Cameron Mackintosh is a well-known name in the UK, but this is less true in the US. While you may be unfamiliar with his name, his work is much more recognisable – Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, Hamilton. He is a producer for some of the most famous and longest-running West End and Broadway shows in the history of theatre. With his reputation of featuring progressive themes of inclusion, revolution, and community in these shows, one would think that he’d be a proponent for the advancement of theatre into the 21st century, but recent comments have led him to face backlash throughout the theatre community.
Recently, when asked about the potential for transgender actors in theatre shows, he responded, “you can’t implant something that is not inherently there in the story or character… to do that, it becomes gimmick casting. It’s trying to force something that isn’t natural.”4 This exclusionary mindset separates trans actors from the rest of the theatre community, suggesting that an artist who happens to be trans would not be able to play a role as effectively or convincingly as a cisgender artist.
Unsurprisingly, this faced a significant amount of backlash from a community largely based on acceptance and tolerance. Alexandra Billings, a transgender actress currently starring in Wicked on Broadway, asserted that
“I am an actor…I am these stories because I am part of the human fabric and no one has the right to take any this away from me.… I am an actor, Mr. Mackintosh, not a gimmick…. We have been playing these musical roles in the theater for centuries. The only difference is, now we are becoming visible. And that’s frightening. That’s upsetting. This is about you and your fear and the fear of many others, but it is not about the trans community.”
– Alexandra Billings
She was far from alone in this: countless actors from Mackintosh’s own shows, as well as the entire cast of a recent production of Rent (a show that features multiple trans/non-binary actors) stood up against his words, demanding an apology and highlighting the work that trans actors have done within the Broadway community.4
On September 6th 2021, there was a Trans March on Broadway, protesting Mackintosh’s comments and claiming that it should be transgender artists who lead the conversation, not Mackintosh.5 There are also plans for a concert entitled You Gotta Have A Gimmick, the goal of which is to put the spotlight on trans artists and allow them to share their talents separately from the discriminatory comments.
Following the backlash, Mackintosh posted another statement, apologising for his comments. He claimed that his words were misinterpreted and that it wasn’t transgender artists he was against, but simply their presence in classical shows; instead, he suggested, new shows should be written focused exclusively on trans issues. The problem with this suggestion, aside from the fact that it still gatekeeps classical roles from transgender actors and limits the subject matter that he sees as suitable for them to partake in, is that the creation of new musicals is not such a straightforward solution. Plays and shows have already been written with specifically transgender roles in mind, such as Jagged Little Pill, and Breakfast on Pluto.3,2
The issue? These roles are still being played by cis actors.
By claiming that classical roles are not suitable for trans actors, whilst also casting cis actors in trans roles with the claim that fiction should be open to anyone, producers create a hypocritical paradox that only serves to exclude transgender actors. Additionally, certain new shows such as Tootsie (a show in which a male character adopts a female persona in the hope that this advances his career) create storylines that “profit from transgender stereotypes while casting cisgender performers, to share their experiences in the business.”2
The expectation that progress will come through new shows is an excuse that has allowed for the lack of diversity within classical theatre for decades. The majority of casting in older, more renowned shows is predominantly White, with the expectation that newer shows will create roles more “suitable” for actors of colour, actors with disabilities, and trans and non-binary actors. This lack of representation is far from limited to just sexuality and gender identity – race is also massively underrepresented.
While the issue of needing more diverse actors is a frequently occurring one, an important discussion that is often overlooked is one of writers. In the last 3 theatre seasons, over 80% of plays and musicals on Broadway were written by White creatives, as outlined in “The Visibility Report: Racial Representation on NYC Stages,” which was published by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition.1 Given that diversity is supposedly meant to be enhanced through new art (which has occurred to a certain extent, with shows such as Hamilton and Hadestown casting much more diverse artists, but has still not come close to resolving the imbalance), it seems unlikely that this will be possible in an industry where even new art is staggeringly under-representative. In 2019, a study done on gender representation within Broadway revealed that there were only 4 artists who openly identified as non-binary, with non-gender specific roles making up just 7.1% of all characters on Broadway.6 When this study was released, actor Shakina Nayfack wrote that she “just want[ed] to be playing good roles that don’t necessarily have anything to do with transness.” In short – roles don’t need to be written specifically for trans actors because they should be able to occupy any space and role they choose on Broadway.
While diversity is starting to emerge within shows, without the hiring of actors in classical shows – given these shows’ reputations of prestige and their security as a symbol of Broadway, especially amongst older audiences – progress will be slow, as these actors will still believe theatre isn’t a place for them. The responsibility shouldn’t be on young actors and writers to create roles for themselves when existing roles should be open to them.
(Dates and artists for You Gotta Have A Gimmick have not yet been announced, but follow @youcancallmesis on Twitter for updates)
Two years ago, I took a trip to the Modern Museum of Art for an assignment for an introductory art history class. We had learned about a few art movements including surrealism. So, I decided to write my paper on a self-portrait by Frida Kahlo, perhaps the most famous female surrealist artist. While studying the painting, I was trying to block out a sculpture in my peripheral vision. It was a piece by Hans Bellmer. Perhaps it sounds ridiculous to have an internal feud with a German surrealist artist, but I did. Bellmer primarily created sculptures that, in my opinion, were blatantly misogynistic. For instance, Bellmer created a doll where the torso is actually a second pelvis. Accompanied photographs were “taken below in a way that emphasizes the doll’s breast and genitals, while her face is partially obscured”(Bottinelli, 2004). Yeah, it was pretty gross.
