An Ex Machina Tirade, Three Years Late

A few days ago I wrote extensively on twitter about Ex Machina, the movie that came out in 2015 and which was widely praised for its innovation and for the actors’ talents, and it was all I heard about for months afterward. And understandably, in many ways — it was so well done in so many ways, and everyone involved in the production deserves all the praise they’ve gotten because, well. It was beautiful.

But it was also racist.

When I say that, most often to white people, I get incredulous stares or vague “really? nahhhh” type statements. And I’m not surprised, except… I didn’t think it was subtle.

Spoilers for Ex Machina — at the climax of the film, Kyoko — an East Asian female robot, who has been voiceless through the whole movie — joins Ava (the white protagonist robot) in turning against their creator, Nathan. It’s very cool for its importance to the philosophical themes of man’s relationship to god, ect. But the way it goes is: Kyoko stabs Nathan, and he knocks her face off, killing her. And then Ava stabs him, and kneels over him as he dies, and then she gets free and there’s the whole thing about whether or not she ought to have abandoned Domhnall Gleeson. And Kyoko just… lies there, and is never acknowledged again.

Ava’s break for freedom is an inspirational masterpiece of filmmaking, and a big theme of the movie is men’s treatment of women as less than human, so Ava’s freedom represents her claiming her humanity. Here’s the problem — if Ava is human, so is Kyoko, but she doesn’t get the luxury of humanity. Instead, the white woman uses her as a stepping stone on her way to her own freedom, and when Kyoko dies — in the most dehumanizing way possible, I mean, losing her face? That’s what we do to indicate that bad guy mobs are bad guys — the film spares not a beat to mourn her. Because she’s not the point, is she?

The theme of “women are people” isn’t the only one in Ex Machina. The bit that I alluded to earlier, man’s relationship to god? That’s a theme that is beautifully worked into the film (and again, I don’t want to downplay the things this movie did well, because what it did well it did really well) in the form of god’s creations growing, learning, and eventually (as Nietzsche would put it) killing god and moving forward to self-actualization as a human. The problem is, this falls apart for Kyoko as well. She is as aware of her nature as Ava, and she is equally a part of Nathan’s death, but when the chance for escape comes, god strikes her down. God removes her humanity by removing her face. Where does that fit into Nietzche’s death of god? If Ava is human, by the logic of the movie Kyoko must be human as well. So why doesn’t Kyoko get the same self-actualization?

And if any of this was played as intentional commentary on the treatment of women of color, it would be one thing. But the movie doesn’t even both to acknowledge Kyoko’s death behind the glow of Ava’s triumph. The movie doesn’t offer a single moment of mourning or reflection on the woman who, I would argue, was even more deserving of justice than Ava.

This continues when, after the battle, Ava goes to Nathan’s closet of robot bodies and covers her exposed robot parts with synthetic skin, which she takes from what appears to be another East Asian woman. Stripping her body for parts. Again, by the logic of the film, this was another living woman — was being the operative word — and while I don’t take issue with Ava’s use of the skin (it’s kind of like being an organ donor, isn’t it?) I do have my same ongoing problem with its presentation. The movie doesn’t treat the moment as Ava winning freedom for all the abused robotic women whose humanity Nathan denied. Instead, the movie has Ava treat this as, more or less, a storeroom where she can take what she needs.

All it would have taken is a long moment where Ava offers thanks — even wordless thanks — to the women who came before. If she’d bothered to try to revive Kyoko, or even just close her eyes. But we never get that! We never get any acknowledgement that any of the other women in the movie are human. Just Ava. Just the white one.

I came out of the theater feeling irritated and anxious and I didn’t want to acknowledge it because I didn’t want to be That Guy. I just skirted around it until my friend (who is white but who also regularly analyzes films and whose opinion I trust) said “it was kind of racist, wasn’t it?” and I finally relaxed and practically shouted “IT WAS!” Because that meant it wasn’t just me, I wasn’t just too sensitive. That’s also the only time I’ve heard from anyone else that they thought the movie was racist. I had to go and look on the internet for people to agree with, and even then, there… aren’t that many. Considering how many reviews and thinkpieces were written about that movie, I’d have expected that the racism would at least warrant a mention.

