Electro Feminisms: Fembots Have Feelings Too

Emily McAvan
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Last time I discussed what happens when female artists imagine themselves having sex with robots. This time, I’m more interested in what happens when they imagine themselves as robots.

Unlike some of the other songs, this type of song can mean an explicit kind of gendering of the inhuman robot as female. It’s nonsensical on one level (machines have no need for sex or gender), but for that reason I think it shows that there’s a really interesting negotiation between gender and non-gender going on, as well desires and anxieties about technologized femininity.

Audio of Robyn’s song “Fembot.”

In the light of that, Robyn’s “Fembot” (lyrics can be found by clicking here) is a really fascinating song in which she invokes the fembot only to inform us that “I’ve got some news for you/ Fembots have feelings too”—a declaration that only makes sense in the light of the cultural knowledge that machines don’t feel. So she’s working against the idea of the machine as unfeeling in order to assert her right to feel. Given the rest of the lyrics about sex (“automatic booty application”) I think it’s really a song about moving from a hook-up to A Relationship. But framing that narrative through the fembot shows an ambivalent attitude to sex (and indeed Robyn’s bragging persona) as a form of technologically mediated interaction.

The video for Björk’s “All Is Full of Love” from 1997’s Homogenic album has another very different take on the self-as-robot. The lyrics (full text can be found here) of the song are comforting, even maternal: “You’ll be given love/You’ll be taken care of,” spoken to a distrusting partner (“All is full of love/You just ain’t receiving”), though the triphop-y music disturbs this calm with its brooding synth pads with a distorted snare sample and string glissandos. The video, however, adds another layer of meaning with its story of a robot being constructed and then kissing another robot. Both are coded as female, with breasts and curves, and Björk’s face on one of them (both? I’m not sure), so what we appear to have is lesbian robots.

But this is where it gets tricky, as do all invocations of the robot, I think. Even when there are clear gender signs being deployed, the robot is not easily sexed or gendered—which means that it’s not easily or ever solely heterosexual. There’s always something very unconvincing about the sentimental heterosexuality of something like Wall-E. Because of the very nature of inorganic matter (robot bodies don’t have reproductive functions!), the robot eludes any total reading as a sexed being, it’s always a little bit Other. So when female artists imagine themselves as robots, I think they’re both drawing attention to their own Otherness and playing with it (as R & B artist Janelle Monáe does) and reserving some space for themselves outside of the restrictive meaning-making schemes of heteronormativity (as we see in the Björk video).

This isn’t a space that is precisely outside of sex, gender and sexuality—there is gendering going on—but neither is it reducible to our usual economies and hierarchies of bodies. There’s some wiggle room, and that’s really fascinating to me, to see what female artists are trying to imagine.

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3 Comments Have Been Posted

perhaps a bit too much...

...is being read into this. the song, it seems to me, is about how hot you can be in bed, how much pleasure you can give, how much admiration or lust you can inspire --- but still have your emotional being disrespected or disregarded. the bot aspect is just a gimmick, a fun metaphor to hang a familiar complaint on.

then again, there's the recurring trope of women identifying with the weird or "degrading" stuff projected on us by men. for example, if we watch the porn that mostly-men create and jack off to, say humiliation-style videos, we may *want* to identify and get aroused by that dynamic. so we might bring that into our songs or our bedrooms. imagining oneself as the uber-sexy, uber-powerful fembot isn't that different from imagining oneself as the cum-faced porn star in a video, or the stereotyped ball-breaking femme fatale in a movie, or the absurdly put-on-a-pedestal idealized virginal love/lust object of a male-penned romantic poem.

That's an interesting point,

That's an interesting point, magdalen23. I'm certainly not one to minimise the power of male-centred discourse to produce identifications and fantasies, but I'm also of the opinion that that power is incomplete - otherwise, how else could we be speaking now? I can certainly see how men (or women, or any non-binary person for that matter) could take that song as confirmation of their fantasies, but I think (hope?) that Robyn like any female artist is also trying to displace those male narratives and speaking something more.

Over-reading is kind of what I do, though :)

I've always interpreted

I've always interpreted Robyns 'Fembot" as a "women are people too"-statement.

I really enjoyed your text.

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