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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Software Pornography and How Computers Lost their Innocence

As part of its on-going series on digital culture in collaboration with scholars from the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing, the Atlantic has a fascinating piece on the first adult-themed computer software program. Softporn, for the Apple IIe was a text-based adventure story where you play a protagonist who is trying again and again to get laid. The game is a precursor to the Leisure Suit Larry series and the often bizarre and quite popular Japanese dating simulation genre.

The part of Laine Nooney’s article I found the most intriguing from the perspective of technoculture is the controversy over ads for the software title appearing in mainstream computer enthusiast magazines. After the ad featuring three topless women in a hottub (all affiliated with the software production company, incidentally) appeared in Softalk magazine, one letter-to-the-editor writer complained that now she would not be able to use the magazine’s tutorials in the computer courses she teaches, lest her students come across this inappropriate ad. “Women will never get out of the bedroom if this type of advertising is continued,” she contended in 1981, a time when the computer field was still not deeply culturally gendered as a masculine profession and the number of women pursuing degrees in computer science was still on the rise.

Nooney writes,

Under Softalk‘s pen, “the pure science of computer programming” was exposed for what it had always been: socially embedded, politically fraught, brittle in its appeal to scientific objectivity. The dialogue around Softporn was perhaps the first time a cultural debate happened within a microcomputing and gaming community itself. Unlike the moral panics that shadowed Custer’s Revenge or Death Race, Softalk’s letter-writers were both consumers and producers of the fledging microcomputer industry, advertisers who were also always its subscribers. In written responses to the ad, readers were sorting through just what they thought their industry should look like, but also questions that were far bigger than microcomputers or games: What is this technology for? What is its potential? How will such images affect the people who see them? What is our responsibility to public good versus individual freedom?

Ultimately, the game’s advertising was dropped, but what the legacy of Softporn reveals is the critical moment when computers became recognized as not just a neutral, scientific tool, but a medium for cultural expression and meaning-making that could offer their users a new, procedural mode of both expression and the experience of getting inside of stories. As a window into microworlds, the computer was not only a new frontier for science but a potentially threatening space that could disrupt the social order.

Grown up games, gender & identity

Following up on yesterday’s post, Fast Company has a great article surveying the growing “deep games” movement—a concerted effort by game developers exploring new kinds of aesthetics, procedurality, mechanics and affects made possible through the medium of gaming.

Funomena is part of the emerging “deep games” movement, where players “win” by becoming more enlightened, empathetic people—a radical idea in an industry that has traditionally catered to trigger-happy teenagers. In the past few years, a new crop of mostly small studios has released wildly inventive games that focus on narrative, aesthetics, and the exploration of intimate emotions rather than fast-paced action, competition, and tricky game play.

I love that more and more people are exploring the expressive possibilities of this medium. To make an analogy, it’s as if we’ve been stuck in a world where there are about three kinds of books—say, action/thrillers, kids books, and puzzle books—and suddenly authors realize, “oh, you mean we could actually write about anything we want? We don’t actually have to just write hero stories and make puzzles?”

This movement also recognizes the important fact that “gaming” has largely been associated with young male identity in US, and most games have been made with this target audience in mind. But the article cites an important Entertainment Software Association study that found that the average gamer is now 31 years old, that almost half of gamers are women, and that the number of female gamers over 50 increased by a 1/3 between 2012 and 2013. “Last year, for the first time, adult female gamers outnumbered boys under age 18 as the largest video-game-playing group in the U.S.”

And yet, as I found in my Simulation as Communication course this Fall, many women who play games don’t identify as gamers. In fact, for the first few weeks of class several of my female students adamantly insisted over and over that they “weren’t gamers” and “weren’t comfortable with game technology”– that is was something they left for their brothers. And yet, when we read TL Taylor’s chapter on women gamers and her critique of “pink games” (for example this kind of thing) in Play Between Worlds, these same students suddenly waxed nostalgic about the hours and hours they spend playing Barbie Dress-up Games growin up!

What this gets me thinking is that as we expand the genre of gaming to include more kinds of experiences and appeal to more kinds of players, it will be important to encourage a sense of ownership and identity around gaming. So much of the GamerGate controversy is centered on the argument that only hardcore, competitive, and violent games count as “real” games and only those who play them are real gamers. If we want consumers to be willing to explore the possibilities of the medium, we need to not only make better games, but also create new structures of identification around game-playing as part of cultural identity practices.

