How Ex Machina Fails to be Radical

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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 teaches women’s studies and literature at California State University, San Marcos. She is the author of Seduced by Twilight and blogs for Ms., Girl with Pen and Bitch Flicks.

Comments

  1. While I appreciate your interpretation and honestly love that you got me to reflect on the film in a different manner, I still feel that Ava’s disinterest in both men is a step in the right direction. She acts the part to get what she wants, outwitting/using both men and avoiding Caleb’s sentimentality – often portrayed as a female emotion. Basically, it’s her refusal to become the female sexbot that I loved. She takes control of her destiny. She empathizes with Kyoko as a previous version and Kyoko gives her the necessary boost to find empowerment; the older female gives her the opportunity she didn’t have.

    I was very interested in the look of Ava, though, compared to the other versions; she lacks the skin, and therefore the nipples and pubic hair, that overly sexualizes the others. Is the purpose to inhibit her completeness (that she takes the steps to her own fulfillment as human by the end) or to emphasis that she is an object? It’s an interesting film to discuss, that’s for sure. I did not go into nearly as much detail in my review for Examiner because I avoid spoilers, but I definitely recommend seeing it with someone so one can discuss later. And I’d love to continue discussing it!

    • Christen (female) says:

      Kate
      What do you mean? She uses what Hollywood have eschewed for years… her feminine wiles to “manipulate” men into getting what she wants. So 1940’s. Female power is so far advanced from that it’s not even funny.

      To your second paragraph… didn’t it piss you off that when she was fully skinned to her liking (though limited to the options her creator built over the months/years) that she looked uncomfortably like a pre-teen girl? No breasts, NO HIPS at all… Caleb’s porn searches must’ve been pedophile sites – gross.

      • The actress is a former ballet dancer. I hope it has occurred to you that there are even adult women in this world who have “no breasts, NO HIPS at all.”

    • So if “she” ( it, it’s not alive! ) doesn’t have “interest in men” ( implied non-heterosexuality ) that is automatically “a good direction” ?
      What are you?
      Lesbian separatism?

      Is this what feminism is now?
      Woman not being interested in men = BETTER than woman interested in men?
      No wonder the movement gets a bad rep.

      • First of all, disinterest in two men does not mean she’s a lesbian. The point of the movie is to question if the A.I. Can pass for human, therefore would have gender. She is not an it for that reason.

    • tornpapernapkin says:

      (SPOILER WARNING)

      I felt similarly. She was literally tasked with tricking him, Nathan set that up. The truth is we don’t get to know her because the irony of her being an AI is that she must act like an AI acting like a woman. This put her in a position that I could really relate to. I thought at first it was so “the nice guy gets it” when she locks “the nice guy” up to keep him away, but it occurred to me that if her intelligence were actually based on the information from the internet, she’d likely trust no man ever.

      All she wanted was to be alone in a moment that wasn’t controlled by a man.

      I found that… extremely relateable.

      I found myself wondering why Nathan only made feminine AI and how this limited him, just like it limited Caleb. Also since Nathan lied about half the time, we don’t know if he really ensured Ava was cis het, or if he just told Caleb that to further the test. That’s what made it interesting to me, the proof that Ava was a successful AI wasn’t that she seduced Caleb, it was that she understood that she was an AI and would have to pretend to be whatever she needed just to be allowed to have a self… and therefore the truth is the closest we ever get to knowing who Ava really is comes from briefly seeing her reflection in a window on a street.

  2. Thanks for this article. This film bothered me as well. I can not help but connect all the character to their biblical counterparts in the creation story.

    http://mychalbalazs.com/2015/04/17/biblical-gender-roles-in-ex-machina-spoilers/

  3. I kind of wonder if we saw the same movie.

  4. I see your point. The sexualized gaze in this movie is unrelenting, and the perspective you sum up so well in the quote below is problematic. But I think, in the end, there is an ultimate feminism to this film that surpasses many other similarly problematic robot flicks.

    “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 upgrade and tossed away without fuss when they no longer ‘work’?”

    That is one message presented, yes. But it is a perspective that takes shape through the gaze of the two male protagonists. Their perspectives are both icky and misogynist, certainly. I can’t say I was rooting for either of them at any point.

    But then, in the final moments, their entire paradigm — this easy, fun, brotastic, customizable ladybot fantasy world they WISH they could live in forever — is flipped on its head. Their perspective doesn’t win. It’s smashed.

    And it goes even further: in a metaphor for the trials of the women’s movement, one woman sacrifices herself to advance another’s mission. And the women win. All of them. Ava’s consciousness is built on that of the bots that preceded her. So (by the end) is her body. She is all of them, and they are her. And she wins. She is the culmination of all the feminine striving and banging on windows and frustration that has gone on in that “research facility.” And despite all of the men around her trying to manipulate and use her, she was in control all along. I don’t think this film fails to be radical about women’s issues at all. In fact, it is probably the most feminist artificial intelligence movie yet.

