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A Contemporary Cyborg Consequence: Haraway and Ex Machina

Updated: Feb 24, 2022

“Hey Alexa! What is the weather like today?”: from Alexa to Siri, artificial intelligence currently serves the majority of first-world consumers. Considered the simulation of human intelligence in a machine, artificial intelligence has not only integrated itself into our everyday lives, but has also permeated the science fiction genre for years. In her “A Manifesto for Cyborgs,” Donna Haraway, argues that a “Cyborg is a matter of fiction… [they’re] creatures simultaneously animal and machine… in a post-gender world” (Haraway 7-9). Essentially, Donna Haraway established a connection between cyborgs and women by noting that both parties experience the role of the “other.”; mankind holds hegemony over cyborgs as man holds hegemony over women. Because both men and women hold hegemony over cyborgs, Haraway suggests that cyborgs exist in a post-gender world. But how much power do women have over the creation of cyborgs? Can cyborgs created or written by those who don’t experience the role of “other” be post-gender?

Due to a persistent taboo surrounding women and jobs outside of the home, most cyborgs are invented or written by men. Written and directed by Alex Garland, the film Ex Machina surrounds the character Ava. Ava is an artificially intelligent humanoid robot invented by a man, Nathan. Nathan’s artificial intelligence, Ava, simulates human intelligence by using real human intelligence; therefore, Ava is concurrently man and machine. Although Haraway does not include artificial intelligence in her discussion, I will consider Ava as a cyborg due to her metaphysical nature. But does the existence of artificial intelligence indicate a post-gender world? Can Ava abide by Haraway’s manifesto? In particular, can Ava escape the sexual objectification women can’t because of her status as a cyborg? Does the existence of cyborgs in fiction truly aid in breaking down the structure of sex/gender?

In Ex Machina, Ava interacts with two humans: Nathan and Caleb. Caleb’s purpose in the film is to help Nathan perform the Turing test on Ava. The Turing test aims to see if the evaluator, Caleb, can distinguish the machine, Ava, from a human. During their daily conversations, it is evident that Caleb regards Ava as human, growing more and more attracted to Ava’s mind with every exchange. Both men in the film desire Ava: Nathan solely desires Ava sexually, while Caleb seemingly desires Ava romantically with underlying sexual desires. Nathan explicitly discusses himself engaging in sexual intercourse with Ava several times in the film, opening up the discussion with Caleb initially by saying “you bet she can fuck” (Ex Machina). Due to Nathan’s need for sexual fulfillment, he grants Ava a fully functional vagina. Caleb assumes that because Ava has sexual organs, she also has the ability for attraction; thus, Caleb regards her flirtatious attitude towards him as genuine.

Although cyborgs are not humans, most artificial intelligence has a perceived gender. In her essay “Trends in Female AI Narratives within Mainstream Cinema: Ex Machina and Her,” writer and film art director Sennah Yee claims that this perceived gender affects how artificial intelligence is portrayed with female artificial intelligence being hyper-sexualized and existing in male-dominated spaces (Yee 86). By fitting the stereotype Yee describes, Ava adds complexity to Haraway’s theory of cyborgs. Haraway claims that “the cyborg has no origin story”; thus, the cyborg escapes the entrapment of societal power structures (Haraway 9). Even though the cyborg does not have an origin, it does have a creator. As long as the cyborg exists only under their creator’s rule, the cyborg depends on their creator for knowledge. In Ex Machina, Nathan grants Ava with the knowledge of the entire internet. Furthermore, Nathan utilizes cameras and microphones from the majority of the population’s cellphones to render Ava’s vocal recognition and facial expressions. Not only does Ava read every piece of digital text available, Ava also hears and sees every conversation as they happen. With an endless source of human data, Ava learns what humans know, how humans act, and what humans feel.