Required Reading: Feminism and Gaming Syllabus

I’m really excited that this summer I get to teach Gender and Information Technology through the Critical Gender Studies program at UC San Diego. I’m especially excited because I had proposed to teach the course with a specific focus on the #GamerGate controversy. We’ll be exploring various aspects of gender and race in relation to video games and simulation technology.

I’m really looking forward to putting the readings together for this course and selecting games for my students to play. Though seems to be a sudden explosion in popular responses to issues of gender and gaming, feminist approaches to gaming didn’t start with #GamerGate: folks like Mary Flanagan, Celia Pearce, Justine Cassell, Jacki Morie, Tracy Fullerton, Mia Consalvo, Lisa Nakamura, Elizabeth Losh, and many others have been exploring these issues for many years. One great resource I recently came across is The New Inquiry’s Feminism and Gaming Syllabus. TNI’s syllabus draws on the work of both senior and up-and-coming feminist games studies scholars, game makers, and artists.

I actually found the syllabus via young artist Angela Washko’s insightful piece on her experience trying to create a place for open discussions about feminism and gender in online game spaces, The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft.

Let me know if you have any suggestions for particular games/games-related pieces that would be interesting to share with my students.

Prosthetics & Selves: PTSD in virtual worlds, Lock In, & psychological health in space

This has been a great couple weeks for thinking about cyborgs, which is one of my favorite things to do :)

This week Popular Science put out an interesting short piece on the question of whether people can get post-traumatic stress disorder from interactions in virtual environments, such as video games and virtual worlds. It’s an intriguing question, because at the base of it is the issue of what constitutes a self. Where does the “self” end and the prosthetic begin? The weight of this issue is bound up the with the definition of PTSD itself: according to the American Psychiatric Association, in order to be diagnosed with PTSD, one needs to experience or witness a life-threatening event.

One of the leading clinical psychology researchers investigating the application of virtual technologies for mental health care, Dr. Skip Rizzo (misidentified as a psychiatrist in the article) discounts the possibility of experiencing such an event in a virtual environment. He argues that for someone to get PTSD in a virtual environment, they would need to already be psychologically compromised. After all, no matter how dedicated we may be to our online lives and avatars, if they die our physical well-being is not endangered. Right?

This reminds me of John Scalzi’s Lock In, a very smart novel on the future of prosthetics. The story takes place in a not-too-distant US, in which a epidemic of meningitis has left millions with lock-in, the condition where they are conscious but cannot move their bodies. With the help of copious government funding, numerous tech companies build both virtual worlds and prosthetic robot bodies called “threeps” (for C-3PO)  that those who have been locked-in can access via “neural networks,” implanted brain-mind machines. While a threep is experienced as the user’s body, and can even be set to feel pain, the main characters in the book feel no more trauma at the loss of good threep through violence than they do the loss of a good car in an auto accident. The prosthetic extends the self, but it is not the self. Therefore, its loss does not constitute trauma. But is this always the case? These characters are also independently wealthy. Losing a threep sucks, but they can afford a new one. Could the loss be traumatic if the hardware that allows you to live in the world were not replaceable?

Another fascinating article I read this week is the The Guardian’s piece on the mental health of astronauts. People who spend long periods of time in outer space often start experiencing psychosis and hallucinations and this presents a major challenge to our long-term space exploration ambitions. I would have liked the article to have said a bit more about the specific kinds of interventions that are being explored to maintain sanity among those who explore the stars. Friends of mine at the Los Angeles-based company All These Worlds have been working with NASA to develop virtual environments that can provide entertainment and emotional support to astronauts on long-term missions. This work carries on a long tradition of cybernetics research. You may have heard that the term “cyborg”—so prominent in both science fiction and feminist theory—was originally a term for an astronaut. The term actually originates from a 1960 article written by engineer Manfred Clynes and psychiatrist Nathan Kline for Aeronautics magazine about the ways that the space ship would need to serve as a prosthetic for the space traveler. But a few years later Clynes wrote a follow-up piece, Cyborg II, in which he argued that astronauts needed not only physical but emotional and psychological support in space. In engineering fashion, he imagined a set of tape recordings that could take the astronaut through a set of emotional calisthenics that he called “sentics.” Though Aeronautics didn’t take Clynes seriously and refused to publish the piece, in many ways NASA’s investment in virtual worlds and other media technologies to support astronauts’ mental well-being are bringing Clynes’ dream to fruition.

