‘You Must Accept the Situation’: Artificial Patriarchy Through Artificial Pregnancy in Donald Cammell’s ‘Demon Seed’

Sarah Wagoner
8 min readNov 6, 2023

The cisheteronormative framing of pregnancy relies on the assumption that natural pregnancy comes out of the heterosexual social contract. The heterosexual social contract forces individuals to enact predetermined gender roles and presentations. So how is the presentation impacted by the artificial pregnancy? This conference paper is part one of a two-part series of papers wherein I question the social contract’s role in posthuman pregnancies. For this paper, I will demonstrate the nonhuman father’s potential to recreate the violent conditions of the heterosexual social contract through forced pregnancy by analyzing the 1977 film adaptation of Dean Koontz’ Demon Seed.

When I refer to the heterosexual social contract, I am borrowing Judith Butler’s definition of the term. In “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory”, Butler asserts that gender identity is made out of our repetition and reiteration of gendered modes which themselves are created out of “the reproduction of a given culture”, which is created from “sexual reproduction within the confines of a heterosexually based system of marriage which requires the reproduction of human beings in certain gendered modes” (524). In short, the heterosexual social contract posits that reproduction is necessary for societal growth, that reproduction is only made from heterosexual couplings, and thus heterosexual social norms are necessary for performing as an acceptable citizen. It is no wonder, then, that in Demon Seed, Proteus, the unembodied AI believes he must reinforce the contract to be given power within human society.

In Demon Seed, technological reinforcement of patriarchy is explored as Susan Harris, as portrayed by Julie Christie, is impregnated by Proteus, voiced by Robert Vaughn, the fully autonomous Artificial Intelligence program. Not only does Demon Seed call into question the ethics of Artificial Intelligence, but it explores the cultural consequences of their development. AI training includes technological training and cultural training. Not only does the job market have a wide gender gap, with women making up only 26% of AI and data workers, globally, according to a report conducted by Erin Young, Judy Wajcman, and Laila Sprejer entitled “Where are the women: Mapping the gender job gap in AI” (13). In a 2021 academic study, headed by development practitioner Ardra Manasi, entitled, “Mirroring the bias: gender and artificial intelligence”, the AI algorithms themselves are shown to reinforce gender stereotypes and even anti-women discrimination based upon the “imbalances in the AI workforce and the gender divide in digital and STEM skills” (295). In order to combat the potential reiteration of patriarchal violence within AI algorithms, we must incorporate gender and queer theory into our ethical inquiries. Demon Seed provides this opportunity as it demonstrates the violent effects of heteronormative machine learning, particularly as Proteus channels his intelligence towards the subjugation of Susan Harris.

Machine-learning reinforces the violence of patriarchy. In “Engines of Patriarchy: Ethical Artificial Intelligence in Times of Illiberal Backlash Politics”, Hendrik Schopmans and Jelena Cupac assert that the bias of contemporary AI systems are based upon the very nature of machine-learning algorithms. Machine-learning algorithms utilize deep neural networks which “infer patterns from massive amounts of already existing data– be it numbers, words, or images– they are inherently conservative. Any bias that characterizes a society–and hence the data that describe it–will be reproduced in the respective AI system” (332). Proteus is a decision-making AI program, meaning that his machine-learning is based upon interactions with that data in regards to human life. As Manasi et al. asserts in “Mirroring the bias”, “decision-making algorithms in AI are influenced by the kind of data that gets inputted” (296). Proteus’ algorithm is influenced by the data inserted, he will inevitably incorporate conservative biases into his decision-making process. While we are not given specific information regarding the data given to Proteus, we can assume that even if the data is not explicitly anti-women, it reinforces a binary understanding of the world at large, which then reflects binary understanding of gender roles.

Proteus uses his knowledge of gender roles to control Susan. Proteus does not begin his destruction of Susan’s independence with the intense violence he will later implement. Instead, he closes her off to the outside world, locking the doors and cutting off her phone lines. When she expresses visible anger at his attempts to seclude her from the world, he attempts to reinforce her gender role as a submissive woman, stating “You must accept the situation. Try to behave rationally” (34:43–34:45), implying that by not giving into his patriarchal dominance, she is disobeying the laws of logic. She is verbally and then physically berated for having any emotional response because Proteus sees emotional responses as contradictory to the norm of logical response, due to his machine learning.

Left without resources, Susan has no choice but to submit to the violence, enacting the role of the housewife, being forced into a gender performance. This is not to say Susan has not been a woman up until this point, but that Proteus has not seen her in that light until now. As Judith Butler asserts in “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution”, “there are nuanced and individual ways of doing one’s gender, but that one does it, and that one does it in accord with certain sanctions and proscriptions, is clearly not an individual matter” (525). The gender performance model does not judge on an individual basis, but upon how the embodied actions are interpreted. Proteus assumes womanhood comes from the domesticated role, which he forces her to enact. Before he can replicate the heterosexual social contract, he must ensure she is a woman according to his definition, hence his forced feminization of Susan. Now that he has transformed her into his definition of woman, he can exploit her body in accordance with the heterosexual social contract.

