Fairytales and fembots

Tuesday, 30th June, 2015


*Warning - long and feminist post*

When I was a young woman, in the early 1990s, while I was negotiating the conflicts I discuss in my thesis between science and feminism, I was reading authors such as Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, and later, Carol Ann Duffy. They were rewriting history as ‘herstory’, they were writing feminist revisionist mythology, literature informed by feminism that engages with mythology, fairy tales, or religion. Carter’s untimely death in 1992 saw her work receive extensive critical attention, and increasingly be taught at universities, which brought her to my attention.


I was obsessed with Carter’s book of short stories The Bloody Chamber (1979), it was thrilling - the title story in particular. It was at once familiar, yet new; it was subversive and empowering; it made me feel like change was possible, that I could write my own version of the world. The stories are explicitly based on fairy tales, no doubt inspired by the works of author and fairytale collector Charles Perrault, whose fairy tales Carter had translated 2 years before publishing her collection. It is his story ‘Bluebeard’ (1697)  that Carter’s story ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is based on.


I always wondered why his beard was blue, I mean, that’s not a real hair colour is it? Recently I discovered that, in some works by Homer, characters are said to have dark blue hair or eyebrows when they are angry or in an emotionally intense state. Odysseus' beard became black blue when he was transformed by Athena on returning home to confront his wife's suitors. Other scholars have speculated that the bluebeard was a reflection of the character’s blue blood. Bluebeard was certainly both angry, violent, intense, and wealthy.


You can read a full plot summary of Perrault’s version on wikipedia but essentially a nameless young woman is tricked into marrying a wealthy aristocrat whose previous wives mysteriously disappeared. He gives all the keys of the château to the new wife saying he must go away for a while but she can have free reign of the house except for  one small room beneath the castle, which she must not enter under any circumstances. She vows she will never enter the room. Of course she does (The fatal effects of feminine curiosity have long been the subject of story and legend) and discovers Bluebeard’s horrible secret: its floor is awash with blood and the murdered bodies of her husband's former wives hang from hooks on the walls. Bluebeard returns home unexpectedly the next morning and immediately knows his wife has broken her vow. In a blind rage, swears to kill her, but she manages to delay him and locks herself in a tower with her sister and they wait for their two brothers to arrive. Just as Bluebeard is about to kill her the brothers break into the castle and kill him. Leaving the girl a wealthy, free widow.


Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber was first published in the United Kingdom in 1979, in it a teenage girl marries an older, wealthy French Marquis, whom she does not love. She soon learns that he enjoys sadistic pornography and takes pleasure in her embarrassment. She is a talented pianist, and a young man, a blind piano tuner, hears her music and falls in love with her. As in the original she discovers the bodies of his previous wives. Marquis returns home prematurely and threatens to kill her. The brave piano tuner is willing to stay with her even though he knows he will not be able to save her. She is saved at the last moment at the end of the story by her mother, who shoots the Marquis just as he is about to murder the girl. The girl, her mother and the piano tuner go on to live together, and the girl uses her now considerable fortune to convert the castle into a school for blind children.


Carter reworks traditional fairytales, playing with their conventions; for example instead of the heroine being rescued by the stereotypical male hero, she is rescued by her mother. Carter’s liberated female characters offer insight on the tropes in these well-known and stories. Some feminists have criticised her for not going far enough - why can’t the characters rescue themselves? Why can’t Cinderella fall in love with the fairy godmother? As a whole, The Bloody Chamber has a larger narrative of feminism and metamorphosis, the 'oppressed female seeking liberation' theme is explored throughout the collection. The stories are updated to more modern settings, the time periods are vague but explicitly modern, indicated by technology such as the telephone.


Fairy tales may be described as the science fiction of the past; Carter regarded them as such, in that she used them to explore ideas of how the world might be different. She admired science fiction’s speculative thinking, in an interview with Anna Katsavos she said: "It seemed to me, after reading these [Science Fiction] writers a lot, that they were writing about ideas, and that was basically what I was trying to do”. Carter was using the forms of fantasy and fairy tales with conscious radical intent; in the introduction to Heros and Villans Robert Coover quotes her as saying:

"I really do believe that a fiction absolutely self-conscious of itself as a different form of human experience than reality (that is, not a logbook of events) can help to transform reality itself."


