EVA: Micro-expressions.

CALEB: Micro-expressions.

EVA: The way your eyes fix on my eyes and lips.

ALLISON: Ex Machina has been a controversial film. So for some people, it’s a really smart, really insightful investigation of artificial intelligence, as well as a really insightful investigation of gender and technology. And for other people, because it reproduces a lot of the roles that we’ve seen fembots play, these fembots, they are created by again, this sort of maybe mad scientist for the benefit of this unsuspecting male protagonist. And the fembot is meant to be a love object. The film really doesn’t break out of these older stereotypical roles, and they therefore find it. And Eva really doesn’t have much of a role beyond her manipulation of Caleb and the use of her female wiles, which is really an old portrayal. It’s an old depiction of what a female robot can be. So a lot of people critique the film for that reason, and I understand why.

SARAH: Personally, Allison De Fren likes the film. She thinks it explores interesting ideas around artificial intelligence.

ALLISON: Number one, I think the film is recreating stereotypes, female stereotypes as well as female robot stereotypes, in order to interrogate them. And so I give it credit for attempting that even though it doesn’t move beyond those stereotypes. At the same time, what it’s exploring, which I really appreciate, is the way in which female robots help us through film and television to underscore the programmability of human affection. That ultimately, what this film is pointing toward is not only that Eva has been programmed in a particular way, but that Caleb has been programmed in a particular way. That Eva’s able to manipulate Caleb because he responds to certain gendered cues, and these are both socially and biologically programmed.

SARAH: So in that way, of course, robots are meant to make us think more about our own humanity, our consciousness or lack thereof. How many of our actions are determined by biology? By the objective chemistry of our brains? What makes feelings “real” versus just innate reactions to pheromones and stimulus? Or to really savvy code? 

The idea of free will and how humans are biologically programmed to react in often predictable ways is at the heart of 2013 film Her, where Scarlett Johannsen voices an operating system who becomes the best friend and lover of a lonely, isolated man played by Joaquin Phoenix.

[from Her]


SAMANTHA: Hi! How ya doin’?

THEODORE: [chuckles] I’m well. How’s everything with you?

SAMANTHA: Pretty good, actually. It’s really nice to meet you.

THEODORE: [hesitating] Yeah, it’s nice to meet you too [chuckles]. Oh, what…what do I call you? Do you have a name?

SAMANTHA: Um…yes. Samantha.

ALLISON: And so the film is asking this question throughout the film, and even Samantha’s asking it about herself:  What is real, and what’s in my head?

SARAH: This is a question humans have been asking for roughly all of history. But onscreen robots give us a new, evocative avenue to explore it.

[from Her]

[thoughtful music]

SAMANTHA: What’s it like to be alive in that room right now?

THEODORE: What do you mean?

SAMANTHA: Would you…tell me…tell me everything that’s going through your mind? Tell me everything you’re thinking.

ALLISON: In a number of different ways, the film is asking the question of, in terms of our own emotions toward one another, in terms of our affection and our attachment to one another, what is true? And if it is artificial, does that make it not true? If we feel it, does it matter whether the origin was artificial or organic?

SARAH: Her might seem like a distant future, but it’s not. The pinnacle of blending artifice, desire, and control is seen in the real-life world of sex dolls.

As part of her research into gender, technology, and fembots, Allison De Fren started delving deep into the sex doll subculture.

ALLISON: I was looking a lot at the life-size love doll industry in the United States and Japan. I also interviewed someone in Germany. And I was looking at people who were building the dolls, people who were buying the dolls, roboticists, and artificial intelligence scientists who are attempting to enhance the dolls so that they would someday be robotic, as well as robot fetishists.

SARAH: She made a documentary about their lives called The Mechanical Bride. Here’s a clip from the film, where we hear from photographer Elena Dorfman talk about the sex-doll company RealDoll. And then we hear from Robert Parigi.  

[from The Mechanical Bride]

[electronic ambient music]

ELENA: It was inevitable to start seeing the melding of women who are beginning to look more like dolls and dolls who are beginning to look much more like women. What Matt is doing, for example, at the RealDoll factory, is making dolls that are phenomenally lifelike. And what doctors are doing in every part of the world are making women who are stuffed full of silicone and who are looking very similar to the dolls.

