"The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic." - Oscar Wilde
Westworld, a reinvented rendition of the 1973 film of the same name, debuted on the cable television network HBO in October 2016. The ten-episode show surprised many viewers with a new twist on the provocative old tale. The new sci-fi story is set in the near future where an unusual amusement park called Westworld offers rich vacationers opportunities to explore the American West. Robotic, but very human-like "hosts" fulfill the desiring fantasies and cravings of the "guests," no matter how brutal or illicit the acts may be. These androids helplessly indulge and serve the guests as slaves, essentially—whether it be by subjecting themselves to continuous torture, murder, rape or other forms of physical and mental cruelty. Westworld's guests can act without repercussions. While guests can kill, maim or mutilate any of the hosts, the androids cannot injure, much less kill, a guest. As the show evolves, however, some robots begin to learn from their previous builds and try to break free from their scripted "lives." Some hope to find meaning and identity in a programmed world of hate, violence, and self-pleasure.
Through its different representations of women, Westworld surprisingly depicts two contrasting ideologies. It is, first of all, acceptable to abuse women if one knows there will not be consequences for those actions. Even if this was not the filmmakers' intent, these violent images could leave a negative impact on the viewer, causing some to consider, or even replicate, those actions in real life. Yet the series seems, particularly as characters develop, to depict previously suppressed women as free and independent. Like many parts of the contemporary world, this feminist ideal struggles to gain a foothold during the days of the Early American West. Westworld's female hosts are programmed to fit this suppressed pattern and do so until they begin to form their own independent consciousness. These two, polar-opposite ideologies constantly battle against each other throughout the series. Even though it is ultimately up to the audiences' interpretation, this essay will analyze the morality behind these two conflicting ideas.
Before examining these different ideologies, one must first be familiar with the world of Westworld and the characters that live within its dark sphere. Dolores Abernathy (played by Evan Rachel Wood), one of the oldest hosts in the park, is the optimistic and innocent daughter of a dairy farmer who is also deeply in love with the hard-hitting gunslinger, Teddy Flood (played by James Marsden). As Dolores uncovers the mysteries and secrets of her past, she begins to understand the world that she is living in. This new awareness brings conflict, anxiety, and uncertainty that Dolores has never experienced. Maeve Millay (played by Thandie Newton), the African American madam of the Mariposa Saloon in Sweetwater, also starts questioning her reality. She becomes determined to discover and understand the truth behind her existence. In stark contrast to Dolores, Maeve becomes steadfast and confident, developing a plan to be free of the people who have written her "life" for the satisfaction of others.
The clever men behind this theme park include the mysterious Dr. Robert Ford (played by the frequently sinister Anthony Hopkins) and his trusty assistant Bernard Lowe (played by Jeffrey Wright). Ford, being the founder of Westworld, is often manipulative and very protective of his creation. Lowe, on the other hand, is the honest and loyal director of the Programming Division. As he tracks the irregular behaviors and actions of several rogue hosts, he too, recognizes that something is amiss. An unknown guest, called the Man in Black (played by Ed Harris), also contributes complexity to the series by adding mystery and terror to the story.
The character of Dolores Abernathy personifies most of Westworld's problems. Programmed to be warmhearted, generous, and loving, Dolores is oblivious to the dangers that surround her. Living a mostly secluded life, Dolores' day consists of painting, shopping at the general store, spending time with Teddy, and then arriving back home just in time to see her family brutally murdered by a gang of bandits. Her father and Teddy are not only programmed to protect her at all costs, but to keep her secluded on the ranch. After Teddy's routine check-up, Dr. Ford honestly describes the situation, "Your job is not to protect Dolores, it's to keep her here, to ensure that the guests find her if they want to best the stalwart gunslinger and have their way with his girl." This not only shines light on the sexualization of Dolores, but it also symbolizes the suppressive nature of men throughout history. This male mentality, keeping the woman at home while the strong man provides for her, eventually causes Dolores to abandon some aspects of her conformed existence. Except for the occasional interaction with humans, every day is the same and scripted to perfection. Eventually, her history is erased, and she becomes imprisoned in her own life. It appears that she will always be the victim, but then something clicks and those suppressed memories quickly rise to the surface.
