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Can a man not be born, but rather become, a woman?

Recently, Elinor Burkett expressed what some people feel in private, but are reluctant to say in public in her article “what makes a woman” with the question: do women and men have different brains? [NYTimes 7 June 2015]. Burkett’s question had already been asked ten years ago and answered in the affirmative by a former Harvard president – Lawrence Summers. The result of his ‘wrong’ answer was a withdrawal of Harvard donations as long as he was there and Summers had to eventually step down. Fast-forward to 2015, and Burkett explores and answers the same question as Summers.

Burkett’s question has led to a maelstrom of Tweets and criticisms, with commentators attacking her for her ‘intolerance’ because she said “people who didn’t get to live their whole lives as women shouldn’t define us”. Burkett’s [and Summers’] response calls to mind an old but similar debate in ancient Greece: Tiresias, a prophet known for his clairvoyance, was asked: “do women and men have different pleasures?” Hera and Zeus wanted to know how men and women experienced pleasure but didn’t like Tiresias’ response: “of ten parts a man enjoys one only” – i.e. women have more pleasure. Tiresias was punished for saying this by being transformed into a woman’s body for seven years, and then blinded. This female Tiresias in Greek mythology was specifically erotic, but another feminist version of Tiresias surfaced in 1903: Les Mamelles de Tiresias [Guillaume Apollinaire], where male Tiresias also changed his sex but only to obtain power among men so he could change customs, subvert the past and establish equality between the sexes. Today, gender studies leave gender wide open saying “you are what you feel” and that “behavior matters more”. While Tiresias’ era had a singular view of gender until Appollinaire, our twenty-first century makes it possible to reverse gender via surgery and in the near future by exploiting the fundamental genome itself. But whether these permutations can really alter sex is explored in another modern day Tiresias – Tiresia by Bertrand Bonello in 2003. In this iteration, Tiresias is a Brazilian transsexual living in the Parisian banlieue; he is kidnapped by an obsessive man, and prevented from taking regular doses of hormones, which make him female, and he gradually starts to change back to a male without his hormones. The cinematic adaption shows him as a woman, but internally the lower body has always been a male, even though Tiresia has always considered himself a woman. This cinematic Tiresias illustrates the modern day obsessive perfection for beauty, and the artifice of gender. This film updates Greek mythology the way people update their biology today. But even this Tiresia is still in the ever-shifting no-woman’s land, between woman and man.

‘Tiresias’ has always been then this complexly liminal figure, vacillating between female and male. How did the normal change from the Greek Tiresias to the appolinairian Tiresias to the Tiresias of Bonello and finally to a modern-day Tiresias, like Caitlyn Jenner? What was the tipping point of this debate? Was it the same sex acceptance since Lawrence’s answer because 10 years ago, gay rights and marriage were not acceptable?

Sixty-six years ago – in 1949 – Simone de Beauvoir broached the question of female embodiment in her famous Second Sex by saying: “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. Beauvoir used these words as a vehicle for female freedom, as women’s bodies were sites of ambiguity in her era and before: female body was presented as both positive and negative, both oppressed and free. Taken literally, Beauvoir’s pronouncement could imply that one could change one’s sex by [re]creating oneself. However, Beauvoir’s theory also posited limits to self-creation and self-definition, and transgendering was not a part of the equation when she pronounced these unforgettable reusable words. Both Beauvoir’s words and Burkett’s enquiries provoke the same question: “how does one ‘become’ a woman, and how does this ‘becoming’ happen?”

In probing this question we should not forget what brought the feminist movement on its head: men had been defining women for far too long. Some people – like Burkett – see Jenner [a once-upon-a-time man] as still defining women: “people who didn’t get to live their whole lives as women shouldn’t define us”. Both Beauvoir and Burkett feel that you are who you are at/from birth, and their exploration on what it means to be a woman supposes that we cannot change our gender or sex overnight. If someone –man or woman- decides to become Marilyn Monroe by plastic surgery does that mean he or she is Marilyn Monroe? If I buy a Prada or Dior dress and have it ‘altered’ is it not Prada or Dior still? Or how about I paint an exact copy of Mona Lisa and a version 2, would my simulated tableau qualify in the same range as the original?

Bruce Jenner only recently discovered ‘his’ truth: that he was in the wrong body. It is the skipping of the states that Burkett is questioning, because Jenner’s truth isn’t Burkett’s. Jenner’s female identity is not Burkett’s. Jenner’s cultural experience isn’t the same as Burkett’s; nor other women. This recalls a time when black and colored feminism felt it incumbent to reprehend white feminism for its universalizing tendencies: for putting ‘all’ women in the same category ‘feminism’, no matter what their specificity. Burkett is asking her question in this same vein; universalizing feminisms under one banner didn’t work for colored or black or Asian feminists or even feminists in the same country, why then should Jenner in his new body be considered a woman? Burkett is echoing other women’s realities who are NOT the same as Bruce Jenner’s or Caitlyn Jenner’s, the same way that “Other” feminisms [Black, Asian, Chicano etc] questioned inclusion into a white feminist category, which denied them existence, and didn’t fit their bodies or realities.

