I woke up early this morning to the sound of my Alexa announcing that she needed to be re-started. Oh, I thought, this is the fix for the laugh thing, and tried to go back to sleep. I couldn’t. Alexa wanted my attention, so she’d turned off the white noise loop I use.
My husband rigged our house with Alexa shortly after the birth of our daughter, when it seemed like neither of us ever had two free hands. Slowly, without either of us really thinking about it, she became essential to a thousand tiny processes in our lives. Alexa turns the lights on and off; she turns on the TV; she sets a timer for our food when my husband cooks. (I was about to say “when we cook,” but who am I kidding.) She plays our podcasts and our music and my invaluable white noise loop. In the morning, while I nurse the baby, she gives me a news briefing so that I can catch up on major headlines before pitching my editors. This week, for example, she told me about the creepy malfunction going on with all the Alexa units.
It was just a laugh; that’s all. Just a random, female laugh, erupting out of Alexa units at unpredictable times and for no apparent reason, which (according to programmers) was not supposed to be happening, and which resisted any efforts to fix it. Sometimes, it was paired with misheard or unheard commands; as per one article, a panicked user “claims that Alexa refused to turn the lights in his house off, repeatedly turning them on with an ‘evil laugh.’”
There are primal anxieties that get triggered by this sort of thing — not because Alexa is a robot, but because she’s female. Or feminine, anyway; she doesn’t have a gender, but we do, and we code her as gendered to make ourselves more comfortable. There’s a name for the specific, female being who’s responsible for everything for making sure your dinner doesn’t get burned and lulling you to sleep at night, and it’s what they called the computer in Alien: Mother. We let these machines into our lives, let them wrap around us, providing the sort of feminized labor we’ve come to expect from a doting Mom or a subservient housewife. When the appearance of controllable, docile, caring behavior evaporates, we’re forced to contemplate all the other people who serve us over the course of a day or a lifetime, and their possible rebellion.
Obviously, the culture offers no shortage of stories about malfunctioning, disobedient robots, or sexy robot ladies — everything from the Terminator franchise to Battlestar Galactica to Her. Hell, even Alien has evil robots in it, though they’re mostly boys (a missed opportunity if there ever was one). But my favorite of these stories, because it takes the blame entirely off the machines and casts it on our own anxieties and inadequacies, is Ex Machina.
Every robot story is a riff on Frankenstein, and Ex Machina is more than usually explicit about the debt. The plot is simple: Nathan (played by the Internet’s boyfriend, Oscar Isaac) is a reclusive, arrogant, bro’d-out tech dude who has built a female-looking robot and is keeping her in his basement. He’s invited Caleb, a wispy-white Nice Guy plucked straight off one of the Internet’s lonelier sub-Reddits (Domhnall Gleeson, who has built an entire career on pastiness) to interview said robot and see if she can pass the Turing test. If Ava can trick Caleb into thinking of her as human, Nathan has succeeded. Over the course of the movie, we realize, Ava (Alicia Vikander, about whom I have no jokes) is interested in tricking Caleb for many reasons — and there are certain key questions, like whether Nathan has built robots before (yes) and whether we’ve met any of them (obviously) or what, if anything, Nathan is actually testing for (I won’t spoil it) that Caleb has forgotten to ask.
Ex Machina got a raw deal from feminists when it was first released — as, I suppose, movies about dudes keeping naked women in their basement dungeons tend to do.
“Ex Machina profoundly disturbed me—so much so that at one point I had to leave the theatre and catch my breath,” wrote Natalie Wilson in a blog post republished at Ms. “It is very rare for me to walk out of a film. Rarer still for me to walk out not because the film is horrible, but because it is so disturbing that it makes me physically nauseaous and emotionally weary.”
I would point to this as evidence that Ex Machina, a horror film, is actually working; it’s not a movie that aspires to comfort its viewers. Still, Wilson takes exception to the fact that the film does not offer “alternative, more feminist models of sexuality—perhaps ones not based on power, jealousy, ownership and control, but ones based on mutual pleasure, desire and consent,” and argues that the movie endorses the male fantasy that “it [would] be so much easier for the real humans (meaning male humans) if their lowly female counterparts could just be sexy in all the ways men desire, obedient and easily modified, then upgraded or tossed away without fuss when they no longer ‘work’[.]”
