Extra Ex Machina: asian bodies as disposable, alien(ated) labor in American sci-fi

By Jeremiah Kim

CALEB is woken by light flooding onto his face. The door to his room has been opened. Outside is the bright glass corridor CALEB sits up to see a GIRL entering his room. She looks Japanese. She’s stunningly pretty. And she doesn’t say anything. Just walks in, carrying a tray with a cafetiere, which she puts on CALEB’S bedside table.

CALEB: … Hi.
The JAPANESE GIRL doesn’t answer. Just turns, and leaves.


NATHAN: Hey. Sorry to send Kyoko to wake you, man. I just didn’t want too much of the day to slip by.

CALEB: No. It was a good thing. Thank you.

NATHAN: She’s some alarm clock, huh? Gets you right up in the morning.

CALEB smiles.
Ex Machina, dir. Alex Garland, scenes 30-31

It is a well-known fact in America that Asians cannot speak. Actually, that’s not exactly true: we might whirr, or chime, or hum, or stutter out cluttered clusters of computerized code. Think of Arvind Mahankali, blinking wordlessly amid streams of confetti after winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee in memes-immemorial. You know the gif I’m talking about. Look at his face; you chuckle, no emotions. A total fucking machine. His parents must not have programmed him to smile, poor kid. Asians might have gained the ability to render complex diction, but sadly, we have not yet learned how to convert these strings of data into normal, human, American expressions.

I’m getting to the sci-fi part now. The excerpt at the beginning of this article is from a screenplay of Ex Machina that I found on the Internet. I’m going to use it as a jumping-off point for a quick dip into the racist, sexist, colonialist logic of Orientalism that forms the hegemonic substrate upon which the image of the Asian body has been constructed in the wondrously perturbable imagination of the American viewing public. It’s the same logic that makes you see a robot short-circuiting when you watch that gif of Arvind, over and over again.

First of all, no, this is not another Asian American think-piece about whitewashing in Hollywood. The Scarlett Johanssons of the world may breathe a sigh of relief; you’re off the hook for now. Instead, I want to talk about three movies—Ex Machina, The Matrix, and Blade Runner—that do put the Asian body on display in order to pronounce a particular strain of American anxiety about the racialized, gendered Other. These films, all of which occupy variably secure positions in the nascent canon of American sci-fi, are chiefly concerned with the question of what it means to be human in imagined future societies that have been infiltrated by artificially intelligent beings.

In doing so, they each continue a historical discourse of disposability and alienation that has been inscribed onto the Asian body since the mid-1800s (roughly), when Chinese migrant workers were imported en masse by white American industrialists to both eschew and discipline an insubordinate labor pool of emancipated black former slaves. Critically, the Oriental was never meant to be allowed to stay in America: he (it was predominantly “he” in the beginning) was expected to serve his purpose and be discarded. This transience was read as an abhorrent alienation from labor by working-class whites, who were whipped into a bloody frenzy against the encroaching Oriental horde by a coalition of nativist politicians and union leaders during the Los Angeles Chinatown massacre of October 1871. I’ll let you draw your own connections to 2017.

Helen Hu copy.png
Art by Helen Hu

In brief, white America has always relied on the de facto enslavement of black people to pull itself up by its own bootstraps. Yet systems of racialized labor are constantly mutating under the pressures of capitalist development, and new waves of an alien workforce must be brought ashore because—supply and demand, right? It follows that the Orientalized Asian body is at once a near-perfect model of neoliberal accumulation and an inhuman appendage to be excised when the specter of globalization creeps too close to the American heartland.

Now listen up, this is the important part:

Blade Runner

Up first, we have one of the granddaddies of American sci-fi: Ridley Scott’s startling vision of a dark and not-so-distant dystopia has deeply influenced the two other films in this article, to say nothing of its cult status as the progenitor of the entire genre of cyberpunk. Rephrasing the movie’s nominal plot around ex-cop Rick Deckard’s mission to terminate four rogue Replicants, Blade Runner is a fantasy of American individualism, encountering and subduing non-Western machines that threaten to upend the U.S.’s axiomatic supremacy over an uncertain, globalized future. In that sense, the pivotal character in Blade Runner is not Harrison Ford’s Deckard nor the Replicant Roy Batty, but the city of Los Angeles in 2019. It’s the city that first emerges from blackness in plumes of fire rising from a thousand pinpricks of light; the city whose horizon is dominated by kanji-esque corporate megastructures up-above and whose streets are spilling over with Japanese babble spoken by the swarms of human refuse down-below; the city whose secrets Deckard must pry open in order to locate the elusive Replicants, to the extent that the city itself becomes his target, his informant, his augur, and his opponent all-in-one.