Modern day feminists like Burkett and other pro female thinkers continue to question sex and gender which makes the “what makes a woman?” question very relevant, discuss-able, contend-able, deconstruct-able, turn-able inside-out, as we’ve been seeing and will continue to see and read. But these interrogations limit possibilities for people like Jenner.

In the early 1900s, Anais Nin posited a possibility when she said that “Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain there”. Taken literally, Jenner could be said to have elected a state and stayed there, skipping a good many states. The state he elected to stay at is not a ‘death’, but in fact quite the opposite today- ‘life’, a new life. What Nin may be postulating is that people go through a phase or phases, negative and positive, like a battery’s polarity, like Jenner’s male then female identity. Jenner was perhaps stuck in a state and body, which became untenable and he decided to phase out of being male and become female. But Burkett’s and Beauvoir’s question do not entertain grey zones of sex or gender because someone cannot just ‘become’ a woman without actually going through the range of emotions, expressions, sensitivities, experiences, stimuli like unequal wages or psychological results of rape etc that are formed since [female] childhood. Burkett and Beauvoir’s vision limits us because of the two tiered gender system, but what if the reason for having this gender system disappears? What if we identify as continuously changing as Nin suggests, how does this synchronize with our biological apparatus? What if humankind found a way to create life without ‘gender’ as we see in a film like Splice [Vincenzo Natali, 2009], where genetic engineers successfully splice together the DNA of different animals to create a new hybrid? This human-like female creature was produced in a lab, not inside a human womb? Would we still need the categories of sex and gender if reproduction no longer decided the creation of life? Until recently, nature had been the incubator for evolution, but the adaptation method could change. Films like Splice and lab babies prove that human beings are becoming the incubators, and not nature. Today, technology is capable of producing new possibilities not only in film but also in real life, like Bruce Jenner’s changeover from man to woman. For now women are XX and men XY: when DNA is tested it will show a man’s DNA[1] but if we start creating clones or hybrids with advancements in stem cell and genetic sequencing / replications, what will they be?

Perhaps it is time to recognize that we have culturally and technologically evolved, keeping in mind that there’s an undertone of biological evolution happening. It is vital to understand that forms and identities like Caitlyn Jenner’s have existed not just in ancient great Greece or contemporary society, but in other places where a third gender exists. In India, Hijras are men who are born men, but dress like women and live like women all their lives; Waria in Indonesia believe they are biological men born with the souls of women, who have an irrepressible feminine spirit; Mahu in Tahiti are not wholly men nor wholly women, of ambiguous gender but treated and respected like women because they possess the virtues of both men and women, and in Oman Zaniths or Xaniths are considered a third gender, who speak in falsetto voice, dress in between men and women, sing at weddings and perform other social tasks.

Burkett’s question was based on the 2 binary-gendered system, which has been socially constructed and set in place a long time ago; the same gendered system that makes some women think that adding Jenner to the female category feels like going backwards for women, and the same system which makes men feel uncomfortable about portraying Jenner on Vanity Fairs’ cover as a stereotypical male fantasy of Ms Jenner as a ‘sex babe’.

But, whether we accept it or not, evolution is happening not only because of technological innovation, but also because of psychological innovation, and will crop up again as more people come forward with sex/gender change. It behooves us then to build the apparatus for such change, and create space for these new identities.

[1] Comment by Chris Heiss in response on June 11 to “Who decides what makes a woman?”: Brynn Tannehill at

When speech is absent in rape & sexual slavery in India, Krishnan speaks out

In India, rapists emboldened by victim blaming, frequently threaten their victims into silence by photographing or recording the crimes via photos and phones. It is a ploy used in other areas of life, in other countries too, and geared at silencing or humiliating women or men of all walks of life. But, technology can also help rape survivors tell their truth, the same way rapists use it to blackmail women into NOT reporting or silencing them or shaming them sometimes to the point of suicide. It is time to use the violators’ own weapons against them. Sunitha Krishnan is one such person.  She has edited rape videos creating a montage of videos sent to her where she blurred out victims faces forcing the viewer’s gaze to focus on the violator, NOT the woman who is raped. Krishnan has appeared on national news channel with videos urging viewers to identify the rapists. People shattered her car windows, but she tweeted “in 30 minutes after I announced on NDTV #shametherapistcampaign, my vehicle was vandalized. Happy I’m on right track”.