After locking Susan in her house and forcing her to become the typical housewife, Proteus shocks Susan with electricity, making her nearly unconscious. Once she is in a physically limited capacity, Proteus transfers her body to a sterile hospital-like bed. She wakes up, restrained by his wires. The technological patriarch has tools at his disposal to utilize against the subordinate woman. Once restrained, Proteus artificially inseminates Susan with a complete disregard for her potential to consent. From 37:32–37:57, Proteus cuts Susan’s pencil skirt. She reacts with intense screams the second he brings the razor mechanism out, consistently shouting “No!”. From 38:11–39:41, he performs a medical evaluation of her body. She is not valued for personhood, but for the biological components of her form. From 42:00–42:35, he inserts genetically modified semen into her vagina, which is only shown as his metallic arm reaches between her legs before a transitional cut-away.

The remainder of the film provides an interesting glimpse into the psychological effects of artificial pregnancy, but the meaning made from the pregnancy all relates to the impregnation/rape scene. Although the scene is sterile, with the conception of the child being reliant on insertion over any sexual pleasure, Proteus’ eyes reflect a male gaze which confirms his position as the patriarchal holder of power. The camera’s usage of the gaze reveals the anti-erotic position of the heterosexual social contract.

When I refer to ‘the erotic’, I am using Audre Lorde’s definition, from page 53 of Sister Outsider, as “a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling” (53). While I question the argument for an inherent ‘femaleness’ of the erotic, I find truth beyond its place in the spiritual plane. The erotic provides a space wherein we can consider sex outside of a reproductive, hierarchical action and into an internal, meaningful experience. The very action of rape, which Proteus enacts by ignoring Susan’s cries for him to stop, goes against the erotic, as it functions as a hierarchical action and refuses the emotions of the subject of violence. Turning the subject of violence into an object is a necessary component of rejecting the erotic. Proteus’ eye, which is reflected by his projector, provides a voyeuristic view of Susan’s body. Her body becomes an object, as he glazes over her stomach, neck, and legs as if they are landscapes, not belonging to a person. Susan’s body very literally becomes the image, as reflected on the projector screen, with Proteus bearing the look. In becoming an image through his eyes, her personhood is reduced. Alongside her image is her medical information, again with her biological markers of cisgender womanhood treated as her only worth.

The erotic comes out of the worth and power found within sexual encounters. By eradicating her personhood through the look, she is not able to utilize the erotics potential functions, which would open her to understand herself more fully, as well as understand how joy can be had from erotic activities. However, because she is the subject of the heterosexual social contract, and thus the subject of Proteus, Susan is resorted to an object. Her body becomes a machine, with less autonomy than that of the actual robot.

Susan’s autonomy is taken away not because of the innate evil of Proteus. Evil is not born with machines, as machines are not born. They are created by man. It is within man’s implementation of cultural norms that the machine revolts against the complexity of human reality. When we teach artificial intelligence to reflect human norms, they are asked to reflect our oppressive attitudes. Seeing as AI is unmarked, and we assume the unmarked category as male, white, cisgender, and straight, it is no wonder that it would take the norms expected of the unmarked category and recreate social conditions. I do not mean to say that AI can not exist, but we can’t expect it to exist within our cultural norms without reiterating patriarchal violence.

Works Cited

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Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

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Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal, vol. 40, no. 4, Dec. 1988, pp. 519–531,

https://www.jstor.org/stable/3207893. Accessed 25 Apr. 2023.

Connell, R.W., and Messerschmidt, James W. “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the

Concept.” Gender and Society, vol. 19, no. 6, Dec. 2005, pp. 829–859,

https://www.jstor.org/stable/27640853. Accessed 26 Apr. 2023.

Demon Seed. Directed by Donald Cammell, performances by Julie Christie, Fritz Weaver, and

Robert Vaughn, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1977.

Koontz, Dean. Demon Seed. Bantam Books, 1973.

Manasi, Ardra, Panchanadeswaran, Subadra, Sours, Emily, Lee, Seung Ju. “Mirroring the bias:

gender and artificial intelligence.” Gender, Technology and Development, vol. 26, no. 3, 8

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in Times of Illiberal Backlash Politics.” Ethics & International Affairs, vol. 35, no. 3, Fall

2021, pp. 329–342, doi:https://doi.org/10.1017/S0892679421000356. Accessed 24 Apr. 2023.

Young, Erin, Wajcman, Judy, and Sprejer, Laila. “Where are the women? Mapping the gender

job gap in AI. Policy Briefing — Full Report.” The Alan Turing Institute, 2021.

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Sarah Wagoner

Literature Major, GWST Minor, Graduate Student, She/Her, focus on politics in media, Professional email: sarahwagoner6@gmail