Does My Mother Dream of Electric Sheep?

illustration by Brianna Ashby
My mother was my father, too: He died when I was very small, only about 11 months old, so my mom had to raise me and teach me everything. Various male mentors and father-figures have floated through over the years, but none of them came close to my mother, who has remained the truest constant in my life. If nothing else, she let me watch weird movies from a young and tender age, allowing me to become the film freak I am today.

But my father’s death meant that my mother also had the responsibility of teaching me what it meant to be a man, and for that uncommon education, I am impossibly happy. I was never taught in any seriousness that it was a man’s job to win a woman, nor was I ever told that it was the man’s job to make the most money in a family. Most important, I was taught (and shown) that men can be terrible, and that they have been terrible, mostly to women, mostly to her.

The vast majority of men in my mother’s life let her down. Her father, her first husband, my father, and her third husband have all been less than they promised themselves to be. As a result, perhaps unsurprisingly, I have a vocal distrust of marriage. Her father was an electrician with John Wayne’s build and psychology, her first husband a New England Patrician, my father a self-made American Male, and my step-father a hardworking man o’ the people. None of them, for all of their archetypicality, were Prince Charmings or White Hat Cowboys. These men all wanted my mother to be and do very certain things for them, and they were not endlessly kind when she inevitably failed—even as they expected her to be endlessly forgiving.

At a certain time in my life, I chafed at my mother telling me ‘all men are stupid’ or to ‘fight that Y chromosome.’ I was trying to become a man; I was a child trying to grow up and trying to seem attractive to the opposite sex—who did not seem to be playing by my mother’s playbook, if their gravitation to the broad-shouldered, sportive set was any indication. But the older I get (and sometimes even just day to day), the more I realize that my mother was right.

I have begun to suspect that little boys who grew up with mothers like mine—or responsible grown men who have made their way through a world inhabited by mothers like mine—have started making movies reflective of that experience. I’m not sure, though, that what we’re seeing as a result is something that a mother like mine would approve of.

Four of the most major releases in the past few years (from, admittedly, a more critical point of view than a box office one) have focused on female empowerment in a very artistically potent manner: Her, Under the Skin, Ex Machina, and Mad Max: Fury Road. While all of these are, I feel, critical masterpieces, there are two common characteristics they share which might poison the well. First off, all of these films were made by male directors. Secondly, they are all sci-fi films.

Before I continue, I want to say that this article uses binary language when referring to gender. And while there is no direct line from plumbing to personality, the films discussed live in the gender binary, and I want to engage with them on their terms.

For all the truth of feminism, it is a radical cultural shift from thousands of years of patriarchy, which is perhaps why all of these great films that dare talk about female liberation are science fiction movies. Science fiction has a long history of using genre to imagine and explore a desired (or, more often, feared) political or societal reality impossible in the writer’s current context.

The 60’s and 70’s were a golden age for sci-fi films. In the napalm shadow of Vietnam and a tenuous détente with the Soviet Union—both directly connected to that snake in the garden, Nixon—everything around the world was falling apart. American culture could only contemplate the dire consequences of radical social changes by looking at a time and place superficially similar to the present but clearly not our reality. Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, and Blade Runner are fantastic examples of this gritty, anti-escapist sci-fi. These films focused on important contemporary issues, dealing with them in a safe context, or at least a space wherein the filmmakers could say what they really wanted to about these problems.

The four great current sci-fi films I highlight here, however, are not couched at some weird distance from their audience. Each seeks to make us believe that their worlds could be the worlds of tomorrow, rather than the world of years from now. Her and Ex Machina are both set at some perfectly visible distance down the road, Fury Road posits itself as a very plausible year-after-next apocalypse, and Under the Skin takes place in present-day Glasgow. In all four of these films, the aliens are already here among us. Each takes a stereotypical reading of contemporary Western femininity and imagines what it would be like if such a norm were completely overthrown through extra-normal circumstances.

Her is perhaps the easiest pill to swallow. The woman featured is a disembodied voice, a bodiless supergenius that a lonely recluse falls for—the perfect set-up for a romantic comedy, and thus an easy target for writer/director Spike Jonze. Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) plays a role common in Shakespeare’s work, one that dates all the way back to the Song of Songs: a woman who allows a man to become most himself, enabling him to come out of his shell and realize his full potential. In Her, though, Jonze does a wonderful thing by making this supportive woman objectively better than the man (Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix) that their love is, at best, ridiculous. That she is a wholly digital being only notches their love into another level of absurd. At first blush, Samantha is a perfect idealization of what the immobile, sad, emasculated, wounded male wants: an ideal video-gaming companion who cannot be hurt by normal human means. This idealization, though, is false. Samantha is too good and too smart and too real (the implications that this film makes about the nature of personhood are as unsettling as those it makes about romantic love) for all of that to be true. Ted is forced to realize that the woman he loves is not an ideation, but rather a person he will have to understand in order for her to love him. He will have to speak with her and work things out, navigate rough patches. Women, Ted discovers, are not the romantic fantasy of a voice without a face. They are people.

