Silver Screen, Silver Sirens

Our Pick of the Century's Best Robotic Heroines

Programmed to please, compelled to obey, designed to the highest standards of aesthetic perfection. It’s no surprise that ever since Czech writer Karel Čapek coined the term “robot” in his 1920 play RUR (Rossums Universal Robots), the idea of the artificial human has tweaked the heartstrings—not to mention libidos—of a host of directors and artists. While there’s something undeniably alluring about the cyborg sylph—a fantasy that reaches its apex in the work of illustrator Hajime Sorayama—popular culture has often had a more complex relationship with android heroines in the past century.

Double Trouble
One of the earliest screen robots is the “Man-machine” of Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, which gets transformed into the image of the film’s heroine, Maria. The doppelgänger then wreaks havoc in the factory underworld—an allegorical Jezebel whose sexual potency is a source of danger.

Mixed Messages
Robotic enhancements later became a means of empowering female protagonists such as The Bionic Woman, whose metal legs, arms and ear were essential tools in the battle against hordes of evil "fembots" (the feminist line being not so clear in this scenario).

A Baker's Dozen
In the 70s—when theorists like Judith Butler proclaimed femininity a fraudulent masquerade—the female robot also represented the repressive social constraints of gender, most notably in The Stepford Wives. In this 1975 film, based on a novel by Ira Levin,  a coterie of powerful men transform their spouses into cake-baking automatons, who mindlessly recreate the tight-lipped smiles and subservient manner of women as depicted in 50s advertising. 

Violent Femmes
Fast-forward through the earnest days of gender theory, and things get a little more fun. The psychopathic female villain of Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, Pris (played by Daryl Hannah), is a pleasure slave who revolts gloriously against her pre-programmed raison d’etre.

Double Barreled
In Mike Myers’s Austin Powers, the villainous “fembots” of The Bionic Woman are reincarnated as a series of Barbie-like killing machines. Their feather bras and silver heels may be a ridiculous, heroic send-up of the 60s' unthinking sexism, but, as Powers discovers, their gun-toting breasts are a force to be reckoned with.
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