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Robots Selling Sex by Ernest Lilley
Review by Ernest Lilley
Philips Editorial  ISBN/ITEM#: ED200711
Date: November 2007

Links: RobotSkin Anime Website /

[Editor's Note: Originally article was posted to our sister publication TechRevu in October, 2007]

Nivea and Phillip's are showing a sexy robot girl shaving commercial in the UK that is both more subtle and more emotionally charged than the classic Noxema girl ads of the 60's. Whether or not a shaver that pumps foam out of its shaving head is the future of shaving or not, the beautiful, if occasionally disturbing spot speaks to the future of man's relationship with technology. They've even created a storyline with its own website full of anime episodes and extras to get you hooked on "robotskin".

Sexy girls have been selling shavers since the beginning of advertising, more or less. Back in the 1960s, Noxema's Shaving Cream Girl ads set the standard when the sexy Swedish-born Gunilla Knutson urged men to take it all off...to a striptease soundtrack. Today, there's a peculiar bimodality to advertising. On TV, sex has been toned down, while on the web, it's been ramped up. Way up. Back in 2002, Gillette started hosting content from the men's magazine Maxim on its own site to grab more viewers. But using girls to sell products to men is a two edged blade, and sooner or later advertisers need to find a way to make both women's rights advocates and stubble sprouting males happy. Enter Nivea's fembot.

The shaving bot shown in the UK versions of Nivea's commercials for its "Robot Skin" is clearly robotic, and clearly female, both by virtue of its physiology and its demure/submissive attitude towards the male it shaves by caressing his face with its shaver embedded hands. Evidentially the fembot exists only to shave the man, unplugging from a Borglike set of cables to approach her task. One can't miss the wistfulness in the robots attitude at the man's departure, though the best the man can manage is a slight puzzlement as he strokes his smooth skin. Something has happened beyond the shave, but he's not about to identify it to himself.

As a piece of cinema, this is a pretty impressive piece of work. It's erotic, though quite clean (I confess, the double entendre is intentional). and emotionally charged. The interplay between man and robot foreshadows things to some, and the implications of those things are vast indeed.

Unsurprisingly, these implications have been well considered by writers of science fiction, going back to the earliest stories, both expressed on paper and film. The robot version of Maria in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) beguiles the workers and incites revolt. Helen O'Loy, in the classic short story by Lester Del Rey (Astounding, 1938) falls in love with her creator as the result of too much soap opera exposure, which has been viewed variously as a sexist commentary on women's drives or a critique of male fantasy. For my money, it's a bit of both, though I doubt that Lester gave a lot of thought to the implications. Asimov turned the tables on the concept when he wrote "Satisfaction Guaranteed" (Amazing Stories, 1951) where a woman falls in love with a robot designed to meet her needs. It's not his metallic physique or endless sexual stamina she swoons over, and in fact freaks out badly when he attempts to hold her, as I recall, but his willingness to take her values seriously, as opposed to her husband's impatience and lack of understanding.

A brilliant examination of the consequences of creating artificial female surrogates to meet the needs of men can be found in Gwyneth Jones White Queen trilogy. In the last book, Phoenix Cafe, an alien recreates herself as a human woman to go to Earth and atone for a rape committed during first contact. What she finds is a world where gender is no longer the issue it was.

    She had returned to earth as a woman, to expiate her guilt. She was too late. The men and women she had injured were no longer here. The mystery of human sex and sexual gender has collapsed into hyperadaptive disorder, like an earth-type species at the end of its natural life... (They) had simply arrived, by chance, in time to witness the last acts of a long drama: tragic, fascinating, rich and rank and strange.

    - PHOENIX CAFE

I don't think the drama is nearly over, but the issues Jones addresses in the trilogy are well worth considering. Freud is said to have exclaimed, "My God, what does woman want?," though the wants of men have rarely been considered a mystery. Personally, I think that both gender's wants wind up being more or less the same, but not necessarily occurring in the same order. Though Asimov's story was about a woman, and despite the research that keeps piling up that men are initially attracted to women for their physical attributes, it's the ability of machines to engage us emotionally that I think will have the real long term impact. Though we may "intellectually" think of humaniform robots as things rather than people, we will "emotionally" react to them as human. If we do create artificial people in our own image, it will be important that we treat them with courtesy and respect, not because they will care...but because to not do so will be to pretend that we don't.

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