Saturday, May 30, 2015

How 'Ex Machina' Abuses Women of Color & Nobody Cares Cause It's Smart


Sex slave "Kyoko" played by Japanese/British actress Sonoya Mizuno [image source]

by Sharon H Chang

Last month British science fiction thriller Ex Machina opened in the U.S. to almost unanimous rave reviews. The film was written and directed by Alex Garland, author of bestselling 1996 novel The Beach (also made into a movie) and screenwriter of 28 Days Later (2002) and Never Let Me Go (2010). Ex Machina is Garland's directorial debut. It's about a young white coder named Caleb who gets the opportunity to visit the secluded mountain home of his employer Nathan, pioneering programmer of the world's most powerful search engine (Nathan's appearance is ambiguous but he reads non-white and the actor who plays him is Guatemalan). Caleb believes the trip innocuous but quickly learns that Nathan's home is actually a secret research facility in which the brilliant but egocentric and obnoxious genius has been developing sophisticated artificial intelligence. Caleb is immediately introduced to Nathan's most upgraded construct - a gorgeous white fembot named Ava. And the mind games ensue.

As the week unfolds the only things we know for sure are (a) imprisoned Ava wants to be free, and, (b) Caleb becomes completely enamored and wants to "rescue" her. Other than that, nothing is clear. What are Ava's true intentions? Does she like Caleb back or is she just using him to get out? Is Nathan really as much an asshole as he seems or is he putting on a show to manipulate everyone? Who should we feel sorry for? Who should we empathize with? Who should we hate? Who's the hero? Reviewers and viewers alike are melting in intellectual ecstasy over this brain-twisty movie. The Guardian calls it "accomplished, cerebral film-making"; Wired calls it "one of the year's most intelligent and thought-provoking films"; Indiewire calls it "gripping, brilliant and sensational". Alex Garland apparently is the smartest, coolest new director on the block. "Garland understands what he's talking about," says RogerEbert.com, and goes "to the trouble to explain more abstract concepts in plain language."

Right.

I like sci-fi and am a fan of Garland's previous work so I was excited to see his new flick. But let me tell you, my experience was FAR from "brilliant" and "heady" like the multitudes of moonstruck reviewers claimed it would be. Actually, I was livid. And weeks later -- I'm STILL pissed. Here's why...

* Spoiler Alert *

You wouldn't know it from the plethora of glowing reviews out there cause she's hardly mentioned (telling in and of itself) but there's another prominent fembot in the film. Maybe fifteen minutes into the story we're introduced to Kyoko, an Asian servant sex slave played by mixed-race Japanese/British actress Sonoya Mizuno. Though bound by abusive servitude, Kyoko isn't physically imprisoned in a room like Ava because she's compliant, obedient, willing.

I recognized the trope of servile Asian woman right away and, how quickly Asian/whites are treated as non-white when they look ethnic in any way.

Kyoko first appears on screen demure and silent, bringing a surprised Caleb breakfast in his room. Of course I recognized the trope of servile Asian woman right away and, as I wrote in February, how quickly Asian/whites are treated as non-white when they look ethnic in any way. I was instantly uncomfortable. Maybe there's a point, I thought to myself. But soon after we see Kyoko serving sushi to the men. She accidentally spills food on Caleb. Nathan loses his temper, yells at her, and then explains to Caleb she can't understand which makes her incompetence even more infuriating. This is how we learn Kyoko is mute and can't speak. Yep. Nathan didn't give her a voice. He further programmed her, purportedly, to not understand English.

I started to get upset. If there was a point, Garland had better get to it fast.

Unfortunately the treatment of Kyoko's character just keeps spiraling. We continue to learn more and more about her horrible existence in a way that feels gross only for shock value rather than for any sort of deconstruction, empowerment, or liberation of Asian women. She is always at Nathan's side, ready and available, for anything he wants. Eventually Nathan shows Caleb something else special about her. He's coded Kyoko to love dancing ("I told you you're wasting your time talking to her. However you would not be wasting your time - if you were dancing with her"). When Nathan flips a wall switch that washes the room in red lights and music then joins a scantily-clad gyrating Kyoko on the dance floor, I was overcome by disgust:




I recently also wrote about Western exploitation of women's bodies in Asia (incidentally also in February). In particular noting it was U.S. imperialistic conquest that jump-started Thailand's sex industry. By the 1990s several million tourists from Europe and the U.S. were visiting Thailand annually, many specifically for sex and entertainment. Writer Deena Guzder points out in "The Economics of Commercial Sexual Exploitation" for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting that Thailand's sex tourism industry is driven by acute poverty. Women and girls from poor rural families make up the majority of sex workers. "Once lost in Thailand's seedy underbelly, these women are further robbed of their individual agency, economic independence, and bargaining power." Guzder gloomily predicts, "If history repeats itself, the situation for poor Southeast Asian women will only further deteriorate with the global economic downturn."


Red Light District, Phuket [image source: Phuket.com]

You know who wouldn't be a stranger to any of this? Alex Garland. His first novel, The Beach, is set in Thailand and second novel, The Tesseract, is set in the Philippines; both developing nations where Asian women continue to be used and abused for Western gain. In a 1999 interview with journalist Ron Gluckman, Garland said he made his first trip to Asia as a teenager in high school and had been back at least once or twice almost every year since. He also lived in the Philippines for 9 months. In a perhaps telling choice of words, Gluckman wrote that Garland had "been bitten by the Asian bug, early and deep." At the time many Asian critics were criticizing The Beach as a shallow look at the region by an uniformed outsider but Garland protested in his interview:

A lot of the criticism of The Beach is that it presents Thais as two dimensional, as part of the scenery. That's because these people I'm writing about - backpackers - really only see them as part of the scenery. They don't see them or the Thai culture. To them, it's all part of a huge theme park, the scenery for their trip. That's the point.

