In Lynn Hershman Leeson’s quirky Teknolust (watch now on Fandor), nebbish geneticist-programmer Dr. Rosetta Stone (Tilda Swinton) creates three robotic clones from her DNA: The sweet and naïve Olive, the high-strung Marine, and the sultry Ruby, all adorned in colorful kimonos to match their names. When they fall ill from “low levels of spermatozoa,” Ruby ventures out into the real world, seducing meek men with lines from classic Hollywood films, like The Man With the Golden Arm (watch now on Fandor) and The Last Time I Saw Paris, in order to collect their sperm in used condoms for Dr. Stone to later brew up into medicinal tea. As a radical feminist filmmaker, Lynn Hershman Leeson cleverly rescripts the patriarchal constructions of the fembot character—a staple of sci-fi cinema.
The character of Ruby is a play on the fembot archetype first defined by Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic Metropolis (watch now on Fandor). The evil scientist Joh Fredersen creates a robot in the likeness of the kindhearted prophet Maria to ruin her reputation and unleash chaos throughout the city. Opposing the real Maria’s virginal purity, the robot Maria becomes an erotic dancer at the Yoshiwara gentleman’s club. Her half-naked body and sensual gyrations whip the ogling men into a harried frenzy, instigating a worker’s uprising that threatens to topple civilization. Lang establishes what the fembot would continue to represent for generations to come: A menacing and bewitching mechanical siren that uses her wiles to effortlessly destroy men. Whereas Maria’s allure destroys a male dictatorship, Ruby curses her lovers with erectile dysfunction and a strange bar code rash on the top of their forehead.
Metropolis puts forward the fembot as a machine designed under the male gaze, who is forced into some form of sex work. We see this with Pris from Blade Runner, who as a “basic pleasure model” is built to satisfy the desires of military personnel or Dr. Evil’s fembots in the Austin Powers series. They are made to divert Powers from his mission with their titillating dance moves, fuzzy pink negligees, and large breasts. Teknolust subverts this trope as Ruby’s sex work is of her own volition and not under the command of a male creator.
The fembot is also made to fulfill another male fantasy: That of a submissive woman primed to serve his every need and desire. This idea is the basis for the 1970s dark satire The Stepford Wives about a group of suburban Connecticut men who create slavish robot wives obsessed with cooking, cleaning, and pleasing their husbands. In Blade Runner 2049, the misanthropic K’s only relationship is with a hologram aptly named Joi; she cooks him steak dinners while wearing a floral apron, a wholesome image of the 1950s Americana that frames her as the perfect obedient housewife.
In Ex Machina, the fembot hides her vampish sway beneath this kind of wholesome veneer. The mild-mannered Caleb is sent to conduct the Turing Test—an indicator of whether or not a machine has consciousness—on an A.I. named Ava. Caleb is immediately enchanted by her ballerina-Esque delicacy that matches her sweet, feathery voice; he starts to view Ava as a damsel in distress that he must rescue from her egomaniacal creator Nathan. Nathan aligns with other male inventors of the fembot that use them for his own pleasure; he has his own maid/concubine, Kyoko, and there are subtle hints in the film that suggest he has had sex with Ava as well. The twist ending reveals that Ava indeed has human-like consciousness for how she manipulates Caleb into helping her escape. She kills Nathan, leaves Caleb trapped in one of the mansion’s many rooms, and flies to freedom.
The character of Sandy in Teknolust, a sheepish copy technician hopelessly waiting for “the one” while living with his mother, is similar to Caleb in Ex Machina but does not share in his toxic “nice guy” masculinity. Although Sandy is desperately searching for a partner, he does not fall for Ruby because she embodies any fantasy of his. He does not position her in the typical fembot role of a pliant servant; he instead desires an emotional connection with her, predicated on equality and intimacy, not control and sex. The fembot exposes the patriarchal limitations society imposes on women who are flesh and bone. They are literally objectified women who embody the perfect male fantasy: Sexy, submissive and controlled. Teknolust departs from the standard dystopian portrait of the fembot is not only its frothy and kitschy style but in its strong female gaze. With a female director at the helm, the fembot is allowed to break free from her patriarchal limitations as a coerced sex worker and paragon of subservience.