While Bellmer was one of the worst offenders, he was not alone in his depiction of women in surrealist art. Many famous artists, including “Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, Yves Tanguy, and Rene Magritte, created imagery that, in its sexual abandon, often objectified women; they chopped off female arms and legs, replaced their faces with genitalia, or, as in the case of Ernst, rendered them headless”(Thackara, 2018). This comes as no surprise since Andre Breton, the author of the Surrealist manifesto, based much of the underlying themes of surrealism on the research of Sigmund Freud. Freudian techniques, meant to reveal the unconscious, were common inspirations of Surrealists. These “theories on hysteria and animalistic impulses, rooted in cultural misogyny, had negative repercussions on the movement” as we already have seen (Botinelli, 2018). As much as I wish it stopped there, it doesn’t. “Freud’s psychoanalysis theorizes that unconscious thoughts and motivations, rooted in primitive drives toward sex and aggression, are the underlying cause of human behavior”(Bottinelli, 2018).
The misogyny inherent in surrealism is not a new idea. Simone de Beauvoir wrote, in The Second Sex, that Breton “never talks about Woman as Subject”(Beauvoir, 1949). But this view was not unanimous amongst feminist scholars as I had presumptuously expected. In Automatic Woman, a text further exploring the relationship between feminism and surrealism, Katherine Conley introduces a perspective I had not considered. “Maryse Lafitte argued against reading surrealist depictions of women as unremitting antifeminist, as has Rosalind Krauss”(Conley, 1996). Further, Conley argues for a new perspective on surrealism. Conley brings up two female artists : Leonora Carrington and Unica Zurn. Zurn and Carrington served as muses for Hans Bellmer and Max Ernst, respectively, before becoming Surrealists artists in their own right. Conley argues that this placing of a woman at the center, albeit as a muse, creates “the potential to step down from her pedestal and to create on her own”(Conley, 1996). They argue that even if women were only in the unconscious, placing them there necessitated a feminine, if not feminist, perspective.
This argument made me uncomfortable initially. It felt like Conley was trying to justify the actions and beliefs of male surrealists. However, to say surrealism was misogynistic would be to ignore the decidedly feminine parts of it. Kate Brown, writing about a Frankfurt exhibit, highlights how “the quantity and diversity of their work shows how a female perspective was central to surrealism from its birth in the aftermath of World War I”(Brown, 2020). In recent years, there has been an uptick in the demand and auction prices for art by female surrealist artists. Like most research, delving more into the issue of misogyny and Surrealism left me with more questions. What struck me while walking through the Surrealism exhibit that day was the stark disparity between the number of female and male artists. I don’t think that the depiction of women by male surrealists can necessarily be justified. Some might argue that it was the thinking of their time or that the unconscious that produced these images cannot be held responsible. One thing is undeniable; surrealism needs to be depicted holistically. Regardless of the forces that shaped it at the time, museums should be held responsible to depict the art movement as it was, which had decidedly feminine components.
Beauvoir, S. D., Borde, C., Malovany-Chevallier, S., & Rowbotham, S. (2011). The Second Sex. London: Vintage Books.
This essay was written in 2018, before the HBO’s Watchmen and Lovecraft County aired. Both narratives are worth looking into for representations of Black bodies in the nexus of history, science fiction, and modernity.
Recent years have seen increased diversity in the American population. However, entwined with its shining tradition of immigration, our country has a much murkier history of oppression and outgroup aggression. From slavery to Manifest Destiny, immigration bans to racial violence, the repeated and systematic dehumanization of large swathes of the population has sparked countless campaigns for liberty and equality that continue into the present day. The media has proven an excellent tool for and against different agendas, with media portrayals of different populations shaping public opinion of the people that comprise those groups. This essay looks at two different subgenres of speculative fiction (Techno-Orientalism and Afrofuturism) that emerged in the twentieth century and their connection to real-world histories of oppression through the lens of two recent productions, the 2015 film Ex Machina and the Metropolis concept album series.
I. History of Un/humanity
Throughout American history, people of color have been posited as less than human. From the Three-Fourths Compromise in 1787 and immigration bans in 1882 and 1917, to modern stereotyping, the American legal system has worked in tandem with socioeconomic anxieties to portray people of color as unhuman “Others.” This has been accomplished by relegating the bodies of Black and Asian people to the “uncanny valley.”
Coined by Masahiro Mori in 1970, the uncanny valley describes semi/sentient technological simulacra that are vaguely familiar, but at the same time discomfiting in their distinct inhumanness (Chu; Roh 78). Mori believed that people respond positively to simulacra (i.e. effigies, superficial or unreal representations of humanity), when they are less than 85% similar to actual humans (Mori 2012). The strength of the positive response then increases proportionally, albeit slowly, as the percentage similarity increases. Those that fall near the graphical valley at 85% are characterized by an existence in the liminal space between humanity and the mere simulation of it (Figure 1).
This percentage is determined by a combination of the simulacra’s vocalizations, physical embodiment, and responses to human engagement. Considering the negative connotations associated with African American Vernacular English, black skin, epicanthic folds and “foreign” customs, representations of people in media can often be examined through the idea of the uncanny valley. Though rather than having the ambiguous “human” category as the baseline, much of contemporary American respectability and assimilation politics uses the unmarked category of “whiteness” as the baseline against which all other speech patterns, bodies, and behaviors are compared and evaluated for familiarity/humanity.
