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

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. 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. [pullquote]Her freedom comes at the cost of, quite literally, the skin off of a woman of color’s back.[/pullquote]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. 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