Content warning: this article includes references to sexual assault and coercion, as well as spoilers for Ex Machina.
The concept of the ‘gothic’ may not be familiar to everyone at first sight; the term itself resists a single definition.
Examples of gothic literature, however, speak for themselves; Frankenstein, Dracula, and Jane Eyre, to name a few, are so easily recognisable that it seems odd we don’t give the genre more attention. In fact, gothic writers have been responsible for some of the most enduring and haunting literary myths in our culture. Tropes which have been used for centuries – abandoned castles, brooding villains, monsters, ghosts (real or imagined), and damsels in distress – have as much power over our imaginations now as they did when they first appeared. New stories and forms have emerged, of course, ranging from psychological thrillers to unsettling science fiction.
Belonging to the latter category, Alex Garland’s 2015 film Ex Machina has drawn the attention of plenty of scholars for its reworking of gothic myths. Simon Bacon, for example, recognises within the AI’s plot to gain autonomy the ‘ghosts’ of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Indeed, Ex Machina owes Shelley a special debt, not just for the beginning of modern science fiction, but the particulars of a narrative eerily relevant two hundred years later. Her probing of the dark possibilities of humans ‘playing god’ with science forms the foundation on which Garland attempts to build bigger, more disturbing dilemmas.
Garland reimagines the Frankenstein figure in Nathan – an arrogant tech billionaire with the world’s personal data at his fingertips – who creates an AI within the fortified walls of his private, isolated island home, and invites his awed employee Caleb to view his creation.
The subject of Nathan’s experiment, however, is no hideous monster; he has fashioned her in the shape of a beautiful young woman and named her Ava. Caleb becomes increasingly captivated by Ava as they spend more time together, quickly resolving to help her escape when he discovers that her creator plans to delete her memory (and, with it, their blossoming relationship). At the very moment they reach their goal, however, the fairy tale ends; with chilling indifference, she leaves both gothic villain and hero for dead.
Garland’s film probes questions of non-human consciousness and autonomy, challenging the viewer to see Ava as more than a machine while navigating the threats of unrestricted AIs in an age of technological dependence. While the science imagined in his work may be beyond his predecessors’ dreams, Ex Machina is, however, centred in and reliant on the mechanisms of traditional gothic literature; in stark contrast with its futuristic technology remains a primitive terror of the female malcontent.
This fear, I would argue, is latent in many of the most iconic gothic works we know today and reflects societal anxieties about women and how they ought to behave. While many traditional monsters – like Dracula or Frankenstein’s creature – are male, they are often accompanied by or aim to create female companions, who evoke unrestrained revulsion and terror in their human enemies.
For the heroes of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the sight of the gentle, newly-wed woman they all have loved, transformed into a distinctly anti-maternal vampire, is unbearable:
Freud’s theory of the uncanny – or unheimlich (literally, unhomely, but meaning eerie) – underpins an understanding of why we are so disturbed by images of monstrous, mad, or violent women. He argues that we experience the uncanny when ‘repressed infantile complexes have been revived by some impression, or when the primitive beliefs we have surmounted seem once more to be confirmed.’ The experience pivots on stability of knowledge; how does it feel when something you once knew to be true is suddenly revealed as mere delusion?
Freud gives the example of a child’s doll to illustrate. Imagine that in childhood, you wish, or even believe, that you can will your toys to life. As you grow older you disregard the infantile fantasy, but in adulthood, when you rediscover the old doll, it suddenly seems to move when you’re not there. In this instance you’re forced to return to the primitive belief, which is uncanny in itself, but the doll is also the familiar made unfamiliar, for the movement you once wished for in the doll is suddenly out of your control. The driving force of gothic texts rests in their power to defamiliarize, forcing us to question the most rational of our beliefs. The stronger the original belief is, the more unsettling the experience. 1
After generations of conditioning society to believe female nature is essentially caring and gentle, what could be more disturbing than female rebellion?
