Unravelling Hollywood’s Troubling Use of Racist and Sexist Robot Tropes

When will mainstream filmmakers break free from these tired stereotypes?

As technology has developed by leaps and bounds in the past century, Hollywood’s portrayals of tech have kept pace.

Both industries’ gender issues with sexbots and female-voiced virtual assistants are well documented and have been scrutinized at length by those concerned by the direction of sex tech and its portrayals in popular culture.

Movies often depict hyper-realistic androids and advanced forms of artificial intelligence with the bodies and voices of young, conventionally attractive women. These characters typically become objects of lust or romantic fascination for the male protagonist before being discarded in service to his character development.

However, far less has been said about the representation of race in the new frontiers of robotic sex.

A gap to be filled

In one of the few articles, I found in my research for this piece, Future of Sex contributor Kelli Soto discusses the “blackness gap,” writing:

…a cursory Internet search of sex dolls… revealed surprisingly few with black skin tones, with perhaps one or two thrown in for good measure. The same can be said of searches for remote sex, virtual reality, body augmentation, and sex tech, all with a noticeable lack of melanin in the people shown in ads and stock photos…My searches make plain to me that black buyers are not prioritized, or at the very least that our representation is disregarded in these ventures.

The lack of representation Soto points to becomes even more apparent in Hollywood where visions of the future are predominantly white with some token casting (e.g., Her (2013) or The Island (2005), or offer diverse casting while ignoring issues of race in the story (e.g., Star Trek (2009).

Hollywood androids and other forms of AI are also typically coded as white, both in voice and physical appearance, and ones that are not suffer different fates than their white counterparts.

The explosion of films in recent years that grapple with AI that is indistinguishable from human intellect raises questions of how our cultural ideas about race, along with gender, fit with this kind of technology.

Unfortunately, it seems that Hollywood’s biases towards whiteness as a “safe” choice hold–even in the technological wilds of the distant future. (Warning: spoilers ahead!)

Do fembots dream of electric sheep?

Take Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 (2017). Ryan Gosling plays K, an android (or “replicant”) cop who hunts down and “retires” rogue replicants. His love interest is a type of virtual reality AI called Joi (Ana de Armas) who presents as a holographic woman and seems designed to be a companion.

Although Joi is a consumer product much like any cell phone or computer program, she is entirely customizable to the user’s preferences. K’s Joi is a petite white woman with a Cuban accent (Ana de Armas herself is Cuban). Despite her light skin, Joi’s Cuban accent marks her as Other and the writers sacrifice her towards the end of the movie to further K’s emotional development.

This stands in contrast to Dr. Ana Stelline, revealed to be a replicant in a plot twist, yet as an American white woman, she is provided the opportunity to be successful and independent in ways Joi is not.

Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014) takes this trope of whiteness and AI a step further. A brilliant but isolated tech CEO named Nathan Bateman designs a humanoid AI that is light years ahead of current technology. Alicia Vikander portrays Ava, the young, white face of our unlikely AI heroine.

As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Nathan has been experimenting with his “new” technology for a while, making previous versions in different races and body types. In fact, the audience has already met one of them in the form of Nathan’s sexually available servant, an East Asian woman named Kyoko, whose silence Nathan cruelly explains away as an inability to speak or understand English.

If the plot of Ex Machina hinges on the “twist” that Nathan is a sociopath who builds these life-like fembots to use and abuse, then the shocking reveal of Kyoko as an android relies on the audience buying into the narrative of the East Asian woman as the quiet and obedient foreigner.

Further, by the end of the film, Ava is able to orchestrate her escape from Nathan’s prison-like compound and, upon finding his stash of “rough drafts,” she literally strips the skin of one of the Asian androids to complete her transformation into a being that can pass as human.

This move ultimately enables her to blend into regular society. While poor Kyoko does manage to exact her revenge on Nathan, she is ultimately killed in the struggle. Kyoko, like Joi, is sacrificed in service of another character’s story arc. Ava’s safe and familiar whiteness affords her the ability to escape into a life of freedom and independence.

These two films aren’t the only places where this trope plays out: Her (2013), I, Robot (2004), and the Alien franchise make use of it as well. The voice of Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha escapes her virtual confines at the end of Her. I, Robot’s hero, Sonny, and its villain, VIKI, are both forms of humanoid AI coded as white and granted freedom from their universe’s rules.

Finally, the android David in his various forms (but most recently played by Michael Fassbender in Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017) shows free will and intellectual curiosity, serving his own desires over that of the humans he is meant to protect.

The future of diversity in sex tech

Despite the progressive tech on display in these films, the racialization of their AI remains regressive.

The only androids allowed to have a sense of self and a purpose beyond their use as tools for people are those coded as white and familiar, while any hint of the foreign or of color are relegated to stories ending in tragedy.

The success of movies like Black Panther (2018) and Crazy Rich Asians (2018) prove a consumer interest in diversity and representation. In a culture that is showing a thirst for increasingly diverse movies of all kinds, why not extend that to our stories about technology and across industries to sex tech?

What are your thoughts on tech and representation? Do you know of any movies or companies that defy the tropes I explore above? Let us know!

Image source: BagoGames, Warner Bros. Pictures