In the 2015 film Ex Machina, women, or at least the robots who appear to be women, are portrayed in very disturbing ways. At the surface this film is about Oscar Isaac’s character, Nathan, and his employee Caleb’s attempt to make a robot with human levels of consciousness. This emotionally conscious robot’s name is Ava. In addition to Ava, Nathan has created other, less emotionally intelligent robots: Kyoko, Jade, and a few unnamed others; Kyoko is the only other robot active throughout the movie. Underneath the main plot of technological discovery in this film there are strong highlights of sexist and racist treatment. In particular, the two robots who are clearly of Asian descent, Kyoko and Jade, are abused in a specific way that mirrors Asian stereotypes and Western media portrayals of Asian women. This representation raises the question: Is Alex Garland, the director, aware of how he abuses Kyoko and the impressions that the abuse leaves in the viewer? A thoughtful analysis of the film illustrates that the abuses Kyoko and Jade suffer are intentional and purposefully used to create thought-provoking commentary on media, society, and techno-orientalist stereotypes.
In many Western films and much of Western media as a whole, Asians are depicted in ways that highlight an “otherness.” Many of the most common ways that Asian characters are othered fall under a concept known as techno-orientalism. Techno-orientalism includes the depiction of Asian people as “hypo- or hyper technological,”1 depictions of the “inhumanity of Asian labor,”2 an elaboration of “not-quite-human[ness],”3 and a general association with Asian people as having the sole purpose of serving and working for non-Asians. English professor and author Dr. Seo-Young Chu argues that these stereotypes are influenced largely by westerners’ xenophobic fears of the East.4 These stereotypes can be seen in films and novels such as Blade Runner, James Bond: Die Another Day, and Cloud Atlas. Techno-orientalism is also at work in Ex Machina, however I argue that Garland’s use of techno-orientalism is not meant to blatantly stereotype Asian women but is an intentional commentary on the overused techno-orientalist stereotyping.
In Kyoko’s first appearance in the film she walks into Caleb’s room to bring him breakfast and wake him up. In this scene, Kyoko is shown wearing a short and tight white dress. Although it has not yet been disclosed that Kyoko is a robot at this point in the film, her subservient and expressionless face gives the viewer the impression that she is an emotionless human. She leaves the room not having said a word, but clearly leaving an impression on Caleb. Caleb then tells Nathan about how he woke up and Nathan replies, “She’s some alarm clock, huh? Gets you right up in the morning.”5 In this moment, though it is a short scene, Kyoko embodies one of the key ideas of techno-orientalism: the “inhumanity of Asian labor.”6 She is being compared, portrayed and described as a machine. Nathan literally equates Kyoko’s best use to the function of an “alarm clock,” and while Kyoko in reality is a machine, Caleb does not know that in this moment. When she is meant to be seen as human, she is shown performing as a machine. Kyoko’s next appearance is at a dinner where she is serving Nathan and Caleb. Kyoko spills wine, causing Nathan to yell. Caleb assures her that no harm is done and Nathan responds saying, “you’re wasting your time talking to her she doesn’t understand English.” In this moment, the frame is a medium close-up shot of Nathan’s face, and directly under it, Kyoko’s. She is, again, completely expressionless, simply staring and blinking. She then proceeds to perform her duties, and clean up the wine. There are two peculiarities to note about this scene. The first is that it seems inherently un-android to spill wine; perhaps that is a move by the director to humanize Kyoko in the eyes of the viewer, thereby forcing the viewer to sympathize with her, or just to be confused about her ontological state. The second notable thing is that Nathan explains Kyoko’s language barrier as a “firewall”; in other words, her inability to understand English (which Nathan controls because he programmed her) is essentially a security measure to protect Nathan’s research. The use of Kyoko’s inability to speak English as a “firewall” parallels her to that of a computer security software, highlighting the hyper-technological aspects of techno-orientalism.
