Fembot in a Red Dress

Curator's Note

Fembot in a Red Dress analyzes the cultural trope of the “lady in red” as it evolved from the genre of film noir to science fiction and from the human to the artificial female in a variety of film and television texts. Developed during the NEH Workshop at Middlebury College, it is my first foray into videographic criticism, although I have a long and labored history of attempting to integrate media theory and practice, especially around fembots. Case in point: I attempted to write a doctoral dissertation on representations of artificial females in film, literature, and art while simultaneously making a feature-length documentary about the current-day reality of artificial companions, from real-to-life lovedolls to humanoid robots.[1] I had intended on combining the two projects in some form, but they remained inexorably and frustratingly de-linked (the dissertation was completed in 2008, the documentary in 2012). There were many reasons, but of particular note was the difficulty of addressing both an academic and non-academic audience. The two projects did, however, inform one another; the documentary provided real-world experiences against which to test the assertions of the dissertation, and the dissertation provided a means of articulating the unspoken theoretical underpinnings of the documentary.  

The videographic workshop offered a welcome opportunity to think more directly about how to combine critical analysis and digital practice, as well as how to address simultaneously film/media/sf scholars and sf fans, informed non-academics, and cinephiles. While I found myself veering in the direction of the documentary form (old habits die hard), weaving together different kinds of visual evidence whose connections are elaborated and interpreted by voiceover narration, the video essay is arguably a different animal (if not a different animal, then certainly a different genus). First, it is neither documenting “reality” nor invoking the kind of truth claims associated with documentary practice, but rather exploring facets of media representation whose a priori constructedness raise different expectations around knowledge and meaning production. Second, although it “remains comfortably within the explanatory mode” (a phrase used by Christian Keathley to draw a distinction between language-based video essays and those that impart meaning through more poetic registers, although both are part of the documentary tradition), the process of crafting the narration was quite different than it would have been for a documentary, and I would likely not have used my own voice. Although the narration relies on exposition to relay background and historical information, it was written and recorded in stages while I was sorting through and editing footage, and it was intended to convey the sense of a personal analysis in-progress integrally tied not only to looking, but also to feeling, especially in relation to the affective and aesthetic encounter with a “red dress.”

The inspiration for the essay was theoretical psychologist Nicholas Humphrey’s book Seeing Red: A Study in Consciousness (2009). Based on a series of lectures that he delivered at Harvard University, during which he projected a field of red onto a screen as he spoke, Humphrey uses questions about the subjective experience of the color red to trace a theoretical evolutionary path from physical sensation to conscious experience (what philosophers call “qualia”). How the former evolves into and informs the latter is at the heart of the “mind-body problem” and longstanding debates around human consciousness and artificial intelligence.

Humphrey’s book led me to a series of recent psychological studies on “embodied cognition,” the ways in which physical sensation may unconsciously sway our conscious experiences and decisions. (For a fascinating overview of these studies, see the Thalma Lobel book cited below.) Wearing the color red, for example, has been shown in numerous studies to enhance female attractiveness for men.[2] As one study, which attempted to demonstrate the cross-cultural universality of the red-attractiveness link, put it, “red may operate as something of a lingua franca in the human mating game” (Elliot et. al., 2013). Such research has tremendous relevance for and is increasingly being utilized within film/media studies.[3] This video essay attempts to demonstrate how insights from embodied cognitive science, in this case, on the affective influence of the color red, can expand on and problematize cultural/historical and psychoanalytic readings of the representation of femininity, in general, and the fembot in particular.[4]

The essay utilizes voiceover narration in this pursuit, while showcasing one of the facilities of videographic criticism: analysis through visual repetition and juxtaposition around a single cinematic motif. This technique has a great deal in common with the supercut, a montage of short clips on a single theme assembled from different film sources, whose pacing is often synchronized to a chosen background song. While usually non-narrative and often employed in an uncritical celebration that smacks of a filmic homage at the Academy Awards ceremony, the supercut has been used by a number of video essayists to produce a criticality and poeticism that both supplements and exceeds the explanatory mode (see Corey Creekmur’s discussion of Hands of Bresson by Koganada, The End by Jason Livingston, and The Clock by Christian Marclay). Due to its unique facility for bringing to the fore marginal and unacknowledged aspects of a media text for cinephilic contemplation, “critical supercuts” are good at recruiting the uninitiated, but they also, as Creekmur has noted, may “require prior knowledge of their subjects in order to be effective” due to their lack of an authoritative anchor.

My goal, then, was to mount a critical argument (unfolding in a circular rather than a linear fashion), which is dependent on the creative and playful editing of image and sound to support its claims. Through juxtaposed sequences of fembots, “ladies in red,” and a combination of the two, Fembot in a Red Dress attempts to mine the potential of the “critical supercut” not only for laying bare gendered patterns of representation, but also for uncovering subtle variations in meaning across cinematic texts and contexts.

Works Cited

Creekmur, Corey K. “On the Compilation and Found-Footage Film Traditions of the Video Essay,” [in]Transition 1.2, 2014.

de Fren, Allison. The Exquisite Corpse: Disarticulations of the Artificial Female (doctoral dissertation), 2008, ProQuest document ID 304460946.

Elliot, Andrew J. et al. “Red Enhances Women’s Attractiveness to Men: First Evidence to Suggest Universality.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 9, Issue 1, 2013, 165-168.

Humphrey, Nicholas. Seeing Red: A Study in Consciousness. Harvard University Press, 2009.

Keathley, Christian, “La caméra-stylo: Notes on Video Criticism and Cinephilia” in Alex Clayton & Andrew Klevan, eds., The Language and Style of Film Criticism.  New York: Routledge, 2012: 176-191.

Lobel, Thalma. Sensation: The New Science of Physical Intelligence. Aria Books, 2014.

Wosk, Julie. My Fair Ladies: Female Robots, Androids, and Other Artificial Eves. Rutgers University Press, 2015.


Special thanks to Steve Anderson, who provided feedback on an earlier version of the video essay, uploaded footage to Critical Commons that he thought I would find useful, and reminded me of the wonderful red dress sequence in Videodrome (1983).

This video was produced out of the “Scholarship in Sound and Image” workshop at Middlebury College, June 2015, as funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities Office of Digital Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

[2] Studies are now being conducted to see if the reverse holds true, which it surprisingly does, although as far as I can tell, no studies have been conducted on same-sex desirability.

[3] As evidenced by, among other publications, Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind, winner of the 2008 PROSE award for Best New Journal in the Humanities and Social Sciences.

[4] For a more cultural/historical and psychoanalytic reading of the fembot, see my dissertation, Exquisite Corpse: Representations of the Artificial Female (2008) and Julie Wosk’s My Fair Ladies: Female Robots, Androids, and Other Artificial Eves (2015).