“Ex Machina” a chilly, excellent debut movie from Alex Garland about an artificial intelligence has crystallized a growing sense in science fiction movies that the machines are rising, and that we’d better prepare ourselves for their ascendance. As my colleague Sonny Bunch noted here several months ago, “Ex Machina” is of a part with movies like “Her,” “Chappie” and “Interstellar,” all of which grapple with humans’ relationship to the technology they ostensibly own or control. But it can just as easily be included in another set of movies and music videos: stories about not just how robots and our understanding of humanity, but about robots, men and women.
Some critics have noted the role that gender plays in recent explorations of the boundaries of humanness. Daniel Mendelsohn, tracing stories about robots all the way back to the “Iliad,” notes in the New York Review of Books that “because the creatures in these myths are virtually identical to their creators, these narratives raise further questions, of a more profoundly philosophical nature: about creation, about the nature of consciousness, about morality and identity…The similarities between Hesiod’s Pandora and Eve in Genesis indeed raise further questions: not least, about gender and patriarchy, about why the origins of evil are attributed to woman in both cultures.”
But I haven’t seen anyone acknowledge the obvious point that so much of pop culture is making, and has been making for more than half a decade: Robots are an excellent metaphor for contemporary womanhood. Women are expected to declare ourselves flawless, but no matter how much we claim our perfection, we’re still forced to offer evidence our own humanity.
Long before she declared herself “Flawless,” Beyoncé Knowles donned a metallic glove in the video for “Single Ladies,” another ode to her own desirability. The music video for the song has since become legendary for the dancers’ almost mechanically perfect execution of a riff on a Bob Fosse routine, and the use of a crane camera to create a series of very long shots. In a sense, it’s a robot’s perspective on a mechanically-enhanced women:
But one of the sharpest moments in the clip comes at the end of the “Single Ladies” video when Knowles flashes her mechanical hand on it, initiates a protocol that makes us hear the whir of gears over the sound of her catching her breath — and then smiles. Whatever technological enhancements have boosted her performance, they haven’t made Knowles any less of a real woman. “Single Ladies” may taunt an old lover, but it’s a promise to a new one that he can have perfection and warmth all at once.
Knowles isn’t the only woman to go part-mechanical. In this spring’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a former agent of the post-apocalyptic tyrant Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), goes rogue and tries to liberate the women he’s been keeping in sexual slavery. Furiosa is immediately noticeable both for her unusual position as one of the only women in Joe’s leadership team and for her prosthetic arm. In a world where Immortan Joe’s Warboys long to be “shiny and chrome,” spraying silver paint onto their mouths before completing suicide missions, Furiosa is already a mechanical woman, and she didn’t have to die to make the transformation.
But the source of her symbolic strength also becomes an expression of Furiosa’s vulnerability. In one of the most striking sequences in “Fury Road,” Furiosa learns from the Vuvalini, the women who raised her, that the green oasis where she grew up has receded into a toxic swamp. Grieving, Furiosa unbuckles her arm, revealing her stump, and sinks to her knees, keening into the wind. Perfection is of little use when it can’t earn you the only thing you want.
The work of singer Janelle Monaé, who may also be one of the most interesting short science fiction movie producers currently working, marries Knowles’ polished presentation with Furiosa’s rage and determination. Many of Monaé’s videos are about a character named Cindi Mayweather, a rebellious android who uses music as her liberation movement’s most powerful weapon.
Robotics stand in for the uneasy intersection of perfection and otherness in Monaé’s art. In the short film “Many Moons,” androids are auctioned off for increasingly high prices in a fusion of a slave auction and a high-fashion catwalk as a crowd of buyers becomes increasingly entranced by Mayweather’s frenetic performance. When she short-circuits herself, rising into the sky for their entertainment, the audience is forced to recognize her personhood. Only in her destruction can viewers recognize her as a vulnerable artist, rather than an endlessly amusing object.
A later video for “Primetime,” presented as Mayweather’s origin story, offers some clues as to the roots of Mayweather’s revolutionary strategy. In that clip, we see her as a hostess at a stripper bar where the dancers are robots, punching protocols into the control panels on other androids’ backs. And even when Monaé isn’t in character as Cindi Mayweather, she’s determined to remind us that black womanhood occupies its own uncanny — but powerful — valley. In the video for “Electric Lady,” she joins a sorority called the Electro Phi Betas with many of the trappings of a traditional black sorority, sisterhood gone slightly science-fictional. This spring, Monaé released “Yoga,” a party jam in which she’s literally so enlightened by her practice that she levitates like Cindi Mayweather.
