Engendering Non-Humans in Science Fiction

Maria the robot, as featured in Metropolis (1927). Image from http://metropolis1927.com/#gallery

Though the present-day sex/gender distinction commonly associates sex with biology and gender with mind, depictions of robots and other non-human beings in science fiction have been gendered despite their lack of both a human body and a human mind. Roy Schwartzman, a professor of Theatre, Speech, and Dance at the University of South Carolina, refers to this phenomenon as “engenderneering.” He posits that sexuality is a fundamental experience of embodiment, so therefore embodied, or personified, human-like machines must have sexuality. According to Schwartzman, this sexuality must stem from a constructed gender, and in this respect he seems to equate gender with sex and the state of being engendered with personhood, though the machines of which he speaks have no true biology and are non-human.

This consequence of this personification, or gender construction, Schwartzman says, is the emphasis on gender roles which apparently influence how humans interact with and view non-human entities; frequently, it serves only to reinforce and reproduce traditional systems of oppression and subordination, particularly those which oppress women. He mentions the conflicting traits which have been attributed to women (for example: reproductive beings, the Other, the active evil, the passive servant) and compares this categorization problem to the difficulty of shoehorning androids into the commonly accepted concepts of mind/body dualism. This comparison fits neatly within Luce Irigaray’s ideas which place women as the undefinable, uncategorizable, or nonexistent.

As an example of an “engenderneered” robot in science fiction which reinforces traditional gender roles, Schwartzman highlights the case of Maria, pictured above, in the film Metropolis (1927). He says that Maria, who is likely the first portrayal of a robot in film, is only “authentic” to the extent that she can act as a sexual being — an ability which is judged by her male creators. In fact, men are very often the creators, and therefore the gender constructors, of robots in such films. This echoes the “exchange of women” as written by Gayle Rubin, in that what is feminine is defined and controlled largely or exclusively by men (Rubin 1975). In order to further this idea, Schwartzman refers to the computer in Star Trek, which is feminine-coded. He mentions in particular the malfunctioning of the normally subservient computer, during which it is not nonoperational, but instead becomes disobedient. This is problematic because the “female” computer is coded as dangerous or frightening only when it is not controllable.

Though Schwartzman presents a view of “embodiment,” “sex,” and “gender” which is perhaps troubling in the present-day, his discussion of gender roles in science fiction sheds light on how the “engenderneering” of non-human entities can ultimately relate to the construction of sex and gender with regard to humans. In particular, the coded “femaleness” of certain robots and their treatment within science fiction reveals details of the gender roles which women are expected to fill (helpmate, servant, sexual object, etc.), as well as the ways in which the construction of femininity is defined and maintained by the existing social structures of subordination.


Rubin, G. (1975). The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex. In R. R. Reiter (Ed.), Toward an Anthropology of Women (pp. 157–210). New York: Monthly Review Press.

Schwartzman, R. (1999). Engenderneered Machines in Science Fiction Film. Studies in Popular Culture, 22(1), 75–87. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23414579