After her family is murdered, Dolores is physically and mentally abused by Harris' Man in Black. She screams as she is being dragged across the dirt to the barn where, ultimately, the shadowy figure will take advantage of her. Rape is implied, but not shown. As a result, the show received some harsh criticism. However, Evan Rachel Wood believes the violence is necessary for character development and for a broader, more important reason.
"It's so we have a place to go to show the motivation of this character—and also a conversation about rape culture and what's acceptable and entertaining and what has become the social norm…If this park really did exist, there really are those people who would come in and do that for fun. I think we're really examining that—not in a gratuitous way, but in a way that really looks at the crime and the pain that's inflicted…It really is there for a reason, to send a message, and for us to take a good hard look in the mirror to understand it more" (Holloway).
Wood uses Dolores' story arc to hint at the bigger picture of rape and assault in modern society. In November 2016, she announced to the press that she herself was raped twice in real life. She stated, "I don't believe we live in a time where people can stay silent any longer…Not given the state our world is in with its blatant bigotry and sexism" (Corinthios). She believes that by depicting sexual violence for what it is, instead of ignoring it or whitewashing it, helps make people aware of this important issue. Dolores' transformation from mechanical android to emotional being also symbolizes this feminist movement. As Wood mentioned in her interview with Variety's Daniel Holloway, "It's all also a metaphor for an awakening that is happening in the world, especially with women." In many ways, Wood is right. It appears that the show is confronting gender roles and sexual stereotypes from within. For example, early in the show it is made clear that Dolores is unable to utilize weapons because of her programming. When Dolores' human lover, William, is ambushed by armed assailants, she surprisingly saves him by viciously shooting them down. After the smoke clears, she says, "You said people come here to change the story of their lives. I imagined a story where I didn't have to be the damsel." In this scene, the gender roles have been switched and Dolores is seen as the resilient protector. Ultimately, by deconstructing these long-standing, sexual stereotypes, Westworld seemingly depicts the awakening of strong female characters.
However, it certainly seems that these enlightening portrayals of sexual violence backfired with some Westworld viewers. A majority of online reviews and critiques damn the usage of sexual violence and nudity on the show, seeing it as excessive and unnecessary. Yet some of these same outlets downplay and hardly ever mention the moral lessons that Wood is striving to have people notice. Some audience members strongly believe the show "encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women." This phenomena is called Rape Culture. In Emilie Buchwald's, Transforming a Rape Culture, the author describes it as a "society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent." This can be seen through various forms of sexual violence including explicit language, inappropriate touching, nonconsensual intimacy, and even rape itself. "A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm" (Buchwald xi). This sentiment is reflected within the show, especially when it comes to the brutal actions of the Man in Black.
Maeve Millay, the madam of Sweetwater's brothel, becomes the dark counter-character to the initially demure and innocent Dolores. Maeve holds together what seems to be the most notable institution in the park, the place to where most male visitors gravitate to early in their Westworld experience. In the earliest episodes, particularly, Maeve is not just firm and efficient in the execution of her duties, she seems unphased by the violence and brutality that surrounds her. Salon's media critic, Melanie McFarland, describes Maeve as "an elegant, hard woman who barely blinks when lives are being snuffed out around her…" (McFarland).
Even as the woman-in-charge, Maeve is sexually objectified as much as any other female host on the show, albeit in different ways. Her demeanor and dress announce her position and purpose more clearly than a billboard-sized sign. A corset, a low-cut dress, and accentuated breasts puts the exclamation point on her sexual objectification. Newton has even said in interviews that she finds it more liberating to be naked. "We are comparing the nudity with the other costume…all of these clothes were to invite a lustful feeling" to both the guest and the viewer (Newton). However, it's not just the guests that see her as a sex object. When reviewed by technicians, Maeve's "performance" is sub-par and eventually adjusted. Sexual aggressiveness and seductiveness is increased while civility is decreased.
While the evolution of these main female characters changes the direction of the storyline as one episode tumbles into the next, the exploitation of the characters remains constant, violent, and deadly. Despite whatever positive messages may potentially come from the cautionary tales, McFarland contends, "At the end of the day, though, she's still a woman in Westworld." In her view, the fact that Dolores and Maeve are robots does not justify the violence done to them. "Any efforts to use that argument to excuse the viciousness visited upon them soon feel as hollow and flimsy as an old shell. The viewer is not inured to their suffering by knowing these characters are androids; they act and bleed just like people" (McFarland).