Krishnan herself was raped by 3 men at age 15 for teaching Dalits (the Untouchable class) to read and write. This is a serious infraction in the eyes of the caste obsessed in India. She found no justice in legal system and she couldn’t identify her rapists and was shunned by classmates, neighbors, and then her own family. For women who are raped the hypocrisy is the worst: “decent society won’t employ or even share a street with women that are raped. But it loves the men that rape”. We see this clearly in the now-playing documentary India’s Daughter [Leslee Udwin 2014] from the main narrator/accused rapist, Mukesh Singh. We also see this, too in Deepa Mehta’s 2005 Water and a lot of other films in Bollywood where it could be glamorized.

At 24, Krishnan founded Prajwala, an organization for the rescue and rehabilitation of victims of sex trafficking in her native Hyderabad. And 19 years later, it has become the largest anti trafficking shelter in the world with 300 employees, 17 schools, and medical care units for HIV positive residents. Her team has provided long overdue and therefore much-needed therapy, medical treatment, and jobs to over 12000 female victims.

The work is punishing for Krishnan: covert rescue operations in brothels, working with police to outwit pimps and middlemen, and breaking toxic cycles of drug dependency. Krishnan has seen a colleague murdered before her eyes, faced at least 14 angry mobs, lost an eardrum, and one of her arms is permanently damaged. She is battle-scarred but not battle weary at 43.

After the 2012 Delhi rape [], state government started outdoing each other by allocating large funding for women’s safety and Kerala government was quick to woo Krishnan with implementing the “Nirbhaya Policy” advising the government to establish other centers like Prajwala. For Krishnan it was a do or die situation to create crisis center for women who could guide survivors through their legal battles until the trial was completed. But 3 years after she was defeated by red tape and government apathy. She’d been treated like royalty by Kerala administration with her every suggestion turned into policy and even named after her, but bureaucrats didn’t understand that results were needed on the ground. Therefore, she resigned, and in her blog she wrote: “we at one end, struggled with resource crunch, at another fight the sex mafia, but the biggest fight is against society and the state for its apathy and rejection. After rescuing 12000 girls from prostitution and attempting to rehabilitate them, I am still wondering…will I ever make an impact?”

The continuing misogyny in India is so strong that frequently, sex traffickers and lawyers ask Krishnan if she is running a sex racket herself or if the girls she rescues have lesbian sex with her. On the Internet there is no form of abuse she hasn’t faced. And after years of fighting the mafia, the state, the garden-variety misogyny, Krishnan has to be positive. She keeps going believing that “if you look into the eyes of a child who has been sold, raped and beaten and you still find love, how can you stay angry with the world?”

In November 2014, Krishnan was presented with the Mandela award and in 2015 her circulated video caused CBI to arrest for the first time. Krishnan made 6 demands among which a task force set up by CBI to investigate such offenses – a task force [like Europe the UK and the US] that India needs so very urgently. She suggested creating a public register for sex offenders where the service providers like whatsapp & YouTube would agree to be more vigilant – and where suspicious pornographic videos could be sent to law enforcement agencies rather than “adult content” folders.
Today, Sunitha Krishnan is back in Kerala and is now honorary director of Nirbhaya Scheme in the government. Some people believe she’s humiliating the women raped by publishing videos to catch rapists in flagrante but it may be the only way to save 4 year olds from being raped. Or 15 year olds. Or girls from being infected with HIV. Or committing suicide out of desperation or shame or aloneness. Sadly, the initial humiliation women feel when videos go public needs to be overcome because of the greater good of Krishnan’s cause. Women MUST feel comfortable to report rape. Krishnan was raped by 8 men at 15, but it was never shame that she felt, just raging anger. Perhaps women who feel shame or humiliated could profit from her ‘coming out’ and ‘speaking out’. The men who rape use ‘shame’ after all to control, silence and threaten women because sadly, it is perhaps the only thing they fear in the society.

This blog is informed from Nishita Jha’s article in the NYTimes on 4.22.15 “The woman who turned the tables on rapists in India”.

