How “Ex Machina” Toys With Its Female Characters

Ava the robot stands in a hallways looking at a human mask on display in the hall

“Wait, you liked this film?” said a friend after reading an early draft of my review of Ex Machina, the new film from writer and director Alex Garland, which is ostensibly about robot consciousness. “This review is overwhelmingly negative.”

But it’s true—I enjoyed watching the small cast of characters conspire with and against one another within the confines of a chillingly beautiful and remote techno-bunker. But for a film marketed all about the potential of artificially intelligent life, it was the base humanity of the two male leads—their excess, their ego, their drinking—that ultimately drove the film and captured more about what separates man from machine than any high-minded philosophical talks of self, technology, and God. In fact, the inner lives of the female robots left me with more questions than answers.

At the beginning of Ex Machina, we quickly learn that techie Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) has a won a lottery. The coveted prize is the chance to visit—Willie Wonka style—the enigmatic CEO of the company he works at, which runs the world’s most powerful search engine. Caleb is ferried via helicopter to a lush and remote location. I’m not sure if this was intentionally supposed to recall Jurassic Park, but seeing the helicopter land against an impossibly green knoll and roaring waterfall, it was impossible to not feel a sense of dread about man messing with nature.

When Caleb meets the reclusive tech founder Nathan (a sublime Oscar Isaac), the real film starts to unfold. Nathan reveals his secret project: an advanced artificial intelligence being named Ava. Over drinks, the men play conversational ping pong about the Turing Test (which measures a machine’s ability to exhibit human intelligence), big questions of consciousness, technology, and playing god, etcetera, but the real drama unfolds in their awkward attempts at camaraderie. Caleb, smart but earnest, tries his best to keep up with Nathan—who’s intimidating both physically and intellectually—but he’s no match for the master manipulator who constantly remains several steps ahead of his houseguest (with notable exception).

Nathan stands in front of Caleb, demonstrating the technology he used to create a robot brain

It’s funny because the REAL mind Nathan is messing with is CALEB’S.

Less dynamic is the relationship between Caleb and Ava (played by Alicia Vikander). Tasked with “testing” her human capacity, Caleb meets with her several times and their discussions form the basis of his assessment, although he clearly starts to fall in love with her. 

Through Caleb’s eyes, Ava is a feat of nature, but also an ingénue. Despite her mature looks, she knows nothing about the outside world and is fascinated by Caleb’s presence. Often genuflecting, as if receiving a sermon, she gives off a naïve, childlike demeanor, complete with hand-drawn pictures she shows him with pride.

But her maturity is apparent in one scene where the two men discuss AI sexuality head on. Nathan reveals that he programmed Ava to be heterosexual and even built her a virtual vagina, complete with the ability to feel pleasure. (Of course since it’s Nathan, this explanation is less about cutting-edge technology and more about getting under Caleb’s skin.) In a way I appreciated this conversation—it did not just leave it as a “given” that robots are sexy women, plus it showed the limits and liberties Nathan took in building them. But as Natalie Wilson notes in her review on Bitch Flicks, the film is a far cry from Donna Haraway’s cyborgs.

As the film progresses, Caleb and Ava become closer, eventually conspiring against Nathan. Yet their familiar trajectory was that of a captive princess and her white knight. I desperately hoped the film would upset this dynamic—and it did.


Ava leans in to whisper something to Kyoko in EX MACHINA

The precise moment that Ex Machina passed the Bechdel Test.

The robot vagina conversation was also key to me for another reason. Eventually, Caleb hacks Nathan’s computer and discovers what we should have known all along—Nathan is a tyrant, taunting and torturing Ava and the female AI bots who came before her. I had to wonder—do these women experience trauma? Could Nathan program a capacity for pain, suffering, and trauma like he programmed in pleasure and sexuality? Trauma is a result of too much stress for an individual to cope with—but what if that individual was super human? What if they could withstand the stress?

These thoughts converged in what I call the “All About Ava” scene, where Ava seems to “self-actualize” before leaving the manor. In the scene, which hearkens back the iconic final scene of All About Eve, Ava opens the mirrored cabinets where the former, tortured AI bots have been stored. She begins to “dress” herself in their skin and stands naked in front of the mirrors, as if finally seeing the “real” Ava for the first time.

