Why are women so often chosen to be at the center of movies about artificial intelligence? Though some directors decide to code their robots as male, it seems as if movies examining the subject lean toward feminizing their theme. Part of this lies in the gendered nature of science fiction; there are certain elements tied to it that are viewed as fundamentally male. The genre itself is defined by an exploration of the future and to us that implies some level of advanced technology. As the majority of the figures who are game changers in technology that the media displays are male, and the STEM field is generally made up of more men than women, it is not a stretch for films to posit that the breakthrough that will lead to artificial intelligence will be made by a man. We see this in both Nathan in Ex Machina and in Eldon Tyrell in the original Blade Runner and it feels natural. The audience is not surprised by the fact Nathan is a cocky millionaire sciencebro or that Eldon Tyrell comes off as a cold, shrewd businessman. This also explains why the robots they create are female, especially in Nathan’s case. It is not far-fetched to imagine that his character would create a being with the full spectrum of human emotion simply because of his morbid curiosity and desire to manipulate it, both sexually and psychologically. Though these films are attempting to posit questions about what characterizes humanity, they often inadvertently highlight male assumptions about womanhood. Or, more accurately, womanhood under the full control of men.
If you believe what Simone de Beauvoir states about women in The Second Sex, “She is determined and differentiated in relation to man, while he is not in relation to her; she is the inessential in front of the essential. He is the Subject; he is the Absolute. She is the Other.” that human women are othered to begin with, then artificial women are practically nothing in the eyes of society. As this article from the feminist film journal Cleo notes, when a movie introduces a woman who is inhuman in some way, her autonomy becomes questionable and the chances of her getting raped significantly increase. The questions about the distinctions between human and machine are much less disturbing when compared with the fact that both male directors and the male characters in these movies so often assume that nonconsensual sex is inevitable. Though it’s often framed it as if artificial women are consenting to the act, by definition they cannot fully consent to anything to begin with since they are a product of whatever the male protagonist desires. Through the movies Ex Machina and Blade Runner 2049, I don’t just want to explore gender, but how we conceptualize women in the future. Because, to a certain extent, this is the future that we will have to face. Google acts if it’s going to fully create AI any day now (without asking those, say, in the humanities about the consequences and wondering why we don’t have people studying it) and for many people, movies are their only frame of reference to the subject.
Ex Machina: What is a woman created by a man?
The exploration of humanity and machines in film can be traced back to its infancy. One of the most prominent examples of this is the German Expressionist masterpiece Metropolis (1927). Although it’s primarily a Marxist film about class and the expense of progress, at the center of the plot lies a female robot who’s used as a doppelganger for the head of the working class rebellion. There are many parallels that could be drawn between this movie and Ex Machina: both Ava and the faux Maria are built by men, they are intended to simulate humans, and are portrayed as seductive on some level. In the case of the latter robot, her purpose was to be a replacement for the inventor’s dead paramour but his boss demands that he convert her into Maria’s likeness to disrupt the resistance. This is emblematic of what continues in these movies still today: male control. Life is given to another being, but because of her femininity the audience naturally does not question the fact that she’s tightly managed by her creator. Like Frankenstein’s monster but without sympathy or free will. She was created, therefore she can be owned.
Yet the opposite occurs when the A.I. is coded as male. Though some portrayals tend to lean into the naïve child-like characterization (this is seen in movies like Chappie (2015) and WALL-E (2008) this is much less common than the authoritative male robot that eventually takes control and plays into common fears about A.I. These fears are perpetuated by the fact that most movies dealing with the topic assign it a negative connotation. The most prominent ones being The Terminator (1984), The Matrix (1999), I, Robot (2004), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). You could assign much of the blame to that last movie, as it’s arguable that subsequent filmmakers owe something to Kubrick for his harsh depiction of A.I. It made audiences interested in the subject and established a legacy of how artificial intelligence would be viewed by filmmakers and the public. HAL’s soft, unnerving voice combined with his unflinching resolve in the face of what he deemed “human error” made a lasting impression. As we get closer and closer to the formation of A.I. today, movies that revolve around the question are tailored to a more specific theme. One that, somewhat surprisingly, has to do with gender.
II. Beauty and Naiveté
There are two things that female robots share in movies: they’re beautiful and, to a certain extent, they’re naïve. This is not simply a trope that has been adopted for this subset of female robots, but is a phenomenon that Jonathan McIntosh has identified as “born sexy yesterday” in his video essay of the same name. Though typically there is some technological or “othered” component to these women, what makes them stand out is both their beauty and their reliance on men to show them how the world works. This can be seen clearly in The Fifth Element (1997) and Tron: Legacy (2010). One of the main characters in Tron: Legacy is Quorra, who is essentially a computer program that takes the form of a woman. In the movie, she is described by Jeff Bridges’ character as “profoundly naïve and unimaginably wise” and this is a paradox that is reflective in the majority of cybernetic female characters. They are intellectually advanced and have access to a wealth of information, yet the male character(s) in their lives have to show them how the world works. This is not typically seen in movies with male robots because these female characters are portrayed differently. They are created by men so they’re beautiful and seductive but they’re also naïve so that they can be taken advantage of in some way.
