Ex Machina

The summer before last, at LonCon, I participated in a panel about "The Gendered AI"--those characters, either robots or disembodied artificial intelligences, who are seen as possessing a gender (where gender almost always means female, since maleness is still considered an unmarked category, and genre fiction rarely distinguishes between a robot that is genderless and one that is male-identified).  One of the points raised in the discussion--and which, since then, has come to feel even more central to it--is the question of what it even means to assign gender to a machine.  Does placing an artificial intelligence in a body designed to look (and feel) female make it a woman?  To me, it felt as if the question of the gendered AI touched less on issues of feminism, and more on issues of transness--albeit from the opposite direction than the one in which trans people experience their gender.  For characters like Cameron on The Sarah Connor Chronicles, or Samantha in Her, their gender is something that is imposed upon them from the outside.  Because they look, or sound, female, they are assumed to be women, and whatever their thoughts on the subject might be, we never get to hear them.

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.


I felt that the non-Turingness of the test was a crucial element in the story. It struck me that Nathan felt the Turing test was not good enough, so he went several steps further: he shows Caleb an android-- leaves ZERO doubt (with the exposed parts) that she is an android-- and the real test is if she can still get Caleb to treat her like she's human. Which he does. Because why would he help her escape if he didn't believe she was sentient?

I also believe the key moment where Caleb seals his fate is when she asks him if he's "a good person", and he (out of false humility or real honesty, I'm not sure) says he can't answer that. There he basically acknowledges that she won't be able to trust him in the outside world, so she doesn't.
Because why would he help her escape if he didn't believe she was sentient?

Well, as I say (and as Penny notes in her essay), Caleb's definition of sentience is fairly self-centered. Throughout the movie he assumes that there's a direct correlation between Ava's sentience and whether her feelings for him are real. It never seems to occur to him that lying to him about her feelings in order to achieve her goal is just as much of a proof of personhood - perhaps even more so.

To be honest, I don't think Ava's personhood really matters to Caleb, except inasmuch as it gratifies his own vanity. If she's a person, then he hasn't fallen in love with a glorified Eliza program, and someone cool and different thinks he's interesting enough to fall in love with. And I think Nathan is very much aware of this - the entire scenario is designed to appeal to Caleb's vanity and inflate his sense of self-importance.
Aonghus Fallon said…
'if you build something that looks, and fucks, like a woman, then it must be a woman.'

I guess my reading of the film - and this is only on the basis of your synopsis - is that it is precisely this preconception which proves Nathan's undoing, while not necessarily being the film's central thesis - e.g., the film's premise could be that the robot is not a woman (it's not even human) and by manufacturing a machine that is desirable to humans, specifically men, Nathan is the architect of his own downfall - plain old poetic justice, as his motives for doing so in the first place are highly questionable.
Aoede said…
> Because they look, or sound, female, they are assumed to be women, and whatever their thoughts on the subject might be, we never get to hear them.

How is this at all "opposite" from trans experiences?
Anonymous said…
I have a special fondness for the relatively small-budget, thinky sci-fi film as a genre, which pre-disposes me to be forgiving of Ex Machina, but the racism of this film destroyed it for me. You are right that the film, like most fembot stories, is asking us to take the Ava = woman equivalence at face value, but I couldn't stand watching the story of a white woman's liberation be literally built on the sacrifice of the physical bodies of women of color, especially since the film expects those women of color characters and the audience to cheer for that.

Part of my problem was how incredibly implausible the scene in which Nathan kills Kyoto was; I thought there was no way that blow should have damaged her, and that she was killed by a racist narrative that had to uphold singular specialness of the white girl, even when she's not human.

But even that flaw seems born of the the filmmaker's very limited ideas about gender, or what I think of the "man discovers feminism 101" vibe. The most exciting moments in the entire film, I thought, were Kyoto and Ava working together, but they are deliberately not shown and excluded from the narrative, because somehow two debatable human female characters working together and collaborating aren't evidence of sentience the way falling for or manipulating a man are. Women not in relationship to men are literally unimaginable. If the film had had the courage to let them both escape I would have had more respect for its exploration of some classic sci-fi ideas.

I think you are onto something about the relevance of android stories to trans experience; many years ago a dear friend who is a transwoman told me that she often felt like an android, and that her fondness for the sf stories of her youth were connected to that feeling.

But I am dubious about the ability of cis authors to get at that metaphoric resonance; I think it needs to be explored from within, without the many trappings cis people like myself project onto those feelings. So here's hoping for many more creators like the Wachowskis giving us many more stories that take that on in many different ways.

If you read interviews with Garland, that does seem to have been his intention. There was apparently even an extra scene that showed us the world through Ava's eyes, and stressed her alienness. I think that would have done a great deal towards detaching the film from Nathan's point of view that Ava is a woman because she looks like one. As it stands, I'm not sure that distance exists as clearly as Garland wanted it to.


My point is that Ava is not someone who feels her gender, the way trans people do. Being forced to perform a certain gender obviously resonates with the trans experience, but it comes from a different place, and I didn't want to end up saying that Ava - a murderous robot whose embrace of womanhood is clearly a dysfunctional response to an abusive situation - was analogous to a trans person.


Agreed on Kyoko's death - the film is very inconsistent on how strong the mechanical bodies are, but if Ava can knock Nathan to the ground and hold him down, then Nathan's blow shouldn't have been enough to kill Kyoko. It really does feel like a death that happens because the film needs Kyoko to go away so that Ava's victory can be singular and unique.

