Ex Machina is just the latest in a long line of movies about mad male scientists trying to build the perfect woman, which in this case is a sex robot. But director Alex Garland offers a twist on this tired device during a scene of sexbot liberation. [Spoiler alert: I have to spoil this movie so I can make jokes about it.] Robot Ava prepares to escape, but she's still under construction, with skin only on her hands, feet, and face. She discovers a room with closets holding switched-off robot women, her techbro creator’s previous attempts to create artificial intelligence. They'd all wanted to escape, and some damaged their bodies in desperation. Ava begins trying on their parts.
She grabs a new arm to replace the one damaged in a confrontation with her brogrammer. Then hair from a curvy blonde, skin from a slim Asian model—the scene feels like a man’s idea of a woman’s greatest dream: to choose her own body with parts stolen from other women. And to have no internal organs. (It’s slimming.)
Hollywood is rife with movies about sexy aliens and robots who seduce men in order to kill them. (There are many serious examinations of the gender politics in Ex Machina. This one is more GIF-oriented.) While some femmes fatales are born sexy, as in Species, others (like Ava) make themselves irresistible. The process of sexbot self-creation is fascinating because it reflects the way men imagine the inner lives of women.
As Ava prepares to break free of the compound she was created in, she picks out a safely girlish outfit. It’s heels and a white lacy peplum dress, as if she'd opened a J. Crew catalog and found it in the “Even More Boring” section. You’d think a killer sex robot would have chosen something cooler.
But movie sexbots tend to get their looks from the mall. In 2003's Terminator 3, the molten metal bot from the future sees a bra billboard, thinks, “I want those tits,” and makes it so.
One way to look at this is as propaganda by the patriarchy, brainwashing us into fearing female sexuality. But that's boring. Let's go deeper and imagine this as an adaptive behavior. Just as female ducks evolved corkscrew vaginas to fend off unwanted males, and male ducks evolved ballistic penises to navigate female anatomy, human females have invented various techniques to augment their bodies, and human males have invented sexbot cautionary tales to trick females into not using beauty products to disguise their true physical form.
When helping me hunt for sultry android makeovers, a friend dug up a fascinating misogynist essay that, like these movies, expresses a deep fear that a temporarily sexy exterior disguises something scary underneath. “How to Pick the Right Wife” is a paranoid rant about divorce and alimony, posing as a friendly advice column. When picking a mate, Victor Pride writes, check her fitness history for signs that she might be tricking you into thinking she'll be long-term hot, when her hotness is only a temporary fix:
If a woman was once very fat, lost the weight on crash diets and ultra-gym sessions, that weight will ALL come back plus more when she gets married.
If she has to constantly diet and go to the gym she is about to blow up like a balloon when the ring is on her finger and the vows are spoken.
You must pick the natural body type you like. That means she must have the same body type her whole life, never yo-yo’ing up or down in weight.
She should have a pretty face. When her body goes the only thing that will be left is her face and you will have to see it every single day.
This same nightmare is expressed on film when Madam Mim shows off her magic powers in 1963's Sword in the Stone.
Unlike Madam Mim, though, the murderous shapeshifter usually creates her pretty face in secret, based on real women who've been certified attractive. In 2002's Men in Black II, we meet Serleena, an evil alien whose natural body is a mass of tentacles but can take whatever form she chooses. We first see her as an eel-like bug pod that stops slithering over the ground when she comes across a magazine. Wind flips open the pages to reveal a Victoria’s Secret ad, and, apparently inspired, Serleena morphs into Lara Flynn Boyle wearing black underwear.
It seems filmmakers think the Victoria's Secret catalog is as significant to women as it is to preteen boys. A bad guy, presumably a rapist, holds a knife to her throat, licks her, and pulls her into the bushes to assault her. Instead, she eats him and emerges with her stomach distended like Homer Simpson's. When Serleena compares her bloated body to the one in the magazine, she isn't pleased. In what was probably intended as a good-natured bulimia joke, she vomits up the rapist’s boots and, with a satisfied smile, her tummy is flat again.
Princess Mombi doesn't copy abs. She steals faces. In Return to Oz, the 1985 Wizard of Oz sequel, Mombi demonstrates her unusual beauty regimen to a terrified Dorothy. Her huge mirrored room is filled with female heads in little glass closets. Mombi can screw any of these heads onto her own body but keep her own consciousness. Mombi's original old head is hidden behind an opaque door. Even a woman who's proud to display decapitated undead heads is ashamed of her wrinkles. It's a truly disturbing portrayal of what happens when a female is corrupted by power.
Sometimes the message presents itself as empowering—that women shouldn't do too much stuff to their faces, because it's what's on the inside that really counts. But the hidden meaning is that women shouldn't compromise an accurate analysis of their genetic desirability. Take Mystique. Naturally blue and scaly, she's a mutant who can morph into any body she sees. In X-Men: First Class—a 2011 sequel in a comic book franchise explicitly concerned with concealing and revealing mutations in DNA—Mystique spends her early days at mutant school using the form we know as Jennifer Lawrence.
But this ruse is dangerous. While Mystique does bench presses, the future Magneto uses his powers to suspend the weights in the air and warns, “If you're using half your concentration to look normal, then you're only half paying attention to whatever else you're doing.” He lets the barbell fall toward her face. “Just pointing out something that could save your life. ... You want society to accept you, but you can't even accept yourself.” Even mutants mansplain.
In last year's Under the Skin, an alien cloaks itself in the skin of Scarlett Johansson. She seduces and eats men, yet this film gives the alien sex murderer a degree of humanity. When she's not trapping people in a weird black pool and consuming their insides, she wanders around Scotland and doesn't quite understand why the Johansson exterior causes such strange behavior in male humans.
Finally, a movie gets something right about what it's like to have a female body. This is basically what puberty feels like: a weird thing that's happening to you, not a cruel trick you're playing on the men of the world.