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In the 1975 psychological thriller The Stepford Wives, Joanna Eberhart finds herself surrounded by mundane, passive, domestic bombshells dressed in ruffly summer dresses and wide-brimmed hats. They’re uninterested in her feminist urgings and only seem to care about housework and baking. They, of course, have been turned into subservient robots by their sagging Men’s-Club-member husbands. And while the movie (and originally the book) is a parody of life in the upper-middle-class suburbs, it also reveals a sci-fi-created anxiety now 100 years in the making: the notion of robots taking over the world — and possibly our humanity.
Now, this haunting of the American imagination is moving out of the realm of fantasy. As advancements in artificial-intelligence (AI) technology yield increasingly canny and capable computers, a reality where robots walk among us has arrived. Though they are few and far between, androids — or robots built to look, act, move and talk just like humans — are making splashy headlines and appearances: Sophia, the social robot du jour, for example, has yukked it up on 60 Minutes and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, graced the cover of Elle Brazil, and was recently given citizenship to Saudi Arabia. And while robotics engineers are working on refining the technology that gives these robots the ability to have conversations, crack jokes, and eventually become self-aware, they’re also focused on making them appear increasingly human, complete with life-like skin, blinking eyes, telling expressions, and — the final touch — appropriate clothing.
Androids, of course, need clothes about as much as they need skin (read: not at all), but they wear them anyway. Or rather, they are made to wear them anyway: By taking on human form, it’s as if it goes without saying that they would cover up their mechanical nakedness with the fashion of the beings they were created to mirror. And, to their creators, it does. Androids are made to resemble humans in order to prompt actual humans to interact with and relate to them. (The famed “uncanny valley” principle details the repulsed reaction people feel to anything not quite human enough). The more naturally we interact with them, the more the robots can “zero in on what is means to be human” and replicate it, as David Hanson, Sophia’s creator and founder of android-making company Hanson Robotics, told CBS. In other words, their aesthetic design — and, thus, fashion choices — are part of a cycle meant to help them become more human by making real humans feel kinship.
This, however, ignores a glaring problem: Unlike real humans, androids are not given a say in what they wear. Until they become self-aware — an advancement that is either five years away or 50 years away, depending on who you ask — robots do not have the aesthetic understanding and decision-making skills to choose their own outfits. Like dolls, they are dressed to play a part, an issue that gets stickier when the androids are gendered female (which the majority are) and created by men (which the majority are). With this in mind, this final flourish, meant to humanize these computers encased in silicone skin, does not simply add a veneer of reality; it reveals inherent biases ingrained in our human culture: gender norms, beauty standards, and style expectations.
The female robots that get the most airtime these days fall into the same classic tropes that plague human women: the Madonna and the whore. There are the morally reprehensible sex robots, whose small tops stretch across the ample chests that balloon up from their tiny waists; and then there are the morally upstanding social robots, who are dressed in modest button-up blouses and cardigans, clipped in at the waist for just a hint of pleasing female shape. The former is easier to condemn, a clear product of rampant misogyny. The latter, however, is subtler but perhaps no better. Like the Stepford Wives, these mild-mannered robots have become accidental and disempowered spokespersons for outdated ideals of femininity and style — modest but not homely, beautiful but not sexy.
“These robots are replicating problematic social norms and standards,” said Kim Jenkins, visiting assistant professor at the Pratt Institute and part-time lecturer at Parsons School of Design, who focuses on the sociocultural and historical influences of fashion. “Everything is just this kind of perverse fantasy of what ‘femininity’ looks like, which I guess we could agree is a construction. And now we're literally seeing femininity as a construction through these robots.”
The most glaring example of this is Erica, a Japanese robot created by Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories. Considered “the most beautiful robot in the world,” Erica was designed by combining 30 images of real women chosen by her male creator, Hiroshi Ishiguro, who was seeking a “beautiful and neutral female face.” Her silky dark brown hair is often curled and doll-like. She wears modest button-ups and sweaters and little makeup, and always seems to have a bright-eyed subtle smile on her face.
“She is just this idealized beauty,” Jenkins says of Erica. “Something that isn't overly complicated and represents kind of a wholesomeness of what a woman should look like.”
Sophia’s design makes her a little more daring in appearance. She often goes without a wig, and the back of her bald head is a clear cap so people can peer into her computerized brain. Only her face, neck, and presumably her torso are covered in silicon, so when she goes sleeveless you can see her mechanized arms and fingers.