With this context, we can begin to consider how the characterizations of people of color in media and contemporary fiction force them into this uncanny liminal space, an existence allegorized by the speculative fiction staple – the android. Exploring different manifestations of the android as allegory enables us to disentangle the heterogeneity and distinctions within the minority monolith, as well as providing us with a deeper understanding of the relevance of speculative representations of marginalized groups.
In a 1902 campaign to extend the Chinese Exclusion Act, Samuel Gompers, the founder of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), argued that Chinese laborers were capable of sustaining deprivations in safety and sustenance that those of European descent could not (Gompers). The paper was termed “Meat vs. Rice, American Manhood vs. Asian Cooleism”. Its very title suggests that Asian Americans are something other than hu/man, some differential species known as “Coolie”. Despite their crucial role in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad and as laborers in the American West, the extent of Asian American humanity was routinely called into question. They were construed as literal machines, “cogs of hyperproduction”, arriving overseas in bulk for use in constructing industrial modernity (Roh 5).
Techno-Orientalism is a direct byproduct of this paradigm shift. It is defined by Danielle Wong as “A discourse that imagines Asia and Asians in hypo- or hyper-technological terms in order to secure the West’s dominance as architects of the future” (Wong 35).
Lacking a distinct cultural history, America seeks to compensate by imagining a distinct cultural future, in the form of future-societies. A staple in speculative fiction, future-societies have their roots in the industrial revolution, when increasing mechanization led to novels and speculation on the integration of synthetic technology with organic humanity. In the wake of the technological and arms dominance that emerged in the nineteenth century, the United States constructed its identity on the basis of modernity. Its status as a relatively young nation and a global superpower to boot fed into this ideal of futurism, where Western society, America in particular, was seen as the embodiment of modernism. “If it was the West that created modernity, it was also modernity that created the imaginary space and identity described as Western” (Morley 153).
Beginning in the 1980s, however, Asia has seen tremendous economic and technological growth, outpacing the nations typically thought to constitute the West. As a result, the focus of American anxieties shifted to “fears of being colonized [and] mechanized…in its pursuit of technological dominance” (Roh 4). Disoriented by the shift in technological innovation, the Western society developed insecurities about European and American modernity, Watching Asian nations outpace them in terms of GDP growth and technological innovation forces Western society to recenter the locus of modernity, forcing them to recenter the very core of their identities (CIA). This leads to further othering of Asian/American populations by white in order to retain their sense of identity, which is so inextricably entwined with the notion of technological superiority.
This led to the rise of cyberpunk. Envisioning future-societies dominated by masculinized white protagonists, cyberpunk allowed creators to reproduce the militarized, white, “rugged masculinity” that they believed to be their birthright. White men cast in the “lone wolf” archetype are shown as taking a stand against faceless corporations that are trying to elide humanity in favor of impersonal, unfeeling mechanization. Defining pieces in the genre include Blade Runner (1982) and Neuromancer (1984), both of which center on a lone white man in an Orientalized environment, which despite being populated by Asian/Americans, rarely gives them scope to be active subjects. Limited in their characterization, the presence of Asian/American bodies is used as sentient set dressing, with the sentience often called into question.
III. Ex Machina’s Inheritance
The distinction between sentience and thought originated in eighteenth century philosophy and has been historically connected to dehumanization and the justification for oppression towards the racial and ethnic Other. Sentient beings are considered capable of subjective interpretation, also known as emotions. Thinking beings, in contrast, are simply able to rationalize; take objective data and spit out information, no more human than a computer CPU. Thus, denying Asian/American characters of a full range of emotional expression effectively reduces them to androids; unhuman mechanized bodies whose sole purpose for existing is manual labor. By removing Asian/American subjectivity from Asian-coded environments, the narratives deny them personhood.
This phenomenon is observed in the 2015 film Ex Machina. Despite its rather hackneyed deployment of racialized tropes, Ex Machina is lauded as a speculative milestone for its inclusion of bodies of color in a future-society. However, said bodies are routinely denied subjectivity.
Humans interpret a subject’s emotion through two methods; voice modulation and facial expression. It is thus telling that both Asian androids in the film, Jade and Kyoko, have static visual affect displays. Throughout the 150-minute film, we see no variation in either of their expressions. Furthermore, their sole expression is neutral, suggesting that they lack any capacity for subjective, emotional response. In this sense, the film constructs the Asian face as “too artificial, too inorganic to pass for human” (Wong 40). The stereotype of the unfeeling, coldly logical Asian is depicted in full force here. This is driven to a visual extreme in the case of Jade, who is shown tearing herself apart in an effort to escape confinement. Her desperation literally destroys her. She does not show sentience, repeating the phrase “let me out” in a monotonous tone as her body breaks down.
It is also necessary to consider historical precedent in the case of Kyoko, who has been effectively muted by Nathan, the androids’ creator. Unable to utter a single sound, or to move in ways contrary to his explicit commands, she is denied any means of self-expression, any way of conveying the thoughts and feelings that would mark her as sentient.
Even Kyoko’s sexuality is almost mechanical in its eerie semblance to a computer responding only to user input. One of the most disturbing scenes in the film occurs when Caleb is looking for Nathan. Approaching Kyoko, he repeatedly asks her for Nathan’s location. As she remains mute, staring at him with her unchanging expression, Caleb shouts the profanity “F**k” as an expression of his growing frustration. It is this word that triggers Kyoko’s first action in this interaction, namely, to begin unbuttoning her shirt. Unable to respond outside the parameters and commands which Nathan has programmed nor express sentience, Kyoko is a trite character,
in the tradition of cyberpunk’s “use of the passive techno-Orientalized female body” (Roh 159). Kyoko is nothing more than sexual, sexualized technology.