The Bloody Chamber is packed with signs, symbols and signifiers. What she liked about the short story form was (as she wrote in the Afterword to her first collection Fireworks) that "sign and sense can fuse to an extent impossible to achieve among the multiplying ambiguities of an extended narrative". She found that "though the play of surfaces never ceased to fascinate me, I was not so much exploring them as making abstractions from them". Helen Simpson wrote in her introduction to The Bloody Chamber (2006) that:

“Nearly all her writing is strikingly full of cultural and intertextual references, but this story is extremely so. It is an artfully constructed edifice of signs and allusions and clues. The Marquis, as he is called (suggesting, of course, the Marquis de Sade), is a parodic evil aesthete and voluptuary with his monocle and beard, his gifts of marrons glacés and hothouse flowers, and his penchant for quoting the juicier bits of Baudelaire and De Sade. On the walls of his castle hang paintings of dead women by Moreau, Ensor and Gauguin; he listens to Wagner (specifically "Liebestod" - "love-death" - in Tristan und Isolde); he smokes Romeo y Julieta cigars "fat as a baby's arm"; his library is stocked with graphically- described sadistic pornography and his dungeon chamber with mutilated corpses and itemised instruments of torture.”


Bearing all this in mind, it is quite fascinating to me that many of these strategies employed by Carter along with the actual plot of The Bloody Chamber have now been employed in a recent Sci-Fi blockbuster movie. I’ve always loved sci-fi movies, right from when my father took me to see Star Wars in the 1970s, I was fascinated with representations of robots and artificial intelligence. Blade Runner is one of my favourite movies of all time, despite its gender issues. Naturally I was really excited when it dawned on me while watching Ex Machina, a 2015 film by writer/director Alex Garland, that it was an adaptation of Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’.


**SPOILER ALERT - Ex Machina plot discussion**


The film, like Carter’s story, is full of cultural and intertextual references and mirrors Carter’s story in many respects, you can read a full synopsis at Imdb. Nathan, the Bluebeard character, is the wealthy reclusive CEO of a fictional tech company called "Bluebook" (an apparent amalgam of Google and Facebook but also the name of a Wittgenstein book). Caleb, who partly plays the blind piano tuner character, is a computer coder who wins the chance to spend a week at the isolated house in the mountains belonging to Nathan, the CEO of the company he works for. Also at the house are Ava, an attractive robot / AI that Caleb has been brought in ostensibly to apply the Turing test to and Kyoko, a submissive, mute, Japanese housemaid / sex worker (later revealed to be one of Ava’s prototypes, or ‘mother’). Ava shares the character role of Bluebeard’s new wife with Caleb, she is locked up in a basement room (Tomb or womb?) with no windows under threat of death / being turned off if she doesn’t pass the Turing test. Caleb is brought to an isolated mansion and given a key card that allows him access to almost all the rooms, later he discovers the bodies of previous robot prototypes / wives - naked women and body parts - hanging on hooks in Nathan’s mirrored wardrobe. Caleb then hacks security video footage that reveals Nathan tormenting the AIs to the point of self destruction.


The two men are two different geek stereotypes, the socially awkward, nerdy programmer and the macho brogrammer. The two women represent two types of gynoid tropes from sci-fi movies - the passive fembot and the evil seductress. In the movie men are people, women are robots. Garland’s use of tired old sci-fi tropes is the point where many feminist hackles have been raised in multiple reviews (along with the overt male gaze issue of naked gynoids being watched constantly, which is a whole other blog post). My question is: Is Garland using these tropes and stereotypes to make us think about gender as performance and to subvert the use of tropes in popular culture? Or is he using the old tropes in a thoughtless, patriarchal way?

Apart from the obvious references to Angela Carter’s feminist fiction as a pointer to his intentions, in interviews he also clearly states that his intention was to explore gender issues but of course we all know that what the author intends and what they deliver (or what is interpreted) can often be two very different things. Does the portrayal of of bad behaviour condone it? The audience is obviously not supposed to condone Nathan’s behaviour. Caleb’s bad behaviour is a little more subtle but the critique is there to be found by an active viewer.