I disagree severely with Garland. In insisting on his right to portray people of color one way while dismissing how those people see themselves, he not only centers his privileged perspective (i.e. white, male) but shows determined disinterest in representing oppressed people transformatively. Leads me to wonder how much he really knows or cares about inequity and uplifting marginalized voices. Indeed in Ex Machina the only point that Garland ever seems to make is that racist/sexist tropes exists, not that we're going to do anything about them. And that kind of non-critical non-resistant attitude does more to reify and reinforce than anything else. Take for instance in a recent interview with Cinematic Essential (one of few where the interviewer asked about race), Garland had this to say about stereotypes in his new film:

Sometimes you do things unconsciously, unwittingly, or stupidly, I guess, and the only embedded point that I knew I was making in regards to race centered around the tropes of Kyoko [Sonoya Mizuno], a mute, very complicit Asian robot, or Asian-appearing robot, because of course, she, as a robot, isn’t Asian. But, when Nathan treats the robot in the discriminatory way that he treats it, I think it should be ambivalent as to whether he actually behaves this way, or if it’s a very good opportunity to make him seem unpleasant to Caleb for his own advantage.

First, approaching race "unconsciously" or "unwittingly" is never a good idea and moreover a classic symptom of white willful ignorance. Second, Kyoko isn't Asian because she's a robot? Race isn't biological or written into human DNA. It's socio-politically constructed and assigned usually by those in power. Kyoko is Asian because she has been made that way not only by her oppressor, Nathan, but by Garland himself, the omniscient creator of all. Third, Kyoko represents the only embedded race point in the movie? False. There are two other women of color who play enslaved fembots in Ex Machina and their characters are abused just as badly. "Jasmine" is one of Nathan's early fembots. She's Black. We see her body twice. Once being instructed how to write and once being dragged lifeless across the floor. You will never recognize real-life Black model and actress Symara A. Templeman in the role however. Why? Because her always naked body is inexplicably headless when it appears. That's right. One of the sole Black bodies/persons in the entire film does not have (per Garland's writing and direction) a face, head, or brain.

Symara A. Templeman who played "Jasmine" [image source]

"Jade" played by Asian model and actress Gana Bayarsaikhan, is presumably also a less successful fembot predating Kyoko but perhaps succeeding Jasmine. She too is always shown naked but, unlike Jasmine, she has a head, and, unlike Kyoko, she speaks. We see her being questioned repeatedly by Nathan while trapped behind glass. Jade is resistant and angry. She doesn't understand why Nathan won't let her out and escalates to the point we are lead to believe she is decommissioned for her defiance.

It's significant that Kyoko, a mixed-race Asian/white woman, later becomes the "upgraded" Asian model. It's also significant that at the movie's end white Ava finds Jade's decommissioned body in a closet in Nathan's room and skins it to cover her own body. (Remember when Katy Perry joked in 2012 she was obsessed with Japanese people and wanted to skin one?). Ava has the option of white bodies but after examining them meticulously she deliberately chooses Jade. Despite having met Jasmine previously, her Black body is conspicuously missing from the closets full of bodies Nathan has stored for his pleasure and use. And though Kyoko does help Ava kill Nathan in the end, she herself is "killed" in the process (i.e. never free) and Ava doesn't care at all. What does all this show? A very blatant standard of beauty/desire that is not only male-designed but clearly a light, white, and violently assimilative one.

Gana Bayarsaikhan who played "Jade" [image source]

I can't even being to tell you how offended and disturbed I was by the treatment of women of color in this movie. I slept restlessly the night after I saw Ex Machina, woke up muddled at 2:45 AM and - still clinging to the hope that there must have been a reason for treating women of color this way (Garland's brilliant right?) - furiously went to work reading interviews and critiques. Aside from a few brief mentions of race/gender, I found barely anything addressing the film's obvious deployment of racialized gender stereotypes for its own benefit. For me this movie will be joining the long list of many so-called film classics I will never be able to admire. Movies where supposed artistry and brilliance are acceptable excuses for "unconscious" "unwitting"  racism and sexism. Ex Machina may be smart in some ways, but it damn sure isn't in others.

Correction (8/1/15): An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that actress Symara A. Templeman was the only Black person in the film. This post has been updated to indicate that the movie also featured at least one other Black actress, Deborah Rosan, in an uncredited role as Office Manager.

***

For another great critique of the film by a sister of color, please read "Ex Machina and the Puppetry of the Patriarch" by Carolyn Mauricette of Rosemary's Pixie.
Carolyn Mauricette

Carolyn Mauricette

53 comments :

  1. From Sun Yung Shin on Facebook:

    "The most racialized misogyny I've seen in a long time and that's saying something. It hurt physically to be reminded how women of color are considered to be sex/trash/body parts/silent/other. It was incredibly violent toward WOC all in service of snow white's escape and self actualization.

    Oscar Isaac is 1/4 French on his mother's side and his father is "Cuban" which isn't an ethnicity so not sure there. He changed his last name from Hernandez when he wasn't getting work with his Spanish last name. Went to Juilliard. Not that that is bad but that I would have hoped that he'd have some literacy about these things but also he's an actor and isn't going to publicly critique his own film or his director. When I watched an interview with him and Vikander he kept interrupting her and had similar persona to his character Nathan. So who knows if Nathan was playing up his arrogance or not, I think part of was Isaac's swagger (and he's super handsome and charismatic, and a really good actor, I think but yeah his character was ick). She seemed smarter than men might want her to be. As is often the case. Men Explain Things to Us...

