(Cyborg) Bodies, Simulation, and Emotion in Ex Machina, Under the Skin, and Mad Max: Fury Road – Part 2/3, The Female

under the skinThis is the second section of a paper that I wrote as part of an independent research project I completed during the spring ’17 semester at USC. Part 1 can be found here and should be read first.

The Female
Now that I’ve examined Ava—and laid the theoretical foundation for most of my argument—I turn to Glazer’s film and, more importantly, to the simulation of a woman at its center. Though she is an otherworldly alien (rather than a manufactured AI) The Female too expands notions of the cyborg while occupying a place in the world of simulacra. Unlike Ava and Furiosa, there is nothing visibly mechanical or obviously artificial about the The Female’s appearance. She looks like a human woman, and there isn’t a scrap of metal or technology anywhere on her. Though an alien, her simulation of human femininity is so complete (at least on the surface) that no one can detect it with their eyes alone. In fact, like Ava, The Female in UtS can also be said to push simulation into hyperreality. As Elena Gorfinkel notes, Glazer’s film “tracks the movements of an alien predator in disguise, played by the sex symbol of our precarious times, Scarlet Johansson. Our alien-star body is a woman too womanly, painfully brought down-to-earth with tacky black wig, fake fur coat, acid washed jeans and heavily rouged lips” (Gorfinkel). Dressed in clothes taken from a dead woman (who was likely a sex worker), The Female—played by one of the most frequently objectified women in Hollywood—fully embodies a particular image of femininity and sexual desirability. She is an image of woman pushed almost into the realm of caricature.  Whatever her true “origin or reality” is, viewers of UtS never receive any concrete information on that score (Precession 1). Though she is not manufactured as Ava is, the Female too is a replication of woman without a clear “referential;” she is both a simulation and “a hyperreal” (Precession 1). Thus, she might as well be a woman even though she isn’t one. As Baudrillard says of a simulated robbery, “There is no ‘objective’ difference: the gestures, the signs are the same as for a real robbery, the signs do not lean to one side or the other. To the established order they are always of the order of the real” (Precession 20). So too is The Female regarded by the “established order”—that is by the people she around her, and especially by the men she seduces—as a “real” woman. Though her lack of interiority betrays her near the end of the film (more on that later), her exterior is never regarded as alien—the truth of her simulation is impossible to see.

Situating The Female within the image of the cyborg is no simple task. Both fully human and fully alien in her own way, The Female certainly “transgresse[s] boundaries” and “open[s] up productive ways of thinking about subjectivity, gender, and the materiality of the physical body” as cyborgs do (Balsamo 155, 157). And yet, the figure at the center of UtS is hardly a “technological object” in any literal sense (Balsamo 152). Still, in “Splitting the difference: on the queer-feminist divide in Scarlett Johansson’s recent body politics,” Marc Francis connects The Female’s “indecipherable” body to Haraway’s cyborg (Francis). In doing so, Francis also notes that “the figure of the cyborg […] is still laden with contradiction,” rendering it potentially useful for “confront[ing] the question of embodiment within a so-called posthuman world” (Francis). Surely, Glazer’s film is deeply concerned with “embodiment”—with what it means to have a body and with what types of bodies should be allowed to exist. However, this does not change the fact that The Female is not a cyborg in a straightforward or material sense. As Anne Balsamo writes, “Through the use of technology as the means or context for human hybridization, cyborgs come to represent unfamiliar ‘otherness,’ one which challenges the connotative stability of human identity” (Balsamo 149, emphasis in original). The Female is “other,” but not because she is a mechanical hybrid with any overt connection to the world of technology. The Female does the work of a cyborg without actually being one. A simulation of woman, she also simulates the cyborg while existing as something else.

Moreover, with The Female at its center, UtS (much like EM) demonstrates the collapse of all distinction between human and other under postmodernism. As Sobchack argues, “Alien Others have become less other […] They have become our familiars, our simulacra, embodied as literally alienated images of our alienated selves” (Sobchack 293). Though she is not actually a human, The Female’s status as simulation prevents her from being read only as “other,” which considerably complicates interpretation of UtS. Here, Balsamo’s claim that “cyborgs are a product of cultural fears and desires that run deep within our psychic unconscious,” is useful, even if The Female only simulates the cyborgian (Balsamo 149). Simultaneous status as human, alien (and possibly, cyborg) aside, examining the fears that The Female taps into is one way of untangling Glazer’s creation.

With this in mind, many of the anxieties that The Female appears to be a product of include the reproducibility and the simulation of the human. According to Doane, “The concept of the ‘body’ has traditionally denoted the finite, a material limit that is absolute […] For the body is that which is situated as the precise opposite of the conceptual, the abstract” (Doane 110). But as Doane goes on to note, that which is finite can be reproduced (Doane 112). From this, it follows that if humans are “clearly quantifiable” and can be reduced to a “material limit,” then technology can recreate them artificially (Doane 110, 112). Fear of such reproducibility runs throughout UtS and “The Precession of Simulacra.” In line with Sobchack’s claims, The Female renders the familiar and the alien one in the same, and as Baudrillard writes, “Everywhere, in no matter what domain—political, biological, psychological, mediatized—in which the distinction between two poles can no longer be maintained, one enters into simulation, and thus into absolute manipulation—not into passivity, but into the indifferentiation of the active and the passive” (Precession 31, emphasis in original). To be in the presence of The Female in UtS is to “enter[] into simulation,” into a mode of existence that leaves one open to “manipulation” and that confuses the “the active and the passive” (Precession 31). Thus, nearly all of the human men that interact with The Female are rendered helpless and lose their lives. Here I turn to Amy Herzog’s description of the film:

“We are introduced to the streets of Glasgow through her manufactured eyes, she, an unnamed alien sent to Earth, to Scotland, for purposes that remain elusive. She is a worker, an operative who cruises the city looking for easy marks, single men with few entanglements. She seduces, she hunts, but not for herself. Instead, she gathers these corporeal goods to be farmed, liquefied, and extracted, their residue collected and distributed for some unspoken use […] Her labor rests ultimately in the value of her simulated body as an object of desire.” (Herzog)

As a simulation, The Female can be read as a claim to the limitations and to the reproducibility of the human. At the same time, the way she kills men—by luring them into an incomprehensible void that one might describe as “The desert of the real itself”—makes a terrifying case for the material, finite nature of the human (Precession 1, emphasis in original). Once they’ve entered the strange, dark, and horrifyingly empty space that serves as The Female’s home, the men are absorbed by its limitless, illegible depths. There, they are reduced to nothing but floating skin and bloody goo—to meaningless, shapeless material and nothing else.

The way The Female comes to her end further demonstrates UtS’s concern that humans are—or may become—nothing more than simulatable material. After encountering (and sparing) a man deformed by neurofibromatosis—whose appearance sets him apart from her other victims and whose material body is already damaged—The Female effectively starts going-off script. Instead of devoting all her time to finding, seducing, and liquefying lone men, “She pursues small, constitutive pleasures, appetitive, aesthetic, sexual, self-confirming, that signal corporeal and sensory self-awareness. An impeccable worker until she is not, we are shown the limits of her imperfect corporeal and behavioral mimesis” (Gorfinkel). Try as she might to collect certain experiences—to eat, to have sex, to form human connection—The Female is repeatedly shown to be incapable of such things. Unlike Ava (who Nathan claims can easily experience pleasurable sex), The Female is not made to be penetrated; “Her body has not been designed to ingest” (Herzog). Her “impenetrable” body consists of “impossible orifices”: a mouth that rejects chocolate cake, a vagina that cannot be entered (Gorfinkel). She cannot be added to. The “material limit” of her body is “absolute” (Doane 110). The finite nature of The Female’s form betrays her simulative status, and such betrayal swiftly results in her death.

Though alien, The Female is perceived and treated as “real” woman up until the very moment when the material reality of her body is revealed, exposing her as simulation, as a dangerous thing capable of “short-circuit[ing]” reality (Precession 2). After failing to have sex with a man, The Female runs off into the woods, where she is found by an unnamed logger, who attempts to rape her. As she runs from him, her skin is torn, revealing a solid, black mass underneath. According to Lucas Hilderbrand, “dehumanization” in UtS “is coded through blackness” (On the matter of blackness). However, while I have no desire to disagree with Hilderbrand, I’m more concerned with the way in which The Female’s black form is evidence of a finite materiality than I am with blackness itself. As Gorfinkel notes, there is something “illegible” in the truth of The Female’s form—her body cannot be expanded through ingestion and, once revealed, it cannot be decoded either (Gorfinkel). “The revelation of” The Female’s “black” inner form “becomes the ultimate absolute evidence of [her] non-humanity” (On the matter of blackness). Beneath her simulated skin, The Female is impermeable, concrete, and cannot be breached, and her inner form looks much more like hard plastic than it does flesh. For the logger to see this aspect of her—and to be faced with the fact that he initially read her as human—is for him to face the deceptive power of simulation and the reproducibility of the body simultaneously. And so, “Immediately her aggressor douses her body with gasoline and lights her aflame, as if to suggest not only that she seems unreal but also that she must not exist. This sequence marks when other characters finally fail to recognize her as human within the narrative” (On the matter of blackness, emphasis in original). Her simulation comes to an end.

