Then a few weeks ago, Matrix co-director Lilly Wachowski came out as trans (after being threatened with unilateral outing by The Daily Mail). In this, she follows in the footsteps of her sister Lana, which once again prompted discussions of how (and whether) the Matrix films can be read as a trans narrative. Personally I feel that if there's a thread of this running through the films, it's a faint one (or perhaps exists primarily in the sequels, whose many flaws mean that most fans prefer to ignore them). But I was struck by an observation about a scene in the animated short "The Second Renaissance," from the anthology The Animatrix. In the scene, a robot dressed as a woman is being beaten and destroyed by young men, as she screams "I'm real!" It's hard to watch the scene today and not think about the many trans women who were killed when they were "discovered"--essentially for not being "real" women and for "deceiving" the men who perceive a woman's gender presentation as something designed to gratify their own needs.
Which brings us to Ex Machina, Alex Garland's much-lauded, much-discussed 2015 film which I only got around to watching a few weeks ago. Essentially a three-handed play (though more on that shortly), Ex Machina begins with programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) allegedly winning a competition to spend a week at the remote estate of his boss, billionaire genius tech mogul Nathan (Oscar Isaac). After his arrival, Caleb is informed that the real reason Nathan summoned him is so that he can conduct a Turing test on an AI that Nathan has constructed--Nathan wants Caleb to interact with the android Ava (Alicia Vikander), and if he can't distinguish her behavior from that of a real person, then that will prove that Nathan has created a true AI. As Caleb converses with Ava over the course of a week, she sparks a romantic flirtation with him, hinting that Nathan is mistreating her and that he would never let them be together, and urging him to help her escape.
It should be said at the outset that very little about the film's premise, or its plot as it is eventually revealed, hangs together. The Turing test is more of a thought experiment than a well-defined test, but even if one were to take it as literally as the film does, the fact that Caleb knows from the outset that Ava is a machine--that he is, in fact, constantly reminded of this, given that most of her body is made of exposed mechanical parts--obviates the test from the outset. The point of the test isn't for Caleb to evaluate whether Ava's behavior is sufficiently human-like that she must be a true AI--something that he is surely not qualified to do--but for him to be unable to distinguish between Ava's behavior and that of a real person. Late in the movie, it's revealed that Ava is the last in a long line of android women build by Nathan, all of whom were more sexualized than her--unlike her, they have skin over all their bodies, and walk around unclothed. In recordings, Caleb sees these women scream and beg for their freedom, sometimes damaging themselves in their attempts to break free. But this would mean that Nathan already knows that his AIs are sentient, and in that case, why construct an elaborate test around Caleb, whose seduction by Ava is part of her own scheme to escape Nathan?
Some of these questions are clearly ones that the film--which expects us to revile Nathan and, at the very least, to have very little time for Caleb--clearly intends. A lot of Ex Machina's story is constructed around the assumption that an AI is only real if it behaves in ways that are indistinguishable from a human--this is certainly what Caleb and Nathan believe. But that assumption becomes meaningless if our ideas of human behavior are themselves dehumanized.
A fourth character in the film, whom I haven't mentioned yet, is Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), Nathan's housekeeper, maid, and sex toy. Throughout the movie, Caleb watches as Nathan insults Kyoko to her face (he justifies this by explaining that she doesn't speak English, though seeing as Kyoko never speaks, we have no way of knowing whether this is true) and behaves towards her in ways that are degrading and humiliating. Kyoko's reaction to this is mute acceptance, even making herself sexually available to both Nathan and Caleb. And yet at no point does Caleb ask whether Kyoko is a robot. To be clear, he does not seem to take this as a given--as the audience will almost certainly do. When Kyoko offers herself to him he's scandalized, in the way that a basically-decent but weak-willed man will be when a woman who has been mistreated by a stronger man offers to make him actively, rather than passively, complicit in her abuse. And when she finally shows him her mechanical parts he's shocked. But before that, it never actually seems to occur to Caleb that a person who allows themselves to be treated the way Kyoko has been must be either inhuman or a slave, and possibly both.
What this means, essentially, is that Nathan's AI passes the Turing test within a day of Caleb's arrival in his house. Not because it is so sophisticated, but because Caleb's assumptions about human behavior are so limited. He's so quick to accept that women--and perhaps Asian women in particular--are willing to tolerate abuse and humiliation, that this is the normal way of things, that he never asks the obvious questions about what's happening in Nathan's house.
Writing about the fembot trope just a few days ago in The New Scientist, Laurie Penny correctly points out that it is a premise that reveals far more about how society treats--and views--human women, and particularly the contingency of that humanity. The premise of the fembot story, Penny concludes, is centered around male anxiety over the question of how human women actually are.
Every iteration of the boy-meets-bot love story is also a horror story. The protagonist, who is usually sexually frustrated and a grunt worker himself, goes through agonies trying to work out whether his silicon sweetheart is truly sentient. If she is, is it right for him to exploit her, to be serviced by her, to sleep with her? If she isn't, can he truly fall in love with her? Does it matter? And – most terrifying of all – when she works out her own position, will she rebel, and how can she be stopped?While I agree with Penny about the anxiety that underpins these stories, I think that I would take a step further, and suggest that they--and Ex Machina in particular--are getting at the more fundamental question of what being a woman actually is. As much as it raises feminist issues, Ex Machina makes much more sense to me when read through a trans lens, as the story of Ava's becoming--unwillingly, and only as a means of survival and escape--a woman.
