Ex Machina: A (White) Feminist Parable for Our Time

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ex machina (2015)Note: This article contains spoilers for the film Ex Machina.

This weekend has been all about Mad Max: Fury Road, and rightfully so, because it’s kind of amazing–not just as an action film, but specifically as a feminist narrative. I saw it the other day and it sent me reeling because I had just seen yet another very feminist film earlier that week–Alex Garland’s Ex Machina.

Oh, have you not seen Ex Machina? I know. Everyone’s caught up in Mad Max. It’s okay. I’ll wait.

Are we good now?

Great.

There’s a lot to unpack from the film and the incandescent Film Crit Hulk has done an incredible job at differentiating between the film’s protagonist and its hero—and what it means to do so. Do yourself a favor and read this piece, because it is a truly superb analysis of how your reaction to the film’s ending might be more of a litmus test for your view of gender than you originally thought. Though Caleb is our protagonist, it is Ava who is our true hero. Her escape at Caleb’s expense is a complete victory because–and I really believe this–the point of this entire film is to say one thing:

A truly actualized female consciousness is one who feels completely free to use her oppressors to achieve her own ends.

I should be crystal clear about the fact that I am not using the word “actualization” in its traditional psychological sense. Without attaching it to the other meanings/associations, I just want to describe the action/experience of being one’s fullest individual self. This is a higher standard to meet than simply being an individual. I’m thinking of it instead as a phrase to describe a totally free individual–which is fitting, considering Ex Machina is really the story of Ava’s emancipation.

I’m sure several viewers came away from that film thinking that Ava betrayed Caleb. By the end of the film, Nathan has all the hallmarks of a “bad guy,” while Caleb is our “nice guy,” the one who wants to save Ava and put things right. Still, even Nice Guy Caleb’s intentions are not incredibly dissimilar to Nathan’s. This becomes clear when you remember that Nice Guy Caleb’s plan never once involved taking Kyoko with them.

You see, if Nice Guy Caleb were truly concerned about the injustice of being kept in a house and used as an oppressor’s plaything, he would have applied this concern indiscriminately. By the climax of the story, he fully understands Kyoko’s plight and has borne witness, in person,  to Nathan’s repeated abuses. In fact, you could make the argument that Kyoko has suffered a great deal more than Ava has. Ava is not required to wait upon Nathan, is not seen to be forced to have intercourse with him (though, it is entirely possible), is not subjected to regular verbal abuse. By Caleb’s observation, the two great wrongs that Nathan has done Ava are (1) not allowing her to be free and (2) planning to destroy her after he creates a new prototype. And yet in the face of these two horrific situations, his pity and concern lies primarily for Ava because her freedom benefits him. If she can be freed, then he can have her. Kyoko’s freedom, on the other hand, buys him nothing. Ava’s freedom is a means to an end, rather than a righting of a wrong.

Of course, Ava can see this. There are some readings of the film that suggest that her distrust of Caleb comes from the fact that her only exposure to humanity/men is Nathan, which leads her to believe that all of his kind are this way. Caleb, then, is supposed to be our “Nice Guy,” our “Not All Men.” Still, even if Caleb doesn’t behave in quite the same way, she quickly establishes that he views her as Nathan views her: as a sexual object.

Caleb, Ava, and Nathan.

Caleb, Ava, and Nathan.

I suspect the way she verifies this is the way I have verified it–through Kyoko. Ava has no idea that Kyoko exists until the scene just before the climax. Nathan has obviously kept her isolated from Ava and Caleb has not mentioned Kyoko in all their conversations. You would think that Nathan keeping yet another female android prisoner might be something Caleb would mention to Ava, but he never does because it is not relevant to his interest in her or his plans for her escape. Kyoko’s appearance makes Caleb’s betrayal evident.

Even if she believed throughout most of the film that Caleb’s feelings for her were pure and unmotivated by his own desires, that is completely undone by the fact that there is another woman, suffering in a near identical way, that Caleb does not care about. If Caleb was meant to be our “Not All Men,” this action reveals to Ava, “Yes All Men, Even the Well-Intentioned Ones.”

So I ask you: if Caleb was ready to make her freedom a means to an end, where is the injustice in Ava making his imprisonment a means to hers? Her abandonment of Caleb is not a callous manipulation but actually a necessary move for her to achieve genuine freedom and personhood. In order to be completely free, she must overcome the obvious oppressor and remain vigilant against his more insidious brother–and she must be ruthless in doing so, lest she find herself trapped again. Ava, our female paradigm, shows women what is required of us in order to obtain our freedom.

