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Lecture Library

Synthetic Sexuality: The Allure of Humanity and the Subversion of Perfection
by Survey of Interactive Media

An examination of the development of the "perfect" being, and the ways in which the features of "imperfect" human sexualization interact with these beings, eventually resulting in the destruction of their purpose.

By Dominic Matheny

            When we think of the interaction between humans and technology, and the potential for that relationship, we typically come at it from one of two directions. Obviously, to refer to them as the “positive” and “negative” is rather unrevealing, save for to say that the “positive” viewpoint sees the many applications technology may have, for instance, in health care, allowing humans to live longer and accomplish more than they could have imagined. “Negative” preoccupations with this relationship lie oddly in the area of synthetic sentience, in the manner of some sort of “artificial intelligence gone wrong”. As seen in the Terminator series of films most famously, these obsessions often fall in the realm of a crushing violence, whereby our own weapons made for warring each other are suddenly used against humanity en masse.

            Another worry about the power and allure of all things “cyber” or “synthetic” revolves around sexual practice. As sex is the most vital component to the continued reproduction of the human race (ironically enough, unless technology intervenes), it makes sense that an anxiety about the consequences of something that can “do what we do, but better” would become almost pervasive. See late-night host jokes about nearly every advance in Japanese robotic technology for the addressing of these kinds of issues.

            For all of this supposed neurosis about cyber-sex, in the literal form, there remains a rather common method of representing this problem in mass media, especially films. When a synthetic entity, here defined as a creation that is “robotic, cybernetic or otherwise artificially human”, arrives at a sexualized desire, it falters, finding no defense for the power of human love. (NOTE: It is rare to see these types of issues arise with non-humanoid manifestations of technology. Occasionally, large-interfaced creations imbued with a human voice may voice a sort of unrequited desire experienced with a human.) This is made even stranger given that these entities are often shown previously to be impervious to conventional paradigms of humanity, usually violence, but in two of my three cases, sex as well.

            In addition to consideration of this larger theme, it is worth working to mention the specific relationship of all three synthetic characters to the sexualization of their counterparts. These differences define their situations in interesting ways, while the fact that they all end with the same “corruption” or “elevation” by the humane shows this to be an all-encompassing phenomena.

To begin, The Fifth Element’s Leeloo herself states, “I was born to protect, not to love,” as though the two are mutually exclusive goals. However, if we take this at face value, it places Leeloo at a very unique place in this discussion. She is a synthetically human being built for violence and as a savior, but with no concern for potential sexualization. She has to “learn” violence through reading about and seeing war, but when this disillusions her, and she considers allowing the Earth to be destroyed, Korben convinces her that love, specifically the love between the two of them, is worth saving. This human vulnerability, in which Leeloo depends on Korben to get her through, despite his flaws, lies in a sort of stark contrast to the perfect killer we see in the attached opera scene. So perfect so as to be compared with water, air, and earth, and fire themselves, Leeloo is yet still handcuffed by the basics of desire. Herself human, or at least organic, she can accept these desires and take action upon them.

So what happens when the intent of the synthetic being is actually more sexualized in nature? That is to say, when the explicit purpose of the creation is for sex, can the character defeat its human mirror? Given previous mentions, the answer is obviously not, but what we learn from a character like Rocky Horror is the effects or lack thereof of purposeful sexualization. In “I Can Make You A Man”, his creator, Dr. Frank-N-Furter suggests that he has created the epitome of human masculinity, underscored by having him conduct workouts in front of the audience he is unveiled in front of. Later in the same scene, the transvestite doctor takes him arm in arm, suggesting that he intends to keep him as his own partner of domesticity. The creator’s transvestite identity further complicates this, as he is a man-made-woman who is in the business of the creation of the ideal man. However, when the virginal Janet is stranded at the house, and begins finding her own ability to express herself sexually, she ensnares Rocky, much to Frank-N-Furter’s chagrin. In this way, it isn’t as though Rocky has really been completely deviated from his purpose, save for the fact that his purpose as a homosexual lust object has been subverted by the power of the feminine stake on carnal desire. No protestation from the doctor can quell this tide.

The Fembots of the Austin Powers series of films present even different challenges than Rocky Horror and Leeloo. Unlike Leeloo, these characters were created for a sexual purpose, and unlike Rocky, they are unabashedly feminine, a characteristic which makes them softer, but perhaps more threatening in their sexuality as a result. Additionally, these characters do not have an actual sexual usage – for every bit of intent Dr. Frank-N-Furter had of using Rocky for sexual gratification, the Fembots exist only to lure with sex, and destroy their target. The Fembots are literally violent – used for the murder of policemen, and intended for the assassination of Austin Powers himself. (This of course calls to mind a reversal of the implied “sexual violence” men are said to possess over women, up to actual rape itself.) These facts: a sheer feminine sexuality that has been shown to have immediate effect earlier, as well as a little said of weaponry through their breasts, do nothing for them in meeting him. “You can’t resist us, Mr. Powers,” they tell Austin, after he fights off their advances by thinking of “unsexy” things. Unfazed, he replies “I think it’s you who can’t resist me.” At this point, he uses his own masculine sexuality as a sexually violent tool of his own, destroying all of the Fembots with a striptease to “I Touch Myself”, of course an ode to masturbation. Unlike Leeloo, and perhaps even more than Rocky by the end of it all, the inability to create an organic response to this intercession of desire means they must cease to exist. This implies not only the aforementioned dominance of human sexuality over synthetic, but a reaffirmation of masculine sexual dominance in a world where women are sexually threatening.

That these falsely or newly sentient beings find the locus of their desire in beings which share the form of their creator, but not the creator himself (creators tend to be a single masculine entity or coalition of them), must remind us of a Freudian sense of Oedipal conflict. Immediately upon their entrance into the world, even when skipping their childhood bonds, the desire that is their ultimate undoing swells for the image of their “parental” unit.

The Fifth Element - At the Opera by Luc Besson (1997) The diva is singing a beautiful song; simultaneously, Leeloo lays a beating on a gang of villains.
The Fifth Element - What About Love? by Luc Besson (1997) Korben Dallas explains to LeeLoo why she should be committed to saving a rotten world by introducing her to desire.
Rocky Horror - I Can Make You A Man by Jim Sharman (1975) Dr. Frank-n-Furter teaches us how to transfigure the epitome of masculinity. Is he everything we would want from such a figure?
Rocky Horror - Touch Me by Jim Sharman (1975) Janet has found her sexual desire, and wants everyone to know. Anyone in the way will be swept up, even Rocky himself!
Austin Powers - Defeating the Fembots by Jay Roach (1997) The Fembots are the ultimate in sexualized weaponry. "You can't resist us, Mr. Powers", they say, and Austin, confident in his own skills, replies, "I think it's you who can't resist me!"