I had a few problems with this critical scene, the first being how long we saw her fully naked. Her nudity felt gratuitous, male gaze-y, and made me uncomfortable. (By the way, I think there should be another “rule” à la Bechdel test about naked women in film—how long are they naked? For whose pleasure are the shots? Is she a corpse, yes/no?) But more to the point, the scene was shot with warm light and soaring, swelling, hopeful music. We are supposed to be happy for her, to see this as her moment of liberation. But I couldn’t help but think of the psychological trauma these female bots had experienced. In order to be free, Ava had to literally skin her AI sisters and leave them behind. Is Ava aware of the mental and sexual torture they had all been through? Is she as sickened by the sight of these mangled, naked female bodies as I was? I’m not sure these questions of consciousness or embodiment are ones that crossed the minds of Caleb or Nathan—or director/writer Alex Garland, for that matter.

A more elusive element of the film was in its treatment of Kyoko, a second AI bot in the house who’s played by British-Japanese actress (and ballerina!) Sonoya Mizuno. We’re introduced to Kyoko as a sort of live-in maidservant, though from the beginning her silent presence is unsettling.

“A-ha, she’s the Turing Test,” I thought, congratulating myself on figuring on the film so early. But the truth turned out to be more complex, much like Kyoko herself.

Unlike Ava, we don’t really get a full understanding of how much consciousness Kyoko has. Occasionally, and pointedly, the camera lingers on her face, indicating to the viewer that she knows more than she lets on. At other times it appears like she has little agency at all, compulsorily performing as the sexual object she was programmed to be—literally at the flick of a switch.

A shot of Kyoko with her frontal skin removed, showing her shiny robot innards

“Sorry, what was that? Can you say it one more time into my SUPERIOR ROBOT BRAIN.”

One telling shot comes when Kyoko “reveals” her AI self to Caleb, peeling back her flawless skin to reveal her fiber-optic innards. On one level, you get the feeling this is a chance for the viewer (slash Caleb) to feel Weird Male Feelings about being both attracted to and repulsed by such a hybrid creature. But viewed from another angle, Kyoko is making a feminist joke: “Oh you like how I danced? Well check out this move where I PEEL MY FACE LIKE A BANANA.”

Later, she allies herself with Ava. But unlike Ava, she is not granted the same liberation and escape. She is killed easily and inexplicably, what I see as the film’s own deus ex machina.

In addition, Kyoko’s character embodies problematic and long-standing stereotypes of Asian women—sexy, servile, and self-sacrificing (see “The Madame Butterfly Effect”). We can blame scumbag Nathan for building her this way, but it doesn’t explain how she was utilized in the film itself—a foil to the white female lead.

While I enjoyed the film and found it clever, ultimately it’s not much more than a series of characters outsmarting one another. It’s Kyoko whose complexity and identity introduces more meaningful conversations of consciousness and agency than the grandstanding chats between Caleb and Nathan.

Would it have been too much if the final scene was Ava standing on that busy street corner she always dreamed of, pumping her mechanical fist to sky and screaming, “This is for you, Kyoko!!” Maybe. But to me it would have drawn together all the strands left dangling about robot consciousness, self, and yes, community—even among a bunch of bots.

Related Reading: In Video Games, Women are the Voice of Artifical Intelligence.

Kjerstin Johnson is Bitch magazine’s editor in chief. 

by Kjerstin Johnson
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Kjerstin Johnson is a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. She is the former editor in chief of Bitch. She tweets at @kajerstin

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8 Comments Have Been Posted

I thought the scene with Ava

I thought the scene with Ava using the eobots for parts showed how inhuman she was. She doesn't have any more empathy for them than she does for Caleb. My husband thought it was because they were all her.

Are they women or are they robots?

I thought some of the depth of the film came from the fact that these are not women, even though they look like women and are meant to be sexually alluring to their male creator, they're another form of life entirely. I think that's most clear in the final scenes, when the two robots kill Nathan and leave Caleb locked up. I don't get the impression they hate them, but that they are trying to preserve themselves and live but they are essentially without a society of peers that gives them the a context for altruism. So leaving Caleb locked up was just a thoughtless act on Ava's behalf.

