June 1, 2019

Made-to-order robo-gf archetype appears as guys retreat during vulnerable phase of cultural excitement cycle

Recent posts on the archetypes of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and the supportive sex worker have looked at what types of women appeal to men during the restless warm-up phase of the 15-year cultural excitement cycle, as they feel like coming out of their shells and may need a little coaxing from those types of women.

But what types appeal to them while they are still in a social-emotional refractory state during the vulnerable phase? Rather than want to be drawn out, they want to hunker down and escape from their social world. This leads them to prefer make-believe women, blank slates customized to their tastes, so that they don't have to deal with the messy real world and all the social sensory overload that would entail, while still enjoying at least a simulation of a girlfriend.

The focus here is not on all kinds of female robots, but only those who are playing the social role of a girlfriend. They may or may not be physically intimate with the male character.

Why a customized, blank-slate robot instead of a real person with a fully formed personality? Because a woman with her own personality cannot be altered, and the man must adapt his own fully formed personality to hers, and she to his. Unable to change each other, they have to figure out how to work together despite not fitting each other precisely like puzzle pieces. The initial work done in a relationship is learning who the other person is, what makes them tick, and so on. All of this social-emotional effort is too much for someone in a refractory state. A blank slate that is customized to his tastes obviates all of that effort, and makes the relationship feel tolerable.

I'm only counting examples from mainstream or popular works, since I'm sure there are nerds who are portraying such types in paperbacks, b-movies, and animes all the time. Sci-fi and fantasy genres aren't the most popular genres, so movies featuring these types are not too common in any period. But when they do show up, they are clustered in the vulnerable phase.

During the current vulnerable phase of the late 2010s, there was Ex Machina, the Westworld TV series, and Blade Runner 2049 (unlike the female replicants in this one and the original, Joi is a blank slate, made-to-order girlfriend).

During the early 2000s, there was Simone and a re-make of The Stepford Wives.

During the late '80s, there was Weird Science and Mannequin.

During the early '70s, there was the original Westworld movie and the original Stepford Wives movie. Technically, The Stepford Wives came out in early 1975, though the novel it was based on came out in 1972. You can either count that story as from the first half of the '70s, or as the smallest of deviations from the pattern (off by 44 days, compared to the phase length of 5 years).

During the late '50s, The Twilight Zone was the only mainstream sci-fi / fantasy outlet (for movies, these genres didn't get big until the '60s). And sure enough, there was an episode from 1959, "The Lonely," whose central plot device is a robo-gf.

I couldn't easily find any examples from the early '40s, though again the genres were not that popular back then, and there was no TV. Perhaps there was a hit radio program like The Twilight Zone that had one, I don't know.

But from the late '20s, there was the first and most iconic example -- the robot from Metropolis.

There are two possible exceptions -- like the original Stepford Wives, not much of a deviation, though, missing the cut by one year.

In early 1990, an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation ("Hollow Pursuits") revolves around a crew member withdrawing to the make-believe world of the Holodeck where he re-programs the personalities of female characters who look like his attractive colleagues, so that they fall for him.

Also in 1990, the protagonist's butt-kicking babe sidekick in Total Recall is supposedly programmed as part of his fantasy vacation. I'm not sure this fits the category of a make-believe entity, though. The company messes with your brain to implant a false memory of your fantasy, similar to programming your dreams. It's not an actual thing he's interacting with in the real world. It's akin to specifying what kind of call girl he wants to show up to his hotel room, only in a dream-world. Also, the movie is ambiguous about whether or not the protagonist really goes through with the memory-altering procedure, so this woman may be a real person after all.

I'm excluding Her from 2013's manic phase, since the female-voiced operating system that the protag develops feelings for is not a blank slate that he customizes to fulfill his fantasies. She has her own personality, goals, and willfulness, and he has to learn to adapt himself to her as much as she must adapt to him. This is more of an "odd couple" pairing, specifically the fish out of water type, which showed up in another fantasy movie from an earlier manic phase -- Splash from 1984. But that may be the topic for another post.


  1. I think the oldest version of this might be Olympia from the Tales of Hoffman/Der Sandmann.

    I've never watched an episode of the mid-60s sitcom "My Living Doll", so I don't know whether it's closer to I Dream of Jeanie/Bewitched or Small Wonder, but my impression is that it bears some resemblance to that trope.