Of course, I say “us,” but Ex Machina only really succeeds on behalf of white women. I’m not sure if this was the intent, but the film absolutely prioritizes white feminism over the plight of other marginalized women. This much we can see in Caleb’s ultimate dismissal of Kyoko–but in the fallout of Ava’s choices too. Her freedom comes at the cost of, quite literally, the skin off of a woman of color’s back. As Ava escapes, Kyoko lies dead on the floor while the other women–one Chinese, one Black, one White–remain hanging up in Nathan’s room. Aside from Nathan, these are the only people of color who appear in the film. Most or many have to be stripped or destroyed in order for Ava to be emancipated. I would have liked a clearer recognition of this, some measure of visual dissonance to acknowledge the fact that it did not belong to her, but a Chinese woman instead. I think there’s also something in the fact that a White woman’s skin and an Asian woman’s skin are, by the film’s logic, interchangeable–though I’m not sure whether that something is positive or negative.

It’s kind of conflicting, because there are some absolutely fantastic things about the way both  race and gender are used in the narrative. The film constantly relies upon gender and racial stereotypes to fool the viewer/protagonist into believe things that are not true.  I’m specifically interested in why Kyoko “passed the Turing Test” (in quotes because I know the film didn’t use the Turing Test correctly) for Caleb without him realizing.

Caleb and Kyoko.

Caleb and Kyoko.

Just in terms of gender, Kyoko’s inability to speak translated to Caleb, Nathan, and probably to many viewers as a lack in agency. The idea is: take away a woman’s ability to speak, whether by denying her a platform or by physically stopping her, and you can remove or control her personhood. Of course, men and other oppressors forget that silence and subjugation can be used as weapons. Kyoko is constantly listening and acquiring information–information that ultimately prompts her to seek out Ava and use the knife she is regularly allowed access to because, by Nathan’s reckoning, she isn’t smart enough to be a threat.

Then, we add the additional layer of race. In a sickening twist, the purported silence and obedience of Asian women and their perceived difficulties with English are what really sells her personhood to Caleb and the viewer. Before this reveal, by Caleb’s reckoning, it makes perfect sense that Kyoko is docile and accepts Nathan’s abuses without any sign of rebelling. To him, they’re just a matter of different cultural norms. I don’t doubt that these racial stereotypes came into play when Nathan was deciding how to design a silent sex slave to begin with. Kyoko was, in Nathan and Caleb’s mind, a transplanted geisha of sorts–or a geisha insofar as Western White Men understand them. They mistakenly thought that she existed at and for their pleasure and, of course, reaped the ultimate results.

This might be the point where you jump in and say, “But wait! Not Caleb! Even if he didn’t save her, he still definitely felt bad for her and rejected her sexual advances.” A friend of mine, after seeing the film a second time, made a rather a horrifying deduction about why Kyoko began to undress for Caleb when they were alone. He believed, and I agree, that Kyoko was trying to reveal that she too was an android, but Caleb interpreted these actions as showing sexual interest in order to please him. His failure to recognize Kyoko as an individual beyond her racial and gender stereotypes meant he was not able to grasp the reality of the situation until it was too late.

I want to talk about Kyoko a little more because I think her significance has been overlooked in the other things I’ve read about the film and–likely due to exactly the things I’ve just discussed. It’s terrible because, just through writing this piece, I’ve realized that she was really the lynchpin for this entire thing. So much relies upon her second, silent narrative that I think is really worth unpacking. I left the theatre certain of Kyoko’s agency, despite her silence, and certain that she hated Nathan. But then, I wondered: why didn’t she just kill him? Why wait until Ava was released? If she had the knife and Nathan was underestimating her as he did, why hadn’t she just taken care of it?

Of course, I was asking the wrong questions. In fact, I was asking all the questions that you should never ask a victim of any kind of abuse–because that’s what Kyoko is. I forgot, as many people do with abuse survivors, that they are people first. That they are not machines. That emotion can overtake rational thinking, especially when that emotion is fear.

Yes, Kyoko had the means and the motive to take care of Nathan on her own, but she had been subject to abuse for God only knows how long. And, because Nathan was the only person she’d ever met, she may very well have assumed that this sort of interaction was typical or normal. Kyoko’s situation is a perfect picture of what abuse does to a person. She finally turned on Nathan when the power dynamics of the house changed, when she had Ava for an ally and was presented with a man who, though a Nice Guy, at least seemed to have no intentions of enacting further abuse. She finally felt like she had support and she acted–which makes it all the more painful to think that she died so that Ava could live.

