Uncanny Valley

Barbara Stoner
4 min readMar 31, 2024

I was a young woman in the 50’s and 60’s. I remember when there were no contraceptives. When abortion was something you got in a back alley and never talked about. When nobody outside of New York or San Francisco had openly gay friends. I didn’t even know if I had secretly gay friends. I didn’t have black friends, either. I was chided in offices if I talked to the ‘help.” And the only black people I encountered in daily life *were* “the help.”

This is the Uncanny Valley. This is where The Stepford Wives live, as do the possessed inhabitants of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. More recently we have The Handmaid’s Tale and Mad Men. When I hear some Americans longing for the halcyon days of the 1950’s, these movies come vividly to mind. This is a world I remember.

What is the Uncanny Valley, you may ask. It seems, as Wikipedia inform us, to be a term based on reactions to human perception of robots a little too much like the real thing. Except for the uncanny feeling that there is something wrong. If you find yourself having a conversation with your Roomba, for instance, you may have taken a small step into the Uncanny Valley. Or perhaps you reconnect with your old college roommate, a partner of many protest rallies and rock ’n’ roll concerts, only to find that she is now a happy Trump-supporting housewife whose husband is in prison for having taken part in January 6th. Something has gone radically wrong here. She also has taken a step into the Uncanny Valley.

And if she wanders further back in time? Yes, how would a good MAGA wife really feel, in the 1950's?

For one thing,she can’t get a credit card or a bank account in her own name without a husband’s consent. It’s true that abortions aren’t legal, but also there is no such thing as maternity leave. As a matter of fact, if she becomes pregnant, she will lose her secretarial job through which she hoped one day to make administrative assistant. She will find she can never be the boss. Harvard, Yale and Princeton are not accepting women students. Have a law degree? You may not be allowed to plead a client’s case in court. And that’s not counting all the little inconveniences like air conditioning in homes and cars available only for the well-to-do. There is no internet, not to mention no cell phones! Only landlines and pay phones. That alone may keep her in 2024.

I have been getting glimpses of the Uncanny Valley recently through various state legislatures that threaten to significantly alter the world that I thought I was living in: a world in which people, of all shapes, colors, religions, and genders — national origins, abilities, and personal choices — are considered equal citizens of this country, equally valuable as individuals, and treated equally before the law. Now I find not only that abortion, which was deemed lawful 50-some years ago, is not only once again outlawed; it has had side effects it never had before. Doctors could, even in the 50’s, perform abortions to save the life of the woman. They could perform abortions to prevent carrying deformed babies to term. Many of these abortions were available only to upper-class women who could afford doctors who would swear to these exigencies. Nevertheless. Many of the new laws tend to eliminate both the life of the mother, the condition of the child, and the circumstances of the pregnancy (incest, rape, etc.) from any consideration and try to restrict not only doctors and medical facilities but also family and friends from helping in these emergencies.

There are now laws preventing trans-sexual people from receiving any kind of medical care within the relevant state. There are at least attempts at laws purporting to shield our children from ugly truths about our nation’s history, about the experiences of black and brown people under slavery, Jim Crow, and reservation law. To take books from the shelves of libraries. To punish librarians who do not comply. Is it only Georgia in which one is not allowed to take water to someone standing in a long line waiting to vote? Speaking of which, I can’t even with the states making it more difficult to vote at all. Making it necessary for people to stand in long lines on the day of. To take time they can’t afford from work. To never get their voices heard at all.

I’m an old lady now, and I doubt I will ever have to deal directly with this new incarnation of the Uncanny Valley. And yet, where I was once reminded of it (without a suitable term for the experience until recently) only in the movies, I am now reminded of it daily as ultraconservative State Legislatures do their best to reincarnate the 1950’s in a new and even more cruel manner. We were not entirely aware that the world we inhabited in the 1950’s, although a paradise of sorts for some of us, was a hellscape for others. I remember when my favorite TV show as a child, The Lone Ranger, began with a male voiceover inviting us to, “Return with us now to the thrilling days of yesteryear.” I may have wanted a horse of my own and to ride the range in search of justice, but no longer. No, thank you. I have learned more of your world, and I have lived long in mine. Never did I realize that my old age would be spent in the creeping shadow of the Uncanny Valley. It is a place that should only exist in cautionary tales, and must never be allowed to jump off the screen or escape the page. Be careful what you wish for.