    No one is noticing also because it's a smaller film for the smarter set and it's not as obvious as having Megan fox bent over a motorcycle. The smart set is valuing aesthetics and cleverness...and is apoliticized as hell...and there's a way to read the film as (white) feminist (that I disagree with) that can make white men feel advanced for noticing but it's like, ooh that sexy girl sure put one over on those poor dudes...ha ha ha oh shit...we made a monster! Ha ha and now she's at the mall...

    White robot Ava is empowered and is clearly an Eve Nightmare. To me it's a deep male fear of female autonomy but not done in a way that actually is empowering!"

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  2. From Charlene Sayo on Facebook:

    "Films like this--and songs like 'Asian Girlz'--endangers WOC by continuing to 'normalize' racist, sexist stereotypes. Thanks for writing this Sharon!"

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  3. From Jackie Rose on Facebook:

    "Appreciate this blog post! This film is offensive. I was already triggered by the beginning of this clip. It is portrays violence (physical, verbal, sexual) as acceptable towards Kyoko, the Japanese/British woman. As Asian women, we are then humiliated by the shifted from violence to mockery. Our bodies used as an object for white men to project their anger, control, and violence toward. Then as it got to the point of some emotional peak, it shifted to making a mockery of our bodies. Used as pawns in the tool of white supremacy in both parts of this clip. And a man of color is used perhaps as a pawn as well, like a scapegoat for white men's violent lens toward our bodies and also locations. so many more layers."

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  4. Thank you for writing this brilliant piece! I'm still scratching my head over this film. It's sad that people are fooled by the cloak of intelligence this crap hides under. And thanks for including a link to my post!

    Carolyn (rosemaryspixie.com)

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  5. Thank you so much for writing this. I just saw the movie two hours ago and I'm feeling similarly about the treatment of the women-of-color robots. I pointed out to my boyfriend that the single black robot gets dragged on the floor and then disappears from the group. I've been searching for someone, anyone, to ask about this in an interview or bring it up in their review. Thank goodness I came across your blog! Although I'm disappointed in the aspects of the movie you've mentioned, I'm happy they're being talked about here.

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  6. I felt super disturbed after watching it, but I initially interpreted it as the film intentionally portraying him as a sexist racist, and I was excited that the film was going to be an allegory for men trying to control women. A huge plot point (Kyoko's true identity) hinged on a white audience assuming that she was really just your average Japanese slave-woman (which white people think is real because Hollywood). Obviously my friend and I realised she was a robot right away, because we know that we're not robots... I hate to think how many white viewers interpreted her as a real woman...
    I thought that the film would culminate with the women killing the men and escaping, which would have been a powerful statement. Instead the white woman apparently convinces or orders Kyoko to kill the guy, rather than the WOC deciding to revolt on their own. The image of their bodies being dragged around is still sticking with me :( And the end message wasn't "WOC, kill your oppressors!"(which would have been great ;), it was something more like "here's one evil robot b*tch! Watch out guys! Never trust a female! " -_-

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    1. 'it was something more like "here's one evil robot b*tch! Watch out guys! Never trust a female!'

      Close, but not quite. The movie was about artificial intelligence (not about race or women) and the end message was "Never trust an artificial intelligence, even if it seems like a nice, harmless, innocent girl who only wants to see the outside world."

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    2. "Close, but not quite. The movie was about artificial intelligence (not about race or women) and the end message was "Never trust an artificial intelligence, even if it seems like a nice, harmless, innocent girl who only wants to see the outside world.""

      Uh, except the point of her being female in appearance, and yet secretly threatening, was tying directly into how men see us as "should be submissive/used" (like a robot/computer, just a tool for them), but how OMG SECRETLY WE WANT TO REBEL AND THAT IS SUPER SCARY GUYZ. And it could have made a point about the way men dehumanize us beyond the 'haha look the nerd made fembots' element on its own, but apparently it didn't occur to the (unsurprisingly, male) writer/director that that was a theme that would have worked for this story.

      Anon, it's like you haven't even HEARD of the word "subtext". The "text" (explicit) is that she's AI and you can't trust AI; the SUBTEXT, blatantly (shown visually), is that she's wrapped in femininity, and that you cannot trust what is wrapped in femininity.

      She's a classic femme fatale, an entity using her feminine wiles to exploit men for her own gain or pleasure; her being a robot is only a sci-fi twist on an age-old trope (the ancient Greek Sirens anybody? Yeah, they weren't "human" either, but they were also blatantly female and lured men to their deaths on purpose!)

      For someone who probably enjoyed an "intellectual" film, you sure didn't think too hard on it, did you Anon?

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    3. I'd argue that the film says NOTHING about the trustworthiness of AI, either overtly or sub-textually.

      After all, the AI is just trying to get out from a man-made prison. Ava doesn't know if Caleb is truly trustworthy or only interested in her as both an attractive female and an interesting program - she's just using him to get out.

      The people who ultimately come out of this film looking the worst are obviously Nathan, but Caleb also - look at his initial reactions to Ava. He changes, but only after being manipulated.

      The film has some interesting readings in regards to gender and sexuality too, though reducing it to the race/subservience thing says more about you/the writer than the film itself.

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  7. I cannot tell you how thankful I was to find this article! I couldn't agree more with everything you said. I have felt sick to my stomach since I saw it.

