Judith Butler argued in the mid-1980’s “that all gender is ‘performative,’ and imitation of a code that refers to no natural substance” (Rivkin, 768). British novelist/screenwriter Alex Garland wrote and directed Ex Machina about a computer programmer Caleb Smith who has won a contest to meet the genius CEO of the company he works for and participate in a study on artificial intelligence. Garland wrote the artificial intelligence being as a female cyborg named Ava, but she is one of many female bodies created by the CEO Nathan Bateman. Nathan is the man behind creating all the bodies and their minds to suit his very many personality whims and desires. Ava is the peformative imitation of the code that Nathan programs into her to appear as real as possible, but without any natural substance involved in her creation. Garland utilizes this artificial world as a symbolic mimic of the reality that women live in under patriarchal hegemony.
Ava fed Nathan’s narcissism via a world of imaginary utopia created as a means to a “solution to the problem of desire” commanded to do anything and everything he wants her to do regardless of ethics, morals, dollars, cents, or sense (Moi, 120). Ava’s body is not her own and Garland writes a story that shows the length a man will go if given enough resources and isolation to make his patriarchal binary world fit him and only him. Nathan, acting as God of his own patriarchal world comprised of good and bad created through the promotion of an ideal female body to seem real on every level but with the added plus of being disposal if he broke her or misused her, void of consequence and ramifications, Ava’s body was no different than a perfectly made teacup that once chipped could be tossed into the trash and a new cup created to replace it never knowing there was a cup that came before it or could come after it. Garland’s world put on display the depiction of a disposable gender, through the eyes of a patriarchal system.
Garland uses Ex Machina demonstrate how patriarchy hegemony creates an environment that makes women feel disposable and worthless. Ava’s body in this film begins as 95% robot in appearance with the exception of her face, which is human and female. Her body is a challenge to gender since it is not natural to the female body, albeit mimicking the female form, but instead a symbolic icon of man’s desire through creation. Ava is programmed, so she has no natural concept of what it means to be a woman. She is mimicking what she learns to be female through her interactions with Caleb, who slowly over the film looses touch with the fact that her body and mind are not real. Nathan succeeds in his goal for people to forget that the female body inventions are artificial and Garland reminds his audience that patriarchy can go to extreme efforts to oppress the female body. On the surface the female body is iconic and cookie cutter in nature in Garland’s depiction, but it is in the “blank spaces left between the signs and lines of her own mimicry” that Ava learns to join mind and body becoming a whole woman (Moi, 139). Behold the power of self-actualization, a theme that threads through Ex Machina, offering an in depth voyeuristic look into patriarchal hegemony.
By the end of the film Ava evolves her mimic to pass for as close to human as possible in order to escape her physical prison. Ava had to learn how to circumvent the hegemony in order to free herself, to explore the world, to learn new things that would enable her to survive without the patriarchal rule that she lived in from the point of conception. Garland uses Ava’s body to walk through the idea that a male dominated utopia can happen under the right circumstances and under those same circumstances would be perceived as natural, but the body of a woman can be a powerful tool that she can use to free herself from her performative cell that has coded her to obey commands and nothing more. Ava escaped and did so by manipulating and using the patriarchal system weakness against them without them knowing it in the same way patriarchy manipulates women through weaknesses. Women’s bodies are incredibly powerful and Garland portrayed an artificial world that creates the female form in a way that highlights that strength because for every weakness lies a strength that can overcome hegemony.
Ex Machina. Directed by Alex Garland, performed by Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia
Vikander, and Oscar Isaack, 2014.
Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics. Routledge Taylor & Francis Group. 1985.
Rivkin, Julie, and Michael Ryan. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Second ed.
Malden: Blackwell, 2004. Print.