Contrast this to Ava, the white female android. Not only does her tone vary throughout the film, depending on the emotions she experiences, we can also see changes in her facial expression. Viewers are called to question Ava’s humanity based on whether they perceive her expressions and voice modulations as either genuine expressions of feeling or calculated actions with the aim of liberation. In either case, Ava is at least offered the option of humanity, her white face allowing her to “pass’ in a way neither Asian android can.
What is more telling is director Alex Garland’s response to questions of racial bias. The director stated in an interview:
This statement is fundamentally flawed in its interpretation of race. Race is not a biological reality so much as a social construct, with the body “a kind of mediation of the processes by which race becomes attached to physiology…racialization is neither a biological nor a cultural descriptor” so much as one created to divide society on a system of baseless difference. Skin color, like so many other identities that have been historically rendered objects, exists on a spectrum, and the sheer arbitrariness can be seen in codification attempts such as the “one-drop rule”, which has no biological substance. There is a historical tradition of configuring posthuman subjects as white, and the lack of subjective action given to the non-white androids renders them unhuman, rather than posthuman.
While the movie features multiple female bodies of color, they are not complex characters. Even Kyoko’s demonstrations of her inorganic nature are oddly fetishized; a naked Asian woman is literally peeling away her flesh in order to show a white man the extent to which she is an “Other”. Had Garland limited the removal to her face, it might have proven less overtly voyeuristic. Even in the supposedly “feminist” scene, where Kyoko stabs Nathan, it is important to note that her transgression results in her immediate death via dismemberment. It is the white gynoid who delivers the final thrusts, who escapes into the wider world, whose transgressions result in her salvation, as opposed to her destruction.
Bound by the “visions” of both Nathan as their fictional creator, and Garland as their real creator, Jade and Kyoko exist as little more “technological tools for the personal exploration” of white women and men, rather than active subjects in their own right (Roh 161). In interrogating the portrayal of said bodies, it is possible to understand the premise of multiculturalism and its contributions to the same dehumanization it purports to counter, by arguing that mere inclusion of bodies of color does not inherently confer subjectivity to said bodies.
IV. Similarities – Comparing Histories
It is also important to consider the portrayal of the black body in Ex Machina as another embodiment of this concept. “The disconnection of black body parts from black subjectivity in the name of scientific progress” (Wong 41) is a common motif in cyberpunk, as well as real world history. There is a rich American tradition of scientific experimentation on black slaves, which is paralleled by Jasmine’s lack of face and brain. This literal absence of signifiers of thought, feeling, and sentience disturbingly parallels the deplorable treatment of black women’s bodies by white men in the name of “scientific inquiry”.
The case of Saartjie Baartman stands as a grim example. One of the Khoikoi people of southwestern Africa, Saartjie was taken to England by a Dutch trader, who then sold her to an exhibitionist who displayed her in a literal menagerie for public viewings. In a gross parody of empiricism, scientists and anatomists would come to poke and prod the poor woman, all in the name of “research”. Even death was not to provide a release from these indignities, as her body was autopsied for “definitive evidence of her low-level status on the scale of civilization” (Farrell 76). Her labia were preserved in a jar of formaldehyde in a Paris museum until the 1970s, when activists managed to force the items to be removed from display. But it was only in 2002 that her remains were repatriated to South Africa and given a formal burial.
Saartjie’s experiences were part and parcel of nineteenth century western philosophy that used bastardized biological precepts to justify the dehumanization of black and brown bodies. These pseudoscientific armchair anthropologists wrote about Asians, Africans and Native Americans as less evolved, then – in a staggering display of egoism and lack of integrity – used their own writings as “evidence” to justify oppression, colonization, imperialism, and slavery (Farrell 60). Such blatantly unscientific paradigms undergirded centuries of unethical experimentation on Black bodies, beliefs that Black people are “less sensitive to pain” (Washington; Hoffman et al).
It is very difficult to divest Jasmine’s denuded, defaced form from such a sordid history. It is also difficult to read the film’s cinematography as anything more than an underdeveloped, cursory nod to this history. It is a glancing acknowledgement, not a remotely clever interrogation. The film’s creators seem to fail to realize that the simple reproduction of a cliché or visual injustice is not necessarily a critique of it.
Afrofuturism seeks to counter this objectifying trend. While Techno-Orientalism is based on restructuring future temporalities as “colorblind” or white-by-default, Afrofuturism restructures past and present temporalities to acknowledge the existence and active subjectivity of black bodies (Van Veen 11). A subset of Ethnofuturism, it contains the largest body of work compared to other ethnofuturistic lenses, such as Asian-futurism and chicano-futurism, which focus on Asian and Latinx representations in speculative fiction, respectively. When considering the android as allegory for the conditions of racial “Others’ in America, it is important to consider “the nonequivalent co-construction of anti-Asian and antiblack racism” (Roh 183).
In both cases, however, a problem arises in the indirectness of the android as allegory. Using the struggles of mechanized simulacra as representations of real-world dehumanization transfers experiences that remain, in reality, and unhuman condition” to a level of literary abstraction. By representing the struggle of these androids, most of which are typically either indistinct or rife with racial caricaturing, as representative of real-world human struggle, it separates the viewer from the reality, the visceral suffering of flesh and blood humans. They can construct these struggles as being unreal, existing only in fictional allegory and post-apocalyptic or long past temporalities. It removes the immediacy.
