The Scar-Jobot Illustrates the Uncanniness of Celebrity


Over the weekend, The Independent and various other publications posted a news story about a man in Hong Kong named Ricky Ma who’d spent two years and $50,000 building a mostly 3D-printed robot to look like a certain Hollywood celebrity — which images and video footage reveal to be, pretty unequivocally, Scarlett Johansson. Mark 1, as the Scar-Jobot is called, moves, changes facial expressions, and can respond to compliments like, “You’re beautiful” with what the Independent describes as a “flattered ‘thank you’…a cheeky smile and a wink.”

Teenagers tack posters of celebrities they find attractive to their walls, and it’s certainly not over the top to assume that everyone has some sort of celebrity-related fantasies, whether chaste or sexual. While this is relatively accepted as a fact, it’s this fact’s reanimation here in the uncanny valley — a mode of human depiction that unsettles because of the opacity of what or who is controlling it — that shows just how odd the fact in question really is.

For anyone who’s read the articles like this LA Review of Books essay specifically on how Scarlett Johansson keeps playing post-human roles — or, for that matter, anyone who’s merely thought, “it seems like Scarlett Johansson stopped playing… people” — this story surely shows the trend coming full circle. She happens to be an actress who’s already worked on a couple of films where she brings a meta-awareness to her own objectification. Johansson’s recurring roles as post-human male fantasies (within films that often interrogate these fantasies — particularly Under the Skin and the more on-the-nose Her) mean that it makes total sense that one of the first real-life robo-celebrities would be… Scarlett Johansson. (It’s unclear whether the Scar-Jobot’s creator was influenced by her filmography’s interrogation of post-humanism, or if, seemingly more likely, he just had the hots for her.)

It’s something of an inevitability that being a female celebrity within a patriarchy means that one’s image will be given over to scrutiny and fantasy — even if you’re not a sex symbol, it’s likely you’ll be scrutinized for why you’re not. Robots or no robots, this has always been the case in Hollywood (and of course it absolutely doesn’t just apply to female celebrities, but there’s an imbalance herein that naturally parallels greater social imbalances). The very nature of celebrity culture has always existed for fantasy fulfillment — sometimes non-sexual, but not always. Because celebrities exist as unknowns, the cult of celebrity monopolizes discourse through guesswork, or fantasy — there are hints of truth dropped on Twitter and in interviews, and the rest is left up to the cultural imaginary.

The funny thing about the oddity of the Scar-Jobot is how completely typical it is when reduced to its fundamental idea: essentially, a man spending a lot of time fantasizing over and objectifying an actress. Everyone has their own version of Scarlett Johansson — and a good deal of men who’re attracted to women surely have their own sexualized visions of her. As Sophia Nguyen writes in the LARB article:

Over the past decade, many a writer has attempted to capture her beauty in prose. They break her down into her component parts, or remark, pointlessly, that she wears glasses in real life, in an attempt to excuse themselves for the way they describe the face behind the lenses. Some just rely on the data: two separate polls have concluded that she has the best breasts and behind in the business.

Since Metropolis, films have long anticipated the post-human male fantasy (sometimes critically, and sometimes less so), and now it seems the fantasy has imitated the films in the form of Mark 1. (Mark 1 is obviously not the first female robot, but is definitely the female robot that’s so thoroughly reflective of these cinematic visions.) Ari Folman’s wild film, The Congress, starred Robin Wright as an alternate Robin Wright who’s sold her image — on the grounds that she’d never act again — to a studio called Miramount (Miramax plus Paramount) who’d use it in a series called Rebel Robot Robin; the studio first uses her digital likeness in their films for 20 years, and then tries to draw up a contract that’d enable other people to become Robin Wright.

Folman’s film drew on the crises of selfhood that celebrity by nature provokes — with notions of millions of multiple selves envisioned daily, entirely beyond a celebrity’s control or even participation. The movie’s premise also exaggerated the convergence of sexism and ageism on Hollywood — worried about losing jobs, the one solution for the Robin Wright to make money to save her son character is to sell a preserved, post human digital fantasy of herself that won’t change over the course of 20 years. The very silly — albeit thematically compelling — film Simone similarly envisioned a movie star winning the hearts and probable boners of the public while never truly possessing interiority: she was the simulacral creation of software.

The films that explore these themes (and foreshadow the likes of Mark 1) often attempt to reexamine overarching, tired and often insidious tropes that boxed in female characters — femme fatale, manic pixie dream girl, etc. In Her, Johansson’s disembodied character Samantha was created from a composite of fantasies of a specific man. Ava, Alicia Vikander’s robot character in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, who’s enslaved as an experiment in a tech bro’s fantasy house, is, we learn, designed through a psychoanalytically fraught array of a man’s porn searches and familial past. As in Her, the character ultimately has no wish to be confined to these fantasies — though Ava’s resistance is far less tender than Samantha’s. The story of Mark 1 is perhaps a mishmash of Her and Ex Machina, except for the fact that those films posit a fallacious tension between intelligence/individuality and simulacra — whereas Mark 1 is strictly simulacral. Mark 1 doesn’t represent the desires of those films — but rather the eerie climate, a combination of tech fetishism and human objectification, those films prophesied. Those films saw (Ex Machina in a harsher vein, Her in a compellingly ambiguous one) the next step beyond creating and keeping another sexualized body — creating and keeping another consciousness. Thankfully, Mark 1 certainly doesn’t seem to be there. (I don’t think anyone’s going to argue that the Robot that winks and thanks you when you tell it it’s beautiful is an embodiment of a new consciousness.)

It’s funny how clearly the inherent bizarrerie of the relationship between celebrity and public can be depicted when it’s elevated to a $50,000 project and taken a step beyond the realm of pure fantasy. The difference between Mark 1 and purely fantasizing about a celebrity is not ideological but physical — ideologically, the creator of this robot has done nothing more than an exaggerated version of what the rest of the world so commonly does with celebrity. But physically, he’s rendered this relationship in the realm of the unsettling-by-definition uncanny valley — inadvertently showing this is probably where the cult of celebrity has existed all along.

Humanoid designs have induced unease and revulsion (which I’d say Mark 1 is certainly culpable of) — and thus fallen in the spectrum of the uncanny valley — by being visibly deceptive in their humanity. In such humanoids, we’re confronted by a vertiginous coincidence of the positively familiar model of humanity and by the negative of being able to read it visibly as an entity programmed or controlled by something outside of itself.

The celebrity, similarly, is not autonomous. Inside each pop culture consuming mind are hundreds of hollowed versions of celebrities reimagined and repurposed to fulfill specific fantasies. Mark 1 is the display of what these fantasies can look like when reified: unsettling, invasive. Mark 1 is a glimpse into what celebrity so often looks like in people’s heads.

Ma’s fantasy isn’t really different than many other people’s. He just spent the money and took the time to three dimensionalize how odd our relationship is to the people who’ve been lucky (?) enough to pervade people’s minds as functional, fantastical multiples, beholden to the wants of the people who’ve imagined them. Derived from a patriarchal industry that reflects its own male dominance — through male fantasy — in its output (The Guardian just reported that a study found that women appear nude in film three times the amount that men do), these fantastical multiples are, in the minds of men, presumably often imagined as something along the lines of Mark 1. It shouldn’t take a fleet of Scarlett Johansson robots to make that notion seem uncanny.