A Moral Question: Gender and (Re)production in A.I. Artificial Intelligence 20 Years Later

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A Moral Question: Gender and (Re)production in <i>A.I. Artificial Intelligence</i> 20 Years Later

Originally to be helmed by Stanley Kubrick before the baton was passed over to Steven Spielberg, A.I. Artificial Intelligence is emblazoned with visual motifs indicative of both filmmakers’ catalogs. Though Kubrick died two years before the film’s release, the distinct essence of both filmmakers is palpable due to Spielberg’s script closely following the original treatment from Kubrick’s fledgling work on the project in the ‘70s. Though many critics have unduly attributed certain aspects of A.I.’s contrasting tone of surreal, uncanny darkness and whimsical adventure to the wrong directors, the exploration of these two realms and the moral dilemmas they pose on a futuristic, dystopian level are never more tangible than when delving into the construction of gender.

Against public misconception, Spielberg remains faithfully fixated on the sinister ethical conundrums presented in A.I., unsettling audiences with the implications of this far-off 2141 society outsourcing human emotions to machines. During the opening sequence of the film, an otherwise supplementary character simply credited as “female colleague” (April Grace) raises an uncomfortable philosophical question. This inquiry emerges in response to a presentation by Professor Allen Hobby (William Hurt), lead scientist of Cybertronics of New Jersey, who aims to build a robot child model who will eternally and “genuinely love the parent or parents that it imprints on.”

“If a robot could genuinely love a person, what responsibility does that person hold toward that mecha in return?” she interjects. “It’s a moral question, isn’t it?”

Professor Hobby pauses. “In the beginning, didn’t God create Adam to love him?”

The resulting mecha child is David (Haley Joel Osment), a prototype given a trial run in the household of Cybertronics employee Henry Swinton (Sam Robards) and his wife Monica (Frances O’Connor). The couple are selected for beta testing due to the fact that their own child, Martin (Jake Thomas) is in a state of suspended animation via cryogenic freezing due to a mysterious illness for which modern medicine currently has no cure.

Despite her initial discomfort around David, Monica begins to treat him as a son—even gifting him Teddy (voiced by Jack Angel), a “supertoy” stuffed bear equipped with a capacity for language and play. Despite being told that the process is irreversible barring David’s destruction, Monica triggers the mecha-boy’s imprinting protocol—thus committing David to an existence centered around unconditional love for her as his “Mommy.” Though David’s company brings much-needed solace to the grieving mother, it’s clear that her love for the manufactured child is nowhere near as irrevocable as his automated love for her. Shortly after imprinting, David’s place in the Swinton home is quickly made redundant when Martin unexpectedly recovers and returns. After a series of escalating accidents occur as a result of a competition between the two boys for Monica’s affection, Henry demands that she return David to Cybertronics headquarters for destruction. Heartbroken by David’s innocence and unyielding adoration, Monica opts to abandon him in the wilderness surrounding the corporation’s entrance. Tears in her eyes, Monica’s last words to David are, “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about the world.”

The world in question is one that exists well after the most cataclysmic events of global warming have taken place, obliterating coastal cities like New York, Venice and Amsterdam. Ensuing global poverty and a population boom prompts governments in the “developed world” to place strict sanctions to license pregnancies. Presumably, this is why Monica is unable to have another child after Martin—it is illegal for her to become pregnant. In this sense, robots “were so essential an economic link in the chain mail of society,” as the opening voiceover explains, because they allowed the affluent to circumvent the restrictions curbing reproductive rights on a national scale.

The intersection of gender and artificial intelligence has been a prevalent throughline within science fiction, appearing on film in titles such as Blade Runner (1982), Cherry 2000 (1988), Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Ex Machina (2014). Furthermore, Blade Runner director Ridley Scott has a vested interest in understanding the role of motherhood within the genre, including these themes in both his directorial breakthrough Alien (1979) and the 2020 HBO show he executive produced and partially directed, Raised by Wolves. Questions of exploitation and autonomy are intrinsically linked to the production of artificially intelligent beings—particularly when they resemble human women—because of the gendered oppression faced by the very people they are made in the likeness of. When sex, home-rearing and other preconceived “duties” meant to be fulfilled by women are outsourced to non-human beings who merely resemble them, the same subjugation continues to exist.

In A.I., this complication is cleverly inverted. Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a charismatic “lover bot” programmed to be a safe and sensual hourly companion, understands that his relationship to his human clients is tenuous and solely for their benefit. He becomes David’s starkly adult counterpart after they both escape destruction at an anti-mecha “Flesh Fair” shortly after he is abandoned by Monica. When David becomes convinced that the Blue Fairy he remembers from Monica’s reading of Pinocchio will turn him into a “real boy” as she did the titular wooden marionette, Joe asserts that she can likely be found in Rouge City, a seedy spot where human vice (and robot-aided satiation of these vices) reigns supreme.

When addressing a car-load of adolescent boys he hopes will give him and David a lift to Rouge City, he delivers a more than compelling sales pitch. “There are girls your age who are just like me,” he explains. “We are the guiltless pleasures of the lonely human being. You’re not gonna get us pregnant or have us to supper with Mommy and Daddy. We work under you, we work on you and we work for you.”

The emphasis is on the transactional aspect of labor which has come to be outsourced to mecha: Sex workers, nannies and house cleaners included. These often precarious occupations have essentially omitted human exploitation by creating robots to serve these roles, yet the prejudices and dangers surrounding these services still remain. When Joe is framed for murdering a client earlier in the film, the material drawbacks of this subservient existence are made profoundly clear. With no protections or autonomy, Joe is forced to go on the run—which is how he ended up in the nefarious flesh fair with David in the first place.

In her revolutionary 1991 essay “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” theorist Donna Haraway argues that a cyborgian existence—patently non-human and thus transcendent of all man-made systems of oppression—should indeed be one of inherent liberation.