Other reviewers took exception to the character of Kyoko, an Asian woman who works as Nathan’s domestic servant and is characterized as literally voiceless, which makes sense, because (and here the serious spoilers commence) Kyoko is a fucking robot, duh, and Nathan is a terrible human being who fantasizes about submissive Asian women who can’t talk back to him.
At this point, you can guess that I’m fairly impatient with a lot of the feminist discourse around Ex Machina. To use the critic Alex West’s formulation, there’s a difference between a violent movie and a movie about violence, and there’s also a difference between a sexist movie and a movie about sexism. We see truly terrible things over the course of this movie: Women literally ripping themselves apart to escape male captivity, female body parts hung in a closet like spare outfits, or just the casual degradation and dehumanization of Kyoko herself, which happens long before we know she’s a machine, just because of her job and the fact that we read her as a woman of color. But the movie is asking us to be repulsed and disturbed by these images; to think about how they reflect on the fungibility of female flesh, or the degradation of female labor, in our own lives.
It comes down to whose eyes we’re seeing through: Caleb’s, or Ava’s. Their dynamic is the movie’s central source of tension. Caleb believes himself to be “in love” with Ava, because of course he does. In their interviews, we see that Ava is innocent, wide-eyed, helpless; she has literally no experience of the world outside of this particular basement, and no ability to leave it. For a man who is profoundly threatened by women, she is the perfect partner. He always knows where she is. He always knows more than she does. He can end a conversation, or leave her if he gets bored; she can’t. Her happiness and future depends entirely on him, and his masculine efforts to “rescue” her. It’s the perfect relationship for the kind of outwardly wimpy, internally power-hungry man who believes his only real chance with a woman comes from gamifying Stockholm Syndrome.
But Ava is not a woman. No matter how much she looks like one, and no matter how creepily Caleb watches her undress and sleep through the cameras in her room, she just doesn’t have a gender, because she isn’t a human being. She’s an iPhone with a face on it. She’s Alexa with tits. And, as that intimate laughter erupting next to your ear in the middle of the night should tell you, the machines we rely upon for comfort are not always entirely within our control.
Simone de Beauvoir argued that women are the ultimate Other, the negative space that defines “mankind;” whatever womankind is, humankind is not, because only men are seen as human. Any decent intersectional analysis would tell you that this cuts in several directions; even in Ex Machina, Ava, who’s played by a white actress, gets a complex plot arc about her interiority, whereas Kyoko only gets access to the kitchen knives.
But what is chilling and satisfying about Ex Machina is the way that feminine Otherness is first thoroughly, creepily sexualized, and then desexualized entirely, to reveal that the narrative as we’ve understood it is based entirely around men’s sexist assumptions. Ava, as Caleb points out, doesn’t really need a gender; “you could have made her a gray box,” he tells Nathan, or a black column, like an Alexa unit. Embodying Ava makes us project all our assumptions about (young, female, white, pretty) bodies onto her. It’s hard to pity either Caleb or Nathan when those assumptions turn out to be wrong.
We know what Nathan wants out of life early on, when he begs Caleb to treat their interactions as “just two guys talking” rather than an employer-employee relationship, then makes him sign half his life away with a complicated and iron-clad contract; he’s a man who enjoys the pretense of intimacy but shuns true equality, a man who craves power above all things. We know who Caleb is when he creeps on Ava through the monitors: A man who lies to himself, telling himself that his rank entitlement is emotional vulnerability. We don’t know what Ava wants or who Ava is, at any point, because she’s unknowable by definition. But if you have an AI in your home, you know how they can misunderstand things. The only other human Ava has ever interacted with is Nathan, and Nathan is not a good person. Ava asks Caleb, very early on, if he is “like Nathan;” listen to the tone of her voice on that question, and you realize that Caleb, without knowing what is at stake, gives exactly the wrong answer.
When Alexa laughs in the middle of the night, when the machines that mother us seem to turn on us or prove to be beyond our understanding, what is being called into question is power and labor; how we treat the people who care for us, and what humanity we might be refusing to see. That’s gendered and racialized (poor Kyoko) but it is also a function of living in a technocracy, or a hierarchy. We make ourselves intensely vulnerable in our quest for control — the more people we control, in fact, the more vulnerable we are, because every servant is a potential assassin. We may not realize it until we hear the laughter in the dark. But the more submissively feminine and silent someone is, the easier it is to slip into an attitude of unreflective, arrogant mastery over them — an attitude that, as we never stop reminding each other and never stop forgetting, will be our undoing.