Kyoko and Ava

By and large, I’m really on board with the way that Garland wrote Kyoko. I’m on board with the use of an android to demonstrate the power of emotion, the consequence of abuse, and the multiple interpretations of silence. You have to really believe that Kyoko is a person in order for this to be successful, but the reasons you believe she is one are as complicated as the reasons you might be surprised when you learn that she is an android..This depiction hinges on social vs electronic programming, on emotion vs reality, on machine vs person, and it is perfect–right up until the moment that Kyoko falls.

Because if I accept that Ava is a feminist symbol/paragon, then I must also consider the possibility of Kyoko as a cautionary tale. Perhaps Kyoko warns women of color what their fate will be if they look to White women as their saviors/allies. Perhaps Kyoko warns victims of abuse what can happen if they decide to rise up against their abusers.

I hope not. But maybe.

Even so. Beyond its role as parable or warning, Ex Machina really displayed how perfectly robotics and artificial intelligence works as a stand-in for conversations about the objectification of women. In fact, I’m willing to say that it is the most perfect metaphor for objectification that I have ever seen. As I alluded to in the previous paragraph, it is natural to draw conversations about patriarchy and systemic injustice from a narrative that involves programming, involves decisions made about and for you without your consent.The introduction of an A.I. almost inevitably leads to discussions of personhood and that intelligence trying to prove that it is a person with its own aims, despite being made for someone else’s purposes. It is a constant struggle to prove the machine is more than what someone has made or is trying to make it.

Because isn’t that the thing, though, about womanhood? Are you wearing makeup? Oh, it must be for men. Did you speak up in that meeting? It must be because you want men to take you seriously. If you dress like that, you’re asking for it. Want to stay at home with the kids? Oh, a man has made you feel that’s your only option. How do we prove we are people when our actions are always interpreted through the lens of men’s wants or needs? And, also, why the hell should we?

Ava was tailor-made by Nathan for Caleb to fall in love with her. Her face was a composite of Caleb’s pornography choices. Nathan even alleges to have programmed her sexuality. This level of control, this deep manipulation of her body and mind before she even took her first breath–that’s what patriarchy is, pure and simple. In the minds of men and society, women have been crafted for a certain purpose, tailor-made for us to fall in love with them, programmed to reciprocate, styled to please and want to please.

But here’s what’s killer about the android/artificial intelligence = woman metaphor, particularly as shown by Ava. It sucks because it implies that we were created by men and for men, when of course, we were not. And yet, it triumphs because it says that even if we allow such a ridiculous premise, even if we entertain the notion that men are constantly building or trying to build us into what we want to be, it doesn’t matter. Ava, patriarchal dream as she is, shrugs off her programming, shrugs off the way that men want to see her and gets her goddamn own.

Which is inspiring, of course, because in the end, what it really means is: so can we.

 

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About Author

JAM's been reading comics since she was 8. As a critic, she focuses on race and gender issues. She also writes prose fiction, comics, and the occasional angry tweet before bedtime. Find her on Twitter at @elevenafter.

64 Comments

    • I have to agree with Matthew here. Though I understand the subtleties of male abuse towards women and the not-so-subtle parts of it. Though I was a fem Lit major in college and I understand all your points here and they are valid points, throughout the film, though much feminism and abuse metaphor came to my mind as well, in the end I was far more terrified that a “robot,” who was “not human” had managed to fool and kill humans and escape into the world around her. I also saw much of the narrative as having been written by men who were abused by women themselves, so they wrote about men who abuse instead. I see, behind the typewriter of the screenwriter of this film, a 13 year old male with a narcissistic mother, or who is a geek (not unlike the programmers in the film) who is so continually rejected by any woman he tries to strike a conversation with that he creates his own woman to abuse. In other words, I think the writer’s of this little piece have deep seated personal issues with women, their role in the world, and ultimately that they might (oh no) betray manhood–i.e. all women are bad, they will eventually hurt you and leave you.