“The machine is not an ‘it’ to be animated, worshipped, and dominated,” she writes. “The machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment. We can be responsible for machines; they do not dominate or threaten us. We are responsible for boundaries; we are they.”

Haraway’s blatantly utopian vision of how women and people of color would benefit from being relieved from the structural oppression of humanity’s (and above all, Western colonialism’s) rule, is responded to in A.I. Artificial Intelligence. The film argues that the systems in place are in no position to be shifted or altered in the wake of powerful corporations wielding artificial life in order to serve “the human race in all the multiplicity of daily life.” Yet Haraway understands that when the power structure is not thoroughly obliterated, the distribution of power—particularly along gender lines—will continue to play out as they have for centuries. In essence, A.I. unravels what will occur to a society that never reckons with the inequalities of its social stratification—meanwhile, Haraway offers an idyllic blueprint for how the upheaval of this inequitable system would dramatically alter and empower the lives of marginalized individuals.

“Every story that begins with original innocence and privileges the return to wholeness imagines the drama of life to be individuation, separation, the birth of the self, the tragedy of autonomy, the fall into writing, alienation,” Harroway writes. “These plots are ruled by a reproductive politics—rebirth without flaw, perfection, abstraction. In this plot women are imagined either better or worse off, but all agree they have less selfhood, weaker individuation, more fusion to the oral, to Mother, less at stake in masculine autonomy.”

In this sense, both David and Monica exist within a system which devalues both of their multifaceted natures. Monica is only seen as fulfilled when she assumes the role of mother and nurturer; meanwhile, David’s “original innocence” is rendered without purpose when abandoned by the caretaker he imprinted on. Within the confines of the nuclear familial structure, both are stripped of true individuality and the ability to forge a new path for themselves.

Even when David supposedly overrides his internal circuitry—which was created to hinder his ability to make decisions and “follow his dreams”—it is with the resolute goal of finding the Blue Fairy, so that he can become a “real boy” for Monica. Frustrated with David’s lack of understanding, Gigolo Joe makes one final plea for David to abandon his plight before traveling to the perilous submerged island of Manhattan where he believes the mythical mother figure to reside.

“[Monica] loves what you do for her, as my customers love what it is I do for them,” he begins. “But she does not love you, David. She cannot love you. You are neither flesh nor blood…[Humans] made us too smart, too quick and too many. We are suffering for the mistakes they made because when the end comes, all that will be left is us. That’s why they hate us.”

Joe’s words ring true right up to the emotion-shattering conclusion of A.I. Artificial Intelligence (though the entire film, admittedly, induces tears throughout). When David and Teddy travel through the flooded ruins of New York, they eventually stumble upon a gorgeous ceramic statue of the Blue Fairy in the aquatic rubble of Coney Island, a discovery which David becomes so obsessed and entranced with that he remains in her presence for 2,000 years, long after the power supply of his amphibious vessel has completely depleted. At this point, advanced mecha are the only remaining inhabitants of an Earth clutched by glacial freeze. It is they who discover David and Teddy in the icy depths, eventually housing them in a simulation of the Swinton household recreated via David’s stored memories. The advanced beings explain to David that he is the last remaining tether to human life and connection. Yet in lieu of focusing on the immense cruelty he and other mecha suffered at the hands of vindictive humans, David begs the beings to utilize their advanced technology to bring Monica back from the dead, presenting a lock of her hair as a means to harvest her DNA.

“All we want is for your happiness,” the advanced robots concede. Monica is only able to be brought back to life for one full day, after which she will die. David proceeds to spend the happiest day of his life with a reincarnated Monica—then goes on to defy the laws of his very programming, dying by her side that night.

“For the first time in his life,” Ben Kingsley’s narration concludes as David shuts his eyes for the first and only time during the film’s duration, “he went to that place where dreams are made of.”

Ironically, it is through death that David finds ultimate freedom from the brutal margins of his creation. Though this is not seen as “survival” in the literal sense, it is an act of self-determination that truly echoes the thesis of Haraway’s essay. “Cyborg writing is about the power to survive,” she writes, “not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as ‘other.’”

Conversely, Monica cannot escape the narrow identity of Mother even by means of resurrection. Though the bleakness of A.I.’s ending in large part stems from the tragedy of David’s self-induced slumber, there remains a distinct streak of melancholy when it comes to Monica’s own inability to escape the narrow label of Mother even when given life anew. In fact, there is little about her existence that is removed from her duties as wife and mother. Despite the inescapable presence of the nuclear family and dominant view of women as innately reproductive and servile, the film’s depiction of traditional gender roles outliving major coastal cities in the post-apocalypse is particularly salient.

However, Monica’s pleasant last day on Earth with David is not entirely depressing. Haraway argues that by being “out of place” (i.e. stripped from the hierarchy of her traditional family structure) and reuniting with David (“the machine”), she herself is able to engage in a cyborgian inversion of feminine expectations of child-rearing: “Up till now…female embodiment seemed to mean skill in mothering and its metaphoric extensions. Only by being out of place could we take intense pleasure in machines, and then with excuses that this was organic activity after all, appropriate to females.”

In harnessing the biological phenomenon of mortality, David extrapolates himself from an existence without control. In spite of never being recognized as a “real boy,” David is nonetheless able to free himself of the burden of eternal devotion and naivete. In turn, Monica is retroactively manufactured in order to fulfill David’s desire as a mecha, inversing the method of creation (and the enduringly misogynistic society) which produced David in the first place. This power structure is not one of force and control, but rather one created with loving intention and with objective happiness as the goal. Within this compassionate framework, conjured via the adept minds of both Kubrick and Spielberg, the cyborgian entity is truly liberated.


Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.