Despite being separated by nearly a hundred years, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) and Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015) both rely upon a shared plot device: a machine-woman sent by her male creator to captivate and tantalize men so that he might manipulate the world around him. While the motif of a machine-woman can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution, it flourished during the technology-obsessed first half of the twentieth century, and it remains popular today. The reasons are complex: the machine-woman has served as both a visceral projection of technological anxiety and of a perceived female domination over men through newly-asserted sexuality. Both Metropolis and Ex Machina give voice to fears of both technological takeover and the sexual empowerment of women.
In order to understand the implications of the machine-woman within these two films, we must examine the first appearance of the robot as a symbol of technological anxiety. In the mid-1700’s, Pierre Simon de Laplace developed a branch of materialist philosophy that described the human being as a purely mechanical object: every motion, thought, and choice was as mechanical as a clock (Huyssen 225). While this worldview never gained mainstream traction, its ideas influenced the development of the modern “android,” the “machine-human,” or maschinenmensch, as it is referred to in German. This concept came to be understood as an almost-human robot, with an ever-present aspect of the uncanny, which Victoria Nelson defines as “that which cannot be ‘kenned’ by the five senses” (de Fren 408). The uncanny, as used in art and literature, is often used to connote or symbolize anxiety felt by a character or the audience at large (408). Writers used the maschinenmensch to illustrate fears related to the technological changes of the real world. By the early twentieth century, writers and artists began to favor female robots. In his article “The Vamp and the Machine: Technology and Sexuality in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis,” Huyssen explains the transition: “we can conclude that as soon as the machine came to be perceived as a demonic, inexplicable threat and as harbinger of chaos and destruction… writers began to imagine the maschinenmensch as woman.” (226)
The reasons for this drastic shift are debatable, and many explanations have been offered as to why woman came to be associated with technological anxiety in the early twentieth century. Huyssen offers a Freudian explanation, in which a male projects his castration anxiety onto the android by creating her as female. However, this explanation relies perhaps too heavily on Freudian theory. I argue that one of the most intriguing and terrifying aspects of the maschinenmensch is her engagement in sexual promiscuity. Although the machine-woman fits firmly within the definition of promiscuous in these two films, it is critical that the viewer understand she is not sexual for her own sake. In the case of Ava, the android in Ex Machina, is designed based on the main male character’s pornography profile, removing agency from the machine-woman and establishing her as a vehicle for male domination and control. In both films, the maschinenmensch is created by men and imbued with sexual capabilities with the express purpose of controlling other men. Despite this lack of agency, the robot is treated as an object of scorn and derision that must be destroyed.
The machine-woman’s overt sexuality allows her to become an object of male objectification in the purest sense, for at her core, the machine-woman is, in fact, an object. However, the anthropomorphization of the machine-woman allows the men in these films to blur the line between fetishization of the machine and fetishization of the thing the machine is meant to represent: the human woman. The machine-woman is nothing but an updated version of the Pygmalion fantasy; an idealized creation of the perfect woman, who is obedient, hypersexual, and lacking a will of her own. In the truest sense, the machine-woman is fetishized because she can be controlled by men.
Metropolis offers an interesting case study, as it is one of the first widely popularized examples of the machine-woman in pop culture. The film opens on an early twentieth-century dystopian version of a massive city, complete with the newly invented skyscraper. The carefree Frederson, son of the master builder of the city, becomes infatuated with a woman named Maria, who is attempting to unify the city and create better conditions for the working class. Frederson’s father, Freder, recruits a scientist named Rotwang who creates a robot version of Maria in the hopes that she will destroy the real Maria’s reputation. The robot Maria represents everything the real Maria is not: hypersexual, destructive, and manipulative. In the end, the city galvanizes against the maschinenmensch and burns her ritualistically, as if she were a witch.
One particular scene in Metropolis reveals just how manipulative the robot Maria can be. As Frederson hallucinates from his bed, he observes her descend upon a stage in an overt display of sexuality as a crowd of men gazes on. Her erotic, inhuman dancing creates mass hysteria for the men as they move closer and closer to the stage in order to watch her. The sexual nature of the scene quickly turns sour as Frederson’s fantasy flips from dream to nightmare; he pictures the seven deadly sins descending upon him immediately after he sees dancing robot Maria. This switch is absolutely essential to understanding the theme of the film: while robot Maria is overtly sexualized, she is also deeply feared. This sudden change may seem random within the context of the scene. However, this switch highlights the machine-woman’s ability to be both sexy and terrifying.