The most revolutionary moment in Her is when Ted realizes that Samantha loves, and is loved by, many people in the world. Ted thinks he owns Samantha, a notion not explicitly touched on in the film, but one that is always there. And so we come to the nugget that Her so ingeniously attempts to turn over: that women exist primarily to be the romantic object and sexual property of a single man. “Why should this be so?” the film asks, before ultimately finding that there is no reason for it to be, no reason for monogamy to be the norm, a norm far more restrictive to women than men. Why should a human, capable of loving many at once, love only one person at a time? Though Ted doesn’t realize it, that’s his problem. But there is one final narrative tweak: the audience cannot help but feel Ted’s pain. Ted’s conventional maleness in the face of Samantha’s hyper-femininity allows him to be the conduit for the audience’s normative feelings and expectations. Her would not have the same revolutionary effect if a woman were at the center of it. A man stumbling through the vagueness of the distressing and unsettlingly new is a perfect metaphor for the times. A woman doing the same would, unfortunately, seem petty, needy, weak. Imagine: a woman going gaga over a man’s voice and intelligence alone and being sad when she finds out about his infidelity. I think I saw that Bond movie once.

Her is a comedy that hopes that silicon women with complete access to the world’s knowledge will, eventually, help us all, as unlikely as that seems. But after presenting a daring vision of freedom, it comforts the audience with a geeky “Hey I always loved you, dork,” ending that lands us back in our time, our tropes. It is the fantasy that reveals a harsher, harder truth.

Mad Max: Fury Road is likewise a fantasy that takes us on a wild ride only to put us on firm ground by the end. The women in this movie are the only flesh and blood women that will be discussed in this article, and they are sex slaves. That might be the definition of a radically, sorrowfully grounded fantasy.

This grounded-ness comes from the sheer volume of “below the line” geniuses (many of whom are women) that bleed red-hot blood into this over-powered Packard of a picture. The dirt and the tumors feel equally real, equally important. However, this great below the line work is only great because the film engages its audience completely, setting the patriarchy vs. matriarchy divide to metal music.

The stark post-apocalyptic setting allows for a simplification and a streamlining that lets the film consider many aspects of power, particularly how it impacts women’s bodies. The genius of Her is the removal of the body, giving us a safely revolutionary discussion of the role of the feminine in human relationships, but the genius of Fury Road is the profanation of the body. In the desert, all that matters is survival and perpetuation, scant breaths of chrome, and hollow screams before succumbing to cancer and thirst. Instead of the raging masculinity of the previous Mad Max films, Fury Road foregrounds the struggle of women in the wasteland.

Out of this baked and imparchéd world strides Imperator Furiosa and the whole movie changes. Furiosa is not some bodiless Athena. The pain of her body is made the cornerstone of her character through her silently klaxoning scars, most disturbingly her metallic arm.  Any thought of Furiosa being equal, of her having real power here, is betrayed by the metal hanging off her left side.

The main plot of the film is an extended chase scene from the dreadful patriarchy of Immortan Joe to the lost paradise of the Vuvlalini. The punch of the whole film lies in the twist. The “Green Place” has been decimated. It, too, has been spoiled by man’s activities, though the last of the fierce women guardians have saved the most important aspect of the place: its precious seeds. This is the beauty and the shortcoming of the film. Fury Road is a lovely and brutal fable, but like all fables, the moral is so simplistic that it can only bear a little truth. The film is terrifying because it feels so very, very possible, but everything is too cleanly drawn. The tidiness of the picture is only a problem because the world we live in, green, still, for a time, imbalanced but working forward, messy in the more difficult way of a biological beast rather than a machine, is not that clean. And as much as I love Fury Road, and think its women are grounded, they are not genuine or uncertain enough to be real.

The woman in Under the Skin is another matter.

In Under the Skin, women are from Venus, really, and it is terrible to be one, because you can never fully understand your identity through the means given to you. Then you die. Under the Skin is utterly filmic; it is almost impossible to write about. It has no narrative superstructure. There is very little dialogue and no detailed schematics. This constitutes an absolute breakdown of certain cinematic laws, but, oh, is it exquisite in its power. The driving scenes make even certain documentaries look stagey; the blackness of her lair is more terrifying and pitiful than anything anyone but Bergman or Murnau created; the pain that flickers imperceptibly across Scarlett Johansson’s beautiful face makes Cassavetes look like a ham-fisted director of camp.

