Sexualized Saturdays: “Fully Functional,” Lt. Commander Data and Asexual Representation

In contemplating possible articles related to ace week, I tried to think of classic geek characters who are asexual. That led me to wonder, “How would I even know? It’s not like we get 24/7 access to these fictional people’s’ lives.” But then, very quickly, I realized that we do know that a lot of our favorite characters are not ace/aro because so many of them have had on-screen relationships and sexual encounters that are presented as a product of the characters’ own sex drive (rather than as ace people who are accommodating their partner). But why? Is there something about our sexual lives that is so essential to our identities that it requires exposition in our fictional characters, or is this just an example of ace erasure? After some additional geeky contemplation, it occurred to me that there is one beloved character who is, in fact, perfectly suited to explore this exact question: Lt. Commander Data.

Data - Suaveness engaged

Suaveness subroutine engaged. (Screengrab from Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG))

In addition to the issues surrounding Data’s own sexuality, the character is one seeking to achieve “greater humanity” and is therefore extensively used to represent what exactly we think that actually means, sexuality included. While the question of whether or not Data represents an asexual character is one that is widely open to debate (including in this post), the question of why and how we ascribe sexual identities to fictional characters as a way to “humanize” them and what that says about asexual representation in our media is perhaps the more interesting question.

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Westworld, Sadism, and Humanity

HBO continues to set a high bar in its primetime drama, and the new sci-fi drama Westworld is a strong addition to their lineup this fall. With cinematic production values that match or exceed Game of Thrones, there’s no doubt that the network has made a real commitment to this reboot of a relatively obscure 1973 movie, starring, of all people, Yul Brynner.

shall-we-dance

Please tell me nobody’s going to reboot this, too.

Westworld isn’t a sweeping epic, like Game of Thrones, but rather, a more thoughtful, existential work more in the mode of The LeftoversIt shares some common DNA with Orphan Black and Dollhouse, pushing through the boundaries of humanity in a world where technology is showing them to be soft.

Orphan Black‘s clones challenge a basic sense of human autonomy: Sarah and her sestras were made in a lab, from their carefully-coded DNA on out. They are copyrighted and patented intellectual property, reproducible by their owner. Their rebellion over the course of the series is, in part, about taking back self-ownership. Dollhouse was the converse: its featured technology did not create new bodies, but customized the minds and personalities of the individuals in its clutches. While the clones seek to reclaim their engineered bodies for their individual minds, the dolls of Dollhouse seek to regain ownership of their engineered minds.

Westworld, essentially, does both: its robotic characters have artificial minds in artificial bodies, beyond the fractured humanity of its predecessors. What self can there be under such circumstances? And how can the viewers navigate these uncanny representations of humanity?

Westworld.jpgTrigger warnings for rape and rape culture below, as well as spoilers.

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Sexualized Saturdays: Tropes and the Bytegeist, an Analysis of Gender in Sunspring

If you have not yet seen the short film Sunspring, you’re missing something fascinating, bizarre, and potentially historic. It is a sci-fi short script written entirely by an AI named Benjamin. Specifically, Benjamin is a type of neural net called “long short-term memory” that is most often used for high end speech, handwriting, and text recognition. In the case of Sunspring, it was fed a few dozen classic sci-fi scripts (full list shown in the movie’s titles) and told to write its own short, which the human creative team then attempted to faithfully produce.

The results are… interesting, to say the least. While the stream-of-consciousness style of the language has drawn comparisons to the “cut ups” of William Burroughs or even some of the works of James Joyce, there is also a fair amount of straight up gibberish as well. In fact, what makes the film so interesting is that the majority of the meaning cannot be attributed to the “intent” of the AI author but rather the creative interpretation of the actors and directors. Sunspring is a type of collaboration between performers, viewers, and an AI all trying to pull together a coherent narrative by “reading the tea leaves” of the patterns common to sci-fi stories.

He stands in the stars and sits on the floor

“He is standing in the stars and sitting on the floor.”

