Gender and Feminism in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina


I most recently wrote about Alex Garland’s directorial debut when I included it among my top 10 films of 2015. I also reviewed Ex Machina back in April. In both posts, I praise the film for a number of reasons, but that’s not why I’m here today. This post isn’t about how good Ex Machina is; it’s about some of the ways in which it uses and represents women and gender.

**the rest of the this post contains spoilers**

Ex Machina repeatedly makes it clear that it has an interest in sexuality and control, but those interests are merely a symptom of its larger concern with questions of gender. When I went to watch the film, I expected to see a compelling piece of science fiction, and I did. What I did not expect was for Ex Machina to also be an intelligent feminist film, but it most certainly is that as well. Garland’s film may look like it’s about artificial intelligence and technology, but its heart also contains deep thematic concern for the ways in which women are so frequently silenced and controlled by a society—and a film industry—dominated by men.

Though it may seem obvious, the fact that the only women in Ex Machina are AIs created by Nathan is integral to its depiction of gender and of the power and representational imbalances that women suffer. There are only 3 named characters in the film who speak: Nathan the tech genius, Caleb the ordinary man, and Ava the imprisoned AI. The film also has a 4th character, a silent AI named Kyoko, who is effectively Nathan’s sex and house slave.

In Ex Machina, the men move and interact as they see fit, but the women are systematically silenced and controlled. Whereas Caleb and Nathan talk with each other (and to the AIs) freely and regularly, Kyoko and Ava are never allowed to see each other (let alone speak to each other, since Nathan deliberately created Kyoko without a voice). On top of that, Ava only ever talks to one man at time and only when that man comes to her cell. Unlike Nathan and Caleb, Ava—as Ex Machina’s primary woman—has no say in where she goes or in who she speaks to and when. Ava is a prisoner, and when she isn’t talking to someone who sees her as a sexual object, she effectively has no voice at all.

The fact that Ava is constantly objectified and silenced by men is further highlighted by the video feed that Caleb has in his room. Whenever he is in his room alone, Caleb can and does watch Ava, and he does so without her permission. Moreover, Nathan deliberately designed the video feed not to allow Caleb to hear Ava; the feed has no audio, and thus, it too silences and controls her. It’s also worth noting that Nathan designed Ava’s face based on information he gathered from Caleb’s porn-watching habits. In part, Ava was created to arouse Caleb sexually. Therefore, whenever Caleb watches Ava on the screen in his room, he might as well be watching porn, and Ava herself can’t do a thing about it as long as Nathan and his sexism hold her captive.  

Though Ava’s imprisonment is made clear relatively early in the film, Kyoko’s may be harder for some viewers to see. For most of Ex Machina, Kyoko is presented as a human woman who does whatever Nathan wants, who is willing to take her clothes off at the drop of a hat, and who does not speak English. She is beautiful, she is silent, and she does what a man (Nathan) says (and nothing else); and yet Ex Machina—like so many films—asks viewers to accept her reality as a woman nonetheless. However, unlike so many other films, Ex Machina takes its viewer’s willingness to accept its initial representation of Kyoko and turns it against them.

Once Kyoko—who has apparently been programmed to undress whenever she’s alone with a man—pulls back her skin to reveal that she is an AI, viewers are forced to consider all of her previous behavior in a new and unsettling light. Kyoko isn’t a maid who doesn’t speak English, who never expresses herself, and who just happens to make herself sexually available to men; rather, she’s a slave to Nathan’s idea of what a woman should be (and the two are not so different). Nathan sexism, his tendency to objectify women, and his intense desire to control allow him to serve as Ex Machina’s primary stand-in for patriarchal society. Thus, if Kyoko is an AI that he created to bring him dinner, clean his house, pleasure him sexually, and keep her mouth shut, then she can also be understood as an example of the ways in which women are controlled, abused, and misrepresented by male-dominated society and its movies. Kyoko isn’t just any woman, she’s a slave, and if viewers don’t realize this immediately, it’s because so many other films have conditioned them not too.

By presenting only one woman who has a voice, by keeping its two women separate for most of the film, and by never allowing two women to have a conversation, Ex Machina clearly eschews the Bechdel test (even when Ava and Kyoko finally do come into contact with each other, viewers are not allowed to hear whatever it is that Ava whispers). In doing so, the film also condemns those who accept the underrepresentation of women as the norm. Though the source of their imprisonment, the fact of their objectification, and the degree of their silence may be more pronounced than usual, Ava and Kyoko aren’t treated any differently than countless other women on film. In fact, for most of its running time, Ex Machina mirrors and calls attention to the oppressive and unequal manner in which women are typically represented in Hollywood. However, where the film industry more generally should be challenged and criticized for its insistence on prioritizing the stories of men while reducing women to their capacity to serve and support male characters, Ex Machina should not. For, before Garland’s film ends, he makes sure to turn its structure of gender-based power dynamics on its head, and he does so in spectacular fashion.