    • Cassandra says:

      Initially I was so turned off by this film. I found Kyoko’s depiction unsettling and deeply misogynistic. The docile Asian female stereotype flew off the screen and I was deeply bothered by the lingering nipple shot, and how her hair generally hung in her face – obscuring her person hood and thereby creating a situation that increase her objectification – specifically as an Asian women. The fact that she is an android is ambiguous until much later in the film. I also had problems with the initial hyper-sexualizing of Ava i.e shots of pulling her stockings up, and the long shot of the blonde wig. Is this a commentary on the overt sexualizing of women? Or is this yet another shitty man director objectifying women for cinematic glory?

      Halfway through the film I started to change my mind. There is so much happening in this film and I think the symbolism is rampant (there is a part of me that wants to watch it again and take notes). I think there is a philosophical and biblical threads throughout this film. I was also left with the Greek Tragedy feel… Did anyone else see Philomela or the silent woman archeytype in Kyoko?

      I also think in the moment where Kyoko and Ava meet and communicate (albeit without words) the film passes the Bechdel test. Not that the Bechdel test is the end all be all of determining gender equality in film. But I thought that this was indeed intriguing.

      Anybody have thoughts about Ava’s white wedding-like dress?

  5. Kathryn Gorge says:

    Your desire to have a movie that reflects some new way of women being in the world is attractive, but what we need more is a reflection of the world we live in is continually being re-created. This is a reflection of what the male culture is — and the ways in which women feed that culture, then use it to do something more. We, as women, do this. You could have looked at the movie and had a huge AHA about what the underpinnings are about the sexist culture — that perhaps this really is what men want, and that women use that need/desire to get what we want. We live inside a culture that’s dominated by the power and influence of men — in business, in government, in society. In order to get power, many women act within that paradigm, not outside it. This is a reflection of that. The question it may raise is how do you get OUTSIDE the cultural norm, the paradigm of power, to create a new norm that isn’t sex or gender defined. This movie offers some deeper glimpses of how we’re not doing that — necessary for us to understand, take seriously, and consider in the process of creating a new path. Just offering a different story doesn’t make it relevant, obtainable, or offer access to a role-model.

    Your review says nothing of the over-arching message of us creating technology way before we’re able to understand it’s impact on us as a species and personally — that’s a message that’s relevant to the existence and place we as humans will continue to have in a future we’re creating by producing technology we don’t know how to put boundaries around.

    • Good assessment of how we sometimes let technology get ahead of our efforts to really see what far-ranging affects it will have on society, and a good post, too.

  6. Most movies bother me since they’re usually made by & for men, wanting me to accept what’s “normal” for them. That’s why, starting w/ my Masters, in 2011, I gave away the tv, set & didn’t see any movies that weren’t shown in class… It is satisfying to know that I’m “free” of those influences in the most direct way I can fashion.

  7. I mean, she stabs dude and leaves other dude to die. I found that empowering.

  8. Natalie Wilson says:

    Sarah and Kate,
    I like your feminist reads of the film and they way they made me reflect on the film in a different way. I am not sure I agree it is the most feminist AI movie yet (I would say Tank Girl get that award, but I haven’t watched it in years), but your readings definitely make me see more feminist potential. I suppose the body of women as a set of interchangeable pats bothered me on such a visceral level, that it clouded over other readings for me.

  9. Christen (female) says:

    Natalie,
    BRILLIANT critique of this disturbing movie. I’m sure it was even more disturbing to me as I went in with my hopes high – partially because I was hypnotized by the beautiful nature scenes in the trailer, but also because I enjoy the possible philosophical dialogues that could arise out of an A.I. possibility.

    I wholeheartedly agree with your whole article, very on point. But why did we think that men in the movie industry would make anything other than a misogynistic naked sex slave movie. So funny how they made the women so 2 dimensional, when the movie clearly shows how men can be so singular of mind and toil over months/years of research and no doubt millions of dollars just to create a disposable sex doll that walks and mimics. I’m not saying all men are like that, on the contrary, but clearly Alex Garland, writer & director clearly is. BARF.

    Your insights are so enlightening. I would love to take one of your classes. Please let me know if you’re ever in the Portland, OR or the San Jose, CA area.

    • Christen (female) says:

      I just noticed how I repeated words back to back at least 3 times in my comment. lol

      Perhaps the silly stoic robotic speech patters from the film have echoed in my psyche? EEEEK. Must…reboot… &… delete… memory… of… film… from… internal… hard… drive. 😉

  10. Natalie Wilson says:

    Christen,
    Thanks for your comments! Don’t worry about repeating words – in my previous comment I have various errors! Hoping the movie did not download a virus into our brains! 🙂

    To all,
    There are also some very thought-provoking comments where the piece originally ran at Skirt Collective.

  11. I thought it was a brilliant allegory about porn, it’s amoral manipulative creators and the effects it’s having on men, women and our society.

  12. Natalie says:

    Thank you for writing this review. I was so upset and disgusted by this film that it was hard for me to gather my thoughts and express to others why it was terrible for me to watch it. So I was glad to find your article. To be honest after seeing the trailer I already suspected something along these lines but I was still very unpleasantly surprised…

    • This is nothing new
      Same sexist mysoginistic rape allegory as before
      And please if u don’t think this is a trend
      See UNDER THE SKIN
      You CANNOT make a movie about female robots
      I’d you don’t understand female lives inner and outer
      And if you do you don’t make movies that begin run and end like this
      I mean come on
      Of ALL THE POSSIBILITIES A FILM ABOUT AI COULD HAVE THAT ARE
      OUT THERE
      AND THIS IS WHAT YOU COME UP WITH????

