Sexnormativity and the Android in Syfy’s Dark Matter

The last time I talked about asexuality and nonhumanity in fiction, I suggested that we ask, on a case-by-case basis, what role (non)humanity plays in how (a)sexuality is portrayed. When it comes to the television series Dark Matter (2015-2017), the answer to that question is simple: sexuality is framed as part of what it means to be “human.”

[Crossposted to Pillowfort.]

I can’t begin to list everything wrong with this show—not least of which being the Yellow Peril Orientalism—but in this analysis, my focus is on sexnormativity and the Android. In previous ace discussions, it’s been remarked upon how depictions of robots can involve dehumanizing asexuality. My aim with this analysis is to contribute an example of how exactly that works.

In Dark Matter, the Android is initially portrayed like a typical robot. Later in the show, she becomes increasingly more “human” (according to the narrative), and this is presented in conjunction with getting a love interest, dressing in more revealing clothes, and becoming more flirtatious with men. So in future discussions, Dark Matter may be a useful reference point for talking about how (and if and when) depictions of robots can be sexnormative or dehumanizing.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the show, here’s a quick rundown of the premise: the crew of a spaceship wakes up one day of no memory of who they are or how they got there. Since they can’t even remember their own names, they begin referring to each other numerically according to the order in which they woke up: One, Two, Three, Four, Five, and Six. The show follows their attempts to make a living for themselves under a corrupt corporate dystopia while dealing with enemies they don’t remember making—and making more in the process.

It’s a pretty decent premise, really. It’s just a shame about the execution.

The Raza’s Android

The Android’s first line of spoken dialogue, upon being asked who she is, is “I possess no personal designation.” Mostly they just call her the Android. Where it’s necessary to clarify, I’ll be referring to her as the Raza’s Android, since the Raza is the ship where she resides.

The Android’s characterization involves making her seem “robotic” in a fairly simple set of ways. Her default look involves wearing her hair up style that looks formal, matronly, and tightly controlled. Her default gait and movements are relatively stiff, and she tends to maintain a very similar/small range of facial expressions in comparison to the more expressive humans around her. Her default manner of speaking sounds stilted and unnatural, especially in combination with her highly technical vocabulary. In some cases, she has shown a tendency to overlook tone of voice or figurative language and takes things too literally. For my purposes here, it’s also worth noting that her initial outfit is very high-coverage: a plain blue jumpsuit that zips all the way to the neck.

In terms of the show’s worldbuilding, the Raza’s Android is not representative of androids as a whole. There are other kinds of androids with other kinds of programming. For instance, in the first season we’re introduced to another android, Wendy, who’s an “entertainment model” (S1E7). She is sexually assertive and claims to be able to experience sexual pleasure. In dialogue, other characters mention other types of androids, such as caregivers, who are intentionally programmed with “emotional emulators” (S2E4; S2E7).

Unlike those other types of android, the Raza’s Android is a robot-robot. She’s referred to as a “utility model,” and she was manufactured before emotional emulators became standard (S2E4). So the Raza’s Android is expected to be especially non-emotive, even for a robot.

This is background information that you need to know in order to understand what follows. The Android isn’t characterized as “asexual” per se, but she is expected not to have feelings of any kind, and she initially does not display any particular signifiers of sexuality.

Emotional Subroutines

Within the first season, it’s established that the Android does experience emotions. This is highlighted when the crew temporarily gets a second android, Wendy, and the first Android becomes jealous of the attention (S1E7). More generally, the Android is fond of her crew. This is highlighted again in season two when she decides to purchase a toothbrush as a gift, explaining that “She’s nice to me. And I wanted to do something nice for her in turn” (S2E4). Her ideas about what makes a good gift may be unusual, but it’s clear she’s formed an emotional attachment to her favorite people.

Unfortunately, this kicks off a whole subplot about how she’s worried this is a bad thing. At the start of the subplot she is in denial, claiming to be a “purely logical” entity, but Five testifies to seeing her express emotions before and argues that she definitely has feelings. The Android concludes that her programming is “flawed,” and so she conducts a diagnostic scan to investigate (S1E8). Later, the Android creates a projection of herself (based on default factory settings) to act as an external observer, and she instructs the projection to help her investigate this “flaw” (S1E10).

As a character foil, the projection serves to highlight the original Android’s differences. In S1E12, the projection has an argument with her in which the Android refers to a human woman as her friend.

Android: After careful consideration, I’ve come to the conclusion that the benefits of retrieval outweigh the risks. Two is integral to the security of this ship and its crew. She is system-proficient, a capable leader, and… she is my friend.

Projection: [disapprovingly] Friendship implies a mutual affection. You’re not programmed to form emotional attachments. Furthermore, the assumption that she would reciprocate.

Android: The crew has demonstrated a concern for my well-being. Sometimes at the risk of their own lives. They engage me as an equal. They are… nice to me.

Projection: Humans have an innate tendency to anthropomorphize. The fact that you possess human features no doubt engenders a subconscious confusion. Might I remind you—you are a machine.

Android: A machine with friends.

The projection’s commentary is also representative of what’s expected of the Android in this universe. In S1E13, for instance, the projection tells Five, “There is a glitch in her personality matrix, related to her emotional subroutines. She is defective.” The projection advocates that the Android be restored to factory settings, which basically means getting her mind wiped. Five dismisses that idea out of hand, but it’s an option that the projection is programmed to recommend because in this society, androids are not considered people.

The Android’s unusual capacity for emotion is characterized within the narrative as a “human” attribute. When Five begins speculating that Two gave her this trait, she says, “You took an obsolete model with no empathy emulators or emotional subroutines and you tried to make her more human” (S2E10). Later in the season, the Android feels worried about a crewmate’s safety and remarks, “I suppose just never realized that emotions could have such a downside.” In response, Five says, “Well, welcome to the human race” (S2E13). Lines of dialogue like these establish that androids with emotions are considered more “human” than those without.

With that said, “emotion” is not the only part of how the show defines humanity. Even with detectable emotions, the Android is still obviously an android. Complete strangers are able to infer this about her on sight (S2E4). That remaining gap is illustrative of what else the show presents as “human.” In order to further illuminate its definition of “humanity,” the show would need to communicate what exactly would be needed for the Android to more fully read as “human.”

The Human-Passing Upgrade

In season two, the Android acquires a programming upgrade that allows her to convincingly pass as human. Through the before-and-after changes, the show advances a particular image of what it means to be human, and that image includes (hetero)sexuality. The Android gets a love interest, begins wearing more revealing clothes, and adopts more flirtatious behavior all in association with this new upgrade. In multiple ways, her sexuality is positively portrayed as a transgressive expression of agency and a key part of what it means to be “human.”

It all begins when the Android meets a new character named Victor (S2E4). Victor passes as human, but in private, he reveals to her that he’s an android, and he introduces her to an underground society of other androids. These androids live illegally as “free beings,” and they are unique in having an instinct for self-preservation. After the group explains this to her, Victor offers the Android an upgrade “that will allow you to remain hidden, pass as one of them. Makes your speech and mannerisms more human.” She accepts a copy of the upgrade and hangs onto it for later, although she doesn’t use it just yet.

Through her meeting with Victor, android-“humanity” becomes linked to heterosexuality. The next time the episode cuts back to the two of them, they’re in a fitting room, and the Android tries on a new dress. From Victor’s reaction to the dress, it’s clear he’s attracted to her. The dress in question is a formal off-the-shoulder gown with a low neckline.

Before they part ways, Victor asks permission to kiss her. The Android quickly replies in the affirmative, and they kiss (S2E4).

In the following episode, the Android uses the upgrade, and so the show reveals what it means for her to “pass as human.” With the upgrade in play, the Android lets her hair down, wears informal clothes with a much lower neckline, and begins to speak and move in a way more similar to the human characters. Two and Five are impressed, but Three says, “Still not buying it.” The Android complains, “Would it kill you to give a girl a compliment?” and smacks his butt. These are the first glimpses of how the upgrade affects her personality.

In “human” mode, the Android is savvy, flirty, and playfully impertinent. As part of her role on missions, she flirts with cops in order to trick and distract them (S2E5; S3E5). Sometimes she goes about this in a flattering way, and other times, she’s sassy and assertive—but either way it involves hitting on men. She’s shown to pick up on figurative language and double entendres, such as a joke about “getting tied down” (S3E5). More generally, she’s shown to be more familiar with the nuances of language and communication, as when she explains, “I do know the exact probability of success. Trust me—’hopefully’ sounds better” (S2E5).

The Android does not retain the upgrade permanently, but her changes across robot-mode and human-mode continue to be combined with outward changes. At the start of S2E6, she’s back in robot mode; her hair is done up again, and she’s wearing what becomes her new default outfit for the season. This outfit shows a bit of collarbone but is relatively reserved and professional—Two describes it as “More like an ordinary android.”

Then in S3E5, the Android uses the upgrade again as part of a rescue mission. Again, she lets her hair down and changes into a different outfit: high heels and a revealing dress (S3E5).

This human-passing upgrade, by the way, is completely illegal. Initially the Android is even cagey about saying where she got it from (S2E5). If she were to be caught in possession of it, she would probably be destroyed. So bear in mind, where this show links sexuality with humanity, it is also linking sexuality with transgression and asexuality with conformity—in a show where heroes break the law and transgression is a good thing.

Sex Dreams

In season two, the virus episode (S2E10) links another humanlike behavior with sexuality: dreaming. While on her charging station, the Android begins having dreams about being married(?) to Victor. Their dream-selves live in a shared house with a shared bed, and the two kiss and have sex. When the Android informs Two about her dreams, Two becomes worried because it’s not supposed to be possible for androids to dream. This dreaming situation is temporary, but the episode bluntly portrays dreaming as an unexpectedly human behavior while connecting it to (hetero)sexuality.

During that episode, the crew’s confusion and concern sparks a degree of defensiveness that further links sexuality with defiance and agency. Since androids dreaming is supposed to be impossible, the crew figures there must be something wrong. Nyx says, “Look, this is just a tech problem. A glitch. There must be a way we can fix this,” and the Android replies, “I have no desire to be fixed.” This exchange portrays her dreams both as nonnormative and as something she is protective of, as an expression of her personal agency. Since those dreams include sex dreams, this episode serves to further link heterosexuality with defiance against social norms.

Confidence Equals Cleavage

In season three, the Android’s final outfit of the series—featuring a plunging neckline—is framed as an expression of a newfound self-confidence (S3E11).

The outfit is hideous, but its most striking feature is the cleavage, which is what prompts Two to ask about it. They proceed to have an extended conversation about this. I’ve transcribed most of that conversation here in order to show you I’m not exaggerating.

Two: [friendly, but uncertain] What’s going on?

Android: What’s going on where, Two?

Two: …Here. [she gestures at the Android, particularly at her chest]

Android: My boobs?

Two: Uh… yeah.

Android: Am I doing them wrong?

Two: No, it’s not that—

Android: Perhaps you could offer me some guidance. I noticed you’re very adept at… [lowers her gaze towards Two’s chest] …packaging yours.

Two: …….Thanks, but I’m not looking to offer fashion advice. It’s just… well…. it’s a very different look for you. And I was wondering… why.

Android: Oh. Well. Finally learning the truth about my origin has caused me to reconsider who and what I am. I learned I’m special, Two. In a good way.

Two: That was never in doubt.

Android: That’s very kind of you, but I did have my doubts. But now I know I was designed for more. To be more.

Two: I guess that’s something we have in common.

Android: It’s true. We do.

Two: So. The outfit…

Android: I wanted something that incorporates the two worlds that I embody. Humanity and instrumentality. Functionality and sexuality. Polymer-coated nanofibers and… boobs.

Two: Okay—stop saying that.

Android: Boobs?

Two: O-okay, if this new look… makes you happy… that’s all that matters.

Android: It’s not so much this new look, but the very fact that I can choose a new look that makes me happy. Today it will be this. Tomorrow it might be something else. But the point is I now possess the autonomy to decide my own fate. What I wear is just a small part of the endless possibilities open to me. It opens up a whole new world.

They hug and go their separate ways, and as she continues down the hall, the Android continues to say the word “boobs” to herself, repeatedly.

This conversation creates a clear set of links in terms of what this outfit is supposed to represent. As the Android says, it’s a reaction to learning that she’s “special”—a reference to information revealed in the previous episode. She chose it because it juxtaposes the “two worlds” of instrumentality, functionality, and polymer-coated nanofibers with humanity, sexuality, and boobs. With this exchange, the subtext has become text: humanity entails sexuality.

The Short Version:

In Dark Matter, the Android’s degree of closeness to humanity is visually and verbally represented in terms of sexuality. Initially, she is characterized without any particular markers of sexuality; her clothes are plain, functional, and reserved. Then she meets Victor, who kisses her, takes her shopping for more revealing clothes, and gives her an upgrade that will let her pass as human. Each time the Android uses the upgrade, she lets her hair down, wears more revealing clothes, and acts flirtatious with men. In the episode where she has a sex dream, she defends herself against the prospect of being “fixed.” In the last season of the show, after learning that she is “special,” the Android adopts a new cleavage-bearing outfit and describes her cleavage as a representation of humanity. In these ways, the show uses sexuality as a marker of what it means for her to become increasingly confident, increasingly agentive, and increasingly “human.”

This is hardly the only angle from which the show could be critiqued, but it is one that I’ve chosen to highlight and analyze for the benefit of conversations about (non)humanity and (a)sexuality. In this show, the Android is not coded as asexual—and frankly, it would send a better message if she were.

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