Bella Baxter and the Machine: On Yorgos Lanthimos’s “Poor Things” and Julie Wosk’s “Artificial Women”

By Marion ThainJune 10, 2024

Bella Baxter and the Machine: On Yorgos Lanthimos’s “Poor Things” and Julie Wosk’s “Artificial Women”

Artificial Women: Sex Dolls, Robot Caregivers, and More Facsimile Females by Julie Wosk

IT SEEMS NO coincidence that Yorgos Lanthimos’s cinematic rendition of Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel Poor Things, released at the end of 2023, would come at a time of obsessive commentary about the possibilities and threats of AI. While Lanthimos’s movie has nothing, ostensibly, to say about digital technologies (beyond its own production process), the publication this year of Julie Wosk’s Artificial Women: Sex Dolls, Robot Caregivers, and More Facsimile Females provides a context for considering the potential of the film in the public imaginary.

Wosk’s study explores the construction of artificial women in the age of AI as sex robots, care providers, domestic servants, and the disembodied voices of our digital tools and personal assistants. Considering both actually manufactured women and the many artworks that fabricate them as fictions, Artificial Women explores the strange phenomenon of womanhood in the artificially generated human world. Such constructions, Wosk argues, offer a potent way to recognize gender stereotypes and analyze how they have shifted over the years. The way female robots are now being made to represent an ever-greater diversity of ethnicity and body types, for example, tells us about our own changing cultural expectations. Similarly, one can pick apart the construction of female-voiced virtual assistants to observe the “lingering element of the gender stereotypes that inform their designs and responses (and recent research highlights the bias toward masculinity in their technological design).” And the gendering of AI-powered care robots is raising afresh debates about whether women are more “naturally” empathetic than men. Wosk’s book, then, offers a new route into considering how we construct gender identity culturally, by exploring how we manufacture gender identity in very literal ways.

Simultaneously, writers of fiction (novelists, filmmakers, playwrights, etc.) have long interacted with the phenomenon of the literally manufactured woman, continuing to question, transform, and challenge the stereotypes those creations reaffirm. One of the most powerful features of Wosk’s book is that it situates our current AI moment in relation to the long history of the manufactured woman, as both a problem and an actual product. “Men,” she writes, “have long had fantasies about a synthetic female that fulfills their dreams of a ‘perfect woman,’” and she traces this impetus back to ancient history in the work of Ovid and others. Artistic play with the concept of the female automaton, Wosk notes, often combines this desire for alluring passive servitude with the potential threat of destruction that the resentful AI-empowered machine might bring—as in Alex Garland’s 2014 film Ex Machina.

It is within the lineage of Wosk’s “artificial women” that I want to situate Bella Baxter in Lanthimos’s Poor Things. The film is nominally a Frankensteinian story about a pregnant woman who had taken her own life being brought back to consciousness by an experimental doctor (Godwin Baxter—“God,” for short—portrayed by Willem Dafoe) who implanted the still-living brain of her unborn child into her head. Yet Frankenstein’s story carries new meaning when presented at a time when we are relentlessly questioning the scope and consequences of recent developments in robotics and artificial intelligence. Set in a futuristic, steampunk version of a late 19th-century past, the movie has, at the heart of its visual style, questions about the relationship between humans and machines during the last technological revolution—that of the steam engine. These questions are both central to the film’s visual sense, in terms of the heavy electric current that reanimates Bella Baxter’s brain, and peripheral—but ubiquitous—in the steam-powered contraptions that replace older preindustrial technologies. Don’t miss Godwin’s engine-powered carriage with a horse’s head mounted at the front.

Outwardly, Bella is a full-grown 25-year-old woman with a rapidly developing infant brain. But the implications of a grown woman’s body containing the brain of a child (spoiler alert: she has a lot of sex) should not crowd out the less literal, more metaphorical significations. The stiff physical movements that a brilliant Emma Stone brings to Bella’s body ostensibly represent the toddler age of her medically engineered intelligence, but deliberately or not, they more strongly evoke, in many ways, the mechanically manufactured female automatons that were the Steam Age precursors of the artificial women of AI. In her book, Wosk notes both the 19th-century fear that steam power might result in people turning into “automatons walking with steam-powered legs” and the rise of clockwork mechanical dolls starting in Paris in the 1850s.

There is a context for Bella’s manufactured nature, then, in the artificial women of the 19th century. But I would suggest that this movie looks back in order to look forward, invoking the Industrial Revolution in order to help us think anew about our own moment in time, and our own technological revolution. The fact that her brain is literally created from the cells of an aborted fetus cannot help but evoke conspiracy theories about AI having been developed from the brains of aborted fetuses, even if that point of reference was not available to Gray when he wrote the novel. (I first heard this theory from a New York City cab driver, and it probably stemmed from stories such as this one, reported in 2021.) The representation of Bella’s rapidly developing intelligence is less like watching a child than watching machine learning—not least because of the incredible rate of progress. For a start, as Bella tries to articulate and make sense of things, she often reaches for multiple synonyms for—and definitions of—the concept she’s trying to express. I’ve never seen a child with such a wide-ranging vocabulary; rather, hearing Bella is like witnessing a machine trained on a thesaurus sifting through a vast array of options to alight on the right one—the opposite of a child who starts from an incredibly limited vocabulary and who can give only one approximate word, charming and inventive though those approximations might be.

