Do Sewing Machines Dream of Electric Patriarchy? Women, Artificial Intelligence, and Misogyny

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As a child, my walk home from school brought me past a boat yard every day. For years there was a boat stored there that went by the name of “Pamela Anderson.” I knew from the Baywatch craze of the time that Pamela Anderson was best known for her breast implants and her bathing suit. At about 8/9 years of age I was even gifted a Pamela Anderson action figure, complete with the trademark red one-piece and well-endowed chest.

Forrest Gump painting the text "Jenny" on the side of a boat

I am reminded of this due to the current debates about female-voiced digital assistants. You can read articles on this topic here, here, here and here. As the aforelinked articles note, the naming and configuring of material and technological objects like boats and robots as female is nothing new. Be it in jest, out of affection, or out of some kind of primitive need to control one’s creation, women have long been to butt of jokes, the objects of affection, and considered soft enough, gentle enough, and weak enough to be subdued.

According to Philip K. Dick,

“Androidization requires obedience. And, most of all, predictability. It is precisely when a given person’s response to any given situation can be predicted with scientific accuracy that the gates are open for the wholesale production of the android life form.”

Analogue women, as we know, are routinely constructed and deconstructed as much as their AI counterparts in the patriarchal pursuit of the “perfect woman.” After I got engaged, the most asked question for several weeks was, “will you grow your hair long for your wedding day?”. . . .

In his essay, “The Android and the Human” (1972) Dick theorises about the narrowing gap between humans and machines:

“But now we find ourselves immersed in a world of our own making so intricate, so mysterious, that as Stanislaw Lem, the eminent Polish science fiction writer, theorizes, the time may come when for example a man may have to be restrained from attempting to rape a sewing machine. Let us hope, if that time comes, that it is a female sewing machine he fastens his intentions on. And one over the age of seventeen — hopefully a very old treadle-operated Singer, although possibly regrettably past menopause.”

Note the author’s candid sexism – if you haven’t read any of his work, his fiction is laced with this too. Dick goes on to suggest:

“a time may come when, if a man tries to rape a sewing machine, the sewing machine will have him arrested and testify perhaps even a little hysterically against him in court. This leads to all sorts of spinoff ideas: false testimony by suborned sewing machines who accuse innocent men unfairly, paternity tests, and, of course, abortions for sewing machines which have become pregnant against their will. And would there be birth control pills for sewing machines? Probably, like one of my previous wives, certain sewing machines would complain that the pills made them overweight — or rather, in their case, that it made them sew irregular stitches. And there would be unreliable sewing machines that would forget to take birth control pills. And, last but not least, there would have to be Planned Parenthood Clinics at which sewing machines just off the assembly lines would be counselled as to the dangers of promiscuity, with severe warnings of venereal diseases visited on such immoral machines by an outraged God — Himself, no doubt, able to sew buttonholes and fancy needlework at a rate that would dazzle the credulous merely metal and plastic sewing machines always ready, like ourselves, to kowtow before divine miracles.”

Watercolour painting of Rosie the Riveter as a RobotAndroidization, as Dick refers to it, requires boundaries, a set of limitations to secure the android’s possibilities. Dick’s misogynist sketch associates technological chaos with stereotypical notions of femininity (a common theme in his fiction).  Good girls turn bad, reliable machines become unmanageable. The author presents us with the traditional man = God and woman = subservient dichotomy. God is male, rational, more than capable, watchful, overseeing. Woman is hysterical, prone to lies, unreliable, inadequate.

Numerous critics have equated the feminisation of virtual assistants with the long legacy of sexism. What Dick reveals via his hysterical sewing machines is the stereotypical side of womanhood that often gets programmed out of androids or AIs: the questioning, angry, independent women, the women who might say no, the women who can talk back. His sarcastic vision of the future is abrasive, insulting, embittered, and misogynist. Worst of all, when you step out of the uncanny valley of Dick’s vision and apply his theory to the world at large, it is, unfortunately, true. Replace the raped sewing machines analogy with the blatant sexism that fuels revenge porn and gamergate for example. The culture of woman shaming and victim blaming is real.

Whether AI or human, digital women are not meant to function beyond the parameters of what the digital patriarchy dictates is enough. In the clip below from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, we see fembots exploding and short-circuiting when confronted with a satirical version of dominant male sexual prowess.

Imagine an alternative scenario in which Siri or Cortana shut down people’s phones every time they are confronted with misogyny. Perhaps empowered female AI who can fight back is not to far off if Microsoft’s Cortana is anything to go by.


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