I’ve been watching Adventure Time for almost a year now, and for most of that time I’ve wondered whether BMO was intended to be a male or female character. And then recently it hit me. It doesn’t matter. BMO is a robot, and inherently genderless. Why do we assume that Pixar’s EVE and WALL-E are a girl and a boy? Would their relationship, which is portrayed as innocently romantic, be as meaningful to us if it had been presented without gendered markers?
This led me to wonder why we feel a need to give gender to robots—who, even if they have artificial intelligence, are non-gendered machines. Why do we need to force our standards of gender and sexuality onto what is at best a sentient toaster in order to be able to interact with it comfortably?
And worse, why does the way robots are gendered affect the tasks they are presented doing?
Let’s look at fembots in various media (and don’t get me started on how fembots are inherently sexist because we don’t call male-presenting robots mbots or malebots). The Jetsons’ robot Rosie is a maid. Fembots on Futurama all have pointy Madonna breasts (totally irrelevant to their function—even if robots had sexual urges, why would they necessarily be attracted to standards of human feminine beauty, except that we programmed them to do so?) GLADoS doesn’t have a human-shaped form, but she’s tricksy and manipulative. Chobits’ persocoms are adorable, loli-shaped personal computers.
And the male-presented robots? Bender has a traditionally masculine factory job/purpose, and he is a complex character, even if his standard motivations are to get as rich and drunk as possible. The titular bot in I, Robot gets to go on a self-actualizing adventure with Will Smith. The Matrix‘s Smiths are superpowered AI assassins, and Astro Boy is basically a superhero.
If you think this is just happening in fiction, then get ready to descend into the uncanny valley with me:
This is a(n admittedly scary-ass) top of the line robot, and the purpose of this video is to show how closely the bot’s facial expressions can mirror our own. But it’s titled Japanese Robot Girlfriend for some reason, even though the robot just says a bunch of humble courtesy phrases (the sort you would direct to a superior or boss), and there’s no evidence that this robot is some sort of Real Doll or other sex-toy-thing. Why is she a she, and why does her female-ness mean she is a robot girlfriend and not just a talking, facially responsive robot?
Gendered and sexualized robots are that way because we programmed them to be that way; this is an unescapable truth. What I want to know is why we’re so hung up on gender that we have to assign it to inanimate objects.