Our Weird Tendency to Sexualize Technology


Spike Jonze’s new movie Her ruminates on the ideas of loneliness, love, and our isolating dependence on technology. It also upholds a conventional projection of female sexuality on technology, in the form of an interactive AI voiced by the sultry Scarlett Johansson. In fact, it takes the allure of a sexy subservient piece of technology a step further, thus creating—you guessed it—the Manic Pixel Dream Girl.

Set in future Los Angeles (which has been seized by a resurgence of retro 2010s fashion’s take on 1970s fashion thus warranting rampant porn-staches and trousers with a 15-inch fly), Her follows mid-divorce, gloom-laden Theodore. This walking slashmouth emoticon (ever :-/ the definitive Spike Jonze muse) finds companionship and love in his personal operating system Samantha, an intelligent, funny, and all-around charming disembodied voice.

First things first: What the fuck is our DEAL with assigning sexuality to an otherwise sexually uninvolved piece of technology? Our track record for tacking on shitty gender stereotypes on more-or-less a hunk of metal goes back quite a ways. Ships. Cars. Guns. I’m sure at some point, some literate 14th century dude probably had the hots for the printing press. We have created an inextricable link between feminine sexuality and technology, indicative of some intense and harmful objectification of women and their sexuality. This of course brings up the age-old excuse that objectification is actually being confused with ‘the pursuit to replicate feminine beauty as a genuine appreciative homage to the form’ and other mansplainy bullshit.

Yeah, that poop does NOT fly. That may have been relevant for static art like a marble sculpture and the goddamned Mona Lisa, but when something becomes mechanized and takes on a function, the feminine aspect does not remain static — it is also subject to that function. So now the purpose of tech is a double whammy of following instructions while maintaining sexy feminine allure. Oh cool, riveted-on sexuality AND subservience—a winning combination of subjugating women! A classic example of this? The car.

Car design is the quintessential projection of the female form and implied sexuality onto sheet metal. I mean COME ON — in the 60s a design trend emerged distinguished by swooping lines and a more curvy body. These cars were known as Coke bottle and wasp-waisted, terms already in use to describe the curves of women. Even ‘Marilyn Monroe’ was a term used to describe cars, and she wasn’t exactly known for any contributions to the science of automotive mechanics.

While feminine beauty was probably imbued from the earlier stages of design, of course the hard working mad men of the advertising industry ensured the metaphor was lost on absolutely no one. Advertisements really hammered home that parallel between femininity and the car, exhibiting both as a something to be mastered.

Subaru (h/t Jalopnik)

Here’s a more modern and yet far less subtle take from Fiat that drives (harhar) the point home:

It is quite clear the car was designed built and sold as a way to dominate the ultimate allure inspired by and therefore only comparable to woman. (Except thank god cars don’t get their periods, AMIRITE?! FIST BUMP. BRO PUMP. VOMIT.) It’s one horrible thing to use the sex appeal of women to sell something, and it’s an entirely different horrible thing to use the sex appeal of women to parallel enhance the sex appeal of an object. In all instances, the feminine aspect has no agency. She merely exists to be dominated and serve. And look pretty, of course. While cars are certainly the easily the most accessible example of this, we have managed to apply this dull and incredibly harmful trope to all sorts of inanimate objects from guns to beer kegs to projectors to computers.

In Her, this feminine sexual appeal of technology is explored, but in the scope of interactive digital technology. This is complicated by the fact that Samantha, only characterized by her voice (and an animation that spells out her name on Theodore’s device) has no body. There is no design or physical object on which to superimpose the female form. So we did it, we accomplished a way to have technology without imposing any kind of objectifying sexuality on it, right? HAHA WRONG. Samantha the intelligent operating system wants to understand what it is like to be human. She’s curious about sex, not yearning to be tamed — but yearning to explore. And in one of the more awkward and logically confusing sex scenes of all time, a drunk Theodore gives her her sexuality. Naturally, it’s based on his own experience and understanding of sex. (Really Theodore? You’re actually going to tell a disembodied source of digital intelligence that you’re “entering” her?) He literally imposes a feminine sexuality on her, allowing her to explore that part of the human experience.

So congratulations team. We replaced the Sultry Sex Machine with the Manic Pixel Dream Girl. As an artificial intelligence Samantha certainly has far more agency than a car although both, as technology, represent an untapped carnal femininity waiting to serve their purpose. As a machine and as an extension of the MPDG trope, Samantha serves to help and interact with Theodore, temporarily bring a new and curious happiness into his life, and ultimately find him inherently insufficient as an unchanging character (due to the fact that WAH-WAAAHHH human evolution just takes so long to catch up to artificial fucking intelligence.)

What sets Samantha apart from other, more primitive technology is that she eventually finds her own purpose far beyond anything Theodore can offer. She does move on, affected but no longer defined by Theodore or his expectations of or impositions on her. (Don’t worry, Arcade Fire will be there to score her journey.) I guess that’s the point of this whole android/gynoid business, whether or not there is actually a physical form on which to impose a gender. The point still remains to explore the shift from technology simply bearing the weird-ass sexual baggage foisted upon them by humans towards manifesting their own human-inspired tendencies, ultimately reflecting human performance onto itself.

Image via AP

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