Colonial justice through laughter

The art of outrage requires the constant turning of tables and forcing of analogies, the endless iteration of words and ideas like those of Richard Pryor whose jokes made the networks so nervous that they would broadcast his material with a 10 second delay so that any offending words could be bleeped [AO Scott “A World that won’t laugh with you” NYTimes June 7, 2015]. Pryor and other black comedians [for example Redd Foxx from the long television series  Sanford and son, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock] changed the face of humor by caricaturing, analyzing, analogizing identity in america and making people laugh about their contradictions, insults, allegories and silly caricatures. But these comedians – except for Rock who still rules the stage- were mostly limited to screen – both television and cinema. Today, in our viral age, there are two comedians who use racist and colonialist humor to provoke laughter. The images, ideas and words that come out of their punch lines include Indian Superbowl, a fear of brown planet, reverse racism, a Transasian slave trade, colonialism as the ultimate form of “looting” etc. Their ideas are not poisonous examples of racism, but serve as mockery to both the structures that colonized and discriminated against immigrants of African and Asian origin, Blacks and Whites. Theirs is a redemptive satire of society which make listeners think about the seats of privilege and authority and NOT the kind of satire that bullies the powerless. Their ‘jokes’ cause laughter because they raise philosophical questions on social power. Aamer Rahman is Saudi Arabian by birth, Bangladeshi by origin and Australian by naturalization while Hari Kondabolu is Andhra Pradeshi by origin and American by birth. These two comedians straddle many worlds on their shoulders and mouths.

Rahman graduated with a law degree in Australia, but became involved in political protests around issues such as mandatory detention, refugees, and cuts to higher education. In his “Fear of Brown Planet” Aamer Rahman reverses racism and sets up a Transasian slave trade [to mimic the transatlantic slave trade] so that ‘white people’ could see what it was like for minorities. Rahman fights fire with fire by defusing colonialism into serious laughter. We get the message but think about the pain and plight of ‘brown folks’ through the laughter he elicits.  Rahman has written and performed for television and worked on Channel 31’s program Salam Cafe. He has appeared regularly on ABC national radio and Triple J Channel Ten’s Melbourne Comedy Festival Gala, the Comedy Channel’s You have been watching, ABC1’s Tractor Monkeys and has also written for season one of Balls Of Steel Australia and currently developing more projects for television.

Hari Kondabolu is very race conscious having growing up in Queens New York, one of the most diverse regions of America. He makes light of awkward and difficult situations in his life – and his parents’ – by plying them with the deeper message of love and acceptance. He fights back colonialism with his reverse racism a la Richard Pryor’s style of comedy regarding black slavery. Pain takes pain and anger and turns them into laughter. When he hears Pryor he felt how lonely it was to be discriminated against. Doing political comedy is a lonely business for him as it was for Pryor. He not only fights colonialism for Indians, but other minorities like Chinese and Bangladeshis.

His off-color comedy brings post colonial India out of her past post colonialism and makes all think about events and things we don’t like to think about ordinarily or which are too explosive or awkward to address in quotidian language or platforms. His year 2042 for a minority majority in America is a fine example of this.

His comedy also pushes against racism: he pokes fun at those who’ve told him to go back to his country when he was born in America; to Americans who tell him to go back to all the countries they are bombing.

His “Why You Can’t Be ‘Obsessed With Race’ in America” opens with the punch line, “Saying that I’m obsessed with race and racism in America is like saying that I’m obsessed with swimming while I’m drowning. It’s absurd.” He brooches racism in America the way Nicholas Kristof talks about it in NY Times or his blogs.


When in New York City, Kondabolu co-hosts the mostly improvised talk show The Untitled Kondabolu Brothers Project with his younger brother Ashok (“Dap” from hip hop group Das Racist) and their podcast The Untitled Kondabolu Brothers Podcast. He also wrote the cover story for Spin Magazine about Das Racist  in November 2011 and he also video blogged for World Compass.

Rahman and Kondabolu have given ethic humor a hard punch and before a global audience. These two comic artists prove that there is no place to hide from the things we should take seriously.

rise of the machines: are they friend or foe?

Twenty years ago, four types of cyborg technologies in relation to the human body were identified in “Cyborgology: constructing the knowledge of cybernetic organisms” by C.H. Gray, S. Mentor and H. Figueroa-Sarriera in C.H. Gray‘s The Cyborg Handbook (New York: Routledge, 1995 : 1-14).

  1. Restorative i.e. restoring lost functions or limbs
  2. Normalizing i.e. re-establishing normal functioning
  3. Re-configuring i.e. constructing new combinations of humans and technologies
  4. Enhancing i.e. extending human capabilities

Alex Murphy in Robocop [Jose Padhila, 2014] is a combination of all of the technologies outlined by Gray, Mentor & Figueroa.  He is restored, normalized, reconfigured and greatly enhanced. Robocop‘s creator – dr Norton at OmniCorp – can make people whole again, but as machines.

robocop 2robocop 1

Norton says a candidate needs to be emotionally balanced for him to put a robobody onto the human body. That means that that human must have had no temper in his human body. Norton creates Robocop from the near dead Alex Murphy. Does Alex get a Second chance or a Second life? Is he a kind of Tin man? Alex almost dies in an explosion and his body was completely destroyed in the explosion – everything except his brain – only partly damaged – and one palm of hand. They fixed his damaged brain and added a body: emotions and intellect are the only things left of the human Alex Murphy. The Alex-machine wants to die when he discovers what’s left of him. But dying is in the realm of emotion. Is Alex Murphy a man who thinks like a machine? Or a machine which thinks like a man?  Does a human-looking Machine like Alex know what it’s like to be human?  His wife and he communicate via computer, but she doesn’t know what he looks like. And during the course of the film we earn that Alex still has biases like compassion and fear towards his wife and son and others. He is a man in a machine. His consciousness should be nothing more than the processing of information. But Alex’ dopamine level overrides what is inputted by dr Norton and his software – they had only put in only 2% but what he exhibits far exceeds 2%. He even solves his own murder that human cops couldn’t touch.

