The following is an essay I wrote for a German literature class, while attending UC Davis in the summer of 2015.
29 July 2015
“Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”
Today, one can buy their dream sex robot for a few thousand dollars (Cott, 2015). Matt McMullen has been selling these dolls since 1996 and he advertises that his sex robots are customizable, life size, silicon, and designed to please their owner (Cott, 2015). While it may seem unimaginable, lusting over a female android is hardly something new or innovative. The idea of a female automaton being used for companionship dates all the way back to ETA Hoffman’s The Sandman in 1816 with the relationship between naïve Nathaniel and beautiful—though unintelligent—Olympia. But as technology and standards for women have evolved, so have standards for female androids. This year, with the film Ex-Machina, the world was introduced to a whole new type of female cyborg, Ava. Ex-Machina follows the relationship between artificially intelligent Ava, her creator, Nathan, and her love interest Caleb. While Ava and Olympia are both female automatons, they possess very differing levels of consciousness. Olympia is deemed as “half-witted” and can barely utter a few words, while Ava possesses just as much, if not more intelligence than the average human and can carry on conversation seamlessly. Their similarity, however, lies in the idea of both of them being used for their sexuality by the men around them. Both The Sandman and Ex-Machina raise questions of morality when it comes to female cyborgs and the subservient roles they play. As female androids grow more and more lifelike, where is the line between companion and slave?
The Sandman illustrates the suspicion women are subjected to and the power men hold over them. Nathaniel’s love for Olympia serves as a cautionary tale for his town. While men created Olympia, the townspeople mistrust women more so than men. This mistrust and demonization of women is seen through the treatment of Olympia and the “pre-cautionary” measures men are advised to take after it is revealed that Olympia is an automaton.
After struggling with his gloomy thoughts, Nathaniel finds he can no longer confide in Clara. However, he seems to find his perfect match in Olympia. Her “father,” Spalanzani, is said to have been very protective of his daughter, never letting her out into the public. However, he makes an exception for this night, and Nathaniel is enamored. Though she is described as unintelligent, Nathaniel finds her icy hands and silent nature to be charming. It is hard to say exactly how conscious Olympia is, but her silence is a fairly good indicator. She can only utter an “Ah Ah!” to Nathaniel’s stories, though these two utterances give him great pleasure. Olympia is subject to her creator’s demands and Nathan’s desires and Clara must accept Nathan’s disposal of her. Both automaton Olympia and human Clara are subjected to secondary roles in a man’s world.
Women’s subservience is also seen in Ex-Machina. The only two female characters, Kyoko and Ava, are both subject to their creator, Nathaniel’s wishes. Kyoko serves as Nathaniel’s housemaid and never speaks, while Ava is confined to her “apartment”. The two have little free will, and if they do, they are unable to act on it. While Kyoko is introduced as a housemaid, it is later discovered that she too, is AI (artificially intelligent). Still, Caleb never questions Nathaniel’s treatment of Kyoko. Though it seems Caleb may disapprove of the way Kyoko is treated, he does not speak out against it or question Kyoko’s muteness. It is simply accepted that Kyoko is Nathaniel’s housemaid—borderline servant—and because she is exotic, it is also accepted that she does not speak nor understand English. This is especially disturbing, as Kyoko is also introduced as Nathaniel’s sexual object. He chooses her outfits and comments on her appearance often, and Caleb does not question her consent in the relationship. Caleb accepts the subservient role Nathaniel has placed Kyoko in.
Nathaniel manipulates each relationship Caleb has with the women in the film. He introduces Kyoko as something that is rather worthless and unintelligent, though beautiful. But Nathaniel builds up the introduction of Ava—presenting her as his masterpiece and the first ever AI. Caleb accepts whatever role Nathaniel introduces each female character as, and Ava clearly has more value and importance. Caleb is immediately impressed and attracted by the thought of Ava being a quick-witted AI.
The appeal of Ava’s intelligence is not unique to Ex-Machina. Much in the same way Ava has a consciousness, Matt McMullen is working on a new type of sex doll—once with some capability of artificial intelligence (Cott 2015). More and more qualifications are being added to the list of what a sex doll should possess. McMullen explains, “There are several aspects to this project—one is the robotics in terms of animatronics and getting some facial expressions and head movement out of the doll. The other is the AI—the customizable programming of personality. What is she saying to me while I’m doing this? Is she enjoying this? Does she like making me feel this? And if you can create that—that allusion, that experience that she actually likes it—that’s going to be a much more impressive payoff than ‘wow, I can’t believe she’s gyrating her hips by herself” (The Uncanny Lover, 2015). McMullen is working on the head of the doll—its consciousness—and states that it will be ready to attach to a RealDoll body in about two years. The head will be available for around $10,000—and the full body, which he will begin working on next—will be available for around $30,000 to $60,000 (Cott, 2015).
