Could Alex Garland Be Reshaping The Landscape For Female Representation in Science Fiction?
It seems that author turned filmmaker Alex Garland has set his sights among the genre of Science Fiction. With Ex Machina (2014) and Annihilation (2018) under his belt, it would not be too early to say that the director has made a name for himself by reexamining old tropes within the genre when it comes to gender representation. Both his films Ex Machina and Annihilation feature women as leads, with Annihilation bringing in five female characters. The two centre around differing Science Fiction topics, Ex Machina deals with AI and technological innovations, while Annihilation examines extraterrestrial life forms.
The discourse surrounding gender representation in Science Fiction (SF) has existed since its Golden Age and beyond. Golden Age SF was almost exclusively written by men, purchased by men or boys; and its conventions were shaped by the passions and interests of adolescent males. Even though the undisputed founder of SF to many is Mary Shelley, women within the genre were pushed out of it altogether. It would seem that women were not reflected within the audiences that consumed SF but on the contrary, they read it and wrote about it, they just didn’t get published as writers nor critics.
Even Isaac Asimov, who’s shaped our conception of robotics and AI like few others, thought that “swooning dames” had no place in sci-fi, and after being rebuked in a readers’ letter by a Ms. Mary Rogers, declared “that women never affected the world directly, they always grabbed hold of some poor, innocent man, worked their insidious wiles on him and then affected history through him.” As good an indicator as any to what exact world female SF fans and creatives were venturing into. For many, they were marginalised by a genre that celebrated exploring new worlds and progressive ideals. Garland directly opposes this not only by placing women at the forefront of his stories but actively attempting to disband old tropes used against them.
Ex Machina places Alicia Vikander as a female AI (artificial intelligence) known as Ava, created by tech billionaire Nathan (Oscar Isaac). In the film Nathan invites Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer, to participate in what is known as a ‘Turing Test’ wherein which AI is tested against human intelligence to see if its reasonings are indistinguishable from a human mind’s. Through the different tests, Caleb falls in love with Ava, and she uses his weakness against him to help her escape and rid her of her master.
The reception of Ex Machina’s use of a female AI was not overwhelmingly positive: for some Ava is a modern day retelling of past female AI tropes from films such as Metropolis (1927). Argued by Angela Watercutter for WIRED: ‘she uses her sexuality to get what she wants, and the camera frames her as an object of desire. (…) Ava is the smartest creature on screen at all times, but the message we are left with at the end of Ex Machina is still that the best way for a miraculously intelligent creature to get what she wants is to flirt manipulatively.’
However, this criticism ignores the fundamental change of pace with Garland’s work. Garland is not framing Ava this way in order to undermine her as a remarkable creation but instead to give the viewer Caleb’s POV (point of view). She is sexualised because he instantly is attracted to her and, realising that in order to manipulate Caleb into helping her escape Nathan she must use sex as a weapon, she turns his attraction against him. Ava never uses her sexuality for anything other than self-preservation, and it makes sense as to why she would do so. Ava is stuck within the confines of a house where, if she does not live up to the standards of Nathan, he would most likely turn her into a sex robot.
Ex Machina is an explicit critique of both ‘Nerdy Misogyny’ (Nathan) and ‘White Knights’ (Caleb). Nathan is what many would call a ‘tech bro’, a male who typically works in a field devoid of women and thus does not know how to converse with them and does not treat them as human. While Caleb may also fall into that category, unlike Nathan, he is looking for companionship but only on his terms. He fetishises Ava and creates a fantasy of her in his head, one in which he saves her from Nathan. Garland could have not sexualised Ava or had her not flirt with Caleb, but that ultimately would have changed the core message behind the movie. Seeking to redress the imbalance by producing more positive representations of women is futile if the underlying material conditions went unreformed; in other words, negative images may be accurate. The reason as to why this film helps change the long-standing harmful tropes towards female AI is that Ava wins at the end, she gets to escape and enact revenge on the men who infantilised her and sexualised her. She is aware of the games that they are playing with her and so plays along to get what she wanted all along. Ava is not the damsel in distress but instead the mastermind.