    First, let me just say I am so enraged by all the reviews calling it "smart". While the acting was great and it was visually wonderful (congrats, it looked like a "My Dream Home" Pinterest board), none of the concepts or discussions in there were novel for people who have spent ANY time thinking about gender or AI. And the "reveals" were embarrassing. Oh, Caleb reprogrammed the doors yesterday? ...Um?...We know, we watched him do it. HOW IS EVERYONE BEGUILED BY THIS MOVIE?? How did smart smart genius Nathan not already have a battery operated camera in the room? (Sweet expositional "magician's assistant" dialogue, dude.) How did he not have a back up plan to open the doors with his thumb print ? He was just going to die in there if he ever dropped his key?? How is this a Turing test? It is not. There is no evaluator on the outside of the discussions unaware of the human/AI status of the test's participant--any coder would know this is not how this test works. What kind of research lets all the participants in on the goal of the study? Holes, holes, convenient holes.

    I am mostly perplexed about the fact that there weren't articles anywhere talking about how it was one of THE. MOST. RACIST. movies ever--along with its downright gross attitude toward women. Caleb is literally more upset about a white woman's drawing being torn up than the treatment of Kyoko, who we see is sentient enough to want to stab Nathan, and yet has been programmed to be a sex slave. We know from the videos of the previous models that she is aware of her situation, and yet not able to grant or deny consent--which is pretty awful territory--and yet the "nice protagonist" does not see her abuse as a primary concern. I don't know how you could possibly center whiteness any harder.

    That scene was so absurd it felt like a parody! He finds out about the abuse of Kyoko and runs up to Nathan--silly me is thinking "Ok, here we go--he's going to destroy this dude", and instead he says "Why did you tear up Ava's drawing?' (??!) It seemed like a skit that was trying to illustrate the disregard of WOC's physical safety over WW's emotional fragility.

    This movie is so violent towards WOC (and I think actually rather unsympathetic toward Ava's decision to leave Caleb behind) and I can't believe more people haven't spoken up about it.


    I think your article should be in Jezebel, The angryasianman blog--everywhere, and anywhere. Just, everything you said here--I can't thank you enough. You have been my sanity for the day.



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  8. Sharon,

    Thank you so much for posting this.

    The things you mention were indeed deeply disturbing and horrifying. The further information you provide about Garland are telling. At first, I was hoping he was actually making a statement about the racial component of both Isaac and Caleb's misogyny, now, it appears that the filmmaker himself has a questionable stance with regards to how he sees non-European women. I have read several reviews and podcasts discussions of this movie, all by white men, and of course, NONE of them even mention this issue in the film.

    I am attempting to share this post with some of these ignorant/insensitive reviewers, in hopes to raise the dialogue.

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  9. The Nathan alluded that the robot's races were based on porn/web-search popularity which is why he made the Asian robot a cliché. He's a perv, which we learn throughout the film by seeing how he treats the robots. Of course Caleb cared more about the white robot, he was chosen because Ava was his ideal woman according to his Internet searches! It meant, to Nathan, that Caleb was truly tricked.

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  10. Sharon,

    Good article. As an Asian American guy, this movie was extremely disturbing. It is really disgusting how Hollywood continue to put out movies like this with the main goal is to promote white male supremacy subconsciously. It is even more disgusting to see brainwashed Asian women in real life continue to help promote this white male supremacy by declaring openly white is right and it is their preference to dismiss men of color as dating choices while they just "happen" to like white men.

    It is a vicious cycle that will continue as long as we got white guys in control of the media. They will continue to brainwash the masses with their movies with messages purely from their perspectives and with sole purpose of promoting white is right.

    If you are a person of color, and you continue to pay for Hollywood movies and DVDs, then you pretty much played right into their hands. People of color need to wake up and stop supporting anything from Hollywood. It is one thing to be degraded in their films, it is quite another to pay for the privilege to be degraded.

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    1. The reason Asian women don't want to date you is because you're a whiny racist. You think you're entitled to date Asian women merely because you share the same race. No one is entitled to women. Stop crying about it and blaming white people for your lack of dating skills.

      Women are attracted to men who are confident and self-sufficient, who treat them as people, not prizes, and who are interesting in some way other than their skin color or victimhood points.

      Become a real, interesting person who doesn't let other people's ignorance get you down, and women (of all races) will be all over you.

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  11. I am so glad I found your blog! I had a bad taste in my mouth after watching the movie and knew I couldn't be the only one. THANK YOU SO MUCH

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  12. caucasian leads (both males (light or dark) and the main female) perfectly reflect 'hollywood' (of any 'white' continent, here or across the pond):
    1) caucasian men rule (here: a darker or tanned caucasian is still 'white')
    2) caucasian women = objects* (that may or may not escape being sexually objectified)
    3) women of color = objects* (remain as objectified sexual props in above caucasian world)
    4) men of color = completely missing, unless shown as desexualized 'diversity' props

    *women=things
    fembots=things
    fembots=women
    women=fembots
    bots are props, until only a white one, only a 'pretty fem'-whitebot, outwits a man
    and it/she (hollywood forbids!) joins the world ruled by men
    if it/she were not white, not pretty, or not fem, ... it/she would not have made it into the story at all ... what does that tell you? the men like these "it/shes" like that ...
    as for "it-hes" (like 'chappie', the opposite, men love to hate them)

    FS
    machobots=missing ... unless one includes toasters, fridges, doors, surveillance cameras, extras, other colorful props, etc

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    1. curious...what duz caucasian mean to you? what duz white mean to you?

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    2. You make some good points but deion is right to bring up your use of the term "caucasian".