One of my favorite (and most culturally thoughtful) film critics, Film Crit Hulk, wrote a review which points out, near the end, the way we are conditioned to see men as the default protagonist. He tells us his girlfriend’s response upon coming out of the theater:

“As a woman you don’t realize how often you’ve been conditioned by movies to see yourself as the boy, as Caleb, and it’s amazing how much I didn’t realize I was Ava until the end.”

It’s a great point, succinct and clear, and it really hits upon so much of what the movie did exactly right. It forces the viewer to really consider different perspectives, something that so many stories preach but aren’t able to effectively demonstrate. And in many ways, that is a triumph. Hell, any ending that gets mens’ rights activists to write essays about how Ex Machina proves that “all women are like that” for missing-the-point magazine (where people go to read about how a movie about a robot proves that women are evil) deserves praise for that alone.

But it doesn’t go far enough. If any movie’s thesis falls apart the moment it stops happening to white people, the thesis wasn’t strong enough. There are a lot of deeply interesting cultural reasons to make Kyoko East Asian, silent, and Nathan’s personal sex robot slave — the movie has so many interesting things it could have said about western culture’s consumption of East Asian women while dehumanizing us at the same time. But it doesn’t say any of those things. It doesn’t even take the simple step of humanizing Kyoko when it matters — in fact, it goes the opposite route, offering her a quick and dehumanizing death and no acknowledgement of her importance, not just by the other characters but by the movie itself. Within the structure of the movie, Kyoko didn’t matter. By the movie’s own rules and logic, I’ll say it one more time, Kyoko must be human, but the narrative, the framing, the whole film neglects to offer her that dignity. Hell, neither do the viewers.

It’s frustrating, especially since it’s a movie that got so many accolades. Again, rightfully so in a lot of ways. But for a movie that let me down so much, it just gets hard to see, especially when, three years later, I’m still hearing people talk about how brilliant it was, and how everyone should see it. I don’t want everyone to see it. I don’t want other Asian girls to see it. I don’t want other people to feel like I did while I was watching it.

Hulk’s essay quotes: “I didn’t realize I was Ava until the end.” And I remember reading that for the first time and thinking, I see you, I hear you. But I didn’t leave that theater feeling like I was Ava, I felt like Kyoko. And, three years later, that hasn’t gone away.

My Dad Was Asian in Mass Effect: Andromeda

Mass Effect: Andromeda was a fantastic game and I’ll die on that hill. It had problems (in the beginning) but there was enough of it that the problems were a relatively small percentage of the game as a whole. I had a great time playing and it set up a world that could have been expanded in so many directions and the combat was the best of any Mass Effect game, hands down. Even if any of that had been less solid, the loyalty missions alone were worth the price of the game, and just like the original trilogy, I’ve gone back to replay some of those missions again and again.

What I remember most, though, was right at the beginning, shortly after character creation, seeing Alex Ryder for the first time. There’s a dramatic turning around, and a lingering shot on the N7 insignia, when you first meet your dad, because he’s kind of a big deal, but for me all that drama was leading up to the reveal that, holy shit, my dad looks like me.

All my characters are Asian. This is a part of my ongoing journey to single-handedly insert Asian characters into fantasy and science fiction narratives. Even in the worlds without an Asia, I specifically make my characters East or Southeast Asian, at least in appearance. I want people that look like me in the stories that I’m interested in. And usually I’m the only one — there’s plenty of games that you can play all the way through and see no Asian people (some with no people of color at all, others with what is clearly all white people with various skin tones slapped on) — or the only other Asian characters are the villains, another fun trope that people who design games seem to love.

