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Leading women

Our (cyborg) bodies, our (cyborg) selves


As we prepare for our chillingly immersive Living Frankenstein event on 23 May, Dr Sarah Artt – who will be speaking at the event – explores cinema’s enduring fascination with sexually threatening female cyborgs.

Bride of Frankenstein

In Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus, her creature begs Victor Frankenstein to make him a female companion – which Victor later destroys when she is nearly complete, because he fears she will be ‘ten thousand times more malignant than her mate.’ A whole host of new stories have sprung from this brief passage, dealing specifically with the problem of these new bodies and their sexualities. On screen, the female descendants of Shelley’s monstrous ‘creature of another sex’ can be found be in films ranging from 1930s monster movies to present-day sci-fi thrillers – and often prove troubling, disruptive presences on screen.

The bride plot

In James Whale’s 1935 classic horror The Bride of Frankenstein, Elsa Lanchester appears as both Mary Shelley and the Bride, who can only scream at the prospect of being wedded to Victor Frankenstein’s first creation. Whale’s film deliberately suggests this connection between Shelley, the young woman who wrote Frankenstein, and one of her novel’s most disturbing aspects: Victor Frankenstein’s creation of a bride for his creature. In Bride of Frankenstein, both Shelley and the Bride – though subversive figures themselves – are as much threatened as they are threatening.

Cyborg trouble

Some more recent female cyborgs may appear to have more power – but their sexuality is still subject to control by their creators, tapping into our fears about what might happen if we endow female androids with the full agency of Frankenstein’s creature. For instance, in Alex Garland’s 2014 provocative sci-fi Ex Machina, young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) asks tech company CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac) why he has given his robot woman Ava (Alicia Vikander) sexuality. Caleb is suspicious of this aspect of Ava’s creation, though Nathan assures him that he has enabled Ava to experience physical erotic pleasure. As the film continues, Ava also proves to have agency and intelligence. Yet, Ex Machina is like so many other stories that imagine one of the driving forces behind creating embodied AIs must be to create a compliant cyborg vagina.

Ava surpasses her creator, but she is still forced to rely on the seductive possibilities of femininity in order to achieve freedom. 

In the season two premiere of Westworld – which imagines a futuristic, Wild West theme park populated by compliant cyborg hosts – we see programmer Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) declaring to android Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) that ‘you frighten me sometimes’ – evoking once more the idea of the bride as more terrifying than her male predecessor or any potential mate she might find. The current trajectory of Westworld suggests that it has two brides: rancher’s daughter Dolores and brothel madam Maeve (Thandie Newton), both vengeful female creations who have exceeded their male creators. Their desires – sexual or otherwise – pose a threat to patriarchal order and the park’s designers’ understanding of their AI creations.

Sex and the single monster

Alongside these disruptive female cyborgs, other films explore sexualised male creations – and the gender differences are telling. In Jim Sharman’s 1975 cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Susan Seidelman’s 1987 sci-fi comedy Making Mr Right, for instance, we witness male creations who are given a sexuality that Shelley and Whale only hint at. However, in both these examples, this sexuality is shown to be a source of pleasure rather than unease and outright horror. 

In The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) creates the handsome Rocky (Peter Hinwood) who becomes Frank’s lover. In Making Mr. Right, Trish (Glenne Headly) has a tender sexual encounter with male android Ulysses (John Malkovich) – a rare suggestion that the cyborg body might be more than just an AI-enhanced sex doll. Oddly enough, many sexualised male creations appear less threatening on screen, whereas sexualised female creations are considered particularly terrifying—a contrast that reflects a wider cultural discomfort with the portrayal of confident, feminine sexual agency.

Our cyborg bodies, our cyborg selves

During a recent workshop on AI narratives at The Royal Society, co-organised with the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, we discussed a need for narratives that explore how we might co-exist alongside more mundane forms of AI. Many of our existing narratives are haunted by Frankenstein in its most negative form, voicing our fears about the consequences of gendering – and sexualising - artificially created bodies. But what if our Frankenstein narratives could be more like the promise of Making Mr Right? What would it mean to generously imagine cyborg bodies that aren’t sinister? What I’d like to see emerge, in the year of Frankenstein’s publication bicentenary, is a story about a female cyborg body who isn’t subject to a narrative of threat or seduction—the challenge is to consider what other stories we can tell. 

You can find Sarah on Twitter @Sarah_Jane_Artt and follow her project Age of Frankenstein which examines the legacies of Shelley’s novel @200Frankenstein.