by Nyanen Deng
Imagine this: a white, male popstar presents the final frontier at a tech conference in Malaysia. Clearly meant to be the likeness of Steve Jobs, a black-turtlenecked Justin Timberlake greets his audience with the same je ne sais quoi that practically secretes “male inventiveness.” Insert plot twist: he may be a robot! Haters gon’ say it’s fake! The audience’s confusion and reluctance to accept Robot Justin slowly turns into infatuation with every crotch grab. Such dazzling moves distract from JT’s central question, “And what are you gonna do with all that meat?” The obvious answer being: Put your filthy hands all over me!! Not once does he answer the more appropriate question: How do you imagine your presence in Malaysia to contribute to Western imperialism disguised as “progress” in technology? From behind the stage, Human Justin is the power source of his robot self, entertaining the illusion of control mirrored by the hero archetype. From off-stage he spreads a woman’s legs, the crowd goes wild, there is no question now that he is the robot. Yes, Robot Justin is Human Justin is any person who renders women as ornaments to their sexual and emotional character.
“Filthy,” Justin Timberlake’s new music video, presents a worrisome world in which a robot woos audiences with singing and dancing and gyrating over anonymous women. Depictions of non-human life in mainstream media often lend themselves to a white, male consciousness; JT’s metallic counterpart engages in the same stylized male domineering that can so often wreak havoc on the safety and integrity of women’s lives. Robots, or any form of technology, may be poised to act as extensions of our consciousness, and we continue to impress the same gender practices onto artificial intelligences.
If “Filthy” teaches us anything, it is the emergency of gender representation. Tellingly, Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis is set only two years before Timberlake’s music video, in the year 2026. The two pieces were made nearly a century apart — Metropolis premiered in 1927, “Filthy” in 2018 — and they still engage the same themes around gender. If in our imaginations — where we are free to re-create and transmute our darkest human features — we continue to cast women as placeholders rather than full agents, how can we move forward with confidence in equality as technology continues to challenge the space between the real and unreal? If, when we have the creative opportunity to dissolve our conditioning, robots still fulfill the gender binary, how can we remain satisfied with our present media? A robot isn’t seen as a man until he performs as one — both literally and figuratively; to insist upon the male-female dynamic is to devalue the integrity of non-conformity.
Given the breadth of the study of artificial intelligence, I narrow my focus here to the symbolism behind robots in mainstream film. As we see in the early history of artificial intelligence in science fiction — which nearly always adheres to the gender binary — “femaleness” is either malleable by others, destructive in its emotional character, or a threat to the heterosexual male identity. In this way, the storyline of Timberlake’s music video is a proxy to larger discussions of gender identity and representation, self-realization, and determination, vulnerability, and agency.
Spiritual Capital: Man’s Secret Weapon
In a short four-minute span, “Filthy” manages to implicate science fiction’s tendency to position white men as intelligent architects in an ill-designed world. The classic hero archetype prevails as the image of a protagonist fated to conquer an artificial intelligence that’s set to destroy the world. However, the heart of the hero lies not in defeating a cybernetic system but in realizing Truth, as in THX 1138 and The Matrix. Yet in sci-fi films with heroines, such as in Alien or Terminator II, a woman’s journey is not a telos projected toward her God-Self: writer Gwendolyn Morgan notes that any spiritual powers a female hero has either besets masculinity through “intuition” or is representative of her endowments through motherhood.1 While the hero archetype recognizes that looking at one’s self can be messy, traumatic, and does not ensure victory the first time, it seems to only engage with the principle of overcoming through maleness. Furthermore, to believe — as it seems many science fiction writers do — that maleness is an endangered quality because of non-maleness (externalized here as the machine) only defends the gender binary.2 The ways in which robots unnecessarily fulfill this binary ignores transgender and gender non-conforming individuals and their experiences by suggesting that nothing can exist outside of two constructed, opposite identities. Patriarchy attempts to arbitrate the “natural” while denying the infinite ways that Life expresses itself. Such erasure welcomes elimination of the so-called “Other,” as often demonstrated in the human-robot relationship.
The hero archetype relies on the narrative of men as victims of a perverted world, which motivates economic, political, and sexual actualization. The near-future of THX 1138, The Matrix, and Metropolis depict realities collapsed by the ills of capitalism. Despite being kept ignorant to truth of their worlds, these protagonists possess the qualities (leadership, inventiveness, expertise) necessary for their success. Neo is a computer hacker; THX works in a factory where he builds the robotic officers of his demise; Freder happens to be the son of the master of the Metropolis. Men either already possess the faculties to succeed, or know how to acquire the proper resources. Yet in theory and pedagogy, capitalism is presumed to be conceived of, comprised of, understood by, and wielded by men, so why do we imagine the most vulnerable victims of capitalism to also be men? If men are the source of their own economic problems — as imagined creators of AI and those considered integral to the health of the capitalist system — can they also be the solution? In “Filthy,” the access Timberlake has to a global audience demonstrates this selective organizing of the male experience to feature technology and capitalism toward self-seeking ends. Furthermore, this type of curation leaves women’s lives and bodies up for consumption while praising the ideas of men protected from such cultural sacrifice. The mechanisms that uphold the gender binary and rehearse conditioned behavior ultimately service patriarchal goals.