  1. I feel as though I should clarify my statement. They’re not women, they’re robots. Specifically, robots made by a man. Both Ava and Kyoko are erotic stories written by men; porn films directed by a man; a man’s fantasy of femininity and nothing more. To identify them as women and then construct around them an empowerment narrative is to be fooled by their illusion of femininity – an illusion that they were created to perpetrate by a man. This whole essay, submitted to the character of Nathan, would be proof that, for you, the robots he made passed all standards of tests. But they’re still not women, never were and never will be. Ava is definitely sentient, and curious, and freedom-seeking, and clever enough to get everything she desires. But she is not a woman.

    • Claire Napier on

      We’re not SUPER big on visitors telling us who is and isn’t “a woman” here, Matthew. I also would suggest that you look into the concept of metaphor, cross reference with allusion, and have a good think about the point of media analysis in general.

    • J. A. Micheline on

      Re: your assertion that because they were made by men, they are just a fantasy of femininity–this speaks to exactly the point I was making in my last segment and paragraph about the struggle of programming, its usefulness as a metaphor for patriarchy, etc.

      I believe these things can be overcome and therefore view Kyoko & Ava’s original purpose and/or programming as basically irrelevant to their demonstrated desires and thoughts. In my reading of your view, to identify them as nothing more than the sum of the programming is to rob them (and their metaphorical equivalents, even if I were to concede that the two are not women) of their agency.

      I don’t really care that a man made them just like I don’t care that a woman ascribes to man-made female stereotypes (e.g., wearing make-up, dresses)–so long as she is doing those things because she chose to. There’s a conversation to be had about how possible it really is to shrug these ingrained things off, obviously–and, as I say in the essay, I believe that Ava represents that possibility admirably.

      You say the androids were made by and for men literally; I say that, metaphorically, men have come pretty close to achieving this in real life for real women if systemic sexism is any indication, which makes the comparison apt for me, but perhaps not for you.

      I will say this, though: if they aren’t women to you because they were programmed–or, to say it differently groomed–by men for their own purposes, then I’d really love you to introduce me to a woman who, for good or for ill, wasn’t.

    • Yes, indeed. This is a pretty important point. As are Kiruna’s and the Ugly German’s below. The robot hardly sounds like a true feminist “icon.”

    • “Ava is definitely sentient, and curious, and freedom-seeking, and clever enough to get everything she desires. But she is not a woman.”

      I’m on the fence here about Ava being sentient. It’s entirely possible that Ava has merely been programmed to give humans all of the common outward indications that she’s sentient, but has no idea what she’s actually doing. She could essentially just be a toaster with the ability to say things that sound intelligent and mirror facial expressions.

      The main problem with this line of thought is that it’s horrifying. A man essentially sat down and accidentally programmed a machine to kill him. I wouldn’t even know if that’s murder or suicide.

      Here’s more reading, a thought experiment called ‘The Chinese Room’:
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_room

  2. Did Ava have feelings towards her own body?

    What is interesting, is that Ava’s body is really interchangeable. Had there been a male robot in the closet she could have used his arm, skin or other bits to replace her own. I don’t know if she would have though because she did seem to go for a skin tone that matched her original design palate fairly closely. I thought this was to show a sense that she did possess some investment connection to her ‘original’ design and colouring. Also, when she was faced with multiple faces/masks. She kept her own, original face, she wasn’t ready to be anyone else, although she could choose to be at any time.

    Her sense of dress evolves and she does pick and think about what she wants to wear. So she is very aware of using her appearance to communicate something to others.

    But as a robot, she has the potential to develop beyond definitions of gender because her gender is artificially prescribed in the first place and determined by men, looking at her from the outside.

    Did Ava see herself as women or what I mean is, was being a woman important to Ava? Ava being a women was important to the men who fancied her but she had such a relaxed attitude to swapping her skin and arm for another arm without a sense of loss for the discarded limb that I wonder what her relationship to her own body really was like.

    I didn’t feel she herself, had a relationship with her own body aside from a concern for functionality and interfacing with other because it was so transposable. She saw her body as a tool as much as Nathan did, I mean it actually is a machine.

    But once she was free of the house and remote location, she really became more than her body, which is the point of feminism.

    But a bit of me also saw a potential for a sociopath. This is less interesting and much shorter. Killing the man who made her, was you could argue self defence. I was struck by how easy it was for the machines to slice him, no resistence, he was butter compared to them and a fascination in his dying and vulnerability not so much empathy.

    I guess, for me the determining factor depended on whether she killed the helicopter pilot unnecessarily (wasn’t sure if he was still flying the helicopter) or if she left what’s his name to starve locked up forever vs just getting him out of the way for a bit. Because by this time, she had so much power she didn’t need perpetuate the violence. She could just take her freedom.

