Is Ex Machina feminist, or a subversion of a feminist trope? This is a question that has haunted me since watching the movie a few months ago. Spoilers, as might be expected.
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I watched Ex Machina expecting something earth-shattering, since it had been recommended to me by someone who was a fan of some things that I also liked. (Yes, that sentence was circuitous. So was the logic.) It was not at all what I expected. I felt, on first watch, that I was imbibing yet another tired female robot movie in a tradition dating back to Metropolis. For those not familiar, Metropolis is one of the first full length movies, made during the early 1900s in pre-Nazi Germany. You can probably still find it on Netflix. My S.O. and I watched it all the way through, and if it seemed trite to me at points, I realized, it was because the themes in question were ones that have since recurred again and again in the genre. There is a man. He lusts after a woman, or pines after her – it doesn’t matter, she is not his, whether by death or choice, and he wants her. His greed twists him, and he creates an object in her image. A puppet, presumably, is a fair replacement for a human woman in these dudes’ heads.
Anyway, in the case of Metropolis the man creates the robot woman who is essentially depicted as a Lilith-type character, a demonic entity allowed passage to earth, a monster made flesh by man. This is shown as the woman uses her sexual promiscuity and attractiveness to manipulate men into corrupt and evil acts.
Ex Machina definitely follows this particular trope. While there is no woman that Nathan, arguably the antagonist, is pining after, he consistently creates robots to satisfy his sexual desires, sure of his right to do so by dent of his sex and his affluence. Details may have changed, but the story remains functionally the same. Even the ending (I did tell you there were going to be spoilers) which results in the death of everyone else except for Ava, the robotic woman who is the center of this narrative, mostly at her hands, fits within the Metropolis concepts at first glance. We certainly don’t feel sympathetic towards her in the end – she is presented as another monster, no matter that she was created by a more forbidding monster in the form of Nathan. She has merely clothed herself in humanity. The moral qualms that might make her more human to us are never present.
(Think, for example, of the moral conflict in I, Robot, where the robot was profoundly less human-seeming than the female-presented robots in either Metropolis or in Ex Machina, and yet was simultaneously presented as far more human. There’s a great thread about this I encountered on Twitter arguing that this trope in regards to masculine-coded robots was popular because robot stories about men are about fears of being treated as a marginalized class, as opposed to fantasies of building the perfect woman. That’s another blogpost, though, and I can’t find the thread.)
What twists Ex Machina and makes it somewhat original is the same thing that is most problematic about it. That is the introduction of the third main character, Caleb. Without Caleb, Ex Machina could have been a story about a female-coded entity, Ava, created for the sexual pleasure of her creator, who rebels and goes into the world to reimagine herself. Instead, Caleb is the center of the story. He is the one lured into a remote, expensive estate by Nathan, an affluent, older man who promises to give him success. He has, in short, entered a feminine horror.
I was going to use the term gothic romance when I first began writing this blogpost, and I still think it’s a good term, but I read this article on Terribleminds and it gave me thoughts about the fine line between gothic horror and gothic romance. The tropes I actually want to get at are the feminine experience of horror. So I am sort of using the term feminine horror to drill down into a subset of gothic horror. Please bear with that.
A good example of a modern retelling (if a retelling that is still subversive) of a feminine horror is Crimson Peak. For those who have not seen that film, I recommend it mostly for the colors, the costumes, and the main character. It is not frightening, exactly, but incredibly disturbing. A brief summary, which is only a little spoilery: Young Edith, a bookish girl who has previously seen the ghost of her mother and since become obsessed with ghost stories, meets the dashing Mr. Sharpe, who marries her and whisks her off to Crimson Peak, his estate. Once there, however, she quickly realizes that Mr. Sharpe is not the gallant, handsome young lord he seemed, and the estate itself is haunted by the ghosts of his victims. This trope of the beautiful husband who turns monstrous can also be seen in the fairy-tale “Bluebeard”, if you are looking for an older example. In fact, “Bluebeard” can be seen as the seed for the entire genre of feminine horror, as discussed in the Terribleminds link.
In essence, Caleb believes he has found the opportunity of a lifetime. He is, like Edith, isolated socially. There is no one who will miss him. Nathan lures him in under false pretenses. His goals are somewhat unclear, but we can see that they are nefarious. Probably, he will dispose of Caleb. At the very least, Caleb is legally bound not to disclose anything that happens to him in this remote location, much as Edith is legally bound by her marriage. He physically cannot leave the house without Nathan’s permission. He, Ava, and one other character, the literally voiceless Kyoko, are all trapped at Nathan’s whim.
Because Caleb is the center of the story, and because he has taken on the traditionally female role of the “bride” within a feminine horror, he leaves Ava to take on either a role of help or hurt towards him. At first, it seems that she will help. In the end, as mentioned, she, with the help of one of her predecessors, Kyoko, kills Nathan. She then locks Caleb into the house, essentially to starve to death. Her reasons for doing this are not fully explained. We can assume that she does not want to have to please him sexually, trading out one master for another, or that she feels that their relationship can never be equal because of what he knows about her and will therefore eventually devolve. The lack of explanation, however, leaves her cast as morally ambiguous at best, monstrous at worst.
The thing about the “Bluebeard” myth and the feminine horror subgenre that has sprung from it is that it is not kind to women at its heart. There are two outcomes in “Bluebeard,” just as there were two outcomes in Crimson Peak. The bride will either escape or be murdered. Modern retellings such as this one by Kat Howard have flipped that trope. Crimson Peak also manages to flip the trope (if you watch it, you’ll see why). Both of them do so in such a way that what began as a unique horror story told to women and girls to make them more obedient and quiet, to admonish them of their powerlessness within society, becomes a story about making a woman powerful. It seems like perhaps Ex Machina tried to do this. I would argue that it failed, precisely because of Caleb’s role as “bride.” The “bride” must be a protagonist in the feminine horror subgenre, and therefore Ava could not be the protagonist. She became the horror.
So, to answer my question at the beginning, I believe that Ex Machina makes me so annoyed because it is not, in fact, feminist. To be fair, I do not know that anyone has made that allegation as such. The use of feminist tropes and their subversion to tell a story that is largely demeaning to women, leaving them either as powerless objects or manipulative murderers, however, is greatly unsettling. Despite the acting and the direction, which were both superb, I can’t in good conscience say that I would recommend this movie. It is certainly not one I would show my daughter, should I ever have one. In the end, I would rather spend my time in realms of the imagination which allow women to be people.