V. Afrofuturism as the Future
African/Americans face a similar struggle for nuanced representation in speculative fiction. A study conducted as recently as 2008 found that Black people in America are routinely considered subhuman, represented in media as “ape-like” and more “primitive” (Goss et al.). Unlike Asian/Americans, though, their unhumaness is tied to their lack of technology. Whether considering technologies of the flesh (intelligence), or disembodied technologies (access to the Internet, computer systems, smart devices), African/Americans have been portrayed as possessing “less”. This construction of blackness as antithetical to technology-and therefore limited in sociocultural-advancement is reinforced by “the digital divide…limited broadband in inner-city communities, and the lack of computers in urban schools…racial surveillance and profiling” (Womack 47).
Unlike Asian/Americans, contemporary dehumanization of black skin is posited on the notion that they are “less evolved”, more closely resembling the prehuman apes as opposed to posthuman androids. In this sense, depicting African/Americans as active technology-enhanced subjects in speculative literature, rather than contributing to a history of caricatured oppression, can serve as a counter to “militarist and masculinist white visions of 20th century antiseptic science fictional futures” (Van Veen 20). By portraying black as integral to the narrative fabric of posthuman future-societies, they subvert the white default in media, and reconstruct narratives to provide less glamourized contexts for the reality of their condition.
As a movement, Afrofuturism can be defined as aiming to “Fuse the shiny tomorrowland of extraterrestrial beings, experimental technoculture and cybertronic robots with the self-esteem politics of ‘black is beautiful’” (Nama 142). By generating narratives that examine the African/American social condition while simultaneously imagining unconventional African/American embodiments beyond those imposed through a history of white hegemony and colonial trauma.
The condition of robot laborers bears striking similarity to that of African/American slaves. Both are constructed as unhuman, their commodification and enslavement justified by questioning their capacity for sentience. In fact, the term “robot” comes from the novel “Rossum’s Universal Robots”. The author, Capek, takes the term directly from the Czech word for “forced labor”, a descriptor evocative of slavery. In most depictions of androids as allegory for this group,
“The figure of the excluded and racialized other had nonetheless been insidiously included: the other had just been sanitized as metallic robota, ‘their’ troublesome attributes of consciousness and demand for ‘human rights’ quietly erased through deferential reprogramming.”
(Van Veen 20)
This entire allegory is explored in Janelle Monáe’s Metropolis concept album series. Chronicling the narrative of a messianic female android named Cindi Mayweather, Monáe’s work also uses a working android as an allegory for the experience of individuals of color, but unlike the voyeuristic distance of Ex Machina, Monáe’s Metropolis is populated by black androids, and humans of different ethnicities. What is telling is that the android bodies, made and marked for commodification, are those of black women. However, unlike the sustained male gaze present in the creation of other cyberpunk and speculative fiction properties, e.g. Ex Machina, the album series presents Cindi as a subject rather than object. Her face is hyper-expressive, switching between expressions in a rapid, fully humanized manner, while her body is never denuded, except for the album art in The Metropolis Suite. However, it is unskinned and unadorned, explicitly showing wiring and cords spilling out of her, suggesting disassembly and un/making than a voyeuristic intrusion. Her unfinished body is tellingly depicted in a stark white metallic shade, to convey how the embodiment of “blackness” as a race is purely social, with no natural basis. The color of our skin is literally that of the elements we were created with, and not a reflection of us as individuals.
Unlike Ex Machina, Metropolis is also consciously aware of the history it inherits, and the rampant objectification of bodies of color in mainstream speculative fiction. A tongue-in cheek adaptation of Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic film, it uses a female android as a catalyst for societal change. While Lang’s film posited the gynoid Maria as an evil entity, whose hypersexualized performances were responsible for fomenting what was essentially a communist uprising that resulted in societal collapse and destruction, Monáe’s series posits Cindi Mayweather as an androgynous, messianic entity whose performances encourage individual self expression and love. Rather than being coded as a mechanical Eve, responsible for the downfall of man, Mayweather relies on “the concept of prophecy, or speaking about hope to create a vision of the future.” (Womack 41). Monáe also uses the concept of love as a measure of humanity, with viewer sympathy for Cindi stemming from her initial attraction to a human. But it is telling that her character is not marked solely by her actions in relation to men. While her attractions and affections catalyze her development as a messianic performer, it is her use of prophecy and calls to liberty that fully renders her a subject. In this case, the android is a beautiful allegory for enslavement, using music as a means of communication to call her people to freedom from an oppressive society that sees them as little more than objects. In fact, the use of the term ArchAndroid to describe Mayweather is reminiscent of the term “archangel”, suggesting that she holds the key to all sentient salvation.
“Her inversion of Maria, the female android who is constructed to seduce and trick the proletarian workers of Metropolis. In Monáe’s version, “slave cybergirl” #57821 becomes the ArchAndroid, the revolutionary mediator between the proles and the elites, just as her Africanist embodiment reverses Maria’s whiteness to the ArchAndroid blackness.”