The White Hero…and Everyone Else
Women and non-white characters seem to fit in the picture when it is convenient for the outstanding hero. THX 1138 and The Matrix introduce black male characters who are the truth bearers from “outside” their given schema: Neo and THX could not have overcome their world without the expertise of Morpheus and SRT, respectively. Yet, both these men, powerful in their own right, ultimately serve to help the white hero reach the apex of his potential. Additionally, THX relieves himself to a hologram of presumably African woman, naked and dancing to tribal drums, followed by a postlude image of a hypermasculine black man. This hologram scene is reminiscent of the longstanding history of black bodies being simultaneously erased and commodified, only to be revisited in violent nostalgia (the “Black Museum” episode of Black Mirror is an excellent example of this practice in contemporary science-fiction). White men police black women by staging an identity that offers a femaleness that can be sexed and a blackness that can be detained. These observations hold root as the moving image mirrors our politics. Spiritual capital, more closely meant to describe the intrinsic value and resiliency of human life exploited, erroneously puts forth that white, male dominance is an organic feature of Life.
Representations of human women in science fiction are often marked by compromise: Maria in Metropolis is positioned to be a prophetic leader but her likeness is a machine controlled by a jealous widower; Joanna in Stepford Wives is a promising photographer destined to be replaced by a perfect robotic housewife; Dayna from Blake’s 7, the only black female character in the television series, is gifted in advanced weaponry (despite her so-called “primitive” background) but her path is derailed by a burgeoning romance. Never do these women actualize their gifts, and their presences act merely as an emotional tool to leverage their male counterparts. In both the sacred and the profane, we are taught that men are creators whereas women are built and constructed by others.
Unlike the previously discussed media in which men are perceivers of AI, women are also represented as robots in ways that reaffirm their mystical and sinister emotionality. Much like the aforementioned Metropolis, Blade Runner involves a female “replicant” whose false human identity regulates her emotions and consists of memories implanted by others. Other examples we have of the authenticity of the female robot rest solely on motherhood: whereas men may be active participants in their fate and garner power from their perception, women are tied to their corporality and cause destruction from their inability to cope with the trials of womanhood. In Stepford Wives and in Disney’s Smarthouse, for example, we see women unravel from motherly instincts gone awry. Not to mention that they attack! We see a characterization of female affect that completes the paranoia of the male fantasy. Professor and writer Andreas Huyssen, in his essay “The Vamp and the Machine: Technology and Sexuality in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis,” elaborates: “As soon as the machine came to be perceived as a demonic, inexplicable threat and as the harbinger of chaos and destruction…writers began to imagine the Maschinenmensch as woman…Woman, nature, machine had become a mesh of signification which all had one thing in common: otherness.”3 The aforementioned women defy their techno-cultural programming, making them untrustworthy and dangerous. Conversely, “Filthy” offers a portrayal of a male robot who self-validates through his performance, rather than attributing his identity solely to his creator. Human Justin evaporates at the end of the music video, leaving Robot Justin to revel in the glory of a standing ovation. What do these representations suggest? That the humanity and authenticity of a woman’s experience — real or imagined — rests on the vacillating will of men, and that men — real or imagined — are the only individuals with intrinsic worth and self-determinism.
Science fiction’s anxieties around artificial intelligence often relate to specific economic and cultural crises that ignore the lives of people of color, transgender and gender non-conforming individuals, and basically anyone that isn’t a straight, white male. Class struggle is often portrayed as a uniquely worthy phenomenon, the solution to which is a panacea of all social issues. Artificial intelligence can be a way to project these fears but is not constructive if it merely reproduces the white, heterosexual male consciousness. Timberlake’s second studio album, FutureSex/LoveSounds, and “Filthy” in particular, provides a perfect springboard to identify issues with gendered technology. Imagination is the creative act of forgiveness; it has the potential to release us from the demands of our social worlds. May we better use science fiction to hold the future in the light of our complete and fluid humanity.
- Gwendolyn Morgan, “In Search of the Not-One.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Vol. 4, No. 4 (16), Special Issue on Female Heroes (1991), pp. 5. ↩
- The machine can simultaneously alienate (when a woman) and re-affirm maleness (when projecting the ideal man) given the particular preoccupations of the hero; it is always a quality that the central male character controls. ↩
- Andreas Huyssen, “The Vamp and the Machine: Technology and Sexuality in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.” New German Critique 24/25 (1981): 221–237. ↩