Ex Machina and The Handmaid's Tale: Social, Political and Historical Context

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Frequently referred to as the ‘What if…?’ genre, speculative fiction is a cover term for a diverse range of literature that diverges from the empirical reality that mimetic fiction implements (Jones, 2016). This genre encompasses science fiction, fantasy, horror, and invites the readers to consider the complex ways their choices contribute to generating the future (Hieroglyph, 2016). The 2014 film Ex-Machina depicts an eerily realistic future where Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) has advanced in order to create human-like entities with a conscience. The novel by author Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1986), depicts a frighteningly plausible society in which female oppression and toxic gender roles are implemented in a totalitarian society. Both fictional works display plausible speculation of the future, reflective on the time period in which they were produced.

Directed by Alex Garland, Ex Machina debates the ethics of treating a conscious creation as subordinate to humanity, in a reality where Artificial Intelligence has rapidly progressed. Set in a technology reliant and materialistic society similar to the present, a young programmer Caleb Smith is taken to the luxurious mountain retreat of a genius internet billionaire, Nathan Bateman (Buckmaster, 2015). Smith is tasked with applying the Turing test to Nathan’s newest obsession, a mannequin-shaped humanoid robot named Ava, to ascertain whether the machines behaviour is indistinguishable to that of a human.

However, as the film progresses, psychological manipulation, sexual hierarchy, and encroachment themes expose the moral concerns regarding machine sentience and gender. Garland presents a reality in which the balance of power wavers between human and humanoid intelligence, shown when Ava questions Caleb about her outcome after the testing is complete, asking “Why is it up to anyone?” (Garland, 2014), showing that she understands the vulnerability of her situation. As the unequal power dynamic is made evident, gender is an obvious contributing factor in the oppression of the machines. This is obvious by Nathan’s objectifying behaviour, notably how Ava exhibits signs of feminine intuition that Nathan seems to have created himself whilst giving the humanoid functioning genitalia, but more importantly, his treatment of his domestic A.I, Kyoko (SBS, 2016). A robot who is made to resemble an Asian woman, she is programmed to be subservient, her sole purpose being household chores and to provide sexual pleasure (Tv Tropes, n.d.). Throughout the film, Nathan is dismissive of her consciousness, telling Caleb, “Dude, you're wasting your time talking to her. She doesn't understand English” (Garland, 2014). Accompanied by the films convincing usage of futuristic elements and plausible themes, audiences are forced to contemplate the concerns of a future where A.I. have become self-aware and treated as subservient to humanity.

After examining the central themes within the film, it is clear that Ex-Machina presents an accurate prediction of the future based on the societal fears and beliefs of the time period in which it was produced. The concept of A.I. becoming self-aware and harmful has disturbed humanity from as early as 1818 with the introduction of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as the novel’s scientist contemplates the likelihood that his creation would destroy humanity (Botting, 2019). The fear of A.I.’s future was reinstated in humanity with the introduction of Apple’s 2011 ‘Siri’, and then just mere months from the film’s release, Elon Musk labelled A.I. as humanity’s “biggest existential threat” (Kramer, 2014). However, Garland attempts to present a differing perspective of A.I. and the future of intelligent machines. Ex-Machina is essentially a critical statement of how humanity tends to suppress what they do not understand or fear, whilst showing an acceptance for the impending future of A.I. and criticism for those who misuse their power against sentient beings. This viewpoint is depicted by presenting Ava in a way that lets the audience sympathise with the lack of ethical consideration in her imprisonment. The final scenes, which show Ava kill her creator and escape her confinement, although brutal, the audience is positioned to feel a sense of justice at her freedom. Garland explains this, quoting,

If you stand with the machine, which is where I stand, then this film becomes about a creature, indistinguishable in any meaningful sense from a human being, who is trapped and wants to get out (Parker, 2015). Nathan summarises Garlands acceptance of the future of artificial intelligence with the quote, One day the A.I.s are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction (Garland, 2014).

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This quote urges the audience to embrace the ensuing technology, rather than maltreat the conscious machines out of fear. Ex-Machina distinctly opposes the beliefs of society within the social and historical context of the time, confirming that the film was directly influenced by real-world events and beliefs that were happening at that time.

Written by Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a frighteningly plausible dystopian future, in which America has been overthrown by religious extremists. Now known as the Republic of Gilead, America assumes a totalitarian theocracy, in order to possess and police complete control over women’s bodies (Atwood, 2019). The novel is narrated by handmaid Offred; one of the few fertile women left, whose sole purpose is to provide offspring for the male elite. This is due to the generations plummeting birth rates, caused by environmental degradation and widespread sexually transmitted diseases (LitCharts, n.d.). The ideals and beliefs of Gilead is depicted by the accepted greeting of the Handmaids; “Blessed be the fruit” (Atwood 1986, p. 29), showing the importance of women’s fertility in this society. The author presents a society dictated by intense religious ideals, in which women are treated as housewives and prohibited from any rights, such as abortion, education, and conversation. Offred reflects upon the lack of rights she retains and the sexist ideals in Gilead when she quotes,

Maybe it isn’t about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing (Atwood 1986, p. 145). Atwood investigates a reality in which religious extremists have stripped women of all their rights, thus alluding to the social, historical and political context in the era in which the novel was written.

Gilead’s themes of corrupt theonomy and misogynistic principles through the novel present a message of warning against the significant social issues arising at the time the novel was written. Produced in the mid-1980’s, the novel reflects on the issue of a misguided fundamentalist Christian group and Romania’s complete ban of birth control. During the research process, Atwood discovered the ‘People of Hope’, a Christian group who believed society should return to the old testament of the Bible. Similarly, the women in the People of Hope were subservient to men, and were known as the “Handmaidens of God.” Atwood circled this word, and thus became the inspiration for the dystopias inferior female characters, and the religious group who would control the government (Quinn, 2017). As well, the issue of prohibited abortion is referenced in the novel, depicted when Offred considers the lack of abortion rights she retains, quoting “You can't have them taken out; whatever it is must: be carried to term” (Atwood 1986, p. 112). Atwood’s inspiration for the absence of a women’s choice to birth control was Romania’s ‘Decree 770’, a law passed in 1967 that outlawed abortion and all contraception, the Communist Party’s dictation in order to raise the country’s birth rate (Quinn, 2017). As in The Handmaid’s Tale, not only were abortions and contraception unlawful, women’s bodies were policed by regular enforceable doctor’s checks, in which their ovulation cycle would be closely managed. Through The Handmaid’s Tale’s representation of the historical and social issues that plagued the world, Atwood positions the audience to contemplate the future effect of complacency within society, whilst also directly relating to the societal and historical context in which the novel was written.

Both Ex-Machina and the Handmaids Tale are works of speculative fiction, that effectively display a plausible future based on the time period in which the pieces were created. Similar themes of imprisonment, gender roles, surveillance and feminism can be found in both texts. In particular, Ex-Machina depicts a future in which A.I. technology eventually surpass human intelligence, whilst humanity struggles to maintain control, treating the conscious machines as subservient. The Handmaid’s Tale discusses themes of sexism and a complete absence of women’s rights; a warning against complacency within society. These texts exist as a cautionary tale, attempting to warn humanity of their present flaws, in order to guide society to a better future for civilisation.


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Ex Machina and The Handmaid’s Tale: Social, Political and Historical Context. (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 13, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/ex-machina-and-the-handmaids-tale-social-political-and-historical-context/
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