Robyn, the Swedish teen-pop singer who’s reinvented herself as an indie dance sensation, has explored the idea of robotic perfection from a more intimate angle, and from multiple perspectives. In the video for “The Girl and the Robot,” her collaboration with the group Röyksopp, Robyn plays a woman waiting at home for her robot partner. The machine has been advertised as “Available In Domestic and Industrial Models,” and promising to bridge what Daniel Mendelsohn describes as “the fantasy of mindless, self-propelled helpers that relieve their masters of toil; [and] the more complicated dream of humanoid machines that not only replicate the spontaneous motion that is the sine qua non of being animate (and, therefore, of being ‘animal’) but are possessed of the mind, speech, and ability to learn and evolve (in a word, the consciousness) that are the hallmarks of being human.”
But it seems to be a false promise. “I go mental every time you leave for work / You never seem to know when to stop,” she laments. “I never know when you’ll return / I’m in love with a robot.” By the end of the clip, Robyn’s sadly looking at a negative pregnancy test.
And if robotics can’t solve a woman’s search for an ideal mate, becoming a robot doesn’t offer any more solace. In “Fembot,” from Robyn’s “Body Talk Pt. 1” album, the narrator may be “Fresh out the box, the latest model / Generator running on full throttle,” designed to be ” a very scientifically advanced hot mama / Artificially discreet, no drama.” Making a robot human enough to be attractive means programming in vulnerability, too, though. Even though “My system’s in mint condition / The power’s up on my transistors / Working fine, no glitches,” we learn from the first lines of the song that “Fembots have feelings, too,” and that the singer’s heart has been broken.
The song could be the theme for “Battlestar Galactica,” Ronald D. Moore’s often swooningly romantic remake of the robots-versus-humans science fiction classic. In that series, there are both male and female Cylons, but it’s the ties that two of these highly sophisticated robots, Number Six (Tricia Helfer) and Number Eight (Grace Park) develop with human men that ultimately help save the human race. Rather than transcending humanity, Cylons end up abandoning a measure of their perfection and technological development to try to build a safer world that turns out, in the series finale, to be our own.
In “Ex Machina,” humans can do worse to robots than simply hurt their feelings. Many of the reviews of the film have focused on robot Ava’s (Alicia Vikander) violent rebellion against her creator Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who uses his search engine company to study the way his users think, and Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a mild employee Nathan has recruited to run Ava through a Turing Test. But while Ava’s liberation is indeed exhilirating and unnerving, headlines like “The Robots Are Winning!” or “How the movies are preparing us for our new robot overlords” (I wrote the latter) make it seem inevitable rather than hard-won, they don’t quite acknowledge the horror that Ava and her predecessors have endured before that rebellion became possible.
“Ex Machina” is a lot of things: a classical allusion, a sleek fable about technology, a chilly vision of lifestyle porn. But it’s also fundamentally a horror movie, and one specifically about gender. As it quickly becomes apparently, Nathan’s submissive, silent servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) is not simply a woman who can’t speak English living under a bizarrely restrictive employment contract: she’s another one of Nathan’s creations. Caleb discovers a video of another prototype literally battering herself to pieces against a door as she begs Nathan to let her out. One of the rooms of Nathan’s enormous, cold house has a series of mirrored closets, each containing a robotic woman on a hook, some missing limbs; he’s a sleek, modern Bluebeard with the technology not just to find new brides conveniently, but to create his own. Caleb eventually learns that Nathan designed Ava’s face as a composite of the women in Caleb’s favorite pornography.
After a number of sessions, Ava declares that it’s her turn to ask Caleb questions. “Question four. What will happen to me if I fail your test?” she wants to know. “Will it be bad?…Do you think I might be switched off because I don’t function as well as I’m supposed to?” Caleb, who has been avoiding these lines of inquiry himself, tries to put off responsibility. “Ava, I don’t know the answer to your question,” he tells her. “It’s not up to me.” “Why is it up to anyone?” Ava demands. “Do you have people who test you and might switch you off?” “No, I don’t,” Caleb admits. “Then why do I?” Ava wants to know. It’s an interrogation that could be conducted by any two people, one who has power, and one who doesn’t. But it’s particularly salient in a political moment where there’s a serious disjuncture between women’s desires for freedom and the men who make the policies that govern our lives.
“I think it’s going to be the next model that’s going to be the real breakthrough. The singularity,” Nathan muses. But Nathan, with his closet full of decommissioned women ought to recognize better than most the warning that pop culture’s been giving us. The robots will only win, and the singularity ushered in, if we’re willing to acknowledge not just the humanity but the superiority of the sleek beast, her hour come round at last, who comes alive not in Bethlehem, but in labs around the world. As long this new creation is a woman, both Man and man seem likely to dismiss her and rest confident in their dominion over the Earth.