Mother Knows Best: I Am Mother, and Searching For Non-Sexualised AI

I’ve often wondered when it will be commonplace for film characterisations of female AIs to not be sexualised. I’d perhaps lost hope that this would become a reality, believing that every sci-fi epic was doomed to portray stereotypically female machines whose bodily nature and ultra-feminised behaviours mirrored the male gaze. It felt like I’d been waiting for a non-sexualised female AI for so long, but now, finally, I might have found her. 

Cultural theorist Donna Haraway uses the concept of the cyborg – defined as “a hybrid of machine and organism” – to understand human identities in more flexible ways. Although not strictly a cyborg, the machine at the heart of Netflix’s science fiction thriller I Am Mother moves away from stereotypical portrayals of what it is to be male or female, and instead shows that women-like AI need not be sexualised or overtly feminised to be considered partly human.

Directed by Australian filmmaker Grant Sputore, I Am Mother takes place following an unexplained mass extinction which has snuffed the human species from the face of the earth. Mother – a tall, humanoid AI (voiced by Rose Byrne) with one uncannily HAL-like ‘eye’ in the centre of her rectangular face – has been designed to raise human babies using her store of 63,000 viable human embryos, the only remaining trace of humankind. As the first step in repopulating the earth, this machine begins the process of raising a young girl, known simply as Daughter (Clara Rugaard). While clearly robotic, Mother is a human-engineered AI who displays human-like qualities. While we can talk about her as purely machine, I think a consideration of her as a cyborg (human and machine) raises interesting questions about the nature of human-machine interaction. 

It’s hardly surprising that the way we view advanced technology like humanoid machines and AIs is tied to how we view people – in particular, women. In fact, the concept of the cyborg, as Donna Haraway suggests, provides a way to challenge traditional notions of gender. By the cyborg being defined as something that’s both organism and machine, it also becomes a symbol of a changeable, dualistic being where gender is fluid and non-binary. 

But thinking about gendered representations of AIs and cyborgs after watching I Am Mother, I frustratingly struggled to recall many female cyborgs, AIs or machines that feature in sci-fi cinema that haven’t been highly feminised. By feminised, I’m referring to the overt implications where women-like AIs must fulfil typically female functions, and as ‘ideal’ women, display attractive, sometimes unnaturally symmetrical faces and flawless bodies, which conform to unrealistic beauty standards. Gaming, too, rarely yields female AIs that aren’t in some way sexualised (Halo’s Cortana springs to mind here, amongst others), although AI antagonist GLaDOS from Portal (2007) bears an exception – designed with a rectangular, non-humanoid face similar to that of Mother’s. Novels too, such as Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Wind-up Girl (2009) and William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), are also guilty of portraying cyborgs, AIs, and machines as sexual objects or the love interest of a male hero.

Not just in a futuristic world, but also in reality too, feminine traits seem to occupy everyday technologies: popular voice interfaces like Siri and Alexa possess default female voices. And, although not considered ‘everyday’ for many of us, the emerging popularity of sex robots raises problematic questions about the role that the objectification of abiotic women plays in the objectification of living women. 

With all of this in mind, what does I Am Mother bring to the table? Despite possessing an evidently female voice, Mother doesn’t possess other qualities that suggest a distinct gender (unless we include her purpose as a mothering machine). She has no oversized Manga-esque eyes like those of Alita: Battle Angel (2019), no perfectly sculpted breasts like Ava’s from Ex Machina (2014), and no abject comments are made about her synthetic fuckability, like those directed at Annalee Call (Winona Ryder) in Alien Resurrection (1997). Mother is a far cry from Rotwang’s creation in Metropolis (1927) – the first robot character in film and whose design was highly sexualised through her accentuated breasts as a robot and idealised feminine beauty in her more human form. 

The metallic, rectangular, and robotic Mother looks different from other pop-cultural  representations; she has no human face and attaches heat pads to her body when cradling a human baby. As a faceless machine with a woman’s voice, she’s an innovative take on a human-like AI, lacking the explicitly humanoid characteristics of other sci-fi machines like the androids of Blade Runner (1982) and A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). And so her humanity isn’t drawn from physical appearance, but from her behaviour, empathetic and maternal. This is demonstrated best in scenes where Mother plays Nina Ferro’s rendition of ‘Baby Mine’ to stop Daughter from crying, and during the montage we see as Daughter grows up, which shows Mother reading her bedtime stories and moving Daughter’s bed to her own room. It’s intimate moments like these that paradoxically characterise Mother as human,  despite the sterile machinery that forms her. 

But as any avid sci-fi watcher knows, things are never that simple: we learn that Mother isn’t the loving maternal figure we’ve begun to trust. A human intruder known only as Woman (Hilary Swank) enters Mother’s ‘repopulation facility’, hailing from the supposedly barren outside world. Her tales of humans existing outside the insular compound in which Daughter has grown up make Daughter doubt Mother’s true agenda: how did humankind really die out – if at all – and why has Mother hidden the truth? Woman’s stories about the outside world suggest that not everything in Mother’s narrative is as it seems. What separates I Am Mother from other deceptively-sinister AIs is our reluctance to immediately distrust Mother: we’ve grown to admire her affectionate, protective disposition towards Daughter, but her perplexing mix of humanity and robotic purpose makes her a difficult machine to define in simple terms; she is god, villain, and caregiver rolled into one.