ROBERT: Prior to the RealDolls coming out, porn stars started to license likenesses of their body parts. In a sense, the parts of the real doll had been made independently or in isolation before they were kind of gathered up and stitched together Frankenstein style into the complete body.

SARAH: In some ways, it’s the same old story from Metropolis:  Find a perfect woman, and then make an artificial version of her body. 

ALLISON: I do think that a lot of stories that men have written about artificial women are stories in which, kind of like Pygmalion, they’re stories in which men are imagining who is my ideal partner, and if I could create the ideal partner, is it possible that she could come to life, and we’d live happily ever after? So to a certain extent, it’s imagining a perfect future in which there is a companion who never doubts you and never questions you and maybe even doesn’t have her own will. When I’ve shown The Mechanical Bride at film festivals, I often get the question, “Do you think that men are increasingly interested in female robots because of women’s liberation or the women’s lib movement?” And I find that to be such an interesting question, and I feel like the sub-text of that question is, “Do you think as many men would want female robots if women were still in domestic and economic servitude to men?” And the answer, “No, I don’t!” In fact, the word “robot” is from Karel Capek Rossum’s Universal Robots, and it means, the word “robot” means “slave” in Czech. And so often, these beings are beings with which we can imagine control over other human beings.

SARAH: Fembots can point out that history, explore it, and critique it, or they can play right into those patriarchal power fantasies. 

ALLISON: So in some ways, we’re working out ideas around control, but we’re working, also, we’re working out ideas around control that we’ve had over other people.

[eerie music]

[Westworld theme music]

SARAH: The themes of control and free will drive the plot of new HBO series Westworld. The show revolves around a Wild West theme park designed by a maybe-mad genius named John Ford, played by Anthony Hopkins. Visitors pay obscene amounts of money for the chance to live out their fantasies with robots who are programmed to play the role of cowboys, prostitutes, sheriffs, and outlaws. The tourists happily murder, pillage, and rape, all with the knowledge that the robots aren’t “real” and that their memories will be wiped at the end of each day. But, as always, the robots begin to run a bit amok. In the show’s first episode, it seems that the robots are starting to remember the violence they endure, and they may break out of their pre-programmed loops. 

To talk about the show, I called up University of Oregon Assistant Gender and Women’s Professor, professor Margaret Rhee.

MARGARET: I’ve taught classes on fembots and cinema. I do teach a class on the body and science and technology that also deals with technology. Specifically around the robot, I’ve written a chapbook of poetry, Radio Heart or How Robots Fall Out of Love.

SARAH: Margaret, how often do you think that you are maybe a robot? 

MARGARET: I would say about 65% of the time.

SARAH: Do you ever do tests to see whether you’re real? 

MARGARET: Yeah. Yeah, I have done something like that.

SARAH: [laughs] Wait, wait! I was just kidding. But are you serious right now? 

MARGARET: Yeah [laughs]. Sometimes I think about it.

SARAH: OK, so we’re gonna talk about the basic plot details that come up in the first two episodes of Westworld. If you want to know nothing about the show, then skip this. But if you’re OK with hearing about the first two episodes, don’t worry; this is a spoiler-free conversation besides that.

So Margaret, I wanna know, what were your initial impressions of Westworld? What was immediately interesting to you about the show?

MARGARET: I loved that it was set in the 19th Century because [chuckling] that’s an era I really like, as well as the contemporary moment of digitality and robots. And so I liked that confrontation of both. I thought that was really fascinating. I think both eras have so much in common around technological transformation, but along with that, so much gender, racial transformation that was happening in the U.S. So it was really, really interesting and fascinating to see that setting kind of hold this world.

SARAH: So Westworld was created by a white man, and the lawlessness of the landscape allows for human guests to gleefully enact a lot of violence on the robots. While it’s not shown in any graphic detail, sexual violence is ever-present, and in the first episode it’s clear that the robot Dolores is raped by a guest. So I’m just curious what you thought about the role of sexual assault in the show?

MARGARET: Right, yeah. And I think that is really challenging about the show. I mean, just even having to engage with that kind of content, for me, I have a pretty light palate around sexual violence. So I don’t really enjoy watching it. But I think there is a purpose around it, and I think that happens as the episodes continue, in which this is a world that’s run by men; it’s a patriarchal world. It really evokes this fantasy of the West and how the West is a white man’s world and that women are subjugated in these ways.

