The Underlying Feminist Symbolism in ‘Ex Machina’

Credit: BagoGames
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A most glorious Tuesday, with a highly anticipated film, half-price tickets, an assortment of munchies, and wonderful company – all while stoned out of my mind.

I pass through the doors into the darkness of the theatre, not knowing quite what to expect yet looking forward to it all the same, by virtue of the science-fiction premise and promising graphics.

The audience is introduced to three characters. Caleb Smith, the lucky lottery winner, well-versed in science and logic. Nathan, the brilliant yet eccentric founder of the world’s most powerful search engine. And Ava, the innocent yet omniscient A.I. – a stunning, doe-eyed manifestation of the Internet.

Yet they are not alone within the confines of the subterranean research facility. In the first morning, a tall and slender female of Asian ethnic background enters Caleb’s room. She places a tray of breakfast on the table, and turns and leaves with neither word nor eye contact. Mellow, cannabis-enhanced contentment is interrupted and I am left as disoriented as our protagonist, newly awake in bed: what was that about?

In the following scene, the only information we are given of the woman is that her name is Kyoko, and that she makes “some alarm clock”; a description coupled with a look heavy with sexual suggestion. Kyoko is next seen over dinner, during which we learn that she does not speak English. Her function is to bring food and to clean – all the while with bowed head and silence.

The perfect, mute housekeeper and, as we discover in a later scene, sex toy. A domestic slave with no prospects beyond the personal gratification of another and with no shared language or means of self-expression.

This is either going to perpetuate gender-specific objectification, I thought, mouth filled with chips and eyes glued to the screen, especially of visible minorities. Or somehow turn it around and make social commentary on sexism.

I believe it was the latter, and that it was delivered with exquisite finesse; an allegory of female emancipation to rival Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper.

From the outset of the film, we become acquainted with the seeming protagonist. Caleb the eager visitor, Caleb the orphan, Caleb the advanced coder with a self-professed penchant for high-level abstraction. Moral Caleb, who grows visibly uncomfortable with the demeaning treatment of others; sensitive Caleb, who grows to question his own humanity in the presence of anthropomorphic machines.

It is through Caleb that we experience the familiar yet extraordinary – and at times unsettling – setting. It is through his perspective that the plot’s tension is built; through his eyes that the audience feels suspicion and a sense of displacement. Whom should we trust, the erratic genius struggling within the grips of alcoholism, or the non-human?

Caleb’s choice leads to a satisfying twist, unveiling an epic battle of wits between the two men. Yet the twist in plot is further contorted as the lady love dresses in preparation for a new life – and leaves our hero behind.

Caleb is the false protagonist. He is the deus ex machina, whose unexpected appearance provides the means to resolve a seemingly impossible situation; he is Ava’s means of acquiring the ultimate form of recognition as a sapient being with a mind, with hopes and fears and desires of their own – freedom to live life on their terms.

It was her story all along.

Love Sonnet to Mary Jane

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Mary Jane, my muse – no simple flower

Bestows a light, a clear and different view

When answers hide in vex’d times and dark hours,

And casts fresh sight, the old told now anew.

 

Sweet lady love, her arms offer respite;

She soothes stone shoulders at each week’s long end.

High I soar – on journeys of taste and sight!

And bask in shining eves she so oft lends.

 

She eases aches and pains, both nurse and friend,

Gentle, her hands heal all my sores and wears.

Those blinding migraines she can swiftly end,

No chance they stand ‘gainst Mary’s tender care.

 

Urge swells the heart to profess and decree

Undying love for this magic green tree.

 

* Originally featured on Ladybud, the top women’s lifestyle and drug reform magazine!

A Cannabis-Induced Feminist Awakening

In Mine Eye
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“Never mind.”

A phrase uttered with increasing frequency under specific circumstances: at large social gatherings, high out of my mind.

Though marijuana may not be a reliable truth serum (as it was briefly used in 1942 by the U.S. Office of Strategic Services in the interrogation of prisoners of war), it can certainly render its user more loquacious–more liberal than they otherwise might be with their speech. And the words that so liberally and so often flowed from my stoned lips happened to be of a distinctly feminist nature.

I have made strong comments on the Key-and-Lock analogy (which proclaims, “If a key can open a lot of locks, then it’s a master key. But if a lock can be opened by a lot of keys, it’s a shitty lock”–glorifying male promiscuity and villainizing female promiscuity in one fell swoop) and its inherent perception of women as passive recipients of sex and as prizes to be won, at a friend’s potluck. I have heatedly discussed the misguided perception of penetration as a dominant act and its repercussions for male rape victims (an outrageous lack of social recognition or support) at what was supposed to be an enjoyable night of movies and pot brownies. I have pointed out that referring to the vagina as a “Penis Wallet” is as patriarchal as referring to the penis as a “Vagina Stand” would be matriarchal, ruining what was intended to be a lighthearted joke at a party. I have incited an argument with less-than-subtle feminist undertones with Grandma over Christmas dinner.

