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Assigning Gender to the Non-Human

Stephanie Carmichael
SHODAN (System Shock 2, Electronic Arts, 1999).

What makes SHODAN so fearful to men and, to a lesser extent, women is that her vulnerabilities lie in code, not physicality. Her "body" cannot be dominated, abused, or battered, and she cannot be intimidated. For that reason, she eludes many of the methods men have used to control women.

Gender is not the same as sex. Gender is not defined by anatomical parts or reproductive roles but rather by subjective constructs, such as different behavioral and psychological traits. A woman is still a woman by gender even if she loses her breasts, ovaries, or uterus through surgical removal; she's perhaps not one any longer within the confines of sex. Her thinking and personal identity is what remains "feminine."

The rules of gender are not predetermined. Cultures differ on their understanding of men and women and what qualities suit them "best", but that determination changes on an individual level. If someone is born a woman and demonstrates attributes that American culture perceives as female, such as emotional sensitivity or motherly nurturing, but is also physically aggressive, that's a gender-breaking trait. That doesn't, however, make a woman any less female no matter who tells her otherwise.

How, then, can we apply those rules (or lack thereof) to non-human beings? For example, if you give a voice to an artificial intelligence, does that also assign it a gender? Given some instances in pop culture, it seems that way. However, the characteristics of that A.I. don’t always come after the gender is selected; creators don’t necessarily go around thinking that they want to make a male or female entity and then form an idea of its personality in their minds to match.

Consider HAL, the supercomputer that tries to seize control of the spaceship Discovery One in Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. What makes “him” inherently masculine? Is it that the cold calculation of his voice is more appropriate to a man who is hungry for power?

Arguably, yes. Men are often seen as emotionally removed whereas women are valued for their compassion. (This doesn't, however, dismiss HAL's range of human-like emotion. In Joseph Gelmis's book The Film Director as Superstar, Kubrick says the film's machine entities have "have the same emotional potentialities in their personalities as human beings." (Joseph Gelmis, ”An Interview with Stanley Kubrick”, The Kubrick Site, 1969)). A similar question arises, though, regarding the video game System Shock 2, released in 1999 by developers Irrational Games and Looking Glass Studios, which resurfaced last month with updated Windows optimization on In the game, a female artificial intelligence named SHODAN expands her control over the ships the Von Braun and the Rickenbacker. If she and HAL had succeeded in their plans, the universe would have been at their mercy. Both fail, their efforts subverted by human intervention.

One thing is clear: SHODAN is much more garrulous than HAL, who speaks in calm, conversational sentences designed for efficient communication. Scientifically, women use more words than men do (although that claim has its critics), and SHODAN can't seem to tell players enough about her "magnificence" and how inferior the human "insects" are as a species. Her vocal expression contains a clear vindictiveness while HAL's creepiness comes from the way that he quietly monitors those he intends to overthrow from behind a steady red camera light.

SHODAN is also wilder of speech -- more untamed -- than HAL, which seems to reinforce the historical fear surrounding powerful women, the idea that with their dominance comes insanity and chaos. The violent noise distortions audible in SHODAN's voice underscores this concern.

Ultimately, both SHODAN and HAL underestimate their human rivals, who turn them offline and resist their transparent attempts at manipulation. One A.I. is not less blinded by its greed than the other, regardless of the gender labels involved.

Their gender does matter, though, when it comes to their goals. In A Space Odyssey, HAL already runs the ship, but he seeks total dominance -- to rule rather to serve. That's much more comparable to man's own conquest of territory and desire for greater power. SHODAN isn't in a position of subservience; her focus is more on eliminating threats to her presence, such as the male-voiced, opposing A.I. called Xerxes. She also pulls the strings of the player, whose avatar (onscreen appearance) is that of a male computer hacker.

Dr. David Bowman, the scientist who shuts down HAL in the movie, previously saw him as an equal -- a companion, not a mindless robot or enemy. But as hackers, players of System Shock 2 are put in an almost sexual relationship with SHODAN, who seems to hope to persuade them as much by insult as by seduction. (However, for her, the greatest temptation is the promise of power, not bodily pleasure.). That kind of manipulation is seen as more prominent in women who use sex as an avenue to power. Dominant women are not to be trusted, history tells us. Such instincts must be suppressed.

It's strange to think that in order to acquire power, SHODAN must operate through men and enlist their help through false alliances, such as her decision to use the player-character as a tool to achieving her success. She tricks him into believing that she is a human survivor and coerces him into a position where he can be easily controlled before revealing herself and her intentions. The feminist-minded might interpret that as a statement about women in society, who must work harder in male-dominated professions to prove that they deserve the same respect and recognition and also as a negative reflection of what is seen as their dependent relationship with men.

The game's ending suggests SHODAN has returned in human form as she lies in bed, calling to someone aboard the ship her "lover". Her long hair snakes upward like Medusa's, portraying her as a representation of a vile, evil woman. Hair has long been a key to women's identities and considered a physical expression of their personalities and feminine nature, as well as the source of many stereotypes. Women with short hair are lesbians or tomboys (or both) while long, unkempt hair signifies mental disorder or uncleanliness.

SHODAN may also appear more feminine because of her role as a mother figure -- a ruthless creator of the alien species the Many that infests the ships. As she gives life, she also takes it away and is fixated on destroying her "children" as they grow out of control. They become a complication in her vision of the future. Whether that communicates an underlying theme of abortion is hard to say, but SHODAN no longer wants that whose existence she made possible.

That image grants her the kind of power only reserved for women. Both sexes can kill, but only one can conceive and grow life. At the same time, it's an odd concept that blurs the line between gender and sex, and it's interesting -- but not surprising -- that the developers of this futuristic science-fiction game would explore the possibility of creating and sustaining life without a physical body.

To consider such a notion is no doubt part of what makes SHODAN so fearful to men and, to a lesser extent, women. Her vulnerabilities lie in code, not physicality. Her "body" cannot be dominated, abused, or battered, and she cannot be intimidated. What mortal weaknesses she should have become strengths. For that reason, she eludes many of the methods men have used to control women. Worse, her death seems impermanent. Not even shutting her down can wipe her out completely.

If that doesn't make men quake more than confronting a polite but deadly supercomputer, what else could?

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