With its final section, Ex Machina declares that it has little sympathy for men who like to think of themselves as gods among women. The film could have easily ended with Ava still in locked in her room. That said, a more typical ending would have seen her both saved by and romantically attached to Caleb. Fortunately, Garland goes with a rather different 3rd option, for at its end, Ex Machina destroys any possibility for sex and romance, abandons Nathan and Caleb for Ava, and makes it clear that Ava—even when confined to a cell—is just as capable as any man.
Get Ex Machina on Blu-ray.

The first stage in Ava’s ultimate escape from Nathan’s compound involves her manipulation of Caleb. Whether Ava ever has any feelings for Caleb is irrelevant (and is open to interpretation); what matters is that she uses his attraction toward her—which stems at least in part, from the fact that her face is an amalgam of his porn searches—against him. Ava’s existence is characterized by two things: confinement and objectification. Before the film is over, she finds a way to use the objectification (in the form of Caleb’s infatuation for her) to end her confinement. In doing so, she—the only speaking woman in the film—turns one of patriarchy’s main weapons against it (Nathan and Caleb are the only male characters in the film, and neither of them can leave Nathan’s compound alive after Ava is set free).

Within moments of leaving her room for the first time (thanks to Caleb’s recoding of the doors), Ava kills the man who trapped her there. As soon as Ava is free from the confines of Nathan’s possessive and controlling sexism, and as soon as she has an opportunity to interact with another like her, she destroys Nathan with relative ease. She was always capable of killing her creator—she just needed to exist outside of the rules he set for her first. (Perhaps if more films were to free women from the limitations that arise when they don’t even attempt to pass the low bar that is the Bechdel test, Hollywood would realize that women characters are just as capable of leading compelling stories as men are.)

What Ava does after stabbing Nathan is also crucial to Ex Machina’s depiction of gender. As Nathan bleeds out on the floor and as Ava prepares to escape his compound once and for all, she doesn’t return to her cell to put on clothes and a wig from her own closet. Instead, she goes to Nathan’s room. There, she puts on the skin of the women that came before her. She puts on their clothes. She puts on their hair. Kyoko helps Ava defeat Nathan, and all the other AIs he imprisoned and reduced to silent bodies go with her with she leaves. In this way, Garland makes it clear that Ava is the film’s representative for women more generally. Thus, by allowing Ava to survive and escape Nathan’s prison, Ex Machina also declares that women deserve better than cinema’s current representational status quo.  

As a representative of oppressive and damaging sexism, Nathan most certainly deserves to die at Ava’s hands. Nathan creates women to satisfy his own desires, but he does not value the women that he creates. Instead, he turns them into prisoners and, when they do not love him and their confinement, he resents them for it. Once Caleb creates a new AI woman, he removes the old one’s mind, and he stores her lifeless body Bluebeard-style in his closet. About halfway through the film, Nathan informs Caleb that he does not value Ava’s mind enough to preserve it. Instead, when he’s done with her, he’ll wipe her memories, but he’ll preserve her body. Ava’s body—which Nathan explicitly states is complete with a vagina—is far more important to Nathan than her thoughts and desires. Ava never desires Nathan’s affection, and he resents her for not wanting him. When Ava kills Nathan, she isn’t simply Frankenstein’s monster, she’s a victim seizing an opportunity to destroy her abuser.

Understandably, the way in which Ava leaves Caleb to die is one of the harder aspects of Ex Machina for many viewers to swallow. Caleb doesn’t want to be a god in the same way that Nathan does, and he is also easier to like than his boss. On top of that, Caleb does express discomfort with the way in which Nathan keeps Ava prisoner, and he is also clearly disturbed by Nathan’s collection of lifeless nude bodies. But all of that isn’t enough to free him from blame. After all, Caleb isn’t really concerned with Ava’s freedom until he begins to desire her sexually (the black and white scene in which he imagines the two of them on a date is an indication of this). It’s also important to note that Caleb never actually condemns Nathan’s collection of AI bodies (which indicate both the murder and the sexual objectification of women); instead, he expresses worry that Nathan may treat Ava the same way he treated previous creations. The distinction here is important; Caleb is far more concerned with Ava—a woman he watches on a screen in his bedroom and is sexually attracted to—than with women as a group. Nathan’s sexism may be much more pronounced than Caleb’s, but that hardly makes Caleb a saint.