I have since learned that inciting debates on gender equality and our constantly improving yet deeply rooted patriarchal society is not the most appropriate conduct in many social environments, and that doing so has the potential to alter interpersonal relationships. A friend now appears to walk on eggshells in my presence, inclined to mistakenly assume that I am raising a socio-political issue whenever I speak. And I’ve no doubt lost standing as Favorite Grandchild.

Initially, the cause-and-effect connection between my cannabis-use and feminist speeches left me perplexed. What could possibly explain the relationship? Then, I recalled a crucial passage from Martin Booth’s Cannabis: A History, which asserts that marijuana “does not create anything new but embellishes what already exists,” bringing abstract thoughts and feelings to the surface and helping convert them into coherence.

Learning about feminism in university, though deemed fascinating and important, never provoked any revelation of self-identity. It is through pot that I have uncovered the strength of my own convictions: that a man or a woman wishing to be a homemaker and stay-at-home parent should be able to do so without their gender setting limitations or expectations; that ponytails and pink are a hairstyle and color for males as much as for females, should they feel so partial; and that despite the achievement of legal and workplace equality, entire industries dominated by certain genders–such as the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and nursing sectors–indicate systemic trends and merit closer examination of cultural grooming.

It is under the influence of cannabis that I have realized my identification with Third Wave feminism; and it is this cannabis-induced epiphany that reinforces my love for the substance.

As if I didn’t love it enough–as in wholly and profoundly–already.

 

* Originally featured on Ladybud, the top women’s lifestyle and drug reform magazine!

A Cannabis-Induced Epiphany: Gender Equality and the Medieval Notion of Chivalry

God Speed! by Edmund Blair Leighton, 1900
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Blowing out the last wisp of smoke through my bedroom window, I took in the sight of the city, a river of lights sweeping across the abyss of night, ever admiring.

It never got old. Marvel at our minds, our resourcefulness, the skyline seemed to boast. See how we’ve transformed our surroundings, changed the very surface of the planet. Every inch conceived in our minds and converted into reality – every brick and mortar a product of our consciousness.

Putting away the vaporizer and sacred stash, I crawled onto my bed. Reclining comfortably on a small mountain of pillows, I opened a book, flipping through a dozen dog-eared pages to a favourite chapter, and plunged into the world of A Song of Ice and Fire.

I followed George R.R. Martin’s dragon queen and her siege on a city in an eastern land, as a former arena-fighter prepared to do battle with one of the city’s defenders. When one of her knights indicated that for single combat, chivalry would demand a warrior on horseback alight from his steed when facing an opponent on foot, I stopped, eyes focusing on a single word: chivalrous.

The late medieval notion of chivalry had always puzzled me: it seemed bizarre that a society would largely deny a gender of rights yet idolize its members; that a society could at once view women as property and cater to them. Yet in reading this work of epic fantasy, something seemed to click in my mind.

Courtesy and consideration were paramount to the chivalric code, and it would have indeed been courteous and considerate of the champion to dismount. But what if it’s also about getting rid of any unfair advantages? About leveling the playing field? I wondered what the significance of the concept, if plausible, would be when applied to the treatment of ladies of the court.

Maybe all the polite things, the gallantry and heroic acts made in the name of love and begging for a lady’s blessing before war – the courtly love – maybe all that stuff wasn’t just about distractions or sex or justification for violence, I considered. Maybe it was about implicitly acknowledging the fundamental disadvantage of females, both social and legal.

But if that’s the case, I interjected, it could also have meant inadvertently keeping them at a disadvantage – by constantly doings things on their behalf, possibly curbing the desire to even want to do things themselves.

Systemic infantilization, coupled with placation bought by perks like special treatment and material items and security.

A double-edged sword. Hospitality in a hostile world.

I frowned down at the beloved book, deeply perturbed by my own thoughts.

‘Does Binge-Watching Make Us Depressed? Good Question’

Credit: Aaron Escobar
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The most recent findings on binge-watching associated people who binge on television with depression, loneliness and an inability to control their behavior.

Eyes on the tiny glowing screen, I bit back laughter, snickering.

Of the 316 people who answered an online survey, the article continued, 237 met the researcher’s definition of binge-watching. They were more likely than the non-binge viewers to admit behaviors associated with depression, lack of self-regulation or loneliness.

No really? I mocked internally, grinning. If I gorge myself with alcohol and weed and food, what makes you think I wouldn’t do the same with amazing shows?

Grin faded from lips as I wrapped my head around what had just been thought.

They’re all mood-altering substances, in the literal sense – they make you feel good. Shows can offer people what they otherwise can’t get from reality. They can be abused, too. I contemplated my latest soul-consuming obsession, Doctor Who, and what it offered me. Unlimited possibilities. Unhampered mobility. Freedom. A world filled with the extraordinary and the magical, as an escape from the mundane.