The threat posed by women who take advantage of the male gaze is evident in the paralysing beauty of Stoker’s female vampires, potentially fatal for even the experienced Van Helsing, who knows:
Clearly, not every monster represents women. Things that scare us don’t even have to be uncanny. Instances of patriarchy-defying, anti-maternal female monsters are particularly prolific in gothic texts, however; whether we realise it or not, something has to be said about the anxieties lurking in our cultural consciousness.
Reactions against the transfixingly beautiful female vampire, ghosts, like Susan Hill’s famous The Woman in Black, who enacts her vengeance on the bodies of children, and the femme fatale in all her many forms are reactions stemming from familiar ideals of female domesticity. Male characters are struck with horror when faced with women who reject the patriarchal world set out for them, and usually react to them with violence. Frankenstein’s female monster is aborted because her creator realises that she ‘might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation’ and seek independence of her father and would-be husband. The original creature’s revenge is the murder of Victor’s endlessly patient and adoring wife on their wedding night; the existence of domestic women is always at stake, and rebellion is continually aligned with the inhuman.
Yet more uncomfortable than a deviant monster is a deviant woman, specifically a woman who can lull unsuspecting men into a false sense of security by means of seduction.
In a strikingly similar precursor to Ex Machina’s plot twist, Letitia E. Landon plays brilliantly with the concept of the traditional Romantic gothic heroine in her short story The Bride of Lindorf (1836) – which you can read here – and, in doing so, turns the would-be saviour Ernest into an all too unsuspecting victim. In fact, Ernest himself is presented as so invested in playing the Romantic hero that he ignores the warning omens Landon places for him and the reader; he practically convinces himself that the mysterious imprisoned girl is trustworthy because it fulfils his fantasy. Landon’s damsel in distress, on the other hand, is not so easy to read as he thinks. Through posing as victim, Minna appeals to his sympathy and his heart; once secured, she turns to violence to maintain her advantage. Regardless of her heroine’s apparent madness, Landon uses the transition from helpless love interest to manipulative seductress to both chill and challenge her readers – the same chill we’re made to feel in the closing scenes of Ex Machina.
Like Landon’s protagonist, Caleb is presented to us as a sympathetic figure. Open, curious, and genuinely enthusiastic about the new scientific territory ahead of him, he stands in contrast to Nathan’s blunt egoism and controlling presence. Despite the moral qualities implied by his allyship, however, Caleb is guilty of the same gendered assumptions as Ernest; in understanding Ava as female, he seeks to accommodate her behaviour to a romantic (and patriarchal) ideal in which he can become her saviour.
He is always aware that she is not human, even questioning Nathan’s choice to give her sexuality as a ‘diversion tactic’, but ultimately succumbs to his desire to assign her a gender because her apparent interest in him as a romantic partner is flattering. Furthermore, his motive for helping her escape is intricately bound to the gratification of his fantasies, raising questions as to the real difference between him and Ava’s captor/creator.
Garland seems to encourage comparison of the two men in a scene which flits between shots of an imagined kiss between Caleb and Ava, in which she appears to be free, and the simultaneous reality of Nathan’s sexual dominance over Kyoko, an earlier AI model kept as a silent slave.2
With the former in greyscale, despite the natural surroundings, we’re alerted to the limited nature of Caleb’s allyship. Just as Nathan’s position as Kyoko’s creator/father establishes a power structure in his favour, Caleb’s role as ‘saviour’ carries expectations of Ava’s eternal gratitude and loyalty. Ava recognises that freedom with Caleb is not true freedom; to gain this, she seeks independence of both patriarch and love interest who possess the typical privileges of straight white men in society. Why, then, when we recognise her right to freedom, do we feel so horrified at her betrayal of Caleb?
The answer lies in the uncanny: our deeply entrenched belief in the loving feminine overrides our early wariness of a manipulative artificial intelligence, allowing Garland to subvert our expectations at the film’s climax.
