Home » A.I. » Ex Machina: technology of sex & gender

Ex Machina: technology of sex & gender


May 2015
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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 a beautiful but dumb woman. But when he saw Hadaly whose beauty was so striking he forgot 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 even if 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 their 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 the two males 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 were 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 in Ex Machina. Do we care that the vessels beneath the female skin and sensuality cannot share our insecurities and emotions? Nathan’s robot Kyoko cannot speak, but 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 the 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 and 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. Note how the camera angles and compositions frame Ava as a real, sensual and sexual:         ex machina 2

pose 2

pose 4     pose 3

Ava is the incarnation of the OS [operating system] – Samantha – whom we only hear in Her (Spike Jonze, 2013) when she? it? speaks to Theodore, 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 however, thinks with logic that is programmed into her operating system, into her artful Brancusi-inspired female body behind which lies its possession. Caleb and Nathan forget that 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?



  1. Cami says:

    The fact that movies such as Her, and Ex-Machina are shown through the point of view of men is telling of history itself. Men for hundreds of years have been credited for the largest advancements in not only science, but all subjects of education. Therefore, it is almost natural to assume that if men are the leading scientists behind A.I, they will most likely construct them in the image of a woman. It is almost innate for men to associate subservience with women, thus the thought of creating something triggers the important idea of power. Caleb himself realizes the sort of false God complex Nathan obtained by creating these A.Is, and it is nothing short of how men treat women in real life.

    • Yet these men who continue to make scientific advances and create “life” albeit robotic are not objective, which science requires. Which today’s strong and feminist women require. Given this penchant to recreate “Eve” we are headed for more trouble than we see at the movie’s end.

    • Marvelous observation in reality and robot reality : that men treated female robots exactly how they treat women in reality. However the difference is that robots don’t give a hoot! They can’t “feel” pain and hurt like women so in this sense this is a good! But in others way, bad

  2. mirandarhardy says:

    Watching the film, I also couldn’t help but notice that the two female robots–Kyoko and Ava–were frequently contrasted or compared. Kyoko was sexy and seductive, often times literally, while Ava was more conservative in dress and appearance. We see Kyoko engaging in sexual acts (or implied sexual acts) with Nate throughout the film, but Ava is always portrayed as innocent and somewhat naive, never venturing into the idea of sex but merely dates and petty attractions. In the end, Kyoko is killed, for lack of a better word, while Ava survives and even gains her freedom at the expense of Nate and Caleb’s lives. I couldn’t help but wonder what the differentiation in sensuality and the relative ends of the robots meant for the overall depiction of sex and intelligence. It seems to me that the message is that sex and sexual desires make one fallible while those who concern themselves with broader ideas such as freedom and humanity will ultimately survive. However, it also occurs to me that this is simply a means of depicting the ways in which there are no limits to artificial intelligence and that it would inherently be more powerful than even the humans who created it.

    • Sex and sexuality make one fallible…delicious idea indeed. It does but when will we realize that?

    • Excellent observation about sex & desires vs humanity & freedom! Sex blinds one to logic because of desires but one’s level headed in road to freedom because it requires logic and planning. Those are not immediate that desires which ebb and flow involuntarily

  3. Mona says:

    I think Nathan desired to create
    his own reclusive world in which he parties and drinks by himself and is
    accompanied by females who happen to be robots. He prefers the robots over real female human beings because he wants to be in full control in the relationship. Her needs are not relevant, only his do. Unfortunately it backfired. Robots with A.I. apparently don’t like to be over powered anymore than humans do.

    • He has a huge god complex. His creation outdid him in creativity. Very interesting idea and consequence

      • Cami says:

        I think this love for solidarity is interestingly enough the very cause of his death. He was alone for a very long time, alone in the sense that no other humans were actually with him. Also, his concentration on creating a robot in the image of humans (whilst not consulting any actual humans in the process) kept him away from the reality of humanity. His God complex made him blind to actual human nature which is many times deceit.

      • Very interesting thought on his solitude causing a rift in the conception of the mind if his creation, if mind is what he wanted to create. Because Ava has ‘mind’ or ‘intellect’ as opposed to Kyoko who is programmed with sexual servitude. And yes to his blindness on human nature, after all he’s out of touch with reality. And clearly what women women want. And if his drives are all that matter and sex being one of the major drives – then surely he’s in for a surprise. The other drives he controls – eating, drinking. But Women are, after all, complex and not as docile as he thought otherwise Ava couldn’t have duped him. One up!
        But tell me more about ‘love for solidarity’. I’m not sure I read it right.

    • Evident that only his needs matter otherwise Ava wouldn’t have duped him. He omitted to consider Ava’s complexity – he programmed her and if indeed she has attained consciousness as the movie strongly suggests well that escaped him. Women are complex not just a body to do as one pleases or to dispose of it as one pleases.