Is it an illusion of free will that is making Alex feel that he’s in control?

Robocop showed some very interesting aspects about humans:

– That man can be bought and bribed, but that machine is incorruptible

– With Alex Murphy, no policeman is ever going to die in vain again.

We’ve seen other robots like Alex elsewhere- the Transformers robots – Autobots : gentle, human-like fighting machines on the side of justice and some are even funny, like the autobots and Chappie. They are on the good side of technological warfare and humanity.

But what about robots or machines that are not on the side of humanity? What if Robocop were to kill children? What would he feel? Nothing. We see this in the Decepticons, robots which will stop at nothing and destroy everything and everyone, humans included. We know that machines can’t feel, but in Transcendence [Wally Pfister, 2014] dr Will Caster [Johnny Depp] uploads his consciousness onto the internet merging man and machine in an unseamless way. And  what if Dr Norton could put a human brain into a robot body? This is precisely what happens in Ex Machina [Alex Garland, 2015]: Dr Nathan tries to put human consciousness onto a robot body in Ava. And what if we take this a step further and create a robot like Galvatron [Transformers: age of Extinction Michael Bay, 2014]? Galvatron is powerful and intelligent, and his primary weapon is his particle accelerator cannon, mounted on his right arm, which can fire blasts of assorted types, including electrochemical energy and particle beams. He transforms into a futuristic laser-cannon emplacement like a howitzer: artillery characterized by a relatively short barrel and the use of comparatively small propellant charges to propel projectiles at relatively high trajectories, with a steep angle of descent. Galvatron’s weapon can assume the form of a laser pistol, shrinking as he does so to allow other beings to wield him.

Films that show that technological decadence like Robocop, Transformers: Age of Extinction and Ex Machina provoke some burning questions:

– Can robots like Galvatron and Robocop give rise to raising an entire army with one algorithm: kill?

– What if hackers hack those machines like dr. Norton does with Murphy in Robocop?

– If a cloud is hackable what is a machine or algorithms?

– What if that killer army turns on us who created them? Armageddon?

And God forbid these robots let loose in areas like Ferguson or Baltimore where blacklivesmatter!

Currently, 2 six-foot-tall, 330-pound bipedal humanoid robots named ATLAS and ESCHER are being built. They resemble those iconic killer robots from the big screen []. The dozens of engineering students and professionals working on ATLAS, ESCHER, and the nine other robots participating in the DARPA challenge have the best intentions: they say they’re building tools they hope will help humanity.

Robocop is only be a movie but, earlier this week, Icelandic orthopaedics company Ossur said they’ve created the world’s first truly “mind controlled” prosthetic leg. The crux of the issue is that, by collecting more and better control information from a patient’s residual muscle tissue, Ossur said it has helped two patients control a bionic limb with the same muscle impulses that previously controlled the real appendage [].

Robocops, Atlas, and Escher are all nice, friendly humanoid rescue robots. But in the end, these robots will serve whatever purpose their human operator sends them to. Just like Galvatron. If Americans appear robophobic that could be because robophobia can become a real worry.

VR storytelling & building a new grammar for cinematic language

Onscreen entertainment has been accomplished on rectangular screens for 100 years and at some distance from our eyes. The size of the screen has shifted over the years to enhance movie pleasure, and we’ve seen stereoscopic 2D and 3D which created a sense of depth and distance. But all of these shifts didn’t change the prison of the rectangle. Our eyes were still always limited to the 4 borders of the rectangular screen.

Oculus rift and other virtual reality ventures are now trying to crack the rectangle screen wide open with a 360 degrees screen. This means that the narrative would no longer be linear and viewers would become part of the narrative. Viewers would be unconstrained by borders because there will exist no borders on a 360 degrees angle in VR filmmaking. This will allow the cinemagoer not only not jump side the cinema halls but inside the movie, too. The viewer will be inside a virtual movie theater where s/he can even walk around and choose her/his seat.

But it is a new language and VR cinematic grammar will have to be perfected before it becomes viable. Some questions will need articulation.

