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

Ex-Machina (Film4 / DNA Films 2014)

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?


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.

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

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.

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.

Ex-Machina (Film4 / DNA Films 2014)
Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) and Ava (Alicia Vikander)

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.

J. A. Micheline

J. A. Micheline

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.