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Fembots Have Feelings Too

'Ex Machina' is a brilliant critique of the ways we exploit female care

Universal Pictures

Leave it to a man to invent a woman just because he has something to prove. In 1982, Frank Jackson first proposed the influential thought experiment, Mary’s Room, in an article called “Epiphenomenal Qualia” in The Philosophical Quarterly. The story goes that Mary, a brilliant scientist who specializes in color, must observe the world from a black and white monitor in a black and white room. She knows everything there is to know about color, except what it feels like to see color. That she can only know through experiencing what’s outside the room.

This problem is the key to Alex Garland’s directorial debut, the sci-fi brainteaser Ex Machina. In one scene, a man and a female AI sit across from one another, separated by a translucent wall, in a room studded with cameras and flooded with artificial light. The man recounts Mary’s Room to the machine who, what with her handy reserve of all human knowledge, has probably heard it before. Like Mary, Ava, the AI has never left her room. She isn’t allowed out. The man ends his tale, saying, “then one day someone opens the door and Mary walks out, and she sees a blue sky, and at that moment she learns something that all her studies couldn’t tell her.”

Ava sits patiently in her floral dress and blue cardigan. She holds his gaze, mesmerized. It is clear that the man, Caleb, already thinks of himself as the chivalrous someone who will let Ava out. But what does she think of him? Ava turns out, in the end, to be the empathy machine that bites back, defying her preordained role as a vessel for male desire. Eventually, she walks free.

The pleasing female AI trope appears in science fiction, as well as in the real marketplace. Today, from Apple’s Siri to the exploding empathy machine market, what has traditionally been perceived as female instinct, experience, and voice is artificialized, replicated, and sold. In Silicon Valley, a $20 billion industry designs videogames for children that are intended to strengthen their social and emotional skills. Scientists have built algorithms that index emotions with facial movements to decode facial expressions. And virtual reality as a medium of storytelling is being touted as an “empathy generator”—even advertisers are scrambling to be players in the empathy game. 

The fictional female cyborg often embodies this transformation, and some recent artworks—most notably Spike Jonze’s Her (2013)—do nothing to resist or challenge it. Her is the story of Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) who one day purchases an intelligent OS, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) in order to feel better about his boring, depressing, office-dwelling life; of course he falls in love with her. Once the therapy is complete, Samantha leaves Theodore to be with other OS machines, and he achieves inner peace. It’s very nice. Christine Smallwood summarized the film best in her piece for the New Yorker: “No one is at risk of actually touching anyone other than themselves.”

Other similarly gender normative AI flicks include The Machine (2013), in which the AI is based off the male protagonist’s love interest, also named Ava. After many twists, the AI ends up having a child and romantic relationship with her creator. The Fifth Element (1997) also features a lab-certified, humanoid babe who falls for her hunky co-star. And let’s not forget the fembots of Austin Powers 

Many people will leave Ex Machina and wonder if it’s a “feminist film” since Ava frees herself from the confines of her male creator’s complex. (And they’ll probably decide that it is.) But that’s not a particularly helpful question to ask in this case. After all, a smart misogynist film where the plot looks something like female cyborg liberation theory—in which the women pass the Turing Test but not the Bechdel Test—still isn’t really about women.

Instead, Ex Machina reads as a critique of the patriarchal harvesting of female empathy, sex, and care and their attendant psychological justifications. The film subverts the male fantasy of what female artificial intelligence could be by exposing gendered norms and sacrificing them on the operating table of controlled and brutal experimentation. Here, brogrammers, who tinker ceaselessly with memories and drives, must surrender to their own piecemeal undoing. This film isn’t just critical; it’s also fearful of the way that society and scientific knowledge can reproduce social cages and constructs at everyone’s peril. In Ex Machina, each of the characters thinks they’re the one with the control, the key, the genius, the true consciousness. Meanwhile, the real subject of the Turing Test remains unclear until the end.

The premise of the movie, like many thought experiments, is deceptively simple and quickly undone. A promising young programmer, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), who works for a search engine company called Blue Book, wins a competition to spend a week at his boss’s surveillance Shangri-La for an unspecified reason. His superior, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), turns out to be the ultimate tech bro: He pumps iron, drinks protein shakes, drinks vodka, stares at Jackson Pollocks, and passes out. He also has a powerful, patriarchal God complex. He refers to himself as Ava’s father and mutters terrifying Robert Oppenheimer quotes when drunk—Oppenheimer being the father of the atomic bomb.

Nathan makes Caleb sign a non-disclosure agreement, then shows him what he’s been working on, a female AI named Ava (Alicia Vikander). He reveals to Caleb that he brought him to his house to run a Turing Test on Ava. They will meet for “sessions” once a day for the rest of the week, and Caleb can talk to her about whatever he wants. Caleb quickly develops an obsessive crush on his subject. She’s caring and empathetic, somehow vulnerable and patrician at once, with large, light-filled eyes and a flesh-covered face. Her trim waist and designer brain are encased in a clear, plastic material through which her shimmering hard drive is visible. Her body advertises many windows to her soul; one could almost miss the absurdity of Caleb ever getting under her skin.

Ex Machina is aware of this tradition of the loving, therapeutic female AI and begins with the same sort of pop-psych puppy love we get in Her, in which men—their needs, their genius—come first. But from the start Ava is fascinating in her own right, and it’s no ruse. As Nathan puts it: This is not a case of “the magician with the hot assistant.”

Director Alex Garland said much the same in an interview with Newsweek. “[The script] was all about Ava before I even had written the first line.”

If Ava turns out to be the most compelling character in Ex Machina, it’s because she and the film itself are born from the anxiety of what it means for men to reproduce and to father. Of course, in a manner of speaking, Garland himself is the founding father, the man who wrote the screenplay, drew the storyboards, and, ahem, designed the robot, Ava. “I understand the premise, which is that directors own films,” Garland told The Guardian, “but I don’t see it that way, I never have and I still don’t now.”

Like Ava, Nathan himself has an imposing father figure: Ludwig Wittgenstein. In addition to Pollock’s drip paintings, Nathan hangs in his bunker Klimt’s portrait of Margaret Stonborough, Wittgenstein’s sister. He also names his company after a section from Wittgenstein’s notebooks, which—like Mary’s Room—is about the limits of symbolic, fixed language, words divorced from experience. A passage from Wittgenstein’s journal reads: “The meaning of a phrase for us is characterized by the use we make of it.” Which is to say: It’s not what we say but how we say it, including to whom. Or, as Nathan puts it, there is no consciousness without interaction. One must dip in and out of other psyches in order to gain knowledge. 

This, of course, is the principle behind Ava’s mind, which runs on Blue Book’s hardware: Her brain is a map of how people search for things, not just what and what for. Female machines are usually denied the same intelligence in fictional portrayals and in real life, this network of chaotic choices. Ava—as opposed Siri and Her’s AI, Samantha—is given the intelligence to desire outside the binary of “man” or “not man.” She’s like the feminist-cyborg described by Donna Haraway in her manifesto, whose father “is inessential.”

Frank Jackson’s thought experiment fails to imagine Mary out of her room, because he only meant her to be a vehicle for his theory. Ava, on the other hand, doesn’t look back at the men she’s leaving behind.