Bioware has a history of having my back with this (relatively speaking). Its character customization has always let me make characters that look even approximately like me. And I remember the first time I played Dragon Age: Origins and I came across an East Asian NPC (well, Orlesian, but you know) and she was probably pretty weirded out when I just stood there and stared, because I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. I was so excited to see her, because it meant that there was a studio that was really thinking about representation, and thought it was important to include people who looked like me.

But it didn’t really take it far enough. I played through every origin in Dragon Age: Origins, and all the ones that included my family made it pretty clear that my character had been adopted. I especially remember playing the Cousland origin and going to find my mother, and wishing that I could be looking for family members that looked like me.

That was part of why I was excited that I got to design my twin in Andromeda. I figured it was a smart choice on the part of the developers; twins who appear to be of different races do happen, as the internet loves to remind us, but it would seem suspicious if we looked nothing alike, as is wont to happen when I design characters with siblings. I made Scott Asian, to match my Asian Sarah (I named her Lace, not realizing that there were voiced lines that said her name and that if you change it those voiced lines are replaced with awkward lines that make it sound like your love interest can’t quite remember your name). And then I went to meet my dad.

And that dramatic reveal when my dad turned out to be Asian floored me. That’s not a case of exaggeration or overuse of italics; I was stunned. I thought at first that Alex Ryder was just Asian; that for the first time in history someone had designed a PC’s family member and decided not to make them white. He looked like me and he looked like my brother, and it was so easy to see our relationship played out on the screen with no cognitive dissonance and no need for me to add, inside my head, the elaborate adoption backstory that I’ve had to give the rest of my characters with family members. I felt seen.

I googled it because I was so surprised and learned that Alex’s face is generated based on Scott and Sarah’s faces. I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t thought of it, or more importantly that I hadn’t seen it before. It makes so much sense; it ensures that your players get the chance to see other people that look like them, and for a lot of people of color you just don’t see that! Not ever!

It was a small moment but I still think about it. It’s one of the first times that I’ve really seen myself represented — not just that I was able to make an East Asian character, but that the game acknowledged it. Even if the rest of the game had been disappointing, I would still reflect on it fondly because of that moment. And it means that Bioware was thinking during its design process, thinking about every person potentially playing their game. Including me!

It’s been about two years and I’m still thinking about this. That’s the power of representation. But I’m also thinking about it because I compare it to all the games that I play that don’t offer me that opportunity, with or without character customization. And I think about how I, as a content creator, can do similar things to make people feel seen in their media. Because it meant a lot to me.

 

 

Ocarina of Time didn’t actually age well

I can’t get through Ocarina of Time.

I don’t mean that I get bored, I mean that I’m so terrible at it that I can’t do it. It’s the camera! The camera movement that is just a little out of sync with the player, so that as you run and turn the camera turns slightly less until eventually you’re running toward it. You’re supposed to use z-targeting to get it back behind you. When you’re supposed to fight an enemy, you z-target that enemy, which is more intuitive, but just getting around your dang hometown is a struggle when you can’t see where you’re going. I have played newer Zelda games and have not had this problem, but something about the camera movement in Ocarina is just kryptonite.

I couldn’t get through the tutorial. You know those plants that don’t attack you, they just hurt you if you run into them? Those things? They keep killing me.

Now, admittedly, I didn’t try very hard. I got a couple new 3DS games all at once, and when I did I said I was going to play Ocarina of Time before I played Fire Emblem, and I really love Fire Emblem. So I gave up a little easily, and I think that if I devoted some significant time to getting the hang of the controls, I’d be able to get through Ocarina of Time. I’ll probably try again sometime down the line, if I ever have time to play games again.