At the end of UtS, The Female is punished for simulating woman, for not having the penetrable orifices promised by her appearance, and for calling both the materiality and the limits of the body into question. Unlike mere “pretending,” which “leaves the principle of reality in tact,” “simulation threatens the difference between the ‘true’ and the ‘false,’ the ‘real’ and the imaginary’” (Precession 3). Once unmasked as simulation, The Female’s existence becomes intolerable. Interestingly, the revelation of The Female’s interior also shows that her prosthetic is woefully incomplete, that it does not extend beyond the surface. Once that prosthetic—in the form of her incredibly realistic skin—is damaged, she is all but powerless. If only her entire body were simulation. Unlike Ava—whose body is more coherent and whose status as simulation enables her to manipulate and destroy everyone who seeks to control her—The Female’s true nature leaves her vulnerable. In EM, to be simulation is to be both monstrous and powerful; in UtS, the simulation remains monstrous, but is also doomed.

As with my examination of Ava, I’d like to end my section on The Female with a quick consideration of her emotional capacities. Like Ava, The Female too is deceptive; perhaps, as simulation, she has no choice but to be. The men who go home with her expecting sex don’t receive so much as a kiss before her otherworldly void swallows them whole, and she continually plays the part of a human woman. Like Ava, The Female interprets the emotions of others and performs humanity without actually experiencing noticeable feelings herself. As Herzog writes, she “learns quickly how to survey her marks, to read nuances in human behavior”; and yet, she herself “lacks […] the faintest traces of empathy” (Herzog). As deceptive and as vile as her actions often are, The Female watches the people of Glasgow and leads numerous men to their death “without a trace of emotion or reaction” (Loving the alien). Moreover, Glazer even goes out of his way to include a scene which makes it clear that her “lack of empathy” isn’t restricted to the men she feeds to her void (Gorfinkel). In the scene, “she goes to the sea and watches a man who attempts to save a couple from drowning nearly drown himself; she hits him on the head with a rock after he washes ashore. It’s not a mercy killing, just a killing” (Loving the alien). After killing the man, The Female ignores—and indeed, appears wholly unaffected by—the cries of the dead couple’s young child. The baby wails and wails on the beach, but The Female is unfazed. When Ava leaves Caleb to die, one gets the sense that she may be punishing him (either for selfishly objectifying her or for proving so easy for her to manipulate). However, when The Female ignores the screaming baby on the cold, rock-covered beach, there is nothing personal in her actions. She leaves the child to die, because she can’t feel a thing for it.

UtS’s chilling beach sequence highlights The Female’s inability to experience human emotions, despite the completely convincing realism of her appearance. Consequently, when The Female does seem to be (even if only slightly) touched by empathy later in the film, viewers should hardly find it surprising that the moment spells the beginning of the end for her. In attempting to enter the realms of human connection and emotion, The Female exceeds her own limits and sets off a chain of events that ends in her violent immolation. In Gorfinkel’s words, “The alien exhibits a chilling lack of empathy […] Yet after an encounter with a victim whose face suffers the congenital scars of neurofibromatosis, she is moved […] Shortly, Johansson’s alien goes off the rails wandering away from her directed task” (Gorfinkel). A finite simulation, The Female is only designed for a limited scope of interactions and behaviors—and the moment she acknowledges anything like emotion or starts seeking experiences other than those she is meant to have (a male-coded alien followers her around on a motorbike like a sort of watchdog), she begins approaching her demise. Gorfinkel makes this connection between The Female’s death and her emotional limitations more explicit writing that, “The skin of the alien cannot touch the human atmosphere without being snuffed, burned out, defaced,” because she is one in “pursuit of an impossible interiority” (Gorfinkel). Just as The Female’s body cannot ingest anything in the name of pleasure, so too does her being lack the ability to be expanded through any emotional experience. Moreover, while Ava uses her ability to simulate human connection to secure her eventual escape, The Female’s lack of emotional range robs her of the human connection she seems to crave near the end of the film. While simulating emotion has its value in UtS, Glazer seems to ascribe potential (though for The Female, unattainable) benefits to truly feeling in a way Garland does not.

Until Next Time
Parts 1 and 3

[A previous piece on Under the Skin can be found here.]

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Bibliography
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Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra.” Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. 1994. Reprint. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2017. 1-42. Print.

Baudrillard, Jean. “Prophylaxis and Virulence.” Posthumanism. Ed. Neil Badmington. New York: Palgrave,

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Buchanan, Kyle. “Does Ex Machina Have a Woman Problem, or Is Its Take on Gender Truly Futuristic?” Vulture. 22 April 2015. vulture.com/2015/04/why-ex-machina-take-on-gender-is-so-advanced.html. Accessed 10 April 2017. Web.

Creed, Barbara. “Introduction.” The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. 1993. Reprint. New York: Routledge, 2007. 1-7. Print.

Creed, Barbara. “Kristeva, Femininity, and Abjection.” The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. 1993. Reprint. New York: Routledge, 2007. 8-15. Print.

Doane, Mary Ann. “Technophilia: Technology, Representation, and The Feminine.” The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader. Eds. Gill Kirkup, Linda James, Kath Woodward, and Fiona Hovenden. New York: Routledge, 2000. 110-121. Print.

Ebiri, Bilge. “‘This Is Our Furiosa.’ Mad: Max Fury Road and the Moments In Between.” They live by night. 14 June 2015. ebiri.blogspot.com/2015/06/this-is-our-furiosa-mad-max-and-moments.html. Accessed 23 Jan. 2017. Web.

Ex Machina. Dir. Alex Garland. Perf. Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Sonoya Mizuno. Universal Pictures, 2015. Blu-ray.

“Ex Machina.” Box Office Mojo. Updated 17 April 2017. boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=exmachina.htm. Accessed 17 April 2017. Web.

Francis, Marc. “Splitting the difference: on the queer-feminist divide in Scarlett Johansson’s recent body politics.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. no. 57 (fall 2016). ejumpcut.org/currentissue/-FrancisSkin/index.html. Accessed 1 February 2017. Web.

Gorfinkel, Elena. “Sex, sensation, and nonhuman interiority in Under the Skin. Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. no. 57 (fall 2016). ejumpcut.org/currentissue/-GorfinkelSkin/index.html. Accessed 1 February 2017. Web.

Haraway, Donna J. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, And Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.” The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader. Eds. Gill Kirkup, Linda James, Kath Woodward, and Fiona Hovenden. New York: Routledge, 2000. 50-57. Print.

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Hilderbrand, Lucas. “Loving the alien: introduction to dossier on Under the Skin. Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. no. 57 (fall 2016). ejumpcut.org/currentissue/HilderbrandUnderSkin/
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Mad Max: Fury Road. Dir. George Miller. Perf. Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Zoë Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, and Courtney Eaton. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2015. Blu-ray.

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Under the Skin. Dir. Johnathan Glazer. Perf. Scarlett Johansson A24, 2014. Blu-ray.

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(Cyborg) Bodies, Simulation, and Emotion in Ex Machina, Under the Skin, and Mad Max: Fury Road – Part 1/3, Intro and Ava

Ex Machina Cyborg AvaThis is the first section of a paper that I wrote as part of an independent research project I completed during the spring ’17 semester at USC. Since its too long to post all at once, I’m breaking it into 3 sections for this blog.

[The paper is not in a particularly polished state, but maybe someone will enjoy it anyway…]

Intro and Ava
Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015), Johnathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2014), and George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) are three recent films that deploy the female body as a tool for destabilizing (and redefining) what it means to be human. Released in the U.S. within a span of just over a year and running the gamut from more obscure arthouse darling (Under the Skin), to financially successful indie (Ex Machina), to major studio blockbuster (Mad Max: Fury Road), the films represent a spectrum of contemporary science fiction cinema. Despite the many differences between them, these works converge in a number of compelling, potentially productive ways. Importantly, all three feature women (of some kind) at their center. Even if these women diegetically differ in their precise form and origin, all inhabit bodies that serve as sites for working through the anxieties motivating this cluster of works. Ava (Alicia Vikander) in Ex Machina, The Female (Scarlett Johansson) in Under the Skin, and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) in Mad Max: Fury Road all challenge the purportedly fundamental categories of “human” and “woman” alike. In doing so, they call attention to the material nature of the body while also complicating the relationship of the body to human or emotional experience.

