“In Hoffman’s novella, Olimpia is an object both created and destroyed by the world of men. The main part of the story tells of Coppelius—part alchemist, part magician, part mad-scientist—who, with the assistance of Professor Spalanzani, creates a life-like automaton that they pass off as the latter’s daughter. The scheme is designed to beguile and entrap the innocent and the one such is the young artist Nathanael. In a critique of the Romantic artistic temperament itself, Nathanael leaves his fiancé Clara as she no longer acts as a mirror to his passions, ironically, calling her a ‘damned lifeless automaton!” before running to his new love Olimpia…She is an inherently Gothic figure as she is not only an uncanny double to a real human—she replaces Clara—but she is also a mirror image of the artist himself. This sees her as not just ‘manmade’ but, in her role of Doppelgänger, as being literally made of Man…Olimpia is a manifestation of this degeneracy while acting as a conduit or mirror to pass it on or reflect it onto other men.
It is hardly surprising then that, as the story reaches its climax, she is literally torn apart by these forces trying to control her or remake her in their own image…
The construction of Olimpia’s femininity is worth examining further as it informs much of the uncanny status of her recurring afterlives. Her womanliness is purely a product of male, patriarchal domination seeing her appearance being created by men for the consumption of other men… Jeffrey A. Brown observes that women and robots can be seen to occupy a very similar status within patriarchal society as a ‘standardized, consumable and indeed replaceable form.’ …
Elissa Marder takes this idea even further and back to the foundations of western civilization in Greek mythology, specifically to the story of Pandora. In Marder’s reading Pandora, the ‘first woman,’ was fabricated by Hephaestus and so was ‘a manufactured product…an android, a robot, or a replicant.’ Further, she speculates that Pandora’s ‘maternal’ jar could be understood as a ‘mechanical reproduction’ of the womb rather than as its representation, which simultaneously posits that the manufactured female body is innately duplicitous in its emptiness, even more so when it looks like a living human, as when Olimpia takes the place of Nathanael’s biological fiancée and future bearer of his children. This mechanical doppelgänger symbolically castrates the young man casting such ‘women’ as inherently evil.
…Huyssen himself sees the urn—the vessel she appears from to perform her dance—as the found of Robot Maria’s second birth, but by introducing Pandora, this becomes a rebirth beyond male control. Although she draws the male-gaze, she uses it for her own ends, constructing her as an active agent in the disruption she causes and not just a puppet or mannequin of male desire.
..The T-X robot [of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines], as with Robot-Maria, should be genderless, a point accentuated by the fact it is able to change its shape at will, yet it is marked at all stages as feminine, even when only its ‘skeleton’ is left.
…Unlike T-X, Ava [of Ex Machina] is never mistaken for a human—everyone involved knows that she is a machine—but she is able to learn and manipulate human emotions….Ava’s femininity is interesting as, like all robots, she should be without gender, but her creator has given her a typically female build…Yet the narrative shows that Ava has modified her own looks and her ways of interacting with Caleb from monitoring the porn sites he surfs from his work computer—this last part is important as it suggests that Ava is able to ‘send’ her consciousness out into the internet. The film does not explore this aspect very much but it means that she is potentially hugely powerful and yet choose to remain in her ‘human’ body. This sees her having a form of individual agency that creates a very specific relationship between herself and the male gaze and male control.”
-Simon Bacon “Remaking Olimpia: Agency and the Gothic Afterlives of ‘female’ Automata” in Gothic Afterlives: Reincarnations of Horror in Film and Popular Media edited by Lorna Piatti-Farnell