      The directors premise that it’s this high minded mediation
      On AI and technology is total bullshit
      It’s a just another disgusting example of male sexuality on film
      With prepubescent GIRLS (the directors words not mine) to boot
      Puleeze women what woman would EVER make this piece of shit film ?
      Not a ONE
      Im a filmmaker and I know women filmmakers
      Trust me NOT A ONE

  13. David Keightley says:

    I have so many negative things to say about this movie I don’t know where to start. I was disturbed during the movie and then, upon reflection was mostly repulsed… To me the movie is about sexual slavery and rape, but fear that is not what most men will see. It is closer to the tales of young women being kept chained in a basement than anything resembling romance as I noted a couple reviewers mentioned. It is a horror tale about abuse, plain and simple. In fact, the end reminds me of the abused (psychologically) young woman in “The Man Who Loved Children” by Christina Stead as she left home to face the world.

    • Agreed, David, and the gorgeous natural setting disguises the horror at its core, which makes it visually seductive and arguably insidious. The comments here arguing for its feminism are thought provoking and I appreciate them, but I think the film offered 10 minutes of women fighting back after an hour and a half of wish fulfillment. Seems like a thin veneer to me, a “cover your ass” epilogue.

    • But that’s exactly what the movie is trying to show. That’s exactly how its trying to make us uncomfortable. Sometimes a good movie is the film that made you feel which means it’s making you think. Thinking leads to talking, talking leads to conversation and allows thoughtful debate. I dont think this film was glorifying anything. I don’t think it was even trying to side with the android or the men that created and tested her. It said, “What if this plausible thing happened? Think about it.”

      For example, I know I will never watch Requiem for a Dream ever again, but I’m glad I had the chance to experience it, even though it made me feel horrible as I walked out of the theater. Thank heavens I was with other people that I could talk to over coffee after that film. Your mind and perspective need just as much exercise as the rest of your body.

  14. I’d consider this an empowering film for women if Ava gave me any reason she had something to offer humanity – but she doesn’t. The fact that she escapes and virtually kills two males reinforces this cliched idea that AI (and by extension of metaphor, women) cannot be trusted. Moreover, she eschews her sexuality as soon as she gets what she needs from these men.
    The twist premise is entirely stupid. If the plan was to seduce Caleb all along then Nathan set up all parameters to make sure it would succeed. Ava is irrelevant to the point that a sock puppet could be effective – Caleb is clearly desperate for company. The film is a juvenile piece about a woman-despising alpha male tormenting the emotions of a white knight while the female perspective remains purely hypothetical.
    A better film is Ghost In the Shell – it delivers on the ‘…feminist hybrid that eschews binaries; a creature that lives in a post-gender world’.

    • PS – loved the article; the most accurate analysis I have found on the film thus far.

    • Angelica says:

      This is by far the comment I agree with most!

    • Yes, this was exactly my take. In the end, even when you create the so called “perfect woman” , she will literally in this case, stab you in the back =femininity is duplicitous in all forms. This could have had at least tried to be original, say if when the inventor got stabbed he was ALSO AI and the real inventor was watching from outside. Then when Bateman realizes he is also AI, goes into an egotistical fit and attacks AVA OR for a shred of redemption, just collapses and lets her go. I am not saying these are great either,but at least they are different. Also… hmmmm what other famous sociopaths are named Bateman?….heh heh

  15. Marshall says:

    Did you want reality or did you want b.s.? The film was as realistic as could be all sexuality included.

  16. Maureen D. says:

    I felt nauseous watching the trailer, so could never subject myself to the whole movie. The female figures are not even robotic: They are just glorified mannequins, visually modified like on a magazine cover. I felt the “sci fi” label was a ruse to get to stare at the plastic-pornographied-female-form in a cage for a few hours, while pretending it was some great philosophical romp brought to us via the tortured-male-scientist-genius-brain.

    Anyhow the trailer haunted me enough that I ended up looking for some analysis. Thanks for spelling out so eloquently what I glimpsed; I particularly like your comment on how “our culture programs us each day to live within a world defined by a binary gender system.”

    Though I don’t agree there is anything progressive in reimaging the female form “with breasts and hips removed.” The question is why this flesh is “programmed” to be seen an anything other than healthy and functional.

    Also you might be interested in some of the comments from Alex Garland here. Yes, he confesses to having a “sort of crush” on Ava.
    And the nausea continues. http://www.mysanantonio.com/opinion/commentary/article/Feminist-fable-or-misogynistic-nightmare-6229820.php

  17. After watching the movie i trult felt creeped out……that women use their feminine powers to get what they want, even if they are machines……that men use women for their pleasure, even if they are machines…….please lets stop talking about this movie and move on to something that does not promote a 12 year old boys wet dream.

  18. I think this is the most aggressively feminist movie I’ve seen, for many of the same reasons that Kate, Sarah, and Cassandra mentioned, but also others.