One way to begin disassembling the depiction of women and their bodies in these films is by considering them within the realm of the cyborg. In her widely influential “A Manifesto for Cyborgs,” Donna J. Haraway writes that the “cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (Haraway 50). Though Haraway expands the term considerably, it isn’t too far removed from more limited, “dictionary” definitions of “cyborg.” Interestingly, Furiosa is the only woman in Ex Machina (EM), Under the Skin (UtS) or Mad Max: Fury Road (MMFR) who fits such an image. EM’s Ava is an incredibly advanced AI created (and imprisoned) in a billionaire’s lab; as lifelike as she often seems, there is nothing truly “organism” about her. Meanwhile The Female in UtS (she’s never given a name) is an enigmatic alien who traverses Glasgow looking for men she can seduce and destroy. Though there is nothing in her appearance that directly signals her alien nature, she is neither human, nor machine, nor any literal fusion of the two. On the other hand, MMFR’s Furiosa is a woman living under a dictator in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. With her mechanical, prosthetic left arm, Furiosa’s body merges human flesh and inhuman machine in a way that Ava and The Female do not. And yet, as I demonstrate later in this piece, Furiosa is also the least monstrous, most clearly human among them. While Miller’s heroine does push against stereotypical depictions of her gender while also calling into question what it means to be human, she does not do so as boldly (or as bleakly) as her counterparts in EM and UtS. Though their bodies don’t physically combine the organic and the mechanical as Furiosa’s does, Ava and The Female are, in a sense, more cyborgian. Furiosa’s mechanical arm is hardly incidental, but it never threatens to obliterate or fully obscure her human origins. On the other hand (and as I argue below), Ava and the Female manage to be completely human and completely inhuman all at once. Rather than represent some combination of organic and inorganic, they reject any such distinctions; instead of mixing human with other, EM and UtS each in their own way collapses all difference between them, often with disastrous results.

For Haraway and many subsequent writers, the cyborg is a transgressive figure who works to blur and to complicate distinctions between human and machine as well as between human and inhuman more generally (Haraway 52). As Anne Balsamo writes, “cyborgs are a product of cultural fears and desires that run deep within our psychic unconscious. Through the use of technology as the means or context for human hybridization, cyborgs come to represent unfamiliar ‘otherness,’ one which challenges the connotative stability of human identity” (Balsamo 149, emphasis in original). Though Balsamo and Haraway both call attention to the fusion of the human with machines (or “technology”) when discussing the cyborg, the work that their images do is much more important than the specific form they take. The cyborg is an Other, but one that cannot be cleanly or completely separated from normality or the human. Like the monster in horror films, the cyborg is a figure which blurs boundaries (Creed 5, 11). According to Haraway, “the relation between organism and machine has been a border war” (Haraway 51). In part, the female-coded cyborgs of science fiction are a product of that very war; just as “the concept of the border is central to the construction of the monstrous in the horror film,” so too is it at the heart of the cyborgian (Creed 11). Like monsters “whose bodies signify a collapse of boundaries between human” and other, the (cyborg) women in EM, UtS, and MMFR “bring about an encounter between the symbolic order and that which threatens its stability” (Creed 10-11). Considering Ava, The Female, and Furiosa in tandem demonstrates some of the breadth of “cyborg” as a category while also underscoring the connections between women, the cyborgian, and the monstrous that writers like Creed and Haraway plug into. That said, they can also be used to challenge “cyborg” itself. For, where MMFR makes a point to reestablish Furiosa’s humanity (destroying her mechanical arm in the process), EM and UtS trade the cyborg’s recombination of categories for something closer to sheer simulation.

Despite the prevalence (and importance) of the cyborg in discussion of women’s bodies in science fiction film, it may actually be more fruitful to read Ava and The Female’s bodies as simulations. Moreover, even though EM, UtS, and MMFR all leave themselves open to psychoanalytic readings of gender and the female form, such is not my primary concern. Given the presence of both violated and violent women in all three films, reading them through the likes of Freud, Mulvey, or Creed has the potential to illuminate, unite, and distinguish them. That said, a more complete understanding of these films and the women they feature requires something more. Rather than read gender in EM, UtS, and MMFR from a predominantly feminist, psychoanalytic, or even a genre studies perspective (all worthwhile pursuits that I here leave to others), I use a substantial portion of this paper to focus on the material reality of Ava, The Female, and Furiosa’s bodies. In doing so, I situate them within Baudrillard’s conception of simulation as it is presented in his 1981 essay, “The Precession of Simulacra.” I also put the women (I use the term loosely) into contact with some of his ideas on prostheses as expressed in “Prophylaxis and Virulence.” Furthermore, in drawing out some of the differences between Garland, Glazer, and Miller’s films, how they conceive of the human, and how they understand the (cyborg) women at their centers, I also discuss Ava, The Female, and Furiosa’s (in)ability to experience emotion and to form attachments with others.

EM’s first image of Ava shows her (rather elegant, clearly feminine) silhouette in profile. Viewed this way, she could almost be a “real” human woman. She lacks hair and light shines through portions of her form, and even though she is made largely of metal mesh and circuitry, her outline is all but indistinguishable from that of the actress who plays her. Though Ava’s movements are a touch too precise to be truly organic, and though much of her machinery is in plain sight, her shape is all human. By introducing her in a way that emphasizes this fact, Garland can be seen to align Ava with Haraway’s cyborg, to situate her in a world where “the difference between machine and organism is thoroughly blurred” (Haraway 56). EM’s introduction of Ava simultaneously acknowledges and obscures her inhuman nature, thereby involving viewers in the same Turing test that her creator, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) asks his employee, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to conduct on her. By the time viewers first see Ava, Nathan has already made it clear that he designed and built her, but Garland instructs viewers to remain uncertain about her all the same.

But Ava is no simple cyborg, no mere amalgamation of human machine. Rather, she can be regarded as fully machine and fully woman at the same time, which renders her all the more threatening to those who try to read her (namely, Nathan and Caleb). Early in his “The Precession of Simulacra,” Baudrillard claims that “Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal” (Precession 1). Such “hyperreal” unreality can be seen in much of Ava’s form, but it is especially apparent in her face. EM’s initial silhouette images of Ava show her from a distance and obscure her face, but once her face is revealed, it only adds to the uncertainty of her being. While the surface of Vikander’s “real” body is disguised with visual effects, her “real” face (though altered slightly to took smoother and have a more uniform texture) is left more or less intact. From the neck down, Ava is mostly metal, computer, and light (her hands and feet are covered with artificial skin), but there is nothing obviously mechanical about her face. In fact, if there is anything clearly artificial about this aspect of her appearance, it’s only that her countenance is almost too beautiful, that it’s “hyperreal” (Precession 1). All that separates Ava’s face from that of a human woman’s is that it is completely without blemish. Viewed in isolation, Ava’s face looks more like some airbrushed image of femininity in a perfume ad than it does an AI made in a sexist billionaire’s basement; though she is “actually” the latter, her face works to constantly challenge, and to undermine this fact.

In addition to occupying a space of hyperreality, Ava’s face can also be read as a “model[] of a real without origin or reality,” which further emphasizes her simulative nature. According to Nathan, he designed her face using Caleb’s porn search history. Not only is she carefully crafted to appeal to the young software engineer, but she is also a replication without a single origin. In EM’s diegesis, there is no one “real” woman whose appearance Ava duplicates. Instead, her face is an average of countless faces that Caleb has objectified. Ava’s face is both singular and a representation of numerous women—it simultaneously sets her apart from all other beings and challenges any claims she might have to originality or to a coherent identity. She is a copy without an original, what Haraway calls “simulacra” (Haraway 56). A manifestation (and a translation) of Caleb’s desires, Ava “is a virtual daydream turned into some kind of flesh” (Jonsson and Velmet). Moreover, for Caleb to look at her, is for him to confront himself. On one level, she is an artificial replication of his own interiority and past experiences, which blurs the edges of both their identities. Ava is machine, she is woman, and she is something else altogether.

In having Ava simulate numerous modes of existence as she does, Garland taps into postmodern anxieties concerning not just the fragmentation of identity, but it’s total dissolution as well. As Vivian Sobchack writes in her 1987 piece “Postfuturism”:

“[…] in a culture where nearly everyone is regularly alien-nated from a direct sense of self (lived experience commonly mediated by an electronic technology that dominates both the domestic sphere and the ‘private’ or ‘personal’ realm of the Unconscious), when everyone is less conscious of existence than of its image, the once threatening SF ‘alien’ and Other become our familiars—our close relations, if not ourselves.” (Sobchack 229)

Writing on cyborgs (and on Haraway’s conception of them), Anne Balsamo declares that “the cyborg is a social construction” which “illuminates a crucial dimension of postmodern identity: the fragmentation of subjectivity” (Balsamo 153). However, while Sobchack certainly does not deny such “fragmentation,” her focus in the passage above is on something different. Concerning the “Other” in science fiction—a category which includes the enigmatic, undoubtedly “threatening” Ava—Sobchack gestures toward the complete dissolution of any distinction between human and alien (Sobchack 229). Not only does identity break apart and undergo recombination in postmodernism, it is dissolved and simulated as well. Together, both EM and UtS (which I discuss in more detail shortly) support Sobchack’s claim that many works of “postmodern” science fiction “do[] not ‘embrace the alien’ in a celebration of resemblance, but ‘erase[] alienation’ in a celebration of similitude (Sobchack 294). But, if Baudrillard and EM (as well as UtS and MMFR) are to be believed, accepting simulation—and the dissolution of identity that comes with it—is a dangerous thing to do.

