Do Non-Binary Androids Dream of Genderless Sex?

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Don't disconnect me because I'm beautiful. Alicia Vikander as Ava in Ex Machina.

Wow, those were some really gendered robots!

I’m standing in the lobby of the Rose Cinemas at the Brooklyn Academy of Music following a Saturday night screening of the current big indy hit Ex Machina. It’s the final official day of workshops for my company’s theatre education program, the Theatre Askew Youth Performance Experience (TAYPE), and to celebrate, I’ve taken the ensemble out to the movies. For the past six months, we’ve been exploring the theme of “queer futurity,” thinking about where the LGBTQ community might be headed now that marriage equality (once the future) has largely been attained, how technology has impacted queer bodies and what further changes might be in store, and the seductions and perils of an all-pervasive social media culture that provides instant access to community (and sex) but also facilitates government surveillance.

One of the ensemble members had seen the film and recommended that we all go since he felt it connected with many of the ideas that we had been discussing. It was another ensemble member, Amy (who is non-binary-gender-identified) who burst out with the quote above when they (Amy’s preferred gender pronoun) joined us in the lobby afterwards. The film made it clear that, even when humans create a “life” consisting of electronic circuitry and silicon, we are still compelled to assign it a gender. After six months spent imagining a future in which people were freed from the distinctions of biological sex, it was oddly disheartening to watch a futuristic film in which those same rigid gender codes and categories were being reinforced.

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Alex Garland
Garland may have written the smartest — and most problematic — film of the year.

For those of you orbiting Saturn for the past two months, Ex Machina is writer-director Alex Garland’s stylish sci-fi neo-noir about artificial intelligence and the pitfalls of falling in love with a sexy robot. Geeky programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) thinks he’s won a week’s stay on the vast, remote Alaskan estate of his billionaire boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac). It turns out that the company contest was a ruse to camouflage the real reason Caleb is there — to conduct a Turing test on Nathan’s top-secret project, — android Ava (Alicia Vikander) — to determine if she convincingly passes as a carbon-based human. Let’s just say it doesn’t end well.

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Garland provides lots of narrative pleasure by rigorously adhering to the structural genre requirements of sci-fi while simultaneously packing loads of knotty questions into its verbal and visual text. It’s undoubtedly one of the smartest flicks of the year. His script and mise-en-scène are dense with allusions — scientific, literary, filmic, mythic — which have generated lots of print and online commentary. Esquire published an interview with Garland laying out the film’s source material and inspirations, from Kubrick to Wittgenstein, and public intellectual Daniel Mendelsohn unpacks its mythic and literary antecedents in the current New York Review of Books. Continuing along mythic/spiritual lines, Jay Michaelson, in a piece for Religious News Serviceexamines the existential spiritual crisis AI technology gives rise to — what does “god” or the “soul” mean in a post-human world? But Ex Machina has also sparked arguments about misogyny: Angela Watercutter, writing in Wired, maintains that it is, while Kyle Buchanan in New York magazine proposes that “Ava reads as post-gender, her circuits whirring underneath a body she’s been placed into but feels skeptical of.”

Buchanan is obviously employing a queer/trans trope here: sexual minority bodies fundamentally don’t conform to an individual’s internal self-picturing and/or their instinctual desires are somehow wrong. The problem is that, as far as I can recall, Ava never expresses unease about her body because of its femininity; it’s her vulnerability as an android to the whims of her maker that renders her form problematic. As she poignantly asks Caleb during one of their conversations, “What happens to me if I don’t pass your test?” Caleb doesn’t respond, but of course, the answer is that she will be switched off, the contents of her “brain” downloaded into a newer model.

Don't disconnect me because I'm beautiful. Alicia Vikander as Ava in Ex Machina.
Don’t disconnect me because I’m beautiful. Alicia Vikander as Ava in Ex Machina.

As my ensemble member Amy observed, Ava is very gendered, but not only that, Watercutter points out that she’s literally been constructed to be physically desirable. Isaac tells Caleb that Ava’s face and body are modeled on the porn stars he most frequently searches for online — as opposed to, say, his favorite female teachers. Isaac’s purpose in developing Ava would appear to be the creation of a line of personal assistants-slash-living sex dolls for the busy billionaire who has everything. Isaac also makes sure to tell Caleb that thousands of tiny sensors in Ava’s nether region make her capable of experiencing erotic pleasure. What could be a greater fantasy for certain men than a beautiful, never-aging woman who can be switched off and on at will, who is completely within in his power, and responds favorably to everything he does in bed? Besides, can the wife sue you for divorce if you’re having an affair with a nonperson? Seen in this light, Ex Machina is alarmingly reactionary.

Villiers_de_LIsle-Adam
Villiers popularized the word “android” in his novel The Future Eve.

There’s a novel that Garland doesn’t mention in his Esquire interview but which Mendelsohn does in his essay. Auguste de Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s L’Ève Future (rendered into English as both The Future Eve and Tomorrow’s Eve), published in 1886, bears some remarkable similarities to Ex Machina. There is, of course, the connection between the name of the film’s heroine and the book’s title, but there are several other overlapping details that suggest more than mere coincidence. If Isaac is meant to be read as an amalgam of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, none other than the 19th century’s greatest inventor-entrepreneur-mogul, Thomas Edison, is the genius tinkering with artificial life in the novel. Here, too, a desirable female android is built to the specifications of male arousal, as Hadaly has been modeled directly on the protagonist’s mistress. Edison even constructs his “New Eve” in an underground laboratory beneath his mansion, as does Isaac.

Daniel Gerould, writing 30 years ago about the novel in the journal Science Fiction Studies, ends his essay by asserting, “It seems likely that sooner or later The Future Eve will become…a film.” It took a while, but Ex Machina is certainly close enough to contend for that distinction. Only Garland could state for certain if Villier’s book was an influence on, or even the basis for, his movie, but the fact that there are so many points of overlap suggests to me how much more work we have to do. Even when thinking about the future, Victorian notions of biological sex, gender and sexuality are still our default mode. Maybe someday we’ll be able to imagine something different.

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Tim Cusack
Tim Cusack is the artistic director of Theatre Askew. For Askew he has appeared in and/or directed numerous productions, including Bald Diva!; i google myself; I, Claudius; Cornbury: The Queen’s Governor; and Busted. He is the co-author of a study guide to the significant court cases of the gay rights movement and a former contributor to Stage Directions magazine. He holds a BFA from NYU/Tisch School of the Arts and an MA in Theatre from Hunter College, where he was a Vera Roberts fellow. Follow him on Twitter: @TheatreAskew.