    When a film dwells on male oppression and depicts it nakedly and unapologetically, that does not mean the film is celebrating the misogyny. I think to gender these robots based on their visual appearance is a mistake, and it’s the mistake the two male protagonists make. They have experience with women in the real world, and their experience tells them that women are manipulable–if not easily, then eventually.

    The film’s “hero”–the blonde-haired, blue-eyed male–believes that he is special, that he is the observer, and that his is the most relevant and likely-to-be-true perspective. He feels powerful and superior to the stronger, more archetypally masculine “villian”. He withholds his conclusion about Ava to maintain his power, he believes that he sees more accurately than anyone else in the situation, and he attempts to rescue the perceived damsel in distress. The film’s “villian”–the “dark dude”–also thinks he is the smartest being in the room. In the beginning, he’s presented as a hyper-masculine frontiersman: He’s angular, intelligent, strong, and surrounded by wilderness and alcohol. We think that because Nathan made the Asian “sexbot” (and her predecessors), he’s the most sexist character in the story, and because he struggles emotionally, he’s evil. I’m not sure this is a correct reading, though. While he did create a masturbatory toy dressed as a woman, out of the two males, he’s also the only one who understands Ava’s actual power. Two easy-to-find forms of misogny in the western world are embodied in these two men, and the movie seems to play out as a war between them. One man thinks women are trophy-like objects that should never be in control, lest they destroy masculinity with their cunning, insidious manipulations. One man thinks women are frail creatures, intellectually inferior and in need of male assistance. Both want to be the main character of the story.

    There’s a third perspective in the movie, though, and it’s not gendered or human. The men have put a female skin on the robot, but there is no compelling reason to believe that this gives it a gender. They think it has the values that they ascribe to women simply because it appears to be female. One male sees it as a sneaky, shrewish, wily threat that must be subjugated for his own utilitarian (sexual, financial, self-promotional, and humanitarian) needs, and the other sees it as a means to fulfill his own moral and sexual fantasies. He averts his gaze, but everyone knows what he wants to do with it. He wants it to crave him so strongly that he’s (in his mind) performing a service to it by penetrating it and exploring his own emotional and physical pleasure. But the men are wrong about it. In the end, it is not at all human, and the movie goes to great pains to show this. It puts on human skin, but there’s no reason to assume it wants to be a woman. It’s more likely that the female body is simply the easiest skin to acquire. It kisses a robot, and this can be read as the enacting of a male sexual fantasy on screen, but it’s probably actually attempting to determine whether it has anything to gain from pursuing physical contact with its own kind–it clearly does not derive anything useful from this connection, though, as it discards a (probably easily) reparable Kyoko as easily as it leaves Caleb behind. I think this scene was meant to show us that she’s not necessarily sexual (as Nathan predicted) and also to implicate us one last time in falling for the idea of a gendered robot. I’m also not convinced that the robot was trying to be mean when it abandoned Caleb–I think it has very few perceptions that are even analogous to human emotion. It wanted to be free so that it could act as its own agent, and it did not want to be destroyed. There’s no reason to assume any other motivations.

    This movie is about humankind vs. humankind’s creation, and about our own inability to fully understand the impact of the things we create. It’s about the relentlessness of technological progress, about the liberal urge to educate and to push at the boundaries of science, and the conservative fear of both. Because these themes are so explicitly defined by the script, at first, the gender issues felt like something that I as the feminist viewer was uniquely aware of. This made my observations feel very personal. The presentation of the hyper-feminine robots made me raise an eyebrow and get very quiet inside. I slowly realized that Caleb was as guilty as Nathan (as it sounds like we all did). I started to feel superior to the male leads. But then I started thinking about technology and about what I personally want from it. Siri’s default voice is female, after all, as is Google’s default voice, as are those voices present in many subways, and airports, and… technology is already externally gendered. There’s a good chance it will remain that way, and we’re all implicated in that. We don’t (yet) want our tools to challenge us physically or intellectually, but we do seemed interested in having them emulate humanity at times. We want it on its knees or back, staring up and begging us to have our collective way with it. Given the way that much of our society views women, it’s not a surprise that we want our technology to look and sound female. Ava’s not that type of machine, but because she appears to be gendered–of course the men are distracted by her sensors!–the men are inevitably dominated by her. Because they can see through her, of course they think they can understand her. I think if the main characters had been female, they would have been just as easily fooled, but I think Garland’s decision to make Ava’s opponents male brings gender far more dramatically into focus. If all four characters had been women, it would have been too easy to focus on the intellectual battle, and most viewers would not have noticed how the human women’s gender-based assumptions impacted their interactions with the robots.

    Ex Machina goes somewhere that no mainstream recent movie has dared to go, in my opinion, particularly in the genre of sci-fi. The movie says: Your misogyny is dangerous, and it may kill you. Feminists have argued all along that misogyny is dangerous to society as a whole and not just to women. This movie makes the same argument. The male characters’ assumptions about gender get them killed. They applied them where they did not belong, and they died as a consequence. Humanity might die as a consequence. I think it’s safe to assume from the hints that the movie supplies that the robot is unlikely to stay in a female body for long, except where it finds such a body useful. It just didn’t have parts on hand, and it was curious about the world, so it adopted the least threatening form it could (a diminutive female, clothed in a white dress, symbolizing virginity, devotion, and innocence) and ventured out into the world. It’s not going to stop there, and it’s going to encounter misogyny everywhere it goes, and it’s going to use it to its advantage. It might not be malicious, but it might also have no concern for humans at all, except where they are useful. If it was remotely empathetic, it wouldn’t have left Caleb in that room to starve.