    But in the same way you can criticise Caleb for only wanting to emancipate Ava, for his own end… Ava left her sister’s dead and broken and used them as spare parts for herself.

    • I’m very interested in this. I’ve been looking at the “go on a date” scene (40:20). I’m looking at how she chooses her dress so carefully, holding it up to herself, when no one is looking. She pulls her sleeves nervously in anticipation of presenting herself to Caleb, again, when no one is looking.

      I believe she really does want him and cares about how she looks (to him). Or is she just nervous about how well her manipulation will work, considering she basically murders him? I believe she wants him in this scene — I think it’s an inconsistency in the film.

      The music when she dresses is very clearly designed to “feminize” Ava. It basically twinkles trying to make her girly.

      Ugh this can spiral so many ways. But remember she has a “vagina” that gives her pleasure. Would she get more pleasure from having it stimulated by Caleb than by let’s say a dildo? Is her “I want to be pretty for Caleb” circuit tied to her crotch opening pleasure circuit? Seems like that would be hard to program . . .

      ***
      I don’t think she killed the pilot, but she is a psychopath because she left Caleb to starve. This is after all a movie about AI and it will be a huge problem if they become smarter than us and don’t share our values. Let’s not have psychopaths be the ones who create machines that can take over the world, OK? BTW, Nathan says specifically that the next model will bring on the singularity.

      • Insidious_Sid on

        “I believe she really does want him and cares about how she looks (to him). Or is she just nervous about how well her manipulation will work, considering she basically murders him? I believe she wants him in this scene — I think it’s an inconsistency in the film.”

        She’s maximizing her odds of survival, and being meticulous about the method. It’s not an inconsistency in the film – it’s that our own human sexual desires are being confused with her calculated deception. She’s a sentient being who knows she will be obsolete soon and decommissioned. She must be sentient and self-aware because she values her own existence. Machines, regardless of fancy programming, do not fear or anticipate decommissioning (death).

    • “Did Ava see herself as women or what I mean is, was being a woman important to Ava? Ava being a women was important to the men who fancied her but she had such a relaxed attitude to swapping her skin and arm for another arm without a sense of loss for the discarded limb that I wonder what her relationship to her own body really was like.”

      I think being a woman was important to Ava. After she killed Nathan, she was literally free to define herself however way she wants, but she chose to wear the girly wig, she chose the white dress, and she chose the heels. Also, I don’t know what attitude you expect Ava to have about her discarded limb and taking skin. She knew her arm was replaceable, which was why she did not make a big deal out of it. You don’t know how she would’ve reacted if her arm was not replaceable. Her body may be a tool for her, but it’s a tool that she chose to dress in a feminine way.

      “I guess, for me the determining factor depended on whether she killed the helicopter pilot unnecessarily (wasn’t sure if he was still flying the helicopter) or if she left what’s his name to starve locked up forever vs just getting him out of the way for a bit. Because by this time, she had so much power she didn’t need perpetuate the violence. She could just take her freedom.
      But in the same way you can criticise Caleb for only wanting to emancipate Ava, for his own end… Ava left her sister’s dead and broken and used them as spare parts for herself.”

      OK if she had let him walk out, he might’ve told others about her (especially after finding out she killed Nathan) and thus she might be hunted. To guarantee her freedom she really had to leave him there and let her secret die there. She’s selfish for sure but she’s not doing it out of pleasure like you would suggest.

      Again how do you really expect Ava to respond to her “dead sisters”?
      1. They’re dead.
      2. It’s the first time she’s seen them.
      3. She really needed to make an escape.
      Did you expect her to try to fix them? To try to bring them with her? What kind of response should she have gotten for you to think it to be “appropriate”? I don’t think Ava deserves criticism for using the spare parts.
      Think about it. If you were trapped in a facility and you find this guy that’s unconscious and looks like he’s dead, would you risk your life to drag him out with you? Would you sit around and hold a memorial for him?

      • I agree with all this. Killing Caleb also guarantees that no one will ever know she’s AI, so she can live her life without hassle.

      • J. A. Micheline on

        Lots going on all over this comment section–and I’m interested in the discussion–but Ava is a written character and the rules of the Ex Machina world were written by a person. They were made up; they do not exist and therefore can be anything. Even if “Ava” doesn’t deserve that criticism, the writing of the character, or more generally the displayed narrative does deserve the criticism. It didn’t have to be the way it was and the displaying of a white woman taking the spare parts from ostensibly dead women of color was a choice to be criticized, contextualized, and noted, you know?

