Recently, I watched three movies, Ruby Sparks, Ex Machina, and Phoenix, that reminded me of the Pygmalion myth. The story of Pygmalion seems to stick out from the rest of the Greco-Roman myths due to its lack of violence. A sculptor, Pygmalion, creates a statue so beautiful that he falls in love with it. Aphrodite answers his prayers and turns the statue into a woman, Galatea, whom Pygmalion then marries. It seems like a sweet story, until you start wondering what Galatea thinks of the whole thing. What if she didn’t like Pygmalion? Does she have any free will, or is she just a thing to please him? While she was turned from a statue to a woman, she never turns from an object to a subject. She is still a thing that Pygmalion created and owns, but now he can have sex with her without disgusting his friends and neighbors.
The film Ruby Sparks deals with the question of free will directly. When Calvin, the protagonist, discovers that his ideal woman, Ruby whom he is writing about in a novel, has come to life, he is freaked out and assumes he’s suffering a mental breakdown. Once he ascertains her reality and that he can change her with his writing, he stops writing. He recognizes her as a person and understands that it would be a transgression to continue to control her. Without his meddling, her personality continues to grow. She gains new interests and finds the relationship she has with Calvin smothering. As the relationship nears its natural end, he tries to fix it by changing her behavior with his writing. The moment Calvin decides to ignore her self-determination the story becomes a straight up horror story. Calvin is now an abuser, an emotional manipulator. Calvin is not aware of the gravity of his actions. He thinks that he is just fixing his relationship. The filmmakers, however, are aware that what he is doing is an act of violence. This violence leads to a climax where Calvin reveals to Ruby that he is not only her creator, but he can also control her actions. While he doesn’t physically assault her, he uses his words to trap her in the room with him. Ruby grows terrified to discover that she is at the mercy of this man and that she has been robbed of her autonomy. In his attempts to keep the relationship perfect, instead of reflecting on how his own actions affect the relationship, Calvin turns to manipulating and abusing a woman.
Ruby Sparks does a wonderful job of showing how the wish to create the prefect woman ultimately is a violent wish. What causes the problems in the relationship between Calvin and Ruby is the same thing that causes the problems between all people. They are complex and want a variety of sometimes conflicting things. When someone wishes for a perfect woman, they aren’t wishing for an actual woman, they are wishing for someone who lacks this complexity. They are wishing for a person who doesn’t present their own freewill.
Despite the wonderful job that Ruby Sparks does of deconstructing the Pygmalion myth, the ending undermines its own criticism. Calvin realizes that Ruby is a person who deserves the freedom to make her own decisions and frees her. She leaves, Calvin turns the experience into a bestselling book, and, one day in the park, he runs into her again. She doesn’t remember him, and it seems like a beginning of a new relationship. While the film makes it clear that Calvin cannot have a successful relationship until he recognizes the autonomy and freewill of women, once he does, he is still rewarded with one. Recognizing that a woman has her own will, does not guarantee anyone a relationship her.
The filmmakers of Ex Machina show that the act recognizing a woman’s own autonomy doesn’t guarantee a relationship. In the controversial ending of the film, Ava, the android, escapes leaving behind Caleb, the man who helped her, to die, probably slowly of dehydration or starvation. Ava’s actions seem callous and manipulative. Her escape from and murder of her creator, Nathan, is justified in the audience’s eyes. Nathan is going to reformat her memory to make a better model—an equivalent of killing her—he is holding her against her will, he has brutalized countless robots before her, he has created a sentient robot to be sex-slave (and denied that robot the ability to speak), and he is straight out creepy. When Ava and the other robot, Kyoko, murder him the audience easily accepts it as an act of self-defense, but it is harder for the audience to accept the abandonment of Caleb. After all Caleb helps rescue her, he cares about her, and he is such a nice guy.
However, Caleb becomes a much darker figure if you view him from Ava’s perspective. Ava is trapped in a room, and her captor brings a visitor that he has handpicked. The fact that Nathan chooses Caleb to trust would be enough in and of itself to make Ava suspicious. Add to that, Nathan has already explained to Ava that her survival depends on making Caleb care for her. Not in making him recognize her a sentient being, but in making Caleb romantically invested in her. The very nature of romantic feelings, and often the most frustrating part of them, is that we want something from the person who we are directing those feelings towards. There is always a bit of selfishness in romantic longing. For the object of that affection, there is the very real fear that someone will demand that those feelings be returned and that they will refuse to take no for an answer. Ava’s only interactions have been with Nathan, who illustrates the brutality that men can resort to to fulfill their desires. In comes Caleb, who, Ava has been told, will want something similar.
While the above circumstances are not Caleb’s fault, he does prove himself a voyeur. He turns on a TV and finds that it is connected to a camera monitoring Ava. Instead of being freaked out and turning it off, he watches her. He never tells her that he is watching her. In that one action, Caleb reveals that he considers her an object. He may recognize her as sentient, but he doesn’t recognize her right to privacy. It is revealed that Ava is aware of this. While she tells him that she likes the idea of him watching her, she understands that she must manipulate the situation to survive.
In the end, Ava cannot trust Caleb. He knows she is an android, and, if she displeases him, he has the power to destroy her. Caleb, while obviously not as violent as Nathan, still reveals himself to be self-serving in his wish to rescue her. Had he not been attracted to Ava, would he have stilled helped her? Maybe. Ex Machina is full of references to the “Blue Beard” fairy tale (this has been explored in more detail elsewhere). In variations of the tale, such as “The Fitcher’s Bird,” not only is the serial killing antagonist killed, but so is his friends. One is judged by the company one keeps. Very early on Ava asks Caleb if he is friends with Nathan. Caleb says yes, then demurs and says that he just met Nathan. I suspect that this is the moment where Ava could not trust Caleb. In his wish to be friends with Nathan, he reveals a wish to be like Nathan. Caleb views Ava as a perfect woman, which is why Ava could never trust him. The price of displeasing him is just too great. She has to leave him trapped, so she could go live her own imperfect life.
Both Ruby Sparks and Ex Machina are critical of the Pygmalion myth, but they still present the story through a male perspective. In Ruby Sparks we view Ruby through the eyes of the author who created her. In Ex Machina we follow Caleb and his changing view of Ava, but the audience gets very little insight into her head. This male point of view is the prospective in most films that deal with the Pygmalion myth (and most films in general). Examples range from She’s All That all the way to Vertigo. Even when critiquing the objectifying nature of the act of creating a “perfect woman,” many films are still couched in the male gaze.
Part of what makes Phoenix stand out is that the story is told from the point of view of the woman who is being molded into the perfect one. In the film, Nelly is a holocaust survivor who has undergone facial reconstruction surgery for a disfiguring wound she suffered in the camps. She then seeks out her husband, Johnny, even though she has been warned that he is likely the one who turned her over to the Nazis. When she finds him, he sees a woman who has a striking resemblance to his own wife but not his wife. He asks her to impersonate his wife, so he can get her inheritance. Nelly, who just wants to return to her old life, plays along and says she is named Esther.
What is so striking about Phoenix is the imperfect woman and the model for perfection are the same person. The big difference is that Esther/Nelly is present and is a trauma survivor, while the past Nelly lives on in Johnny’s memory. Johnny is so caught up in his memory of who his wife was, he cannot even recognize her when she is standing before him. He’s memory becomes suspect. As he instructs Esther/Nelly on how to talk and walk like her former self, the audience is left wondering if this ideal ever really existed.
The director does a wonderful job of showing the conflict Nelly feels. She longs to return to the life she lived before the war. She mentions to a friend that part of the reason she survived was she wanted to see her husband again. She has survived and has found her husband, but she must deal with both the possibility that he turned her over to the Nazi’s and the fact that trauma has changed her so much she is no longer recognizable. She too has an idealized version of her husband, but she must come to terms with the real man she has found. Nelly must come to terms with Johnny’s likely betrayal— later in the film it is revealed that he divorced her the day before her arrest.
This idealized woman who Johnny has been trying to turn Esther/Nelly into has always been an object to him. He may have loved her, but when it came down to it he was willing to sacrifice her. Even when he is telling Esther/Nelly how to be her past self, he only reveals surface details. We are left wondering if Johnny ever saw his wife as a person.
In the end, Nelly rejects both her idealized past and her idealized version of Johnny. In a scene where Johnny arranges for them to meet with old friends, she sings a song. Johnny recognizes her voice and for the first time notices the numbers tattooed on her arm. He stops playing, but she keeps singing. Once she is finished, she walks away. Nelly needed to be recognized as herself. Now that she has that recognition, she can leave. More importantly, she has also made Johnny recognize what he has done to her. In believing that Nelly was dead, Johnny was able to keep her reduced to an object. If she is dead, he doesn’t have to worry about her showing up and making him deal with the guilt of what he has done. If she is dead, she can never contradict the memory he has of her. But as Nelly is alive, he must deal with the fact that she knows his guilt and the fact that she is not the disposable ideal that he remembered. Ultimately, Nelly is able to assert her personhood and reject the nostalgia that was so appealing to both but also objectifying.
These three films reveal how dangerous the wish for the perfect is. The thing about the ideal is it is unachievable and based on personal perspective. The Pygmalion myth is a story of a man who rejects reality for fantasy. It is not that women weren’t good enough for him, but Pygmalion was never interested in a living, breathing women in the first place. His ideal reveals his own selfishness.