In contemporary popular culture, robots and androids are frequently portrayed as cute and childlike in ways that resemble the young of humans and domesticated animals alike, though more often in behavior rather than appearance (McIntyre). The primary behavioral characteristics of machine cuteness are physical vulnerability or awkwardness, linguistic weaknesses, and/or cognitive neoteny, meaning “a child-like state of mind, including a mental plasticity where the subject is curious about the world, open to new experiences, and tends to approach its surroundings with a certain naïveté” (Hasselgren). Robot cuteness, then, is a variation on cute aesthetics encompassing both appearance and behavior.
Consider the popular trope of the “cute robot,” which softens the perceived threat of what are frequently jokingly called “our future robot overlords” and constitutes an appeal to consumers to interact with, and ultimately purchase, them. Indeed, their cute, dependent behavior elicits a particular emotional interpersonal power relation. Thus cute robots enact what Lori Merish and Sianne Ngai describe as a form of flattery accompanied by forceful demands: cute objects cajole us to adore them, after which their cuteness demands that we bond with and care for them.
Humanoid robots in recent pop culture provoke people to question our feelings about machines, as well as our desire to ascribe feelings to them. Most male androids present visual and behavioral attributes in line with machine cuteness; however, female-gendered models frequently combine cuteness with sexualization. Indeed, most android women are designed for the male gaze, as conventionally good-looking (young, slender, agile) and as demure, passive “women.” Like a child, Ex Machina's Ava develops intelligence through experience and interaction, as well as studying archives of human knowledge. Her cute cognitive neoteny derives from her curiosity, asking questions about human life. In her interactions with Caleb, she appears deferential, kneeling; she embodies the cute object, entreating the human to become attached to it and thus care for and protect it.
However, as Ngai argues, “cuteness is an aestheticization of powerlessness” in which the cute object nevertheless exerts power over the subject (3). Only after neotenous demeanor gives way to a more assertive, autonomous presentation that female-gendered robots begin to be perceived as (potentially) threatening. The ending reveals Ava’s cuteness as subterfuge that won Caleb’s cooperation. Ex Machina withholds access to her motivations, so that even as we cheer the death of mad scientist, Ava’s escape, with Kyoko’s help, makes for an ambiguous ending.
Hasselgren, Ingeborg. “Cute Cabbageworms: Feminist Performative Cuteness in a Swedish Context.” Cuteness Seminar, Univ. of Amsterdam. 1-2 Oct. 2015. Address.
McIntyre, Anthony P. “Animating Precarity: Technological Determinism, Labor Exclusions, and Post-Fordist Affective Resonances of Onscreen Robots.” Cuteness Seminar, Univ. of Amsterdam. 1-2 Oct. 2015. Address.
Merish, Lori. “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics: Tom Thumb and Shirley Temple.” Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. Ed. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. New York: New York UP, 1996. 185-203. Print.
Ngai, Sianne. Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2012. Print.