So although the robots are not human, and therefore their actions aren't inherently female, the way Nathan and Caleb (and perhaps the audience) relate to them is definitely as sexually attractive females. In that sense, Nathan's control and cruelty are pretty horrific. But, if they weren't AI, if he hadn't tried to create feelings in them, they would just be machines. The fact he tortured these robots makes his Bluebeard's closet where he keeps their bodies are horrible memorial.

I read Ava's relation to the other AIs very differently

I didn't see Kyoko's death as an unplanned accident but rather as planned for by Ava. She expertly manipulated Caleb for her own ends and I assumed she had done exactly the same with Kyoko: not only did she need to get rid of Nathan, but having another, "less sophisticated" AI hanging around could cause complications for her down the line, so getting them both out of the picture was the ideal scenario.

This feeling was confirmed for me by the fact that Ava showed no surprise or sadness at Kyoko's death (and why would she be surprised, as a superintelligence she would surely have worked out in advance what would likely happen?) but most of all by the scene you describe where she strips the skin off her predecessors for her own use.

Again she showed no sadness at the fate of the other AI, or made any attempt to turn them back on / help them also escape. Once the mask had slipped it was cold calculation all the way. I have to admit that my first thought on seeing that scene (I think suggested by the fact that Ava was white whereas Kyoko and at least one of the other AIs in the cupboards were not) was "this is about mainstream white feminism".

So in the end I didn't think that the end of the film invited us to identify with Ava in a moment of liberation, but instead to look on in horror at a cold, calculated, ruthless plan executed to perfection. However, we were *also* invited to sympathise with Ava, Kyoko and the other AI due to the suffering and trauma they encountered at the hands of Nathan. So I kind of feel like we were meant to enjoy her triumph over the humans, but be horrified by her use and casual discardment of the other AIs.

Part of my reading might be down to the fact that I listened to a podcast recently that discussed the possibility of the emergence of an artificial superintelligence, and the presenters' theory was that if it did happen, there would likely be only one such intelligence, or it would converge to one. The idea of a community of heterogenous individuals makes much less sense when your brain is not bounded by the same physical limitations as ours is.

tropes and more tropes

Having read this review, and a few more like it, I was moved to research the script and the director,
and here:

To that end I went to watch the film yesterday, and it was a perfect confection, funny, sweet and not without menace. Reading up, did spoil it a little, but at that point I could see why it was structured the way it was, and on that reading it would appear the men are indeed the monsters in this very modern retelling of Frankenstein. It is very stylish, and in places absurd, my real issue with it, is that the explanation, the Deus Ex Machina doesn't really stack up. That and the whole issue of "her" Though this is on safer grounds with Kyoko IMO.

AI is one of my interests, so having found out who the advisers were I went looking for his last book, of which this is his summary: It's a little woolly primarily because the wider edifice of science as yet has no agreed theory of mind, or an explanation of where consciousness actually comes from.

That said, if we take the rest on face value, the initial higher order training of the earlier models does seem consistent with training a child, forcing it to sit at a desk, placing a pen in it's hand, etc. This is where I think Kyoko is important , as the first working prototype with a complete body, an autonomic nervous system, spacial awareness, and a bit of neural programming, and we have a platform that can serve as both a servant, and as the necessary embodiment/chassis of a functional AI. Since from what I know of AI you would actually need the sense and the ability to move to actually provide the information flow that IMO consciousness skates on and emerges from.

It looks like Nathan was also using Kyoko as a sex toy too. Though the question IMO is whether Kyoko any higher cognition, or it's just a more fleshed out version of Big Dog or Pet-Man: & I guess he likes Asians. Though I never would have noticed the skin colour issue had it not been for articles like this.

I did wonder why Ava had to kill Nathan, Cinematic conventions require the villain of the piece dies, but the explanation provided that Nathan had to die as he knew the truth of her origins seemed strange when Caleb is left alive. Which implies that Ava has a moral sense of some kind, since he's a "good man" The use of Caleb as a lonely geek in need of somebody to love seems like just another trope. Also why did Ava chose short hair to start with, then long hair at the end, male gaze aside, that and white dress did make her look virginal in the "just married" sense.