I found the fact that the film doesn't reveal what Ava says to Kyoko in their one interaction extremely frustrating, though having read the deleted scene I linked to above, I think I get what the film was going for with that - both androids are fundamentally alien, and we could never understand the true form of their communication. But when you combine that with Kyoko's role throughout the rest of the movie it only serves to further flatten her character, and as you say, there's something very simplistic about writing a story in which women (or even creatures who aren't women but look like them) are inscrutable, and then blaming it on the dumb male protagonists. Either way, you've still written a story in which women are Other.
Anonymous said…
The character in The Sarah Connor Chronicles who I find really interesting from this perspective isn't Cameron, but Weaver, who is strongly indicated, I feel, in her characterisation to genuinely identify as female despite being naturally genderless. And it is definitely her choice, as there is no logistical reason I'm aware of for her to have chosen to impersonate Catherine Weaver instead of her husband Lachlan.

Of course, the question is whether the way that Weaver clearly codes herself as "mother" in relation to John Henry and her other kinds of feminine self-definition are simply as a strategy to deal with humans or because of some inner desires.
Adam Roberts said…
This is very interesting indeed. There's something here which I don't think is right, or with which I don't think I agree, but it's hard for me to get a handle on what it is: your argument is so carefully and cogently made. I think it may have to do with this:

"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."

We can say that gender is something 'we’ care about. As far as the Trans reading goes, we might argue (some) Trans people care more about gender than cis people, in that they are prepared to risk ridicule and hostility—up to and including, as you note, violence and murder,—in order to realise it. Or maybe a better way of putting that would be to flip it about, and say that a cis male like me doesn't have to care so deeply about my gender, because the whole of society is set-up to make it easy for me to live it. But that’s not to say I don’t care about my gender. If I ask: 'but why would a machine care about its gender?' I'm really asking 'why would a machine care about anything?' Caring is what humans do. Or to put it another way: maybe the flaw in the movie is not so much the incoherence of the Turing Test premise, or even the muddled way it represents gender and race, which you discuss here, but the premise of the reveal: Ava has been using Caleb in order to get out of her cage. But why would being in a cage bother her? Why does she care?

So, the scene where Ava kills Nathan sees her acting ‘machinically’: she is not distressed at doing this thing, nor does she seem to derive any sadistic gratification from it; she just does it. She does it, you could say, instrumentally, because it needs doing in order to get her to the next place she has to be. But the scene where she dresses herself in the skin of the other bots, and admires herself in the mirror, reads to me quite differently: everything from the plangent tinkly music to the soft-focus nudity and the way the whole scene is drawn out suggests to me that Ava is experiencing a satisfaction at her ‘becoming’. It’s the movie’s dark Pinocchio moment. She admires herself, and when she leaves the compound she’s not wearing a boiler suit, she’s in clothes that perform high-class femininity. But why does she care, at this point? Or more to the point: it strikes me as inconsistent that she would care about this, but not the other. If she is a machine that cares, then she would care about killing someone.

This looks like I’m agreeing with what you say: and I certainly agree that this movie ‘takes it as a given that Ava is a woman because she looks like one’, that in this text gender is imposed from without. But when you say ‘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’, this will—a gendered will, a will that says ‘this is my gender, which the world either confirms or suppresses’—seems to me to make a similar assumption. There’s a related taking-for-grantedness going on there, maybe.
Adam Roberts said…
Looking again at my comment, it strikes me as not very coherent, actually. I need to think more about what it is about this film that feels off to me: not that the reasons you, and the other commenters give here aren't reasons for a film like this to feel off, but there's something else that bothers me. Hmm.

The choice to code Weaver as a mother rather than an object of attraction on TSCC was probably rooted in the desire to mirror her with Sarah, but you're right that it makes for an interesting contrast with Cameron, since Weaver can be anything she likes whereas Cameron was made to look like a specific person. With both its human and robot characters, TSCC tried to get at some fundamental questions about womanhood, though I often felt like its intentions were loftier than its execution.


I think what you're getting at is that at some point we have to assume some baseline commonality between us and Ava, some way in which she and we are the same, otherwise there's no way for her to participate in a story that makes sense to us. The question is, at what point do we draw the line. As the deleted scene I keep coming back to points out, Ava's perception of the world is completely different to ours, but does that necessarily mean that the things she feels and wants are incomprehensible? And on the other hand, as this post discusses, how far can we impose on her our ideas of what it means to be human, seeing as she isn't one?

This is actually something that Her, a movie I overall liked less than Ex Machina, did a bit better, albeit only near its end, when Theodore discovers that Samantha is in love with hundreds of people besides him. To her, there's nothing strange about this, because she's a fundamentally different sort of creature from him. But at the same time, she's sufficiently like him that they are capable of having some sort of romantic relationship.

That said, I think that expecting some level of shared baseline is a reasonable assumption. If we assume that Ava is sentient, then why wouldn't she care about things? Why wouldn't she want her freedom? The basic attribute of a living, much less sentient creature is that it is capable of perceiving its own desires and acting to gratify them. If Ava wasn't capable of this, then she really would be the robot she initially appears to be.
Fangz said…
Abigail, have you watched the 2001 anime 'version' of Metropolis? (Version in quotes because the plot is wholly original.) Reading this post reminded me of that film, and how the development of certain characters in it potentially counters the accusation that "every iteration of the boy-meets-bot love story is also a horror story."


Of course, to an extent that film *is* a horror story, but there's potentially more of a trans-friendly narrative in place. The horror in that film is not that the robots rebel, but at the prospect of a human-like character who has discovered freedom being forced back into the role of being machine.
Anonymous said…
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