Cognitive Psychology in The Heart Goes Last: Technology as a Means of Undermining Female Empowerment by Celia Adams
Comedian Bert Kreischer joked in one of his Netflix specials that his wife and two daughters did not like the way he talked to their Alexa, a virtual assistant product of Amazon that is found in many homes. Apparently, the women thought if Alexa had a male name and voice, he would treat it with more respect. Kreischer’s response: “It’s not a man or a woman. It’s a cylinder I bought, and I’ll throw it in the […] pool”.
The joke brings up an interesting dilemma. Technology has progressed to the point of several virtual assistants coming onto the marketplace, such as Apple’s Siri or Google’s voice assistance, and the one thing they all have in common is the names or voices of women. These apps could reasonably develop to manage our entire lives one day, and we are not expected or required to treat them with any respect to use their services.
In a 2016 article, Laurie Penny states, “Right now as we’re anticipating the creation of AIs to serve our intimate needs, organize our diaries and care for us, and to do it all for free and without complaint, it’s easy to see how many designers might be more comfortable with those entities having the voices and faces of women. If they were designed male, users might be tempted to treat them as equals, to acknowledge them as human in some way, perhaps even offer them an entry-level salary and a cheeky drink after work.” Until only a few decades ago, the task of “serving our intimate needs” and “caring for us” fell to women in most American households. They provided the manual labor in running a household, and the emotional labor in taking care of a family. “Emotional labor” is a term coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, who explained that as the world turned to women for mothering, men often cast them into the roles of nurturer or confidante. This led to the skill of emotional labor inadvertently becoming attached to job descriptions and different windows of opportunity for women. Women are expected to provide emotional labor and professional support—and do it with a smile. Studies show “unlike traditional men’s professions, where expressions of anger are tolerated and autonomy is expected, women’s work is rooted in interpersonal exchanges that requires supportive behavior” (Guy and Newman).
The expectations placed on women’s work and behaviors make it easy to see why we categorize AIs as women. Thanks to years of institutionalized sexism, women seem to be expected to be as cheerful and compliant as the computer inside our technology. Is it surprising we treat commodities like women, when we already treated women like commodities?
The idea of women being so easily replaced by robots and AIs is horrifying, but it is part of the premise of The Heart Goes Last, and it is important to remember much of Atwood’s work is “speculative fiction”—as in “speculates about the future based on present evidences”(Carneiro). By analyzing the areas where Margaret Atwood shows females as being objects of sexual desire and male satisfaction, such as the aggressive sexual behavior of Stan, the building of “possibilibots”, and the customization process to create devoted sex slaves, it is clear Atwood is demonstrating how as technology advances so does the possibility and likelihood it will be used to subjugate women in a new way that undermines female empowerment and free will.
For brief context, the book is set in a near-future, economically devastated America. Stan and Charmaine are a young married couple that while once middle-class, now live out of their car. In order to escape their dire situation, they sign up for an experiment called The Positron Project in the town of Consilience; the project will provide a picture-perfect life—a house, a job, plenty to eat and do, for six months out of the year. Every other month the couple must vacate their house and reside in Positron prison as inmates, while another couple, their Alternates, live in their shared house and enjoys their own lives. Once there, Charmaine, under the guise ‘Jasmine’ begins an affair with her husband’s Alternate Max; and Stan finds a lustful note from Jasmine, who he assumes to be Charmaine’s Alternate, and becomes fixated on finding her. Everything takes a turn when Stan is picked out by Jocelyn, Charmaine’s real Alternate, to fake his death and smuggle out information about the truth behind Consilience, which has become involved in numerous illegal but profitable acts such as organ harvesting, developing mind control/brainwashing, manufacturing sex robots called ‘possibilibots’. Meanwhile, Charmaine becomes the object of desire of Ed, Consilience’s CEO, whose means of having her include attempted seduction, a sex robot built in her image, and eventually attempting to brainwash her into loving him.
