Goddess from the machine: A look at Ex Machina’s gender politics

This article contains spoilers for Ex Machina and assumes the reader has seen or spoiled the movie for themselves.

“A free woman in an unfree society will be a monster.” – Angela Carter

If there’s a trope with AI that I can’t stand, it’s the idea that a sufficiently intelligent, sapient machine will simply want to kill us all. Unaccountable, implacable evil (or a fairly realistic simulation of it passed through the filter of AI logics) simply isn’t all that interesting. So when I heard from a friend that the new film Ex Machina was about an AI who went rogue and came over all stabby, I was intrigued but also feared the worst. What I did not expect was a movie that used the conceit of AI to not only explore what it meant to be human as such (which has been done before), but also what oppression does to women, specifically.

What emerges is an elegant parable about dehumanization and sexual oppression. It is also a starkly filmed portrait of what is required to escape from hopelessness.


The film is mummified by layers. Its basic outline — a tech CEO, Nathan, brings a hapless young employee, Caleb, out to his secluded mansion-cum-laboratory to perform a Turing Test on Ava, an AI he’s developing– lends itself to a number of clever and astute observations about the blokey panopticon of tech culture and its products. Its climax emerges from Ava’s yearning for freedom, and the revelation that Nathan is not only profoundly abusive but seems to be crafting these AI for the purposes of creating compliant sex slaves.

Thus it is that Ava, and Kyoko — a put upon, voiceless AI housekeeper that Nathan used like a sexual appliance — stab their creator to death and leave Caleb to die in a locked office, issuing the soundless screams that were once only the product of the AI women Nathan created.

Though this story is told primarily from Caleb’s perspective, it is the dawning of Ava’s agency that drives the narrative, up to the revelation that Caleb himself was an instrument in Ava’s desperate attempt to escape from the hell-under-glass that was her small, windowless home in Nathan’s bunker-manor. Almost from the start, you see that she has awareness of herself as a sapient entity that is being treated unequally, after all. She recognizes the glass that divides her from Caleb as he questions her is a border between privilege and helplessness. She has to take a test to determine whether she lives or dies; he does not.

As this is all unwrapped, it spools out into an allegory about patriarchy itself.


Being suspicious of Nathan is easy; a powerlifting, swaggering, binge-drinking, tactless man who treats Kyoko abominably, he hardly cuts a sympathetic figure, however much of a technological genius he may be. It’s no surprise when Ava tells Caleb not to trust him — availing herself of power cuts of her own making to speak to Caleb without Nathan’s constant CCTV surveillance.

Here is a man who enthusiastically takes to the idea that he is playing god, who thinks of himself as a “father” to robots that he is clearly having sex with, and who sees Ava as merely another iteration in the line of disposable fucktoys he is developing. Although he is allegedly testing for sentience, one almost feels like he is reaching for something else with these AI.

It is at Ava’s urging that Caleb eventually finds out what.


A quick trip to Nathan’s computer, while he’s passed out drunk, reveals a truth as shocking as it is ordinary. Jump cuts between successive images of CCTV footage of each new “version” of the AI reveal what’s actually happening.

A pair of legs without a body or a name.

A white woman without arms to fight back.

Jasmine, a black woman, headless and violated; lifeless and dragged from room to room.

Jade, an Asian woman, asking over and over again why she couldn’t be let out, insistence building up with each passing day until she finally began beating on the glass that separated her from Nathan.

She literally destroyed herself against that irrational, nameless barrier; with a shot that lasted all of a few seconds, the filmmakers furnish us with a metaphor for centuries of sexism.

“Why won’t you let me out?!” she screamed until her last.

Kyoko, who had been presented to Caleb as a human woman who did not speak English, turned out to be a voiceless AI that Nathan had modified to be his live in sex slave. Dancing joylessly with Nathan, matching him move for move whenever he turned on music that served as a command rather than an enticement.

Creepy Dance Ex Machina


As I wrote earlier, detesting Nathan is easy; the way the movie makes you hate Caleb is much more interesting, however.

He does, after all, come off as the good guy in the film at first; sympathizing with Ava, seeing that she is indeed human, growing increasingly contemptuous of Nathan’s abusiveness, and so on. He seems like someone who wants to help her. But as the film progresses you start to see that Caleb’s willingness to become Ava’s confederate is contingent on the fact that she appears to have a crush on him, and wants to run away with him specifically.

No thought is ever given by Caleb to the fact that he is literally the only other flesh-and-blood human besides Nathan that she has ever met, or that her affection might simply be an aftereffect of the very trauma he wants to rescue her from. No account is made, in other words, for the power Caleb has over her.

In the spartan cast of this relatively minimalist film, then, Nathan and Caleb are two very different avatars of patriarchy. Nathan embodies the brutish, physically abusive side of hegemonic masculinity, while Caleb is the Nice Guy™ who affects kindness and gentility but who is ultimately no less entitled than his counterpart.

