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What a (Robot) Girl Wants

In the future, there will be robots. Hell, forget about the “future” because robots are all around us. They’re processing your Amazon orders, helping you telecommute to the office, and even making crab bisque in your kitchen (well, maybe not your kitchen). Robots are already integrated into our daily routines.

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Anxiety about robots — specifically, robots so close in design to humans that it might be hard to differentiate flesh from metal — has reached a fever pitch in Hollywood with the introduction of not one, but two humanoid species on both the big and small screens. In both AMC’s excellent new series Humans and this spring’s thought-provoking film Ex Machina, robots bring gender performance, alongside issues of identity and consent, to the foreground. Both the show and the movie feature beautiful feminine robot protagonists and place men in the role of their god-like creators.

In Humans, society has added a new working class: "synths," or synthetics. These human-like androids are everywhere, distinguished only by their bright green eyes and impossibly smooth movements. They take tickets at the train station, pick up litter, harvest fruit and vegetables, and play the role of maid, housekeeper, and nurse. Synths make human life easier and more comfortable, but their presence is discomfiting.

The series, set in London in an alternate present, opens with a dramatic shot—a warehouse full of synths clad in underwear, stripped of identity through both their nudity and their sheer number. The camera pans over them from behind, not revealing faces, until it settles on one synth, who from the outset is clearly unlike the others. While they stand around her, motionless, she raises her head to stare at a light on the ceiling. We see her face. She’s one of many, but she has agency.

Synths make human life easier, but their presence is discomfiting.

This synth (Anita, played by Gemma Chan) is immediately contrasted with the very human Laura Hawkins (Katherine Parkinson). Laura is a lawyer, and her demanding career results in a lot of time away from her family. Her husband, Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill), is left to take care of the couple’s three kids. Joe, unhappy to be cast in the role of caretaker, decides to purchase a synth to do the housework and take care of the children, though he knows this is against Laura’s wishes.

At a slick, Apple-like Synth store, the sentient synth from the show’s opening sequence is delivered to Joe and his youngest child, Sophie (Pixie Davies), in a human-sized garment bag. She’s flawless, with high cheekbones, wide eyes, glossy hair, and a slim frame clad in a simple blue tunic top and trousers.

Laura returns home, and is understandably upset that Joe has gone against her wishes. Joe responds by making Laura feel guilty about her time away from the family — a hint of chauvinism to come.

Ex Machina's Ava. Photo: A24

Ex Machina treads similar territory, though in a much more narrow and contained setting and with only a three major players. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a wan, bookish programmer at Bluebook (Google, essentially), wins a work contest. The prize is time alone with the company’s CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a wildly rich eccentric. Caleb is flown via helicopter over a stunning and vast expanse of trees and mountains, and dropped off in the middle of a field to find his way to Nathan’s isolated high-tech lair.

Caleb’s prize is to administer a Turing Test to Nathan’s creation, a beautiful humanoid named Ava (Alicia Vikander). (If you are unfamiliar with the Turing Test, watch The Imitation Game, for which Benedict Cumberbatch, playing Alan Turing, was nominated for Best Actor). Ava is caged in a glass box, with security cameras streaming her every move to monitors in Caleb and Nathan’s rooms. Unlike the synths, which are equipped with "Asimov Blocks" to prevent them from harming humanity, she’s under lock and key.

Is this a cautionary tale, or are we watching the emancipation of Ava?

Beauty and wardrobe play an important part in humanizing the synths and Ava. Ava connects with Caleb by dressing up for him, hiding her robotic bits in stockings, a dress, and a cropped wig. At the end of the film, she’s pictured wearing a fitted white dress with a peplum waist, heels, and a long-haired wig. In lady drag, she successfully escapes the compound and enters the outside world.

In a flashback sequence in the first episode, viewers see Anita dressed in casual clothing — skinny jeans, hiking boots, a sweater, a jacket, and a backpack slung over her shoulders — as she hikes through the forest with a group of sentient synths. It’s a glimpse of the "true," more human Anita — the Anita with feelings. Costume changes reflect actual changes in her programming: She’s stylish when she’s conscious, but as a standard self-unaware synth, she wears an unremarkable uniform. It's also a choice Anita's making, as it would be easier for her to "pass" as a non-aware robot in her blue tunic. (In this world, uniforms exist to help synths fade into the background as quiet slave labor.) This season’s most explosive twist, the reveal that detective Pete Drummend’s (Neil Maskell) partner Karen Voss (Ruth Bradley) is secretly a synth, is surprising because Karen’s costuming is so good. She looks like a perfectly normal middle-aged woman dressed in slightly frumpy business casual.

Niska, a synth in Humans. Photo: AMC

As viewers eventually learn, Ava is not the first AI Nathan has created. In one sickening sequence, Caleb explores Nathan’s bedroom while he’s passed-out drunk. Inside, he finds cabinets full of abandoned android women, strung up like oversize dolls, all shapely, all naked, some damaged and missing limbs. Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), first introduced to viewers and Caleb as Nathan’s silent servant, is revealed to also be a robot — one Nathan uses both as a housekeeper and as a sex slave.

On Humans, robots are also used for sex work. Of course they are, you say, because this is a parallel world where men are still running the show (literally, also — the showrunners are both male, as is the series’s original author). Niska (Emily Berrington) is a sister synth to Anita in that they were both gifted consciousness by the same creator. To hide her true identity as a sentient synth, she is confined to a brothel filled with other female robots (this storyline only becomes more depressing when viewers learn of Niska’s past). Niska refuses to turn off her "pain" sensors, trying to endure the abuse until she finally snaps and kills a patron.

Gender is a construct and in this world, it’s constructed by men.

That’s disturbing enough, but in a later episode, poor old emasculated family man Joe, who has been eying up Anita since he purchased her, decides to initiate her "Adult" mode after a few glasses of wine. Because we understand that Anita possesses true consciousness, what follows can only be described as rape, the camera lingering on Anita’s expressionless face.

Ex Machina director Alex Garland, when asked about how Ava, described her not as female but as "female presenting." Gender is a construct and in this world, as in Humans, it’s constructed by men. Niska, like Anita, looks like a freaking supermodel. Meanwhile, viewers are also introduced to a "Vera model" synth issued by a healthcare company to care for the elderly; by her looks and behavior, she’s basically Nurse Ratched. Race adds another level of complexity: Is it a coincidence that in both the film and the show, the role of "docile house servant" is played by an Asian woman?

Ava’s escape at the end of Ex Machina and the rape scene in Humans act as emotional Rorschach tests. If you, like Joe, think Anita is essentially a "sex toy," you might just be a misogynist. If you despair at Caleb being outsmarted by the android he was trying to "save," and being locked up and left to die, you might want to rewatch the film and try to see it from Ava’s eyes. Is this a cautionary tale, or are we watching the emancipation of Ava?

Or perhaps Humans and Ex Machina are simply a way for men to work through their discomfort-slash-longing for sex robots. Shit, you can imagine them thinking. What if I created an incredibly beautiful sex robot to fulfill my every whim, including cooking for me and taking care of my children, and she developed feelings? She might not actually want to have sex with me, in fact, she might kill me. Hm, this robot thing is going to be pretty complicated.

When non-humans act human, it throws things like gender performance and roles into starker relief. In each, clothes are used to disguise and to self-identify; no matter the outfit, it says something about the character and what she wants. What she wants might not be to please you. No wonder everyone's so uncomfortable.

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