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M3GAN (2022): An AI Companion for Grief & Parenting



M3GAN is a surprisingly heartfelt film about grief, loss, and AI. When Gemma leaves a grieving Cady in the hands of her robot companion, M3GAN, she may be doing more harm than she ever intended. The Ghouls explore how the film surprised them and became something much more than they were expecting. Gabe examines the film's critical eye toward parenting, technology, and grief. Kat finds that the film did it's research regarding grief in children but finds that Gemma did none at all. What can you do to help a child grieving? And why is the answer 100% not leaving them alone with an unfeeling, untested, robotic guardian?


Sources in this Episode:

⁠Grief and Children - AACAP⁠

⁠Bereavement Reactions Of Children & Young People By Age Group - Kids Health⁠


Reviews about M3GAN:

⁠What M3GAN Teaches About Grief⁠

⁠M3GAN (2023)—Grief, Emotional Attachment and Moving On⁠

⁠'M3GAN' Review: 'Grief, Camp, and A.I.' - Full Circle Cinema⁠

⁠More than Expected - How M3GAN Explores Grief and Relationships | Discussion and Review

 

Media from this week's episode:

M3GAN (2022)

A robotics engineer at a toy company builds a life-like doll that begins to take on a life of its own.

Directed by: Gerard Johnstone

 

Wednesday: The Latine Addams' and a Desire for Intentional Representation by Gabe Castro


RED: Quotes, someone else's words.


M3GAN is a surprisingly heartfelt film about grief, loss, and AI. Young Cady’s parents are dead. After losing them in a car accident, Cady finds herself in the care of her distant, tech-savvy aunt, Gemma. It’s a rushed moment of taking Cady in while trying to keep her life moving as usual. Gemma is a cold, standoffish, workaholic who was not ready to take care of this kid and possibly never intended to have kids of her own. She is talented and terribly obsessed with technology and the toys she designs. However, other than the technical aspects of the toys, she isn’t particularly interested in the application of the items. She doesn’t make toys because of the joy it brings kids. And when she decides to test out her new creation, an AI life-size version of an American Girl doll on her grieving niece, it’s not because she thinks Cady needs a friend at this difficult time but because she needs a practical test for the device. And because she is ill-equipped to handle the emotions and grief Cady is feeling, given that she does not grieve herself.


M3GAN (Model 3 Generative Android) is an AI companion that learns and adapts according to who she imprints on. This imprinting happens when Cady places her fingers on the wrist of M3GAN and from then on, Cady is her master. I was grateful for the lack of mention of Asimov’s 3 laws for Androids. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. I think we’ve watched enough AI-Gone-Wrong films to know that eventually, an AI learns that the best way to protect humans is to remove them from the equation since they are their own biggest threat. Instead, M3GAN learns a twisted way to protect Cady and becomes her sole companion, a coping mechanism that stunts her emotional growth and healing.


The reboot of Child’s Play in 2019, featured a similar AI companion for a child. This new Chucky sported a malfunctioning chip that resulted in him misinterpreting actions by the children. M3GAN also comes from a place of twisted care for Cady and after being placed in the position of sole emotional support, further twists that interpretation into something violent. Other Scifi horror references could be made for Ghost in The Shell, showing M3GAN stripped down to her bare robotic parts, strung up for updates and recalibrations. Or The Terminator 2, where instead of stressed, inhuman running of the T-1000 there’s dancing. There could even be connections made between M3GAN and Her, the AI companion that steals Joaquin Phoenix’s heart. (fun fact, Her was the Ghouls' first video episode!). Where Scarlett Johannson’s Her allowed a sad, lonely man to feel love, M3GAN works to comfort Cady.


Though there are interesting and fun horror scenes that were fun including M3GAN chasing a young boy on all fours like a rabid dog. There’s comedy in it as well, I’m sure you’ve seen M3GAN’s notorious dancing chase scene too. But surprisingly, there is a lot of heart and discussion to be had in M3GAN. In Cady’s attempts to cope, she connects with M3GAN and relies on her in an unhealthy way that leaves her unable to interact with others properly. The constant mothering M3GAN does for Cady is a conversation on children and their near-constant screen time. We live in a world where children are interacting with technology at younger and younger ages. It can be an amazing tool, encouraging learning and growth, if used correctly. Gemma, in her inability to properly care for Cady and her feelings, has instead essentially left her alone in front of the TV to raise herself. Though the therapist in the film isn’t much better than Gemma, not quite protecting or advocating for Cady in any real or helpful way, we do have to wonder about the effect M3GAN’s parenting has on Cady’s growing mind. Ultimately, M3GAN is a hilariously, gory horror film with a lot to say about the future of kids and tech, about loss and grief, and what it means to be a family.