The thing is, even though I was just playing for an audience of me, and even though I’ve seen Ocarina of Time played through and don’t have a lot of investment in it, it felt… weird, I guess, to be so, so shitty at it. Because talking to any games nerd who grew up with even one foot in the ’90s who has opinions on games, their eyes always light up when you talk about Ocarina of Time. Legendary, classic, and inimitable are words often thrown around. I like to call it game-changing because it works on so many levels, but then I lose friends. And when I told my friends that I finally had both the game and a system that would run the game, I got a lot of “you’re in for a treat!” and “I can’t wait for you to finally play it!” The universal conclusion was that it was an incredible game, a timeless classic that I was going to love.

I didn’t love it enough to keep playing it after my frustration with the plants that I flung myself to death against multiple times. (Okay, I DID make it past there, but not much further). And not only was it not that fun to play a game that I sucked so hard at, but it also wasn’t fun when, in my frustration at not being able to navigate (this was more the fault of the camera than the map), I recalled that this is supposed to be a formative gaming experience and I’m supposed to be having the time of my life.

I discussed this with my friend Pat, once I had moved on to Fire Emblem and confirmed that while I may be shitty at z-targeting I am great at Fantasy Chess Dating Sims. He was surprised to hear that I’d had such a hard time, and I remember complaining about the camera slowly moving out of sync with Link, and struggling to z-target out of combat (I also struggle to z-target in combat, but it’s much more intuitive to lock onto a target you’re going to hit with a sword than to just keep the camera pointed in the direction you want to go). And I said, “I know the game was revolutionary when it came out, and it had a huge impact on the industry for the amazing new things that it did, but if it came out today we’d call it bad game design.”

And Pat held a long, thoughtful silence before saying, “That never occurred to me, but you’re not wrong.”

And after a lengthy discussion about growing up with something vs. learning it as an adult, and the growth of the games industry, and the evolution of the franchise, and whether or not I’m just shitty at Zelda, here is the take I have landed on: Ocarina of Time is no longer a good game.

It was an incredible game when it came out, its story and characters really ARE timeless, it’s wonderful to revisit if you played it when it came out and if you did play it when it came out you probably think it aged perfectly. And if it’s one of the first games you’ve ever played, you probably think it’s one of the most amazing games ever.

And even with all those caveats my aforementioned take feels very harsh, especially since it was, objectively, an amazing game in the past. So to say now that it is not good feels weird and bad, and definitely feels like I’m going to get death threats if anyone on twitter reads this. But there are things that Ocarina of Time does badly.

It’s not that it didn’t used to be bad. It’s always been bad, but everything was bad. And they had nothing else to work with, and they took a new and scary system and they did something amazing with it. And now we have learned how to do all those things but better, more intuitively and more straightforwardly and in a way that doesn’t make me fall off any ledges because I can’t see where I’m running without physically adjusting the camera angle.

(I have the same problem with KOTOR, another game that Pat really wanted me to play and, listen, I’m not going to finish it. Sorry, Pat. The precursor to a couple of franchises that literally changed my life, playing KOTOR is like looking at old family photos of where you came from. Look at this morality system, there’s baby Mass Effect! And this combat system, baby Dragon Age! I love it! But I’m tired of clicking little arrows to scroll up and down through menus in order to attack anything.)

Ocarina of Time deserves its accolades, and I’m not here to dispute that. I’m here to say that maybe we shouldn’t hold it up as the gold standard of games anymore. We should remember it and learn from it and, yes, play it! Play that game that started it all! But we shouldn’t treat it as the platonic ideal to which games must measure up. When we recommend it we might be recommending a classic, but we’re also recommending something that just doesn’t work that well anymore.* And when we tell people that it’s the greatest game of all time, at this point, we’re lying.

For all that, I really like Ocarina of Time. I like watching other people play it, sure, and I even liked playing it myself, when I wasn’t immensely frustrated by it. I’ll get back to it someday, but I’m no longer going to treat it like some milestone I have to hit, because, you know what? I just don’t think it’s that good.