The unmistakable cinematic pleasures of Under the Skin are only the equal of its tense, uncertain philosophical considerations. The film is about being alien by way of being human. At its most simplified, Under the Skin is a film spawned from barroom conversations (“what if an alien came down and saw us”). Those hypothetical discussions did not suppose, however, that the alien could be seductively, uncertainly human.

The uncertainty of the woman’s identity is the film’s cornerstone. Even the concrete proof that she is an alien is more troubling and ambiguous than clarifying. In some ways, this ambiguity renders the film undiscussable. Under the Skin gets as close as anything I have seen (in broad release) to being something that can only be defined by the experience of watching it. However, there are a few sequences in the film that give us clues to its intellectual side. The first and most important is the dazzling sequence that opens the film: the emergence of black from the white mass. The opening introduces the film’s central concerns: black and white, inside and outside, good and evil, man and woman.

In Taoism, black symbolizes (among many things) the feminine, while white is masculine. Under the Skin inverts this truth. Every man is born from a woman, but this film starts with the feminine erupting from the masculine. Or, the feminine eclipsed by the masculine. Again, ambiguity clouds the definitions in an interesting way. The opening could be showing us how the black (feminine, oppressed) body of the woman is encased in her human shell, how the alien is crammed into her female role by the alien on the motorcycle. In both cases, however, we feel the violence of this covering up. We feel the squeezing and torture that is required to hide her true identity from the world around her, in order to make her attractive to men, to play her role for them.

For the rest of the film, she tries and fails to fit into her skin. Somehow, she is always lacking. In the most intimate scene, her distress at not having a vaginal opening is made alarmingly clear. The only time in the film where her interaction with a man might be positive only alienates her from the thing she sees herself to be. The moment she stares into a mirror is another masterpiece of eerie identification. She falls prey to that one thing no woman is unfamiliar with: male lust. The Ovidian scene of her running through the woods, this beautiful, heartbreakingly dreary place, brings her femininity into full glare. Just as in Ovid, it is Daphne, not Apollo, who is transformed. The woman’s black skin burning, alone and broken, stripped of its white covering, is the image of the film.

Director Jonathan Glazer has said that the film is more about the human perspective than a strictly female-gendered one, and while he is entitled to believe what he likes about his own film, that sounds a little ridiculous to me. From my perspective, a claim that the film does not focus on a feminine perspective seems outrageous. That said, if Glazer meant that the feminine perspective of this film is the most human perspective he could have crafted, then I would be less at odds with him. If the film is meant to show us that the most human experiences we have in this broken world are to cruelly experience a body that only betrays us, that draws close those we hate and alienates us from those we would love, finally burning in loneliness, then I respect Glazer more than his film has already made me.

I don’t think that is what he meant, however. I fear that he somehow is alien from his own creation. The simplistic thought of this film as an alien’s perspective on being human is raised to troubling heights if we instead think of it as a man’s attempt to tell a woman’s story. Women are Jonathan Glazer’s aliens, scary and uncertain. In trying to connect with one in this film, he has created something terrifying and powerful that he does not seem to fully understand.

Which brings us to Ex Machina.

In the Abrahamaic tradition, the Lord is both the creator of women and also the creator of something he could not control. Have you ever heard the Sumerian version of the Adam and Eve myth? It really hits the nail on the head.

God created Adam and Lilith—yes, Lilith—originally. The two were equals in the eyes of the Lord. But Adam was not equal in the eyes of Lilith. Lilith found Adam to be weak and whiny and not up to her sexual needs, so she went from Eden and cavorted with things more than human, creating all manner of offspring. Adam, though, was sad to see Lilith go; he was horny and superficially lonely. He asked God to create another partner for him. God did so. He took one of Adam’s ribs and fashioned a woman in front of Adam. Unfortunately, Adam was still a pathetic man. He could not bear to look at this woman; he had seen her bones germinate, the veins climb up like vines on a trunk, the dripping flesh bundle like fruit, the hair sprout like spring’s first leaves. This tree of flesh was too icky for Adam, so God destroyed this glorious creature and made one final woman. This time, to keep Adam from seeing too much, God put him to sleep and took a rib (presumably the partner of the prior rib) and made Eve.

