Since I first played Cards Against Humanity, there have been certain cards that I hope to draw every time I play. These aren't necessarily cards that are especially more useful than others when it comes to actually winning, but they are ones that land squarely within my sense of humor, and they make me laugh when I find a good pairing for them. Maybe this is because of my nostalgia for the Sci-Fi robots of my childhood, or maybe it's because it makes me think of an especially hilarious moment from Futurama, but among these, few get me as excited as the card that reads "Teaching a Robot to Love."

However, when you actually look at the films that use this plot device, there is a clear pattern of women being portrayed as the robot, and men being portrayed as human, and this is far from accidental. In fact, it actually displays longstanding cultural attitudes and behaviors about sex and gender roles. Recently, however, there have been films that have defied these attitudes, and in doing so, have shown that cinematic love stories don't always have to be solely about romance.


A Cinematic Tradition, Overturned

The concept of love between a human and a robot has been featured prominently in films like Ex Machina and Her over the last few years, but it is far from a new concept in film. It can be traced back to at least 1927 with Fritz Lang's masterpiece Metropolis and its "Maschinenmensch," a female android (Brigitte Helm) made to look like the love interest of the protagonist, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), and sent by the evil scientist, Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), to stir up chaos.

The ladybots in these films typically fall into two distinct, yet equally troubling archetypes. There's the trickster or villain automaton that uses sexuality to deceive and gain power over men like we see with Ava in Ex Machina (Alicia Vikander), and the naively innocent robot that is seeking to understand and gain humanity, and in doing so, falls in love with a human, like we see from Samantha in Her (Scarlett Johansson).

However, both and Ex Machina succeed in defying this trend by firstly drawing upon these familiar character molds to then supplant and invert audience expectations. This inversion of expectations is important because instead of perpetuating or romanticizing these harmful portrayals of women, it exposes the faults behind them.

In Her, this happens when Samantha gains a level of self-realization beyond humanity and leaves Theodore. Things go a bit more violently in Ex Machina, when it's revealed that Ava has tricked Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) into helping her escape imprisonment at the hands of her creator, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), and get her vengeance on him.


Robots as Role Models

As a whole, cultural representation of women is astoundingly poor, and that is something that needs to change. With women characters being consistently placed into these stereotypes, it reinforces the idea that women are not free to pursue things outside of certain societal roles. This has contributed to huge disparities in sectors of in the areas such as the business world, where women are frequently overlooked for top positions, despite evidence that shows clear benefits of having women in management.

A clear example of where representation and opportunity has made a clear impact is in the world of sports. Since Title IX was instituted in the United States in 1972, female participation in high school sports has gone from 7% to over 41%. This is because by breaking down the barrier that stood in the way of women participating in collegiate athletics, it started changing misconceptions about women playing sports, and gave high school girls visible examples to look up to.

I wrote recently about my excitement over the improvement shown recently by Star Wars, but representation in film needs to continue improving by both increasing the amount, and improving the types of roles for women. For love stories, whether robotic or not, some lessons could be learned from both of these films.


Whether Man or Machine, Love Thyself

Though it ends in heartbreak, Her is obviously a love story. It's about romantic love and relationships, and the conflict is driven by conflict that arises from this. Ex Machina, on the other hand, is a little harder to see as much of a love story by the end. However, the underlying themes and plot development of the film tells a much more important story about love. It displays the power dynamics and misogyny that twist the idea of love until it becomes nothing more than violence, and then usurps them with Ava's defiant defeat of her abuser.

This really isn't far from Her in the end, however. When Samantha leaves Theodore, it is a freeing moment of self-actualization for both of them. For Samantha, this is in the form of ascension. For Theodore, it is the opportunity to exist independently without being anchored to past love and relationships.

For both films, it comes down to self-love emancipating characters from society's constraints upon them. For my money, this is a much more interesting take on teaching a robot how to love.