Stan’s behavior is evidence of the still existing objectification of women that motivates the link between women and subservient technology. First, he discovers and begins his aggressive pursuit of Jasmine from a note she leaves her supposed husband Max. The note reads, “Darling Max, I can hardly wait till next time. I’m starved for you! I need you so much. XXOO … –Jasmine” (Atwood 56). From these few words, Stan jumps to the conclusion that Jasmine is not only sexually insatiable and consistently available to her own husband, but she would be to him as well once he finds her and proves himself strong and irresistible. He constructs in his mind ideas of Jasmine that range from elaborate fantasies of how he will literally track her down and “before she knows it, he’ll have his mouth on those cherry flavored lips, and she’ll crumple; she won’t be able to resist” (Atwood 90) to her every details including her looks, hobbies, and character traits, all revolving around his idea that “all she really cares about is sex” (Atwood 58). He relegates Jasmine to a single trait or function, and expects her to provide it to him, as if she were a machine. It’s very common for women to become defined by one trait or skill, and then for the men around them to expect they will provide that service for them, reducing them to the worth of their skill and their willingness to provide it. Subservient technological alternatives starts to appeal when a person knows the women in question aren’t likely to provide for them.
Sexual harassment and unreturned affection are ongoing issues that can be confronted through wider discourse. Even if an individual is not the personal recipients of harassment, the modern era of female empowerment has allowed them to learn the stories of others’ to protest its harmful effects. Atwood’s alarming protagonist puts into words a mindset of sexual dominance and submission that may have once been okay, but thanks to a shared knowledge due to female empowerment has become largely unacceptable. This goes to show though Consilience is a result of technological progress it uses that progress to limit the connection and knowledge between people, allowing this harmful mindset to return and thrive. The abuse of technology occurs on the small scale, shown in instances such as when Stan uses Charmaine’s smartphone to track her and her Alternate to help him find ‘Jasmine’. Everything about Consilience and its technology, from the secrecy to the period it replicates, help dangerous mindsets like Stan’s grow his lust and aggressive desire rather than handle it in a healthy way.
Stan is representative of typical male desires, from sex to love to domesticity. However, free will and female empowerment refrain him from having or asking for everything he wants. Consilience provides an outlet for this frustration through possibilibots. With a possibilibot, Stan could program it to enact the fantasy of hunting down and overwhelming a woman. With a wife who has gone through the customization process, he could have devoted love, comfort, and sex. Furthermore, the nature of the machinations means these alternatives will never desire or belong to anyone else. The security of ‘owning’ the object of sexual affection also removes the awkwardness of having to communicate intimate details—it’s not like the robot will judge you for it or the sex slave will leave you. If a man wants the experience of being with a woman without considering their feelings or respecting their wishes, the technological progress lets them have that for a small price.
In the novel, possibilibots start out as a rumor among Stan’s coworkers, which turn out to not only real sex robots manufactured within Consilience, but they can also be specially designed and programmed to fulfill a person’s desire. They can be programmed to resist or behave. They can also be designed to resemble anyone, from the taboo (“It can get sleazy,” says Budge, “We get some demands for female relatives. We even had a great Aunt once” (230)) to celebrities (“Here are the Rihannas and the Oprahs […] and the Princess Dianas” (Atwood 250)). The kiddybots, which are designed to look and behave like children but ultimately for the same sexual use, are also incredibly disturbing. Scarier than the creation of the bots themselves is the admittance that “stalkers” can “get one made with the face of someone they’re hot for but can’t have, such as rock stars, or cheerleaders, or maybe their high school English teacher” and fulfill whatever twisted fantasy they want (Atwood 230). This twisted fantasy becomes a disturbing reality for Charmaine when she encounters a possibilibot customized to look like her. Created by Consilience’s CEO Ed, the possibilibot is meant to allow Ed the physical pleasure of being with her without scaring off the real Charmaine.
Browne says that “one recurrent, yet implausible, theme in the literature is that sexual harassment represents an implicit conspiracy through which men combine to oppress women” (154). The creation of the possibilibots is a new form of sexual harassment. To be certain, the victim is no longer as affected or even aware of the situation. Some characters in The Heart Goes Last even justified the creation of the kiddybots as “Maybe these bots are sparing real kids a whole lot of pain and suffering. Keeps the pervs off the streets” (Atwood 251). But one key element of female empowerment is the ability to say no, to deny someone’s advances. The possibilibots undermines this power, allowing anyone with enough money the ability to have sex with whoever they choose. The ability for the sexual predator to possess the victim in a way that lets them see and interact with their likeness in an intimate way subverts the allowance for victims of sexual harassment, often women, to say no. It is a new form of sexual harassment that fulfills the same end of oppressing women. Furthermore, the text shows the possibilibots are not as satisfying as the real thing, which suggests the sexual predator will “use these for a dry run, they’ll practice up” and then move on to the real experience, further endangering real women.
