The One Direction film is scary to watch, but it makes a good point about teen sexuality

If anyone needed proof that sex is something girls do rather than have done to them, it's this.

If you are not a teenage or pre-teen girl, this is what you probably think about boyband fans: they're just little girls with a liking for unthreatening pretty boys; they dont care about music; all they want it something safe. To which it's worth replying: safe for whom, exactly? Watching One Direction: This is Us (the Morgan Spurlock-directed 1D documentary), it doesnt look like in the middle of a crowd of Directioners is a very cosy place to be.

Actually, it looks terrifying. Small female faces break wide open with uncontainable emotion, their mouths twist and tremble. They cry, not decorous and moderate tears of gratitude, but the shocking, howling sobs of the frantic. And then there's the noise. The noise would beat any normal person back: thousands of lungs emptying themselves in a simultaneous scream, a vast wail of wanting.

Harry, Zayn, Niall, Louis and Liam are accustomed to it, though - to a point. Sometimes, they toy with it like conductors of a dreadful orchestra: in Milan, they duck behind a balcony, listen to the noise subside, then leap up playfully to be met by another predictable rain of shrieks. But in Mexico City, Liam looks genuinely shaken at the noise which meets him when he steps out from behind a stack of amps in a half-empty stadium, hours before the show is due to start.

The noise is for them, but Liam's alarmed face says that he knows there's something in it that the band can't control. In Amsterdam, they go shopping and get mobbed. After they've taken shelter in a Nike store, Liam tells the camera, "One of them had my ear and wouldnt let go. I think she wanted to keep it. I said, you can't have that, its mine." He laughs, but he's holding onto his ear like he's relieved to find it still attached.

The fans want them so badly they would rip them apart. This is a whole crowd with a common purpose: total individual possession of their favourite band member. I asked a friend's teenage daughter if she wanted to come and watch the film. "No, I couldn't," she said firmly, "I'd be too jealous watching all those other girls meeting them."

Most of these girls are too young for them to call this mad wanting lust. They wouldn't recognise sex as the ultimate object of the feelings shaking them, and that's the safety of the boyband crush. Fixating on someone securely unobtainable lets you practice all the wildness of desire without making too many mistakes, embarrassing yourself too badly or hurting anyone too much (Liam's yanked ear is just collateral damage.)

 

Elated staff pose outside an official One Direction store with merchandise

And though these passions are a way of playing at having adult feelings, they're not disposable. A few weeks ago, I went to an open-air screening of Dirty Dancing. As Patrick Swayze appeared for the first time, approximately 2,000 middle-aged women exhaled Johnny as one, his the image imprinted on the gosling brain of their new-hatched lust some time in the 80s or 90s.

When I was growing up, it was Take That and Boyzone who inspired frenzy: some friends of a friend travelled from Chester to Ireland to camp on Stephen Gately's mum's lawn, because, well, contact with a few feet of distantly related turf was better than no contact at all. And when my mum was growing up, it was the Beatles. One of her most prized anecdotes is the one about the time an alarmed and ragged George Harrison, running away from fans (they probably wanted his ear), ran directly into her.

And before that Elvis, and before that Sinatra. As long as we've had mass media, we've had mass crushes on male stars. So why do still pretend that sex comes over teenage girls like some malignant force from outside? The dread word "sexualisation" is applied almost exclusively applied to girls and never to boys, and it suggests some kind of external process imposing sexuality on women. If girls never underwent "sexualisation", presumably they would remain untainted by desire. Boys, meanwhile, are assumed to just know what they want and what to do, and if any education is needed, it's to warn girls of this masculine menace.

This is transparently a disservice to children of both genders. But for girls, the damaging lesson they're left with is that sex is something done to them, not something they do. If consent even enters into this debate, it's as something girls can refuse: all the agency they're offered is the chance to say no. Yes is taken away from them and replaced with a dull acquiescence to the incontinent urges of boys. Sex stops being a collaborative pleasure and becomes a grim tussle, with men trying to take it, and women charged with keeping it locked up.

But boys and girls have just the same mix of hunger and confusion, the same questions, the same need for answers from grown-ups. And while decorous adults refuse to acknowledge that girls are not just girls, but women in training, there's a seven-decade-old industry predicated on the fact that girls will pursue a boy they like to the end of the universe. The grown-ups keep quiet, and those lungs keep emptying themselves in a howl of unrecognised need.

One Direction performing. Image: Getty

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

GERRY BRAKUS
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“Like a giant metal baby”: whether you like it or not, robots are already part of our world

For centuries, we have built replacements for ourselves. But are we ready to understand the implications?