    The characters tend to be very emotionally flat in the Bladerunner movies, so the ironic thing about Joi is that her affect is the most "human" of anyone. Of course, she is designed to seem that way on behalf of the consumer, to which she is dedicated even above the corporation which created her. In some ways she is the opposite of Ava, an opaque fembot who turns out to be seeking her own freedom at the expense of all the humans around her. She is designed to appeal to Caleb though, but instead of doing this for a commercial reasons it's because Nathan is using him as an experimental step toward the post-human future.

    One thing both Joi & Ava have in common is how obviously artificial they are, with one being a hologram (possibly inspired by "Her") and the other having transparent & metal parts (although she disguises them when she leaves at the end). This is in contrast with Rachel from the original Blade Runner, who appeared human and was only revealed to be a replicant after many questions. Her character in "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" was immediately flagged as such under questioning, which the Rosen corporation used to argue that the test was flawed and would fail on humans like her raised on spaceships (which didn't fool Deckard, as she continued to fail on questions even a schizotype would pass). That story also seemed inconsistent on whether she was aware she was a replicant, and whether she gave a damn about other replicants since their lack of empathy was their distinguishing feature. By treating replicants as an oppressed minority capable of more empathy for others than even human characters possess, the movies essentially went in the opposite direction of a story Dick created when The Man in the High Castle inspired him to ponder the lack of humanity required for his dystopia.

    I never thought Total Recall was ambiguous. We see a scene of him under sedation with the recall procedure failing, and this isn't from his perspective/memory but objective reality.

  2. My Living Doll sounds like she's not being customized to be someone's girlfriend or wife. She's a robot and has special skills (math), while lacking others (emotions). The guy tries to mold her, but not to be his ideal gf, and not in order to replace or avoid real women.

    Pygmalion stories don't overlap much with the made-to-order gf-in-a-box. It's too much effort for someone in a social refractory state to go through such a long-term social sculpting process. He just wants to check a few boxes on a list, and presto, there's his ideal gf.

    Yes, both Blade Runner movies have little to do with Philip K. Dick (the original novel, or his signature tone or themes). Total Recall is the only one of Dick's adaptations that got it right.

    It's ambiguous if he went through with the procedure or not. We see the failure of the procedure, which launches his adventure -- so maybe that failure was part of the implanted memory fantasy. To help him dismiss the idea that what he's experiencing is "only a dream" -- it must be real if the procedure failed!

    I think Verhoeven says something to that effect in the DVD commentary.

  3. The Alt-Right does this with their "Hey Anon" gf memes. And it's mainly from the past several years, during the vulnerable phase of the excitement cycle. I don't remember anyone anywhere on the internet making these memes before 2015.

    It's an image of a cute girl smiling, with text about how supportive, understanding, and validating she treats the consumer ("Anon").



    It's not a Manic Pixie Dream Girl or other archetype who they're interacting with in real life, or vicariously through a movie. It's a make-believe technologically constructed and disseminated image-and-text gf. Usually constructed by the consumer themselves.

    They don't really stick with her, though, from day to day or week to week. It's more of a fleeting wish, "Wouldn't it be nice if we could make memes real like Weird Science?"

  4. Related: "government issued gf(s)" dates to the vulnerable phase. The earliest tweet with that phrase is from 2015, whether singular or plural.

    It's not a robot they're after, but still an instant pain-free solution requiring no social interaction whatsoever.

    I wonder how much of the whole incel discourse online comes down to guys and girls being in a social-emotional refractory state, and hoping for some bae-us ex machina. I really don't remember any of this stuff from the sex-positive Slutwalk period during the manic phase of the early 2010s, or the PUA period during the warm-up phase of the late 2000s.

  5. Arnold doesn't remember the procedure failing. In fact, they wipe his memory of his visit to Rekall so he won't remember any of what we in the audience already saw.

    You're right that My Living Doll involves some training so that Rhoda will behave more like a normal person. But the man doing the training thinks she starts out with the makings of the "perfect woman" because she "does what she's told and keeps her mouth shut".

    Speaking of the Pygmalion myth, Emily Short wrote the interactive fiction "Galatea" in 2000, and while it's marginal in terms of the pop culture zeitgeist, it also contains the most reactions of any non-player character I'm aware of.

    I haven't seen Ruby Sparks, but it's my understanding that it's about a man who creates an idealized woman tailored to him because his attempts at relationships with real women fall short. That came out in 2012, and like Galatea was also written by a woman (who plays the titular woman created by Paul Dano's character).

    George Bernard Shaw's play "Pygmalion" was obviously not written by a woman, but was intended to be a feminist story. Later adaptations went against his wishes, but also seem to be quite popular with woman (to the extent that the 2014 show "Selfie", also created by a woman, was said to be a non-musical version of My Fair Lady rather than a version of Shaw's play).