Doctor Who isn’t a drug, I countered hotly, offended by my own thoughts, it’s art. When a show or movie or book actually has things to say and makes commentary on society, whether prescriptive or cautionary or just flat-out cynical, it ceases to be just entertainment. It becomes a way to get the public to think about an issue. It becomes activism.

Yeah, sure, sneered an inner voice, art can alter perspectives. Brave New World changed the way you perceive consumerism – but did it actually change your behaviour? I turned my head left and right, casting my eyes over all that was shiny and pretty and unnecessary filling the bedroom: a collection of mass-produced clothing and jewellery, the size of which could not possibly be practical. You still shop, and you love doing it. You may not casually throw everything out like in the book, but if you just collect shit without using them for years and years … how is that any different?

Just because entertainment has something important to say, doesn’t make it any less of an opiate.

I crawled onto the bed and under the sheets, feeling intolerably disheartened, demoralized, depressed.

It was the Best Holiday; It was the Worst Holiday

hello
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‘Merry Christmas,’ wished Lynette, her eyes giddy and expectant.

‘Erm … thank you?’ I took the takeout container from her outstretched hands, wondering if she was gifting me with leftovers this year.

I opened the plastic lid to find a large piece of chocolate moulded in the shape of Hello Kitty, complete with black fudge-sauce eyes and whiskers, yellow candy nose, and red syrup bow. She did not have to explicitly say that the treat was infused with cannabis.

Best Christmas ever. ‘Have I told you lately I love you?’

A measured bite, a few hours, and several glasses of eggnog afterwards, gathered at a table laden with food, the elders had no idea that I was quickly and progressively getting crunk.

‘… asking for trouble.’

‘Huh?’ Who, me? ‘Sorry, Grandma – could you repeat that?’

‘You need to stop going out so much and stay home like a good girl. If you go out when it’s dark, you’re just asking for trouble.’

I smirked. The age-old argument. The standard response was to nod politely, agree orally, and continue life as normal. However, in an intensely yet not uncomfortably intoxicated state, I opened my big mouth.

‘Why?’

‘Because bad things can happen to girls. Because it’s not safe.’

‘Bad things don’t just happen at night, though,’ I pointed out. ‘Like that 23-year old woman who got raped at High Park in like, the middle of the afternoon last summer.’

‘Well, that’s exactly why you shouldn’t go places where you know that sort of thing can happen to you.’

‘So, because I’m a woman, I shouldn’t expect to be safe jogging in a public space, in broad daylight?’

‘Can we talk about something else,’ my wise sister interjected, ‘and please not argue on Christmas?’

‘We’re not arguing,’ I insisted with a grin, trapped within the bounds of a drunken stupor. ‘We’re discussing. I’m genuinely interested in her perspective. I wanna understand.’

‘As a woman, you need to be careful about the environments you put yourself in. Some places you shouldn’t go at certain times – some you shouldn’t go at all.’

‘But how does that make sense?’ I asked. ‘That means that a part of the population – a big part, like literally a bit more than half – would be excluded from certain areas at certain times or at least from the freedom to go alone, because of something they have no control of. No more than they do over the colour of their skin. How is that fair?’

‘Of course it’s not fair,’ she retorted. ‘But that’s just how it is. That’s just how men are.’

I scowled at my grandmother. ‘Well, that’s just not fair to men, to say that’s just how they are. And makes as much sense to say, “Genocide is something that happens, that’s just how it is and we should accept that”.’

‘How about this?’ said Grandma in a sharper tone than she had ever taken, narrowing her eyes. ‘You get a real, office job – and when you’re a success, you can say whatever you want on whatever topic.’

I finally shut my mouth.

Afterwards, sitting in the car in silence, I wondered if the tension was actually palpable or due to paranoia as a side effect of marijuana. Unable to tell, I turned my thoughts back towards the subject.

Just accepting the state of things isn’t an option. But she has a point. It can’t be about wishing it was different, theorizing and arguing about how to change the system. While waiting for social change, entire lifetimes are affected – possibly destroyed.

It also had to be about teaching and training, giving individuals the tools to manage within the existing system.

You really, really need to learn some sort of self-defence. If you get off your ass and do one thing for yourself, for the love of God, let it be self-defence.

And it’s not just skills needed to counter extreme situations, I deflected, but also to handle the more delicate, ambiguous ones. I thought of Kane: an intelligent, respectable, and kindhearted young man whom I considered friend and who persistently provided unwanted affection, with a casual hand on the waist or an arm around the shoulder, with inappropriate jokes and comments. I had told him bluntly that his actions made me uncomfortable, had asked him politely to stop, had reproached him angrily, had cut contact for long periods of time; all fruitless endeavours. Out of ideas aside from terminating an otherwise valued friendship, I often pretended not to notice the blatant invasions of personal space.

What do you do when someone, otherwise functional in society, otherwise smart and fun and generally good, thinks it’s OK to touch you when they know you don’t want them to? When they’re a friend, a colleague, a boss?

I wished there were some sort of brochure or program to tell me.