Once “the sovereign difference” that once “constituted the charm of abstraction” disappears, “the murderous power of images” reaches its full potential (Precession 2, 5). Thus, simulations like Ava become “murderers of the real, murderers of their own model, as the Byzantine icons could be those of divine identity” (Precession 5). Faced with a simulation of their own creation, both men in EM come to terrible ends. Though Nathan designs builds Ava, Caleb is partially responsible for her existence as well; not only do his porn preferences shape her face, but his interactions with her also inform her (simulated) personality and emotions (which I discuss below). As numerous moments throughout the film demonstrate—including one in which he tells Caleb, “I wrote down that other line you came up with. The one about how if I’ve invented a machine with consciousness, I’m not a man, I’m a God”—Nathan thinks of himself as a sort of “divine” entity in Ava’s life (Precession 5). But that isn’t enough to save him. Within moments of leaving her room for the first time, Ava kills her creator. Once she is free of the limitations Nathan places on her existence, Ava stabs him[1] and leaves him to bleed out on the floor. Afterward, Ava ignores Caleb’s pleas for help, leaving him locked in Nathan’s compound, which is so far removed from the rest of society that there is little chance anyone will find him before he dies.

“‘Eras[ing] alienation’ in a celebration of similitude” results in the contemporaneous emphasis on and “absence” of “otherness,” which my reading of Ava has thus far worked to call attention to; but as Baudrillard writes, “the absence of otherness secretes another, intangible otherness: the absolute virus” (Sobchack 294; Prophylaxis 37). After stabbing Nathan and leaving Caleb to die, Ava puts on skin and clothes from Nathan’s older AI models (which he displays in closets like some sort of techno-Bluebeard). Fully clothed—and with her mechanical nature fully obscured—Ava then exits Nathan’s compound. Once outside, she boards the helicopter that Nathan originally sent for Caleb. In doing so, Ava, a simulation of a “real” woman, destroys and obscures her own origins. More importantly, she is not content merely to kill those who made her; she replaces them as well. By the end of EM, Ava is the only character left for viewers to identify with—real or not, she is all they have, and both the narrative and visual centers of the film belong solely to her; to help further illustrate the significance of this fact, I turn once again to Baudrillard:

“[…] the era of simulation is inaugurated by a liquidation of all referentials—worse: with their artificial resurrection in the system of signs, a material more malleable than meaning in that it lends itself to all systems of equivalences, to all binary oppositions, to all combinatory algebra. It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs for the real, that is to say of an operation of deterring every real process via its operational double, a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all signs of the real and short-circuits its vicissitudes.” (Precession 2)

In deceiving and manipulating Caleb to secure her escape, and in killing both men and going out into the world as a “real” woman, Ava “short-circuits” the system that created her.

In reading Ava as a character who embodies simulation while extending beyond more straightforward definitions of the cyborg, it’s also illuminating to consider that her entire body—indeed, her entire being—can be regarded as prosthetic. With Haraway’s cyborg “mind, body, and tool are on very intimate terms,” but with Ava, it’s all but impossible to determine where “tool” ends and where “mind” and “body” begin (Haraway 56). There is a material unity to Ava that transcends the cyborg, a “hybrid” image built on the intersection of “technology […] with the body” (Haraway 50; Doane 110). Cyborgs are part human and part technology, and thus they can be understood as one of many “postmodernist strategies” that “subvert myriad organic wholes” (Haraway 52). However, there is nothing in Ava’s physical makeup that is part human—she is not a combination of flesh and tech; rather, she is a machine that appears to be a woman and a woman that appears to be a machine. Her form doesn’t fuse a “real” woman with cybernetic enhancement or technological prosthetic; instead, she is composed only of prosthetic—of a purely mechanical, manufactured body made to give shape to the artificial intelligence that Nathan develops. Importantly, Ava’s status as pure prostheses (much like her simulative nature) renders her all the more dangerous to the people and to the existing order that surround her. As Baudrillard claims, “the biological body, loses its natural defences in precise proportion to the growing sophistication of its prostheses” (Prophylaxis 35). Faced with a body that is entirely prostheses, the physically “biological” Nathan and Caleb don’t stand a chance.

Just before signaling the danger of advanced prostheses, Baudrillard also writes that “In a hyperprotected space the body loses all its defences. So sterile are operating rooms that no germ or bacteria can survive there. Yet this is the very place where mysterious, anomalous viral disease make their appearance” (Prophylaxis 35). In EM, Nathan’s compound serves as such a “sterile,” “hyperprotected” space. Not only does Nathan’s combination home, library, and AI prison exist in an isolated location far from prying eyes, but it is also largely windowless and virtually impenetrable. The rather empty, incredibly clean building is also crawling with surveillance cameras, which increase Nathan’s sense of control. And yet, under his very nose—from a glass room in which she is always visible to Nathan—Ava devises her creator’s destruction. No unwanted “germ or bacteria” could ever enter Nathan’s compound (not in the form of another person, anyway), but the place still gives birth to an “anomalous” AI, to a simulation with the power to reduce everything Nathan has worked to build there to rubble. At the very beginning of “Prophylaxis and Virulence,” Baudrillard writes that “The growing cerebrality of machines must logically be expected to occasion a technological purification of bodies. Inasmuch bodies are less and less able to count on their own antibodies, they are more and more in need of protection from the outside” (Prophylaxis 34). Even if Ava is miles away from anything Baudrillard had in mind while writing this, it remains useful for exploring EM all he same. In choosing to develop incredibly advanced AIs and in almost total isolation, Nathan precipitates his own destruction. With EM, Garland reenvisions Baudrillard’s “technological purification of bodies” as a destruction of bodies by the simulation of a body—by a machine so cerebral she exceeds “human” and “technological” alike.

In her “Technophilia: Technology, Representation, and The Feminine,” Mary Ann Doane describes cinema as sort of “prosthetic device […] a technological extension of the human body” that gives viewers access to vision and perception that they could never experience with their bodies alone (Doane 113). In EM, Ava too is a “prosthetic device,” but she is not an “extension” of any “human body”; instead, she renders all human bodies obsolete. Several days before Ava kills them both, Nathan and Caleb have a conversation that testifies to this fact. While discussing his work with Nathan, Caleb says “One day, the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.” Later in EM, Ava regards her creator with clear disdain saying, “Isn’t it strange, to create something that hates you?”; but as her constant simulation, her completely prosthetic form, and the end of the film all indicate, she may as well have replaced “hates” with “can stand in for.” In the presence of simulation, it is “impossible to isolate the process of the real, or to prove the real” (Precession 211, emphasis in original). The Turing test that Nathan asks Caleb to conduct is doomed from the start. Ava is far too sophisticated to be contained on either side of any “human”/“inhuman” divide, for she represents a perfection of simulacra in which, “Illusion is no longer possible, because the real is no longer possible” (Precession 19).

Before turning to The Female at the heart of UtS, (and then to Furiosa in MMFR) I’d like to add just a touch more dimension to my reading of Ava by briefly considering her relation to the realm of emotion. Throughout EM, Nathan repeatedly emphasizes the importance of feelings in Caleb’s interactions with Ava. For instance, when Caleb points out the nontraditional nature of Nathan’s Turing test, the genius-billionaire offers the following: “If I hid Ava from you so you could just hear her voice, she would pass for human. The real test is to show you that she’s a robot and then see if you still feel she has consciousness.” Later, after one of Caleb’s “sessions” with Ava, Nathan grows frustrated with Caleb’s careful responses to his queries saying, “The answer is, how do you feel about her? Nothing analytical, just how you feel.” Then, after the next session, Nathan reiterates his interest in emotion yet again: “Yesterday I asked you how you felt about her, and you gave me a great answer. Now the question is, ‘How does she feel about you?’” And yet, Nathan’s intense concern for Ava’s ability both to perform and to impact feelings may also set him up for failure. As Joelle Renstrom writes, “Ex Machina demonstrates why there can be no Turing test for emotions. Once a robot is advanced enough, it will be nearly impossible to discern whether it is an emotional actor or an emotional being” (Renstrom, emphasis in original). Interestingly, such (even if faintly) echoes Baudrillard’s description of the impossibility of simulating a crime convincingly, in which he writes that “the network of artificial signs will become inextricably mixed up with real elements […] in short, you will immediately find yourself once again, without wishing it, in the real, one of whose functions is precisely to devour any attempt at simulation, to reduce everything to the real—that is, to the established order itself” (Precession 20). Under simulation, the difference between “real” and otherwise collapses in on itself, making clear distinction between the two all but impossible. Thus, Caleb isn’t capable of making sure determinations concerning Ava’s emotions, as is seen in the way she manipulates his feelings to get him to help her escape. Such can also be seen to explain why exposure to Ava, the AI bodies in Nathan’s room, and Kyoko’s mechanical interior all cause Caleb to have a breakdown that ends with him cutting into his own flesh; according to Marysia Jonsson and Aro Velmet, Caleb’s self-injury is the result of him doubting “his own ‘authenticity’” (Jonsson and Velmet). He doubts “his ‘own authenticity,’” because Nathan’s AI women disregard the certain and the authentic entirely.

