How do we spend our time in the classroom talking about things that exist merely on a screen, when there are so many other issues in the world that require much more urgent attention? This has perhaps been my biggest struggle with my liberal arts education for the past four years, especially as a film and media studies student. Instead of taking actions that could have a direct impact, we are confined to only thinking about the theoretical and the abstract, which is also evident in this particular project. Thus, my last essay in college has also become the hardest one to finish. It is not that I don’t know how to write about the subject matter. After a semester of reading and thinking about accents, from different disciplines, through all its definitions, I have a lot to say. Yet, in the midst of a global pandemic, when there are so many urgent realities, a topic such as cinematic fembots’ accents risks feeling trivial.
But my choice to study accent through fembots (robots that resemble the female human form) comes from a very simple premise: Both accent and fembots are at their core man-made constructs that depend on aspects of the real world as shaped by our perceptions of it. Oftentimes, when we talk about an accent, we are actually thinking about the perception of that accent. In particular, it is only through another person’s perception that the notion of an “accented” voice emerges. Therefore, the so-called accented voice only exists in the context of there being a non-accent. However, instead of being derived from any objective standards, the “ideal” accent (or non-accent) is based on subjective human ideological preferences; the supposed “ideal” accent can therefore be constructed, altered, and manipulated. In the case of a fembot, not only its accent, but every literal piece of its existence is purposefully selected and designed, making fembots the very embodiment of human-constructed ideals.
However, fembots are also non-human. They are machines, a distinct “other” fundamentally different from humans. It should not come as a surprise, then, that the robots often display female attributes. After all, in a patriarchal society, being female is just layering on another dimension of “otherness.” What I do find intriguing, however, is that even within these female representations of artificial intelligence, there is still a hierarchy of otherness, and that hierarchy stands in relation to the characters’ accents and racial attributes. Much like fembots, an accented voice is also often regarded as an embodiment of “otherness.” While an accented voice is often assumed to be generated by a speaker of foreign origin, a general (white) American accent is regarded by many Americans as a “non-accent.” By studying the fembots in the movies Her (2013), Ex Machina (2014), and Blade Runner 2049 (2017), I intend to further examine the relationship between their accents, appearances, agencies, and narrative endings.
|Film Title||Name||Accent||Corporal Appearance||Actress Ethnicity||Ending|
|Blade Runner 2049||Joi||Spanish||Hologram||Cuban||Death|
At first, all the fembots start off being completely under the control of their male owners. They are either created (Ex Machina) or purchased (Her, Blade Runner 2049) by the male protagonists of the films. However, as the stories unfold, different levels of agency start to surface. Notably, the different endings of the characters are directly tied to their various levels of agency, and these degrees of agency are curiously related to their different accents, which seem to remain out of their control despite their prosthetic bodies.
In all of these films, the white, non-accented female characters are given the power to speak and listen, while the accented speakers are deprived of the same abilities. Even more conspicuously, all male protagonists in these movies appear to be white and speak with generic American accents. Therefore, Samantha and Ava, who both speak with generic American accents (or non-accents) are elevated onto the same racial playing field as the male characters (i.e. the human characters), despite their status as robots. Consequently, they are given more agency throughout the films and ultimately escape from (male) human control, while Joi (who speaks with a noticeable accent) and Kyoko (who is not given a voice) suffer less fortunate fates. In Ex Machina, Kyoko, who appears to be Asian and has a Japanese name, is arguably the most subservient of all these characters. She appears to show no signs of agency, blindly following every order that is given to or shouted at her, from cooking, cleaning, serving, to dancing or performing sexual favors. Though without a voice, her appearance alludes to a potential foreignness, which translates into a hypothetical accent. In the case of Kyoko, the threat of a potential accent already provides enough evidence for acquiescence. The accented voice is robbed of its power, before it even has the chance to be heard.
What becomes clear, then, is that the depiction of fembots in science fiction is not only an embodiment of “otherness,” but also of the hierarchy existent within that “otherness.” Compared to the otherness of foreign accents (both auditory and physically projected), the otherness of fembots becomes less significant. At this point, I cannot help but wonder: why does cinema even portray “otherness” in the first place? Is this simply cinema’s attempt at representing our non-diegetic reality in all its hierarchical bleakness, as the accented voice continues to be belittled, overlooked, and ridiculed in our society? Yet, if all that cinema could do was to recreate the issues of reality, without critique or scrutiny, maybe my concern in the beginning of this essay is indeed valid. Maybe it is time for me to bid farewell to the silver screen as I conclude my time in the college classroom.
Yet, I’m holding onto the hope that the faults which I have identified within these movies don’t apply to cinema as a whole. Cinema, and science fiction in particular, has the distinct benefit of being untethered by the boundaries of reality. I started off my essay by stating that accents are ideological constructs – but so are science fictions. Hence, instead of being bound by the human inclination towards othering hierarchization and oppression, maybe science fiction could go in a different direction, utilizing its imaginative flexibility to construct a different, idealistic world free of such faults and inequities. In this light, maybe the seeming distance of cinema from reality that I grappled with at the beginning of this essay is not its shortcoming but its power. Instead of revealing, cinema should also reimagine.
Her (dir. Spike Jonze, 2013, 126 mins)
Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland, 2014, 110 mins)
Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2017, 164 mins)