What do robots have to do with gender politics? According to Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, everything. While many people view this thrilling sci-fi drama as a commentary on the tech industry, it can also be seen as a commentary on gender roles in our modern society.
Think about it- the entire film revolves around the central idea of humanity, and what makes something truly human. The only AI’s built are female. The women are literally objects. Caleb is summoned to test if Ava can pass as a human, even though he knows that she never will be. This represents the way our patriarchal society looks at woman- as things, not people. Traditionally, men have been perceived as the dominant sex. This movie focuses on that patriarchal view and the ways in which women no longer want to be seen as inferior or subdued.
It also presents interesting subtext about female sexuality, and the ways it can be manipulated. The male characters of the film see the female robots as sexual objects that will do as they expect. Nathan thinks extremely thoroughly about how to allow Ava to feel sexual pleasure, explaining it to Caleb in detail. Nathan was not satisfied with real women who he would have to deal with emotionally, so he created his “dream girl” to use for pleasure on his terms (not to mention the ridiculous racial fetishes that come into play here—the only robot with true intelligence is the white one. Nathan’s “playmate”, Kyoko, is Asian.)
Caleb, on the other hand, doesn’t just see Ava as a sexual object- he sees her as a damsel in distress (which, to the viewer, may seem ridiculous considering she is a highly intelligent computerized being). He believes that if he “rescues” her, she will owe him her love. It’s what I like to call “nice guy syndrome”. You know those men that complain that they don’t know why girls don’t love them because they are so nice? (when really women don’t owe them anything at all). Ava recognizes the misogynistic feelings Caleb illustrates and she uses that to her advantage. She dresses up for him, and moves sexually and deliberately when she knows he is watching.
I’m sure many people finished the film and felt that Caleb was betrayed. The film does set him up as our protagonist, after all. Garland manipulates cinematic language to confuse the viewer. However, anyone that truly sees Caleb for the misogynistic “white knight” wannabe he is, will know that he only wanted to use Ava for his own masculinity. His intentions aren’t much different from Nathan’s sexual using. Think about it- Caleb only ever planned on taking Ava. What about Kyoko? Isn’t she a “damsel in distress” as well? This, to me, proves that he isn’t shocked with the injustice going on in Nathan’s home. He doesn’t care that Nathan is mistreating the AI’s. He only cares about his own feelings for Ava because her freedom is good for him. He will get to keep her all to himself. She would move from one prison to another. Essentially, Caleb is going to use Ava for a means to an end. She will be his object. (But he’s a “nice guy”, right? He’s our #NotAllMen. )
The best part of the film for me, personally, is when Nathan dies. For starters, his assault of Ava is full of rape imagery. He flips her over and holds her arms down in an intense struggle. A few moments later, he is stabbed by Kyoko. This stabbing can represent his emasculation. Especially the second time, when Ava has the knife. Whereas the rest of the film Nathan has had sexual control, the knife represents Ava holding the sexual power. The motion of her pushing the knife into his chest is slow, sexual, fluid. As he falls to the ground, Ava is the only being left standing in the hallway. She finally has the power. This could represent modern women. Today, women want to be treated as equal, want to hold power. Women don’t want men to continue holding them down. Women were not created to be things that men can have.
Ex Machina is an intriguing, unexpected tale of female empowerment. As a woman, watching this film gave me hope for Hollywood. A hope that I can see more films that commentate on gender roles in such a refreshing and brilliant way.
This film is about the future, and the future for women is one where men cannot control them. Just ask Ava.