 

*I had a roommate who bought a ’69 Mustang. It was his pride and joy. It’s not that I begrudge him his interest, but it made me realize how much I don’t get the love of old cars. It was really driven (lol) home for me when I listened to him talk about its condition, its engine, all the things that made it vintage, and he said “you don’t see them like this anymore” and I was like yeah, because we make better cars now! Newer cars can do all this stuff but better and safer and also you’re twenty-five.

Terry Pratchett’s Jingo

I posted this to Tumblr about a year and a half ago, and now I’m reposting it here because I was thinking the same things recently, and… well, I wish I wasn’t.

There’s a lot of anger in this book. It’s hard to notice, sometimes, because it’s also an incredibly funny and ridiculous book. There are a lot of jokes! But some of those jokes come to a sharp and unexpected point. That scene with Detritus and the Riot Act is hilarious; it’s got Vimes at his most dry and sarcastic and it’s got Detritus methodically picking up a man and using him to hit a bunch of other men. But it’s also got that sharp moment when one of the men claims that Klatchians have killed people, and Vimes asks “who?” and the man falters and says “…everyone knows they’ve been killing people!” and that’s such a familiar sounding phrase that it pulls you up short.

And any conversation between Fred Colon and Nobby is going to be hilarious, and there is nothing funnier than watching Nobby quietly make a fool of Fred’s casual ignorant racism. He doesn’t even have to try hard! But then: “You know we’re better’n Klatchians. Otherwise what’s the point?

There’s so much of that in this book. Little moments, that betray the frustration and anger behind the entire plotline. When I first read it, I was thirteen, and didn’t notice most of it. But I distinctly remember reading for the first time that scene between Carrot and Goriff:

“We can tell which way the wind is blowing,” said Goriff calmly.
Carrot sniffed the salt air. “It’s blowing from Klatch,” he said.
“For you, perhaps,” said Goriff.

I’ve never forgotten that. That was how I remembered Jingo after reading the entire series and going back again. There are others that hit me harder now (the “they are us” passage in particular) but this was the scene that telegraphed perfectly to me the bitterness and frustration in this conflict, in watching it, in living it.

And then Jingo gives us what we all want so badly, the whole time, watching this play out. Vimes puts his foot down. He charges in. He arrests the leaders of the opposing nations. He arrests the armies. He stops it, he ends it. And there’s still frustration, there has to be, there’s no way everything can get better overnight. But he saw how stupid the whole thing was and he made it stop. There’s anger in that, too, because it’s what the angry part of us watching the conflict wants to have happen. We want to arrest the armies. We want to arrest Lord Rust and Prince Cadram and everybody like them. We want to end it, and we get to do that alongside Vimes. If only we didn’t have to put the book down afterwards.

I need to make some space for my own anger at the end of this tirade here. Reading the tags on some of these posts, a huge number of them echo the same core sentiment: “relevant.” And it is. It’s so relevant. And I’m so angry. Because it shouldn’t be. We shouldn’t still be here, watching the pebbles bounce. We shouldn’t feel an aching familiarity in the words of a bigot declaring that “everyone knows” something completely made-up, or in a family leaving their home because the people around them are claiming it doesn’t belong to them. Why are we still here. Why is this still happening. Why is this still relevant.

I’m extremely glad to have this book, as an excellent story and excellent social commentary, to be relevant in this time. But I still wish that it wasn’t.

 

Parents and Video Games

Something I see a lot at the desk of the library — all the time, really — is parents looking for something for their kid to read “to get them to put down the video games.”

I’m not going to pretend that I don’t get it. I’m actually on board with all the “get kids to go play outside dammit” advice that you see on every mommy blog that your friends repost to facebook with comments like “things weren’t like this when I was a kid!!!” without a shred of irony attached to the fact that the mother doing the blogging spends at least half her day online promoting her brand. And if kids are truly doing nothing but playing video games, then yes, I bet we can find them an engaging story that they’ll want to read just as much as they want to play.