The evolution of the android companionship has come a long way since Olympia. In The Sandman, Nathaniel is enthralled by Olympia’s attention. Unlike most women, Olympia never uses any tools or pets to entertain herself, she never even yawns or coughs. “In short, she sat for hours, looking straight into her lover’s eyes, without stirring, and her glance became more and more lively and animated” (Hoffman 14). The fact that Nathaniel does not question Olympia’s stillness is not so much indicative of Nathaniel himself, but of men in general during the period of The Sandman. In The Sandman, the male characters do not make much of an effort to understand or connect with their female counterparts. After it is revealed that Olympia is an automaton, “a pernicious mistrust of human figures in general had begun to creep in” (Hoffman 15). Men, to be sure that they were not in love with “wooden dolls” were advised to ask their girlfriend to sing and dance a little imperfectly, “and, above all, not merely to listen, but also sometimes to talk, in such a manner as presupposed actual thought and feeling” (Hoffman 15). Meaning, that before the Olympia scandal, it was perfectly acceptable for the male to be the only one talking. This interaction gives more logic to why Nathaniel never found it odd that Olympia would not talk herself, and further supports the town’s mistrust of women. Rather than looking into who else might be creating automatons, men’s first reactions are to test their mistresses, while males are not subjected to the same kind of suspicion.
In Ex-Machina, the ideals for a silent female android remain the same. Nathaniel uses Kyoko for sex, not dialogue. She is his subordinate, and his only companion before Caleb comes to visit. Nathaniel can focus on his own thoughts and work with a mute Kyoko, much in the same way Nathan can openly discuss his ponderings with Olympia—a freedom he did not enjoy with communicative Clara. However, this silence is not the ideal norm. Ava, though introduced as AI, seems to hold more worth to both Nathaniel and Caleb than Kyoko does. Nathaniel places value in Ava as his creation, and Caleb admires her intelligence, but also her sexuality. Ava is monitored 24/7, and Caleb watches her from his bedroom, fantasizing about her when he’s not with her, and flirting with her when he is.
Though Caleb at first believes Kyoko is a real woman, he is more attracted to Ava, who is blatantly AI and trapped in her apartment. There is a physical wall separating Ava and Caleb each time they interact, but Caleb feels much more connected to conversational Ava than silent Kyoko.
It seems that men—both in real life and Ex-Machina, are more attracted to intelligence than the thought of sex by itself. McMullen states, “With the AI—I think we’ve got to be careful with that—getting the doll confused when you’re talking to her and she says some things that make absolutely no sense…that could ruin the whole build up. You never want to go to the bedroom because you think, gosh, my doll is dumb” (The Uncanny Lover, 2015).
Perhaps this is the draw of Ava. She is able to converse with Caleb and match his intellect. She has all of the qualities he would want in a human partner. However, Ava has not met any other men, or humans for that matter, besides Caleb and Nathan. At one point Kyoko begins undressing for Caleb, and he immediately stops her. When Caleb stops Kyoko—is it because Caleb believes Kyoko is not able to consent; she is only trying to serve him in the same way she serves Nathan? Why is the same morality not applied in his thought process toward Ava? Ava has the capability to speak, so if she did want to reject Caleb—or anyone’s advances, she could, in theory. But if Nathaniel created Ava with the capability to have sex, where does her consent actually lie?
Nathan claims to Caleb “So if you wanted to screw [Ava], mechanically speaking you could, and she’d enjoy it.” Ava has openly expressed her dislike for Nathaniel to both Nathaniel himself and Caleb. It does not seem right for Nathaniel to have power over Ava, much less offer up her sexuality—especially after she states that she hates him. Ava is clearly unhappy in her apartment, and wishes to leave. Her mobility lies in her sexuality, and she manipulates Caleb to break free.
Olympia does not have that same luxury. Her level of awareness is questionable. We do not know if she is happy with her arrangement, or if she even has the capability to be happy. As readers, we are not attracted to Olympia’s uncanny nature. But as viewers, it is easy to see why Caleb finds Ava so charming. We grow to accept what Ava states as true. We see her as a human, even though she is not.
Nevertheless, the ending of Ex-Machina reminds us that Ava is not human, and that this film is not a love story. While Ava’s abandonment of Caleb may seem like betrayal, it is not. Ava owes Caleb nothing. Caleb knew from the beginning that Ava was AI, he has his freedom, while Ava is limited to a small space in Nathan’s lab. Ava is subjected to Nathan and his demands, and can be switched off at any moment. She points out the unfairness in this when she asks Caleb whether or not she will be switched off. When he replies “I don’t know…it’s not up to me” Ava retorts, “Why is it up to anyone? Do you have people that have you who might switch you off?” “No—“ Caleb replies, and before he can finish Ava asks, “Then why do I?” Ava relies more on logic than emotion, and makes the best decision for herself and her future by abandoning Caleb and killing Nathan. She shows no remorse, but she owes none either.
The evolution of the female android and her sexuality reflects not only the changing ideals men place in women, but also the changing ideals in relationships with women. In 1816, Nathaniel could easily accept Olympia’s silence as his companion, because that was the norm for women. In 2015, Caleb accepts the mute state of Kyoko as Nathaniel’s housemaid, but he craves intimacy with artificially intelligent Ava. And McMullen is working on a sex robot that could cost just as much—if not more, than a car. The shift from passive Olympia to cunning Ava is empowering—but McMullen’s creation of new female sex robots takes us a few steps backwards. While the ideals of female roles have shifted over the years, what has remained the same is using females—human or nonhuman—for their sexuality. This objectification of women is frightening, and the questions of consent and morality are becoming more and more prevalent. This treatment of women devalues their characters, and in the end, we are still living in a man’s world with women as their pawns.
Cott, Emily. “Sex Dolls That Talk Back.” The New York Times. June 11, 2015.
Hoffman, ETA. The Sandman.
“The Uncanny Lover.” Canepari, Zackary. Cooper, Drea. Cott, Emily. The New York Times. June 11, 2015.
Photo by Becky Gmahling