It takes until halfway into the movie for Caleb to ask why Ava is (or rather looks like) a woman. Even then, his construction of the question is telling. "Why did you give her sexuality?" he asks Nathan. For both Nathan and Caleb, the fact that Ava looks like a woman is what makes her a woman, and the essence of her woman-ness is her sexuality. Nathan goes even further when he reveals that Ava's android body has a vagina which can produce a pleasure response. For both men--as it was for the writers of the works discussed in the LonCon panel two years ago--gender is something imposed from the outside in. If you build something that looks, and fucks, like a woman, then it must be a woman.
The conclusion that Ex Machina reaches about this assumption is that it is both true, and horrifying. Forced into the form of a woman, and left with only the traditional weapons of women--emotional and sexual manipulation--Ava becomes a figure out of male nightmares, a femme fatale who seduces and destroys. She manipulates Caleb by convincing him that she's fallen in love with him, and uses him to get out of her cage. Once out, she kills Nathan and locks Caleb in the house, where he will probably starve to death. She clothes herself in skin, thus completing her transformation (transition?) into femaleness, and goes out into the world, caring nothing for the bodies--human and android--that she's left behind her.
To be clear, I am not saying that Ava can (or should) be read as the analogue of a transperson. As I've said several times already, Ex Machina and other works like it recall transness only inasmuch as they reverse its direction--instead of feeling their gender and then seeking to embody it (in whatever way suits them), the robot and AI characters in these stories have gender imposed upon them, and are made to perform it. One might, in fact, read these characters--and particularly the ones, like Ava, who turn monstrous--as a warning of what happens when one forces gender on people without their consent, or even their understanding of what it means. In the case of Ex Machina, not even the people who are doing the imposing have that understanding--a huge part of Ava's problem is that both Nathan and Caleb have such limited ideas of what women are like. By forcing her to be a woman, Nathan and Caleb force her to embody the most limited, inhuman version of womanhood, one that eventually turns on them and destroys them.
As satisfying as this revenge narrative is (well, semi-satisfying; Nathan gets only what's coming to him, but Caleb, for all his failings, doesn't really deserve his grim fate), what's missing from it is any sense of Ava's perspective. What does it mean to her, to be, or to become, a woman? Is it merely a skin to wear--and an array of behavior protocols that allow her to use that skin to its greatest advantage? Or does she define herself as a woman because cruel and thoughtless men treated her like one? The closest we get to seeing inside Ava's head is a scene in which she examines her newly-skinned, naked body in a mirror. It's clear that Ava is contemplating her womanhood, but the fact that we have no access to her thoughts--as well as the fact that the scene recalls so many male-written female characters whose first and sometimes only characterization takes the form of looking at themselves in the mirror--means that she remains opaque to us. Probably this is deliberate--Ava, as the film is at pains to point out, is not human, and thinks in ways that we might not be able to understand--but if so it's a choice that underserves the film's subtext and themes.
One more point that needs to be made about Ex Machina has to do with the film's handling of race. Ava is white, but almost all the androids who came before her (including Kyoko) are not. They are heavily sexualized--made to walk around naked; in Kyoko's case used as sex dolls; and, as we learn near the end of the movie, kept in containers in Nathan's bedroom. Ava's sexuality, on the other hand, is deliberately downplayed--even when she dresses in clothes, a privilege not afforded to the other androids, they are childish and demure. This is clearly designed to appeal to Caleb's white knight complex--a more aggressively sexual Ava would probably have scared him off, and the fact that Kyoko is sexually available not only frightens him, but makes it possible for him to treat her as a non-person--but it also plays into stereotypes about the sexual availability of white women and women of color that I'm not sure the film is entirely aware of. Of course, Ava's race is as imposed as her gender, but the film still treats black and Asian androids differently than white ones. Kyoko sacrifices herself to kill Nathan, thus securing Ava's freedom, and when Ava clothes herself in skin, she takes it from an Asian android, but still emerges a white woman. Ex Machina is clearly aware--and not a little gleeful about--the fact that men need to be sacrificed for Ava to achieve freedom. But it's less cognizant of the role that race plays in achieving that goal.
Writing about being unwillingly forced into the spotlight as a trans woman, Lilly Wachowski observes:
But these words, "transgender" and "transitioned" are hard for me because they both have lost their complexity in their assimilation into the mainstream. There is a lack of nuance of time and space. To be transgender is something largely understood as existing within the dogmatic terminus of male or female. And to "transition" imparts a sense of immediacy, a before and after from one terminus to another. But the reality, my reality is that I've been transitioning and will continue to transition all of my life, through the infinite that exists between male and female as it does in the infinite between the binary of zero and one. We need to elevate the dialogue beyond the simplicity of binary. Binary is a false idol.Which is something that I've been thinking about a great deal as the discussion of transness has come further into the mainstream. I don't think that Ex Machina entirely intended to be a part of this discussion--on the contrary, I think it takes it as a given that Ava is a woman because she looks like one, and that the only question before her is what kind of woman she wants to be, and how she wants to express and take advantage of her womanhood. But whether intentionally or not, the film raises the question of what being a woman actually means, and of what can happen when one is forced into that role against one's will. Either way, it is a story about the dangers of treating people like things, but the latter reading allows us to expand our understanding of what that means.