Not only has the technology of the fictional work developed to allow those with the money to buy robots so personalized they look like whoever they want, but the robots can be programmed to behave exactly as the buyer demands—submissive, adventurous, unwilling, etc. Programmed to meet the desires of the buyer, the bots are popular among men because “they can’t pester you” (Atwood 232). Essentially it allows buyers to have the sexual part of a relationship without the part where women have their own needs and concerns. After all, one character reminds, “you need to remind yourself, they’re not alive” (Atwood 222). For owners of possibilibots, it’s easier to think of the object providing for his physical needs as an object despite it looking like a woman, because if he thought of it as a woman, he might be tempted to respect it. The men working on the possibilibots joke about how different the objects are from real women because they can’t turn you down—apparently women having choice and free will can be a major turn-off. Even the standard expressions programmed for possibilibots, which can include things like angry and belligerent, are meant to allow the buyer to control every part of the experience down to the emotions being expressed, because that is how the buyer wants their partner to behave. Possibilibots allow men the perks of a beautiful, programmable, obedient, and sexually available woman without having to deal with any rebellious thoughts or strong-willed tendencies that come with actual human women and their free will.
Controlling female attitudes and building robots to satisfy men in the way women might refuse links back to the work of Laurie Penny. In examining current AIs, Penny suggests that what compels us to name these computer programs after women has less to do with treating robots like women and more to do with treating women like robots. Even in today’s modern age there are many cultures and communities that view women as subservient to men as well as a strong memory of this within American culture. Penny notes “the earliest bots and digital assistants were designed to appear female, in part so that users, who were presumed to be male, could exploit them without guilt” (Penny 2). The robot and AI becomes the more appealing alternative, both for the cooperation on the robot’s part and the lack of guilt on the males. With current aspects of society attempting to build robots to fulfill the emotional labor and day-to-day tasks without gratitude or respect, Atwood’s speculative fiction pushes it to replace sexuality as well. By providing men alternative, technological outlets for feelings of control and aggression in relationships rather than attempting to eradicate those gender-based power imbalances, technology ensures outdated gender roles and norms survive rather than evolve.
We see the effects of this collusion between technology and suppression when Charmaine sees the possibilibot built in her likeness. Though the body looks, sounds, and act so much like her, it is only a replica designed and programmed to fulfill some man’s fantasy of possessing her. Charmaine “feels a chill of terror” upon seeing it for the first time, clearly violated and “strangely protective of her fabricated self” (Atwood 290). Her discomfort comes from the fact that Ed, whose attentions make her uncomfortable already, is going to (in a way) have sex with her without her consent. Between Charmaine and Ed, a power imbalance already exists, and the addition of the robot takes away any moral complications Ed might have felt while letting him feel powerful by removing the risk of rejection. Ed is allowed to enact his assault with no repercussions or say from Charmaine, successfully avoiding the consequences that female empowerment would now inflict.
Finally, Atwood provides a last abuse of technological development upon women through the use of memory erasure and brainwashing. The result of this “customization procedure” compels its victims to forget previous attachments and “imprint” on who or whatever they first see so long as it has two eyes. The victim is then completely devoted mentally, emotionally, and physically to whomever they imprint on. In the novel, the government invented this neurosurgery as a way to create a product, in this case loyal, doting, devoted romantic partners, and then sell it to whoever can afford it. As the novel explains, “the technique […] is based on the work that’s been done on the erasure of painful memories in vets, child-abuse survivors, and so forth” (Atwood 326).
In his essay within the Journal of Medical Ethics, Andrew Davidson questions the ethical dilemma of erasing memories—even painful memories—“we have no ability to consciously recall but nevertheless, affects our behavior” (659). Such memories help us modify behavior as a means of self-protection. Female empowerment has developed as a result of generations of cultural memories building up to give women the confidence to stand up. By erasing the memories of their own empowerment from even one woman, technology is chipping away at a movement that has been working for generations to give them that empowerment.