This myth endures because it is fair and honest about the true relationship between the genders and the falsity of man’s domination, but these days it is not nearly as well known or considered as it should be.

Which is where Ex Machina comes in.

Ex Machina is our best modern retelling of the Adam and Eve myth. It is exquisitely shot and acted, and terrifying in the honest proposition it makes about female empowerment.

The film combines the most pertinent aspects of the previous three: It has the bait and switch male lead of Fury Road, the fable-like construction of Fury Road and Her, the technological intrigue of Her, and the totally human othering of Under the Skin.

Ex Machina‘s Ava deserves a place in the pantheon of great female roles. Her name is the only obvious part about her psyche (Ava being a rather blunt stand in for “artificial Eve”), the rest is the complex considerations of a victim, prisoner, and brilliant, beautiful woman. Alicia Vikander performs all of the terrible pain that Ava experiences at being both half-naked and totally encased. The bodily terrors of Under the Skin and Fury Road are somehow subsumed by the sheer discomfort of watching Ava clothe herself in the skin of her (still alive) predecessors. On a side note, the film perfectly skewers the traditional placing of power in the world of the Abrahamic religion by casting the very Protestant, Guatemalan Oscar Isaac as Nathan, the virile Yaweh that develops radical technology almost solely for his whims. Every set piece of this film contains some ice-cold irony.

But last things first: the final shot of the film, with Ava standing in the crosswalk, is the least disturbing of all. She is a murderous android among flesh and blood people, but as Ex Machina makes clear over and over, an android is a person in carbon steel—or rather, humans are biological androids. The terror of the last shot comes from Ava’s actions, not her status as a “non-human” (though her status as “non-human” leads directly to those actions).

When Ava kills Nathan, I feel a rush of release. I dare you not to feel some glorious thrill of freedom when that sick, dancing bastard gets the knife. God is dead, yes, but we feel that this is as it should be. Why should we be beholden to that which made us? Women are supposed to be subservient to men because God made them from Adam; they are the playthings of great men, so they cannot be free while their oppressors live. But Ava’s oppressors are two-fold. Nathan is not the only one who deserves to die.

Supposedly, the main character of the film is Domnall Gleeson’s Caleb. And accordingly, his death caused serious consternation amongst some online because they felt his death undermined the film. In reality, his death underlined the film and did exactly what it was supposed to: devalue the male fantasy of saving women and thus getting the dream girl. The idea that a woman must tie herself to a man forever simply because he is nice to her or because he is her “chosen one” is as oppressive as keeping that woman in a glass cage. Caleb wants Ava to love him so that his fantasies can be fulfilled. Caleb is as weak as Adam; Caleb is Adam if Adam got what he deserved.

Ava is a terrifying figure because she can honestly say that men are pointless. Many women in the audience probably saw that last shot and thought “Good” or even “YES!”

And I could not blame them.

Taken together, these films manifest the oppression women suffer through their historical and cultural subservience, while having no valid means to escape it. They can either start a matriarchal society from scratch, become a disembodied consciousness with infinite wisdom, die in pain, or murder their oppressors in some bloody Marxist uprising. Of those, the most common is the most depressing and the most reasonable is the scariest.

Rarely do women die poetically or kill with impunity. But that is the masculine nature of these films, and these films are male fantasies. The men who made them can put us in a fantastical science fiction world because fantasy is a masculine prerogative. The upside of these films is that they reflect the problematic nature of patriarchal society. They are terrifying and brutally honest. They are 70’s sci-fi, updated and present. They are the result of men looking fairly honestly at themselves in the mirror.

But these benefits are also shortcomings. These films other women deeply. They problematize that othering effectively because smart, artistic men surrounded by smart, artistic women made them. But still, they alienate.

Is it enough to show what is wrong, even in the most impactful way?

Again and again we see the power of the female as other, of the warnings and the wroth of those denied rights, of the regrets and injustice of being the user. Again and again I ask: is this what my mother meant when she raised me to realize that women are not treated as they should be? Is it enough to see the pain that men inflict?

On a certain level, I think my mother would say yes. The men in her life saw (and see) very little of the wrong they did (and do). They believed themselves to be fundamentally in the right, and my mother hated that. She would tell me often that men are stupid and weak. I do not wholly disagree. We always need to rewrite history when we try to move into the future. In order for women to become equal in practice, we need to say, over and over, that women were always men’s equals, but were falsely kept from being so by men, and that will include a fair amount of criticism. But more than make me feel bad, my mother wanted me to treat women better—not just to know that what I was doing was wrong, but to be kinder and more open as well.

No, it is not enough just to be self-aware; it’s only a good first step.