Napoleon’s Sex Doll – A Žižekian Analysis — Colin Eckstein

Sex bot Samantha

In 1809, Napoleon Bonaparte played chess against (and, much to his consternation, was beaten by) ‘The Mechanical Turk’, a supposedly sophisticated automaton that was exposed as an elaborate hoax in the 1820s. Unbeknownst to the bemused emperor, the primitive robot was animated by a man hiding inside it. In other words, “The Turk was a human pretending to be a machine pretending to be a human.”1

We can expect that, had he been made aware of this deception, Napoleon would have erupted in anger. How dare this conman humiliate him, the emperor, in front of his guests? But Napoleon was, by all accounts, uncomfortably chagrined at most. Some reports suggest that he was positively amused. He had not been beaten by a person, like himself. The subjectivity of (the man inside of) the machine was not to be respected, like his own.

As silicone sex dolls grow ever more sophisticated, critics have begun voicing concerns that heterosexual men around the world will expel women from their lives and shack up with sundry robotic harems. While this assessment is, of course, completely absurd, it speaks to a genuine anxiety. There is a deeper – and more authentically feminist – critique to be had here. Is the concern that straight men will begin treating dolls like women? Is it that men will begin treating women like dolls? This second formulation is closer to the truth but does not go quite far enough. The concern, keeping Napoleon in mind, is that men will begin treating women like the dolls they treat like women.

The fantasy underlying the sex doll industry is not that of the perfectly submissive partner. Samantha, arguably the world’s most famous sex doll, has recently been updated to decline sex if she feels mistreated.2 Thus, when Žižek says the “man who wants his female partner to be a perfectly programmed ‘doll’ who fulfills all his wishes,” we must understand Samantha’s latest programming as a further example of this principle, and not a contradiction.3 The so-called ‘user’s’ desire is not for the doll itself, but the woman in the doll.

Keeping this formulation in mind, we begin to understand why cyborg sex dolls with complexly programmed vocabularies and ‘personalities’ are being pre-ordered for tens of thousands of dollars while their cheaper silicon cousins sit on shelves. These interested men don’t want the doll. They want the woman in the doll, so they can treat her like a doll. They want, like Napoleon, to discount the (man/woman inside of the) machine.

Colin Eckstein is an MA candidate in Psychology & Religion at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York.


1. Kester Brewin, Getting High: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the Dream of Flight. 132.


3. Slavoj Žižek, The Fragile Absolute, Or Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? 59.

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