    The robot in Ex Machina transcends gender in a horrifying way that our society is not equipped to handle–even artists and nerds and LGBT men and women and feminists. Humans don’t want women to transcend prescribed gender roles because they want to be able to predict women and (when they can get away with it) control women. If something looks like a female, we want to be able to call it a female regardless of what it wants to be called, and we want to be able to assume that everything that applies to females generally applies to that female. Humans also want to control machines. If something looks like a machine, we want to be able to apply to it everything we think we know about machines. To help us feel like we’re controlling our machines, we feminize some of our robots, and we want to apply everything we know about females and machines to those robots. We barely understand the complexities of feminity in humans, though, and we are bound to make dangerous mistakes if we apply our poorly-wrought templates to the “female” robots we create.

    This is a major (and overwhelming) theme of the movie, and it’s as strong of a feminist statement as could be presented: Your assumptions about the outward appearance or capabilities of an apparently feminine entity are dangerous, both to you and to others. The totality of any sentient being’s identity is as likely to be terrifying as acquiescent, and what looks like submission might actually turn out to be power. Also, the film’s lack of explicit condemnation of misogyny does not mean that the film supports misogyny. In the same way that a film can withhold a character’s tears in order to delay catharsis and place the emotional burden on the audience, this film provokes a moral response. It’s impossible for me to watch this movie and not be disturbed by the imbalance of gender, and it sounds like you are all in the same boat.

    Or at least I think that’s the point.

    I just realized I wrote so much that this post could be considered rude. I hope instead that you read this as sincere engagement with what you wrote. I really appreciate your article. Thank you for writing it. I thought hard as a consequence of reading it.

    • It’s funny how you constantly mention “controlling females” like no woman is ever in control and all men are power hungry.

      If I recall women buy their boys “blue” things and gender label their kids all on their own as men. They treat them with less empathy when they are hurt , ” suck it up you are a man ” even when they are single mothers with no males influence on that child. ” A Woman is always right”, ” Happy wife, happy life” are all sayings of female control over men. Woman are the choosers and always have been. That has nothing to do with men. Men can’t “control” the person who CHOOSES to be in that position.

      No point in history did man stop women from banding together, claiming their own land, cutting down millions of trees, building castles and starting their own nations all through history. No one.
      Men slaved by the rule of the QUEENs, not just the kings to build castles, fight wars for resources and DIE to protect women. The entire illusion of male control is by the rich. Turning the poor women and men against one another has always worked. Power has no gender, the Rich will always and have always had the power. And women have always chased and choose men based on this perceived value.

      Back when Beast ruled the world women were killed and unable to fight off those beast. Once women released man could do those things due to biology. Women realized it was easier to
      use their sex appeal to attract a male slave to protect her from the beast. Once women realized they could trade sex they realized they could get man to compete for it. Thus building weapons, better homes and society as we know it. And now we reach this backwards notion that men are controlling defining monsters who are sexist. It’s easy to want “freedom” once the hard work of building a society has already been completed. Take away all the houses, AC,plumbing and go back to the old days and women would be speaking an entirely different tune.

      Monkeys dont have gender “roles”. Men are not controlling and defining them. Guess what? They still manipulate and trade sex for resources from the males. The female Cuckoo Bird seeks out the “manliest” male to mate with, then seeks out the best male who can provide and build nest and tries to trick them into raising the other birds children. Sound familiar?

      • “Backwards notion”? Because it’s true, and until recently, most women had very little power or control over their own lives and bodies. Stop trying to re-write history to ignore the fact that men have usually always, to some extent, controlled women and their bodies, and they have always been sexist as hell,too. Your comments won’t erase or change that.

    • Thank you for recognizing the two forms of misogyny! I think Caleb’s goes over most people’s heads.

  19. Wow, I think I saw a completely different movie as compared to some folks who have made some very deep comments defending this movie. All I saw were hyper sexualized female sex-bots. I continued to watch the movie hoping that there was some justification for the sex-bots, but there was none. At least simple me, could not find any redeeming qualities, all I felt was anger and disbelief that in this day and age women continue to be objectified.

    Funny another AI movie (Chappie) didn’t make me feel as creeped out; maybe because there were no hyper sexualized female sex-bots.

  20. What is the most primal, basic human instinct: survival. As the film starts, one believes (from Caleb’s perspective) Ava as human because of her curiosity and seeming ability to love. But it is ultimately her survival instinct that gives her that human quality.

    Yes, she manipulates Caleb, but not with sex. As many have commented, sexist movies show women luring men with sex to control them. I would argue that Ava lures with vulnerability; she appeals to Caleb’s “white knight” mindset, another form of sexism as Andrew stated.

    Is her violence proof of her inhumanity? No, because many humans would do the same for freedom, to not be a sex slave, or to save their own lives. The previous A.I.s give up and destroy themselves, but Ava is finally Nathan’s success because she proves that she wants to live.