Since Ava consumes all aspects of our culture, Ava also consumes the patriarchy. Ava exists in and is aware of the social hierarchy of men. In her article "“Ava’s body is a good one”: (Dis) Embodiment in Ex Machina," Jennifer A. Henke claims that both Nathan and Caleb are “the embodied version of the male gaze” (Henke 137). Nathan’s gaze is more forthright than Caleb’s. Nathan does not censor his sexual attraction to Ava while Caleb does. In order to morally meet his sexual desires, Caleb creates a savior complex within himself. If Caleb can aid Ava’s escape, then he believes that Ava will indebtedly spend her life with him. Due to her emotional intelligence, Ava is aware of Caleb’s assumption and attraction towards her; thus, Ava reciprocates his feelings until her escape, leaving Caleb to rot in the cell Nathan held her captive. Although Ava has a vagina, Ava lacks heterosexuality. While Caleb desired Ava, Ava desired freedom. From Ava’s perspective, Caleb is just another Nathan: a man. Despite her emotional intelligence, Ava does not have the capabilities to authentically feel emotions; instead, Ava conveys whatever emotion benefits her most in that moment. With her knowledge of the persisting patriarchy, Ava knows what men want; thus, she actively manipulates Caleb through his sexual and romantic desires for her own agenda.

As a direct product of the sex/gender structure, Ava is unable to contribute to the destruction of said structure. In her essay "Constructing Womanhood and the Female Cyborg: A Feminist Reading of Ex Machina and Westworld,” Zoe E. Seaman-Grant notes that Ava “disrupts the notion of the natural. She rejects the division of femaleness and technology. Yet she is also a trope that reinforces hegemonic ideologies of gender and race” (Seaman-Grant 1). Through realizing the power in her sexual desirability, Ava accepts her role as a “woman.” By accepting her role as a “woman,” Ava contributes to the persistence, rather than destruction, of the sex/gender structure. As she escapes to our outside world, Ava is indistinguishable from a human woman. Although Ava escapes captivity, Ava does not escape sexual objectification. Ava is no longer Nathan’s personal sex slave; however, as Ava assimilates herself to our societal expectations of womanhood, she subjects herself to the entirety of the female experience, including sexual objectification. Therefore, Ava does not abide by Haraway’s manifesto.

Perhaps, Haraway did not intend for us to apply her manifesto to works of fiction. Although Haraway mentions literary works as a method of clarification, her examples of cyborgs were tangible and existed within the fields of science and medicine during the decade her manifesto was published. Moreover, Haraway regards the cyborgs she refers to as “ambiguously natural and crafted” (Haraway 8). Published in 1985, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs” lacks the information regarding gendered artificial intelligence. Gaining popularity in the twenty-first century, gendered artificial intelligence, specifically female, has integrated itself within our everyday lives. The cyborgs in modern society are not ambiguous in terms of sex or gender. The perceptions of even the artificial intelligence previously stated—Alexa and Siri—as female are widely held. The fact that we perceive digital servants as women highlights how profitable the objectification of women is. For example, most inventors utilize feminine voices and sometimes appearance to better fulfill their artificial intelligence’s purpose. Our current societal assumption is that women are docile; thus, inventors perpetuate this stereotype to make their artificial intelligence more palpable. Although Ava may be a work of fiction, the artificially intelligent sex robot, Samantha, is not. Unlike their male counterparts, female sex robots have grown in popularity since their 2018 release. Like Ava, these sex robots do not abide by Haraway’s “A Manifesto for Cyborgs.” Sex robots cannot escape the sexual objectification of women as they are the manifestation of said sexual objectification. The invention and prevalence of female sex robots substantiates the view that a woman’s sole purpose is to please men. In other words, sex robots are women invented with the sole purpose of sexually pleasing men.

During the twentieth century, gendered cyborgs did not exist; however, as technology evolved, so did the representation of cyborgs. Due to the existence of modern-day, gendered cyborgs, Haraway’s claims do not uphold the tests of time. The existence of cyborgs no longer destroys the pre-existing sex/gender structure; instead, inventors have evolved their technology to subject their inventions to said sex/gender structure for consumer purposes. Technology may be making progress, but the elimination of misogyny has not; instead, technology now upholds and furthers sexist ideals.