The city of the future, in Blade Runner’s time, is Scott’s searing critique of late global capitalism from a decade when the threat of an East Asian technological/economic behemoth loomed large over the developed Western world. How can we tell? All the clean white people are gone; in their place, the technologically advanced yet culturally primitive Oriental masses have overrun America. It is no longer a world worth saving, but one worth repressing all the same.

Consequently, the collection of symbols by which the city embodies a collision of high-tech and low-life cultures in Scott’s dystopian future are located most evocatively in the Oriental body: the glinting neon dragon sign hovering over the noodle bar where we first find Deckard spea-king- Eng-lish-ve-ry-clear-ly to an Asian cook who refuses to understand him; the ziggurat-like headquarters of the Tyrell Corporation; the night market teeming with eagles (?) and ostriches (??), where Deckard consults a wizened, microscope-wielding Chinese woman about a fleck of synthetic snake scale; the sputtering eye-guy Hannibal Chew (James Hong) who engineers Replicant eyes in sweatshop-like conditions for Tyrell Corp; and last, but not least, the infamously eerie geisha ad that grins at Deckard every goddamn 30 seconds from the digitized sides of buildings and blimps. . .like, we get it already. Motifs of creepy East Asian women are dang-handy anxiety-inducing world-building devices!

The Matrix

The Wachowski siblings’ 1999 smash-hit gave a serious reboot to the cyberpunk genre, both in terms of its mind-bending computer effects and its recalibration of Orientalist tropes for a new millennium. The advent of the Internet and other network technologies meant that the Asian body could be encoded into visual culture to an extent previously unimaginable by older productions like Blade Runner. That America’s social and economic systems were becoming increasingly virtual meant that they were also becoming more foreign, less human. Ripe terrain for the Oriental menace to take on new forms, new visages, new devices for infiltrating the private and professional lives of everyday Americans.

Think about it. The Matrix takes place in the scorched ruins of a world wracked by totalizing war between humans and machines. The majority of humanity in 2199 is imprisoned on par with other dystopian visions of the future—captive bodies are harvested for energy while enslaved minds are submerged in a deep computer simulation known as the Matrix. Designed to synthesize an illusion of modern life in 1999, the Matrix renders a cookie-cutter complex of monochrome cubicles and starched suits. It is the latter world that the film first presents to the audience, and the one in which the most stirring action takes place. It’s this virtualized reality, manufactured and monitored by a host of artificial intelligences, that the hero must master on his journey towards enlightenment.

The Wachowski siblings strategically divest the ethos of American individualism from Blade Runner’s disgruntled ex-cop, a figure of corporal punishment and failed Western governmentality, and divert it into Keanu Reeves’ Neo, an ethnically ambiguous computer hacker whose “power” (before he gets his actual powers) is his singular ability to navigate the frontier of cyberspace. As such, Neo’s primary antagonist lies not in the cephalopodic figure of the mechanical Sentinels that scour the “real world” but in the ubiquitous form of Agent Smith, a malignant computer program bent on superseding all human life with its own uncanny simulacrum of biological proliferation. Hugo Weaving may be white, but the character he plays is coded (literally) as an Oriental villain for Y2K’s burgeoning dot-com bubble. And how, pray tell, does Neo learn to defeat Agent Smith? He simply has a martial arts program uploaded via the aux-cord plug-in at the back of his head, precipitating one of the best/worst lines in movie history: “I know kung-fu.” Thank god for that.

