How Ex Machina Fails to be Radical

Reprinted with permission from Skirt Collective

I am going to admit: Ex Machina profoundly disturbed me—so much so that at one point I had to leave the theatre and catch my breath. It is very rare for me to walk out of a film. Rarer still for me to walk out not because the film is horrible, but because it is so disturbing that it makes me physically nauseaous and emotionally weary.

The film, with only four characters, poses key questions about artificial intelligence, gender and sexuality. yet, as noted in The Guardian‘s review, “the guys keep their clothes on and the ‘women’ don’t.” The “guys” of the film are human: Nathan, an egotistical scientist with a god complex (hence the film’s title) and Caleb, a computer programmer who works for Nathan’s Internet search company.

Caleb has won a trip to spend time at Nathan’s research lab/home. While there, Caleb is given the task of giving Ava (the lead robot) a Turing Test to determine if she can “pass” as human. During his stay, Caleb learns of another female robot, Kyoko, who is basically a sex slave for Nathan. Yes, that is right. The males are human, the females are (fuck) machines.

Before seeing Ex Machina, I had high hopes it would be a movie that actually addressed sexism and females as sexualized in profoundly misogynistic ways, especially as the writer and director, Alex Garland, gave various interviews that made it sound as if the film was going to critique such matters. His claim that “Embodiment—having a body—seems to be imperative to consciousness, and we don’t have an example of something that has a consciousness that doesn’t also have a sexual component,” made me envision a film that would suggest alternative, more feminist models of sexuality—perhaps ones not based on power, jealousy, ownership and control, but ones based on mutual pleasure, desire and consent.

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Garland’s claim that, “If you’re going to use a heterosexual male to test this consciousness, you would test it with something it could relate to. We have fetishized young women as objects of seduction, so in that respect, Ava is the ideal missile to fire” also gave me hope, given Garland specifically notes woman are fetishized and objectified. Alas, I should have instead latched onto his other suggestion—that Ava is no more than a “missile” that will be used to fire up human male sexuality.

Admittedly, the film does explore sexuality and gender in intriguing ways, but fails to explicitly condemn how the sex/gender paradigm is used as a tool of domination in profoundly deleterious ways. Instead, the film delivers the same message so many movies with female robots/replicants have—namely: Wouldn’t it be so much easier for the real humans (meaning male humans) if their lowly female counterparts could just be sexy in all the ways men desire, obedient and easily modified, then upgraded or tossed away without fuss when they no longer “work”?

Alicia Vikander is excellent in the role of Ava, and I don’t wish my repulsion towards the film to reflect badly on what an obviously talented actor she is. In fact, everyone ACTED the heck out of their roles. The film also had an amazing mise-en-scene, immersing viewers in Nathan’s technological man-cave replete with techno-gadgetry, minimalist design and, yup, a closet full of female body parts, presumably “out of date” sex slave robots. Nathan’s hangout also has the handy ability to SEE everything, making it rival Hitchock’s vision of the predatory male gaze enacted in Rear Window.

Nathan (Oscar Isaac), as the lead scientist, is your garden variety bearded intellectual. He is an alcoholic, mega-maniacal ego with dark skin and hair, subtly cluing the audience to the fact he is a “bad guy” (yes, the film has problematic racial depictions too—not only is the “dark dude” the bad one, Kyoko, the sex slave, is Asian while Ava is coded as normatively porn-star white.)

Caleb, as the nubile male ingénue (with the requisite blonde hair and blue eyes), is a bit too innocent, too ready to fall in love with Ava, too reluctant to quell his male gaze.

On this note, did Ava’s body have to be so sexualized and so transparent, forcing us to gaze inside of her along with Caleb, as if her body has no boundary? Or perhaps this is just the point—we can finally see inside a woman’s body, and she is not that musty, smelly, hairy thing of so many nightmares (Freud’s included), not the vagina dentata or a giver/taker of life—no, she is built like a car of all things, and under her roof her parts sing and hum like a well-oiled engine.