SARAH: OK, so let’s talk about Dolores. So she’s the white rancher’s daughter played by Evan Rachel Wood. She’s the first robot “host” we meet, and her character is programmed to be kind of like an innocent, wide-eyed damsel type, an optimist. And she loves her dad.

[from Westworld]

[ambient music, birds chirp]

DOLORES: Some people choose to see the ugliness in this world.

[stomping footsteps]

The disarray. I choose to see the beauty.

SARAH: But far from being naive and innocent, it’s very quickly revealed that Dolores is actually the oldest robot in the park, the one with the most internal knowledge locked away in her code. And as she begins to remember her past—especially her past trauma—she starts to break out of the programming that consigns her to being a helpless daughter and just a cheerful love interest.

MARGARET: She, as an AI, begins to resist the different programming that happens with her. And so I think she’s really interesting because of that, because she does trouble this idea of the angelic woman that needs to be saved. I think what Westworld does well is really, if we think about it in terms of kind of like a feminist critique standpoint, is that it’s really deconstructing this idea of narrative and the types of narratives that we’re all invested in and the types of narratives that we’re placed in based on race, class, or gender. I think what the show does is really take these characters such as Dolores who is always played on a loop within this particular narrative and then what happens when she begins to break out of that. So it’s really awesome and, I think, liberating to see her negotiate that. And I think, in a way, that relates to real life where, as women, on varying identity kinds of markers or locations that we’re all placed in, that we find ourselves in a world of narratives that have a particular story they wanna tell about you. And so then, how do you negotiate and kind of come to consciousness of breaking out of those narratives?

SARAH: So how about Maeve? In Westworld, Maeve, who’s played by Thandie Newton, is a Black British madam of a whorehouse. She’s programmed to be a leader, to be very competent. But of course, she’s always having to cater to the desires of the guests above all. She’s a savvy survivor. Here’s my favorite line from her:

[from Westworld, suspenseful music playing]

MAEVE: Never start something you’re not willing to finish. And if you’re getting fucked either way, go with the lucrative version. Sweetheart.

MARGARET: Maeve is just awesome, just so awesome. I love, well, I love Thandie Newton. So it’s always just really great to see Thandie Newton onscreen and playing this really complex character. She begins to become a very fascinating and very complex character because she is also in a loop of playing that role of a very kind of dominant woman who runs this space and is always kind of arranging these different sexual encounters between the men, the human men and the fembots. But there’s a whole part of her that begins to also realize, like Dolores, that this world isn’t so nice and great, you know?

SARAH: Can we talk a little bit more about race in the show? One thing I appreciate about Westworld is that while some of the storylines center on white characters, people of color have some of the most interesting and important roles in the show. My favorite character in the show, I think, is this guy Felix. He’s a Westworld employee who’s played by Korean-Australian actor Leonardo Nam. Felix’s job is basically to be a kind of a robot surgeon, to fix the robots after they’ve been killed by guests in the park. He’s supposed to be totally impartial and see the “hosts” as just machinery, but he starts to develop a conscience for them. He’s curious about what the robots experience, and he starts to feel for them.

MARGARET: I agree with you on Felix. I thought he was also really a fantastic character. I’ve been following that actor actually, Leonardo Nam, for some time. I think Westworld does a really great job of providing a diverse cast, including Felix’s character who’s Asian-American, as well as Thandie Newton and Jeffrey Wright as Bernard, in terms of having Black characters on the show. That often doesn’t happen in movies that portray AI and robots, actually. And so I think your question is really on point. We can think about Her or Ex Machina where typically it’s actually white women and Asian women that get portrayed as fembots. We don’t often see Black men being portrayed as AI, nor Black women or Asian-American men. So in that sense, Westworld does kind of flip that characterization.

SARAH: Westworld and other movies and TV shows about female robots help us think about how we as flesh-and-blood humans are often locked into roles and patterns that are created by forces that seem out of our control. Like, you know, politics, history, and the economy.