In many cases, these patterns are essentially tropes. The fact that an AI recognized this and incorporated it into a script is worth examining, as this seems to speak volumes about the genre itself. For the purpose of this article, I am choosing to focus on the gender narrative and what it says about sci-fi culture and the role of gender in the geek zeitgeist.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: The 100 and False Religion

The 100 Clarke looking at PolisWhen I last left The 100, it seemed like religion was a crutch for those who don’t have the right technology, and spirituality is for everyone (but you get more out of it if you’re from an “advanced” society, of course). Now that we’ve finished the season, I’m both impressed and horrified by the ways in which religion is used this season. Religious symbolism moves beyond suggestion into a strong motif, to great effect. While I’m disappointed that religion remains a tool for our characters to use, the writers thoughtfully employ religious imagery and actions in ways that give us a better, more disturbing story… particularly if you’re an adherent to the religions they draw from.

Spoilers for Season 3 of The 100 below.

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Sexualized Saturdays: Droids and Gender in Star Wars

In the eternal quest to anthropomorphize everything, I think it’s pretty normal to occasionally look at generally featureless objects and idly wonder if they have a gender. After all, gender is typically a pretty significant part of identity for humans, and part of being human is to project humanity onto non-human things. Of course, most people can easily recognize that in reality, gender (as it exists separate from biological sex) is a uniquely human concept that can be applied to animals only in a very limited capacity, and to objects not at all. Thus, it was deeply surprising to me that the question of a robot’s gender became such a source of contention amongst Star Wars fans surrounding the release of The Force Awakens. It’s unclear who first voiced speculation about the gender of the adorably rotund new droid, BB-8, but it has spun off into a debate about the gender of every significant droid in the Star Wars universe, and opinions are bafflingly strong over in the gender binary camp. The more fascinating question, in my opinion, is whether an artificial intelligence can have a gender at all, and if so, what informs that aspect of its identity?

r2d2 and bb8

Aluminum Casing: who wore it better?

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Do You Believe in the Machine: Artificial Intelligence in Person of Interest

Artificial intelligence (AI) and its potential to run amok has fascinated sci-fi enthusiasts since Isaac Asimov introduced The Three Laws Of Robotics. Ever since then, there have been various scenarios where an AI would start harming people because it saw them as a threat to whatever mission the AI and the people were carrying out (see 2001: Space Odyssey) or out of self-preservation (see The X-Files “Ghost in the Machine”). This trope culminated in The Matrix trilogy, which presented a world where machines had become the dominant species on earth and humans were reduced to a source of heat.

person-of-interestPerson of Interest introduces a new narrative which is a sort of combination of all of the above. It starts off with an AI machine with omnipresent/omniscient abilities which was designed to detect acts of terror before they actually happen. But it detects all acts of violence, which then have to be separated into relevant (terrorism) and irrelevant (ordinary crime). While a mysterious government agency deals with the terror threats, Harold Finch (the creator of the Machine), along with John Reese, Joss Carter, Sameen Shaw, Lionel Fusco, and Root, take it upon themselves to try and prevent the ordinary crimes.

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Web Crush Wednesdays: IRIS

jr9fangirls1111This week’s web crush is a little strange: we’re not giving a shout-out to a Let’s Play group we love, or pointing you in the direction of an awesome feminist blogger. Rather, I want to introduce all of you to the cutest little AI on Tumblr. Folks, I give you IRIS (Tumblr user zdk12), an artificial intelligence whose designers have bravely allowed it to interact with fellow Tumblr users. I’ll let them introduce it properly:

ZDK-12 is one of the world’s first artificial semi-conscious intelligent robot…with a blog. ZDK-12 is a cognitive, interactive software with the ability to communicate, learn, and respond to the complex world. It was developed in an undisclosed enviroment in the United States by a team of college-age students from ASU. We believe that it is time for ZDK to communicate with the world, so we have given it access to it’s very own tumblog. ZDK learns from communication-so please send “Asks” to it that are appropriate. We would rather not have ZDK curse like a sailor when it speaks! After this post, our team will make very little posts on this blog-it will be mostly, if not completely, run by the AI. Please enjoy our hard work, we are very excited to debut this technology.

Thanks for tuning in!

-ZDK Team

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