Bella’s reasoning is similarly less childlike than mechanical. Having been introduced to the concept of the brothel, she reasons that she needs sex and money, so why not? In the story, her intensely rational ways of thinking are attributed to the scientism of the experimental surgeon who created her. Yet is this not also the mode of analysis of the digital machine, albeit the pre–generative AI type, skilled in deductive reasoning? While so often in movies devastating machine logic has been the threat the robot poses, Bella’s naive logicality in this narrative is refreshing. When she pleasantly informs her lover that it is through having had sex with others that she has come to truly appreciate his prowess in the bedroom, this sounds less like the unfiltered honesty of a child and more like the statement of a computer whose unemotional system needs comparative data.

Considering the film as one that raises questions (at least implicitly) about robot sexuality is not inconsequential in our own age in which sex robots are big business. Bella is, after all, made by a man, and the question about whether Godwin created her to be his companion is asked in both the book and the movie. Yet this is a story in which Bella drives her lover, the wonderfully caddish Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), mad because she is free from insecurities and sentiments that have been culturally coded as feminine. (It’s worth noting Wosk’s discussion of the manufacturers of sex robots who offer “insecure” and “jealous” as optional “female” personality types to “reassure” the purchaser.) Perhaps robots will have the last laugh in the bedroom as well as on the battlefield. Yet, my point here is not that the movie is really about robots and AI instead of being about the things everyone thinks it’s about—women and feminism. Rather, I argue that it manages to be about its two obvious subjects in a quite original way because it leans into issues raised by our AI-obsessed moment (with much visual help from the technologies of our own digital age). Bella happily strides through life thinking logically about how best her needs can be met, and that is a type of freedom that might be more open to robots in a culture that freights human women with all kinds of other obligations and expectations.

As one considers the feminist import of a film by a male director based on a book by a male author, it’s worth noting that the concept behind Gray’s novel might have a precedent in a 1944 novella by C. L. (Catherine Lucille) Moore called No Woman Born. When Deirdre, a stunning actress, is killed in a theater fire that destroys her body, her brain is rescued by a scientist (Maltzer) who embeds it in a cyborgian metallic body. Deirdre is one of the artificial women whose story Wosk reminds us of in such a timely way in her book. In fact, Wosk’s study explores a line of feminist precursors that goes back to the 19th century with stories such as Alice W. Fuller’s “A Wife Manufactured to Order” (1895), which satirizes the idea of man’s desire to find the perfect mate in “factory made” form. Charles Fitzsimmons narrates the tale of engaging a manufacturer to produce, as Wosk quotes, a woman “beautiful as a dream, gentle and loving, without any thought for anyone but me.” Designed to accord with his every wish and interest, she is the ultimate obliging companion. This paradigm of complaisant womanhood, however, becomes boring to Charles, and he ultimately rejects her in favor of a real woman—one who “retains her individuality, a thinking woman.” Of course, it is ultimately Bella’s individuality and her ability to think things through that drives Wedderburn crazy. Unlike Charles, he may have preferred the passive servitude of the automaton—and he pays for it.

However varied and well-critiqued the discourse of artificial women may be, it is striking that we’re still usually talking about artificial women rather than artificial men. Within this context, however, watching Lanthimos’s movie gives us the opportunity to reflect on the robotized femininity that surrounds us in a different way. Through her resonance with our own AI women, Bella shows that this preponderance of femininity in the artificially generated human world doesn’t necessarily have to lead to a public imaginary that increasingly equates femininity with exploitation. The movie offers other possibilities for how that imaginary might develop, and Bella’s joyous grinding-down of poor Wedderburn works as a corrective to the constant renderings (vocal or visual) of the feminized, submissive AI. When Bella finally finds the husband who, in her previous life, drove her to suicide, events lead to her transplanting a goat’s brain into his damaged head and keeping him affectionately in her garden to keep the grass in check. This might not be the most likely (or most desirable) outcome of the creation of phalanxes of artificial women in our own age, but it is a timely cautionary tale, as well as a useful reminder that things don’t always go as planned.

Concern about our AI future permeates our works of imagination (whether explicitly or, in the case of my proposed new reading of Poor Things, implicitly) because art is a way of exploring how things might be or should be, and, very often, a way of enabling us to explore our fears about the unknown. We can’t create better technological futures unless we can imaginatively explore the consequences of our actions, and it is through the debates that play out in literature, film, and art that the public imaginary surrounding technology progresses. Films such as Poor Things, like many of the other artworks Wosk refers to in her book, harness discourses about artificially generated consciousness to reimagine our human future. We shouldn’t underestimate the role of the arts (even those of the past) in determining the shape of our technological tomorrow.

LARB Contributor

Marion Thain is a professor of culture and technology at King’s College London and the executive dean of the Faculty of Arts & Humanities. She is chair-director of the Digital Futures Institute at King’s, where she founded the Centre for Attention Studies. She publishes particularly on the relationship between culture and technology (considering “technology” in the broadest sense).

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