The Gender Politics of Ex Machina

[note: still trying to find a balance between the academic style of writing I’m used to and something more colloquial. This seems to be the most traditionally academic thing on this blog thus far. Any feedback about it would be appreciated]

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Ex Machina is a film about many things: how technology is shaping future interaction; what is it to be human; the desire to play god. But one of the key themes is an exploration of gender roles. This can be seen in part through the genre conventions of the film, as the techno-thriller very quickly devolves into something resembling exploitation cinema by the finale. But primarily the gender politics are explored through Ava, the feminised artificial intelligence. The hyper-feminine fetishisation of technology is not a new concept in cinema – Hel in the 1927 film Metropolis for example – but what sets Ex Machina apart is every male character is aware that this femininity is artificial. Both Caleb (Domnhall Gleason) and Nate (Oscar Isaacs) are fully aware that this is a machine, that the performance of femininity masks the lack of any organic humanity, yet they still romanticise Ava. Therefore I would argue that Ex Machina not only offers much in the way of exploring femininity, but a crisis of masculinity in response to both a sexualised form of gender, but also a consciousness which is simultaneously believable real but also calls attention to itself as a construct. What does it mean to be masculine in a world where human gender, and consciousness, are known to be performative and replicable?

Caleb is positioned as a voyeur for much of Ex Machina. His function within the narrative is to watch, but the nature of his voyeurism changes as the film progresses. On his first night at Nate’s house, Caleb discovers he has a direct feed to the CCTV in Ava’s room which causes him to rise from bed and gaze intensely at the screen. During this scene there is a close up of Domhnall Gleeson’s face to make clear there is some emotional response to what he is seeing; however it is unclear whether his wondrous response is an overtly sexualising gaze or more a response to the incredible technology before him. The narrative makes clear that Ava’s sexuality is a “false flag” to distract from her nature as a robot; in other words, Ava’s overt heterosexuality is used to “masquerade” her lack of biological humanity. As feminist scholar Mary Ann Doane notes “to masquerade is to manufacture a lack in the form of a certain distance between oneself and ones image”. Although her image clearly defines her as the uncanny other, her performance of heterosexual woman is suggestive of normal humanity. However, within Ex Machina the masculine characters are fully aware of the truth behind the manufactured image. This is why this initial voyeuristic gaze is so conflicted — it is impossible to tell whether Caleb is adopting a sexualising masculine gaze, or his gaze is impressed by the specific performance of femininity by something artificial.

But by the end of the film Caleb’s gaze is more overtly sexualising and this leads to his downfall. After the death of Nate, Caleb is made to wait in his office and he watches as Ava finds her prototypes and tears them apart. Again Nate is clearly allowed to see behind the masquerade as he watches Ava literally dress for the performance of “human woman”. The camera adopts the point of view of Caleb as he watches the robot dress up as a naked women; the audience is presented with a paradox upon the screen as, although this is one of the few times we are shown Ava clothed, at the same time it is the first time she is truly naked. Unlike before, where the gaze was both sexualising and appreciative on a meta-gender level now the gaze is solely a sexualising one. Caleb is aware that Ava is not actually human, but he chooses to ignore this in face of a sexualised femininity being performed before him. Ex Machina presents masculinity as weak and easily manipulated in response to an overtly sexual, more importantly heterosexual, feminine performance.

Ex Machina uses this masquerade to prompt a more explicit crisis in Caleb’s own masculine identity. So believable is Ava’s performance of femininity that, even though he’s aware she is a construct, Caleb starts to question is own human identity. In one scene late in the narrative, Caleb looks into a mirror and pokes and prods at himself in an attempt to prove that he’s human; his paranoia reaches a peak when he disassembles a razor, slits his wrists and that smashes the mirror with a bloody fist. The mirror is obviously a symbol within cinema of personal identity, with the reflection on oneself being made literal as a sign of a crisis of the self. Yet it is ambiguous how the narrative resolves this crisis within Caleb, with the smashing of the mirror being an obscure symbol. On one hand, the smashing of the mirror can be seen as Caleb being somewhat secure within his masculine identity; in being able to bleed, Caleb has become sure in his own humanity so no longer needs to reflect upon himself. Alternatively, the symbolic smashing of can be seen as Caleb choosing to forego visual definitions of gender and identity in a filmic world in which gender is explicitly defined through performance. The presentation of Ava as the visual “other” but performative human is simultaneously reflected within the crisis facing Caleb. Garland presents Caleb as struggling with the conventional definitions of gendered identity on a visual level within a narrative world where gender is explicitly performative.

Ultimately Ex Machina is a narrative featuring a crisis of masculinity in a technologically advanced society in which the definitions of gender is changing. Ava’s ability to pass the Turing test, despite every character being aware that she is artificial, presents a gendered identity that exits solely in a performative level. Caleb’s voyeurism towards Ava eventually causes a reimagining of his own personal, masculine identity. The film is not a warning about a society being destroyed by sexualised femininity (like Metropolis is) but rather how a technologically advanced, post-modern society is rapidly changing traditional means of accessing personal identity and it exposes the gender conflict that arise because of this.

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