In the book The Beauty Myth, author Naomi Wolf reflects on how we conceptualize beauty, “But the rightness and permanence of “beauty’s” caste system is taken for granted by people who study quantum physics, ethnology, civil rights law; who are atheists, who are skeptical of TV news, who don’t believe that the earth was created in seven days. It is believed uncritically, as an article of faith.” Nathan, the creator of Ava, did not hesitate to make her and all of his other robots what he considered to be beautiful, as The Beauty Myth states, “A man’s right to confer judgement on any woman’s beauty while remaining himself unjudged is beyond scrutiny because it is thought of as God-given.” And this makes sense because Nathan considers himself something of a god, like a modern-day Pygmalion using his abilities to craft whatever form he desires. This form is typically one that’s waifishly thin with the bone structure of a supermodel, the beauty myth artificially personified at its peak because there can be no physical flaw, this fact is unchanging, and there is no need to ask for consent. Using a robot as one’s partner is something that most would view as aberrant, yet it’s unsurprising that it would be attractive for some simply from the standpoint that their physical “perfection” cannot be altered. This past summer there was a wave of controversy over the release of sex robots that could be programmed to simulate rape. Most of the reactionary articles written had to do with the ethical implications of it, rather than the sociological ones. The obsession with beauty can similarly be traced to sex dolls which, as Julie Beck highlights in this article, is an industry which is primarily driven by men and the specifications that they ask for are rarely anatomically feasible, simply ones that are driven by the beauty myth itself. Beck states, “Owning a sex doll is not a violent act. But as these creations come to look more and more realistic, their lifeless, prone silicone bodies are reminders of unequal gender power dynamics that play out in the real world. And as human women become more empowered, sex dolls offer a way for men to retreat into relationships where they are still in control.” Yet, as Ex Machina demonstrates, the assumptions of men based on Ava’s femininity, naiveté, and beauty are ultimately what lead them to underestimate her.
III. The “women”
First I want to address a pervasive issue in both of these movies: the only woman of color in any of them is Kyoko, who is only a secondary character in Ex Machina. What makes this worse is the fact that Kyoko can’t speak or understand English, not only further denigrating the only woman of color in the movie but also playing into the passive Asian trope. At least Ava can communicate with others, unfortunately Kyoko is relegated to a role that is a step above an object. It seems that she’s just as intelligent as Ava, but Nathan has no qualms about taking Kyoko up against the side of the wall, yelling at her when she accidentally drops something, or programming her to dance on command. Though Kyoko can’t speak, when Caleb tries to ask her questions about Nathan’s plans for Ava, she starts to take off her clothes, assuming he wants her for the main thing Nathan keeps her for. Yet, like with Ava, the genius lies in the fact that Kyoko is doubly underestimated because of her limitations. Even though Nathan constantly reiterates that she can’t understand English, when he and Caleb have a conversation about Ava’s sexuality, Kyoko perks up. Like many instances in this movie, the audience is left with an ambiguous message, but it does show that she is more aware than she lets on. There’s also the fact that the two men don’t realize the weight of throwing around Ava’s sexuality (again, she’s a thing so it doesn’t matter) especially since they’ve never had to claim or protect their own.
Ex Machina uses different cinematic techniques (such as using nature shots to contrast the artificiality of its subject) in order to frame it as if the theme is about humanity vs. technology, when it’s really about humanity vs. technology vs. femininity. Ava’s brilliance lies in how she is able to act exactly the way both male characters want her to. Even the camera lends itself to the male viewpoint, starting off with shots of Ava straight on moving throughout her room (making the audience feel Caleb’s sense of wonder) and eventually transitioning to pans up her body as if she’s a human woman for us to ogle. When it comes to the male gaze in this movie, it can be implemented in a way that’s easily defensible: well, the women are literally things anyway. In one harrowing scene, Caleb finds naked female robots strung up inside separate closets in Nathan’s room and Kyoko peels off some of her skin to reveal that she too is inhuman. Though undoubtedly horrific for the audience, the movie itself is asking whether or not we should even have that reaction. It reaps the benefits of objectifying women and then can defend it by saying that those women are objects, though it turns out that they are more autonomous than the entire movie lets on. When it comes to Ava, she convincingly plays the part of naïve, energetic creature that both Nathan and Caleb take for granted. Nathan in that he assumes she passively longs for humanity (giving her clothes to and wigs to simulate that) and Caleb in that she wants him. By the end, both women work together in order to kill Nathan (created killing creator) and Ava is able to escape out into the world. She takes the skin and limbs from the former models in Nathan’s closet, effectively culminating in her transition, and sets off into the world without anyone being the wiser. The brilliant thing about the film itself is that, although it contains problematic elements surrounding the female characters, the ending message can be read as a reason to subvert those elements as they lead to unfounded assumptions by the men around them.