The experience of the world from within: How can a story be directed inside a medium where the viewer can look anywhere s/he wants? In rectangular screen cinema when a director wants to avert someone’s gaze he or she just needs to point the camera elsewhere. The challenge for the director using the new VR language would be how to accomplish the same when the director doesn’t even know where the viewer is looking. A cinemagoer will view the images via a headset or next-generation smart phone right up against the eyes. The question here begs: will there be too much immediacy? Wherever you look, you will be in the same forest, sea, sky or other universe, in the same spherical space as actors. What if the viewer doesn’t want to be there? What if it is a rape scene and the viewer is female? How does she stop terror and fear from reigning down on her? It can be disturbing and disorienting for the viewer which traditional cinema has never had to deal with. inside image can be terrifying

VR narrative versus linear narrative- In traditional moviemaking, directors aim camera, create themes through montage, transport viewers across the world in a second by cutting in on a scene, or they stretch one minute of a ticking bomb into 10 mins of drama. In VR cinema, however these techniques don’t exist. Not yet. Virtual reality has begun to flower, but few know what direction it will take and therefore comes with quite a bit of uncertainties:

There’s no standard way to control VR -With no rules for standards yet in place, how can companies explain this new field to a layperson who just wants to watch a new kind of movie?  At what point is all this public experimentation actually a bad thing?

Consumer confusion – it will be difficult to accept the confusion that’ll come out of using the device to view movie. Also, if it’s just all noisy moments, we’re going to lose people.

VR as a new medium to tell movies is not yet pioneered. Cutting edge of hardware is required to build a 360 degree VR camera and capture systems. 360 degree viewingEstimates predict another 20 years before we could reach this level of sophistication in the film industry. Storystudio is currently building a grammar to contain this new cinematic storytelling of VR. They’re working on how to communicate to the viewer when they should explore the story, when the movie starts. Viewer needs to follow the story since the environments could be distracting, immersive. Viewer can see many things happening simultaneously and may be hard-pressed to see that thing the director wants them to see. In normal conversation and films it is not always possible to follow one conversation.

The 360 degrees camera system in the works by Milk VR would be good at telling stories. Skybound is already en route to producing a series of Walking Dead for Samsung that will premier in 2016. Things like capture, flow, and playback are big issues to iron out but the biggest concern by far is the cinematic language. No language is limitless; that’s why there’s’ a dictionary, to contain language. And the sky has always been that proverbial limit for everything. But a limitless cinema? When the cut or the frame is gone what is left for the cinematographer? It took a century to develop that cinematic language and suddenly the cinematographer leaves the frame for the viewer to decide it. Is it the director who is telling the story if he gives the viewer the freedom to choose what he or she wants to see and thus to tell his or her own story? How would filmic expression be built in VR? How will a cinematographer draw outside the traditional lines?  Will gaming be a platform for this new kind of cinema as it is already putting the player inside the game? With VR cinema, where will the viewer be?How can narrative coherence be achieved when viewers can wander outside the negative space where the movie isn’t?

All of these cinematic syntax must be refined in order to fit into an oculus rift goggles.

Ex Machina: technology of sex & gender

What is the film Ex Machina about?

What if what it is about could be possessed? A work to love, worship, own, admire and grasp?

Why did Nathan create Ava? Has an Ava been attempted before now?

In 1886, the French symbolist writer Villiers de l’Isle Adam – who popularized the term android – created Hadaly, an “electromagnetic thing, a being in limbo, a possibility”.  Eve Future means tomorrow’s Eve because she was futuristic in 1886. A fictionalized Edison in the novel created Hadaly in an effort to overcome the flaws and artificiality of real women and create a perfect and natural woman who could bring a man true happiness. Hadaly moved, talked, breathed and bathed, and her [robotic] needs were natural and normal, similar to human actions and functions. Hadaly was a sight for Ewald’s sore eyes; he was about to commit suicide due to sheer frustration with Alicia who was beautiful but dumb. That is until he saw Hadaly whose beauty was so striking it made him forget his despair with the opposite sex.

Lord Ewald exclaimed upon seeing Hadaly: “You, born of a woman, you can reproduce the identity of a woman!” “Certainly and what is more, the reproduction will be more identical than the woman herself…” Ava is not Hadaly; she’s not a possibility, but a robot capable of “holding memory, shifting in thought, like a real woman” according to Nathan. She is today’s Eve, like a perfect real woman, the quintessential female cyborg [half machine half woman].

Not only is Ava like Hadaly, but Caleb is today’s Ewald. Ava was created after Caleb’s own design and heart; programmed according to Caleb’s porn preferences. She is a perfect but scary example of technology companies which lure us into divulging our lives: the thing desired and craved for can be shaped into exactly the way we want it. From Hadaly to Ava something scary and unstoppable is created, a robot purely external, neither male nor female no matter how much of the body is simulated. Ava’s attractiveness and sentience makes her real although her femininity is purely external.