 

Complexities of Representation: A Neurodivergent Human's Take on Wednesday Addams by Kat Kushin


RED: Quotes, someone else's words.


Something that we’ve discussed previously on the ghouls is that grief is not something that can be tied into a pretty bow, it’s not something that will always fit into set stages and is an experience that differs from person to person. I thought it’d be interesting this episode to explore how children are believed to process grief, as that is a theme in the film. This is also something that is very relevant in today's climate where illness has made death more widespread, and therefore many caregivers are struggling with supporting children during this time around the area of grief and loss. There has been an uptick in books being created as well as media exploring the grief process and that is a reflection of the time and likely created in hopes to be an asset to parents as they help their children and themselves work through grief.


In M3GAN we see a young child named Cady who has just lost their parents in a sudden car accident. Their entire world is additionally flipped upside down when they are moved to an entirely new place, with a caregiver (Gemma) who is doing “their best” but was not at all planning to take care of a child. An immediate problem that is presented to us in the film that further alienates Cady and makes the presence of M3GAN and absence of Gemma more frustrating is the main reason I put “their best” in air quotes. Gemma fails Cady in so many ways that did not need to happen, because there were alternate care options available that may have been more supportive. May being the operative word, in that we are not given a window into who the grandparents are, but are told they have interest in raising Cady. The film positions the Grandparents as alternate caregivers, and the entire film I was wondering “WHY DON’T YOU LET THEM?!” We’re given a quick answer that “they live on the other side of the country” to which I say…you still moved her to a different area anyway, forced her out of homeschool cause you didn’t have time so why does it matter where that happens…either way it’s traumatic, at least maybe at the other place she’s have an attentive adult. For whatever reason, Gemma neglects the new found parental responsibility, but denies alternative care and it comes down to impact over intent for me.


The first point of contention is not necessarily Gemma’s fault, but it is additionally traumatizing that after losing her parents Cady is forced to relocate to a place that is entirely unfamiliar to her. It’s recommended if possible to not disrupt a child’s entire world and alternate support systems(school, friends, neighbors,etc) when they are dealing with immense trauma…although obviously in some cases it is not avoidable. The part that is an issue here is if you’re going to disrupt a child’s entire support system you need to make up for that lack of support with intentional care, connection and attention. Additionally, Gemma doesn’t provide Cady with alternative forms of support from other humans, and isolates her from the other family she does have. Gemma does not give care and neglects Cady the entire film, because she is dealing with the loss in her own way I guess, and also because she has never had to care for another human in the way that Cady needs. What is additionally frustrating is it doesn’t seem like this comes from a lack of love, but instead just a complete lack of understanding and ignorance. When the case worker informs Gemma that she may not know what she is taking on, Gemma immediately becomes defensive and honestly performative in trying to appear like a loving guardian, awkwardly and in-genuinely. Unfortunately, what Gemma does in the movie is actually fairly common when dealing with a loss. In fact, many adults in the lives of children have a hard time caring for a child while processing their own loss and grief. In an article on the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry titled Grief and ChildrenAdding to a child's shock and confusion at the death of a brother, sister, or parent is the unavailability of other family members, who may be so shaken by grief that they are not able to cope with the normal responsibility of childcare.” An adult’s inability to process their own feelings on the grief unfortunately can add to the child’s adverse reaction to the grief. The absence of a supportive figure can lead to an overall regression in the child that makes their need for care more obvious. This presents itself in acting younger than they are, speaking in baby talk, etc. Their body can also respond in subconscious response to the grief that signals the adults around them that additional attention and care is necessary. This is usually shown in the child wetting the bed or having other physical responses like stomach pain, headaches, etc. For a child Cady’s age, what we see unfold in the film is pretty spot on. In an article on KidsHealth.org titled Bereavement Reactions Of Children & Young People By Age Group they unpack this by age groups. Cady, being 9 years old and between the age of 5 and 12 is stated to exhibit the following possible reactions: If you are reading our blog you’ll find the standard reaction in red taken directly from the article, and whether Cady exhibits this in the film in black.