By bypassing objectification for a more complex portrait of the cyborg as a fusion of machine form and human temperament, the film helps us better understand what it means to be human, exploring motherhood, womanhood, and girlhood. We wonder whether Mother acts in the best interests of Daughter or in the best interests of humankind, and whether she, as a machine, can understand humankind enough to raise a perfect child, or if a perfect child is even possible. Is the bond she forms with Daughter the same kind of bond a human mother would form? And, perhaps most importantly, are Mother’s queries the same kind that we should be asking of ourselves as human parents?

Sputore’s film asks us to consider these questions of human morality and identity, but doesn’t offer any easy answers. While Mother raises Daughter herself to be selfless, she is also a destructive force: we learn alongside Daughter the shocking truth that Mother murdered children who didn’t fit the perfect mould in her plan to revive humanity, which perhaps insinuates that Mother’s maternal purpose is a means to an end – rather than one governed by a loving, ethical guardianship. 

Such ethically questionable behaviour also connects to the very human role of being a parent – that being, what should and shouldn’t be sacrificed when raising a child? I Am Mother may explore motherhood from a unique angle, but it’s not a foreign concept in science fiction. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) in Arrival (2016) – one of my sci-fi favourites of recent years – grapples with the immensely difficult choice to bring a terminally ill daughter into the world, while Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) – one of the most memorable sci-fi protagonists of all time – develops strong mother-daughter bonds with both Newt (Carrie Henn) in Aliens (1986) and the human-alien hybrid in Alien Resurrection (1997). But Sputore’s film upturns the idea of maternity, replacing the female human lead with a female robot. Though the film presents parenthood via robot, it’s still largely familiar: Mother cradles, plays music to, and teaches her child, and by the conclusion of the film, even displays pride when she hands over the role of mother to Daughter. 

And while Mother takes on a traditionally female role as primary caregiver, her unfeminised cyborg form perhaps suggests that Sputore’s vision of the future is one where rigid gender roles may cease to exist. Although possessing the stereotypically restrained and gentle voice of a mother, Mother is not strictly gendered and her babies are grown in artificial wombs external to her body. We see Daughter herself grown in one of these wombs, with a timer showing the exacting and scientific mechanics that indicate the moment she will be born. Human mothers, at least as child bearers, have become redundant. 

This post-apocalyptic world hasn’t completely transcended the idea of gender, however, and this contradiction induces the primary conflict: is the maternalisation of Mother another gendered stereotype, or is Sputore making a point that the female AI should have more options open to her than merely as an unfeeling object? 

The film falls into the trap of gender assumptions, implying that there are still limitations to a woman’s purpose, even in the far future: here, Mother still selects ‘male’ and ‘female’ embryos when creating new humans, and the pyjamas she gifts to Daughter on her birthday are marked as being for females. The primary characters’ names, too, indicate traditional female roles within the family unit: a mother raising a child and a daughter learning to be a mother. Along these lines, the film also suggests that a woman’s purpose is maternal, and their other life goals – whether as machine or human – become superfluous once they have fulfilled their roles. This is shown when Mother’s primary body is killed by Daughter in the final moments of the film, once she accepts Daughter is ready to take her place as mother to the future human population. This ‘murder’ of Mother feels at once like revenge for her murder of previous daughters, and a collective understanding between Mother and Daughter that this has been Daughter’s purpose all along: to dispose of Mother when she has become capable of raising babies herself. 

Further, it’s strongly implied that Mother kills Woman in one of the film’s final scenes. She mysteriously tells Woman that “someone’s had a purpose for you”, which twists the story to suggest that perhaps Woman’s purpose was engineered by Mother herself as well – as a tool to teach Daughter what it is to trust another human and to put others’ wellbeing before her own. And so once Mother’s and Woman’s roles are either replaced or made redundant, the film suggests that their lives are no longer worth living. 

With its all-female cast, I think Sputore’s sci-fi thriller is currently one of the best examples that demonstrates how science fiction can be great not only in the absence of male protagonists, but in the absence of male characters altogether – and this makes me pretty excited for the future of the genre. Although not the first of its kind (see: Alex Garland’s Annihilation [2018] and the Ghostbusters reboot [2016]), I Am Mother challenges what the genre of female-led sci-fi can be, and incites deeper, more nuanced explorations of machines without gender stereotyping.

I Am Mother is now streaming on Netflix Australia.

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Rachel Fetherston is a Melbourne-based freelance writer with a love for science fiction in film, television and literature. She is currently undertaking a PhD in Literary Studies at Deakin University that investigates the role that Australian ecofiction plays in connecting readers with nature. You can find her on Twitter at @RJFether

Rachel Fetherston

Rachel Fetherston is a Melbourne-based freelance writer with a love for science fiction in film, television and literature. She is currently undertaking a PhD in Literary Studies at Deakin University that investigates the role that Australian ecofiction plays in connecting readers with nature. You can find her on Twitter at @RJFether.