However, while Ex Machina did deconstruct SF tropes, the film starred two female characters with only Ava in a speaking role. With only 30.2% of the 30,835 speaking characters between 2007 and 2014 being female across the 700 top‐grossing films (Smith et al. 2015), Ex Machina does lack representation in not only the number of female characters but also in regards to race and sexuality. With regards to race, especially, Asian critics have written about the particular kind of dehumanization that Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) suffers in order to further the liberation of an AI who, if nothing else, looks like a white woman. One may argue that Garland’s follow up to Ex Machina improves upon Ex Machina’s demographic, with a leading cast composed of five women, two of them being women of colour. Though Annihilation takes a significant step back by whitewashing the two most significant female roles: in the original book, the biologist was said to have Asian heritage, while the psychologist was described as Native American.
Garland’s adaptation of the 2014 novel Annihilation centres around five female scientists who embark on a journey to enter ‘The Shimmer’, an unknown quarantined zone full of mutating organic lifeforms. The team consists of Lena (Natalie Portman), Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Josie (Tessa Thompson), Anya (Gina Rodriguez) and Cass (Tuva Novotny). In comparison to SF of the 1950s, where misogynist ‘lady land’ films such as Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) and Fire Maidens from Outer Space (1956) would depict faraway lands that exist solely in order to be discovered and colonised by lucky male astronauts, a film such as Annihilation is worlds away in terms of representation. Not only do we get a female-led ensemble but there are characters who are Black and Latinx (overlapping with Thompson), as well as a lesbian character, both of which are rarely seen within SF but are becoming more and more frequent in contemporary fiction.
The freedom of choice granted to these characters is hardly ever found in SF. Women across media and particularly in this male-dominated genre are often made to choose between binaries set before them, such as scientist/woman, mind/body, subject/object, culture/nature and self/other. Historically in SF, female scientists struggle to be perceived in relation to the first terms, while in comparison male characters and the films themselves align her with the second.
Annihilation does not attempt to put its female characters within a box, police them or hide their flaws. The film allows them to be emotionally vulnerable but still full of agency, something not seen often in SF. Ventress has the most power and authority, and due to her circumstance, has seen so many teams of hers fail, that she has grown distant and apathetic, which is traditionally a characterization that falls in line with more ‘lone wolf’ male archetypes. After her death, Lena is the one who ends the journey taken at the start of the film, her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) is her driving force (a role often assigned to dead or endangered girlfriends, wives or, sometimes, daughters), but he does not make up her entire character. The story starts and ends with her, no saviour necessary, no need to push the idea that she can not do it alone.
However, some may suggest that even with the leaps and bounds of female representation within SF due to Garland, that he ultimately does not understand the experiences of women and thus his depictions will never be genuinely tailored to them nor would it be free of any implicit gender biases he may hold. For many, Garland could be seen as either someone pushing female representation in SF forward or someone taking up well-deserved space that a female creative could hold; and maybe even both. This may be due to how the ‘image of woman’ has been a site of gendered discourse, drawn from the specific sociocultural experiences of women and shared by women, which negotiates a space within, and sometimes resists patriarchal domination. In other words, can a man genuinely create depictions of women that propel them forward?
Denial of female subjectivity recurs throughout SF because of the social relations of filmmaking are, like those of science, ‘highly integrated with’ and tend to reproduce ‘the larger social relations of the societies that support them’. While there is not an inherent issue with male creatives writing or directing female-driven stories in SF, it may be more helpful to use female perspectives. Working with female writers, directors, cinematographers, editors and other female creatives will make sure that checks and balances are in place for male creatives. It would also help with ensuring that the representation is authentic and three dimensional instead of a quick cash grab from filmgoers.
You cannot please all audiences with your representation but the attempt to right the wrongs of an industry that historically has hidden women from SF is far from the wrong choice. Garland is only two films deep into his budding directorial career but it seems that the direction he is heading towards is attempting to open the gates long held shut for women in Science Fiction.
Edited By: Andrea Merodeadora
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Smith, D., Choueiti, M., Pieper, D., Gillig, T., Lee, D. and DeLuca, D. (2015). Inequality in 700 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Character Gender, Race, & LGBT Status from 2007 to 2014. [online] USC Annenberg. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/312489186_Inequality_in_700_Popular_Films_Examining_Portrayals_of_Gender_Race_LGBT_Status_from_2007_to_2014 [Accessed 14 Dec. 2018].
Watercutter, A. (2015). Ex Machina Has a Serious Fembot Problem. [online] WIRED. Available at: https://www.wired.com/2015/04/ex-machina-turing-bechdel-test/ [Accessed 14 Dec. 2018].