Ava purposefully presents herself with characteristics familiar to the cultural consciousness (and Caleb) as feminine, non-threatening, even helpless. Furthermore, the behaviours she adopts seem ever-more ‘womanly’ given that they are those of a love interest in need of a hero, rather than an independent being; she is sympathetic to Caleb’s past, expresses desire to please him, and, to his great pleasure, claims to think about him in his absence. Her assimilation into the male gaze is so seamless, in fact, that the film gained criticism from Angela Watercutter, who was unimpressed by a female lead ‘whose function is to turn the male lead on while being in a position to be turned off’.
Indeed, much of Ava’s persuasive power seems to stem from passivity, as Caleb forms impressions of her through Nathan’s constant camera surveillance. Though performativity and awareness are heavily implied in Ava’s actions – such as a sensual undressing sequence, surely useless to a robot for any other reason than attracting a human – Watercutter points out her reliance on sexuality to achieve her goals is unnecessary for ‘male’ AI characters across the sci-fi genre. It seems that the only way for Ava to prove her consciousness, and be deemed deserving of autonomy, is to make herself attractive to men.
These concerns about Ex Machina’s ‘fembot’ problem are valid. It would be undeniably problematic if, as Watercutter suggests, our takeaway message is that ‘the best way for a miraculously intelligent creature to get what she wants is to flirt manipulatively.’ I think, however, that Ava’s role as seductress has a wider critical meaning, for it constitutes not only her method of escape but Garland’s method of invoking the uncanny.
Ex Machina purposefully taps into our ever-present familiarity with female victimhood – and female characters who serve only as love interests – to shock us with a new, more violent reality.
If, on the other hand, Ava had defied traditional femininity from the film’s beginning, escaping exclusively through ‘supernatural’ calculation and force, we would always see what was coming. The viewer is, to some extent, guilty of the same mistakes as Caleb, and our underestimation of what appears to be a woman leaves us uneasy.
At the core of our discomfort, furthermore, remains the fact that Ava is both familiar and unfamiliar at once; she does not lose her femininity once her nature is brought to light. Donning a delicate white lace dress and heels, stepping lightly through the forest to her escape – the scenery of Caleb’s vision, but untainted by his gaze– she becomes, once again, indistinguishable from any other beautiful woman.
Ava’s paradoxical mix of human and inhuman exposes a fear, central to the gothic genre, that aspects of the familiar world are not what they seem. Besides the wiring finally hidden beneath her skin, what difference do we see between her and a human woman? For all her ruthlessness, the abilities which Nathan boasts are indications of true AI in Ava– ‘self-awareness, imagination, manipulation, sexuality, empathy’ – are human abilities learned from interactions on the internet, which exist in real women, in real life.
Garland’s heroine knew that her femininity affected perceptions of her as both a sexual object and a damsel in distress, and she used femininity, not technology, to overthrow the men that underestimated her. Worse still, she showed no gratitude to her apparent ‘ally’; she recognised that she owed nothing in exchange for the freedoms already granted to others. Our chills at Ava’s rebellion are telling of a fear older than gothic itself: women may one day follow in her footsteps.
1: Terry Castle’s The Female Thermometer (1995) explores the idea that gothic and the uncanny really emerged in the wake of the Enlightenment because the uncanny depends on a sense of superior beliefs. As we become more dependent on empirical and rationalist knowledge systems, and disregard the spiritual as ‘primitive’ (Castle is indebted to Freud), we become more susceptible to the uncanny. Two centuries later, how much more disturbing might it be to regress to a ‘primitive’ belief like ghosts or monsters?
2: Though I won’t talk about Kyoko’s role here, it’s important to note that she is a really important and interesting character through which we can see not only gendered but racial biases in Caleb. A silent victim throughout the film, her lack of voice and cruel treatment by Nathan is pathetically excused through a language barrier without any real protest from the protagonist, despite the fact that she is presented to him as a human being. Only when she reveals herself as another AI does he recognise her potential as an aide to preserve the white, Westernised beauty of Ava.