November 23, 2013

Queer Issue: Do Androids Dream of Binary Gendered Sheep?

A long time ago, like back when I was in high-school, I remember reading an article in Scientific American about the possibility of machines producing copies of themselves. This doesn't have much to do with anything, other than I wanted to start this out by pointing out that if mechanical reproduction were ever to end up taking place, it would be more akin to asexual - if we really, really wanted to compare this to biological reproduction - or single unit reproduction. More importantly, if we really wanted to stretch a few metaphors, that even if machines were to end up reproducing, there would still be absolutely no need for them to have sex traits of any kind.

More recently, I finally managed to watch Wall-E the story of two robots who fall in love with each other. Wall-E is the last surviving robot on an Earth that has long been abandoned by humans after it became covered in garbage. His primary task is cleaning up and stacking all of the trash lying around, a task that as presented would make Sisyphus grateful the fate he ended up with. One day a robot sent from the survivors of the human race, named EVE, shows up and the two bond and eventually fall in love. What makes this noteworthy, is that the romance follows typical hetero-normative patterns. Automatically, I find myself in a question begging exercise. To start out with, why do writers write robotic characters that exhibit gender traits?

That may not exactly be entirely accurate. Unless I missed it, neither Wall-E or EVE (the two robot lovers) are ever referred to by anyone else has "he" or "she" in the film. However, there are some really obvious ways that the two are marked as feminine and masculine. For starters, Wall-E's main task is trash disposal, which means him messy and a little rough around the edges. When he winds up on the spaceship with the last survivors of humanity, he makes a mess by tracking dirt everywhere, much to the chagrin of the robot assigned to clean up duty. His electronic voice is also deeper than EVE's. EVE on the other hand is smoother, has an obviously female assigned name, and turns into an egg shape at one point following the completion of her mission on Earth. Her task, to find life, can also be seen as feminine in nature, given the trope of mother earth and all that.

This is not the only issue I had with the films message as the second half of the film exhibits some blatant fat shaming. It does this by implying that the humans in the future setting of the film, are fat and obese because they have grown lazy by having machines do all their work for them. However, the connection between being fat and being lazy does not hold up to close medical scrutiny.

But back on topic, why do robots need gender? If they cannot reproduce (and reproductive traits are not deterministic of how gender roles are assigned in our society anyways, otherwise anyone incapable of biological reproduction due to age, disease, injury, etc. would have to be considered in gender neutral terms only) then why would gender be at all relevant? And as I mentioned before, any consideration of machine reproduction to date, has primarily focused on single unit reproduction.

While there is an obvious strain of cisnormativity going on here, I think the main reason for gendering the characters is so the writers could have the robots mimic the steps of heterosexual romance. While I'm not sure the filmmakers of Wall-E (or any other film with obviously gendered robots and androids) think about this issue, it's fascinating to observe where artists end up when they're not thinking.

Regardless, the only way one can think of machines as having gender traits is if one assumes that gender traits are solely based on social conditioning and not the result of biological fact. Does the practice of gendering robots create absolute proof that gender is a social construct, not a biological fact? I don't know. But we do have an odd tendency to force gender binary everything, even in cases where it makes little sense. For example, we describe insect behavior in ways that strongly reflect our own gender biases.

This has real world consequences as well. When I wrote my senior thesis for my philosophy degree on language, I wondered if the way our language (at least traditionally) strongly reflected the gender binary by only creating two sets of gender pronouns, one each for masculine and feminine people, caused us to be unable to imagine or cope with the existence of people who exist outside the gender binary. Specifically, I wondered if our traditionally binary gendered language, which failed to consider the possibility of non-binary gendered folks, was a driving reason for society to have intersex infants mutilated to fit them into binary gendered norms.

Ultimately, the same thinking applies here, for there is little reason to believe that the impetus for doctors to cruelly mutilate the genitals of intersex infants is any different from the thinking that ends up creating two robots boxed into binary gender stereotypes.

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