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Ex Machina: The Performative Nature of Humanity By Esther Adema

This article contains spoilers

Ex Machina is a film fundamentally concerned with what it means to be human. Every question the film raises is related to this issue in one way or another. Considering the film’s topic, this is not necessarily surprising. Ex Machina is about a young programmer named Caleb, who wins a prize to meet Nathan, the reclusive owner of the company Caleb works for. He will spend a week with Nathan at his house, which appears to be in the middle of nowhere. Once arrived there, Nathan reveals he has been working on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and wants Caleb to use the Turing test to determine if the AI is capable of passing for human. The AI, named Ava, meets with Caleb in daily sessions during which Caleb asks her questions to determine her linguistic capabilities and her emotional responses, among other things. It soon becomes clear that Ava is highly intelligent, which in turn raises ethical questions as Caleb begins to wonder if Nathan treats her well and if she should be allowed to leave if she expresses such a desire. In the end, it turns out Caleb was manipulated by both Nathan and Ava. Nathan told Ava to use everything at her disposal to convince Caleb to help her escape, meaning she first and foremost had to convince him she cares about him and that she is being mistreated by Nathan. Ava, meanwhile, did not think of this as merely a game and once the possibility of escape is within her reach, she takes it, killing Nathan and locking Caleb in the house in a mirror-image of the imprisonment she herself experienced at Nathan’s hands.[1]

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Ex Machina makes us wonder whether Ava possesses true AI, or if she is only mimicking what she sees around her. There is a constant search for the truth of human expression, but how can such a truth be found? Which characteristics are truly and uniquely human? And if those characteristics are mimicked, does that mean they are not real, even if they are mimicked to satisfaction? If a desire for freedom is cultivated rather than inborn, is it any less real? Those are the questions this article will explore.

Instinct and Freedom

Ex Machina explicitly puts forward two different views of what is ultimately necessary in order to be considered successfully human: Nathan argues in favor of instinctual drives: he believes that an inability to act on instinct means that nothing new will ever be created. Acting on instinct drives the development and the reproduction of our species. This falls in line with the task Nathan gave Ava: she had to use her instinct to know which skills to use at any given time to ensure that Caleb would help her escape. Nathan never meant to allow Ava to succeed and he never expected to be outsmarted by Caleb, who tricked Nathan into believing he had not yet disabled the security protocols in the house.

This is where Caleb’s take on humanity comes in. To Caleb, freedom is what defines humanity. He argues that Ava can never really know what it means to be human as long as she is imprisoned in the house. She won’t truly know what freedom feels like until she feels it; up until that moment, freedom will only be a theoretical concept to her. Caleb’s belief that Ava should live in freedom is so strong that he will do anything to ensure she gets that freedom. However, he doesn’t count on the fact that Ava does not care for him the way he cares for her and he ends up having his freedom taken away from him. Ava wanted only freedom, regardless of the cost.

Ava, who does end up escaping, has arguably passed Nathan’s test of using her instincts and thereby manipulating Caleb. She also passes Caleb’s test, considering that she achieves freedom and manages to observe and experience humanity outside of the confines of Nathan’s house. However, it remains unclear if her feelings are simulated or actual. By the end of the film, there is no doubt that Ava faked her affection for Caleb in order to facilitate her own escape, but it does not definitively answer the question of whether or not she is capable of feeling affection towards others or any other human emotion for that matter. Perhaps the real question we should be asking is, does it matter?

Performative Humanity and Gender

This film asks us to search for the truth of humanity, but where can such a truth be located? How do we know if any of our desires, habits or thoughts are true, in the sense that they are not cultivated by our environments, but are rather felt in the core of our being? As mentioned before, Ex Machina does not definitively answer this question, but this lack of an answer actually opens the door to a different way of approaching the human experience.