There were no fireworks to dazzle the crowd lining the streets of Alexandria to celebrate Cleopatra’s triumphant return to the city in 47BC. Rather, there was a four-and-a-half-metre-tall robotic effigy of the queen, which squirted milk from mechanical bosoms on to the heads of onlookers. Cleopatra, so the figure was meant to symbolise, was a mother to her people.

It turns out that robots go back a long way. At the “Robots” exhibition now on at the Science Museum in London, a clockwork monk from 1560 walks across a table while raising a rosary and crucifix, its lips murmuring in devotion. It is just one of more than 100 exhibits, drawn from humankind’s half-millennium-long obsession with creating mechanical tools to serve us.

“We defined a robot as a machine which looks lifelike, or behaves in lifelike ways,” Ben Russell, the lead curator of the exhibition, told me. This definition extends beyond the mechanisms of the body to include those of the mind. This accounts for the inclusion of robots such as “Cog”, a mash-up of screws, motors and scrap metal that is, the accompanying blurb assures visitors, able to learn about the world by poking at colourful toys, “like a giant metal baby”.

The exhibits show that there has long existed in our species a deep desire to rebuild ourselves from scratch. That impulse to understand and replicate the systems of the body can be seen in some of the earliest surviving examples of robotics. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church commissioned some of the first anthropomorphic mechanical machines, suggesting that the human body had clockwork-like properties. Models of Jesus bled and automatons of Satan roared.

Robots have never been mere anatomical models, however. In the modern era, they are typically employed to work on the so-called 4D tasks: those that are dull, dumb, dirty, or dangerous. A few, such as Elektro, a robot built in Ohio in the late 1930s, which could smoke a cigarette and blow up balloons, were showmen. Elektro toured the US in 1950 and had a cameo in an adult movie, playing a mechanical fortune-teller picking lottery numbers and racehorses.

Nevertheless, the idea of work is fundamental to the term “robot”. Karel Čapek’s 1920s science-fiction play RUR, credited with introducing the word to the English language, depicts a cyborg labour force that rebels against its human masters. The Czech word robota means “forced labour”. It is derived from rab, which means “slave”.

This exhibition has proved timely. A few weeks before it opened in February, a European Parliament commission demanded that a set of regulations be drawn up to govern the use and creation of robots. In early January, Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar, the founders of LinkedIn and eBay respectively, contributed $10m each to a fund intended to prevent the development of artificial intelligence applications that could harm society. Human activity is increasingly facilitated, monitored and analysed by AI and robotics.

Developments in AI and cybernetics are converging on the creation of robots that are free from direct human oversight and whose impact on human well-being has been, until now, the stuff of science fiction. Engineers have outpaced philosophers and lawmakers, who are still grappling with the implications as autonomous cars roll on to our roads.

“Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?” asked a recent television advert for a semi-autonomous Mercedes car (the film was pulled soon afterwards). For Mercedes, our answer to the question didn’t matter much. “Ready or not, the future is here,” the ad concluded.

There have been calls to halt or reverse advances in robot and AI development. Stephen Hawking has warned that advanced AI “could spell the end of the human race”. The entrepreneur Elon Musk agreed, stating that AI presents the greatest existential threat to mankind. The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has argued that the prospect of increasing suffering in the world through this new technology is so morally awful that we should cease to build artificially intelligent robots immediately.

Others counter that it is impossible to talk sensibly about robots and AI. After all, we have never properly settled on the definitions. Is an inkjet printer a robot? Does Apple’s Siri have AI? Today’s tech miracle is tomorrow’s routine tool. It can be difficult to know whether to take up a hermit-like existence in a wifi-less cave, or to hire a Japanese robo-nurse to swaddle our ageing parents.

As well as the fear of what these machines might do to us if their circuits gain sentience, there is the pressing worry of, as Russell puts it, “what we’re going to do with all these people”. Autonomous vehicles, say, could wipe out the driving jobs that have historically been the preserve of workers displaced from elsewhere.

“How do we plan ahead and put in place the necessary political, economic and social infrastructure so that robots’ potentially negative effects on society are mitigated?” Russell asks. “It all needs to be thrashed out before it becomes too pressing.”

Such questions loom but, in looking to the past, this exhibition shows how robots have acted as society’s mirrors, reflecting how our hopes, dreams and fears have changed over the centuries. Beyond that, we can perceive our ever-present desires to ease labour’s burden, to understand what makes us human and, perhaps, to achieve a form of divinity by becoming our own creators. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution