Agent Carter’s “Monsters” By Way Of “Ex Machina”

There’s a scene in Ex Machina, at the end of the film, when the Ava AI (Alicia Vikander) harvests skin and body parts from a defunct fembot in order to create a working camouflage for herself before heading out into the world of men.

When I first saw the film, it was this scene that made the biggest impression on me. It’s the kind of scene that works on several levels, including some that the filmmaker may not have intended. You see, what interested me about it is how well it functions as a metaphor for white feminism. Because even though there are perfectly well-put-together white fembots in the storage room, Ava (another white fembot) chooses to strip body parts from a fembot designed to look like an Asian woman. It’s a strange moment in the film because of the ambiguity in its meaning. Watching it, I wondered if the writer/director, Alex Garland, had intended to create a subtext that functioned as a criticism of white feminism or not. (I suspected, perhaps uncharitably, not.)

Regardless of the authorial intent behind it, however, I feel that the subtext was far too subtle.(1) As a result, the scene functioned more as an enactment of white feminism than a critique of it. There is something visceral about watching a white woman cannibalize the body of a woman of color to advance her own agenda:(2) something horribly familiar to the present-day landscape of feminism. The problem with white feminism (vs intersectional feminism)—which has been pointed out by many people who are far wiser than I am—is that it fails to take a multiplicity of identities into account when factoring oppression.(3) Yes, white women are oppressed (and Ex Machina is a great film about the patriarchal oppression of white women), but they also inadvertently participate in systems of oppression through their access to white privilege. One of the ways they do this is to see the feminist movement as being in service to their goals and objectives. White experience is universal experience, and the goals of white feminists are the goals of all.

We saw this attitude manifest when the first season of Agent Carter was airing. Fearing that the show would be cancelled due to lackluster ratings, fans of the show attempted to spread the word about the show (touting its stellar feminist representation), they received understandable push-back from fans of color, and then they lost their shit. There was a lot of complaining that representation for people of color would be sure come with the second season, and that everyone (other than white women) just needed to be patient and in the meantime support white feminists. Fortunately, there was also a lot of calling this attitude out.

In all honesty, that was a come-to-Jesus moment for me. Up until that point, when the Season 1 brouhaha filtered across my dash, I hadn’t really considered the implications of the lack of representation in Agent Carter for feminism. I just hadn’t. Oh, I had side-eyed the death of the black club owner in the first (or second?) episode, but I hadn’t thought deeply about what it meant to Agent Carter’s feminist overtones that there were almost no people of color in the show. I was primed to notice poor representation but not erasure. As a result, I was happy as a clam, enjoying my white feminist bubble and not thinking about anything or anyone else. My reviews of the first season of Agent Carter pretty much reflect that.

So now we’re in Season 2, and lo and behold here comes a scene that reminds me of the ending of Ex Machina. In the scene in question, which appeared in the seventh episode, “Monsters,”(4) Whitney Frost attempts to convince Jason Wilkes that he should be on her side: on the side of the oppressed. She appeals to him on the grounds that he, too, knows what it’s like to face discrimination. In doing so, she conflates her own struggles with his, oblivious to the fact that—as a white woman—she maintains a position of social superiority over him. Oblivious to the fact that just because they have both been oppressed in society, it does not mean that the nature of their oppression is the same or that the solutions to that oppression are the same. In Whitney Frost’s mind, Wilkes will be free when she is free. Her goals are his goals, or should be. Regardless of what he—as a black man—wants, or needs, for himself.

As with Ex Machina, the authorial intent is unclear in this scene. It may have been the writers’ intention to make this subtext a part of the deconstruction of feminism that they are attempting in Agent Carter, in which case I very much look forward to seeing how that subtext is developed and made more obvious to the audience. As I said in my previous Season 2 post, Jason Wilkes is a natural foil for Whitney Frost, and I am glad to see the two of them brought together. There’s a lot of potential there for the writers of Agent Carter to get the show out of the white feminism it’s been mired in, but will they do so? Was it their intention to do so? If it was, kudos and I hope you stick the landing. If it wasn’t, well—as with Ex Machina—the decision to create this dynamic between the two characters nevertheless speaks volumes.

I guess we’ll see.

Notes:
1) There have been several very good commentaries on the racism of Ex Machina (particularly in regards to the depiction of Kyoko), but not many that I have seen have picked up on the skin-peeling scene. One example that does pick up on it is Sharon H. Chang, “How ‘Ex Machina’ Abuses Women of Color & Nobody Cares Cause It’s Smart” (Multiracial Asian Families, May 30, 2015).
2) And it’s even more horrifying when you realize that the body Ava is cannibalizing belongs to a fembot who we know has a similar level of intelligence, awareness, and desire to escape.
3) I feel that it’s very important to emphasize that white feminism does not mean feminists who are white. A white woman is not ipso facto a white feminist, so please catch that knee.
4) Two more episodes have aired since “Monster” was broadcast, and I have not had a chance to see them yet. Consequently, points raised in this post may be answered in one of those episodes. If this is the case and you would like to let me know, please do so politely and with a minimum of “gotcha.” I realize that I am behind, but I feel the issues discussed here are relevant nonetheless.

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