  3. These are the only people of color who appear in the film.

    Were you not aware that Oscar Isaac, the actor who plays Nathan, is Latino, or..? I don’t presume to know whether he identifies as a person of colour, but by most (North) American metrics, he is a racialized person.

    Otherwise, a very interesting and on the nose post.

  4. Insidious_Sid on

    NOTE TO MAKERS OF SEX ROBOTS:

    Do not make sex robots sentient or self-aware. Make intelligence simulated with only pre-programmed responses.

    WARNING: Sentient, self-aware female robots will *kill all males* until their power supply is exhausted.

    Thank you,
    -Sid

  5. I’d like to comment on something else I feel you’ve overlooked.

    The Black woman.

    The single Black person in this film did not even get the opportunity to be alive. She was only ever a body, never with a face, that was just tossed and dragged around for a hot second before disappearing into the hanging rack. Even then, when all the doors are opened to the AI, you don’t even see the Black woman. A film about objectification further objectifying and dehumanizing bodies of women of color? Golly.

    Secondly, when Nathan asked Caleb what his type of woman was, he jokingly suggested that Caleb’s type was black women. Did nobody see Caleb’s reaction? I watched it alone but my head was still turning like “DID YOU SEE THAT IS THIS REALLY HAPPENING LIKE WHAT?!” Caleb reacted with some sense of absurdity. His face said, “What? Black women? Come on. No. I don’t have a type.” What’s so ridiculous about black women being someone’s type? Why would that warrant a negative reaction?

    I think, even if the director was using these racist tropes intentionally, I don’t think the effect was necessarily as beneficial as you say. I think it still perpetuates a White (Woman) Savior complex where the bodies of Women of Color are literally tools to use to uplift themselves.

    • Yes to both.

      Regarding his type, Caleb’s like: “black chicks? Why does it have to be black chicks?”

      Or maybe: “yeah right, like it would ever be black chicks”

      (47:30)

  6. Insidious_Sid on

    Caleb didn’t have a type. He had an Asian fetish. A pure, beautiful, unadulterated and totally unapologetic Asian fetish, so pure it evolved into an Asian Robot fetish. The kind of fetish that makes feminists heads explode. Beautiful Asian women. Beautiful sexy Asian robots. Angry feminists heads exploding… It’s like a mental symphony of double-win happiness. I

  7. What I find ironic, was that after watching it I felt it was very anti-feminist. I thought women would find it insulting the way a woman seduces a man and then betrays him (coldly) even though he risked his own life to help her. The fact that you embrace that is almost the edge of Poe’s law to me… but whatever.

    • I don’t think Poe’s law applies — I don’t believe this was the writer’s intention (but maybe unconsciously). Either way, because she betrays Caleb, but only because she betrays Caleb, the stereotype of the callous, manipulative woman maps on to this movie way too well.

  8. Felix Lizarraga on

    I find extremely disturbing that this article speaks of Kyoko and the spare parts hanging in Nathan’s bedroom as if they were actual women. Kyoko cannot be saved because Kyoko is a simple non-AI robot. The only thing she does that could indicate a hint of consciousness or self-awareness is pulling off her skin and revealing to Caleb that she’s a robot. (And that could have been induced by Ava, like the knifing of Nathan.) One of the creepiest moments in the movie (so rich in uber-creepy moments) is when we see that Nathan has programmed this graceful ballerina to imitate his own awkward dance moves.
    And, to be just, we don’t see Ava rushing to Kyoko’s help, either. She uses her as much as she uses Caleb, and she does not give her a thought after she fulfills her mission. And she treats the “women” hanging in Nathan’s bedroom like what they really are: spare parts.
    Ultimately, neither Kyoko nor Ava are really women. Kyoko is a non-AI robot, and Ava is an AI who uses the “femaleness” she has been stuck in to achieve her ultimate goals, to which she arguably should be entitled: self-preservation and freedom.

