This post contains spoilers.
The plot line dictates, culturally and historically, a dominant narrative told many times in film and media. I wish it were different. With the myriad of racial, cultural, and social stories flooding the media, visibility of API bodies is still so very far behind in the mainstream culture even when it is inserted into film as an aside.
From two teenage boys creating a women in the 1980s film Weird Science to a robotics scientist creating a Voice Input Child Identicant (VICI) in cult classic sitcom Small Wonder, the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence on the human condition isn’t anything new. The profound interest in artificial intelligence has gained popularity with surrealist images of Google’s AI perceiving images in nature to self-driving cars. The rapid development in the realms of science enhance existing technologies to make our lives convenient. But the dominant narratives persist in popular culture as seen in the Alex Garland’s directorial film debut in Ex Machina. Since the release of the film, critics laud the triumph of soft spoken and seemingly delicate feminine robot Ava. As she speaks to Turing tester, Caleb, a programmer for Bluebook (Google-esque technology company), we realize she is well aware of the surroundings and has even developed qualities of human behavior that mimic her ability to think of ways to escape her captor-maker.
However, the film seemed to backfire as an interpretation of the battle between the sexes. Nathan, maker of Ava, created a female AI based on Caleb’s pornographic preferences, which reminds us that Nathan himself knew to use one of his own employees as a ploy in confirming his abilities and deftness in using programming and coding to materialize his fantasies and desires. The creation of Ava is also a way for Nathan to assert his control over Caleb.
Yet the quiet maid, Kyoko, appears consistently throughout the movie is both visible and invisible. The moments of consciousness we might grasp onto that point us to some type of personhood are: 1) dancing with Nathan, 2) Nathan initiating sex with Kyoko, and 3) her inevitable killing of Nathan (she stabs him from behind). The reason for Garland selecting a British-Japanese women to play the part isn’t a surprise nor is it too far fetched from the reality of contemporary Silicon Valley tech culture.
In all of my readings and research of the film, there few reviews that mention the silent Kyoko. Although Feminus Ex Machina by scholars Marysia Jonsson & Aro Velmet, a review of the film published in the LA Review of Books, dives head first into the fantastical technocultural land of heteronormativity, it fails to mention this quiet character. Media theorist, Nathan Jurgenson points out in his observations of the film by stating that the “characters feel so alone that it’s almost shocking when you see there’s another woman, Kyoko. She doesn’t speak but serves. She’s an ornament, housekeeper, cook, and sexual servant.” I agree. Film critic known by the moniker Film Crit Hulk on the site Birth Movies Death mentions Kyoko’s participation of the vengeful act committed alongside Ava at the film’s most climactic moment of freedom through the death of the maker-creator. Noted. But there hasn’t been much conversation around the presence of an Asian woman playing what continues to perpetuate the perceived docility and subservience of what only contributes to the dangerous thinking that Asian women function as a specific type of human.
The frustration I have with Kyoko’s character is that she is presented as (somewhat) real when she is first introduced into the film. I had a gut reaction that she was also a bot. But you are not too terribly sure until it is revealed. And why is that? As a woman watching the film, I found myself upset at the fact that the writer and director wrote Nathan’s character to create, program, and iterate a bevy of women bots that are most suitable to serve him.
Another revealing aspect of the film I found unnerving was Ava’s escape and migration into the “real world.” As Jonsson and Velmet note in their review, “Ava’s body is the product of a series of seemingly contradictory decisions. She’s been given the shape of an attractive woman instead of a gray box, and yet her artificial infrastructure has been made equally visible. Ava’s face and hands look human, but the rest of her body is made of smooth metallic wireframe and glass, exposing the wires and hydraulics underneath. Both aspects -- woman and machine -- are meant to look hot as hell.” But what people may have forgotten is that Ava puts on the skin of an Asian bot at the end of the film. But her outward appearance passes as a light skin or white woman according to western standards of beauty.
Even through Ava’s liberation may be perceived as a way of introducing a gendered perspective, the amalgamation of tension throughout the film is still disappointing in that the invisibility of women of color in a film about liberation is still shushed by the binary understanding of what artificial intelligence, robotics, and advancements in technology and science seems to showcase.