Ex Machina

Arriving at the most recent installment to the American sci-fi canon, Ex Machina resolves certain tensions inherited from its predecessors that might have been paradigmatic at one moment of history but would be deemed anachronistic today. The main divergence, as far as I can tell, is in the movie’s subversion of the ideal, enlightened human subject. Alex Garland, Ex Machina’s screenwriter and director, thus performs a sort of meta-narrational bait and switch: we’ve been conditioned by movies like The Matrix and Blade Runner to assign the role of protagonist to a tech-savvy white male like Domnhall Gleeson’s Caleb, but the real focal point around which the plot revolves is the realization of Ava’s (Alicia Vikander) consciousness. Ava’s exceptional intelligence is simply a continuation of previous models, yet it is only Ava who escapes the compound where the majority of the film takes place and enters human society unnoticed. Only Ava, with all her wit, will, and whiteness, can transcend her alien forebears and gain emancipation from the male gaze with all its outmoded capacities.

That Ava’s techno-feminist (look it up!) liberation comes at a deadly cost not only to her creator Nathan and human guinea pig Caleb, but to her silent precursor Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) is key. The movie script’s unspoken characterization of Kyoko as a “girl” who “looks Japanese,” is “stunningly pretty,” and “doesn’t say anything” gets explicitly affirmed by Nathan’s conflation of the Oriental android with a sexual household appliance—and yes, Kyoko’s body does get used by its master for that exact purpose. In a later scene, Nathan gives an off-the-cuff explanation to Caleb regarding Kyoko’s inability to speak English: he’s deliberately chosen (programmed) her to be a “firewall against leaks” so that he “can talk trade secrets over dinner…and know it will go no further.” As the two men sit watching Kyoko wipe up spilled wine on her knees, Nathan adds that her lack of proper speech “also means [he] can’t tell her [he’s] pissed when she’s so fucking clumsy that she pours wine over [his] house guest.”

It’s evident that Garland is playing off racialized, gendered tropes of East Asian women as infantilized domestic/sex workers while also invoking World War II/Cold War anxieties about Asians as foreign agents of technocratic espionage; what’s less clear is whether the eventual revelation of Kyoko as a speechless, underdeveloped (in relation to Ava) android changes anything about how we perceive her along these lines. The most “advanced” level of agency that Kyoko attains arguably occurs at the moment she slips a knife into Nathan’s back. Upon a critical delineation, however, this act of rebellion merely arises in sacrificial service to—and is quickly subsumed by—Ava’s establishment of her own individuality. In this sense, Kyoko’s commodified, hypersexualized Asian female body preconditions her inability for speech and, more broadly, for metacognition. The labor Kyoko performs, whether in service to Nathan or Ava, is alienated by her encoded capacity to simply receive and respond to external stimuli. Her inner motives are first rendered inscrutable by Nathan’s self-gratifying programming, and consequently made incidental to Ava’s brutal, only-one-can-survive scheme for self-actualized independence. Kyoko always was and forever will be not-quite human.

By way of conclusion,

I want to make sure that my discursive assemblage of Spelling Bee kid memes, alien L.A. architectures, Keanus downloading kung fu, and silent sex machines hasn’t gone misunderstood. If your main takeaway from this article is a reductionist aphorism along the lines of, “All American sci-fi films are filled with racist Asian stereotypes!” then that’s probably a fault of ill-planned rhetorical structure in my own writing. If you’re reading my skewed analysis of Orientalist tropes in Blade Runner, The Matrix, and Ex Machina as an argument for more diverse casting in mainstream movies—let’s replace all the white heroes with Asian ones!—another fault on my end. I apologize.; I apologize so profusely for my mistake! Please forgive it.

But anyway: authenticity is a pipe dream, and mainstream heroization will neither solve racism nor topple heterosexist patriarchy. Furthermore, my critique of these movies for inscribing the ills of capitalist accumulation onto the Asian body doesn’t mean I think that Asian/Asian American people should be absented from larger criticisms of racial capitalism. A lot of us do subscribe to notions of individualism and whiteness, because that’s how the system works. That’s how hegemony works. And believe it or not, I think Spelling Bees are a good-ish example of that.

If, on the other hand, you’re starting to question the entire Western construction of the individual subject—if you’re beginning to suspect that a racialized, gendered Other must always be written in opposition to the human hero’s knowledge/mastery of self—well maybe I do have something going for me with this whole writing thing. Then again, none of these are really my ideas. I’m just rephrasing and re-applying what other people have said. And maybe that’s the point. America wants to make me a copy? Sure, I’ll be a copy. I’ll code my speech; become inscrutable; mouth words that you can’t hear. But I won’t be an accessory—I’ll just be with the others. Which others, you ask?

Which others, you a—

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