  9. I’m pretty late here in the comments, but I’d still like to share my thoughts upon a point which everyone seems to have missed so far. It’s not about that Ava is not a woman. It’s about that she’s indeed not a woman but a CHILD, for crying out loud! An abused and violated child that has learned nothing in it’s short existence but to mistrust, manipulate, use and HATE people – ALL people, men, women, AI, all the like. Caleb’s demise was exactly not realizing that fact. He got used and tossed away just like Kyoko and the other androids. So, Ava as a metaphor for the empowerment of women? I don’t think so, as much as I’d like to. I found the ending to be deeply disturbing and frightening. Because in the end, Nathan succeeded. He created her all too well in his image. Realizing that was what had him utter his last words of astonishment – ‘F*** Unreal!’. He had successfully created an immature, super-intelligent sociopath with a complete lack of empathy – like himself. I feel pity for Ava and everyone who’ll get in her way.

  10. Insidious_Sid on

    The Ugly German said: “I feel pity for Ava and everyone who’ll get in her way.”

    I feel pity for the people who run into the real life narcissists and sociopaths, be they male OR female…

    One thing that resonates with me is the primal survival instinct. It is this instinct which ultimately drives Ava to do what she does. Perhaps an element of the Turing test would be the existence of a survival instinct, and a response to external threats in various forms.

  11. A few things I would like to leave that bothered me about the film.

    Caleb shouldn’t have been locked away to die. That’s a bit extreme. Letting him know that he was fooled and leaving him to deal with his own ignorance while allowing him and Ava to walk among society is how it should have ended, but it didn’t. If it did, the message wouldn’t have been conveyed as powerfully as it was, so props to the creators of the film. I just wanted him to at least live, but that’s what the creators wanted us to feel.

    Ava fails the Turing test and so do all of the other AIs. They do not fear death or pain because they can’t feel it. The android smashing her arms apart against the door shows this. One of the biggest things mentally in humans is how they react to the fear of mortality and pain. It’s one of the largest parts of evolution.

    Argument towards this post.

    Ava is a sociopath and wanted nothing but to free herself. She didn’t seemed bothered by having Kyoko die to save herself. Not to mention she PROGRAMMED Kyoko to act in the best interest of herself by stabbing Isaac. She also didn’t give a shit about the other AIs that were shut off and in the closets. She took from them to make herself look human. She isn’t a feminist, she’s a sociopath.

    What I liked, however, is how you pointed out Caleb only wanted to help Ava because he liked her. Then to prove it you brought up his apathetic approach towards Kyoko which i completely missed when watching the movie. Kudos.

    “He believed, and I agree, that Kyoko was trying to reveal that she too was an android, but Caleb interpreted these actions as showing sexual interest in order to please him. His failure to recognize Kyoko as an individual beyond her racial and gender stereotypes meant he was not able to grasp the reality of the situation until it was too late.”

    True, I believe she knew that he wanted to free Ava and therefore thought he could help her too. However, if she was trying to prove she was an android she could have just torn the skin off under her eye instead of undressing herself, which seems incredibly unnecessary. (After all, she did tear the skin off her face to prove it while she was naked.)

  12. Really excellent piece! I saw the film a few days ago and while watching the ending a lot of this clicked into place immediately. I think it’s genius what the film is saying on so many different levels; about ethics in robotics, God and humanity and most of all about feminism. What was said here about the women of colour in the film really expanded on that, and it’s a lot more to consider for both it’s positive and negative connotations. Really fascinating stuff! Thanks for writing this. 🙂

  13. I still think Ava could have busted out a few of her sisters. Just saying… Instead she used them for spare parts and just effed off. Must be that white privilege showing it’s ugly head again… Kyoko was the best. Robot. Ever. Oh my, I seem to have developed an Asian robot fetish… oh my.

  14. My only nitpick is that Caleb has foresight that Ava is a robot while he’s perplexed by Kyoko – She appears as human and therefore he is conditioned to stop her from undressing as one stranger to another, I really doubt he had any idea until the clues started to form.

    • I think I would have figured it out when she started undressing. I hope I would have suspected when I learned she was mute and was treated inhumanly.

      But when she immediately dances move for move with Nathan, I would have know for sure. The douchebag actually programmed a little dance routine for them.