IV. The men
The point of attack in Ex Machina is when Caleb, an average coder working at the movie’s equivalent of Google, is chosen to go and visit Nathan for a week and witness the mysterious project that he’s been working on. Though he considers himself something of a Smart Guy, Caleb is ordinary in just about every way. His insecurity manifests itself in his view that he is above average when it comes to his coding abilities and the assumption that he is Nathan’s equal. After his first session with Ava, Caleb tries to talk to Nathan about how she functions in a purely material sense. Nathan quickly tires of this both because of Caleb’s attempt to show off his intelligence and his need to constantly control the conversation. From then on out, they only talk about how Ava is related to humanity, not how she functions. This one instance is an example of how Nathan always defines the atmosphere. In one of their first conversations he deliberately misquotes Caleb and though Caleb protests, Nathan doesn’t listen. Nathan himself is an egomaniac with virtually no ethical boundaries (he freely admits to hacking all the cellphones in the world and treats the sentient beings he creates like toys). Funnily enough, I would not be surprised if this characterization was a jab at how flippant scientists and technicians can be about A.I. The implications are not thought through as it is the discovery of the thing itself that is the goal. This is paralleled by a conversation Nathan and Caleb have where Caleb asks Nathan why he created Ava and Nathan replies “Wouldn’t you if you could? It was inevitable. I think the next model will be the breakthrough.” Nathan also says that he gendered Ava so that she would have a purpose and “gave her sexuality so that she could enjoy life”, though he’s flippant about how long her life will be.
Though Caleb lets Nathan take the upper hand in their conversations, it’s obvious that he’s resentful of this and that’s why he connects with Ava and ultimately sides with her. Not only does he obsessively watch her, he views himself as the one who will ultimately be her savior. The beauty of Ava’s manipulation is that she knows this is exactly what he wants and she plays into that sentiment. Both Caleb and Nathan reflect two sides of the same toxic masculine coin: one the hyperintelligent dominant figure and the other the insecure nice guy. Both grapple for power in this scenario, yet it’s Ava who has the upper hand. She’s not even on their radar and I think this is emblematic of how women in the sciences can feel today. It was just last summer when former Google employee James Damore wrote a memo about how women’s biological inferiority is the reason that they haven’t secured as many jobs in the tech industry. Unfortunately, this line of thinking is not uncommon in the sciences and many people harbor (unconsciously or not) this same Social Darwinist view that they believe to be rational. As the astronomer who wrote this thread demonstrates, these biases are still very real. Yet, while there are definitely the Calebs and the Nathans of the world, there are also the Avas.
Blade Runner 2049: What are female roles in late capitalism?
I. Late Capitalism
An old woman starting a GoFundMe page for an oxygen tank, a middle-aged man working 50 hours a week at Walmart even when he’s ill, even the buildings that we live in being crafted dismally: these are all symptoms of late capitalism. Though most of us have internalized and rationalized these occurrences in one way or another that does not mean that the economic system that we live in is not dehumanizing, exploitative, and faceless. Individuals are not responsible for the fact that they were born into a globalist world where both profit and bureaucracy reign, though they are told that they are. In his book Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? Mark Fisher outlines the various ways that late capitalism has affected our culture and explains why it seems as if we could not conceive a world without it, “If capitalist realism is so seamless, and if current forms of resistance are so hopeless and impotent, where can an effective challenge come from? A moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism. Poverty, famine and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality, while the hope that these forms of suffering could be eliminated easily painted as naïve utopianism.” Fisher argues that we live in a world that creates excess stress and depression and simultaneously shortens our attention spans, therefore wiring us to pursue pleasure (to consume) to forget the former.
