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Not even a robot woman is safe from the male gaze

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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Ai-Da artist robot

In a new interview, robot artist Ai-Da’s lips are described as “full and puffy like a beckoning sofa” by a critic. How lovely. 

We have often mused that the world is divided into two groups of people. Those who sympathised with Joaquin Phoenix when he fell in love with the raspy disembodied voice of Scarlett Johansson’s artificial intelligence home assistant in Her, and those who… didn’t.

Waldemar Januszczak, art critic for the Sunday Times, is probably in the camp of the former, if his most recent piece for the newspaper is anything to go by. The critic posed for Ai-Da, a female robot artist, at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford recently and though he didn’t set much store by her creativity – “she’s no Frida Kahlo,” he wrote – he was impressed by her, erm, physical assets.

“Ai-Da looks at me through those mysterious hazel eyes of hers and winks a playful wink,” Januszczak wrote. “‘You’re very beautiful,’ I splutter. ‘Thank… you,’ she whispers back.” 

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“The Daily Mail’s front page is a stark reminder that no woman can escape objectification”

He continued: “My eyes drift down to her magnificent lips. Not since I interviewed Liv Ullmann, back in the day, have I seen lips like these: full and puffy, like a beckoning sofa. Oh, how I want to throw myself onto them. If Ai-Da had a hand, I would probably have reached down, there and then, and written my phone number on it.” 

How lovely. Isn’t it wonderful to know that women – human, robotic or otherwise – will never escape the clutches of the objectifying male gaze?

Januszczak admits in the article that he didn’t think that he would end up “fancying” the robot artist, but fancy her he does, goddamnit! Though he doesn’t rate her artistic prowess, suggesting that Ai-Da’s significant Yoko Ono-influenced output is more indebted to her female “curatorial” programmer than anticipated, he does rate her physical appearance.

“Ai-Da is leaning against a makeshift lectern, drawing claw at the ready, her Titianesque locks scattered a tad wildly around her gorgeous face. Oooooh. Be still my beating heart,” he wrote. “I was expecting her to look moderately human, but this was Brigitte Bardot in a brunette wig.” 

This, we know, is the male gaze, the way that looking at women is inherently sexualised – breathless and ravenous – a term coined by film critic Laura Mulvey in 1975. It came about because of the sheer weight of male cinematographers, directors, authors, artists and critics crafting their representation of the world in an image that appeals to them.

Sure, more recently a female gaze has emerged, too, thanks in part to the rise in female creatives in various artistic fields. But the overwhelming way that the world is shown and interpreted is through male eyes.

That’s why it rankles so much that this poor robot artist Ai-Da can’t even have a nice interview about her work without being reduced to the sum of her parts.

This is the lot of women, robot or otherwise. The canon of profile writing is littered with male writers breathing heavily onto their keyboards as they bashed out a few gushing paragraphs about the – usually much younger – female actor they were sent to interview.

This, written about Emily Ratajkowski: “She’s the kind of woman you’d draw: curves like a cola bottle, lips like a sphinx. Hell, even your girlfriend thinks she’s hot.”

This, on Kate Upton: “Savvy bombshells know how to combine sexiness and naiveté in a way that somehow makes ogling them seem like the most innocent thing in the world.”

Or this, on Angelina Jolie: “Her hair is pulled back, her lips are full, her eyes huge and alien, her head alien also, too big for her body, for her narrow shoulders and skinny waist – alien in that big-headed Martian way, proportions that Hollywood and conspiracy theorists use to denote species of a higher evolutionary order, whether of good or ill intent.”

Christ alive! That last one was written by Rich Cohen for Vanity Fair, a writer who went viral in 2016 for giving the Ai-Da treatment to Margot Robbie and insulting the entire nation of Australia in one 6,000 word article for the magazine. “Australia is America 50 years ago,” Cohen wrote in Vanity Fair, describing Robbie as someone who can be “sexy and composed even while naked”. The story ends with the creepiest note of all: “We sit for a moment in silence. She was thinking of something; I was thinking of something else.” 

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As Roxane Gay put it at the time: “Every issue of Vanity Fair this month comes with a thin sheen of Rich Cohen’s semen holding the pages of Margot Robbie’s profile together.”

We can only assume that the same was true of this weekend’s Sunday Times magazine. 

Images: PA/Nicky Johnston

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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer, podcaster and recent Australian transplant in London. You can find her on the internet talking about pop culture, food and travel.

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