Ex Machina's gender problem: How the AI blockbuster reinforces stereotypes

2015 blockbuster Ex Machina is one of the most provocative movies about artificial intelligence. But what does its portrayal of the relationship between human and machine say about women?

Image: Universal Studios

Sci-fi fantasy Ex Machina has been racking up accolades all year. It has made many best-of-2015 lists, including our own here at TechRepublic. At RogerEbert.com, Matt Zoller Seitz deemed it a "classic." Rolling Stone called it one of the best films of 2015 back in June.

The film, Alex Garland's directorial debut, is well deserving of praise. Beautifully composed, suspenseful, and provocative, the film draws viewers into a mesmerizing fantasy world that plays with deep ideas about science, technology, and humanity.

But, it also begs serious discussion by denying women power and agency.

If you haven't seen it, here's a quick recap. In a far-away mountainous retreat, Nathan, tech savante and billionaire, has enlisted Caleb, the top brain at his company, in the world's greatest science project to date--creating an artificial intelligence robot that will pass the Turing Test. In this case, Caleb must decide whether Ava, a fembot, has self-awareness. Can she fool him into believing she is real?

Some have called Ex Machina a love story. And it's no wonder: the film follows the traditional narrative. Lonely man meets machine; machine wooes man; (damsel) machine displays distress; man concocts plan to save machine.

Ex Machina's major flaw is that the women aren't real.

It is almost eerie to witness how quickly (and hard) Caleb falls for Ava. Yet even with her transparent torso, arms, legs, and neck, she is truly captivating. Anthony Lane at the New Yorker calls her "absorbingly real." But we can't forget that Ava is a construction--the construction of a man that, it is revealed over time, has abusive tendencies towards women. The whole thing becomes even more twisted when we learn that Nathan constructed Ava based on Caleb's pornography preferences, compiled through his personal browser history.

Yet even more troubling is the character of Kyoko, the woman who wordlessly cleared the table while the two men discussed important issues. Nathan describes her as a mute as a matter of confidentiality. And it is unclear what Kyoko's role is--is she a servant, girlfriend? Reviewers have called her both. Who is Kyoko? Why has she been denied a voice?

While Nathan's behavior towards women is tinged with signs of abuse, it is somewhat more difficult to pinpoint the problem with Caleb's attachment to Ava. He is the nerdy type, alone, vulnerable. Can we fault him for falling for an attractive fembot, even if her innards are glowing and her skull is a metallic mesh? Caleb's attraction to Ava is not so much unnatural--it is common for humans to attach to nonhuman objects--as it is troubling. It shows us how easy it is for us to choose an inanimate object over a relationship with another human being, which is more complicated and involves more compromises.

The argument could be made that the narrative, in which Ava eventually breaks free from her captors, is the story of empowerment. And that Nathan eventually gets what he deserves. But it would be a mistake to ignore the fact that Ex Machina fails the Bechdel Test in every way possible: there aren't even two (real) women in the film.

Ex Machina is an idea-driven movie. Many moments caused me to want to pause and reflect. And the story stayed with me for weeks afterward. It raises important concerns, tackling humanity's most fundamental questions. It is important to take these issues seriously. What does being human mean? Who can we trust? And how do we, as humans, treat each other? While it is fiction, it truly is a reflection of our human desires, anxieties, when it comes to artificial intelligence.

But it is critical that we ask ourselves: who is in control? Who are the makers? And how is the film perpetuating harmful stereotypes and fantasies?

Ultimately, we should see that Ex Machina is a film made by, and for, men.

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