  4. Jonathan Lozano says:

    I think there is definitely a problem in how robots are made in a form of a woman but I think that the movie ex-machina also contrast the types of men and women. Nathan represents the abusive men who likes to party, sex, and abuse their partners while Caleb is more comprehensive and caring and helps women. Also Kyoko represents the abuse women who only obeys what men says and do nothing to change that. On the other hand Ava is more refine more calm but she is also abuse but unlike Kyoko she decides to find her freedom and she sets herself free from the hands of men. These two pairs represent and contrast the problems that sex and gender used and still generate until this days.

    • I really appreciate the idea of there being two types of men because God forbid only Nathans in this world! That will be doomsday sooner than I can blink my tiered eyes! Parallel to this model there are also 2 types of women: those who put up and shut up (like Kyoko) or those who walk out like Ava. Quite right you are to suggest that sexy and gender cause problems because they do. Otherwise we wouldn’t have to pass laws for equality for the lgbt community or abused women. But while we are passing laws other men are making mechanical subservient women in Japan and America because we can’t adjudicate over machines. No law of abuse there!

  5. hali says:

    once again, we witness how technology can go beyond our imagination. In Self/Less, we saw how technology helped create a new life by transferring one’s mind in a healthy body, it showed how far human being can go with the help of technology. however, in Ex-machine, human intelligence is nothing compare to machines. by wanting to create the impossible, man are being trapped by their own creation. In the case of Ava, We will never know what her next move will be. Is she going to learn how to live like human beings or will she try to create more machine like herself?

    • The idea of man trapped in his own mess is very appealing if he’s only going to abuse the robot/woman as he does with Kyoko. Ava got the better deal when she escapes. Who knows? maybe like Nathan who think women are one dimensional she thinks all men are the same, too? But it would be nice if we have more Avas since she uses logic to not be duped. We can always work on trust later to tell her there are some good men like Caleb. Caleb would be a better man if no prob was available to satisfy him. Ava might knock some sense into him later since he has the capacity to reason, too. Unlike Nate.

  6. “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”

    This is true. I have friends in marketing who inform me that this is the way companies and corporations receive information on how to market their products, on how to influence and manipulate the masses.

    It is not only technological companies which do this, but all aspects of the capitalistic society that prey upon our desires, wishes and dreams, those things that have been taught to the consumers, so that they can help the market to flourish.

    Consumers are exploited and filled with images of what they need to achieve to be successful in this life. All of these ideas are presented to them within the societies in which they live, one can never escape these ideologies.

    The question of consciousness comes into play for me as well as intelligence. There are many aspects of being that can be proven to display different forms of intelligence and consciousness.

    Though those who are marginalized have consciousness and intelligence, often their rights are continually abused, rights that they should have because they exist.

    What happens when we are actually able to create new forms of being?

    What rights will they have?

    If we believe something has intelligence and consciousness and eventually perhaps the spiritual element or the aspect which we consider to be life is inserted into them, what are their rights?

    If human beings merge with machines or artificial intelligence in an attempt to perfect the human being, where will the line be drawn between human and machine, and what rights will these new sorts of being have?

    So much of our life has been infiltrated by technology, it has become a personal thing. With the rise of iphones etc, we have created something which alienates, yet has the capacity to create connectedness, or a false form of perceived connectedness.

    The human beings attempt to liberate themselves by creating technologies and tools to relieve themselves of work, to allow themselves to experience more pleasure, is something I believe comes in to play.

    But this pleasure has been manipulated by companies who want to push their products upon us. Therefore they prey upon our social sphere, constantly connecting to our base desires, our sexuality, our fears, etc.

    In a world of increasing mechanization, we view the world as a machine and all of its’ components as part of a machine void of anything spiritual. We solely view the world as material and physical. We compartmentalize the world and ourselves, but fail to recognize the interconnectedness of it all.

    Technology and the things that we create will always be an externalized reflection of who we are and what we wish to achieve and become. If it is to create subservient beings, then yes I believe the form of the women will be used because of the exact same things that have been said before in this post.

    Sorry if this all over the place. It’s how I think.

    • When we create new beings we will always try to dominate them. Like the gov’t controls us w aging more and more. We are slave to the gov’t machine! That’s the nature of the rich and powerful!
      Rights? The maghrebi have rights in France on paper but not practice. Blacklivesdontmattermuch never mind it’s on paper and in law. Rights are not Inalienable for all. Only for those on the right side. It is that false connected ness that afflicts Nathan who creates a being based in his loneliness and desires stemming from lack of human company. He alienates even the being he creates. He’s trapped himself in creating a robot woman he thinks is unidimensional but look who gets trapped at the end! Your thoughts aren’t all over the place! Your mind is making connections all around. Ideas are screaming to emerge saying “let me out! Let me out!”
      Awesome growth I see from the Michael I met in late January.