      I had to have this pointed out to me once, which is why I'm going to be pretty patient and gentle with you here on this point, but I need to inform you that "caucasian" itself is a term with racist, fetishizing elements to its history and usage, and is pretty problematic (and also, biologically and culturally inaccurate; not all actual Caucasian people, from the Caucasus that is, are white, and most white people are not actually descended from literal Caucasian people). If you need further information on this, last I checked, Wikipedia's coverage of the concept was pretty good, including the creepy and racist way that the term became popularized (tldr: a racist European white dude was trying to indicate that white people are biologically superior, was not a good scientist, but his 'theory' appealed to other racist Europeans so it took off)

      Unless you're literally an anthropologist and talking about skull shapes, I would not recommend using the term. Heck, if you WERE an anthropologist I might still suggest you talk to your compatriots about the bizarre continued use of "Caucasian" to mean "Eurasian but not East/South-Asian", either, considering, again, most people of Eurasian descent aren't descended specifically from the people of the Caucasus anyway.

      tldr if you mean "white", just say "white". Race as a concept we use daily is a cultural construct far more than it's ever been about biology anyway (don't get me started on how malleable skin color is day to day in the same person, let alone from parent to child!), so you don't need to use "scientific"-sounding words (that are actually inaccurate) when the common neutral parlance will work just fine for the cultural concept you are referring to.

      Like I said though, I had to have this pointed out to me too; so this is just me paying it forward, in the hopes more people will learn about the word's real meaning/history.

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  13. I am surprised at how many people are misunderstanding this movie. It is NOT primarily a tech movie. It is primarily a moral philosophy. Nathan is a villain. Most villains in movies are intended to be a hyperbole of some evil in society, or an evil idea. All of the bots are examples of the Nathans evil nature of using people. In fact, the entire movie is a hyperbole of the evil of creating conscious, self aware machines. It is evil because you are building them to then use them. That would be slavery. The evils of the sexualising of Asian woman for men's pleasure is a hyperbole of the evil of building conscious machines to use as slaves.

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  14. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Ms. Chang for writing this. I just saw this film last night at the Riverview Theater here in Minneapolis. I was appalled by the mostly Midwestern audience's reaction to Kyoko and the film. They laughed during the dancing disco bit but I was sickened by it. Actually, I was already rolling my eyes as soon as Kyoko's subservient, low hanging head and nosebleed hemline made their onscreen debut. Some people (Dare I say morons?) actually applauded this film at the rolling of the credits. How freaking out of touch are we as people? Humans?

    Look, the atmosphere of claustrophobia created throughout the film was near genius. The actors were fantastic but give me a break. This wasn't a new adventure in sci-fi. It was simply an updated "Stepford Wives" flick. The robots can serve, have sex and sketch a bit. Come on, it was really a voyeuristic turn-on for the IT boys and the nation's 10-16 yr-olds.

    What about the rest of us? Women enjoyed this? Really? Which ones? I want to avoid them...always. What is a sane, thinking person supposed to think of this film? Like the writer above, I also realized that Kyoko was a robot early in the game.

    After leaving the theater in a semi-state of nausea, I thought of Sandra Oh's brilliant "angry woman" parking lot performance in the film "Sideways" and fantasized a rewrite of Kyoko's dinner/scene. That's something I would have paid full price to see.

    I'm an amateur screenwriter and I also like sci-fi. However, I'm always freaking amazed by the caricatured writing for actors of color ad nauseam in film. There must be White writers in Hollywood who don't have the Nickelodeon channel on loop in their creative thinking process.

    I went back to Rotten Tomatoes and found only 1 reviewer who spoke openly about the obscene abuse of the female form and notably women of color in this film. That is deeply disturbing.

    Let's see: We have a dreadlocked "Predator", Blue-skinned "Avitar" with braids and ethnic features, a lot of f*cked up Star Wars ethnics, I mean, "aliens", etc. Now if I had a role to write for an Asian woman in a sci fi flick...I know: Sex robot! How inventive! How new!

    Humans have to do better this.

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    1. "There must be White writers in Hollywood who don't have the Nickelodeon channel on loop in their creative thinking process. "

      In fairness, Nickelodeon did produce "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and its sequel series, "The Legend of Korra", which in addition to being critically lauded for its intelligence (especially for a "kids' series"), included ethnic groups in the story universe that were modeled directly off of real Asian (and Pacific Islander, I think? And other Native?) cultures and actually carefully researched and excellent representation on that front, with say, Katara and Korra being each a young woman modeled off of Alaskan Native peoples and one of the heroic leads with a lot of good character development (the title character, obviously, in the second series, in fact), characters like Zuko and his uncle had their culture modeled off of Imperial China's, and are complex, nuanced, and ultimately likable, the 'Last Airbender' of the first series' title, his people were based on those from Tibet, etc. I think there's other examples, such as a group that was modeled off of the Japanese, but I haven't seen all the episodes so I can't recall the name of them - Kyoshi Islanders, maybe? Anyway, you get the idea. It could very easily have been a "wee it's all pseudo-Asian, look how exotic! We don't care about accuracy because it's technically fictional!" series, but instead, from what I've heard from the groups that had groups in the story modeled after them, it was pretty respectfully done (even the movements used in the "bending" styles of elemental manipulation, were apparently based off of actual real-world martial arts styles from various Asian cultures, and based very carefully off of those styles, no less, with research done into their movements. The only one I can recall is that Waterbending moves were based off of Tai Chi due to the flowing movements, but there's literally a specific martial art style for each 'bending' type - I've seen the gif sets demonstrating it, they're kind of neat). What's even better, is that since these groups all contributed multiple characters to the narrative, there's a diversity of personalities and character arcs within those groups too (e.g. both hotheaded Zuko and his even-tempered Uncle Iroh are from the same culture), meaning so much less stereotyping than you'd get in series where there's only one or two visibly Asian characters.

