Features and Columns · Movies

What the Fembots of ‘Ex Machina’ Say About the Status of Women in Film

Turing test … Bechtel test … time to get our wires crossed!
Ex Machina Alicia Vikander Hallway
By  · Published on February 18th, 2022

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video essay that explores how the robotic women of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina consciously draw attention to gendered norms in film.

What do the Turing test (a means of detecting if a machine can truly think like a human) and the Bechdel test (a means of identifying gender bias in fiction) have in common?

Alex Garland’s movie Ex Machina tells of Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a lonely programmer who is suddenly thrust into a philosophical maelstrom after winning an office contest. While visiting the remote mansion of his company’s CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), Caleb is confronted with a striking revelation: Nathan has built a robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander), and he wants Caleb to assess whether her mind is any different than a human’s.

What follows is an investigation into what makes us human and what kind of relationships we can potentially form with machines. Furthermore, Ex Machina consciously delves into a well-worn Hollywood trope: the fembot. From Metropolis‘ Maria to Blade Runner‘s Pris, movies have historically been a collision site for both constructed femininity and the denial of subjectivity (the very thing Caleb is attempting to identify in Ava).

Garland’s replication of fembot tropes was met with criticism upon its release. But as the video essay below argues: in Ex Machina, there is a powerful analogy between the filmmaker’s vision of the fembot and the status of women in film at large, who are likewise confined to roles with little interest in their own interiority.

The video contains spoilers for the whole film, so consider yourself warned!

Watch “Ex Machina: Questioning the Human Machine”:

Who made this?

This video on the themes of Ex Machina is by Allison de Fren, a writer, professor, and media scholar who focuses on the relationship between the body and technology. She teaches at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Her documentary The Mechanical Bride examines the modern-day phenomenon of artificial dolls for sex and companionship. You can follow her on Vimeo here.

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Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How'd They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman's 'Excalibur' on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).