Fear of the machine-woman can best be understood from a historical perspective. The maschinenmensch gained wide literary popularity during the industrial revolution, at a time when industrial technology was reshaping how people worked and where they lived. People were forced to moved from farms to cities, and cities like New York, Paris, and Berlin needed skyscrapers to accommodate the vast influx of people. As the population soared above one billion for the first time due to expanded access to resources, travel became been easier than ever. While this massive influx of technology was encouraging for many, it also inspired fear, as many people had never traveled outside of their communities prior to the invention of the automobile and airplane. Some hypothesized that this overwhelming growth in both population size and technology would be unsustainable, and that the world might not survive the industrial revolution. Artists responded to this period with many symbolic representations of society’s technological anxieties, such as Frankenstein’s monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. However, only the maschinenmensch combined both technological fear and the anxiety that came with female sexual liberation.
The power of the maschinenmensch, therefore, lay in her dual symbolism of sexual deviance and technology-run-amok. The machine-woman’s progression from male-controlled fantasy to sexual renegade “corresponds precisely to the notion of technology running out-of-control and unleashing its destructive potential on humanity” (Huyssen 229). In Metropolis, this can only lead to one conclusion: her destruction.
Ex Machina subverts this paradigm in a new and fascinating way; the character who dominates all others in this story is the machine-woman. Ava, a lifelike robot created at the hands of a rich and cold-blooded CEO, is trapped inside of a highly technological house with no exposure to the outside world. She is suddenly introduced to a strange new man who is given the task of administering the Turing test, designed to determine whether or not Ava is distinguishable from any other human being. However, this man is deceived by Ava into thinking that she actually loves him, and in the process, she decides she must kill her creator. By the end of the film, Ava has trapped her jilted lover inside the house and killed her creator.
In the end, the only character left standing on the outside is Ava, the story’s maschinenmensch. Ava capitalizes on her sexuality by convincing a lover to help her. This man is sure that he and Ava will run away together in the end, and he is certain that their connection is real. However, Ava flips the narrative by exploiting the control she has over men and trapping him inside the techno-hell-house. Rather than being destroyed by the system that created her, Ava uses the very tools her creators gave her to escape. Interestingly, her redemption at the end of “Ex Machina” has been interpreted by some as a terrifying plot towards male domination that further reinforces female sexuality as scary and intrinsically manipulative. This interpretation of “Ex Machina” is not necessarily wrong, so much as it is short-sighted. In the context of the film, Ava is feared by the men around her. She uses the same tools that have historically been used to oppress women and turns them against her oppressors. For example, her creator keeps her locked in an isolated room to prevent her from learning more information about her identity. At the end of the film, she locks a man inside of this same house in order to prevent him from impeding her escape. In contradiction to Audre Lorde, Ex Machina encourages women to dismantle the master’s house by using the master’s tools.
As opposed to Ex Machina, Metropolis was meant “precisely to subdue and to control this threatening and explosive female sexuality which is inherently and potentially there in any woman, even the virgin” (Huyssen 235). Ava’s ability to subvert existing systems contradicts the ritualistic burning of robot Maria at the end of Metropolis. The violent suppression of female sexuality and “otherness” as symbolized by the destruction of the machine-woman in Metropolis may help explain why the film was so popular with the Nazis, despite it having a Jewish director (Huyssen 221).
Fear of technology and sexually-aggressive women spawned the machine-woman, through which artists probed concerns of an uncertain future. The modern era was thus ushered in with a sense of doubt, as the world assumed that new technology had the potential to overtake it. While this phenomenon has its roots in the Industrial Revolution, it is interesting to note that the machine-woman has reemerged alongside the widespread application of Artificial Intelligence. With the onset of newer and more unpredictable technology, we may be witnessing the rise of the maschinenmensch once again.
Ex Machina. Dir. Alex Garland. Lionsgate, 2015. DVD.
Fren, Allison de. “Technofetishism and the Uncanny Desires of A.S.F.R. (alt.sex.fetish.robots)”. Science Fiction Studies 36.3 (2009): 404–440. Web. 25 May 2016.
Huyssen, Andreas. “The Vamp and the Machine: Technology and Sexuality in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis”. New German Critique 24/25 (1981): 221–237. Web. 25 May 2016.
Metropolis. Dir. Fritz Lang. Kino International Corporation, 2002. DVD.