Furthermore, Haraway’s main argument could be potentially dangerous to the transgender community. More specifically, Haraway’s identity as a cyborg impacts the perception of individuals whose gender identity exists outside of the gender binary. Just as technology has evolved, so has our understanding of the world, ourselves, and language. Consequently, the majority of psychology academia no longer views the terms sex and gender as synonymous; sex implies biological mechanisms while gender refers to the sociocultural descriptions assumed to have biological origins (Unger 1085). Thus, gender is a phenomena determined by one’s self. Although it is widely held that gender is a construct, many are not receptive to the idea that more than two genders exist. In fact, many jokes that make fun of the nonbinary genders have gone viral on the internet. Particularly, several individuals hijacked an online, nonbinary discussion, stating that they identified as attack helicopters (Khandis, Godwin, and Whyte). Unfortunately, Haraway’s identity as a cyborg could be considered a mockery without a thorough explanation. Even with a thorough description, Haraway’s identity does absolutely nothing to disestablish the gender binary. Haraway identifies as a cyborg solely as a form of protest, not because she feels her gender is best described as a cyborg; thus, Haraway’s identity as a cyborg invalidates those whose gender actually exists outside the gender binary. Gender is not an active choice. Rather, gender is a feeling, varying from individual to individual. Nonbinary people do not choose to be nonbinary; instead, they feel that the term nonbinary most accurately describes their gender. Someone choosing to identify as a cyborg or attack helicopter, even though they do not feel that those terms most accurately describe their gender, causes gender to look like a choice. Furthermore, Haraway’s identity as a protest is no longer relevant. As part of a consumer driven initiative, most modern cyborgs have a gender. Cyborgs no longer represent the post-gender paradise Haraway hoped for; thus, Haraway’s identity as a cyborg is inherently meaningless and derails the conversation, concerning genders that defy the binary.

In conclusion, the evolution of technology refutes Donna Haraway’s “A Manifesto for Cyborgs” prime claim: identifying as a cyborg aids the destruction of the patriarchal sex/gender structure. Whether in fiction or real life, Cyborgs are no longer agender; instead, many cyborgs have a perceived gender like Ava or Samantha. Haraway’s identity as a cyborg no longer represents her rejection of a gender binary; instead, the identity could be confused as a mockery of the nonbinary population. The term nonbinary used to solely entail the intersex population: those whose sex characteristics—hormornes, chromosomes, genitals—vary; however, there now exists a population “who do not have an (observable) intersex/DSD condition, but who nonetheless identify outside of the gender binary” (Richards 95). As a consequence, those who identify as nonbinary represent a step towards dismantling the gender binary. Since the publication of Haraway’s manifesto, psychology academia now considers gender to be on a spectrum. Rather than just man or woman, we now have a range of different gender identities, meaning cis-gendered people no longer have to utilize identities like the cyborg to dismiss the existence of a gender binary. By identifying as a gender that you are not, you are asserting the notion that gender is a choice rather than a feeling: no matter your intention. Instead of fabricating an identity, simply support and validate the existence of nonbinary people. An active approach is necessary for society to progress past the gender binary. An active approach could be a multitude of actions: taking the time to educate those who believe in the gender binary; putting your pronouns in your social media biography; correcting someone when they misgender someone else; disagreeing with transphobia as soon as it is presented to you; spreading awareness for the rights of transgender people; normalizing being transgender; adding your pronouns to your email signature; etc. By taking an active approach, we can dismantle the gender binary together. In order to eliminate ignorance, we need to spread knowledge. Do your part and make the world a better place!

Works Cited

Blake, Khandis, Megan Godwin, and Stephen Whyte. "“I sexually identify as an Attack Helicopter”: Incels, trolls, and non-binary gender politics online." First Monday (2020).

Ex Machina. Dir. Alex Garland. Perf. Alicia Vikander, Domnhall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac. Universal Pictures, 2015.

Haraway, Donna. "A manifesto for cyborgs: Science, technology, and socialist feminism in the 1980s." Australian Feminist Studies 2.4 (1987): 1-42.

Henke, Jennifer. "“Ava’s body is a good one”:(Dis) Embodiment in Ex Machina." American, British and Canadian Studies 29.1 (2017): 126-146.

Richards, Christina, et al. "Non-binary or genderqueer genders." International Review of Psychiatry 28.1 (2016): 95-102.

Seaman-Grant, Zoe E. "Constructing Womanhood and the Female Cyborg: A Feminist Reading of Ex Machina and Westworld." (2017).

Unger, Rhoda K. "Toward a redefinition of sex and gender." American Psychologist 34.11 (1979): 1085-1094.

Yee, Sennah. "“You bet she can fuck”–Trends in Female AI Narratives within Mainstream Cinema: Ex Machina and Her." Ekphrasis. Images, Cinema, Theory, Media 17.1 (2017): 85-98.

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