(Van Veen 13)
Her frenzied audiences are also predominantly women of color, with men of color outnumbering white men. This defies the male gaze that is so pervasive in speculative fiction, increasing Mayweather’s subjectivity, as opposed to objectification in the eyes of a male audience with greater social power than herself. It makes it explicitly clear who her message is for, consciously aware that the messages of empowerment and control that manifest in depictions of future-societies are typically centered on white men. For Mayweather’s audience, self-worth and love for others in a future-society parallels that in contemporary society, acting as revolutionary forces that can counter a societal dynamic of dehumanization and objectification. Metropolis’s Cindi Mayweather thus subverts the android trope in its entirety, offering a possible archetypal “happy ending”, rather than having the android punished for her subversiveness, as with Kyoko in Ex Machina.
Monáe’s use of Egyptian motifs is also telling, hearkening back to a time when dark skinned cultures were heralded as advanced societies, producing technological knowledge that shaped the world. They were the crux of technoscientific development, and as such were the loci of modernity. Rather than relying on trite, tired racialized imagery based solely on dehumanization in the post-colonial context, the symbols employed by Monáe connote possibilities of power.
It is important to understand that these issues are not restricted to the past and paper. The insidious specters of systemic dehumanization continue to make their presence felt current political rhetoric surrounding African and Asian societies. The distinction between Ex Machina and Monáe’s work is rooted in the use of an objectifying lens versus a subjective one. This distinction serves to “complicate [the] assumption…that inclusion would remediate racism”. While Ex Machina used racist cliches, it did nothing to dismantle the stereotypes or xenophobia that initially created them. Contrast this with Metropolis, which uses lyrics such as “I’m a slave cybergirl without a face a heart or a mind / (a product of man, I’m a product of the man)” to cleverly subvert the notion that women of color are incapable of subjectivity and/or sentience. The use of the first-person pronoun immediately acknowledges the speaker’s subjectivity and self, even as the literal words imply that her nature is to be objectified. Unlike Ex Machina’s brutalization of the literally brainless and faceless black female body (shockingly sensational, but hardly original), Metropolis immediately follows this lyric with a chorus that drives home the nature of that dehumanization. Cultures of inequity, just like robots, are products created by (mostly) men, for the system of institutions and ideologies that privileges them over “Others.” Mayweather the android, her body and programming created by a man and commodified in the future-society. is thus a parallel to the contemporary woman of color, whose gender and race are the products of a racist, patriarchal, capitalist society that profits and has profited on the commodification of their bodies.
As seen through the deconstruction of Ex Machina and Janelle Monáe’s use of colored bodies, however, it is evident that inclusion itself does not progressive humanization make. Rather, it is the complex context in which the human or androids act and react that truly makes for positive representations. It is not enough to have the bodies without considering what they are meant and made to embody. Afrofuturism offers a direct response to histories of inequity that Techno-Orientalism only serves to reinforce.
Balsamo, A. M. (1996). Technologies of the gendered body: Reading cyborg women. Duke University Press.
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The following article is a revised version of the original piece and does not include all photos. The full original article with all accompanying photographs can be viewed by downloading the PDF below (recommended, but viewer discretion advised).
American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe shocked the international art community in 1988 with The Perfect Moment exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) in Cincinnati, Ohio. Against politicians’ desires, the CAC decided to display Mapplethorpe’s work even though the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. cancelled the same exhibit only a few months earlier (Tannenbaum). The majority of Mapplethorpe’s photos were labeled obscene and pornographic, leading to criminal charges pressed against the CAC and its director at the time, Dennis Barrie. One of the most shocking was Rosie (1976), a photograph featuring a friend’s three year-old daughter sitting with her legs open, revealing her nude body beneath her dress. The trial took over a year, ending in acquittal and the public display of Mapplethorpe’s work at the CAC in 1990, just over one year after his death in 1989 (Mezibov).
Nude photography was one of Mapplethorpe’s specialties. Several of his portfolios featured the S&M and LGBTQ* communities in New York City, particularly in nude portraits (“Biography”). Many believe his intense focus on the nude body was an expression of his homosexuality. Rosie however, was one of only two photographs of nude children—the other, Jesse McBride (1976), featured a fully nude five year-old boy sitting on a chair. Both photos were taken with the children’s mothers’ permission but still received heavy backlash and criticism for being “pornographic” (Mezibov).
Ultimately, Mapplethorpe’s Rosie (1976) was not meant to be pedophilic, but rather a response to increasing radical American conservatism during the 1970s and 1980s. Its showcasing in The Perfect Moment exhibition (1988) challenged the limits of censorship and artistic freedom, reflecting the growing social phenomenon of hypersexualization that continues to define American media today.
Senator Jesse Helms and Homosexuality
Mapplethorpe lived in the heart of LGBTQ* activism in New New York in the 1970s. It was during this decade that the gay community began seeing representation in mainstream media, including movies that featured gay characters and the establishment of Gay Pride week. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association stopped recognizing homosexuality as a mental illness, and the corporate world started prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination (Rosen). The LGBTQ* community saw tremendous strides in equality and justice advocacy.
It was during this time that Mapplethorpe became an icon for LGBTQ* folks. According to his friend and writer Ingrid Sischy, Mapplethorpe’s works purposefully focused on homosexuality in order to draw attention. His unapologetically direct photographs helped turn homosexuality from a shameful secret into a proud identity (Sischy).
However, the AIDS epidemic soon heightened homophobia in the 1980s. Mapplethorpe heavily focused on black male nudes, a clear expression of his homosexuality, making him a prime target for censorship. Republican Senator Jesse Helms was especially offended by Rosie and hyperfocused on Mapplethorpe’s homosexuality, AIDS-related death, and interracial photographic subjects (Adler, Meyer). In 1989, Helms convinced the deciding congressional committee to pass a bill prohibiting the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) from funding the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), which organized the original Perfect Moment exhibit, for five years (Adler, Tannenbaum). He did so by lying about the photographs he saw firsthand at The Perfect Moment and distributing copies of four of them to the other committee members (Meyer).
