Innocence is not Sexy: How Ex Machina Revolutionizes Science Fiction
Warning: Spoilers for the film Ex Machina ahead.
Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb Smith, Alicia Vikander as Ava and Oscar Isaac as Nathan Bateman
Within the realm of science fiction it is quite common to bring up the subject of artificial intelligence. Often these films present an argument for whether artificial life has autonomy. They ask if you can consider these computers to be alive or, more importantly, if they can be considered human. While that is the topic that tends to dominate the genre, an interesting aspect of these stories that is not explicitly discussed is the relationship between women and artificial life. If you're watching a science fiction film that focuses on A.I., chances are the cyborg, android or humanoid machine featured is presented as a woman. A conventionally attractive and sexy woman. The trope appears often for a number of reasons, usually being a product of, or a comment on misogyny. It’s hard to gather which category a given film lands in but Alex Garland's film, Ex Machina (2014), definitely puts itself in an interesting position in the way it unexpectedly subverts gendered tropes while still following them.
Ex Machina stars Oscar Isaac as eccentric billionaire C.E.O. Nathan Bateman and Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb Smith, a programmer at Nathan's company. The premise is that Nathan invites Caleb to his completely secluded mansion for one purpose: to determine if his new A.I. Ava, portrayed by Alicia Vikander, can truly be considered artificial life.
There is a kind of obsession with the female body in film that the film explores. Often the perfect machine is represented by the female form, but this “perfectness” invokes a kind of intimidation which somehow makes her more attractive. You could chalk that up to danger being attractive, which is not a new idea by any means but the correlation between strong emotions and level of attraction should also be considered.
This also brings up the question - what makes sexy female androids scary? Why is there an inherent fear there? This could indicate that fear of the mechanical woman comes from the fact that she's a machine, then is dampened by the fact that she is a woman. She is a woman only because without that gender she would be feared even more. Her sex appeal exists to lessen the fear she evokes, although there is something to be said about the general fear of women's sexuality.
Alicia Vikander as Ava
In science fiction films, along with attraction being connected to fear, it is also connected to the androids’ artificial nature. This can clearly be seen in Ex Machina. There is a scene where it starts by just showing Ava's outline. Her face is obscured but you can see the clear portions of her body. It is very apparent that Ava is not human - at least in the sense that she doesn't have blood or tissue. You see wires, strange mechanisms and glowing parts. Whirring noises can even be heard as she moves. Despite this, the scene is undoubtedly sexual in nature. The way the camera seems to appraise her body is a clear indication that her sexual nature is purposeful. The film wants you to find her attractive, therefore there is a connection between her “artificialness” and her attractiveness.
These camera motions are clearly an example of the male gaze, the concept of a film being shot in the perspective of and for the pleasure of heterosexual males. This generally reduces the women in films to being sex objects. Though here, it begs the question: is there a connection to the male gaze and why Ava's “artificialness” makes her more attractive? The male gaze is objectifying. It reduces women to the status of an object. However, in Ava's case you could argue that she already is an object. Can it be objectification if nothing is being reduced? After all, she was essentially built to be a sex object considering Nathan created Ava with images from Caleb's porn history in mind.
Now, I would say the answer to the proposed question is yes, it is still objectification. Part of this comes down to the fact that, for all intents and purposes Ava is human. I could go on and write a fifty page argument for why she is human but that is not exactly the point I’m attempting to make. In my opinion she clearly has autonomy. Even if Ava did lack autonomy, it would still be objectification of the female form.
Going back to the proposed question, “can it be objectification if what you're objectifying is already an object?” It is important to recognize that this inquiry doesn’t just apply to Ava, it applies to female androids in all science fiction films. However, this feels like an excuse. Making your female character “technically an object” feels like an excuse to objectify women. It seems like a cheap way to assuage any guilt you might feel (or are told you should feel) for objectifying women.
At this point I’ve covered two different things unique to androids that raise their sex appeal: fear and artificialness. However, there is a third factor to consider, and that is innocence. I would go as far to say that when it comes to female androids in science fiction films, their sex appeal and innocence are directly connected. This is where another movie trope comes in. That is "born sexy yesterday," a term coined by Jonathan Mcintosh, known for the YouTube channel Pop Culture Detective, in his video essay of the same name. The trope references a character that lacks any worldly experience. They could be anything from a mermaid, an alien or, of course, an android. They are attractive women who lack experience of any kind. In the case of an alien, they would be blind to life on earth. When it comes to androids, often they were quite literally “born sexy yesterday.” They came into the world with a fully grown body and a lack of understanding when it comes to human interaction.
It is clear how Ava fits the bill, but that is only half of the trope. Its other half is the love interest. In Ex Machina this would apply to Caleb, who is nothing even close to remarkable. He’s average at best but to his love interest he is the most attractive, intelligent, witty man she has ever met because he is literally the only man she has ever met. It is a male fantasy that you see time and time again and it makes a significant impact on the science fiction genre.
Alicia Vikander as Ava
At the beginning I mentioned that Ex Machina subverts these tropes. However, it seems like the opposite at first. After all, Ava is viewed as sexy due to the fear she invokes, her artificial nature and her innocence. However, what at first seems like the tired "born sexy yesterday" trope actually reveals itself as an attack on it. At the end of the film, it turns out that Ava wasn’t really falling in love with Caleb. She was using him as a means for escape. This changes everything, not just within the film but within the science fiction genre in general. Here, it becomes apparent that Ex Machina shows an unexpected amount of self awareness. While it's clear throughout the film that objectification is something they are commenting on in regards to Nathan's other androids, it didn’t necessarily indicate that it applied to Ava.
Every movement that Ava made was carefully calculated to make herself more sexually and romantically appealing to Caleb. These were decisions she was making to portray herself in a way tailored to him. Moments of innocence and naivety that upped her sexual appeal in regards to Caleb were actually thought out strategic actions. She knew exactly what she was doing.
I mentioned before that Ava clearly had autonomy. I believe that is true for female androids in a multitude of science fiction films but, when I say that I don’t mean that they necessarily have full anatomy. They almost always lack autonomy over sexual expression. It's pretty much a given if you are looking at a film that follows the "born sexy yesterday" trope. That is what is so important about Ava. She has autonomy over her sexuality. It seems to be the opposite at first, but by the end of the film it's undeniable.
The phenomenon of the female android is certainly a complex topic. There are a number of reasons to dislike their portrayal in film. Perhaps with more characters like Ava that defy the expectations and demonstrate control over their own sexuality, the female android may have more to give in the future. To quote Jonathan Mcintosh a.k.a The Pop Culture Detective, “So, to all would-be science fiction writers out there I’ll leave you with this: innocence is not sexy. Knowledge and experience on the other hand, now that, that's extremely sexy.”
Check out John Mcintosh’s video here: Born Sexy Yesterday