Common reactions

  • blaming themselves for the person's death

  • looking for or sensing the person's presence

  • being distracted and forgetful (yes)

  • having increased anxiety for their safety and the safety of people they care about (yes, when M3GAN is not around Cady, she panics and worries about her)

  • not wanting to be separated from caregivers (we see this in her intense attachment to M3GAN)

  • not wanting to go to school (we see this in the scene where Cady is very against going to an alternative school with other children, this is furthered since she was previously homeschooled)

  • having physical complaints (such as tummy pain, headaches)

  • may try to suppress their emotions to protect the adults around them (Cady absolutely does this for Gemma, and only shows how she really feels to M3GAN and in Therapy)

  • withdrawal from usual activities (that or because Gemma does not get to know Cady, she is not provided with her usual interests and activities)

  • being quiet or not showing a response to the death (Cady seemed to in response have a very quiet and somber response, not showing more intense emotions until the introduction of M3GAN)

  • feeling strong emotional reactions such as anger, guilt or a sense of rejection (yes, after the introduction of M3GAN and without the emotional support from Gemma, Cady’s rage and feelings of rejection increase a lot)

  • behavioural issues (such as aggression, tantrums, defiance, getting into trouble at school) (absolutely yes after introduction of M3GAN)

  • may try to please adults and take on adult responsibilities (her acceptance of whatever Gemma is asking her to do, despite the fact she is unhappy does this for me)

  • change in eating and sleeping habits (Cady at the beginning was having a lot of trouble sleeping, until M3GAN is introduced as a sleep aid)

  • temporary regression

  • embarrassment around being different


The article goes on to describe the ways to best support a child of that age who is experiencing grief. I will say, none of the recommended things are done by Gemma. For how intelligent and prone to research she is, it’s surprising just how little she uses technology to learn how to best support Cady. She builds robots, but can’t google how to support a grieving child?

Ways to support

  • reassure your child they are safe and say who is looking after them (they may want to know who will look after them if you die) (This does not happen, in fact Gemma acts like she’s doing Cady a service by not letting her go to her Grandparents…)

  • keep routine and normal boundaries around expected behavior (M3GAN did this for her)

  • tell them that you know they are sad, use words to describe feelings (this finally kind of happens at the end when Gemma realizes she needs to do better by Cady).

  • keep separation from loved adults and caregivers to a minimum (she leaves Cady alone all the time)

  • make time to listen to their thoughts and questions and answer honestly (She never has time to listen to Cady, unless it’s done in front of a panel full of people who want to buy her robot doll, and exploiting the grieving child for career advancement…)

  • talk about death being a part of life, observe changes in nature and read books about death and dying together (They do not spend time together)

  • include them in planning for a tangi/funeral and talk about whether they would like to do something as part of the honoring of the person who has died (Nope)

  • make a memory box, scrapbook, photo album together (Nope)

  • encourage play - this is a natural form of communication and an opportunity to process what has happened (this is really the only supportive thing she does, in providing Cady with a toy…if she did the other things and provided additional support to Cady, the attachment to M3GAN may not have been as toxic)

  • encourage exercise (Nope)


What does Gemma do instead:

In M3GAN, instead of emotionally attaching and bonding with Cady over the loss of a shared loved one, Gemma throws a super AI doll at her and tasks the doll with carrying all the emotional labor. Something an AI is literally not programmed or really capable of doing. Without an empathy-capable sounding board, Cady is tasked with unpacking this loss without any real support. The anger and guilt Cady feels in the film are also very common, and the biggest mistake Gemma makes is giving Cady a toy that is impressionable to Cady’s reasonable rage around the situation. If M3GAN is Cady’s main point of play, the anger Cady feels is something that would very obviously transfer to M3GAN, as the toy was tasked with protection as well as being Cady’s main emotional support.


In my research, another commonly asked for support for grieving children is modeling healthy coping mechanisms. In Gemma not exploring her own grief or feelings, or showing empathy or emotional attachment, she unintentionally is mirroring a toxic way of coping. It’s one thing to occasionally distract oneself with self-care activities, or with work but Gemma entirely engulfs herself in work, detaches from her emotions and the people around her, not facing the reality of what she’s taken on until it’s almost too late. In a way, M3GAN’s murderous rampage could represent that in grief and trauma, there are people who get hurt along the way… in ways that cannot be undone. That there are ways we cope with things that do permanent and lasting damage to our emotional responses, and physical well-being, as well as those around us. Pushing down all the bad emotions until they bubble up in an explosion of harm.


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