    Vertigo has also been compared to Pygmalion due to how Scottie tries to mold Judy to resemble Madeleine. Some people regard it as exemplifying Hitchcock's mistreatment of women, but I've also read women who praise the film due to their identification with Novak's character. Perhaps we could generalize to say that Pygmalion-type stories tend to be more appealing to women, whereas the more scifi trope of robo girlfriend is nearly always written by & for men. A couple of years ago when 2049 came out someone presented me with a list of recent films about AI. Of them, Eva & Chappie contained at least one woman among each of their sets of writers, and in both cases my impression is that the AI is childlike rather than sexualized. One of them is Morgan, where the quasi-female entity is a source of horror, which has been dinged as another trope of male writing. I recall someone comparing it (or perhaps it was Ex Machina) with Under the Skin, which featured Scarlett Johanson as an alien who takes on the guise of a human woman beautiful enough to lure men into being turned into slurry. It's my impression that Under the Skin appealed more to women (as it's partly about performing as a woman for men) than Ex Machina.

  6. You're still assuming that the failed procedure scene is objective, but there's no evidence of that one way or the other. The movie is about the trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality, how would you even know if you had had false memories implanted, and so on.

    So, for all we in the audience know, that failed procedure scene is the first sequence of his fantasy vacation. We're seeing what he is seeing in his fantasy. It provides his unconscious with plausible deniability -- "No, you didn't just get sedated and treated with false memories, in fact the procedure failed, so you can definitely believe that this journey you're about to go on is totally real!"

    Or, maybe that scene is objective. It's open to interpretation, and that amplifies the trippy surreality of the narrative. Perhaps the only time someone got Philip K. Dick right.

    Again, the Pygmalion myth is distinct from the topic of this post -- made-to-order, out-of-the-box girlfriend. Galatea takes a long time to sculpt, unlike the simple checking of boxes by the customer of the insta-babe. And wanting to sculpt a muse into a perfect form is different from wanting a make-believe gf because you're too socially and emotionally drained to want to deal with flesh-and-blood women.

    Sculpting Galatea has an inherently aesthetic, creative, constructive goal, whereas downloading a holo-babe to keep you company during your emo phase does not. Pygmalion only falls in love with his creation because he's done such an awesome job -- in a way, falling in love with himself (her constructed form is an extension of his own genius).

    It's similar to autogynephile trannies, when you think about it.

  7. The fact that women don't mind, and even fantasize about being Galatea, proves that it's a totally different character from the robo-gf -- who no woman wants to be.

    The robo-gf is just ticking off boxes to satisfy some guy's horniness and loneliness. It's degrading and dehumanizing, as though she's just one option from a menu of prostitutes.

    The woman who's sculpted to perfection is elevated and even-more-than-humanized, nearing superhuman status. All women like to follow a skilled man's lead, and if he has the best plans for what she should be like -- a big if, assuming the Pygmalion is a creative genius, not just some horny loner -- then sure, she's only too happy to allow herself to be sculpted according to those plans.

    It's only a difference of degree from what they spend most of their lives doing -- looking for advice on how to apply make-up, get dressed, style their hair, behave on dates, etc. Or outright medical interventions like cosmetic surgery and psychiatric meds.

    Someone else, generally a skilled man, is the one making those changes to her inner and outer form. But so what -- improvement is improvement! Yay for Pygmalions, or else I might forever remain a frumpy, off-putting wallflower!

  8. Arnold's character is unaware of the procedure failing (and afterwards doesn't even remember seeking the procedure), so it can't be his subjective experience we're seeing. You could argue that it's not "objective" because even what the audience is shown isn't "true", which would be accurate as Total Recall is not a documentary but a story made up to entertain us. In Dick's "We Can Remember it For You Wholesale" the readers are told that each fantastical memory Quail tries to install is in fact true, even if there are times when Quail falsely believes them to be implants. It's not just from Quail's perspective, but also shows the bureaucrats who have to deal with him when they are elsewhere and doing things he could never know about.

    I haven't seen Ruby Sparks, but my impression is that it takes the writer much less work to imagine his idealized woman than it did for the original Pygmalion to carve Galatea. The cartoonist in Ralph Bakshi's Cool World (which I also haven't seen) from 1992 would be in-between (the world actually pre-exists his efforts, but he still creates an entire comic). Prior to Cool World in 1985 there had already been the music video for "Take On Me" in which a girl draws a comic strip guy and then gets sucked into his world. Pedro Morelli's film Zoom (another one I haven't seen) from 2015 also features a woman who draws a comic of her idealized "dream man", but each of the three planes of "reality" in that film forms a circle as the creation of the protagonist in another "reality". And since you brought up cosmetic surgery, the comic book artist (whose day job is in a factory that creates sex-dolls) in that film gets breast implants, only to come to regret it. I don't think Cool World or Zoom were particularly well-received though.