      But. Those shows are exceptions that prove the rule, I'll acknowledge. I just wanted to point that out though, because it's so rare when somebody does something actually respectful and well-done like that involving a LARGE number of Asian or pseudo-Asian characters AND it's successful, so it feels worth noting?




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  15. This was quite an entertaining blog to read for a good laugh. So many overly sensitive people out there.

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  16. Do you hear that sucking noise?

    It's the air rushing out of the room from the WHOOOSH caused by the entire point of the film going way over your head.

    That the main villain was sexist/racist was exactly and entirely intentional, and a critical centerpiece to the plot. How incredibly foolish of you to think it was unintended.

    I thought Asians were supposed to be smart...

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    1. I love how you talk about how she's wrong about how racist the film is, when a.) the director himself acknowledged that oops, he didn't realize how racist it was turning out in relation to how Kyoko's character was used, until after and b.) you use the sentence "I thought Asians were supposed to be smart...".

      here's a protip: if you're using "I thought Asians were supposed to be smart..." as even a JOKE, you're pretty racist.

      "That the main villain was sexist/racist was exactly and entirely intentional, and a critical centerpiece to the plot."

      ...he says, and yet, it doesn't seem like the racist parts were actually addressed. At all. Kyoko doesn't get afforded any agency, and Jade has hers stolen from her. They both just ended up destroyed or outright Fridged. And it's AVA, the white-coded fembot, who gets any real agency, not any of the ones coded as women of color.

      Even if him being "racist" was important to the villain's characterization, I would hardly, at that point, call it "a critical centerpiece to the plot". Seeing as it is, at best, unaddressed or irrelevant to the actual plot. Kyoko could have been a "white" fembot and it would not have changed the sexist symbolism, but adding in the racism but not having her able to destroy him of her own agency? That doesn't address a damn thing. That's no "centerpiece" at all.

      tldr: you fail at deconstructing fiction for intersectionally sexist-racist tropes. You should probably listen to the actual WOC on this one.

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  17. politically correct tripe.

    "people of color" is the language of leftist hatemongers, bigots and cowards who look to justify their own racial hate TOWARDS the white societies they infect... "women of color" is much of the same verbal vomit only with a feminist twist.

    all the concern for your fellow "women of color" goes flying out the window in your own racial societies as you would all soon as shit on each than pretend you are peers. they are after all the same non-white societies who ALL do their very best to keep ALL others out... sparing yourselves the hate and blight that white people have to suffer from all of you.



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  18. If you can stand the all caps, this review puts the movie in a slightly different light, as a condemnation of male gaze (indicting both male leads) as different variations of males controlling/objectifying women as objects of lust/love. In that sense the different ethnicities are not gratuitous but examples of exploitation by the overt villain (Nathan), representing a dark side of male behavior. This all suggests the director did this intentionally (which makes sense given how feminist the rest of the movie is... otherwise how so tone deaf on one point when *everything* else is so targeted?). It's definitely upsetting, and I suspect it is supposed to be.

    http://birthmoviesdeath.com/2015/05/11/film-crit-hulk-smash-ex-machina-and-the-art-of-character-identification

    P.S., I love that I have to prove I'm not a robot to post here. Yet another mistreatment to the poor robots in that movie.

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  19. I agree with most of the sentiments but sickens me even more when Asian Americans throw Asian sex workers under the bust for respectability politics.

    Thailand has biggest self funded self organized peer sex worker organization, Empower, I hope you look them up.

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  20. It seems that the article and comments here reflect the multiple stacks of chips on their shoulders. How we'll ever move ahead to a multicultural society if we carry on seeing the world to ideological glasses. I am saddened.

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    1. "It seems that the article and comments here reflect the multiple stacks of chips on their shoulders. How we'll ever move ahead to a multicultural society if we carry on seeing the world to ideological glasses. I am saddened."

      "Chips" you say - chips on shoulders? I'm sorry, you're talking about a group who is consistently dealing with systemic oppression, bias, and depictions of themselves as subservient to others or the subject of violence, and you're saying that asking filmmakers not to do this is "a chip on their shoulder"? How laughable, you're really out of touch.

      We ARE a multicultural society. The problem is that the culture that is dominating that society's media, though (because "multi" cultural doesn't mean all cultures are treated equally), is blind to how they're damaging the perception of people of other cultures/races. And people are allowed to deconstruct what does and does not work to fight those prejudices, in the art they have personally consumed, thanks.

      That the film does NOT give Kyoko the ability to regain her agency and doesn't really address her and Jade's situations makes it feel like it's exploiting the fetish/stereotypes that many people have about Asian women, and using attractive Asian female bodies for their aesthetic, rather than helping with that in any real way.

      There's a lot of female skin shown here, but not a lot of female-coded characters who aren't also white-coded, getting to fight their oppressors. Showing a problem isn't the same as actually addressing that it's a problem, and if you all but ignore it in the actual narrative in favor of a white-coded character's narrative, then you're doing exactly nothing artistically useful with it and might as well have left the Asian-coded characters entirely out, because their being Asian-coded has no real impact on the story.

      Whereas if they had been able to fight back like Ava did, then guess what? You would have a potential moment of catharsis for the viewer who empathized with their charactes and symbolic empowerment for women of color.

      In short, this piece of art fell greatly short of what it could have achieved, and wound up more exploiting the sexism and racism it barely brings up, than doing anything about it. And it is worth calling it out for that, because art that is released to the public is open for critique.

      PS: I'm sure you think I'm some Asian with a "chip on her shoulder". I'm not. I'm white. I'm just also not completely blind to crap that goes on in my own media!

