Robots in gendered capitalist relations
I think it’s pretty clear that the Transformers films are pathological, but it’s difficult to determine whether the pathology lies in society, the film industry, or in the individual psychology of Michael Bay. Maybe there’s plenty of blame to go round, we can blame the film industry for allowing a series of films to exist in which Micheal Bay’s creepy individual peccadilloes are magnified to such an extent they end up showing something more general about society. One of the more subtle pieces of creepiness in the first film is the way in which it suggests a world filled with a barely-hidden hostility. The film’s macguffin is a thing called “the cube,” which has the power to turn everyday objects into Transformers, but the robots which it creates are uniformly and absurdly aggressive:
I take it that Michael Bay has some kind of unconscious awareness of the intuition behind Evan Calder Williams’s Hostile Object Theory. Williams argues that objects under capitalism “are the material organisation of all the toil, struggle, and negative affect that went into them, that thwarted, pissed-off agency, a clenched fist that keeps pulling punches and punching clocks,” and they hate us because of it. The second Transformers film, Revenge of the Fallen really doubles down on the hostility of objects, but goes beyond Williams, primarily in terms of creepiness, but also theoretically, by sexualizing the hostility of objects.
A remarkable proportion of the runtime of Revenge of the Fallen is made up of this kind of body horror, showcasing Shia LaBeouf’s horror as feminized robots attempt to insert parts of their metallic anatomy into him. The robot as hostile object becomes, for Bay, a simultaneously horrifying and arousing object (and horrifying because it is arousing, and perhaps also vice versa).
There is, of course, another sexualized object in the Transformers films: Megan Fox. As LaBeouf puts it, “some people think [Michael Bay] is a very lascivious filmmaker, the way he films women,” although LaBeouf disagrees, saying that “the one thing Mike lacks is tact. There’s no time for ‘I would like you to just arch your back 70 degrees'” (I guess specifying the precise angle at which you want an actor to arch her back doesn’t count as lascivious; to her credit, Fox responded by calling Bay “Hitler,” and getting herself fired). The films then provide an interesting mirror image: women sexualized by objectification, and objects sexualized by feminization. I think the hostility of objects is the truth underlying this mirror image. The way Bay objectifies women is, as LaBeouf’s attempted defense shows, about control, and underlying this desire for control is a fear of an assumed hostility about to break free of control. The hostile robots in Transformers, that is, are the return of the repressed of the portrayal of women in the films.
What Williams’s Hostile Object Theory emphasizes is how the hostility of objects results from the place of the commodity in capitalism; applying this to the particularly gendered objects in Transformers reminds us of the way in which the commodity is gendered. Dumb but treacherous, commodities have something in common with misogynist depictions of women reaching back to Rousseau’s Sophie (we can also see the feminization of the commodity in the connection that is often made between femininity and consumerism, so ably criticized by Ellen Willis back in 1969). This should, I think, encourage us to be careful about construing our opposition to capitalism in terms of a proletariat which is defined by its subjectivity. My worry is that, as the category of subjectivity has a long association with masculinity, emphasizing the subjectivity of the proletariat risks repeating a pattern of gendered subject/object hostility.