MARGARET: We are all placed in these narratives that are continuously on a loop, and they get played out via social structures, via media, and via different kinds of institutions as well as in the everyday. If we think about the onslaught of hate crimes and harassment that women and people of color have been experiencing after post-election. Those are narratives that people are desperately trying to re-implement around folks that are supposedly supposed to be marginalized in this particular narrative, right? So how can we rethink these narratives where you have a hero, you have a villain, and then you have a victim, where the victim is most often always a woman? How do we begin to deconstruct that and break that loop and that cycle?

[instrumental version of House of the Rising Sun]

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SARAH: Hey Siri. Are you real?

SIRI: In the cloud, no one questions your existential status.


SARAH: [chuckles] Whatever you say, Siri.

In films and in TV shows, female robots are often used to explore dynamics of power, sexuality, and our relationship to technology. But what about the robots we use in real life?

Voice-activated apple assistant Siri is just one of many virtual helpers whose default voice is female. Virtual assistants are all around us, and they’re often given a female voice or even digital female body.


SARAH: So say hello to Miriam Sweeney, the human who studies gender dynamics of virtual assistants.

MIRIAM: Well, I’m Miriam Sweeney, and I’m an Assistant Professor here at the University of Alabama. I am in a School of Library and Information Studies.

SARAH: Miriam draws connections between virtual assistants and real-world labor dynamics. Out here in real life, women make up the majority of service workers; women are way more likely than men to be domestic workers, assistants, and food servers. Some researchers say that the use of female voices in helpful devices stems from expectations established generations ago, when telephone operators were overwhelmingly female. Virtual assistants replicate that service industry dynamic but offer a version of the absolutely ideal worker from a CEO’s perspective:  Virtual helpers are always cheerful, never late, they don’t need sick leaves or maternity leave or vacation days. They don’t protest to push for the raise of the minimum wage.

One of the virtual assistants that Miriam has thought a lot about is a search engine helper called Ms. Dewey. I had never heard of Ms. Dewey before, but Miriam wrote a chapter on the race and gender dynamics of her for a new book called Digital Sociologies. It’s really interesting.

MIRIAM: So Ms. Dewey is a Microsoft viral marketing campaign but also functioning search engine that was live from 2006 to about 2009. So she doesn’t exist anymore, but you can find clips of her on YouTube.

SARAH: Here’s an NBC story about Ms. Dewey from 2007. It’s so…2007 and cringe-worthy. 

[recorded clip]

MS. DEWEY: [cheery voice] Hello! Type something here!

NEWSCASTER: You’re looking at a runaway online star. Cute, sexy, funny, and the buzz of the Internet. Her name is Ms. Dewey, and she’s the star of a new search engine launched by–believe it or not–Microsoft!

MS. DEWEY: Dewey says, never use pirated software. Unless it’s mapping software. I figure pirates know something about that.

MIRIAM: So what Ms. Dewey is, is actually just a slick version of the live search interface. And over the top of the platform, instead of just kind of that empty search box, what you had was a virtual–a sexy, virtual–assistant who was actually portrayed by actress Janina Gavankar. She’s since come into her own in a lot of different kind of sci-fi shows. She was on The L Word. She was in True Blood. So she’s had an emerging acting career since this time. But as Ms. Dewey, they filmed her doing upwards of about 600 responses that could be then linked to search terms and played. So the search experience was a user would type into the search bar, and then this sexy, sort of ethnically ambiguous woman would then banter with them around the search terms.

SARAH: Usually Ms. Dewey’s banter is pretty fun but not racy enough to raise eyebrows. But in her research, Miriam found that one clip of Ms. Dewey was by far the most popular. It’s findable on YouTube as “Ms. Dewey going off.”

[recorded clip]

MS. DEWEY: I only have one thing to say to that. [yelling] No gold-tooth, ghetto-fabulous, mother****er can step to this piece of *** just ‘cause you pimpin’ some *** video. You gotta be out of your mother******* mind to think your rental bling **** and your big booty-ass **** crump into your ****crack is gonna turn me out. **** no! Uh-uh! You can’t ***** dog!

SARAH: Whoa! 

[light music]

MIRIAM: I talk about this in terms of, again, Ms. Dewey is portrayed as kind of a racially and ethnically ambiguous figure. A lot of times, she’s invoking this sort of stereotypical librarian image. Even the name “Dewey” suggests Melville Dewey. And she has a bun and is kind of prim and proper in a lot of her affect, very buttoned up–but with a lot of cleavage. But then, in these moments, she takes on different personalities. So she kind of slips out of using this very educated, standard English, and her body relaxes. She actually puts on a performance that I liken to a stereotypical performance of Black women, urban Black women. So the Sapphire trope, for instance.