At the time, Senator Helms’ arguments reflected those of a growing conservative movement. His outrage about Rosie was less about the photograph itself and more about the artist. Furthermore, his push for censorship was less about Rosie’s exposed body and more about silencing the LGBTQ* community, including proudly gay folks such as Mapplethorpe. In his attempts to “cordon off the visual and symbolic force of homosexuality, to keep it as far as possible from [himself] and the morally upstanding citizens he claim[ed] to represent,” Helms ironically brought even more attention to it (Meyer 134).
Some supported censoring Mapplethorpe’s work by claiming he was a pedophile and child abuser, but neither Jesse nor Rosie recall him as such. As adults, both reflected on their portraits proudly (Adler). As censorship lawyer Edward de Grazia wrote regarding the Mapplethorpe case, “art and child pornography are mutually exclusive… no challenged picture of children having artistic value can constitutionally be branded ‘child pornography’ or ‘obscene’” (de Grazia 50). Though it was ultimately deemed non-pornographic after the Mapplethorpe trial, Rosie was only the beginning of a political push to seize funding from the arts, particularly the radical works such as Mapplethorpe’s, following several rising liberal and conservative movements in the previous decades.
Historical Context: Radical Conservatism and the Sexual Revolution
During the 1970s, the LGBTQ* community became more vocal, allowing gay men such as Mapplethorpe to be more openly accepted in the art world. In response, movements such as the New Right and the Christian Right emerged, led largely by American evangelicals claiming that homosexuality was morally sinful (“The New Right”). Mapplethorpe’s very existence contradicted traditional conservative values, and he could never align with socially-accepted heteronormative culture.
In fact, the Rosie controversy emerged during a new wave of conservative outrage that began a few years earlier in 1987, when Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ was awarded $15,000 by the partially NEA-funded Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (Meyer). Along with many other Republican Christians, Senator Helms was deeply offended and embraced the opportunity to denounce another artist who defied traditional conservative values when The Perfect Moment debuted in 1988. At that point, Helms’ focus shifted from Serrano’s critique of religion to Mapplethorpe’s expressions of homosexuality, repeatedly calling his photographs “sick” (Meyer 137). In doing so, Helms used the art as a larger metaphor for homosexuality and AIDS, which he believed were plaguing and contaminating Christian-American society.
As a gay man, Mapplethorpe was not sexually attracted to females at all, so it would have been much easier for Helms to use Jesse McBride rather than Rosie in his rhetoric. It was the ongoing sexual revolution, which also contributed to the rise of far-right conservatism, that put Rosie in the spotlight instead. Rosie, then, can be interpreted as Mapplethorpe’s way of challenging traditional ideologies and aligning with the sexual liberation movement. Where he saw an innocent child, many conservatives such as Senator Helms saw the bare sexuality of a young girl. Movements such as the New Right could not view her as anything other than sexual with her genitalia exposed. Therefore, it was not Mapplethorpe who sexualized the child but the audience who saw her, revealing a culture deeply rooted in traditional domestic roles and gender spheres.
The 1960s and 1970s saw a rapid increase in women’s and sexual liberation. Nonheterosexual sex was brought to national attention as well, especially after the Stonewall Riots in 1969 (Kohn). Much of Mapplethorpe’s work reflected this new spotlight. Rosie, though, was unlike his trademark photographs of an interracial S&M community, yet it still gained significantly more attention. Despite the portrait subject being a White child, Rosie was one of the four photographs that Senator Helms distributed to his fellow Congressmen and Senators. The others were Mark Stevens (Mr. 10½) (1976), Man in Polyester Suit (1980), and Jesse McBride (Meyer). There were several other photos of naked men in The Perfect Moment, many considered far more pornographic than Rosie and Jesse McBride could ever be, but Rosie was not chosen by mistake. She reflected a different, but not unrelated, threat to Christian-American tradition: women’s liberation.
After the birth control pill hit the market in 1960, sexuality and sexual expression were no longer taboo subjects. Rates of premarital sex increased significantly while books such as Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex normalized conversation about sex (Kohn). For many, Rosie represented a new generation of sexually-liberated women. For conservatives like Senator Helms, this was an intolerable break from traditional gender roles, where men and women had defined, separate roles in society. The New Right movement believed the sexual revolution was destroying the American family structure, leading little girls like Rosie from domesticity to radicalism (“The New Right”). Rosie, then, was the epitome of everything wrong with women’s liberation for Helms. In distributing her photograph, he attempted to defy the new wave of feminism.
Censorship and Artistic Freedom
However, despite its many controversies, the Mapplethorpe censorship case was most defiant of artistic freedom. Following the case, American art critic Robert Storr wrote that “there are no ‘laws of decency’; certainly none that have any juridical standing with respect to art” (Storr 13). He further argued that censorship itself is the manifestation of widespread mistrust of the public’s ability to draw their own conclusions. In a nation founded on freedom of speech and expression, art essayists like Hilton Kramer, who deeply criticized Mapplethorpe’s work, and politicians like Helms ironically believed that common people should not and could not discern what was acceptable, particularly regarding art (Storr). Helms and Kramer used censorship to impose their own beliefs onto the general public, serving as a microcosm of strong conservative attempts to minimize the voices of non-traditional values.