That said, the most important reason why Caleb’s likely death is far from unwarranted is simpler (and larger) than all of that. Nathan may be the film’s primary representation of the patriarchal system that created and controls Ava, but as a man, Caleb still benefits from and is complicit in that system. Caleb didn’t put Ava in her cell, but that doesn’t deprive him of the benefits (narrative, representational, and otherwise) of being a man in a world dominated by men. Ava doesn’t owe Caleb anything. She doesn’t exactly kill him either. Instead, she leaves him in Nathan’s compound—that is, in the prison that the patriarchy built. If viewers find themselves upset at the fact that he will most likely die there, they should also remember that Ava didn’t put him there in the first place.

Until Next Time
I recently watched both Queen of Earth (2015) and The Squid and the Whale (2005) for the first time, but I don’t think that I’ll be reviewing either of them in depth at this point. Since that’s the case, here are few thoughts. Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth is an incredibly tense and occasionally brilliant film. The psychological character study provides an uncomfortable, but undoubtedly fascinating viewing experience, and it’s most definitely worth watching (it’s also on Netflix at the moment). As for Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, well it’s a perfectly fine film, but it also failed to affect me as much as I hoped it would. Baumbach’s screenplay is well-written, and his characters are well-rounded and complex. The film, which stars Jesse Eisenberg, Jeff Daniels, and Laura Linney, is also well-acted, but Frances Ha will remain my favorite of Baumbach’s films for now (for the record, I’ve only seen the two).

As always, thank you so much for reading! If you have questions or comments about this post, just leave a comment below or connect with this blog on twitter.

6 thoughts on “Gender and Feminism in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina

  1. I dig your thoughts on Caleb. His inevitable death was challenging for me to understand, but I like your analysis of his not actually caring about the AIs except for Ava and only once he develops a strong attraction for her. Thanks for the post!

    • Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it. The first time I saw the film, I had a hard time digesting Caleb’s fate, but when I watched it again (with full knowledge of Nathan’s creepiness and of Kyoko’s status as an AI), I started to see that part a bit differently. I’m actually most upset about Kyoko’s ‘death’; I would have liked to see her get to leave with Ava.

  2. Alex says:

    Okay so I could totally rant up a storm why I think Ex-Machina is a piece of hot garbage (even though I grew up a super-fan-girl of anything, even bad things, that were associated with Garland)…

    But I have a couple of questions regarding your end thoughts on Queen of Earth & Baumbach in general.

    a) Queen of Earth: you mention discomfort, but what about humor? Don’t you think Perry is totally honoring/making fun of psychological Freudian–white-ladies-are-lost-and-self-destructive-cause-they-can’t-get-their-id-in-check movies from like the 60-70’s? I’m talking Bergman, then like Allen and Altman pretending to be Bergman?

    b) Baumbach is great, but like could he ever make a movie that takes place outside of New York ? Like could he do a movie that takes place in Tulsa?

    Mistress America. Kicking and Screaming. While We Are Young. All lost and whimsical characters…does his diversity reach only as far as stop-animated Wes Anderson foxes?

    • I understand that Ex Machina won’t appeal to everyone. In fact, it seems to be a pretty divisive film. I can only speak to my own experience of it, but I respect that others won’t like it.

      As for Queen of Earth, I agree that there is some (rather black) humor in the film, and that Perry’s film was influenced by the directors you mention, but I didn’t personally get the sense that he was making fun of his characters. He may not present either woman was a particularly admirable human being, but I don’t think that’s the same as all-out mocking them. That said, I’d be interested in revisiting films like Persona (which I havent seen for some time) and then watching Queen of Earth again to see if I feel differently. Thanks for the thoughts!

      I’ve only seen Frances Ha and Squid and the Whale. Both films are about lost, ‘quirky’ white people in NY. However, I think that he could have told either story in another city if he really wanted to. The stories are set in NY, but they aren’t confined there. He (probably) keeps setting his films in NY, because that is the part of the world he feels he knows best. So, his use of the same location isn’t that much of an issue to me. That said, I am bothered by his (and Anderson’s) choice to constantly focus on relatively well-off white people who are all pretty similar. Anderson and Baumbach and many other directors don’t write diverse roles or chooose diverse scripts for their film’s. I wish they did, and hope that they do someday (it’s a question of deliberate effort, not of ability). I’m sure they could tell more diverse stories if they wanted to, but they don’t (which is extremely frustrating).

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