The Twenty-First Century Galatea

Eleanor Tarr discusses Freud and sex-robots for TWSS Issue 15. 

While the word ‘familiarity’ often carries pleasant connotations, anyone who studied OCR English Literature at A-Level will remember that their seventeen-year-old selves were familiar (no pun intended) with the Gothic. In the Gothic realm, the ‘familiar’ is not favourable or pleasant: it’s disturbing and unwelcome – and this applies as much to gender roles in the modern world as it does to any other cultural phenomenon.

The Gothic thrives on unnerving its readers. Sigmund Freud’s 1919 essay ‘The Uncanny’ (an analysis of E.T.A. Hoffman’s short story ‘The Sandman’) argues that the uncanny is ‘that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and long been familiar’ – essentially, people are unnerved by what seems too familiar, whether that familiarity brings to the fore unwanted memories, or whether it represents something that is a bit too human .

Although Freud was writing a hundred years ago, his ideas of the uncomfortably familiar strikes a resounding chord today. We’re living in a technological world where people can strap their smartphones into headsets and live in virtual reality, and where CGI has revolutionised what is recognised as familiar or strange in cinema. Even more impressively (and so, even more frighteningly), human-like robots – androids – are becoming a reality. This year, in February, it was announced that a lifelike android called ‘Erica’ was to replace a news anchor on a Japanese television station.

Erica has been called ‘creepy’. Why do we find non-human things with human attributes ‘creepy’? Hoffman’s ‘The Sandman’ offers some answers: the titular character steals the eyes of naughty children, a premise that’s terrifying because humans put a high price on our eyes since we believe that we see the world differently to animals (and intelligent robots, too). As such, human-like robots are ‘creepy’ because they appear human – and therefore, familiar – but do not have that crucial element of human eyes – that soul, that identity, that envisioning of the world surrounding them.

But Erica isn’t really an ‘android’. Some Classics boffs will know that the term ‘android’ borrows from the Ancient Greek ‘ andros ‘, which means ‘man’. So, what about female human-like robots? Those, technically, are ‘gynoids’ – and ‘gynoids’ are not simply the female equivalent of ‘androids’. Often, they’re inherently sexual objects. The main character of the Channel 4 TV series Humans, Anita, is a female robot; though initially bought by a family as a guardian for their children, the father of the family later uses her for sex when his marriage turns sour. Erica, too, is not only a functional robot: she’s also been built as a beautiful woman. If a robot’s only job is to read the news or provide childcare, why does it also have to be physically attractive? Why is there always an inherent expectation that gynoids must be subjects of human (male) desire?

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While no ‘sex robots’ on Anita’s level exist at present, recent advances in artificial intelligence suggest it’s not a distant dream. The discomfort you might feel at this is, of course, a result of familiarity: these ‘gynoids’ seem to possess the human eyes – that soul, that humanity – that we place such a high value on, but, in being treated as sexual objects, are refused that identity. And this treatment, too, is unnervingly familiar: the expectation placed on a woman (robotic or not) to exist solely to service male desires is, for the human woman’s experience, all too relatable.

If technological (and moral) obstacles can be overcome, there’s a possibility that, while the modern human woman enjoys more emancipation and freedom than her historical counterparts, the ‘gynoid’ will take her ‘traditional’ place as man’s perfect helper and sexual provider – a narrative straight out of the Gothic, displaced to dystopian future. Gynoids could easily become twenty-first-century Galateas, for twenty-first-century Pygmalions. How much will these frighteningly familiar gender roles play into the structure of future societies – and what will their real implications be for the experiences of human women? Are such changes really advances, or could they be thinly-veiled regressions? How familiar the future could become remains to be seen.

Illustration by Sophia Marshall.

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