How AI narratives reflect societal gender norms

Humanity has grown increasingly reliant on artificial intelligence and its ability to serve and satisfy its owners. Just decades ago, devices like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa were only a concept of imagination. 

Yet today, humans quickly utilize these helpers without a second thought. Not only have these machines increased advancement and grown more human-like, but boundaries between humans and machines have surpassed a boundary that makes the two almost indistinguishable. 

Consider Sophia the robot: at first glance, her naturalistic appearance and uncanny facial expressions, alongside her instinctive voice, make her a strong representation of technological advancements in recent years.

Before artificial intelligence grows more accustomed to humanization, it is crucial to consider the role of human-AI relationships and how said intimacy impacts the depiction of gender from a hierarchical standpoint. 

Think of the technological servants that millions of users employ daily: Siri tells her users the weather or informs them of their daily tasks. 

Similarly, Alexa is knowledgeable about various topics while simultaneously obeying any commands provided. These devices (along with others not mentioned, including Microsoft’s Cortana) often possess a sole purpose: to satisfy and serve their controllers.

In 1985, before the emergence of high-functioning artificial intelligence, scholar Donna Haraway wrote her essay “A Cyborg Manifesto” to stress the dehumanization of female artificial intelligence. 

“To be feminized means to be made extremely vulnerable to be disassembled, reassembled, exploited as a reserve labor force; seen less as workers than as servers, subjected to time arrangements on and off the paid job that makes a mockery of a limited work day; leading an existence that always borders on being obscene, out of place and reducible to sex,” Harway states.

 By defining feminization with a negative connotation, especially in the context of technology, Haraway emphasizes the fact that female-presenting AI experiences heightened vulnerability and an expectation to serve their male counterparts (while simultaneously being criticized by men for whatever they might do). 

Themes of female AI being hypersexualized cross over in the film and television realm, especially in science fiction pieces. These choices mirror and perpetuate existing societal norms and expectations. Spike Jonze’s award-winning film “Her” is a crossover between romance and science fiction, considering that one of the relationship’s counterparts is an operating system. 

The film presents a futuristic love story that intertwines humans and technology, yet its viewers (stereotypically, film-bros who enjoy a variety of films with sexist, male superiority undertones) often gloss over the deeply misogynistic stereotypes embedded within its layers for the sake of the film’s beauty. 

For starters, the operating system, Samantha, is voiced by none other than Scarlett Johansson, one of Hollywood’s most dehumanized women in her roles. 

Samantha is defined by her smooth, honey-like voice, making her appear more submissive and compliant to her male controller, Theodore.

The concept of anthropomorphism is evident in Samantha’s depiction in the film. Although she is a device the size of a palm, the male director’s unbridled desires apply to her character. 

Similar to the virtual assistants in the real world, Samantha’s appealing nature causes Theodore to become overly dependent on the device. 

Through the humanization of devices, it is evident that the blurring of human and technological worlds should be approached with caution, as the hypersexualization of female AI only worsens. 

Throughout history, a notable recurrent pattern exists where men seek women who fulfill a role of subservience and service, reflecting ingrained societal expectations that withstand power dynamics. Ultimately, the film portrays Samantha not as a sophisticated entity but as a device. 

Specifically, an object designed solely to cater to men’s desires. The portrayal of Samantha, intertwined with her role in Theodore’s life, further perpetuates the stereotypes that women continue to tackle. This concept reinforces societal expectations that men expect women to fulfill their requests.

Furthermore, the series “Westworld” highlights anthropomorphism through the female AI’s youthful, innocent, virgin-like dichotomy.  

Yet again, the male director (noticing a common theme) depicts the artificial women can be viewed only as both victims of abuse and objects whose sole purpose is to satisfy men. 

Despite being depicted as victims, their objectification for male entertainment calls attention to a disposition that simultaneously emphasizes sympathy and reinforces societal norms around women’s roles. One scholar, Vanessa Quiroz-Carter, says that “​​The viewer is meant to sympathize with the plight of the powerless females, and yet their naked bodies are shown to titillate and retain viewers.”

The depiction of female AI in “Westworld” perpetuates the hierarchical paradigm, namely the “Madonna-whore complex,” coined by Sigmund Freud. Before elaboration, it is crucial to note the two lead female characters. 

Dolores embodies the “girl-next-door” archetype, portraying helplessness and innocence, while Maeve is pictured wearing relieving clothing with much more intimidation surrounding her character. 

Thus, the “Madonna-whore complex” explains men who are unable to signify clarity between romantic feelings and sexual desires toward women. This psychoanalytic approach divides women into two distinct categories: women who portray innocent, helpless personas (Madonna-like, relating to Dolores) and women who portray sexual desire and temptation (whore-like, relating to Maeve). 

The juxtaposition of sympathy-inducing victimhood coinciding with the display of their naked forms challenges gender-based power dynamics. 

Wholly, the two women are made from artificial intelligence, underscoring men’s inability to portray their female characters as living beings but rather as a source of reproduction and, in turn, highlighting the eroticization of women.

The intersection of emerging AI and deeply embedded gender biases demands a necessary analysis of societal implications in human-AI dynamics. 

The anthropomorphism of AI, particularly in female presentation, acts as a canvas for historical gender stereotypes to persist. 

The combination of both hypersexualized female AI, along with their key role in adhering to men’s desires, seems to be creating a backward society. 

Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto,” coupled with media representations in works like “Her” and “Westworld,” unveils a complex analysis of hypersexualization within female AI. 

Furthermore, the reinforcement of the “Madonna-whore complex” mirrors historical dualities, depicting female AI as submissive and reflecting societal expectations of women. 

This illustrates the urgency for an ethical overhaul in AI design, challenging existing norms and advocating for an inclusive technological future.