Feminist TV Review: Westworld
“You, and everyone you know, were built to gratify the desires of the people who pay to visit your world. What if I told you you can’t hurt the newcomers, and that they can do anything they want … to you?”
These chilling words are repeated often to the “hosts” by their programmers in Westworld. If you haven’t watched the recently concluded first season yet, Westworld is a futuristic western-themed park for the uber-rich. A pricetag of $40,000 a day buys guests an completely immersive experience in a mythologized American West where the consequences of their actions disappear. They are “free” from the taboos, morals, and legal restraints of real life outside the park. That freedom often manifests itself in wanton murder, pillaging, and rape of the defenseless “hosts.”
Those same words uttered to the “hosts” could have been lifted out a feminist textbook. Substitute the word “built” for “socialized” and we begin to see the parallels between the programmed robots that populate Westworld, subject to the whims of the guests, and the socialization of humans, subject to the whims of culturally defined gender identities.
Here is how Westworld performed overall on the Her Story Arc Scale:
- Not offensive to women 0/1 points
- Features a woman as the main protagonist and/or supporting character 2/2 points
- Passes the Bechdel Test 3/3 points
- Artistic and/or entertaining 4/4 points
- Above and beyond general media 4/5 points
Total points = 13/15
Westworld features a lot of interesting women. Gun-toting outlaws, major shareholders, upper management, and programmers infuse the show with real girl power. There are also many two-line parts and extras being played by women. The show passes the Bechdel test multiple times.
To the credit of the directors and producers of Westworld, non-sexual nudity as well as the acts of sexual violence are filmed with judiciousness. The camera feels like a neutral gaze that is uninterested in naked bodies, documenting the scene rather than attempting to titillate. It does not unnecessarily linger or pan across bodies in suggestive ways.
However, because of the extent of the violence against women and people of color, as well as the controversies over the amount of nudity and violence in general, we do not give the show any points in our first category. Furthermore, with the full knowledge that Westworld is a mythologized American West (and not Native American friendly), the few instances of Native Americans that are included embrace stereotypical savagery*.
Nudity and violence have become par for the course on HBO, but Westworld does a much better job than Game of Thrones (which I stopped watching). The characters are compelling, the science is mind-blowing, and the drama keeps you coming back for more. Most importantly, Westworld makes you think, and those are my favorite kinds of shows.
Can any of us escape our programming? Is that not what feminism is all about?
Westworld challenges us to investigate our notions of free will and agency with regards to artificial intelligence. Pull back the curtain even further, follow the “white rabbit”, or swallow the red pill (choose your favorite allegory), and it also challenges us to investigate ourselves. In Westworld the robots that achieve self-awareness, even if momentarily, struggle to understand that their every reaction and thought is programmed. Then they realize their struggle to understand their programming is also programmed, and if they are allowed to, they watch their own code form as they try to express their thoughts. As a viewer trying to empathize with the host in those moments, it boggles one’s mind.
It is a struggle feminists know well. “Now that I know the pressure to ______ is rooted in patriarchal notions of women’s “place”, but I still choose to ____, how do I know if it’s because I really want to or if it’s because I’m inherently socialized?”
In Westworld this drama plays out on a fundamental level with the characters Dolores and Maeve. These two characters perfectly encapsulate the lose/lose situation that is the virgin/whore paradox. Dolores is the white, blonde, innocent, naive, optimistic, Western belle that turns heads and inspires chivalry in the men around her. Except, once she shows her own personality, fears, and wishes (in other words, ruins the fantasy for the interested man) things turn sour. Or the man is only interested in de-flowering the virgin, with or without consent and most likely with violence.
Maeve, my favorite character, is the madam of a brothel. She is black, provocatively dressed, jaded, and realistic – the complete opposite of Dolores in terms of how society weighs her value. Disposable instead of put on a pedestal, Maeve’s use to the men in Westworld is one of utility. She is overlooked and deemed less important by both the guests and the programmers. Dolores is venerated by management, and Maeve almost gets decommissioned. Yet in their dismissal she has space to grow and learn without the yoke of constant interrogation that Dolores faces. She has a backbone of metaphorical and literal steel.
Both women’s journeys make this show truly worth watching. In a review that struck a chord with me, Donna Dickens at Hitfix.com wrote “Maeve and Dolores represent two women balking against the expectations set for them. Neither Virgin nor Whore, but commanders of their own destiny. Whether the men that created them like it or not.”
- “Westworld Analysis: Dolores and Maeve” via TV Geeking Out
- To be a woman in “Westworld”: HBO’s brutality fetish still going strong in presumptive “Game of Thrones” successor via Salon
- Despite the orgies, ‘Westworld’ has shockingly feminist themes via Uproxx.com
- Violent delights bring violent ends: Westworld brings porn culture to life via Feminist Current
*I tried to find a review written by a Native American to include a link to here, but I came up empty handed. If readers have suggestions please share links in the comments.