Ava’s desires, drives, and instincts could be said to be performative in nature. Performativity is best-known as a theory on gender, put forth by Judith Butler. She argued that sex/gender is entirely constructed:

[G]ender is not a noun, but neither is it a set of free-floating attributes, for we have seen that the substantive effect of gender is performatively produced and compelled by the regulatory practices of gender coherence. Hence…gender proves to be performative – that is, constituting the identity it is purported to be. In this sense, gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to preexist the deed…There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results.[2]

In other words, we are not our gender, our gender is something we do. Think of the way we dress, for instance, wherein certain items of clothing are coded female, while others are coded male. We perform these acts every day, without even being fully aware of them: they have been so normalized that we barely question them. Through a constant and consistent repetition of gendered acts, we naturalize gender, as if it has been located in ourselves since birth, when in fact, there is no innate drive that determines (gendered) behaviors. Importantly, Butler suggests that there is no true gender that we can uncover if we only strip away our performative acts. If we strip away performativity, nothing substantive will be left. In a way, gender has become a self-fulfilling prophecy according to Butler. Our gendered expressions are believed to be an expression of our innately gendered selves, but in fact, those expressions create the illusion of an innately gendered self.[3]

In Ex Machina, Ava performs gender as well as humanity. While talking to Caleb, Ava asks him if she can show him something. She retreats to her private room and gets dressed. Her wardrobe is filled with girly dresses and she emulates a very specific kind of femininity: one that is girly, innocent, and virginal. Caleb comments on this critically to Nathan later on, asking him why he decided to make Ava female and stating that “an AI doesn’t need a gender.”[4] Caleb is suspicious of Nathan’s intentions here, already suspecting he is being manipulated, but it also reveals that Caleb does not necessarily think it makes sense for Ava to have a gender, let alone for her to act in a specifically feminine way. Her gender is thus deemed a performance, rather than something that she could innately experience.

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Ava’s humanity acts in much the same way. She mimics what she sees in others, learning quickly from their behavior and adjusting her own accordingly to become an intelligible human subject. More important than what she feels, she knows what is expected of her. She knows Nathan expects her to use her sexuality to make Caleb fall for her and thereby convince him to help her, she knows Caleb is scrutinizing her every move and word in search of a flaw, and most importantly, she knows if she fails the test, Nathan will dispose of her. Nathan’s AI develop enough consciousness and sentience to want to stay alive, so Ava uses everything in her arsenal to achieve that goal. Considering that Ava wins Caleb’s trust and convinces him that she is at least human enough to deserve to stay alive and live in freedom, she has certainly succeeded in achieving her goal. She has become intelligible as a gendered as well as a human subject, allowing her to successfully live in the outside world.

Of course, this does not actually answer the question what it fundamentally means to be human. Which attributes are uniquely human remains a mystery. However, precisely that ambiguity about the nature of humanity is another clue to its performativity. Perhaps we cannot pin down the meaning of humanity because once we strip away our performative human acts, nothing specifically human will be left. Moreover, human beings are not necessarily strangers to mimicking desired emotions and actions.

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Nathan in particular illustrates this point. He manipulates Caleb, not unlike the way Ava does, in order to get something from Caleb. He also manipulates Ava, promising her freedom, when he never had the intention of granting her freedom. When he first meets Caleb, he presents himself as a gracious host and pretends he enjoys Caleb’s company, even though it becomes clear later on that he has been lying to Caleb from the start. Nathan has simply been mimicking and faking certain emotions, in an attempt to ensure Caleb’s trust, in the same way that Ava has done. In fact, Nathan appears to be at least as cold and callous as Ava, having treated previous AIs cruelly and frequently being extremely rude towards Ava, Caleb and his AI servant Kyoko. There is no real substantive difference between Nathan’s and Ava’s behavior; the only way in which Ava differs significantly from Nathan is in her physical makeup, in that she is synthetic. If human beings and AI can behave in very similar ways, the notion of human behavior cannot be easily defined, if it can be defined at all.


The fundamental question at the heart of Ex Machina is never really answered and perhaps that is the point. It becomes impossible to decide who and what counts as human, when human qualities can be convincingly mimicked and performed by creatures that are not biologically human, and when we can dehumanize ourselves to be cold and cruel, like Nathan does. Following this logic, our human qualities are not necessarily uniquely and distinctly human, just like, according to Butler, our gendered qualities are not innate to our selves either.  Perhaps the real answer to the question that Ex Machina poses is that there is no true humanity to be found or tested in AI, there is no true litmus test to which human characteristics can be subjected and there is no real humanity that preexists our human actions, thoughts, and emotions.

[1] Ex Machina. Dir. Alex Garland. Perf. Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, and Oscar Isaac. Universal, 2015.

[2] Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. Routledge: New York, 1990. p. 24-5.

[3] Idem. p. 24.

[4] Ex Machina.