McFarland acknowledges the lessons the series may impart, "Should Westworld's ultimate purpose be to invite some level of self-examination within the audience, making us contemplate the callousness with which we give free rein to violence as sport, well done, then." She remains skeptical though and finds it ironic that even more sex and violence are needed to get the message across. Variety's Chief Television Critic Maureen Ryan comes to a similar conclusion. She believes Westworld tries to teach similar lessons conveyed by other science fiction allegories about identity and consciousness. Unfortunately, Ryan concludes that the negative characterizations and sexual exploitation outweigh any lesson. "The story reinforces and perpetuates the very problems the show purports to identify and explore."
Not surprisingly, similar to Evan Rachel Wood, actress Thandie Newton believes her portrayal of Maeve is noble and constructive. In one interview after another, in both print and on-air, she proudly states her pride in raising awareness about objectification and violence toward women. When asked in an interview in Collider, she explained why she took the part, "I knew that, even though it was going to be challenging to play someone who was farming out women, and who had been programmed to abuse and to allow abuse, I understood that the purpose of it was to have this character fall from grace, even though she was not responsible for the way she was programmed" (Radish). GQ's Joshua Rivera agrees with Newton's take. "There is a truly subversive, feminist-as-hell story tangled in Westworld's many threads, in which the cowboy fantasy is turned on its head and taken over by the women who were placed in servile roles, the docile facilitators of this fantasy" (Rivera). Ultimately, Westworld's struggle to convince their audiences that they are trying to educate rather than gratify remains a challenge.
One of the things that makes the story especially interesting, if not subversive, is the metamorphism the main female characters undergo. Like Dolores, Maeve begins to piece together her storied, previous life. This brings a consciousness of not only those prior experiences but an understanding of how she has been manipulated, both sexually and mentally. What starts as vague notions of the past begins to crystallize into clearer recollections. In a be-careful-what-you-ask-for development, Maeve's reprogramming to be more aggressive pushes her towards a violent reaction when she figures it all out. So intent to both seek revenge and escape from Westworld, she intentionally gets killed over and over again so she can be sent back to the laboratory for reprogramming. These deaths often happened in gruesome, sexual ways. Once, she encouraged a guest to strangle her to death while also allowing him to savagely rape her. In short, Maeve intentionally uses her own sexuality to get what she wants. While in the lab, she tries to learn everything about the technology that makes her tick and the technicians who rebuild her every time she returns. Near the season's end, Maeve turns to the technicians (who think she is off-line) and grabs their programming tablet. She steadfastly declares, "I'd like to make some changes…It's time to write my own fucking story."
Even though these characters are fabricated beings, they are still objectified by the park's guests and can be objectified by the audience themselves. This objectification is usually done through a variety of camera shots and angles. One common complaint among viewers, especially feminists, includes the overwhelming usage of female full-frontal nudity. Feminist Sezin Koehler of Wear Your Voice Magazine calculated the ratios. Ultimately, females were displayed full-frontally twice as many times as men. "By the end of the series, it was almost comical watching all the different ways the Westworld production used chairs, doorknobs, handles, trays, and other objects to protect the men's 'modesty' while almost no allowances were made for the women" (Koehler).
Similar to Dolores and Maeve, some of the other minor female characters are also sexually objectified. Others are not. Maeve's best friend, and fellow prostitute, Clementine, contributes to her own objectification by utilizing flirtatious language and tight, revealing clothing. In the typical American West fashion, she greets newcomers with a pick-up line while simultaneously caressing their face, "You're new. Not much of a rind on you. I'll give you a discount." Through this dialogue and other vulgar language, Clementine has one obvious task—to please as many visitors as possible by being sexually active with them. As a result, she is continually used by men. Similarly, Armistice, an attractive, gun slinging bandit, is also objectified when the Man in Black and his traveling companion gaze at her hourglass figure while she baths in the river. A red snake tattoo curls up and around her body. Even though her body is awed at by male characters and show viewers, her personality is violently strong and wildly independent. She certainly is no damsel in distress. HBO has been criticized before for using nudity, objectification, and rape in their shows. Vogue highlights this in their article, Does Westworld Have a Woman Problem? "Criticized for its reliance on nudity and rape as a plot device, Game of Thrones features female protagonists who provide the show its greatest moments and most of its most regrettable. Westworld follows suit by presenting compelling women and then subjecting them to scenarios that rob them of their dignity" (Okwodu).