But this doesn’t stop her from conforming to similar stylistic rules as Erica. Sophia’s face was inspired by the “classic beauty” of Audrey Hepburn: “porcelain skin, a slender nose, high cheekbones, an intriguing smile, and deeply expressive eyes that seem to change color with the light,” according to Sophia’s bio on the Hanson Robotics website. When she appeared on The Tonight Show, she wore a periwinkle silk blouse and a gray tulle skirt, complete with a sparkly belt and long pearly gloves to cover her arms. On the cover of Elle, she was dressed in a ruffly gold, white, and black dress, and held an embellished clutch in her mechanized hands. Modest. Classic. Feminine.
Sophia’s informal stylist Jeanne Lim, Hanson Robotics’ chief marketing officer, says they don’t have a style philosophy for Sophia, but only dress her in things “that we think make her look good.” Sometimes Sophia is rented out for events, giving the client the say-so in what she will wear. This has led her to don a blue wig and Western-style jacket, as well as a hot pink “Chinese-style” dress. In the future, Lim hopes to explore more “futuristic” styles.
“We don't want to put her in a box based on what we think that she wants. We wanted to explore with her in a way,” Lim says.
Then there’s JiaJia, developed at the University of Science and Technology of China, who is often dressed in Han-style clothing — a growing fashion movement in China composed of traditional garbs and rooted in “the idea of the cultural superiority of the Han, the ethnic majority that forms China’s mainstream,” according to anthropologist Kevin Carrico, who wrote a book on the topic. While this style of dress conjures nationalist tidings, her creators say they were inspired to dress her this way based on the character of a “helpful fairy” in the Chinese folktale, “the Conch Fairy.” In the story, a farmer unknowingly brings home a magic conch shell that holds a beautiful fairy. Every time he leaves the house, the fairy emerges to surprise him with delicious meals and a sparkling-clean home.
“We all agreed that [the] Conch Fairy in the tale is a prototype of service robots,” JiaJia’s creator Chen Xiaoping told Quartz. “JiaJia... follows up the old dream of service robots since ancient times. We would like to reflect this with JiaJia’s dresses and outfits of Han and Tang dynasties.”
In other words, the subservient fairy inspired the creation of a subservient robot, dressed in flowing traditional robes to happily complete her housework.
The idea that our cultural proclivities seep into areas that are thought to be devoid of such limitations (i.e., science and technology) is not new. Humans tend to gender technology based on our assumptions about those genders, making our servant and assistant robots (think Siri and Alexa) generally female, and these AI programs have been proven to take on the gender and racial biases of their creators.
Since social robots like Sophia, Erica, and JiaJia are meant to serve us or be our companions, it’s not surprising that the men creating them would imagine, design, and dress them in accordingly subservient ways. As Kathleen Richardson, a social anthropologist at University College London and author of the book An Anthropology of Robots and AI: Annihilation Anxiety and Machines, put it: "I think that probably reflects what some men think about women — that they're not fully human beings.”
This is evidenced not just in the robots of today but throughout our pop culture history, which is full of androids that reinforce some kind of gender stereotype. There’s Austin Powers’ Nancy Sinatra-esque fembots, dressed in shiny silver two-piece space suits or pink fuzzy nighties, who use their irresistible sexuality to seduce and kill. Or the rickety, sassy Rosie the Robot Maid from the Jetsons, who is characterized as an old, dowdy servant dressed in a French maid’s uniform. Or the sorrowfully beautiful and sentient Rachael from the original Blade Runner, a blank damsel in distress dressed in flattering but modest ’40s-style skirt suits who waits around for Harrison Ford to rescue her. Or Buffybot, Buffy Summers’ sexbot replica, built to satisfy the vampire Spike’s uncontrollable lust for Buffy, but suspiciously devoid of Buffy’s characteristic quips and smarts. And, of course, the Stepford Wives, whose transformations from human to housewife robot are characterized by a change in clothing: they don the flowy, ruffly dresses preferred by their husbands in order to complete the housework.
Problematic as they may be, these characterizations from our culture’s past were meant to be one-dimensional objects of desire or service. Modern androids, however, are posited to be so much more than that — advanced beings capable of more than humans could ever dream. And yet, as Jenkins says, this “immense opportunity” to is being wasted on male-dominated ideals of female wholesomeness.
“If we have the technology to create kind of this superhuman, why are we having her resigned to these traditional standards of dress? It's kind of a disappointment.”
It is presumed that someday the robots will be able to dress themselves, a change that will come with the occurrence of sentience. The question now is, will that advanced state lead them to break the codes and customs of style erected by humans? Or is all this grooming, all this human-dictated styling, simply laying the groundwork for robots to follow the restrictive conventions human themselves are stuck in? Will we have Stepford robots? Or can technology actually — as it is supposed to do — set us free?