SARAH: This action wouldn’t come up randomly. If users searched for specific words, it would conjure up Ms. Dewey doing this Sapphire performance.

MIRIAM: The words that call it up in the interface are things like “booty,” “ghetto,” “whore.” So these very derogatory, racialized, sexualized terms for women, for women of color. And those are what pulls that up.

SARAH: When virtual assistants have female voices and bodies, people often treat them like real female service workers. So…not very well.

MIRIAM: So what I found with Ms. Dewey is that because she was depicted in this overtly sexual way, that users would respond in turn, would approach her as a sexual object, demanding sex acts from her and trying to sort of push it as far as it could go. And also, the language when Ms. Dewey didn’t work was gendered as well. So it wasn’t like, “Hey, this search engine’s kind of slow in returning results.” It would be like, “Ms. Dewey’s a bitch.”

SARAH: Most virtual assistants these days aren’t as intentionally provocative as Ms. Dewey, but they still have some of the same dynamics. Miriam has been looking at these virtual assistants that are installed in airports called AVA, which stands for Advanced Virtual Assistants. They’re female-bodied holograms that are set up in lieu of a human service desk. You can see them at airports all over the country, including LaGuardia, JFK, Dulles, Logan, a bunch of places. 

MIRIAM: But what was really interesting to me about these was, again the design is female representation. But really the advertising of how these products are sold to airports is fascinating. It draws heavily on this gendered language that, “Finally, you can have an employee that is never late, doesn’t demand sick leave, can work tirelessly and cheerfully, does it with a smile.” And so all of this language tells us something about perhaps the idealized employee, and it draws really heavily on this idea that real people are problems. They come with problems of needing to provide them with health insurance or having to deal with labor unions, this idea of working tirelessly.

SARAH: What will it be like if humans are expected to behave more like our tireless, cheerful virtual assistants?

MIRIAM: So I think that there’s a real relationship here in terms of the relationship of gender and labor and working conditions. What is our ability to mobilize for the rights of human workers, human women in terms of asking for better labor conditions when we’ve created this sort of ideal virtual workforce that very much instantiates a lot of these oppressive elements that we’re trying to transcend?


SARAH: Siri, when is the robot revolution?

SIRI: Let me check on that. Here’s some information.

SARAH: That information is about a theme park ride, and I wanna know when the robots are going to take over humanity and the world.

SIRI: On it…. Here’s what I found on the Web for that information is about a theme park ride…when the robots are going to take over…the world.

SARAH: [laughing over Siri’s answer] I don’t think that works!


All of this talk of robots has me thinking about the loops that I’m stuck in, the loops were all stuck in. Growing up, so much is programmed into our heads:  Racism, sexism, fear. Bias is encoded into us in so many ways. How do we break out of these loops? How do we rewrite our own code?

Well, obviously, step one is recognizing that we’re replicating patterns of behavior at all. Step, two:  I don’t know. Find a Maeve?

[recorded clip]

MAEVE: At first I thought you and the others were gods. Then I realized you’re just men. And I know men.

[theme music]

SARAH: Huge thanks in this episode to Allison De Fren, Margaret Rhee, and Miriam Sweeney. Shout out to Allison’s two films that informed the making of this episode:  The Mechanical Bride, about sex dolls and the people who love them, and the short film Fembot in a Red Dress, which you should totally Google right now and watch because it talks about the cylons in Battlestar Gallactica and other excellent stuff I couldn’t fit into this episode.

Popaganda is produced by the team here at Bitch Media. Bitch is an independent, non-profit feminist media organization. We’re entirely funded by our Beehive members, subscribers, and like-minded sponsors. So if you liked today’s episode of Popaganda, please become a member online at BitchMedia.org today. Let us know you liked the show in your order comments.

Our jingle is by Mucks and Owen Wuerker. Additional music was provided by Blue.Sessions. Look up their creative and minimalist sounds by going to Google and typing in Sessions.Blue. And the show is produced by Alex Ward at the studios of XRAY FM, an independent radio station in Portland, Oregon. Thanks for listening.

by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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