Machine Bodies, Human Hearts

By Penny Robo

Penny RoboI noticed early on in my life that when I consumed narrative media, the easiest way to tug at my heartstrings was to introduce a machine character and then prove that their synthetic nature made them no less a person.

Even the dodgiest of movies or shows could, without fail, get me to feel more than showing a regular everyday human going through the same event and it took me an embarrassingly long time to connect all those dots. You all know what I’m talking about: that one movie or genre or show or character that affected you in ways you couldn’t start to grasp, till one day you recognize that some part of yourself was reflected there all along. For a lot of trans women it’s The Little Mermaid. And while I’ll admit that I have never not loved that movie – it’s still tied for my favorite Disney Renaissance pic – for me it was always the machines.

Lt. Commander Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, KITT of Knight Rider fame, HARDAC Batman from the Batman TAS episode “His Silicon Soul”, even cyborgs denied their humanity such as Murphy in RoboCop. And it never really ended… WALL·E only came out in 2008, and you best believe my 22-year-old ass was sobbing in that theater.

It wasn’t until just a handful of years ago that I had managed to cobble together an understanding of why seeing Johnny 5 pleading for his life in Short Circuit 2 was a more horrific experience to me as a child than all the gory slasher movies I was free to watch on the weekends. Because while I knew that they were “people” (within the narrative), the antagonists they faced often considered them to be less-than. This wasn’t some heated battle, warrior-against-warrior – this was quite often an innocent bystander (who happened to not be human) being disposed of by villains who thought no more of it than heaving an old microwave into a dumpster.

As much as my kid brain went “robots are cool!”, it also recognized on an instinctual level the gut-wrenching horror of being faced with people who don’t consider you to be a valid form of life. Human-on-human violence was so normalized and homogenized in media that it didn’t have much room to explore an idea like that, at least not in a way I could readily understand as a kid, whereas the “friendly machine hunted by ignorant humans” concept had managed to evolve into a subgenre of its own and could dependably provide me with that kind of visceral experience I couldn’t get from many other places.

You can imagine how I felt coming out of the movies after seeing The Iron Giant…

Realizing that I was trans was initially elating but eventually followed by a wave of fear about how it would impact my life. I knew the way that many of the people around me felt about trans people. I had seen enough sitcoms and stand-up acts in my formative years to know how other people generally felt about people like me or, at the very least, that it was acceptable for them to openly feel that way even if it wasn’t the norm. There was no shame in thinking so little of us.

Being a punchline hurts. But being considered an inferior, disposable entity? It’s fucking terrifying. It’s soul-chilling. And somehow mini-me was able to tap into those feelings by unconsciously projecting my own fear of being viewed as subhuman onto fictional silicon avatars.

So just a bit of advice in the interest of furthering your self-understanding: if there was ever a piece of media in your childhood that you were inexplicably attracted to or affected by… take the time to look closer. You might discover that something you’ve only recently learned about yourself has been stirring beneath the surface for a very long time.

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender healthcare, public health, psychiatry, and history of medicine, integrating these many perspectives and guided by the lived experiences of trans people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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One Response to Machine Bodies, Human Hearts

  1. Wow, love this article. I’ve felt a lot of the same things and even have a cyborg arm tattoo. With regard to violence against robots, there’s a scene from the Animatrix: Second Renaissance that I found particularly disturbing.

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