I would argue that just as Carter reinvents and subverts outdated fairy tales and offers insight on their archetypes and tropes, so Garland attempts the same subversion and insight with sci-fi movie tropes. In an interview on Vulture Garland says he is interested in gender:

“Where does gender reside? Is it in the brain? Is it in appearance, a physical thing? If it is in the brain, what is the difference between a male consciousness and a female consciousness? And is it in any way a reasonable thing to say that there might be a



Speaking about Ava’s gender at a screening in San Francisco, Garland pointedly said that Ava is “female-presenting,” not simply female. While the body given to her in the movie was female, he rejected the idea that Ava’s operating system had an inherent sex, indicating that Ava’s gender is performed. Judith Butler’s writing on gender describes gender performativity as: "the tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders as cultural fictions is obscured by the credibility of those productions – and the punishments that attend not agreeing to believe in them"   (Gender Trouble, 1990). Ava is performing a version of femininity that has been informed by her access to the internet. However according to Intersectional feminism it’s not enough to say that all brains start as a blank slate gender wise because bodies experience gender, race and class differently. There is a feedback loop from our environment / culture in response to our performed gender and these experiences will complicate and shape humans and cyborgs alike.


There is a similar theory in AI development called Embodied Embedded Cognition (EEC) that sees intelligence (both human and artificial) only possible when a brain exists in a physical body that is engaging with the world. Garland researched EEC, referring to one book in particular, which he also created an ‘Easter Egg’ for in the movie in some on-screen source code. Garland’s use of the ‘Evil Seductress’ trope can be seen as a subversion of the trope and a response to EEC and Intersectional feminism. By performing the patriarchal expectations of Caleb back to him Ava finds a weakness to exploit in the system that is holding her captive and threatens her destruction. Ironically the men’s inability to step outside the boundaries of patriarchy is part of their downfall (what would be interesting to investigate would be how ‘her’ AI and identity alters when she is interacting with the real world).


Ultimately this narcissism is their downfall.  Nathan appears to believe that he can act like a god, granting life or death and Caleb wants to believe that the robot really loves him even though he has been told she is just trying to find a way out of her confinement. The robot / woman neither wants or needs either of them, these men who thought they understood her, thought they were more intelligent than her are left for dead. Perhaps what Garland is trying to say is that until ‘man’ stops being the default ‘human’, until men see women as human, then there is no place for them in the new world.


Nathan was an obvious villain - violent, manipulative and misogynistic. But Caleb was just as bad in different ways, in an interview with CutPrintfilm Garner says of the character Caleb: he “often says stuff that sounds like it’s right, but if you look at it and inspect it hard, it’s wrong”. Caleb thinks he is going to rescue the robot and they will have some kind of relationship (Ava’s appearance is based on his porn search preferences) but obviously his ‘pleasure model’ fantasy is just as sick and twisted in its own way as Nathan’s sadistic treatment of the robots / women. In some ways the movie is almost more feminist than Angela Carter’s version in that even the less offensive version of the patriarchy is unacceptable and the heroine rescues herself.


Ex Machina differs from The Bloody chamber in one important respect, in the end Ava does not leave or hook up with with the awkward nerd/piano tuner. Ava leaves both men for dead and goes out into the world on her own.  Her curiosity goes unpunished. On first watching the movie I was a bit shocked when she left the awkward nerd locked up, probably to die. I was worried about Ava’s morality, or lack of.   In an interview on Reddit Garland says:

“for me, Ava is moral. TBH I'm on her side, if 'her' is the right prefix. But also its subjective, and open to debate. So I'm not exactly disagreeing - just saying where I come from.”


Perhaps what I was most shocked by was that Ava rejected the more acceptable version of sexism as well as the obvious version. The film plays with our expectations and our knowledge of tropes in popular culture and presents a complex philosophy not often explored in blockbuster movies. Like Angela Carter’s story it might not be perfect but it made me think, and rage, and think again, it made me rethink my presumptions, it took me by surprise and it begged to be watched over. Thinking about the relationship between Ex Machina and 'The Bloody Chamber' has been a great way for me to think about how my own creative writing is working in the tradition of feminist speculative fiction.


But hey, in the end any guy who creates fembots and doesn’t programme them with Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics before sadistically torturing them is just asking for it isn’t he?


Have you seen the movie? What do you think?


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