One of the most disturbing portrayals of techno-orientalism in the film is Nathan’s use of Kyoko as a machine for sex. This unsettling depiction is brought to a head when, toward the middle of the film, Caleb approaches Kyoko and repeatedly asks her “Where’s Nathan?” Her face shows confusion, and she begins to unbutton her shirt. She performs this action as if it is what she was programmed to do, showing that she has been commanded to do this many times before, and it is her primary response to any human question or command. This moment moves the representation of Kyoko from a purely mechanized version of the techno-orientalist stereotype to a sexualized version. The scene then becomes even more disturbing when Nathan enters and proceeds to click a button that turns down the lights and plays music. Without any formal command or instruction, Kyoko begins dancing. Her face continues to be expressionless as she dances with Nathan in an almost choreographed and video-game-like synchronized dance. Nathan insists to Caleb, “Go ahead dance with her! Dance with her!” That Kyoko is being referred to but never addressed is very dehumanizing. This moment highlights the “dehumanizing effects of the techno-orientalist gaze”7; in other words, the treatment of Kyoko as a visual object, not a thoughtful being.
It is clear through the analysis above that Kyoko is being portrayed within the confines of techno-orientalist stereotyping. But is the director aware of how he abuses Kyoko? Her portrayal as a domestic sex slave is so exaggerated and unsettling that one might assume the answer is yes. The framing of the scenes provides support for this assumption. In one short scene, Nathan is boxing, and in the left third of the shot, Kyoko is seen subservient, emotionlessly waiting for him. In another scene, Nathan is working at his computer, and in the blurry background Kyoko is seen lying on a couch. Moments like these could have just as easily been shot without Kyoko, so it is clear that her presence and portrayal in them is purposeful. Given the disturbing ways Kyoko is portrayed, her presence in the movie forces the viewer to confront the stereotypes that she represents.
There are moments in the film where the director makes a point to show Kyoko going against the stereotypes that are literally programed in her, expressing human qualities of free will and curiosity. Though these moments are few and infrequent, they do exist, and add to the director’s possible intention of a thought-provoking representation of Kyoko. In one scene Caleb begins to question Nathan about Ava’s sexuality. As the conversation begins, the camera cuts to a frame focused on Kyoko cooking and the two men in the background. When Caleb mentions the word “sexuality” one can see Kyoko move her head ever so slightly so that she can eavesdrop on the conversation. This movement is so subtle that it could be easily ignored if it weren’t for how peculiar and intentional the director was in focusing the shot on Kyoko, even though she is not involved in the conversation. Kyoko’s reaction is supported two minutes into the scene, when this frame is taken up again, this time to show her face, making visual responses to the conversation. This eavesdropping shows that Kyoko is more than a machine; she has a will, a personality, and curiosity. Another scene in which Kyoko is shown as more than machine is when Caleb approaches her to inquire about Nathan’s whereabouts. Right before the point when Caleb asks his question, Kyoko is shown examining, and perhaps appreciating, a Jackson Pollock painting. This brief interest in art and creativity further works to humanize Kyoko as well as giving her another dimension: an inner life. This push against Kyoko’s obvious framing within techno-orientalism is clearly an intentional move by the director, and without doubt invites the viewer to question Kyoko’s unsettling representation.
While the examples above are very subtle and easily missed moments, the director also created a scene where Kyoko is explicitly and unmistakably showing free will. In this scene, Kyoko observes Caleb as he uncovers Nathan’s ‘failed’ AI projects. She chooses, in a moment of free will, to peel off the skin on her torso, exposing her mechanical parts to Caleb. She then proceeds to do the same to the skin under her eye. This scene is striking for many reasons. One is that the viewer learns that Kyoko is not actually human. The fact that the director chose to express this information to the viewer in the second half of the film and not in the beginning is significant. Having this exposure come in the second half of the film forces the viewer to reflect on what they thought they knew about Kyoko and, in doing so, confront how she was abused, and if that abuse is now justified because she is not human. Another striking aspect of this scene is the fact that Kyoko has the ability to rebel, which is essentially what she is doing by pulling off her skin, making her no longer the quiet, enslaved robot that one can only assume Nathan programmed her to be, and that the director had shown her as before.
