Robby, the Genderbent Robot, or What’s So Forbidden About this Planet?

If you were to stand facing Robby, the Robot, his antennae would be oriented like a Theremin’s. (A Theremin—conspicuously?—was not used in the production of the soundtrack or sound effects of Forbidden Planet.)

But Robby only plays himself.

(That video is nice for the re-mediation—the visual aesthetic grind of filming a television set and how it pitches the sound. The video is lousy for the extra-extradiegetic drumroll at the end, letting us know, just in case we had any doubts, that, yes indeed, this scene is comical, thank you very much.)

But, by Robby’s own admission, Robby is sexless and genderless.

This happens early on, immediately following the saucer, United Planets Cruiser C57-D, landing:

The name Robby, as of 2010, is “relatively popular,” though it ranks much higher for male babies (especially human ones), 780th of 1220, than for female babies (where, in a survey of 4276 names, it does not rank at all). Here are some charts to prove it:

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(Credit to thinkbabynames.com)

Which means that if we were to guess based on the sound of Robby’s name alone, we’d likely err on the side of maleness. I emphasize the sound of the name because in the storyworld we never see it written, even if it is blazoned large as the stars’ names on the film release posters.

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A minute ago, I referred to Robby as “himself,” even if I did so hesitantly. Part of that is the poverty of the English language—our gender-neutral pronouns are second and first person, “you” and “I,” which have limited syntactical use. We do have a third-person-plural gender-neutral pronoun, “They”; but we have no third-person-singular gender-neutral pronoun. Other languages (and countries) might be more sensitive to the nuances of this kind of naming:

http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2012/04/hen_sweden_s_new_gender_neutral_pronoun_causes_controversy_.html

I’m 99% sure Commander Adams never refers to Robby as male or masculine, and neither do Alta or Dr. Morbius. But the space yokels do—several times. Given my own inclinations and my feelings on gender politics, I wouldn’t want to get on board (United Planets Cruiser C57-D or much else) with these guys, but they are following what we might call a natural impulse, given that Robby the Robot’s voice is unmistakably masculine.

So, I guess the question is, why is his voice masculine? Bebe and Louis Barron could do all those crazy sounds, and they or the director (Fred Wilcox) clearly had the idea of manipulating voices to indicate technological mediation or environmental conditions—manipulating the voice Commander Adams when he speaks over the saucer’s intercom, and even Robby’s voice sounds like it comes out of a big tin bucket—and if as, Robby itself says, the question of gender is “totally without meaning,” then why does Robby sound male?

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2 Responses to Robby, the Genderbent Robot, or What’s So Forbidden About this Planet?

  1. Pingback: How language is evolving to be gender-neutral, and kids are helping | canada.com

  2. Pingback: Once Upon The Time: The Shiny Robot | Daily Story For Children

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