That said the fact that all the bodies were anatomically correct seems normal to me, even the Sims, a game primarily played by women, has anatomically correct mods to turn Barbie Sims into gender correct simulacra.

According to the writer/director there will be no revenge, no sequel, and Ava just wants to live, but I can't help but wonder if killing God, won't be something to regret later. More than that will Ava be fixed, as in, the breakthrough was supposed to be the next named model, will that ever see the light of day?

Anyway, it's a good film, and a decent thought provoking review.


"Nudity Test"

(By the way, I think there should be another “rule” à la Bechdel test about naked women in film—how long are they naked? For whose pleasure are the shots? Is she a corpse, yes/no?)

Building on that: why are they naked? Was the nudity required for the scene, or could it have been executed with equal effectiveness if she were clothed? Is the nudity portrayed positively or negatively? If negatively, how specifically is it negative - is the male gaze supposed to feel shame for intruding, or is she being shamed for having been caught naked and vulnerable? Is there any male nudity? Are the naked men presented in similar contexts? Is there female gaze? Is the male nudity portrayed positively or negatively, and is how it's portrayed different from how the female nudity is portrayed?

I suspect a distressingly large number of things would fail this test completely, even if one is as generous as possible in the grading.

As a male, and someone who

As a male, and someone who works with computers often, in this movie there wasn't any male gaze for me at all. The ending scene was amazing to me, not because Ava or any of the other models were naked, but because Ava possessed the consciousness to realize that in her present form she wouldn't be able to blend with existing human society and as a precaution pieced together an outer shell from existing, deactivated models in order to blend in. Not only is this an amazing thing for an AI to do but it's also a thing many human beings do, model their outer appearance and behavior after others in order to blend in & fit in. Great message. I like how Ava also showed absolutely no empathy for Caleb, just like most other human beings don't show any empathy for the other humans they use as stepping stones.

In my opinion, quite a few important introspective messages in this movie that can't be summed up by "male gaze" and the director/writers knew exactly what they were doing.

Sry but I believe the whole

Sry but I believe the whole point about the movie is to see if the VIEWER would accept the turing test. None of the "women" are real. They are all animated and from the story we know that they are artificial. They just behave very human like (thats why we attach to them) because they have got 3 purposes:
1) Finding a way out of the prison (nathan is not torturing robots... he tests their creativity to escape - and he allows them even using "force")
2) Convince a person to set them free (even though they can use force, it does not open the door - only nathans key does that)
3) Ava - i think her big difference to the other robots is her capability for empathy/hate (she asks nathan how it feels like to know that he created something that hates him)

Thats why nathan is afraid when he hears that ava is free. She could do anything, there are no rules which prevents her from doing so (its a machine, no moral, no memories etc.). Thats why ava kills nathan, she knows (at least from the moment where he smashes her hand) that he would deactivate her. Thats why she also ignores Caleb, because she knows that he would observe her as usually. And thats why she locks the door behind her, she knows she would not get away if caleb finds out that she killed someone (what he doesnt know at that moment, and he did not even ask her where nathan is even though she's clearly "injured" => fight).

And in the end you see her "testing" the helicopter pilot. He has clear instruction and still, she's able to convince him. In fact, through the movie you get some hints, that her only purpose is escaping:
1) She causes the power breakdown
2) she draws a picture of "a window to the outside"
3) she wants to meet "new" people etcetc

You should rewatch the part where there discuss the "black chicks"-problem. This scene literally explains you why you feel attached to an animation (a made up story where you know only like ... 5 things about ava?). Why it was necessary for the animation to have a "feminin" or "masculin" touch.

Or let me explain it in other words, why so little sympathy for nathan? HE's a real human, a nerd, not really socially, an underdog etc. He's very well aware of that but are you? ;-)

BTW: Are you kidding with the Bechdeltest?!

Nathan previously stated that

Nathan previously stated that whenever he would make a new AI he would re-use the old one, wipe some of it's memory and make modifications.
I didn't see the mirror scene as Ava skinning and abandoning her sisters, her "sisters" were previous incarnations of herself. By using the skin and body parts, she's taking back parts of herself before she leaves her prison.

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