In order to thoroughly analyze this film and the director’s intentions when portraying Asian characters, Jade must be considered in addition to Kyoko. It is important to note that Jade is not in use as a robot throughout the film; in fact she is locked away in a room and only appears a few times in the film. While both Jade and Kyoko are reflected through the lens of techno-orientalism, in the one scene where Jade is shown alive and mobile, she couldn’t be more different from Kyoko’s character. The most noticeable difference between their portrayals is that Jade is not mute; far from it, in fact. As she sits in a glass box and is questioned by Nathan, Jade screams, “Why won’t you let me out?” over and over again until she begins to attempt to break the cage, but instead breaks off her arms. Both Jade and Kyoko seem to have an awareness of their posthuman status, but Jade’s is reflected in rage and violence. Jade’s awareness and outspokenness would not have allowed her to be the domestic sex slave that Nathan intended to create when he made Kyoko; Jade exhibits too many human characteristics and is therefore faulty because she does not fit Nathan’s needs. Jade’s awareness and so-called human characteristics are likely why Nathan created Kyoko, in an effort to correct Jade’s qualities of free-will. It is likely intentional that the films writer, Alex Garland, wrote the subservient labourer role to be portrayed as a Japanese actress. Author Masanori Oda explains why Japanese people are often characterized this way writing that “Japan/ese often appear as ‘as you like,’ self-fashioned figures to the West, not only to satisfy their own gaze, but to disguise the real portrayal of [Westerners’] own nature or desires.”8 This “as you like” purpose is exactly how Kyoko is used by Nathan, and likely how he intended on using Jade if she were not so human and free-willed. The director’s representation of Jade as a faulty robot forces the viewer to question the subservient aspect of techno-orientalist stereotypes.
In one of the final scenes of the film, the director emphasizes Jade’s character as a hyper-technological being, even more so than the other robots, even though they are materially the same. In this scene Ava, who throughout the majority of the film has been depicted with visible wiring and circuit boards, is shown peeling off Jade’s skin to use it as her own. Once Ava has completely removed all of Jade’s skin she makes eye contact with Jade and vice versa showing that Jade was in fact conscious during this whole skinning. Once again, this highlights subservient aspects of techno-orientalism, having Jade sacrifice her literal skin to Ava, a robot who presents as white. However it is peculiar that the director chose to not have Jade rebel in this moment, when her previous portrayal was antithetical to that of the subservient stereotype. This scene also touches on another point by using racial barriers to draw a distinction between human and posthuman; Ava emerges as a human and Jade is exposed as something “hyper-technological” and other. The director’s intentions in this scene were likely to put the viewer in a position in which they were seeing and confronting the hyper-technologization of Jade in a very literal way.
Though analysis supports that the director intentionally illustrated Jade and Kyoko in very stereotypical ways in order to provoke thought, it is unclear if doing so had a positive impact on Asian representations generally. As Dr. Chu points out, “Stereotyping is valuable as long as it is handled with a conscientious mindfulness of its purposes.”9 With this caveat in mind, one can reason that the director, Alex Garland, was very “conscientious” of how he used “stereotyping.” Through the analysis above, one can also attempt to understand Garland’s intentions and “purposes.” These purposes were to likely create a positive impact on Asian representations by forcing viewers to confront and think critically about the use of techno-orientalist stereotypes in Ex Machina.
- David S. Roh, Betsy Huang, and Greta A. Niu, Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2015).
- Roh, Huang, and Niu, Techno-Orientalism
- Roh, Huang, and Niu, Techno-Orientalism
- Seo-Young Chu, “I, Stereotype: Detained in the Uncanny Valley), in Techno-Orientalism, 76-78.
- Ex Machina, Directed by Alex Garland (New York: A24, 2015).
- Roh, Huang, and Niu, Techno-Orientalism.
- Roh, Huang, and Niu, Techno-Orientalism.
- Bruce Grenville, The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture (Vancouver, B.C.: Arsenal Pulp, 2002).
- Chu, “I, Stereotype.”