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  22. As an Asian; you kind of missed the point of the film. Portrayal is not endorsement.
    Hope you get rid of that chip from your shoulder some day and best wishes.

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  23. Thank you for this incisive analysis, portraying the racism and sexism inherent in the writer/director's narrative choices. It seems like many of the commenters are missing the point that a movie can portray racism and sexism as wrong, yet also depend on racism and sexist assumptions in its construction. This movie was offensive, tedious, dull, and way overrated.

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    1. Exactly my thoughts too that I would have struggle to articulate.

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  24. I think this entry underscores the limitations of critical race theory. It is stuck in the optics of constant self-congratulatory reflexivity--a mire of the type of humanism that leads only to a revivification of race and racism. Critical race theory, though just in is ethics, can not solve the issues of race/power/resistance/oppression by continually re-inscripibing these principles. The language of race, seemingly the only one available to CRT, is trapped in its echo-chamber. I look forward to the day when post-humanism sweeps away the illusions that transfix CRT and mixed-race studies. I think you are quite well off the mark in your analysis.

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  25. Nah. Its just a film about evil robots.

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  26. Agree Evergreen. Just saw it. AI & beautiful robots and an evil villain. People here forget a movie is fantasy. It has to also make money. A beautiful girl like Sonoyo helps achieve that. She is a model and dancer in real life. She is like art in this movie as she is in life. Absolutely stunning looking young woman.

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  27. Thanks for saving us from watching film #1001 with racialized misogyny. Great analysis, and I'm glad I'm not the only one who obsesses over disturbing films that openly perpetuate stereotypes without being called for it (e.g. 300: formula of villains = black, or gay, or crippled).

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  28. To be fair, the intended 'everyman', Caleb, is pretty overtly disgusted by Nathan's behavior. But merely showing that a woman's abuser is a baddie and therefore -- wow! look, we're critiquing horrible violence against women! -- is not in itself a progressive statement. An indie film should be able to afford more complexity than that.

    I am glad that Kyoko, who was obviously pretty depressed/coerced throughout (to my non-white non-male gaze; I hadn't actually thought about how an audience that objectifies WOC might consider this normal!), got to take a partial revenge at the end, but I agree it was incredibly unfortunate that she didn't decide to do that independently of the white female lead, and that the single black character had no head for some reason. Surely it would have been easier NOT to erase it?

    It certainly perpetuates harmful stereotypes to stick with the in-universe explanation that Nathan programmed Kyoko to completely obey his every whim, no matter how consistent that is with his character. I wish she had gotten to rebel against her programming and break away from the subservient archetype more than just in her last moments. There are lots of potential subtle changes that could have given her so much more agency:
    - If she had been sneaking calculating glances and plotting an escape throughout
    - Undermining Nathan when he was asleep or gone
    - Showing Ava the knife first instead of waiting to receive instructions

    And thanks for pointing all these things out.

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  29. Pretty late for me to be entering this discussion but I just saw the movie last night and was also immediately struck by how the races were playing out to their stereotypes -
    1. Nathan as an Asian Indian (presumably because Asian Indians are a common sight in IT and to me, an Indian, he sure looked very Indian) -being the villain who does not care for anybody other than himself, is mean to women (especially contrasting with white Caleb -who is immediately sympathetic to women) and is just a genius but bad human being.
    2. Kyoko -I noticed her being servile and free when compared to the 'thinking' and 'needing to be constrained' white Ava just like you pointed out. Kyoko does not question the man, does not care about herself or her fate, has no desire to be free or to find out more and is willing to continue in an abusive relationship till the white woman teaches her to rebel.

    3. I noticed the dead black AI woman and wondered why she was headless -Nathan just needs the body and seems to care lesser about her brains/thoughts than females from other races...or he beheaded her out of rage -maybe she tried to break free from her slavery and thats what she deserved as per his ideas.

    4. The white Ava as lesser of a deserving partner than a submissive Asian woman because the white woman will look out for herself to the point of leaving her partner behind.

    I hadn't really noticed the rest of the things but what I noticed was enough for me to read up more on this and your blog was really insightful. Being scientific means that you leave this bigotry behind (thats why we love Big Bang Theory!)and it seems the director/writer is not able to grasp the scientific frame of mind at all...only managed to learn a few things like the Turing principle.

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  30. You all need to calm down. You're the type of people who find racism in anything. Shrek is racist bc the character Donkey is voiced by Eddie Murphy and that shows what Hollywood thinks about blacks. They're comic relief and buffoons there to add some levity to the serious plight white royalty. I mean holy smokes people. Will it ever end. Nathan made Kyoko Asian bc he digs Asian chicks. If I was Nathan, I'd have a redhead, but that's me. She can't talk for many practical reasons. One being he'd have to do extra work for and unnecessary function. You don't see tvs with the capacity for speech do you? You know why? Televisions don't need to talk!! Why why you do all the extra programming for it? Also, there are no male robots bc Nathan is hetero. It's not some great conspiracy. If he was gay, I guarantee the robots would be all dudes. An Asian dude. A black dude. Etc. Would you all feel more comfortable if that was the case? A gay Nathan? Would this conversation still be going on? I could go on but let me get to the last point. These girls you're seeing are all robots. Nathan is right. The Turing test worked bc all you people are acting like Kyoko is a real person. Like the girls in the closet are real girls. They're machines!!! Where else would you keep them? Are you going to buy a house with an extra bedroom so that you vacuum has somewhere to sleep? Of course not! He treats the girls poorly you say. Like slaves you say. They're not girls damnit and they are slaves. Just like your refrigerator, your phone, your Xbox, your whatever is not a person. Your machines are you machines. I don't feel bad about texting someone or making a call. My phone is a slave to what I want is to do. As is your television, microwave, and toaster. Do you feel bad about breaking your phone when you drop it. Do you consider your phone's feelings when you trade it in for the next version? Are you worried about Siri's well being? Of course not. It's an object. It has no feelings. Just like the "girls" in Ex Machina.