As the film continues, it forces the audience to be complicit in the covetous gazing Nathan and Caleb enact, a gaze that is linked to Ava’s sexualization. Indeed, Ava has been built to match Caleb’s porn preferences by Nathan, which prompts Caleb to ask, “why did you give her sexuality?” and “Did you program her to flirt with me?”

The suggestion is ultimately that Nathan gave her sexuality simply because he wanted to and he could (as a “male god/creator”). Garland’s remarks on the subject are telling: “If you have created a consciousness, you would want it to have the capacity for pleasurable relationships, so it doesn’t seem unreasonable that a machine have a sexual component. We wouldn’t demand it be removed from a human, so why a machine?” But, what Nathan/Garland don’t own up to is that they are the creators—they are not removing sexuality from their creations but constructing it, and doing so in an incredibly heterosexist, misogynist way. (In the film, Nathan notes of Ava: “in between her legs is a concentration of sensors”…WTF?)

As noted in a Huffington Post review, “Ex Machina is a very smart movie…but it’s not immune to the everyday misogyny of our world.” Arguing that if robots have access to the history of internet searches of all humanity, with “all of its tropes, and all of its prejudices,” it does not make sense that Ava “chooses” to present as female, that when she makes her escape at the end of the film “it’s almost hard to imagine she wouldn’t have grabbed a dick on her way out into the world.” However, I would counter Ava does not have free choice—Nathan has programmed gender into her system, much the way our culture programs us each day to live within a world defined by a binary gender system.

Though films about artificial intelligence have the possibility to deconstruct gender/sex norms, most films featuring female robots trade in stereotypes that reflect misogynist memes of women as sex-bots (Blade Runner, Cherry 2000, The Stepford Wives), destructive forces (Eve of Destruction, Lucy, Metropolis), or a combination of the two (Austin Powers). Even Wall-E, a kids’ movie, promotes the idea that good robots are male and constructs female robots as useful only in terms of how they can please males and/or be good “seed receptacles” for male (pro)creation (as noted in my review here.) To be fair, male robots don’t fare that much better and are also depicted in stereotypically masculine ways (as discussed here).

There are a few exceptions to this stereotypical gendered script, however. For example, Star Wars’ C-3PO was modeled on the female robot from Metropolis, with breasts and hips removed, leading the Guardian reviewer to name him “the first transgender robot.”

Alas, as argued by scholar Sophie Mayer, most films display extreme anxiety around the issue of female empowerment, and as Mayer notes, within their narratives “these empowered women must be punished” so that a happy-patriarchal ending can ensue, or, as she puts it, “The resolution always assures us the status quo is going to be preserved.”

Sigh. When might we see a film that brings Donna Haraway’s notion of the cyborg to life—a feminist hybrid that eschews binaries; a creature that lives in a post-gender world? “This is the self,” as Haraway puts it, “feminists must code.” It is also the self film’s have, as of yet, failed to code. So come on feminist filmmakers, give us a female cyborg we can root for.

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Natalie Wilson is a literature and women’s studies scholar, blogger, and author. She teaches at Cal State San Marcos and specializes in the areas of gender studies, feminism, feminist theory, girl studies, militarism, body studies, boy culture and masculinity, contemporary literature, and popular culture. She is author of the blogs Professor, what if…? and Seduced by Twilight. She also writes the guest columns Monstrous Musings for the Womanist Musings blog and Pop Goes Feminism at Girl with Pen. She is currently writing a book examining the contemporary vampire craze from a feminist perspective. Dr. Wilson is also part of the collaborative research group that publishes United States Military Violence Against Women and is currently working on an investigative piece on militarized sexual violence perpetuated against civilians. She is a proud feminist parent of two feminist kids and is an admitted pop-culture junkie. Her favorite food is chocolate. Visit her online at NatalieWilsonPhd.