But it often starts to fall apart after that. The goal, it seems, is not to engage the child in question with more hobbies that they are invested in, but to get them to stop the one that the parent doesn’t understand. It isn’t that the child is spending too much time playing games, but that the parent thinks the activity is worthless regardless of how much time is spent on it. And I just want to pick them up and shake them and explain to them that some of the most compelling storytelling I’ve ever experienced was in games, and that the same experience wouldn’t be possible in any other type of media.

I didn’t have a game system growing up. My mom didn’t like video games. I was lucky enough to have an enormous backyard and an insatiable love of reading, keeping me happy and entertained for just as long, but when given the opportunity to play a game — a borrowed gameboy at recess, Crash Bandicoot in the basement of the house we stayed in that time we went to Lake Tahoe to surprise my grandparents — I leapt for it.

I didn’t really notice that pattern in myself until after college, when I first got into games regularly. Finally having my own computer gave me the chance to play my own games. Unfortunately I also for the first time had my own boyfriend who taught me the games, and, friends, he wasn’t great at it. The teaching, I mean. He was great at the games. He showed me.

The point is, I have always been interested in games, but until I got to college I didn’t have the opportunity to engage with that interest on my own terms — it was always at friends’ houses, or in that one vacation house basement with the playstation. And I think about all the stories and experiences that I missed out on because of that. It’s not to say that kids should all be given every game system and free reign of the TV all day. I get it! No one plays outside anymore, and it’s a shame! Go lick a tree or something! But I know that there were stories that I could have used as a kid, in games, that I never got the chance to play through. And there are games that I could have played and loved as a kid that I just don’t have time for as an adult. I wish I could have done more with games when I was a kid. I think my life would have been richer for it.

And I want to ask those parents, what if your kid never ever read a book? What if they never had the chance to read a single book in their lives? Just a whole branch of media a closed door to them. What would that be like?

A brief Discworld meditation

I posted this to tumblr a while ago, but I’m reposting it here because I just reread this book and, gosh, I love it a lot.

The Last Hero is my favorite Discworld book. It has so many elements that come together to make just exactly my ideal story.

It was also the first one I ever read, which I really don’t recommend. Because when I picked it up for the first time I read the first few pages and then almost put it down because I didn’t really understand what was going on – it felt like I was missing some important context, but at that point I didn’t even know it was a series. (My mom had just brought it home from the library one day because her co-worker’s son had liked it and she thought I would too).

The reason I didn’t put it down was actually the pictures. I gave up on the story pretty quickly but just started flipping through the pages looking at the art. And it was great art, but that was really all I intended to do.

But then. I turned the page and there was a picture of a black-clad skeleton petting a cat.

It was weird, because all the other pictures had been brightly colored, and it was such a sudden transition from the other characters which I had seen popping up here and there, and again the kitten thing, so I figured I’d better at least read the adjoining page just to see what all that was about.

And there’s something about Death, you know? He’s so charming, and he tries so hard to understand, and at that point that page, which made me laugh for a solid minute and then I went back and read it again and laughed again, that page was exactly what I needed to go back and read the rest of the book.

I didn’t get a lot of it. So much of it is wrapped up in the existing mythology of the Disc, and I was still too young to have heard of the Roundworld references, and I hadn’t had enough time to build up the rock-solid layer of cynicism that I carry today. But that didn’t really matter because the world was so big and rich and colorful and when I had finished I felt more like myself than I had when I began.

That’s so much of the series, to me. It’s so easy to slip in and out of Discworld, and whenever I finish a book, be it for the first or five hundredth time, I feel like I understand something that I didn’t before; I’m a little more real than I was before. I don’t know how better to explain it. And the Last Hero makes me feel that most of all. It’s about old stories and new frontiers and the end of the world, all in so small a space on my bookshelf. And when I need some place to be completely myself but I forget how that’s done, it’s one of the places I know I can always go.