Just as it’s impossible to simulate crime under Baudrillard’s framework, so too is it “impossible to prove” whether an AI does or doesn’t “have genuine emotional experiences” (Renstrom). Even if AIs “don’t actually feel,” “they can appear as though they do,” and as Ava’s victory demonstrates, any difference between the two hardly matters as far as the simulation itself is concerned (Renstrom). “Simulating is not pretending”—“it is more complicated” and more treacherous (Precession 3). Ava’s “gender” and her behavior more generally both stem from “adaptation,” for it is “through her meetings with Caleb [that] she comes to understand the effects her feminine form has on him. Nathan’s problem however, is that he underestimates the power of her adaptation” (Jonsson and Velmet). Ava reads those she interacts with like a book, and she can decode faces so expertly that it is essentially impossible for anyone to lie to her without her noticing. That said, she herself is under no compulsion to reveal when she catches a lie, nor is she incapable of lying herself. Through the simulation of emotion, Ava gains a clear advantage over the people she interacts with. And yet, they also teach her how to perform those emotions in the first place. Writing on EM, Renstrom notes:

“For now, robots’ emotional capabilities are in the hands of everyone who interacts with them. Our relations with robots determine their emotional potency. If we relate to robots socially, not to mention romantically or sexually, then their emotional capabilities are a reflection of us. If robots can learn emotions through experience, then we will be their emotional guides—both a comforting and a terrifying thought.” (Renstrom)

Ava reflects Caleb and Nathan, and her actions are a direct result of the way they treat her. While simulation is at the heart of their shared demise, they are as much to blame for their deaths as Ava is. In EM, emotional interaction with simulation opens one up to manipulation and leaves one both internally and externally vulnerable to violent destruction.

[1] Another AI, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), actually stabs Nathan first, but she is promptly struck down and is more or less abandoned by the narrative. Largely out of consideration for length, I do not focus on Kyoko here, but she is an important figure in the film all the same. It’s also worth noting that, unlike Ava, Kyoko is initially presented to viewers (and to Caleb) as a human woman, which further complicates her relation to simulation and reality alike.

Until Next Time
Parts 2 and 3.

[Previous pieces on Ex Machina can be found here and here.]

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Bibliography
Balsamo, Anne. “Reading Cyborgs Writing Feminism.” The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader. Eds. Gill Kirkup,  Linda James, Kath Woodward, and Fiona Hovenden. New York: Routledge, 2000. 110-121. Print.

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra.” Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. 1994. Reprint. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2017. 1-42. Print.

Baudrillard, Jean. “Prophylaxis and Virulence.” Posthumanism. Ed. Neil Badmington. New York: Palgrave,

  1. 43-41. Print.

Buchanan, Kyle. “Does Ex Machina Have a Woman Problem, or Is Its Take on Gender Truly Futuristic?” Vulture. 22 April 2015. vulture.com/2015/04/why-ex-machina-take-on-gender-is-so-advanced.html. Accessed 10 April 2017. Web.

Creed, Barbara. “Introduction.” The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. 1993. Reprint. New York: Routledge, 2007. 1-7. Print.

Creed, Barbara. “Kristeva, Femininity, and Abjection.” The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. 1993. Reprint. New York: Routledge, 2007. 8-15. Print.

Doane, Mary Ann. “Technophilia: Technology, Representation, and The Feminine.” The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader. Eds. Gill Kirkup, Linda James, Kath Woodward, and Fiona Hovenden. New York: Routledge, 2000. 110-121. Print.

Ebiri, Bilge. “‘This Is Our Furiosa.’ Mad: Max Fury Road and the Moments In Between.” They live by night. 14 June 2015. ebiri.blogspot.com/2015/06/this-is-our-furiosa-mad-max-and-moments.html. Accessed 23 Jan. 2017. Web.

Ex Machina. Dir. Alex Garland. Perf. Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Sonoya Mizuno. Universal Pictures, 2015. Blu-ray.

“Ex Machina.” Box Office Mojo. Updated 17 April 2017. boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=exmachina.htm. Accessed 17 April 2017. Web.

Francis, Marc. “Splitting the difference: on the queer-feminist divide in Scarlett Johansson’s recent body politics.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. no. 57 (fall 2016). ejumpcut.org/currentissue/-FrancisSkin/index.html. Accessed 1 February 2017. Web.

Gorfinkel, Elena. “Sex, sensation, and nonhuman interiority in Under the Skin. Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. no. 57 (fall 2016). ejumpcut.org/currentissue/-GorfinkelSkin/index.html. Accessed 1 February 2017. Web.

Haraway, Donna J. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, And Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.” The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader. Eds. Gill Kirkup, Linda James, Kath Woodward, and Fiona Hovenden. New York: Routledge, 2000. 50-57. Print.

Herzog, Amy. “Star vehicle: labor and corporeal traffic in Under the Skin. Jump Cut: A Review of  Contemporary Media. no. 57 (fall 2016). ejumpcut.org/currentissue/-HerzogSkin/index.html. Accessed 1 February 2017. Web.

Hilderbrand, Lucas. “On the matter of blackness in Under the Skin.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. no. 57 (fall 2016). ejumpcut.org/currentissue/
HilderbrandUnderSkin/index.html. Accessed 1 February 2017. Web.

Hilderbrand, Lucas. “Loving the alien: introduction to dossier on Under the Skin. Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. no. 57 (fall 2016). ejumpcut.org/currentissue/HilderbrandUnderSkin/
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Jonsson, Marysia and Aro Velmet. “Feminus Ex Machina.” LA Review of Books. lareviewofbooks.org/article/feminus-ex-machina/. Accessed 10 April 2017. Web.

Mad Max: Fury Road. Dir. George Miller. Perf. Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Zoë Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, and Courtney Eaton. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2015. Blu-ray.

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Renstrom, Joelle. “Artificial Intelligence, Real Emotion?” Slate. 9 April 2015. slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2015/
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Thomasin’s Triumph: Some Ramblings on Robert Eggers’s The Witch

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Before we begin, I know it’s been a while since I wrote last. The store I’ve been working at since January actually opened the same day I published my post on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Since then, I’ve been working considerably more than I was before. I am also currently caught up in the whirlwind that is trying to figure out which grad school to attend as well as how to pay for a degree . . . Anyway, things are gradually calming down at work now, and I have no choice but to choose a school by mid-April, so I’m optimistic that my posting frequency will pick back up again shortly. I mean, I haven’t been to a movie theater for nearly a month, and lord knows I can’t tolerate such a situation for long.

Now that that’s out of the way . . . it’s been weeks since I saw The Witch. While I have not been able to watch the film again since then, I do have some notes that I chose not to include in my original review, because they contain spoilers. Below, I attempt to turn those notes into a post that will be sensible to others (or at least, to those who have seen the film).

Though much of what I write here will focus on Thomasin and the film’s ending, allow me to start with some broader thoughts about the film and the family it features. First, all that that family goes through after leaving the plantation can be seen as a series of tests. With the possible exception of Thomasin, they all fail these tests, which—among other things—serve to expose the alarming degree of madness and depravity that they are capable of. While Eggers does not definitively declare the source of the tests (or, “tribulations,” “torture,” or whatever other word you prefer) that the family suffers, the most obvious and directly supported explanation is that they are sent by “Satan” in the form a black goat and a number of liberated (and thus, monstrous) women.

The Witch begins with a scene in which William declares his confidence in his faith. He also teaches his children that they are evil and sinful by nature. By the end of the film, viewers may have a hard time claiming that he is wrong. For the family at the center of The Witch, the world is an evil place—a place that is all but void of the God they worship. According to their faith, they can only survive and join their lord in eternity if they can find a way beyond their evil nature while also living pure, holy lives in a place that is anything but. Such a task is impossible for mere mortals, and they suffer the consequences of believing otherwise.

