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.

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.

The Term ‘Stoner’ as Analogous to ‘Feminist’

Lexicon
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With the reform of marijuana laws must come a corresponding revitalization of social perception. As advocates of cannabis seek to carve out a new and socially legitimate image of the substance and that of its users, many have understandably attempted to distance themselves from the word ‘stoner’.

I fully embrace it.

It could be argued that the term ‘stoner’ is analogous to the term ‘feminist’; though perhaps it is as an individual who identifies with both groups that I perceive similarities. Both are subject to lingering stereotypes, which while not always hateful are nonetheless misconceived. Both have proponents, those who support the group’s basic principles, hesitate to publicly associate with the term for fear of either social stigma or more grave repercussions.

By stringent definition, a feminist is a proponent of gender equality, and a stoner is a habitual user of marijuana. There is a need not necessarily to reclaim the word and certainly not to reject it, but to expand upon it. Although the 2014 “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” campaign by Fawcett Society and Elle UK was sullied by its ethically questionable use of sweatshop manufacturers (the issue of which opens a whole different can of worms), its core intention was commendable and resonating: to demonstrate that those who identify with an ideology come in various shapes, sizes, and genders.

Similarly, cannabis, as the most widely used illicit (no longer illicit in Colorado, Washington, Alaska, and Washington D.C.) substance in the world with 38% of the populace in the U.S. and 40% in Canada admitting to experimentation, is enjoyed by vastly different individuals, not limited by gender, ethnic background, profession, or level of education. A homemaker and parent may look to cannabis to alleviate his or her chronic back pain. A corporate lawyer may choose a joint over a glass of wine to alleviate stress. A novelist may take up vaporizer in hand when confronted with that mortal enemy, writer’s block.

The key is not to project animosity and fear towards the word itself but to make evident the diversity of the individuals with an appreciation for the Cannabis plant and its medicinal, recreational, and creative uses. Instead of allowing the word ‘stoner’ to become the focus of controversy, let it instead become assimilated into colloquial usage; let it be taken at face value.

I adore weed. Whether I relate more to the iconic Tommy Chong or the ambitious young women at Cannabrand (or a combination of the two) is a secondary matter. By virtue of mutual appreciation for marijuana, we are all united. We are kindred.

My name is Hayoung Terra Yim: advocate for equality, reader of books, assembler of words, drinker of fermented grapes, and smoker of dried Cannabis leaves. I am – as my friends so affectionately describe – a huge stoner.