  9. Two modern remake movies of the Pygmallion myth were released during manic phases:

    "My Fair Lady", 1964

    "She's All That", 1999
    (Freddie Prinze Jr. stars as a jock who remakes a nerdy wallflower as a popular party girl)

    Makeovers take a tremendous amount of energy - both on the part of the person planning the makeover, and the person getting one(who must endure trauma associated with the changed identity).

  10. '64 is part of the warm-up phase, manic phase being from '65 to '69.

    There's another big one, also starring Audrey Hepburn, from the late '50s vulnerable phase -- Funny Face.

    So I don't see much of a pattern across the phases of the cycle. Pygmalion stories may not have much to do with energy levels, social over / under-stimulation, etc.

    Like I said, it seems to have more to do with the guy being a creative type, and the woman allowing herself to be molded. There's an aesthetic buffer zone between them, in what might otherwise be an intimate social-emotional relationship. He's trying to sculpt her into a more perfect form for its own sake, not simply to fulfill his horny loner desires.

  11. We don't know what Arnold's character is aware or unaware of, because the storytelling is unreliable about what is truth or fantasy -- that's the main theme of the movie.

    Just because the camera shows something happening, doesn't mean that is what's really happening. For all we know, the camera is showing us the transition from reality to fantasy, beginning with the failed procedure. "Arnold not remembering his trip to Recall" would also be the camera showing us his fantasy.

    You're still not getting that the movie is fiction, sci-fi, and playing with the line between fantasy vs. reality, how our perception and memory would be affected by a confusion between the two, and so on. It's not a documentary.

    For Ruby Sparks, an author takes a long time to sculpt a main character. He doesn't just "imagine her," and poof, there she is. He has to write all her dialog, write the prose describing what she does, what she's thinking, how other characters behave towards her, how that re-shapes her personality and creates reactions of her own, etc etc etc.

    So of course it took him a long time to construct her. She wasn't just some flat character he imagined while jacking off in high school.

  12. I'm deleting your comments about Total Recall because you still don't understand the simple argument being made.

    No one has said that it is definitely true that the failed procedure scene is just part of the fantasy. But that it could be true, and is equally likely to be true as that it is reality, within the context of the movie (its plot, themes, etc.). Also, given the director's own commentary.

    It's open to interpretation, above and beyond the case of other fictional works, because of its themes about the blurring of fantasy and reality, and the nature of memory in such a context.

  13. Ruby Sparks is an odd couple / fish out of water movie that appears during the manic phase. It's not worth discussing, though, since it was invisible -- #175 for the year at the box office.

    At any rate, on closer inspection, Ruby appears fully formed as a personality in his dream, a divine spark of inspiration. He does not painstakingly mold her inner or outer form a la Pygmalion, nor a la masturbatory loner.

    His writing brings her from the fantasy realm to the real world, but her pre-existing original personality remains the same. Only now, she has physical form, can interact with real-life people and objects, etc.

    The male protag rarely uses his writing power to change her personality, appearance, or interactions with others. He mainly lets her be herself. So, not Pygmalion, not the programmer of a robo-babe.

    Occasionally when their relationship grows tense, he enters a cheat code to make her come back to him as though nothing had ever gone wrong between them. But that's not altering her personality, appearance, or basic behavior. And on the few occasions that he does this, he feels misgivings -- also contrary to Pygmalion or the owner of a holo-babe, whose entire purpose is to be influenced by the male programmer.

    At one point, he feels so badly about his power that he tries to write her back to her original self, underscoring that she was her own personality before he became aware of her.

    The only time he makes her depart significantly from her normal self is to prove the point that he has that power -- not that he has been doing so all along, nor that he will in the future. In fact, he writes away his own power, to the effect that she is free, subject only to her own free will, etc.

    That's akin to the protag of Splash setting his mermaid gf free back into the ocean.

    So, it's more of the odd couple scenario that appears during the manic phase. If he had wanted to program her to his desires, she would not end up so unwieldy. He is introverted and wants someone who is also in that direction, yet she is far too extraverted for his comfort. That's the source of tension in their relationship -- she is so social that she meets other guys that he doesn't want her to meet.

    Odd couple / fish out of water, not Pygmalion, not a robo-babe.


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