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Ex Machina’s Failure to be Radical: Or How Ava is the Anti-thesis of a Feminist Cyborg

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 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.

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New Statesman

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.

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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.

“…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 they desire, obedient, and easily modified, then upgraded or tossed away without fuss when they no longer ‘work’.”

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 fetishised 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 they desire, obedient, and easily modified, then upgraded or tossed away without fuss when they no longer “work.”

Natalie Wilson

Natalie Wilson

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.

3 Comments
  1. You say:
    “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”

    Your mistake is that you assume being sexualized is wrong or sexist. It’s not. And isn’t it a bit Puritanical to make that assertion? It is 2015 after all. There’s nothing wrong with human desire. It was infinitely more realistic that IF a man could create a robot with AI, he’d make the robot both female and sexy.

    It’s both sad and telling that you think creating a female robot capable of feeling sexual pleasure is misogynistic. A misogynist is someone who hates women or has a prejudice against them not someone who wants to make a sexual robot.

    Not every movie made has to conform to feminist ideology.

    1. Krissy you seem to have missed the point. No where does Natalie say that she hates films with sexuality in them. She said she was disappointed that she was used as a sex object. Which can have a negative impact. As feminists we like to see HEALTHY doses of female sexuality done the right way and positively. Not as a misogynistic male gaze type of way. One can have positive sexuality portrayed without sexualizing a person and reducing them only to that. That was the obvious point of this article. And actually yes, it would be great if every film conformed to feminist ideology, because then more and more people would actually get to see woman as individual human beings. And yes misogyny is about hating women, but it’s also in general seeing them as less than human in a way that isn’t so obvious. Such as sexualizing us, patronizing us, etc……. The list goes on.

  2. Great article Natalie. It’s also interesting how Domhnall Gleeson died his natural red hair blonde. But I guess I also see your point as to possibly why that was done.

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