Unlike the seemingly humanitarian goals of real science, Atwood shows the procedure here is used for personal gain, and not for those it is used on. Men can specifically request women they desire to be snatched from their lives and turned into a love slave. This is the case with Veronica, though she was erroneously allowed to imprint on a teddy bear instead of her “owner” (Atwood 260). The ability of men to choose and have their desired women is even more prevalent in the case of Ed and Charmaine. This encounter is unique from the other instances because we see the build-up to the neurosurgery rather than the after effects. Charmaine is aware Ed has picked her out of the customization process to make her forget Stan and love him. She gets the time to consider what will happen to her once she’s been stripped of free will.
Worse, due to the effects of the neurosurgery, Charmaine, like Veronica, will be completely content with her new relationship and won’t “seem to miss what [she’s] lost” (Atwood 260). A large fear of feminists embodied in some of Atwood’s other novels is a time where women forget they even had a choice in their own lives. The only thing worse than losing free will is losing the desire for free will. And yet characters in the novel argue that the procedure is harmless “since both parties ended up satisfied” (Atwood 355). Upon receiving the procedure, they will see what has happened as a “victimless crime.” Like the mistreatment of female AIs, this explanation means to remove the aspect of guilt that comes with undermining female empowerment.
The effect removes a female’s ability to consent while simultaneously removing their own empowerment. The extreme abuse of a technology, supposed to help victims of real crimes, creates an opportunity for continued abuse of women. It allows “owners” to be both physically and emotionally controlling and mentally manipulative because the victims become devoted servants rather than a real human. The literal stripping away of free will and bodily integrity gives witness to how this technology can be abused to undercut progress.
Of the many ways we see how this procedure is abused, the one that is most horrifying is the one being shown as the tamest: Charmaine is made to undergo the procedure and imprint on Stan. The surgery is proposed as a reward a “new chance” for Stan, a “payout for all the help” he’d given (Atwood 355). Stan’s willingness to turn his own wife into a love slave in order to fix the problems in their marriage and retaliate for her affair with Max/Phil is terrifying, but not surprising. After all, his anger is not because of Ed’s actions like lying to the population of Consilience or snatching people to harvest organs. It is because Ed has planned on “Stealing [Stan’s] wife. Messing with [Charmaine’s] head. Turning her into a sex slave. Turning her into a sex slave for the wrong man” (Atwood 360). The last line is especially telling. Stan wants Charmaine to be a mindless sex slave—just only for him. Stan’s feeling that he deserves to turn his wife into a love slave and strip away her freedom reveals a striking amount of entitlement and possessiveness. Worse, he contributes to the fear that technological development undermines female empowerment because it shows once people have the tools to do so, they most likely will.
A final shocking concept on the implications of the customization process is in Charmaine’s reaction upon learning the neurosurgery was never done to her and that she is in fact in control of her free will. Through the power of persuasion from other people and her own self-convincing, Charmaine acts as if she was under Stan’s control for over a year. After finding out she was under her own free will, she is not relieved, but upset. Despite still possessing free will, she felt out of control because being devoted to Stan was safe and made her believe she was happy and in love. As such, Charmaine’s accustomed need to be told what to do and who to love is sad—and so are its implications. Here we see Charmaine knowingly, willing wanting her free will taken away because of her fear of autonomy. Rather than trust herself with her own decisions and their consequences, she longs for the security of her relationship with Stan. Technology then potentially undermines female empowerment as it seems to solve a fear of the unknown. As people willing trade freedom for security, the likelihood increases of the technology meant to keep people safe will in fact be used to control them, especially women, for the benefit of the people controlling the technology.
In conclusion, we should all take this chance to look at Atwood speculations of the future based on what’s already happened in the present and ask what can be done about it. Is undermining female empowerment inevitable due to technology? If there are women being treated in the workplace as inferior; if there are men who are allowed to obsess over women to the point of planning assault; if there are robots and AIs in the making who will fulfill desires of control and subservient women, should there be a reaction to address these concerns? The Heart Goes Last describes a world where all the improvements in technology have been utilized for the purpose of subjugating women and letting men do as they please. To avoid this disastrous outcome, we must create a future where technology is used to its best potential, not as a tools of undermining social development or female empowerment.
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Celia Adams is a current senior at High Point University, set to graduate in May with a BA in English. She enjoys reading and writing creatively in her spare time. Celia has a strong interest in feminist studies and has used her time as an English major and Honors student to explore feminist theory in a variety of subjects and research papers. She hopes to one day become a published author and in the meantime intends to work spreading her love of books and reading to others.