Though Eggers moves the family from the plantation to their hell at the edge of the woods at the very beginning of the film, the reason that they are expelled is still important. William’s entire family is forced to relocate to an unforgiving piece of land (where they must face the evil in the world and in themselves and where they would surely starve to death if given the time) because William himself makes it so. William—the male head of the household who according to his own religion, is the closest thing to a god within his own family—is banished for his beliefs and his religious arrogance, and his wife and children all suffer as a result. William is convinced that he knows best when it comes to matters of faith, and he sees sin and godliness in all-or-nothing terms. And yet, he also dislikes it when his own son asks him questions about God. As the spiritual leader of this family, William is arrogant, unyielding, prideful, and foolish, and he leads them all to a place where they cannot hope to survive (or at least, not while maintaining their puritanical faith).

After William’s faith and pride cause his family to be banished from the plantation, they are then gradually destroyed by the evil forces both within and around them. Such forces (Satan/Black Phillip/the women) may also be attracted by William’s religious arrogance. More importantly, the trials that such forces subject the family to serve remove their holy façade while bringing their darkest depths out into the light; while doing so, they also reveal their terrible sexism.

If there is a hero in The Witch it is certainly Thomasin. As William and Katherine’s oldest daughter (and as their only child who has experienced puberty), she is also likely regarded as both the most feminine and the most sexually dangerous member of her family. Viewers may go into The Witch expecting a tale of family combatting a monster, but Eggers gives them something more complicated instead. Instead of unified family vs. some external beast, The Witch depicts a family tearing itself apart until only one them, Thomasin, remains. Yes, the witches in the forest and Black Phillip’s evil do serve as a sort of catalyst that causes the family to suffer and that moves them to act in ways that they ordinarily would not, but Eggers’s story keeps such shadowy figures on its fringes. He does so, because the true villain in The Witch is not Satan or anyone who serves him—rather, it’s sexism wrapped up in a dark and almost primitive belief system. The evil forces in the wood certainly don’t make life easier for William and his family, but The Witch also leaves viewers with the feeling that things would gone much less terribly for them if they paid nearly as much attention to Thomasin as they did to their religion. William’s spiritual pride may be what causes his family to be exiled, but it is their treatment of Thomasin that truly damns them.

Over the course of The Witch, it becomes increasingly clear that the film is almost hyperaware of Thomasin’s gender and in the ways her status as a young woman effectively isolates her from the rest of her family. The film also makes it clear that Thomasin’s gender is important and that it gives her puritan family reason both to fear and to seek to control her. Thomasin is a girl on the cusp of womanhood and, as such, she is a mystery and a threat. Her family and their patriarchal faith are not capable of accepting her while allowing her to truly explore her femininity or to exist as a sexual being. Instead, they take advantage of her while treating her as an inferior. Before the film is over, Thomasin’s parents conspire to send her away so that they can make money her. Katherine expects Thomasin to take care of the farm and to be like a mother to her younger siblings even though she is still a child herself. Thomasin’s mother also unfairly blames her daughter for a number of things, including the death of her infant son. At the same time, William is more than willing to let her serve as his scapegoat, and her brother Caleb repeatedly objectifies her. As the only young woman in the family, Thomasin is also the one that they accuse of witchcraft—though they do not say so, her gender, age, and sexual status are all the evidence they need. And because Thomasin is a girl, she does not even have the option of properly defending herself from their lies.

If Thomasin’s gender is a vital aspect of how her family (mis)treats her, it’s also critical to understanding why she—and only she—survives the film. Thomasin’s status as a young woman may make her the target of her family’s sexism and paranoia, but it also makes her uniquely qualified to survive the evil that falls on them. Their depravity is not her depravity, and she does not abuse them the way that they abuse her. And so, she outlives them all to take her place among the liberated women in the wood. Throughout the film, Thomasin is repeatedly made to feel evil and flawed by everyone around her, so why on earth wouldn’t she go with Black Phillip when given the chance? And once her father dies, the film shifts, and it soon becomes clear that Black Phillip’s focus was Thomasin all along.

The woman who steals baby Samuel from under Thomasin’s nose sets in motion a chain of events that serve to liberate Thomasin from her family and their beliefs. Viewers are given no reason to think that Thomasin’s family respects her or treats her with much kindness before the incident, but in throwing the family into chaos, Samuel’s death and disappearance also lead them to increase their abuse. As her entire family is consumed with fear and panic, Thomasin is repeatedly attacked by the only people she has. Before the film is over, Thomasin is hit and confined by her father, and after William’s death, Katherine even tries to kill her own daughter—a daughter who is not guilty of any of the crimes she has been accused of. But Thomasin survives. As her family is destroyed around her, she alone remains standing and, without her parents and siblings there to hold her back, she is free to realize her full power. The end of The Witch is a triumph. It’s jubilant more than it is horrifying. In his film’s final scene, Eggers gives viewers an image of a girl who is finally among those who will celebrate her womanhood; yes, she may have had to lose her family in order to join them, but perhaps the loss is worth it. Thomasin’s family, their religion, and their sexism are all prisons that hold her captive, and by shaking her parents’ faith, Black Phillip and the witches give her the chance to escape.

Thomasin may not be a witch when Samuel dies, but she survives her family’s ordeal, because she the only one among them capable of becoming one. Where William—the film’s primary representative of masculinity—is gored by his own goat, Thomasin—Eggers’s most feminine figure—emerges victorious. The Witch may begin as a story of a family sent into exile, but it ends as a fable about a girl who overcomes her strictly religious and traditionally sexist family with the help of Satan and naked women of various ages; and I have no problem with that at all.

Until Next Time
Thanks so much for reading (and for putting up with my inconsistent posting schedule)! This post is a little unorganized and feels incomplete, so I may add to it once I have a copy of The Witch that I can rewatch and reference at my leisure. I just wanted to get some of my initial thoughts down now, and I guess I did that. If you’d like to add anything, feel free to comment, but please keep in mind that my current schedule may prevent me from approving and responding to anything you say for up to a day or two.

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Gender and Feminism in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina

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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.

A Review of Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood: An Honest and Emotionally Powerful Take on the Coming-of-Age Genre

girlhood movie review

Film: Girlhood (original title: Bande de Filles)
Director: Céline Sciamma
Primary Cast: Karidja Touré, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, Mariétou Touré, Idrissa Diabaté
US Release Date: 30 January 2015 (limited)

The following review was originally published by Side B Magazine and can be found on their blog, here. 

Written and directed by Céline Sciamma, Girlhood (original title: Bande de Filles) is a French-language film that was released on a limited basis in the US back in January and that recently found its way to Netflix.

Set in the projects of Paris, the film focuses on 16-year-old Marieme (Karidja Touré), who is a mother to her younger sisters, whose older brother is controlling and abusive, and whose grades aren’t good enough to get her to high school. After being told that she will have to attend vocational courses, Marieme encounters an all-girl gang, who happen to have room for a fourth member. At first, Marieme is noticeably shy and somewhat awkward with the other girls—Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh), and Fily (Mariétou Touré)—all three of which are much louder and more outgoing than she is. Still, Marieme manages to develop a close and meaningful friendship with the girls rather quickly, and she transforms herself quite a bit as she does so. Along the way, she also has to contend with the burdens of her gender, family, socioeconomic status, and much more. At first glance, such burdens appear far too heavy for someone as young as she is and who is at such a pivotal point in her life to handle, but Marieme—like so many other girls—must figure out how to live in spite of them.

Girlhood is a rare film that manages to feel refreshing, insightful, and new in an effortless, and incredibly genuine manner. While it is hardly the first film to focus on young people growing up and trying to figure out who they are, it never feels clichéd (because it isn’t). The film is tender, delicate, and incredibly powerful. On its surface, it’s beautiful and somewhat unassuming (not unlike Marieme), but at its heart, it’s bold, forceful, and brave (again, not unlike Marieme). Girlhood dares to go where other films don’t, and it does so in an elegant, artful, and heart-wrenching way that never feels shallow or forced.

One of the things that makes Girlhood as entertaining, as touching, and successful as it is is the naturalness of its performances. The entire cast does a fine job, and most of the performances leave one with the sense that there is a remarkable honesty and vulnerability behind them.

The two strongest performances come from Touré and Sylla. As Marieme, Touré is extremely watchable, and she has the sort of on-screen presence that holds viewers tightly in its grasp without ever feeling overwhelming. She brings Sciamma’s script to life in a fully realized and markedly human way, and she navigates Marieme’s various mental and emotional states with the grace and skill of someone with far more films under their belt than she has. Sylla is similarly impressive in the film. As Lady (the confident leader of the gang), she is powerful, she is impossible to look away from, and she manages to convey a great deal with little more than a look.

As good as its performances are, Girlhood’s smart (and somewhat unexpected) script may be even better. On one level, the film is a take on the typical coming-of-age drama—after all, Marieme is a young person trying to find her way from adolescence to something else—but the story it tells isn’t one that most filmgoers will have heard before.