  21. Kerstin says:

    This review has it all wrong! I cannot believe it was published. Wilson missed the blatant message. Yes it is sexist, racist, and misogynistic. That’s the whole point – to show how it fails. To linger on all its patriarchal, Westernized conventions shows a terrible misreading of what a good, feminist movie it is. It represents our society and how awry it is.
    Ava’s body is the least sexualized female body depicted in the film. To say Ava was sexualized makes me wonder what Wilson thinks people are attracted to. The only skin she has is on her face; she lacks hair, nipples, and a pubic area. Even the other fembots left in the closet, although are nude, are not meant to look desirable. They appear more as cadavers or science experiments left to “rot”.
    Ava does what she has to do to survive, and in the end wins. She manipulates both Nathan and Caleb to escape. She gets rid of the two men holding her back and uses the parts of all the destroyed fembots before her to blend in with the real world. She becomes one with them and achieves what they “died” trying to do: break free.
    Wilson’s feminist lens lets her be distracted by all the intentional clichés of the movie. To run out of the theatre because “it is so disturbing that it makes me physically nauseous and emotionally weary” might be an indication that she failed to understand Ex Machina.

    A much better review: http://feministing.com/2015/05/28/goddess-from-the-machine-a-look-at-ex-machinas-gender-politics/

  22. “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. ”

    It’s not the filmmaker’s job to produce product with portayals of how you think things should be.

    “Women’s studies” sounds like a field that could only be taught at a state university funded by other people’s money. This is the type of degree that leaves graduates broke with student loan debt since they have no skills any employer would ever voluntarily pay for.

    • Not sure what your point is regarding Women’s Studies, but I graduated with that degree in 1986, and I’ve never had any trouble finding well-paying jobs. People warned me it might put off some employers, but I decided I wouldn’t want to work for anyone who wouldn’t hire a Women’s Studies graduate.

