I. Introduction

Imagine for a moment the following scene: the surface of a strange new world, a planet Earth-like, but far from the Earth, with sea-green skies and two brilliant moons which loom silently over a landscape of golden-red sand and light fog. Faintly, out in the distance, something moves quickly across the dunes – a vehicle it seems – kicking up a wild trail of dark particles into the air as it advances into closer view. At only a few yards away, the vehicle stops; roughly it appears to be a sort of circular driving platform and metal riding cab– but there is no human at the controls. Instead there stands an alien entity – six and a half feet tall, with two whirling antennae and a domed, transparent head – its mysterious and visible inner workings hypnotically active in lieu of eyes, nose, or mouth. As it exits the platform, however, it somehow manages to speak, its voice surprisingly human and soothing. “Welcome to Altair-IV, gentlemen,” it says, after a preamble of clicks and whirls. “I am to transport you to the residence.”

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    This “media moment” between the crew of the United States cruiser C-57D and the alien creature billed in the opening credits as “Robby the Robot” is one of the most memorable scenes from the 1956 film Forbidden Planet,  if not in the prolific history of 1950s American science fiction cinema.  A landmark design for both on-screen and off, Robby’s outer appearance – its glass head, whirling gears, and tape deck hybrid vocals– was the result of more than two months trial and error labor on that part of the special effects crew, including 2,600 feet of electrical wiring.  While the robot’s actions are an important, if somewhat clunky illusion in the film, controlled with the help of an actor carefully hidden inside the main torso of its large frame, still it is Robby’s exterior being and accompanying “personality” that make Robby so readily beloved by science fiction fans and curious to science fiction film critics. As Vivian Sobchack, author of Screening Space, writes for example, “Perhaps one of the most celebrated robots of all SF [Science Fiction] film, Robby of Forbidden Planet … looks like the offspring of some mad mating between the Michelin Tire Man and a juke box,” yet exudes “the cultivated manners of a gentleman’s gentleman.”  This light-hearted description fits well with Robby’s general reception by modern audiences and scholars alike – as dry and metallic comic relief, all “cute rotundity and comic primness”  – a harmless, even paradoxically “simple” robot toy.

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But more is at stake than this in Robby’s character; as a robot, Robby appears as part of a larger tradition of humanoid movie “creatures,” beginning with the insatiably immoral, over-sexualized male monsters of early horror films, and continuing with the horror/science fiction monster subset of the robot “alien,” by contrast a supposedly genderless technological oddity, under-sexualized and unfeeling, yet likewise full of destructive potential; “cold” rather than emotionally hot. Even the “Machine-Man” of Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, whose exceptionally vamp-like female exterior inspires chaotic degrees of lust in much of the film’s male population, appears far more interested in the havoc caused by its insinuative actions than pleasured sexually by the worship of its male followers.  Further, though its appropriated appearance darkly mimics that of Maria, the virginal heroine of the film, the Machine-Man is still always curiously “Man” in designation, recognized verbally as masculine both before and after putting on its feminine interface – that is, its exterior surface of interaction and communication, which is based on Maria’s face and shape. Indeed, in the following three decades of film robots, such as the silent silver giant “Gort” from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), default to the masculine pronoun when referenced by characters or fans, despite a technical lack of gender or biological drive. Unable to escape their horror film roots as lusty masculine beings, robots of the first half of the twentieth century stand in a silent state of confusion, caught between the gendered condition of their roles and the genderless condition of their loins – or more accurately, the loin-less condition of their loins.

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Perhaps nowhere is this tension more apparent than in the relationship on-screen between such sexless metal humanoids and another staple character of both horror and science fiction cinema: namely, the sexy, cosmetic-wearing female, whose over-feminized, “positively” distorted features stand in tantalizing opposite to the horror monster’s over-masculine, negatively distorted physical appearance. From classic horror films of the twenties such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) and Phantom of the Opera (1925) to campy horror/sci-fi movies of the fifties like It Came from Outer Space (1953), The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and the latter’s thrilling sequel, Revenge of the Creature (1955), the made-up woman’s relationship to the “alien,” as in unfamiliar or inhuman other, is relatively well understood by audiences as one of physical desire: to turn the lady into a mate, a pregnant receptacle, or a lunch, as the case may be. Yet placed in relation the robot, whose technical constitution refuses all corporeal appetites, the made-up female is at a loss for traditional fleshly fears and anxieties. Instead, as I will suggest, the make-up wearing woman too often finds herself problematically both in relation to, and conflict with the on-screen robot figure – that is, as two mass-produced cinematic images, icons of fifties popular culture, whose reproduced and reproducible configurations of gender and non-gender, are placed as relative products for male protagonist figures to choose between, separate, utilize or, at best, mutually protect against some exterior force or threat. Further, these opposing or equating social economics between robots and cosmetically enhanced women also throw into question the supposedly genderless configuration of the robot on film. Is the over-feminized, make-up wearing female a threat to the gender neutrality of the on screen robot, turning its figure into masculine (or feminine) technology? Or, by contrast, is it the robot who threatens the gendered position of the made-up woman, revealing the configurable state of her character as one more surface of interaction and communication, another interface to be “put on” as a superficial form of gender?

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In order to probe these questions of gender, interactive surfaces, and robot/cosmetic-wearing female relations, this paper will briefly examine three different subtopics: (1) the early twentieth century social and cinematic evolution of the make-up wearing female face, (2) the mid-twentieth century evolution of the ostensibly genderless humanoid robot character, and (3) the case study of the film Forbidden Planet, as an exceptional example for its time of a film that attempts to question particularly these issues, as well as suggest the partial exoneration of robot character from its horror monster past, in line with the recognition of science fiction as a genre having at last come into its own. Finally, having examined these three issues, this paper will discuss the need in general to redefine the traditional notion of human-media interface, in order to consider new dynamic fields of communication and interaction and not merely static surfaces – fields that are entangled in such social questions as gender, economics, and popular culture, and are as variable and transparently pervasive as technology in sci-fi cinema, or make-up on the faces of women in general.

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