Throughout the film, Marieme is seen trying to figure out who she is and how to live; still, the film is less about “finding one’s self” than it is about what it’s like to be a girl in a world that is not particularly kind to girls. In Girlhood, Sciamma’s aim is not to lead her protagonists to some epiphany or triumph that will guide them successfully through the landscape of adulthood. Rather, she seeks to present an affecting, realistic, and painfully honest picture of life as a girl who is faced with very “adult” problems from a young age and who longs for a sort of freedom that is always slipping from her grasp. Girlhood features girls who desperately want to be free to be themselves, who rarely ever are, and who seldom complain regardless.

Deep down, Girlhood is a film about the friendships between girls and about the experiences they share. As such, it also demonstrates a noticeable interest in the differences between who these girls are when they are together and who they are when they are surrounded by those who hold them back or would seek to control them. Throughout Girlhood, the girls are constantly changing their behavior and their appearances to suit their surroundings—they do so, because that is how they survive. And while the film does feature some moments in which Marieme and the gang are allowed to be themselves without judgement and to feel genuine joy—a scene in which they dance to Rihanna’s “Diamond’s” is particularly memorable—Sciamma also makes it clear that the world around them has no interest at all in just letting them be. That they carry on in spite of this is remarkable, but that they have to do so at all is almost too much to bear.

There is something gentle about Girlhood. It’s tender and delicate. It’s undoubtedly emotional but not in a sensationalized or maudlin way. At the same time, the film is quite dark and is almost unspeakably heavy. The honesty, reality, and emotional vulnerability that pervade the film are beautiful, but they are even more devastating. Girlhood is tragic in the same slow-burning and somewhat unremarkable way that life so often is, and you’d probably have to be pretty heartless not to be moved by the film. There are moments in Girlhood that made me grin from ear to ear (often from the sheer joy of seeing girls being girls without being subjected to the male gaze), but it also moved me to tears.

In addition to being emotionally nuanced and powerfully honest, Girlhood is also subversive. With its mostly female and all-black cast, the film is most certainly a representational anomaly. On top of that, the film dares to portray girls that defy the stereotyped expectations that certain viewers might impose on them. Sure, the gang of girls do shoplift and fight a bit, but what they do, they do for themselves. They aren’t motivated by sex, and they aren’t dangerous criminals either. As intimidating as they may seem to strangers, all the girls are really trying to do is look out for each other. More importantly, these girls are not one-dimensional by any means, and they are more than capable of surviving whatever the world might throw at them on their own.

One place where Girlhood does disappoint a bit is in the pacing of its plot, as the film lags a bit near its end. Lady, Adiatou, and Fily are absent for the film’s final act, and the narrative loses steam without them. While the last section of the film does add further depth to it’s portrayal of Marieme, it does not quite live up to what precedes it.

After watching Girlhood, I feel compelled to urge those who have yet to experience Sciamma’s work to find the time to do so as soon as they can. While the film’s narrative is not without its weaknesses, there is something terribly and beautifully real about Girlhood that should not be ignored. In fact, the sort of sincere, believable, and unassuming emotional quality that runs through the film is something that Sciamma in particular seems to have an incredible knack for; this same quality can be found in her tender and intelligently realized Tomboy, but it’s applied with more sheer force (and perhaps with a little more ambition) in Girlhood.

It is clear that Sciamma is a writer and a director with a perceptive eye for emotional nuance, and her dedication to telling stories about girls is something that today’s film industry most certainly stands to benefit from. Not only does Sciamma present filmgoers with realistic pictures of what it is to be a girl while respecting both the personhood and the depth of her characters, but she also makes it clear that what it means to be a girl can’t be distilled down to a single set of experiences (as elementary as this may sound, it is also a big deal). In Girlhood, Sciamma’s manner of storytelling, her love for her subjects, and her attention to emotional detail all combine to form what amounts to a stunningly memorable and undoubtedly important film.

Until Next Time
Thanks so much for reading (and for putting up with my recent lack of posts). My entire family is moving next week, so things are really hectic for me right now. The current chaos will probably continue to cut into my movie-watching and review-writing time for the next 2 weeks at least. That said, I am actually going to go see Slow West tonight (because why not), so I may post something about that soon.

Let’s Kill This Bastard: Gender in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof

death proof tarantino

I’ve been meaning to watch Death Proof for what feels like forever, but it just never happened. At least, not until a few days ago. Now that I have seen the film, I find myself a tad frustrated with the somewhat lukewarm reception it seems to have received. I take issue with the claim that this is somehow Tarantino’s weakest film. That said, this post isn’t a review, and I’m not here to tell you how great Death Proof is.

Nope, I’m just here to discuss some of the ways in which the film uses gender and to explore how is subverts some traditional gender stereotypes in the process. I’m sure there are many who have discussed this aspect of the film since it’s 2007 release. Allow me to add my voice to the conversation.

More Than Objects (AKA Not Asking For It) this section is hella long oops
Not only does Death Proof have more female characters than most films, it’s females are also afforded a degree of full-personhood not often seen in Hollywood films (especially not in those about fast cars, murder, and revenge).

While nearly all of the women in Death Proof are sexual and/or are sexualized in some way, that in itself does not mean that the film is presenting them as mere objects. No, no. These women are full-fledged people. The film does not sexualize them to demean them, nor does it ever assert that they are somehow deserving of violence, because they are willing to wear ‘revealing’ outfits. Mike and those he can be taken to represent might think so, but Death Proof itself is not on his/their side.

If Mike were allowed to survive the film unpunished, if the women were presented as flatter characters than they are, or if the film encouraged viewers to sympathize with Mike, then it might be possible to say that the sexualization of women in Death Proof is purely exploitative or that it somehow devalues the women as characters. Fortunately, this is not the case. As it turns out, women are allowed to be sexy without losing their right to respect. What a thought. 

Tarantino’s personal foot fetish aside, the fact the Mike has a tendency to single out groups of women in which one of the members has a habit of sticking her bare feet out of car windows, actually reinforces the idea that short skirts and sexy billboards aren’t the real reason that Death Proof‘s women are stalked, attacked, and murdered. Rather, they are stalked, attacked, and murdered, because Mike gets off on asserting his masculinity and because society allows him to do so (more on that later).

The truth is, going barefoot is a pretty innocent and unsexy act most of the time. Still, this is what attracts Mike to the groups of women. Short skirts and cleavage don’t do it for him; feet do. Which is to say that it really doesn’t matter how much the women in the film are or aren’t wearing, Mike is going to target them anyway. The women in the film are in no way to blame for the terror that Mike enacts upon them; rather, they are victims of his hypermasculinity and of the belief that masculinity gives one the right to exercise power and control over the female. According to Death Proof itself, the women it portrays are much more than objects. According to Mike the Stuntman, they are not; and so, he decides to kill them.

It is also important to note that the women in the first group (that is, the group that gets murdered) are on their way to enjoy a girl’s night in when they are killed. This is most certainly not to say that they would somehow be deserving of death if they were actively looking for men to sleep with. However, that they explicitly are not doing so (near the end of their time at the bar, Arlene/Butterfly reaffirms that they are just having a girl’s night and will not be taking any men to the lake with them) does say quite a bit about how little influence they themselves have over whether or not men like Mike want to objectify and/or violate them.

These women are not looking for sex when they are murdered, but they are murdered in a violently sexual way (more on that later too) just the same. The women are people, but Mike does not see them that way. And their dress and their behavior have absolutely nothing to do with it.

The fact that the first group of women die on their way to a “girl’s night” actually ties in nicely with some of what Kim says when explaining to Lee, Zoe, and Abernathy why she carries a gun. After Abernathy asserts that carrying a gun actually puts Kim in more danger than not carrying one, the following exchange occurs-
Kim: “And you can’t get around the fact that if I go down to the laundry room in my building at midnight enough times, I might get my ass raped.
Lee: “Don’t your laundry at midnight.
Kim: “Fuck that! I wanna do my laundry whenever the fuck I do my laundry.
There is nothing inherently sexual about doing laundry, but all of the women present seem to agree that doing one’s laundry late at night puts a woman at risk of assault all the same. It has nothing to do with the clothes. A woman raped doing laundry late at night doesn’t get raped, because she wants to wash her clothes; she get’s raped, because a man sees her, feels entitled to her, and decides that there aren’t enough potential witnesses around to prevent him from doing whatever he wants. And of course, women really should be able to do their laundry (and to go to bars, and to stick their feet out of windows, and to drive Dodge Challengers) whenever the fuck they want.