Ava is therefore a meditation on the male obsession of man-pleasing sex robots which is built with an array of man pleasing female parts. When Caleb and Ava open the closets they discover many female sex robots in every cupboard, of all races of women, but of the same body type: slender, small breasted, every one of them like Ava and Kyoko -Nathan’s own sex robot:

This frightening scene goes beyond any techno-determinism, beyond controlled public or private fantasies and opens up a fantasmatic zone to create the female identity, Ava. The construction of bodies and genders has always been technological, but this film opens up some other questions: Why are so many thinking machines female? Why does A.I. need a body? And a sexualized body? These A.I. certainly can’t reproduce biological entities, or can they? And if they were designed to complete tasks, the question begs ‘what tasks” with all these female sexualized body parts. They could be flat chested or straight-shaped or given any number of neutral sexless or genderless traits, but they’re not. Ava is not as an outside identity but very much has her own identity.

The film cast is entirely masculine: two men trying to figure out Ava; it is not about women’s experience, and not how Ava might feel as a woman but how they view her as a woman in flesh. Ava is the lens through which male attitude is refracted. From Metropolis until now robots have become sleeker and sleeker and better and better. The virtual woman has become the “real” for Caleb, Nathan and many other online and offline people. Before Ava, it was a lifeless doll in Lars and the Real Girl. Yet emotions and feeling are projected onto this doll. The conflation of sexuality and disturbing reaches a climax when we see female sexualized robots hanging like meat in every closet. Do we care that the vessels beneath the female skin and sensuality cannot share our insecurities and emotions? Nathan’s robot Kyoko cannot speak, only perform what she is asked. She can dance and is programmed to seduce Caleb and have sex with Nathan because she is built with a vagina. Why make a robot with a vagina if it is only about science and art?

Ex Machina is a cinema that is not only about technology, but the technology of gender.  The transformer robots OR autobots or Ultron in Avengers: Age of Ultron are not gendered or marked by their gender or body. But female robots or creatures (such as the one in Splice [Vincenzo Natali, 2009]) are marked by their anatomy which are strikingly visual and sexualized. Whether it is a Metropolis robot, or the many female robots [androids] encountered in Captain Kirk’s lives, or bionic women, or the Ava robot, female robots are not sexless. They are often portrayed as sensual, seductress, mysterious, beautiful, and young – not “old” – feminine creations of men even if all they are supposed to possess is artificial intelligence. The camera angles and compositions frame her as a real, sensual and sexual.         ex machina 2

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Ava is the incarnation of the OS [operating system] – Samantha – whom we only hear speak to Theodore in Her (Spike Jonze, 2013) and even though Samantha has a body in the end it is not on display throughout the film as Ava’s body is. Ava is a real, living, existing actual body for Caleb and Nathan whose technology extends far beyond any voice. In the end, Ava outsmarts the two males because they see her as a [silicone] femme fatale and they slip up because they process or think with feelings. Ava thinks with logic that is programmed into her operating system, into her artful Brancusi-inspired copy of the female body behind which lies its possession. Caleb and Nathan forget she is an A.I. when they look at her. No matter how scientific the film wants us to think- and it does this brilliantly well – female robots are inseparable from their anatomy, echoing what Judith Butler once said:  is this a glimpse of the coming takeover of robots?

My Brother… Nikhil Kapoor and My Sister… Amina Filali

My Brother…Nikhil (Onir, 2005) is a Hindi film about Nikhil, who is handsome, charming, jolly State champion of Goa. His family adores him. His father has pushed him to become a swimming champion since he was a little boy even though he doesn’t wish to be a swimmer. He’d rather be an artist because he loves to paint. He finds himself on a pedestal from which he cannot get down. His sister Anu however, isn’t noticed or adored like him, and can choose what she wants to do, whom she dates [quite atypical for an Indian family] but it is Nikhil’s marriage which is arranged. Nikhil rejects marriage with a girl because he has a relationship with Nigel da Costa.

In typical Bollywood, when a man faces adversity, he comes back strong, a winner at the end, but Nikhil is not just a ‘bad boy’, and he has AIDS. Perhaps that is worse than adversity to Indians. Perhaps it is more like being a widow, cast out, locked up, suddenly untouchable. Nikhil becomes an untouchable. He can die for all they care, and he does in fact.

Nikhil falls from grace because he is socially ostracized by everyone at large except Anu and Nigel. Unable to face social humiliation, his parents take off to Bombay for two years during which Nikhil is dead to them. Nikhil’s mother tells him she wishes he’d never been born when they ask him to leave the house, and just before the police locks him up in a rat infested solitary room, far from home. Anu defies her parents [also atypical of a Hindi film] and stays back in Goa seeing Nikhil through his degenerating disease to the bitter end.