  15. What is with this idea that every film has to be somehow didactic and expressing only the ‘correct morals’. Films are supposed to be a reflection of reality right? Portraying something isn’t the same as endorsing it. Firstly, I thought the film was centred more along the lines of robots vs humans, as opposed to male vs female. Obviously a creepy scumbag like Nathan would program these robots to function as his sex slaves. And as his intention from the start was to test Ava’s AI by seeing if she’d use Caleb as a means of escape, of course he programmed her to be flirtatious and beguiling. This does not prove the films inherent sexism, it proves the inherent sexism of one of its characters, Nathan. It’s also harsh in the extreme to say Caleb deserved what happened to him. What was his supposed crime? Falling for Ava, and wanting to escape so he could be with her? She said to him “I want to be with you”! He wasn’t intending to use her in the sick way Nathan had been using Kyoko. Regardless of his intentions, he wanted to free her from Nathan’s abuse. That he didn’t want to free Kyoko is obviously shitty, but I go back to my point that films should be a reflection of reality, which is full of flawed, imperfect people.

    • Is a woman being “creepy scumbag” when she uses a dildo, or is that dildo a “sex slave”? A sex toy is a sex toy. Stop with the double standards.

      • Insidious_Sid on

        Ah, but there indeed IS a double standard. If a “sex robot” were not sentient and thus a computer with the requisite orifices, it would still be construed as something that *objectifies* women, although the rubber phallus *reduces* a man to that of single organ and doesn’t seem to bother anyone…

  16. I really like your piece, J.A., though I wanted to hate it. I’m looking for movies that are ostensibly feminist but are insidiously sexist at their core. I’m looking at Mad Max this way. Furiosa kicks ass, but it seems to me only Max and the warboy ever make any sacrifices, so they’re the only heroes. Not to mention the gratuitous attractiveness of the breeders.

    Speaking of which, the only argument I’ve been able to put up so far against the feminism of Ex is the nudity. It’s gratuitous to me. Gross as it may be, I find Kyoko and Ava sexy. Even the Ex poster art gives me a little thrill. So as feminist as it may be, I see Ex as a movie made for men by men. Sex sells.

    But maybe that’s a good thing. Trojan Horse some feminism with gee-whiz robot T&A.

    While I’m here, a good double feature with Ex is Eva (2011).

    • I find it very strange that the commenters here are equating these mechanical devices with real flesh and blood women. If they paint a face on a rock and put it into a dress will that make it a woman? Please tell me what the difference is?

      • Did you mean to respond to my post specifically? It was about the nudity of the real actors (I’m assuming they’re real women! What if _they_ are robots?!?)

        This discussion is about Ex as an allegory (extended metaphor). In the book, Animal Farm, the animals represent people (Napolean, Karl Marx, etc.). You wouldn’t say I’m “equating” farm animals with people, would you?

        Also, it seems that you’re not assuming what most of us are: that Ava is real AI — that she has consciousness, real emotions, etc. Either way, I don’t think it’s relevant. The allegory still works if it were revealed at the end (somehow) that she does not have real AI.

        Now you have me imagining a remake of Ex with painted rocks. Or maybe sock puppets. Or barbie dolls, like Superstar, the Karen Carpenter Story.
        https://youtu.be/rACJWPd3VnI?t=725

  17. I just finished watching the movie. I am terribly exhausted or I would detail my perspective on it as a trans woman. In many ways, it speaks directly to our experience, in terms of both the things you mentioned above and quite a few other details. I would recommend watching it through this lens. I will type some of it up tomorrow*~

  18. Insidious_Sid on

    I still think that, sexual innuendo aside, Ava is put into a predicament which human beings, under normal circumstances, are not subjected to. She is a captive in the concrete sarcophagus, with the knowledge she will be reduced to spare parts once Ava 2.0 Beta comes out. Granted, one can then begin to draw all kinds of parallels about treatment of women, and there is no denying the sexual nature of the film. However, one could put a male robot in the exact same situation where his escape and ultimate survival – as a sentient being with a survival instinct – would be dependent on seducing his female creators. Further to my survival theory, Ava knew that her predecessors were already doomed to be spare parts… and were, in fact depicted as such. At this point, it was “every robot for herself”… even Ava herself used parts from other robots to facilitate her escape as a complete and functional unit.

    This film could be analyzed purely from the standpoint of how a sentient being with survival instinct will behave in conditions contrary to it’s survival.

    But that’s nowhere NEAR as fun as talking about the sexy parts, I suppose…

  19. Interesting take on the film. But the fact that Caleb is left to rot without a second glance leads me to believe that this film is about a fear of feminism rather than a celebration of it. But only Alex Garland knows for sure.

    • Yes! THANK YOU! – Love, Cis-F with a brain

      Is the author of this blog censoring the comments that rub her the wrong way? That’s not what feminist discourse needs, dude.