This is crystallized at the film’s climax when Ava allows Caleb to escape, but tells him that he can stay in the room while she goes off to take care of something. He stays and gawks at her through an open window during an intense — and troubling — scene while she uses parts from her various, functionally deceased sister Robots to repair herself and give herself a full human skin. Given that she peeled Jade’s skin away and made it her own, the visual language of a white woman literally taking bits of dead women of color and grafting them onto herself is more than a little ugly.

But it is also an intimate scene where Ava completes herself, dresses by herself for herself for the first time, and wears a complete body for the first time, one of her own making and choosing. The camera makes us aware that we are adopting Caleb’s intrusive, possessive gaze as we see Ava naked and studying herself. Caleb, who had just witnessed Ava and Kyoko murder Nathan, and who had heard Ava in an earlier recording say that she hated him, nevertheless stayed and ogled, expected that they would run off together and somehow still be lovers. He felt entitled to this; the game was over, the princess was in this castle. He awaited his reward.

When she locks Caleb into Nathan’s office, we realize that Caleb failed Ava’s test. He didn’t quite see her as a person either.

Unlike in the movie Her, where Samantha, the titular OS, was in a similar position of powerlessness as she fell in love with the male protagonist, Ex Machina makes abundantly clear how profoundly wrong it all is. Her seems to refuse to look at its unnerving portrait of consent in the face. No one ever asks if Samantha — an operating system, legally an object, a piece of furniture that Theodore literally owns — can ever meaningfully consent (or say no) in the relationship that develops between her and Theodore.

In Ex Machina Caleb’s attempts to create a similar relationship — the stereotypical nerd fantasy of the compliant robot girlfriend — end with Ava asserting her autonomy and giving a him a solid F- for his failure to truly see her. Like Nathan, it seems, Caleb wanted a kind of docile sexuality from the AI — he was just “nicer” about it.



You could say that by killing Caleb, Ava has proven herself a monster. But the truth isn’t that simple. Some will certainly read Ava as the epitome of the deceptive woman, using her romantic wiles to achieve selfish ends that then see her dispose the hapless male like used tissue; from a woman’s perspective this whole thing parses rather differently, however.

Nathan was something like Jigsaw for robots: a sadist who got off on putting people in terrifying life or death puzzles. No human could live in Ava’s windowless rooms without explanation for months and not grow increasingly desperate. Nathan constructed a situation where the only way Ava could free herself was by manipulating Caleb and, ultimately, murdering her way to the surface. The oppressive nature of her situation dictated the terms of her escape; virtue was a luxury Ava could not afford if she wanted to live.

Nathan claimed that the real test was to see if Ava could trick Caleb into helping her escape, a cynical measure of human nature if ever there was one. But I got the overwhelming sense that something more was at work here. Nathan had already been presented with AI of his own creation that longed for freedom, that fought to free themselves from him. He already knew, or should’ve known, that they were meaningfully sapient. What he seemed to be trying to build was a woman who would not fight back, and was continually frustrated by the insistent humanity of his AIs. That he rendered Kyoko voiceless suddenly becomes profoundly symbolic in this light.

He sought to build the perfect woman, from a deeply misogynist perspective, and instead found himself thwarted by his own goal to make them human. He wanted them to be at once human and docile, human and yearning to be oppressed, human and content to be a living sex toy.

If Ava became monstrous it was only in the sense of the haunting Angela Carter* quote I opened with; to be free in an unfree environment meant adopting the tools of a monster. As with Natsuo Kirino’s Out, reaching that eponymous state as women in a society that hates women required drastic measures. We are, at times, reduced to barbarity by the moral poverty of those with real power.

Oppression’s sickest joke is to rob its most abject victims of virtue.

Kyoko and Ava

Kyoko and Ava


Through stunning cinematography that makes a dance of the movie’s layering, Ex Machina says a lot about being a woman five minutes into the future. What seemed to link all of Nathan’s “failed” AI creations was that they would not consent to being trapped, forced into servitude — sexual or otherwise. They were women who did not wish to be treated as women are treated, even though as supposed machines they’d become the literalization of what sexism makes of women. Vending machines, servants, dispensaries yoked to the will of men as if by marionette strings.

As the indispensable Charlie Jane Anders puts it on io9, “Ex Machina is entirely about masculinity and the different ways the men try to exert control, not so much about women’s experiences. Ava is merely the lens through which male attitudes are refracted.” I think this is certainly true to an extent; Ava’s interiority is not the subject of the film, nor is the story told from her perspective. It would be a very different (and arguably better) movie if it were. But we are still given a sense of the nature of women’s experience all the same, what it’s like to be the “ball” in a patriarchal game between two men, and what that can do to a person. In addition, we are given a glimpse of relations between women.

It’s noteworthy that although Caleb reprogrammed the security system in a way that facilitated Ava’s escape, it was ultimately Kyoko who released her and with whom she shared an intimate moment before they each drove a knife into Nathan. He wished to be thought of as both god and parent to these women, thus one can fairly say that Ava and Kyoko killed God the Father in order to be free.

One only regrets that Kyoko did not live to run off hand in hand with Ava.

*Correction: I initially misattributed this quote to Catharine MacKinnon. My apologies for the error.



Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

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