The perfect example of objectification in Westworld is undoubtedly the four-minute long orgy that occurred in the fifth episode. In this chapter, Dolores and William are in the violent and cruel city of Pariah. They are invited to the local brothel where a massive orgy is taking place, with at least 40 people participating. Viewers surprisingly watched intimate intercourse, oral sex, male and female masturbation, and other bizarre activities, including gold-painted prostitutes. Of the 22 full-frontal nudities depicted, 86% were female and only 14% were male (Koehler). This grotesque scene ultimately served no purpose and added nothing to the story. However, it did highlight the (already known) cruel and intense personality of Logan, William's future brother-in-law who traveled with him to Westworld. Logan did not come for the adventures, but is instead, obsessed with laying women and killing innocent bystanders. His dark characteristics eventually creep into William's soul, too. In short, this "sexposition" of nude extras desensitized the audience and unnecessarily objectified its participants.
On the other hand, two human female characters, Theresa Cullen and Elsie Hughes, are represented in a different light. Though both are stark contrasts to the hosts in many ways, their characters also have their contradictions. They are independent and stand up to the powerful men who oversee them, yet are sometimes beholden to those same men. They are never seen as blatant sex objects like the hosts, but instead, are depicted as empowered individuals with their own drives and aspirations. Theresa, being the park's senior manager, is well suited to manage and operate this powerful corporation. She has a secret, romantic relationship with her co-worker and subordinate, Bernard. In their scenes together, nudity is non-existent, implying that their sexuality and relationship differs from that which occurs a short distance away in the park. However, when Theresa discovers later that Bernard is actually one of the androids, she discovers she, too, has been used much like the robots she usually controls. Elsie, one of the programmers, also has the same empowering qualities.
Ultimately, both women confront the mysterious and manipulative man, Dr. Ford. As a result, the meticulous scientist orders Bernard to kill them both. This not only prevents the undermining of Dr. Ford's business empire, but stops the women from climbing the corporate leadership ladder. While Ford's insatiable desire for power still might have led to the murder of his co-workers had they been men, it's interesting the writers saw fit to make them women. Even though the show is full of female characters who are all complex and entertaining, one could argue that their stories are often over-shadowed by their male counterparts. The stories of William and Teddy distract from Dolores' transformation. Similarly, Bernard's heartbreaking story overwhelms those of Theresa, Elsie, and even Dolores.
Beyond the complexities of the characters, it is interesting to examine the "genders" behind these artificially constructed beings. In society, gender is a social construction. In the show, gender is not only constructed, but so is the actual being that is embodying that sex. "Though the present-day sex/gender distinction commonly associates sex with biology and gender with mind, depictions of robots and other non-human beings in science fiction have been gendered despite their lack of both a human body and a human mind." This is called "Engenderneering," according to Roy Schwartzman, a professor of Theatre, Speech, and Dance at the University of South Carolina. Dr. Ford is aware that they are not human, but has to constantly remind his workers that they are not. "It doesn't get cold. It doesn't feel shame. It doesn't feel a solitary thing that we haven't told it to," he declared. This construction of gender can have consequences. It can eventually impact how humans intermingle with non-human androids and how humans interact with humans. "Frequently, it serves only to reinforce and reproduce traditional systems of oppression and subordination, particularly those which oppress women" (Elliott). Westworld is a fine example of this. And as Dolores eerily foreshadows with a line of Shakespeare, "These violent delights have violent ends."
Westworld is the story of transformation. Through its two diverse representations of women, the show depicts a changing world full of complex characters. Similarly to the real world, women are often abused and taken advantage of, both emotionally and physically. And just like Westworld’s female hosts, women will continue to form their own independent consciousness and take action to build a more peaceful and equitable existence. Westworld may be the real world in microcosm. It is incredibly beautiful and yet can be grotesquely horrid. Perhaps we can all learn something from what Dolores said earlier in the series. "Some people choose to see the ugliness in this world. The disarray. I choose to see the beauty."
Buchwald, Emilie. Transforming a Rape Culture. New York: Milkweed Editions, 2005.
Corinthios, Aurelie. Evan Rachel Wood Reveals She Was Sexually Assaulted Twice: We Can't 'