Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Men and Their Machines

When I think of computers and mechanics and whatnot, it all seems very masculine to me. Perhaps it is because we always had “tech guys” in high school to fix our laptops, or because the stereotypical cartoon geek is always a male. Possibly it is due to the fact that I am not especially capable when it comes to most forms of technology; therefore I associate it with a less familiar gender. No matter the reason, I generally think of computers as masculine. In both “Colossus” and “Desk Set,” I cannot help but notice the feminine characteristics that both of the computers seem to take on, though they may not be the most positive examples of feminine traits (controlling, demanding of male attention, etc).

In both films, there is a somewhat Adam-and-Eve-esque relationship between the leading men and their creations. Richard Sumner created EMERAC and Charles Forbin created Colossus, initially putting both men in a godlike roll in relation to their respective computers. The men create their machines, then the machines kind of mess up their picture of perfection in a completely unexpected way.

In “Desk Set,” the feminizing of the computer is rather explicit. When it was released in the UK, the film was titled “His Other Woman.” EMERAC was created to assist the workers in the reference library, a position that was primarily held by women. When the computer, or electronic brain as they like to call it, is first installed in the library, it is operated by a very straight-laced woman. When EMERAC starts freaking out and malfunctioning, it becomes “hysterical” (a characteristic that Freud so aptly points out that only women can possess), mirrored by the hysterical actions of its operator. At the end of the film, Sumner and Bunny joke about his ability to have time for both Bunny and EMERAC in his life, presumably the two women whom he adores.

In “Colossus,” the feminizing of the computer is, at first at least, not as apparent. In the beginning of the film, Colossus just seems to be a computer that is smarter than everyone thinks it was going to be (perhaps a reference to underestimating female intelligence?). It quickly becomes clear that Colossus’s dependence upon Forbin is vital to its ability to function, and speaks to the perceived female inability to function independently without the guidance of a male figure. Not only is Colossus dependant upon Forbin, it is also jealous and controlling. When Forbin is out of the country trying to fix this huge problem that he has released onto the world, Colossus throws a temper tantrum and will not respond to any of the other scientists commands.

Colossus then demands to be able to see Forbin at all time, requiring the installation of cameras throughout his home and the command center. Colossus’s control of Forbin becomes particularly explicit when Colossus creates a down to the minute schedule for Forbin's day. When this schedule is presented, it is read by an assertive female voice and is played over images of Forbin executing these particular tasks. This is clearly an example of Colossus’s ability to exude female control and possessiveness over Forbin. At the end of the film, Colossus does two things that helped to solidify the idea that it is female. First, it proclaims that Crete will be the home of the new super computer. As was so brilliantly addressed in class, Crete was historically a matriarchal society. Second, Colossus expresses the desire to be loved by Forbin.

Oh, men and their machines. If only they knew what kind of relationships they were really getting themselves into…

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