As an audience, we wonder how and why Nikhil got AIDS because he is a good person. But Onir never explains that. Perhaps this omission is deliberate. Onir only shows Nikhil’s pain from ostracism from those who loved him most. But it can easily be the abandonment he feels by his parents which kills him slowly.

In almost all films – eastern and western- when someone is sick they go to the hospital, get better or die and the film ends. And life goes on. But Nikhil’s grief swallows you up because of the longing and sadness he feels. In this film, life ends for Nikhil; it also ends for the parents because their regret won’t get them through life and for us, too, as the audience. Nikhil’s grief made me think about a film I recently saw.  475 Treve de Silence (Hind Bensari, 2014) was made following Amina Filali’s tragic suicide. She was raped at 16, forced to marry her rapist, beaten by her rapist/husband, abandoned by her parents when she sought shelter from beatings and committed suicide. Amina Filali took her life because there was no way out for her.

For Nikhil, there was no way out either, but he had the unconditional love of Anu and Nigel despite his parents’ deep absence. Nikhil’s heart-wrenching story made me think of Amina Filali’s life because Amina’s life could have been saved, unlike Nikhil’s. What enables Nikhil to die feeling more love and acceptance was his parents’ love and support, even though it was too late. Amina does not have that.

In Morocco, Statute 475 protects underage girls from marrying their rapists – but it does not protect from girls from being raped. There has to be such a law because raping underage girls is common practice. A girl has 2 choices to save herself or live from the “self-inflicted dishonor” of rape: marry her rapist or commit suicide. Girls like Amina Filali do both: marry then commit suicide. Unmarried girls, too commit suicide. The reason I thought of Amina and others like her while watching Nikhil is the abandonment they both endure. Not only does the legal system abandon Amina by placing loopholes to acquit men from rape, but the girl is abandoned by parents and siblings, too which could mean the difference between putting her soul to rest and dying miserably broken and alone. Women in Morocco know that if they are raped they don’t go back home for shelter or protection from their parents. But do girls know that?

In Morocco, it is taken for granted that girls marry their rapists or commit suicide because the only thing that matters is saving a girl’s honor. A girl is only worth her virginity. Nikhil is only worth his heterosexuality, not homosexuality. Before Onir, no one spoke about homosexuality. Before Bensari, no one felt obliged to take up a raped girl’s cause before an international audience. Bensari lets raped women speak for themselves and Onir lets Anu speak for Nikhil and in the two films, the pain is unbearable. In My brother… Nikhil his pain is explored and in 475:  Treve de Silence the pain remains silent, so the voice could be heard.

Unlike Nikhil, Amina and her sisters-in-rape have NO ONE’S love or support: no one cares, no one stands by them. Bensari puts the penal code on trial for its hypocrisy and neglect of girls and women, and Onir puts the huge void caused by abandonment of loved ones on trial. No one wins in both films. Both Nikhil and Amina die in the end, even if it is from different causes.

For both Nikhil and Amina, it’s a lose-lose situation. Even after Nikhil wins the case, he loses: he does not have freedom; everyone else is free, but him. Also, when Nikhil loses a lot of weight, is very weak, can’t walk anymore and is wheelchair bound his father visits him after 2 years and he fails to get the assurance he needs. He cries, begging his father to make his bad dream go away like he would when he was little and would have bad dreams and would run to his father to make the monsters go away. That’s how he felt as a man when they abandoned him: alone in a roomful of monsters out to get him, and only his parents’ love, arms and support could protect him and offer security. Amina runs to her parents, too after she is beaten, but they sent her back to the monster.

My Brother…Nikhil makes me imagine the Aminas and Nirbhayas/Jyotis of the world [in Morocco, India and everywhere girls and women are abused] who feel utterly abandoned by society. I imagine the Aminas whose parents would not take their bad dreams away for the same reason as Nikhil’s’ parents, and whose lives end in limbo, despair, shame, dishonor, aloneness…where death is more a relief rather than their alone-ness.

It is normal to desire parents’ protection from harm, but Amina and other girls don’t have that, so it will not be something that would easily be explored in their cinema. But if Nikhil were to be Amina and her pain could be explored I cannot imagine what that movie would look like, but it would be unwatchable. If a filmmaker were to concentrate on that aspect of suffering post-rape like Onir does, it would be as devastating a film as My Brother… Nikhil, if not more.

At a time when parents and family are most needed, when a girl is raped, beaten, battered, condemned by society and most alone, these minors, these children are abandoned. They numb their pain by killing themselves because no one is around to wrap them in their arms. No one is around to help them pick up the pieces. The world of these girls and those affected by AIDs need a lot more Onirs and Bensaris to show society its ugly, inhumane reflection in casting out those who need them most.



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