Man, in playing God, has created Woman since the dawn of cinema. In Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) builds a robot with a distinctive female physique that adopts the guise of Maria (Brigitte Helm), a saintly threat to the corporate regime. The machine’s gender identity is nothing more than a shell, however, designed as a physical form without artificial consciousness. For his sequel to Frankenstein, James Whale decided to build a mate for the Monster (Boris Karloff), who while rejecting his advances, is nevertheless designed for the sexual purposes of a male character. When a man has the power to do so, he converts fetishism into reality – sometimes as evident in the director as it is in their protagonists.
The central problem facing these men is what essential quality makes a being female. In Metropolis, the robotic Maria’s masculine penchant for violent rebellion suggests that femininity is not dependent on physicality. Indeed, the character is called the Maschinenmensch: machine man. Today this distinction should be obvious, although since cis actors like Scarlett Johannsson are still being cast in trans roles of the opposite sex, perhaps a quick explanation is required. Sex refers only to the genitalia of a person, while gender is a sociocultural construct made up of characteristics associated with the sexes. It is a category mistake to confuse the two, and one which the geniuses depicted in films are prone to make again and again.
Lang showed a keen awareness of this distinction in 1927, using gender as a means for the audience to be able to distinguish between the real Maria and her mechanical doppelgänger. By comparison, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo features a male protagonist (James Stewart) who is convinced that he can bring back his dead lover (Kim Novak) by dressing a similar-looking woman in her clothes. His attempt to do so is aided by the fact that Madeleine and Judy are in fact the same person, but until he works this out the prospect of recreating someone thought dead overwhelms him.
There is a chilling echo of Hitchcock’s own notorious fascination with blonde women in the film, more of Tippi Hedren than Novak. Still, the meticulous craftsmanship he applies, such as the precise placement of the swirl in Madeleine’s hair, presents an eerie mirror image of Stewart’s performance. Did Hitchcock distinguish between the personalities of Grace Kelly or Janet Leigh? History consigns such questions to speculation, although what is displayed on screen suggests that his notion of the perfect woman depended almost entirely on the aesthetics of sex rather than individual formulations of gender.
Such problems are secondary in the disturbing nature of the plot, blurring behind the more macabre intention of bringing a human back from the dead. Here Stewart’s John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson parallels Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) as a fundamentally unstable man enraptured by the possibility of breathing life into a corpse. While Frankenstein is a modern Prometheus, Scottie is more a modern Pygmalion, not starting from scratch but instead attempting to reshape his model before he is able to fall in love with her. Prior to his encounter with Madeleine, Scottie tells Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) that his interest in women is waning, but in forming the vision of a perfect woman he is committed to making someone for whom he can feel affection.
Perhaps it would have been more revealing if Scottie had attempted to turn a different woman into Madeleine. His obsessing would have never ended, the new lover’s inherent difference preventing the possibility of perfectibility. In his 2011 film The Skin I Live In, Pedro Almodóvar takes this thread further by having a mad scientist sculpt his dead wife from the starting point of a man. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) thus takes the most lamentable misstep of all – the assumption that he can change the gender of the mind.
Having developed the process of transgenesis, a fantastical skin grafting procedure that allows him to give a man the biological features of a woman, Ledgard uses a man he has accused of raping his daughter as his guinea pig. It is a sadistic development from Vertigo, but given the means, there is no reason to doubt Scottie would have tried something just as fucked up.
Rather than a gratuitously transphobic horror, The Skin I Live In is a poignant treatise on the immutability of gender. Ledgard has surgically, hormonally and socially morphed Vicente (Jan Cornet) into his dead wife, building a clone by hand. Were Vicente a trans woman, this would be the stuff of dreams, but by imposing upon a cis man the punishment of gender dysphoria it is harrowing in the extreme. Forced, in the persona of ‘Vera’ (Elena Anaya), to wear dresses and makeup, he destroys clothes sent to him via dumbwaiter and sucks them up with a vacuum cleaner.
While Hitchcock punishes Scottie at the end of Vertigo with the guilt of Madeleine’s death, Almodóvar finishes off Ledgard with a satisfying act of revenge. Yet once Vera has returned to those who knew him before his capture, his body an irreversible female prison, he utters the haunting final line, “I am Vicente”. It comes as a brutal blow as we realise he will now face the same discomfort transgender people endure – a torture too iniquitous to wish on anyone, no matter their crimes.
Having demonstrated that it is impossible to alter human identity, it is important to now question the potential for gendered artificial intelligence. Maria in Metropolis is simply nuts and bolts, while Ava (Alicia Vikander) in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina has been programmed to think and feel as her creator, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), believes a woman does. The problem with the film is that it conflates unrelated aspects of humanity – “Why did you give her sexuality? An AI doesn’t need a gender. She could have been a grey box,” asks Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson). Ava’s sexual feelings have nothing to do with her identity as a woman, and it is due to this that she cannot pass the Turing test – her programming is too much the product of a man’s desires.
Ava thus represents the next stage in a lustful cycle, from the doomed attempt to alter a self-identifying woman in Vertigo, to the biological manipulation of a cis man in The Skin I Live In, and finally in the development of female AI. These films were all made by men about the mistakes of their sinister male characters. The next move is to tell the story from a woman’s perspective, of a woman attempting to create consciousness. Of course, their flaws will be the same, for no matter how far the technology develops, humans can never be gods.