Using Animation to Imagine Terrifying, Glorious, and Queer Futures in ‘Love, Death, and Robots’

Let’s face it: we live in a terrifying world. Every piece of news seems to further illustrate our awful reality and it’s hard to feel like anything is ever going to get better. But, in times like this, a little imagination can work wonders in imagining what different versions of the future would look like, futures that contain wondrous machines, bloodthirsty monsters, and powerful figures that fight oppressive systems. Netflix’s animated series, Love, Death, and Robots works to harness the power of imagination in the creation of 18 different futures that are dark, terrifying, hopeful, and even queer. Sure, it is not perfect, but it is a beautiful example of how animation can provide us images of a previously unimaginable future, one that discusses queer representation, oppression, and bodily autonomy.

Controversy sprouted on Twitter when one user pointed out that the order in which the episodes were served up to viewers was potentially based on their sexuality, which is a terrifying prospect in itself. Even now sexuality is being used to judge what content to give us, even if Netflix so vehemently denies this is the case. This is only one small example of the terrifying digital future that is expanding exponentially by the minute, one that provides us with tools to educate, build community, spread hate, and harm. Even in the face of the irony of its distribution, Love, Death and Robots expands on these tools into previously unimaginable possibilities.

The episode that most exemplifies themes of queerness and bodily autonomy is “Sonnie’s Edge,” which packs a lot in its 17-minute runtime. The titular Sonnie, with her team, participate in underground beast battles where two giant creatures fight gladiator-style. She is connected with her beast, piloting her every move, and dominating the competition by slicing and ripping open flesh. But, when slimy Ringmaster Dicko tries to bribe her to lose a match and she refuses, her sexuality is used against her.

After making eyes at Dicko’s sidepiece, the woman appears in Sonnie’s workspace, dressed like a flapper, covered in delicate lace and pearls. She is supposed to be soft, a foil to the hardness of Sonnie’s demeanor. Close-up shots of their contrasting bodies exemplify this binary of soft femininity and more masculine presentation: heels versus dirty bare feet, white lacy gloves vs leather one, perfectly made-up face vs Sonnie’s scarred-covered one. These two women could not be more different, yet they share an intimate conversation about Sonnie’s anger and hatred, a moment that seems to breed genuine understanding.

However, just as Sonnie is seduced, the woman stabs her in the face, punishment for not throwing the match. At first, the manipulation of Sonnie’s sexuality left a bad taste in my mouth. It seems like just another narrative where lesbians are murdered for their transgressions, and a narrative where women are constantly subjected to bodily violence for their disobedience in the eyes of men. But, just as Dicko believes he’s won, Sonnie reveals that this human body is just a stand-in, while her consciousness is actually uploaded into her creature; the destruction of her physical self means nothing. Suddenly, the binary of femininity so heavily emphasized is erased as Sonnie’s true form is revealed. Those who believed that could so easily seduce and enact violence of a queer female body will not get away with this continued abuse of power. With a swish of her tale, Sonnie exercises her own power, one that laughs in the face of patriarchy.

An important narrative beat for Sonnie is a sexual assault that almost killed her. This is an overused means to characterize a “hardened” woman, so again I was initially skeptical of using this to explain her anger. However, when’s she asked if her fighting is all just to get revenge on those who raped her, she sighs and says that no one can see past it; all people equate her with is her past trauma. This line sent shockwaves through my entire body, something that I could deeply relate with. I feel like I am only seen as my traumas and seeing that same sentiment in the form of an animated lesbian who fights monsters for a living gave me hope. I could see myself in the future, surviving despite what I sometimes feel are weaknesses. There is a place for people like Sonnie and me. What that place is, I don’t know, but it gives me hope to at least see a strange version of myself represented like this.

While this is a violent narrative about queerness, it is also a narrative about resilience and a refusal to back down in the face of men. It is a creature feature that showcases a monstrosity in queerness, but not monstrosity in a negative sense. Rather, it is a monstrosity born out of rage and an attempt to get the upper hand on male oppressors. “Sonnie’s Edge” shows a future where, yes violence does still exist, but queer women have tools to resist this violence and gain power.

Not every episode of the series is so violent and bleak, though many are. While the show mixes in more comedic shorts about goofy robots and grumbling old men, Love, Death, and Robots is at its best when it provides a look at grittier futures that address concerns such as bodily autonomy. Episodes like “Good Hunting” address the role of magic in the modern world and the commodification of the female body as machine. Episodes like “Zima Blue” offer a new idea about the expansion of A.I. and what its final stages look like. These stories from Love, Death, and Robots provide strangely hopeful visions of the future where humans have expanded their potential, for better or worse. With a little imagination, perhaps the future isn’t so scary after all. 

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