Oh, and before I end this monster of a section one more thing. That exchange I just quoted is part of a longer extended conversation among four women. How many films have you seen where a group of women are allowed to just sit and chat for an extended period of time (and about more than some other male character no less)? Given the huge percentage of films that don’t even manage to pass the bare minimum that is the Bechdel Test, probably not many. Objectified as they are by Mike, the women in Death Proof aren’t just there to look pretty or to give the film a motivation for it’s action and violence. They are multifaceted characters who exist outside of and independently of any men in the film. Oh, and if the diner scene reminds you of the opening scene in Reservoir Dogs, there is a reason: they are shot in a very similar manner. Personally, I can’t help but feel a certain fondness for film that affords female characters the luxury of mere conversation, a luxury that is most often reserved for men.

Butterfly’s Lap Dance
Remember when I indicated that the fact that the women in Death Proof are pretty damn sexy doesn’t change the fact that women are empowered by the film on the whole. Well, I meant it. Still, something tells me that someone reading this might try to bring up Butterfly’s lap dance scene as a counterpoint. They might say that, “surely that scene is objectifying Butterfly and is meant to present her as a sexual object and little else.” They might say that, but they would not be correct to do so.

No matter how sexy Butterfly’s lap dance might be, she does not give it willingly, and that cannot be ignored. Mike bullies her into dancing for him. She initially refuses him, and Julia even tries to help her do so, but Mike is persistent. He pushes and he pushes. Eventually, he even gets Julia to admit that she is afraid of his car (and, by association, of him and of the masculine power and privilege that lies behind all of this words and actions).

That the film establishes Butterfly as someone who typically isn’t afraid to put her foot down before this scene further emphasizes the degree to which Mike deliberately pushes her into dancing for him. Early in the film, Butterfly tells Julia and Shanna of how she decided when and how to end her make-out session with Nate the night before. Then, at the bar, Butterfly is shown clearly laying out the terms on which Nate is allowed to kiss her. If he doesn’t agree to stop when she wants to, then she won’t have anything to do with him. That this same woman is later coerced into giving a lap dance to a stranger highlights just how violent, controlling, and dangerous Mike and the mentality he represents truly are.

Thus, the primary function of the lap dance scene is not to use Butterfly to provide audiences with some sort of sexual gratification. Nope, the primary function of the lap dance scene is to make viewers uncomfortable and to call additional attention to the sort of person that Mike is. Butterfly puts on a brave face, but the dance might as well be a rape all the same. Like her eventual murder, and like the car chase later in the film, the dance is a violation. If the lap dance scene doesn’t make you uncomfortable, maybe it’s because you (like Mike) have been conditioned to see women as objects that exist for nothing else but the pleasure of the male gaze and ego.

If you still don’t buy my claim that the lap dance scene is about much more than offering some sort of sexual pleasure, then consider the fact that the end of the dance is very deliberately and ostentatiously missing. The climax of the lap dance scene is noticeably cut from the film. The dance was never about pleasure anyway, it was about power and about the needs of Mike’s twisted and masculine ego.

Mike and Hypermasculinity
That Mike is effectively a stand-in for hypermasculinity (the kind of masculinity that dominates the sort of action films that require crazy stuntmen) is hard to ignore. Not only is he a very manly looking man with a giant scar down his face, he also drives a terrifying muscle car (read: giant mobile phallus) and even wears what appears to be an IcyHot racing jacket. As ridiculous as the IcyHot jacket is, that the product is one used to soothe sore muscles reinforces the almost cartoonishly masculine way in which Mike is presented.

Just in case anyone isn’t convinced that the “death proof” car with the skull and crossbones paint job is really just a giant mobile phallus, consider the following: the second half of the film includes a shot of the phallic duck-shaped hood ornament on Mike’s car and then immediately transitions to a shot of Zoe’s legs spread around the same spot on the Dodge Challenger where such a hood ornament would be. The car is a dick.

Given Stunman Mike’s hypermasculinity (he has “man” in his name jfc!) and the fact that he murders women while driving a muscle car that he has deliberately customized to frighten women reinforces the fact that the murders (and attempted murders) in the film have much more to do with sex and gender than they do with some pathology unique only to Mike.

That Mike claims that his phallus-car is death proof highlights this even further. If Mike believes that the car is death proof, then he also believes that his masculinity is enough to protect him (legally and physically) from ever being punished for his crimes against women. For him, to be masculine is to be to be a god and to be a woman is to be a mere mortal, to be someone who exists only for the amusement of that god.

The Law is on Mike’s Side
The world that the women in Death Proof inhabit (as well as the one in which the film was made) is decidedly male. Male standards and viewpoints dominate nearly every aspect of society and the legal system. Those women who do survive and thrive don’t do so with the aid of this patriarchal system; rather they do so in spite of it.

That this is the case becomes terribly apparent after Mike kills the first group of girls. While Mike lies recovering from a few broken bones in a hospital bed, the local cop Earl (who also appears in Planet Terror) discusses the car accident/murder with his son. Earl makes it incredibly clear that he knows that Mike murdered the women and that the wreck was not an accident. But then when his son asks, “Well, what are you going to do?” His immediate answer is “Not a goddamn thing.” Earl then gives various excuses for why he won’t bother seek legal action against Mike, even though he is 300% confident that he deliberately murdered several women. Even if Earl wanted to prosecute Mike, there is not enough of a legal case against him. According to Earl, Mike would get away with the murder even if he tried to pin it on him, and so he decides not to try at all. Mike also points out the sexual nature of the crime and of the way it was committed (by ramming one car into another car).

Before the scene ends, Earl’s son repeats his earlier questions and asks, “So, what are you gonna do, pop?” Earl’s answer: “Well, I could take it upon myself to work the case. You know, in my off hours. Search for evidence, you know, prove my theory, alert authorities, dog that rotten son of a bitch, wherever he goes, I go. Or, I could spend the same goddamn amount of time and energy following the NASCAR circuit. Hmm, I’ve thought about it a lot, and I think I’d have a hell of a lot happier life if I did the latter. And just because I can’t punish old Frankenstein there for what he’s done… if he ever does it again, I can be goddamn sure that he doesn’t do it in Texas.

Whether Earl could or couldn’t get Mike arrested and prosecuted if he tried is unclear, but that he is unwilling to try regardless is very much apparent. Earl (here a representative of the law) knows that Mike has committed a terrible crime, but he is far more concerned with the fact that the crime happened on his turf than he is with the suffering or the victims or with pursuing justice. As long as he doesn’t have to deal with it, Mike can keep on doing whatever he wants. As long as the law/Earl will do no more than call Mike a “diabolical degenerate” when he isn’t around to hear, he can carry on, for he has the tacit support of the society around him.

The law’s refusal and/or inability to punish Mike highlights the fact that the worlds of the various film genres that Death Proof engages are typically not on the side of any women that they portray. And so, if any female characters are to come out on top in this film (and in the universes of horror, car, and other exploitation cinema), then they are going to have to do it in spite of patriarchal conventions. They are going to have to fight for themselves. Luckily (and as the second portion of Death Proof demonstrates quite memorably), they are more than capable of doing so.
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Mike Meets His Match
Mike’s second murder attempt fails for two reasons: 1) Kim, Zoe, and Abernathy are total bad asses who aren’t about to go down without a fight and who aren’t content to merely escape Mike without getting some revenge, and 2) Mike fails to account for the fact that there are women out there who can do just as much (if not more) with a muscle car as he can.

Surely, Mike never expects that the group of women he is stalking includes stuntwomen—women who have many of the same skills that he does, women who have existences separate from their appearances that actually make them well-equipped to destroy him. With his inflated male ego and incredible sense of entitlement to the female body, Mike is virtually incapable of considering that there are women out there who have what it takes to beat him at his own game (that is, murderous stunt-driving). And ultimately, Mike’s refusal to see women as people and as equals plays a significant role in his death.

When Kim, Zoe, and Abernathy kill Mike, they give him a taste of his own terrible medicine while also getting revenge for all the women he has terrorized. While Kim is chasing Mike with the Dodge Challenger, she repeatedly makes it clear that she understands something sexual in the way that Mike attacked them and that the film’s final car chase is symbolically an inversion of the sexual and gender-based power dynamics normally seen in Hollywood films and in the genres that Death Proof is in conversation with.

The end of the film also exposes the incredible lack of substance behind Mike’s masculinity. His car and his hypermasculine persona may be death proof, but only up to a point. Once his façade of masculinity is penetrated (by a bullet to the arm), it crumbles pretty quickly. Mike may have a scary car and a nasty facial scar, but Death Proof‘s final sequence makes it more than apparent that he is pretty pathetic underneath it all. Mike dies like the coward he is. He cries, and he begs, and a mother who loves fashion gives him the boot to the skull that he deserves.

Until Next Time
I’m sure that someone who knows considerably more than I do about gender and exploitation film could write a hell of a lot more on this topic than I have here. Of course, if you have any questions about what I have written or would like me to elaborate on anything, just let me know by leaving a comment below.

As always, thank you so much for reading (and for helping to validate my little hobby here in the process). 😀