A recent article in The Guardian sums up concerns about recent female androids in SF films as such: “Maybe that’s the real problem: robot movies are supposedly futuristic, yet most of them peddle antiquated myths and gender stereotypes.” Again and again in film, TV, short stories, novels, games and so on we see these problematic representations of women in AI form. There’s a larger question beyond why we’re still seeing these portrayals, though. From near-human androids to ships large and small to free-floating code, AIs almost always have a gender. Why, then, are most AIs gendered in the first place? And what should we, as consumers of SF, do with these representations?
Robots: Men and Women in the Image of their Creator or their Creator’s Ideals
The earliest representations of robots were in the form of men and women, those created by Rossum in Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. These robots engage in jobs stereotypically aligned with their genders: Sulla as secretary for example. This gendering may be driven by purpose—perhaps to create workers “suited” to certain roles. Or it may stem from some desire the android’s creator has to embody some ideal, as in Maria from Metropolis. Androids from Star Trek: The Next Generation; Data and his brother Lore, both male, resembled their human “father,” Dr. Noonien Soong. This human parentage doesn’t need to be direct: Amy Peterson, the synthetic child in Madeline Ashby’s vN, may be an android, but she’s very much her synthetic mother’s daughter. Tropes may also guide this assignment of gender, as in Eureka‘s Deputy Andy as a nod to small-town sheriff Andy Taylor.
But not all gendered AIs have human form: Deputy Andy’s love interest, S.A.R.A.H., is a disembodied AI controlling a highly-automated house. She doesn’t have a female body, but she’s still a stereotypical homemaker of sorts. Male HAL 9000’s counterpart is female: SAL 9000, at least as voiced in the movies. So human form isn’t necessary for AIs to be gendered. And a body isn’t necessary for stereotypes to be applied to those gendered AIs.
AI: New Technology, New Life?
All the possible reasons above may contribute to why we encounter so many gendered AIs in context of their worlds. But stepping back, I think something else may be going on that pulls from the context of our time, not from some alternate present nor from some near or distant future. Specifically, it’s that of society’s obsession with the gender of babies.
We’re all used to hearing expectant parents being asked again and again, “What are you having?” or “Do you know what it is yet, or do you want to be surprised?” There’s no question what the “what” is: boy or girl. The recent (and, to me, disconcerting) trend of gender reveal parties underlines this obsession. And after the child is born, the questions don’t stop. If parents don’t dress their babies in sports- or transportation-themed outfits or pop bows on a still mostly bald heads, they can rely on the same “Is it a boy or a girl?” question. Certainly, this isn’t the healthiest thing we should focus on, but as a whole, focus on it we do. It’s one of the few things we think we can (possibly) know based on information available to us before the child is born.
Human-like AI is, in many ways, kind of like an unborn child. We’ve seen glimpses of what it may be, examples of its capabilities so far much like sonograms showing fetal progress. We’re imagining what it may be like, which parents-to-be can spend countless hours doing, wondering what traits their children may have. But like these parents-to-be, we only have so much information at present. So perhaps, until we as a society do have a good understanding of what strong AI may be like, all we have to go on is our imagination. We don’t know what to expect. So we fall back on what we think we know: boy or girl, male or female, and unfortunately, the stereotypes that go with them. And as readers, we should be aware of this as we’re consuming SF that features AI.