The research to explore the benefits of virtual worlds for helping astronauts maintain their sanity is still underway. But one has to wonder: if virtual worlds can provide us social and emotional support while floating in a tin can in outer space, couldn’t there loss also be traumatic? Perhaps there is nothing a priori about virtual worlds that makes them peripheral. It is only a matter of dependence. As we become increasingly invested in our prosthetics, why shouldn’t  violence to them be traumatic?

Misogynist Gamers Gang Up on Feminists

In the world of misogynist gamers, apparently the funnest thing in the whole world is to try to destroy the life of feminists in the gaming world. Recently, there were the death threats against Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian after she dared to post videos making very rigorous and grounded analysis of the content of video games. But it turns out for a year and half, independent game designer Zoe Quinn has been the the subject of an internet witch hunt of such scale and it was reported in The New Yorker. The story is that a jilted ex decided to write some revenge porn about her and posted it on every forum he could find. A bunch of morons bit the bait and ran with it, because to them, Quinn represented a jezebel who had apparently ruined the whole of gaming by slutting her way to getting attention for her games and amassing a HUGE WEALTH (ha!) for things like her free text-based game about depression (which is now going on my simulation course syllabus).

Here, Quinn tells Cracked about the lessons she learned from this experience, the saddest of which is how easily all this game happen to feminists who work in gaming. I love video games. There is nothing inherently masculine about interactive multimedia, and yet there is a strong, angry contingent of players who seem to want to treat it as if gaming was they own private boys only club house. I want to see more games, diverse games that explore the potential of the medium, that simulate modes of interaction other than shooting your friends (as feminist game developer Celia Pearce has described it) and I think diversity among developers is much needed. Consider it the feminist standpoint theory of game development. This was goal of Pearce, Jacki Morie, Tracy Fullerton and Janine Fron’s Ludica Collective.  If we want to open up this field, we need not only to include more women and other underrepresented groups and encourage them to create brave work that speaks to their own experiences and sensibilities, we also need to support them in through this bullshit and make clear, as Quinn points out, that a small group of bullies can’t fool us.

The Role of Culture in Experiences of Mental Illness

According to a recent article in the British Journal of Psychiatrysummarized here, psychological anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann and her team interviewed people with schizophrenia in the US, Ghana, and India about their experience of hearing voices. While all heard voices, the kinds of voices they heard and how they related to these voices were quite different. In the US, people heard voices that were threatening, often telling them to do bad things, and reminding them that they had sick brains. Illness did not factor into either Ghananian or India self-understanding of their voices, which tended to be either religious or playful, respectively.

The ways that culture shapes how people experience mental illness is what philosopher Ian Hacking calls “looping effects.” Human categories, he argues, are not purely natural, Platonic kinds—there is no such thing as a human category that is not influence (looped back on) by systems of meanings. That is, the way people experience not only mental illness, but gender, race, class, is to a degree, shaped by cultural interpretations of what that category means. This is not to say that there is not a biological component to mental illness. But, as Luhrmann explains in the article,

“The work by anthropologists who work on psychiatric illness teaches us that these illnesses shift in small but important ways in different social worlds. Psychiatric scientists tend not to look at cultural variation. Someone should, because it’s important, and it can teach us something about psychiatric illness.”

But it is important to recognize that culture is not an essential feature of a given region, but rather a dynamic system meanings and practices that change over time, often in relation to political events. In The Protest Psychosis, cultural historian Jonathan Metzl has shown how schizophrenia in particular came to be understood as a “dangerous” disease in American society during the 1960s. Prior to this, people with schizophrenia were seen as harmless, and the prototypical image was of the young white artistic type who could add color to parlor conversation. But during the Civil Rights movement, the “angry black man” not only became a cultural trope, but a pathologized one. Black men could not always be arrested for demonstrations, but they could often be diagnosed as schizophrenic and locked away. The evidence of pathology? The angry protesting itself.

Whether it is schizophrenia, bipolar, anxiety, PTSD, cultural and historical research can help us to better understand not only mental illness, but how we as a society can make lives more livable for those who experience them not only through psychobio treatments, but through cultural work.