I’ve outlined this because it mirrors the world of Blade Runner 2049. If you strip away the story and characters from the film and examine their world, it’s a remarkably bleak place that is a logical extension of our present world. The largest corporations on the planet today often make more money and have more influence than most governments, therefore it’s unsurprising that in both the original Blade Runner and the sequel all power is held in the hands of a corporate owner (first Tyrell and then Wallace). These owners are the locus of the film’s central power structure, rather than a political body. This is reflective of what Fisher echoes, “The closest thing we have to ruling powers now are nebulous, unaccountable interests exercising corporate irresponsibility.” The Wallace corporation is largely the same one that the Tyrell established, except this time professional crazyman Jared Leto is at the helm. The title card of the film informs the audience that though there was a famine in the 2020s, Wallace was able to invent new farming methods that reversed it. From that point on he was able to further industrialize farming and use what was left of the Tyrell corporation to make more replicants, continuing the manufacture of a slave class that could fill a variety of functions (in the first Blade Runner that purpose was off-world mining). This willingness to continue harvesting resources even after they’ve long been depleted is emblematic of what will happen if our relentless desire to consume is not mitigated. The closest we come to seeing nature in the movie is a dead tree since most of the outdoor scenes take place in either the claustrophobic city or what is left of one. In the latter, there are hundreds of orphans who work in sweatshops run by poor men. The city of Los Angeles itself is almost a character in the film, one that’s closed-in, overpopulated, dark, and omnipresent. There’s no sense of warmth in it, as all the people who come across K either treat him with hostility or apathy. The only person who he shares a real relationship with doesn’t even have a physical body.
II. Hierarchy of female roles
The original Blade Runner did not handle its female characters adeptly. Of the three, two are portrayed suggestively and end up getting killed while the main female character, Rachael, has a scene with Deckard which ends with could easily be constituted as rape. For all of its foibles regarding femininity, Blade Runner, like Ex Machina, ultimately had questions about the distinctions between human and machine. This theme carries over into Blade Runner 2049 and we’re reminded of it in the first two shots: a blue eye paralleled with a satellite field. What’s human and what’s constructed is shown to be not so different. This is examined heavily through K’s holographic girlfriend, Joi. The technology that powers Joi is made by the Wallace corporation and ads of her are projected all around Los Angeles, though to K she is special and it seems as if he’s special to her. The fact that she’s holographic makes for an interesting distinction between Ava and Samantha from Her. What distinguishes Joi is that she’s exactly the way that K wants her to be, both in the fact that she doesn’t have a body and personality-wise. Was the relationship between them real since she had no choice in the matter? This is what K asks himself after she is destroyed and is confronted with an ad in her likeness who calls him by the name Joi gave him. She has no autonomy or free will and is therefore at the bottom of the late capitalist world she inhabits, lower than an actual prostitute. Even the prostitute in the movie has agency (bugging K) if not the economic means or ability to make the choices that she wants in life.
The movie makes it clear that there are plenty of sexual outlets for men (again this connects back to how the model wires us to desire to consume) but this comes at the cost to both real and virtual women. This is similar to the attractiveness of porn and sex dolls today, there’s a large measure of control and artificiality involved, rather than intimacy and warmth. It also should be noted that it isn’t simply Joi that is defined by K, but also female replicants by Niander Wallace. The most visceral scene in the movie is when Wallace examines a “newborn” female replicant, finds that she isn’t fertile, and slits her abdomen while praising his own glory. This is much more barbaric than the context of Joi and K’s relationship since Wallace’s obsession lies in seeing that female replicants can fulfill their roles as breeders. The irony of this is that although it’s a twisted goal, the achievement of it would make female replicants virtually indistinguishable from humans. Wallace’s replicant assistant, Luv, is the one who searches for K and comes up against K’s superior, Lieutenant Joshi. Joshi is the only female character in the movie who is human and occupies a respectable position and though it seems there’s some sort of equality in place in society, the harsh nature of the world paired with the sexual exploitation of women does not make this readily apparent. After Luv kills Joshi, she ends up capturing Deckard and is subsequently killed by K.
K takes Deckard to visit his daughter, Stelline, who is virtually the only character in the movie who shows hope and happiness. This is largely due to the fact that she is insulated from the rest of the late capitalist hellscape and occupies her time creating memories for replicants. Of all the female characters, she is the one who is the most fulfilled and she literally lives inside a bubble. One more point I wanted to make concerns the lack of Asian actors in the cast or anywhere within the film. Even in Blade Runner, at the very least Japanese signs were mixed with advertisements featuring an Asian woman and some background characters of the same ethnicity. As this article points out, though the intermingling of language and culture in advertising is present in Blade Runner 2049, the cast and extras are astoundingly white. These visuals are used as a shortcut to the idea that the movie takes place in the future, without casting actual Asian actors that would be reflective of that.
It’s clear that there’s much to be said about A.I. and femininity, especially since, to an extent, it’s tied to how we visualize our future. This is important as we are in the wake of so many men in Hollywood being rightfully accused of sexual harassment and rape. Though female robots in movies are rarely treated with decency, in many ways it’s unsurprising when looking at how the film industry treats real women. It’s quite evident that our collective biases need to change in more ways than one.