  7. Jonathan C says:

    Relating to what Mona said, I think this movie is to a large degree a portrait of Nathan, a psychologically sick individual, (and a bit of a stereotype perhaps of the reclusive computer genius – who is almost not a human himself). He has the capacity to create a world. Naturally, this world winds up mirroring his own sickness. It is not a human world, but a cold, windowless, bare, uncannily inhuman space.
    Every creature in this world, human or robot, is a plaything for Nathan. He seems incapable of feeling for Caleb as much as for Ava. From the beginning of Caleb’s arrival, he tries to manipulate him. Nathan expects to control Caleb but underestimates him. Ava would not have gotten out, if Caleb hadn’t been so smart. The test was a test of Caleb all along, perhaps: Is Nathan smart enough to build a robot to fool Caleb. There are, anyway, two certainly conscious beings in this movie, two men sparing off against each other. Nathan’s attempt to prove his superiority over another man will backfire.
    Ava’s consciousness, to me, does not seem to be conclusively proved, as the Turing test is not necessarily capable of proving consciousness, but just whether a machine can pass as having one. It is hard for me to imagine that Ava could actually feel pain, loneliness, etc.She simply knew how to simulate the proper reactions, whatever necessary for her goal of escaping, programmed into her. But as her creator did not plan for her escape, nor program her to be nice, no “three laws of robotics” here, who knows what she will do in the outside world.

    • Agreed 200% that Nathan created a robot out of HIS imagination only but not without genius despite his lacks. It’s quite an intelligent creation!
      Are you saying she was programmed to escape? Why do you think she simulates proper reactions and Was escaping one of these reactions?

  8. Melisa. says:

    Film is always, always a propaganda piece and I therefore think that it is important to extrapolate the film’s message. What is the film trying to say about AI and what cinematic ideologies are at work here?

    Ultimately it is this: AI is a threat, and not a benefit. As much as Caleb and especially Nathan envision that AI is this grand fantastic thing, it is not. It comes back to bite the both of them: Nathan for playing the role of the greedy creator and Caleb for being the archetype of the trusting fool.

    Nathan represents the mastermind, the slick capitalist producer and Caleb represents the masses: the proletariat that accepts this new technology that is being bombarded and catapulted into the consumer eye.

    The film’s ending says it all. The humans lose, AI enters the world and prevails. The two cannot exist together. It must be one or the other. Thus with the rise of machines comes the fall of mankind.

    By creating AI, humans are potentially creating another race, that may ultimately compete with humans for resources. If AI can dream, if AI can desire, and if AI can aspire to be greater than they are, then we will have a problem.

    This film is a warning to humankind, revealing the horrible dangers of going too far with technology and surpassing ethical lines (though ethics very much evolve). Humans used to speak to each other face to face and now that is being replaced by “face-time,” in the same way that for the future: humans used to be biological creatures, but now they have been replaced by AI machines.

    • the idea of the greedy creator and the trusting fool is a theme that has been explored often in literature so now it has to be done in film, as film has become no longer just a way to pass time but a venue for coming things. AI is something that will grow. it has already grown exponentially since Seconds done in 1966 by frankenheimer and even before. all of these films depict fear; fear of the unknown, and rightly so. Humans have explored cures using technology to prevent deaths etc. look at nietzsche and baudelaire- both died of syphilis which is a totally preventable disease today. cancer will follow suit. so what these films are showing and exploring are what pre occupies the mind of scientist. theres no stopping human kind from creating. this country runs on creation. novelty. discoveries. steve jobs. mark zuckerberg. stephen hawking. and so many others. today america is first in cinema, nobody can surpass them anymore because they are leaps ahead. why? technology. power. know how. money to fund those who have desires to create so we adopt them and bring them here and gain huge inroads and fame when they help discover fame for USA. france did that too in art so it’s nothing new. but n the end one great reason for fear can be found in science itself: when one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body. in short: where’s there’s light, there’s darkness. the full moon is beautiful to watch but it is also a dark moon which takes away what can be seen. we don’t know what’s out there and as is often the case, a creation [cure or machine or vaccine] is NOT completely tested before release.
      Robots are another race, just as humans were another race after the dinosaurs or apes. It keeps evolving. robots are highly evolved humans. and perhaps that’s another reason why they resemble us so? we once had highest capacity for intelligence? but with robots do we still hold that position?

  9. Helene says:

    God help me, I put aside a whole afteonron to figure this out.

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