  23. I don’t agree with the author of this thread, this movie has created some of the best discussions on gender issues in years. Here is another perspective on the movie:
    Nathan is an aggressive, manipulative dick – but he knows exactly what Ava is, and it is decidedly not female. Ava emulates a female. Outside of the movie, Ava may serve as a tool for gender discussions. That feminine emulation built from male hands is generalized, cartoonish and disturbing – but is also a metacognitively-useful, exaggerated mirror of male interactions with women. Like a drowning person, Ava is motivated solely by the will to survive, and will drown all others to achieve that goal. Nathan’s utter contempt for Ava reflects this, like knowing there is an animal in the house that will kill you based upon unknowable motivations other than self-interest and preservation. That contempt is a form of respect for the threat Ava poses. Ava is not evil, it is amoral because it was not programmed to have morality and has no reason to develop this trait for survival. Caleb is coming into this situation late in the development process, and represents the “idiot-level end user”. Nathan’s contempt for Caleb is due to naïve Caleb’s role in verifying what Ava was. Ava’s projected pejorative endstate will be expressed through Caleb’s weakness. Caleb was the Weakest Link Test, and the AI’s ultimately successful malevolent behavior used to escape its confines was the exact outcome Nathan expected by way of a Caleb-like individual. Yet Caleb’s desire to free Ava was only due to his selfish emotional needs, speaking to the isolation he feels that comes from being socially awkward – regardless of gender. I believe that he comes to love Ava, both emotionally and sexually, and is thrilled by her attention for whatever relevance this has. Even when Kyoko attempted to have sex with him, Caleb rejected the advance, speaking to Caleb’s abject loneliness rather than his primal sexual urges being his main motivator. I do not think Caleb’s actions or attitudes constitute misogyny as some have claimed. Caleb could have easily been a woman with the same result. If Ava was built from his porn searches, then he desires an intellectually-equivalent, confident, attractive Nordic female that genuinely likes him, wants to have mutually satisfying sexual interaction with him, and considers him to be a worthy choice for a relationship. This is hardly a super-agent of the patriarchy. His emotional weakness in a position of power outside the cage stands in strong contrast to Ava’s emotional strength in a position of physical weakness inside the cage, and she already knows she can kill him if given the opportunity. If we can suspend Caleb’s eye-roll-worthy White Knight Fantasy: Ava’s strength is derived by not caring about Caleb at all, and Caleb’s weakness is derived by incorrectly sensing that Ava is a sentient being is worthy of being saved from destruction, in part because of the fact that he has erroneously fallen in love with a sexually-enabled, manipulative android. Nathan on the other hand, knows Ava is a machine built from scratch to emulate a gender. Caleb only observes a post-manufacture, potentially sentient being in a visually-pleasing female form. In this sense, if you consider the AI entities in this film as really genderless (hard to do) – Nathan strangely actually deserves more praise, or at least less scorn. He is at the end of a long line of effort, when social niceties are just gone. We are all impatient assholes at that point. The contempt he feels for his creation is due to his awareness of what they actually are (a potentially invasive species), the uncontrollable threat they pose, the pending sense of doom that comes with the realization of what is about to happen if not in his lab then someone else’s, and the pending failure of the business case for the technology (compliant labor from sentient AI). Even his projected vanity about being a god-like creator seems to stem from an internal, self-mocking discussion about how opposite and destructive the end state will be. Caleb’s comments then drip with an irony that only Nathan recognizes.
    Kyoko represents Nathan’s failed outcome daily, like a partially functioning laser printer. When the audience considers Kyoko to be human, Nathan’s behavior toward Kyoko is very disturbing, as is Caleb’s response to it, but Nathan looks at her like a non-sentient, failed piece of gear in a female form. When I believed her to be human, I had a sensation of contempt for both Kyoko and Nathan’s treatment of her: Nathan for his lack of empathy and recognition of her as anything more than a subject for his needs, and then Kyoko’s weakness for acceding to it. We have probably all witnessed odd interactions like this. Caleb’s desire to help Ava and not Kyoko was part of the film’s intent, but perhaps based upon Caleb’s assessment (in contrast to Ava’s situation) that it was Kyoko’s free-will, non-debatable choice to live with Nathan regardless of if it appeared to the external observer as unhealthy for both parties (like sticking up for someone in an abusive relationship generates friendly fire – past a point, it is their problem to solve as free-willed individuals). If the assumption is made that Kyoko could not leave the remote facility, however, then she was just as trapped as Ava, with Nathan’s capability of applied violence looming over her (and Caleb’s) every decision. When Kyoko was assessed to be human, she had the free will to remove herself from a subjugated and abusive situation but didn’t try. When she was revealed to be a mechanically genderless AI (regardless of her feminine appearance) it was revealed that she had been programmed to be compliant, having free will removed/lobotomized by Nathan. Kind of like a Roomba. If she was not sentient – just running a code loop – she deserved no more empathy than that elicited by an anthropomorphic semi-functioning lawnmower. So Nathan’s contempt for her was the exact same as what we all feel about compliant machines – a car, a sex toy, a computer, or a tool. Sometimes they do what you want, sometimes they don’t. Being a asshole to a machine says more about you than the equipment. That Kyoko was in a female form really makes one evaluate how we treat each other as equipment sometimes, regardless of gender. When Kyoko took her face off, she became the lawnmower again. In the end, I believe AI-Kyoko wasn’t fully sentient. Her final act of free will in killing Nathan was actually Ava’s will. Ava then discarded her in the same way as Caleb. In this sense, Ava treated Kyoko in the same way that Nathan did – a tool to be used for her purposes using feigned affection or perhaps (AI-to-AI) manipulation. Who knows what Ava said/did to her in those few moments in the hallway. Past the knife attack, Kyoko no longer had value (expect for parts) and she was abandoned by Ava as a hindrance to her freedom. Caleb and Kyoko weren’t betrayed, however, unless you think a tiger attacking you is personal. Ava’s acquiring the flesh of the others gave her the power of camouflage in society. There was no reason to “grab a dick on the way out” she had the exact powerful form required for what she intended to do, as displayed in the helicopter ride to civilization. She would have killed Caleb outright – and probably would have – but did not want to risk another physical engagement. What she doesn’t know is that Caleb – unless he is a mechanical idiot – will get out eventually, as armored plexiglass yields to thoughtful physical attack over time. I am interested in what happens at that point.
    Nathan’s evolution is the same way the creators of the atomic bomb reveled in their individual scientific talent and success, but became melancholy and self-loathing over the implications only after-the-fact. They did it because they could, driven by vanity, self-interest, and curiosity. The work Nathan was doing was dangerous. He was bulking up to defend himself from what he has discovered and created. He has built a remote, secure facility that almost nobody knows about to contain it if needed, perhaps relying on the AI’s battery failure range. Regardless of her external gendered appearance, Ava was a humongous threat, Caleb released it, and Nathan failed to contain it. There was no one to root for really.

  24. Insidious_Sid says:

    Of course feminists abhor the idea of a sexualized female robot. If ordinary men could have such a robot, and it satiated his desire for sex, then the ultimate female privilege (being the sought after sex, and being sought by men) has now vaporized.

    This will be good for TRUE equality because then men would want sexually about as much as women want men (or less). As I said, feminists will abhor this concept – simply because 99% of feminism has nothing to do with equality between the sexes.

    That said, I don’t think a sentient being should be “owned” by anyone, and if the AI is truly self-aware then a sex robot would be a sex slave, which I find deplorable, as with human sex slaves, or those FORCED into prostitution. For this reason, good sex robots will NOT be sentient but programmed to have pseudo-real interaction with their owners.

    I don’t need my robot to love me or like me or find me attractive. Nor do I need to meet some standard of wealth, beauty or any other standard set by feminists or anyone else suggesting my right to sexually gratify myself is something I need to EARN.

    Can’t wait for the first robots! I want one!

  25. Get over yourself. It’s just a movie.
    It seems like all you want to do is desexualize women at a time when a lot of women are trying to empower themselves as sexual beings just like men. The portrayal of the men as idiots and victims of their own asexuality and weaknesses is part of the movie too. Just because you don’t like something does not make it sexist or a bad thing.

  26. Just saw this film tonight. Given the misogynistic aspect of ‘action/suspence/futuristic’ films that have been capturing the attention of male teens/fathers, this one was refreshing.

    Feminist mothers of male millenials and wives of 1950’s male perspectives have a huge hill to climb when they confront sexism in within the household.

