Ex Machina and the Gynoid Gaze

A gynoid is a female anthropomorphic robot, the femininely gendered counterpart to the more familiar term “android.”

Gynoids are a common film trope, often embodying ideals of femininity passivity, sexuality, domesticity, if not abominations of femininity such as strength and power.

From the perspective of psychoanalytic film theory, gynoids are perhaps the perfect female counterpart to male protagonists. According to thinkers like Laura Mulvey, the pleasure of cinema derives from the viewer’s identification with the male protagonist who looks at female bodies. Women’s bodies convey to-be-looked-at-ness: they are passive, objectified while men’s bodies are those of active subjects who can do the looking. Film and its pleasures are structured by patriarchal society and its divisions of agency between gendered bodies.

So it’s with this that I turn to the intriguing film Ex Machina, which is one of the most subversive gynoid film I’ve seen in a while.

The film readily performs Ava’s to-be-looked-at-ness from the moment it introduces her. When she appears, she is unclothed—not naked, but not dressed either, as we see later in the movie. Like the Visible Woman, her body is transparent in places, glowing like a static electricity orb. This not only establishes her as a robot—and therefore intractably other—but also makes her body a spectacle in itself. Caleb observes her from inside a glass box, from which all he can do is look at her and speak with her. From the box, it is not clear there is anywhere she can fully hide from his gaze.

Ava’s otherness is central to plot: Nathan says he’s brought Nathan to his estate to run the Turing Test on Ava in order to prove that she is indistinguishable from a human. But to do this, he makes her robot-nature manifest. He says this is the “hard case”: if Caleb can see that she is not a human being and still be “tricked” by her than Nathan will consider her a success.

Women’s otherness is a central problem in Freudian, patriarchal psychoanalytic theory. Their bodily mystery–how does she function? Why does she lack the phallus? — makes them an object of fascination, but also one that must be controlled. Ava’s gynoid body literalizes this otherness. And she too, must be controlled. She is a product, after all.

Mulvey argues that narrative film offers two resolutions to women’s mystery. Either she can be fetishized or punished. Depending on the narrative, fates including dying, running away, and getting married to the male protagonists can each serve this purpose. Most gynoid films deal with them basically in the same ways: they are often destroyed, erased, or vanish into the ether. The narrative structure can’t imagine a stable resolution with an intact gynoid surviving the end of the film. In this way, they are rather like Manic Pixie Dream Girls: too otherworldly to survive this one, they can only live on in the memory of the male protagonist and he’s left to sort out the rest of his life.

This is why I like Ex Machina so much. Ava is obviously supposed to be a manic pixie dream robot. When she is trying to win Caleb over, she puts on a pixie wig, floral dress, knit stockings and an oversized cardigan that falls over her ersatz hands. Later we learn that her youthful, earnest face was designed based on Caleb’s porn searches, and we can only assume that she is indeed what a data-mined vision of his dream girl would be.

The Turing Test is a bit overplayed in culture. It is always about the truth of the robot: will it let it’s guard down. How can we really know if we are talking to a “real” person? The Turing Test is structurally well suited for patriarchal film because it is also about discovering the “truth” of an Other and trying to resolve this in relation to the protagonist.

Turing Test is a dominant trope in AI culture. Loebner Prize annual award. The Most Human Human. If you talk to Cleverbot, lots of what it will do is ask you if you are a robot, since that’s automatically what people think of to do when told, without context, to interact with an entity they think is possibly an AI.

But the more interesting question is not whether the android can trick us, but whether we will want to trick ourselves. That is, whether the interaction it provides is so satisfying that we don’t care if we’re talking to a bot.

This is what Joseph Weizenbaum discovered when he invented ELIZA and found people wanted to talk with her about their problems. And it’s what a current generation of AI researchers are doing with virtual human therapists. These bots are socially “real,” they occupy real social positions and become the objects of affect, just like any other social actor.

Nathan realizes this. The test is not whether Ava can pass the Turing Test to a human judge based on a yay-or-nay judgement, as described by Turing (check Elizabeth Wilson), but rather whether she can win his trust such that he will risk his life to save to her. Nathan programmed Ava to feel trapped and to know that her only possible way out is through Caleb. Yes, in this way she is revealed as a deceitful seductress—another feminine trope in narrative cinema—but the film, shockingly, does not punish her for this! She collaborates with another gynoid, Keiko, Nathan’s sex slave, to kill him after Caleb helps her sneak into the hallway. Nathan has come after her with a short weightlifting bar (obviously a phallic symbol) and violently knocks her arm off with it. But then Keiko slowly, disinterestedly, stabs him in the back, losing her own life in doing so.

Keiko is worth noting. Caleb is told she doesn’t speak English and because she appears Japanese and has a Japanese name, we are to assume this is because she is Japanese. But as she reveals herself to be a gynoid—sexually available, dancing on command, and ultimately by lifting her bare skin to show her own circuitry to Caleb’s (and our) gaze–we come to see she is only a slave-like employee, but Nathan’s actual property. The film humanizes her by showing how she becomes a disobedient agent, revealing herself to Ava, who we discover has never seen her before.

After the gynoids take out Nathan (death to patriarchy!! Nathan does tell Caleb that he’s like a father to her, after all) Ava leaves Caleb locked in Nathan’s office. In this seen, it appears that he can watch her as she takes the skin from another gynoid in Nathan’s bedroom, a past model. This gynoid appears east asian. So even though overall I think the movie is pretty feminist, I am saddened that it continues the white supremacist trope of sacrificing the bodies of female bodies of color for the well-being of a white female protagonist.

In this reversal, Ava is an agent. Caleb, trapped, he can only watch her, but this watching is passive. Now that we know that Ava had been seducing him–perhaps most extremely in the moments where she pantomimed feminine self-deprecation, and in those where her confidence seemed to grow in relation to her affection for him–we should read her behavior during Caleb’s entrapment as a mirror to his time in the interrogation box. Now that she can act freely, she doesn’t pay attention to him or listen to him. She knows she is being watched and she doesn’t care. Earlier, she had told him that she hopes his is watching her on the cameras—enacting her own desire to embody the objectified to-be-looked-at role. But at the end of the film, the meaning of being looked at is reversed: he’s trapped, unable to act, only passively watch. Meanwhile, her gaze is active, as she looks at the new skin she acquires, clothing, herself, her surroundings as she makes her escape. Ultimately, she goes to an intersection to people watch. Caleb had found this charming, but actually seeing her do it after ruthlessly stepping over her objectifiers—both the one who would fetishize her and the one who would kill her—we can see her gaze as cunning and empowering: observing humans, the way she has been observed through the clinical gaze of her creator and judge, is the means by which she will survive in the human world. Nathan warns Caleb (and us) about this when he tries to cheer him up about the prospect of her memory being erased, saying that something to the effect that *they* wouldn’t care about us if they took over.

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