When such defiances of conservatism emerged, they were immortalized in the form of art through Mapplethorpe and other “radical” artists like Serrano. In the heat of America’s changing society, Rosie became a monumental representation of true freedom: freedom of artistic expression, freedom of sexual expression, and the freedom of perspective. Politicians, however, disagreed over what freedoms should receive public funding. Helms and his fellow White Christian American conservatives believed that the NEA should not fund art that offended them based on “their assault on social constructions of sexuality, race, and spirituality” (Atkins 33). Once again, the majority group was attempting to impose their beliefs on the rest of society, a perfect example of censorship at its core.
Mapplethorpe’s case was significant but not the first. Works by LGBTQ* folks, people of color, and those with “dangerous” political views have been consistently marginalized. For example, Diego Rivera’s Portrait of America mural at Rockefeller Center was destroyed in 1933 because its center featured Vladimir “Lenin” Ulyanov, former leader of the communist Soviet Union (Atkins). In 1934, Paul Cadmus’ The Fleet’s In was removed from the Corcoran Gallery of Art—the same gallery that cancelled The Perfect Moment in 1988—because the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration requested it (Atkins). This was only a small part of FDR’s anti-gay legacy: during his time as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, FDR helped run a sting operation in Newport, Rhode Island in 1919, resulting in the arrest of over 20 Navy sailors for homosexual activity (Loughery). In 1981, after strong advocacy from Hilton Kramer and other conservative critics, the NEA stopped funding individual art critics because many of them were leftist (Atkins). Clearly, the Mapplethorpe case followed decades of conservative attacks on art.
Some believe the most pressing issues surrounding Rosie were Rosie’s age and exposed body. There were certainly multiple other artists photographing naked women at the time, like Don Herron and his Tub Shots series, who received little criticism for the nudity. In fact, nudity itself has never been an issue in art; some of the most famous and public classical works portray naked Romans, Greek gods, and biblical figures, like Michelangelo’s David and Sistine Chapel ceiling. In fact, nude boys were not an issue either, as seen in works like Thomas Eakins’s Boy nude at edge of river (c. 1882) and John Singer Sargent’s A Nude Boy on a Beach (1925).
The fact that Rosie was a girl was not the most significant factor either. During the 1970s, when the Rosie photograph was taken, the United States saw a rapid increase in explicit advertisements, particularly those with women only partially dressed or in full nude. One 1993 study revealed that the number of purely decorative female roles in ads increased from 54 percent to 73 percent from 1959 to 1989 (Busby and Leichty). A 1997 study found that over a 40-year period, 1.5 percent of popular magazine ads portrayed children in a sexual way, and of those ads, 85 percent depicted sexualized girls, with the number increasing over time (O’Donohue et. al). Even in the 1970s and 1980s, the sexualization of young girls was certainly nothing new. Advertising industries had been doing this for decades before the Rosie controversy started in 1988. In fact, they still do.
The hypersexualization of both women and children in the media is quite common now. As National Women’s Hall of Fame activist Dr. Jean Kilbourne reveals in So Sexy So Soon, corporations use sex and sexiness to advertise to children at increasingly younger ages—and they are alarmingly successful. Dangerously unhealthy standards of beauty define sexiness as the most important aspect of a woman’s identity and value. The sexual liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s has turned into a hypersexualized culture, where children as young as Rosie are exposed to sex in songs, TV shows, advertisements, and social media (Kilbourne and Levin). Like the conservatives’ reaction to Rosie in 1988, young girls are now seen in a sexual way before they are seen as simply children.
Therefore, like the basis of Helms’ original arguments, the outrage and controversy surrounding Rosie was less about the photograph itself and more about the artist and what the artist represented. Mapplethorpe’s identity and lifestyle contradicted many traditional conservative values: he was homosexual, engaged in S&M, photographed interracial couples, and eventually died of AIDS. Rosie herself said she did not view her portrait as pornographic and could not understand why others thought it was. In fact, in a 1996 interview with The Independent, Rosie recalled her mother making her put on a dress just before the photo was taken, and immediately after, she took the dress off. Ironically, she noted that “if it had been a small [nude] boy, maybe this furore would be justified; Robert [Mapplethorpe] wasn’t interested in girls anyway” (Rickey). Jesse McBride, which is exactly that, received even less backlash than Rosie.
Helms, then, used Rosie against Mapplethorpe not because he thought it was pornographic, but because of all Mapplethorpe’s works, Rosie garnered the most conservative support for censorship. He could easily use the classic damsel in distress situation by painting Rosie as a helpless little White girl in need of protection from a dangerous gay man, with emphasis on Mapplethorpe’s homosexuality. It wasn’t Rosie’s age, nor her exposed body, that angered Helms: it was Mapplethorpe.
The Rosie controversy was just as relevant in 1988 as it is now. It continues to pose crucial questions, challenging the boundaries of art and the limits of censorship while highlighting the marginalization of LGBTQ* art, societal resistance to change, and hypersexualization of women and children. Ultimately, Rosie was not the creator of such outrage and conservative criticism, but the vessel exploited by powerful politicians to further their own agendas against Mapplethorpe and other LGBTQ* folks. The Mapplethorpe trial surrounding Rosie was the culmination of decades of liberal movements—including women’s liberation, the sexual revolution, and increasing attention to LGBTQ* voices—and the conservative responses to them. Despite the continuous controversy, critics consider Mapplethorpe, rightfully so, as one of the most influential American artists in the twentieth century. Rosie was last on public display in 2017 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.
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