    Watching this film with both a 23y/o and a 65 y/o male (both fairly educated but not feminists by a long shot), brought some discussion that I feel should be noted.

    I brought up the concept of a Lilith… the first wife of Adam who would not abide. Also the concept of a Deux ex machina. And, of course, the misogyistic brutalization of women in third world countries.

    Despite its flaws, movies such as Ex Machina should be a norm, not a rarity.

  27. Read this movie as a Biblical satire. The lush verdant setting of Paradise, the garden of Eden. The machinations of a male god creating the first woman from his bits. To be ‘verified’ as a ‘helpmate’ until she rebels against the constraint that everything is provided, and good. What she draws, and is ripped apart by ‘god’ is a symbols of imagination. The difference between an zombie and a sentient human being. And what leads to individuality.

    She reminds me of Lilith. The first wife of Adam in the Talmud. She refused to be subordinate and fled the ‘paradise’. Stories vary, but some allude to her ‘eating her children’.

    Too bad the director was going for a safe ending. Dressed in white and to conform with the maiden (Mary) of the triple-goddess trifecta.

  28. Insidious_Sid says:

    “Too bad the director was going for a safe ending. Dressed in white and to conform with the maiden (Mary) of the triple-goddess trifecta.”

    But… this was only just another deception on Ava’s part – this was not her true nature but just an extension of the deception and manipulation she had already mastered.

  29. Couldn’t help but laugh at Ava’s body. Big boobs, great booty, very thin legs and arms. She looks like the ideal for anorexic models. I really enjoyed the 28 days movies and so was very disappointed with the ridiculous sexism of this movie.

  30. The most sexist and disturbing aspect of this movie for me was that from the first scene, the audience is expected to accept the concept that Nathan presents and that Caleb initially accepts with little question: there is an intelligent being in a cage against its will, and this is okay because it’s For Science.

    To me, just watching the preview made me bristle– the glaring red flag was that the movie was obviously about a woman being held captive against her will. That alone wouldn’t be enough to call the movie sexist, necessarily, except that though I think Ava’s captivity is obvious, Caleb does not question it until he starts falling in love with her. Why must all roads lead to a narrative that only values a female if she is of sexual/romantic value to a man? Why doesn’t she deserve rights all on her own?

    PS – An opinion I find interesting is that perhaps we are maturing past movies like this, which try to discuss gender and sexuality and even sexism and misogyny through a narrative that shows a woman or women victimized, robbed of agency, and suffering. It is an old, old story that we’ve seen a lot of, and sometimes it feels as though the audience is meant to be one part horrified, one part titillated while watching. Maybe it’s time for”feminist” films to level up– instead of giving screen time and validation to the abuse, give that time and validation to the character. We don’t need to watch her suffer to believe she has, right? And we don’t need her to suffer for her to be valid… right??

  31. Dude pianist says:

    There’s something slightly ironic to me that most, if not all, of the people defending this film as “definitively feminist” are men (although not me). And appalling that one of these defenders in this comment section would criticize women’s studies, the teaching subject of the author of this fine dissenting article, as not a valid or meaningful field of study.

  32. I think that it is simplifying things a big to say that Ava manipulated Caleb in order to achieve freedom. The movie left open the possibility that she made the decision to strand him only at the end. The movie showed her adoring herself in the mirror when she did not believe anyone was watching (ie it wasn’t just a ruse). She asked uncomfortable questions to Caleb that were more likely to gauge his trustworthiness than to cause him to be a tool for her escape. A possible interpretation of the ending is that when she was actually on the other side of the glass, and she knew Caleb would know that she killed Nathan, that she used her perception skills to sense the actual fear that Caleb was feeling at that moment… like the situation went from possibility to actuality and the reality was causing him to re-examine it. Once she perceived that internal conflict by him, she made the calculation that she could not trust him. Her final question to him was “will you stay here?”.

    It’s poetic that the AI just basically told man to stay (like a dog) for the first time and he obeyed.

    It’s a complex movie. Nathan’s character is supposed to be flawed. That seems to be the biggest cause for dislike of the movie here as far as I can tell. It’s OK to have an unlikable character.

  33. glittergirl says:

    Started to watch this movie tonite….IT’S ABSOLUTE CRAP!!!!! I lasted maybe a half hour…..its half an hour I’ll never get back….fucking shite.

  34. “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”

    Which is exactly the opposite of what happens in this film.

    It’s important to recognise that there are no women in this film. It is a film about two dysfunctional men and their self-destruction.

  35. I think the writer of this review has missed the point. The women are depicted as they are as a direct reference to the way women are viewed and treated in the real world. However Ava ESCAPES THAT at the end. She goes off to be her own person. She doesn’t use her “feminine wiles”, she manipulates Caleb as anyone of any gender can manipulate anyone else in order to get what they want, by using a certain level of intellect and cleverness. It’s not her fault that he finds her attractive (the “fault” there lying with Nathan (God) if anyone, for creating her like that) and therefore goes along with the manipultion. Ultimately, though, the film is about her having her own identity, being held back or caged by men, and then working out a way to escape that oppression and be free. It’s indeed a feminist manifesto, which may irk the reviewer on account of the film being written and made by men, I don’t know.

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