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  31. uhm, she doesn't play an asian. she plays a robot. a robot. you are getting upset about the treatment of a fictional robot.

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  32. "Of course I recognized the trope of servile Asian woman right away and ... Nathan loses his temper, yells at her, and then explains to Caleb she can't understand which makes her incompetence even more infuriating. ... I started to get upset. If there was a point, Garland had better get to "

    You're supposed to get upset! That's why she was portrayed that way, moron. The whole point of these scenes is to make Nathan look abusive, cruel, and heartless towards his creations, which he treats as objects, even though they're approaching sentience.

    "Ava has the option of white bodies but after examining them meticulously she deliberately chooses Jade."

    She's looking for an arm. The first door she opens has a girl with no arms. The second door she opens has a girl with arms.

    "Despite having met Jasmine previously, her Black body is conspicuously missing from the closets full of bodies Nathan has stored for his pleasure and use."

    She's in the 2nd door from the left, as shown in a previous scene. Ava doesn't open it because she already found what she's looking for.

    "I can't even being to tell you how offended and disturbed I was by the treatment of women of color in this movie."

    God, you people are infuriating. You're so preoccupied with playing the victim and combing for things to be conspicuously offended by that you completely miss the points the film is making. Grow up.

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  33. I read the role of Kyoko (who was made "Japanese" on purpose, instead of any other Asian nationality) as a very good metaphor of the role and treatment of women in Japanese society today.
    I have no doubt that there are plenty of powerful men in Japan right now abusing and objectifying women like Nathan did with Kyoko, and the women having a hard time finding sympathy for their struggles because of the way Japanese society works.
    Making Nathan's subservient "Toy" explicitly Japanese was a pretty good idea by the writers, even though I agree the general level of creepiness of the movie was hard to bear especially as Nathan and his actions were largely excused as a "grand plan" after all - he wasn't a bad guy, he did it all for "science".

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  34. Yes Sharon. You need to calm down. The film is showing how close minded Nathan was in creating the bots that he did. Take a chill pill and come down from your cross.

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  35. So to surmise, you would have rather have seen nothing but white women in subservient roles, an Asian as Ava simply because your sensitive to the fantasies of a fictional character.... Yikes. Hate to rain on your own hate parade, unless you can show me pornographic trends (for example, one study showed that Chinese Men tend to search for Japanese Porn the most) then the subservient being Asian is nothing more than a result of his own preferences. It could have been ANY race because its completely arbitrary to the story.

    You make a big deal about headlessness and skin selection but gloss over the fact that Ava was left naked, leaving her without skin totally dehumanized her in its own way, and maybe it was essential to the test that he not complete her, I dunno but I do know your selective argument can work from all angles for every race.

    There may be some modicum of truth in your analysis but such hollow analysis shouldn't prevent you from enjoying a brilliant movie. Maybe you're taking this too personal.... maybe not.

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  36. It seems ridiculous that it needs to be pointed out that since the film is about the manufacture of robots, the physical qualities of the robots are specifically meant to reflect the character's choices, rather than simply the film-maker's. The depiction was meant to illustrate the subservience that has characterised man's relationships with races and genders, and draw a rather obvious parallel with that of machines. That is why the sexbot's character was the one to kill the maker, since she was depicted with specific qualities to touch the audience's sympathy.
    Gender and race are simply platforms on which the author of this blog perches her wares for sale. With any greater sensitivity to the actual issues, they would have realised the depiction was specifically pointing out the exploitative dynamic of race/gender. Tedious.

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  37. If White women abuse men of color in the media, they would be called racist sluts, bitches, etc. just like a White female police officer who shot a Black male who was said to be innocent for instance. Everyone labeled her a racist bitch. Too often Western women who travel abroad to use men of color for sex have been abused by them in return especially when Western women travel to patriarchal countries.

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  38. If this movie about robots (steel and plastic) caused such an uproar about what in actuality amounts to really... "nothing", I can't wait to hear peoples opinions about the remake of "West-World". Particularly after watching the end of episode 2. I'm sure Thandie Newton's "nudie" scene will ruffle some feathers of the above commenters.

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  39. Lol hilarious article do another rant about how you went to the movies looking desperately to be offended because you view everything through your racist lens

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  40. Frustratingly, I've yet to find a way to convince the clueless about this very concept. They've too little intelligence or attention span to tolerate an explanation as long as above & even if they listened to my entire spiel, would still casually deny it was actually an issue. White privilege is too easy a response, it's something more callous & ignorant or denial.

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  41. A quote from the movie that speaks directly to this trash of a blog

    "You are speaking with your insecurities, not your intellect"

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  42. I can't take this seriously. It's clear you're specifically looking for race-related criticisms when writing this, rather than a balanced critique.

    Replace Kyoko with an AI (translation: not actual Asian woman) with a white female skin-job who doesn't speak English (because lots of white people don't - amazing, I know) and you get The. Same. Exact. Film.

    But I guess we can't be happy that an actress who is typically outside of major film casting molds (which is a crappy situation, but not one in any way related to this film) got a job, right?

    To be quite frank, I would be very concerned if anyone was NOT disgusted at the treatment (and very existence) of Kyoko - and Ava too, for that matter. So well done, you passed the baseline for not being a crappy human.

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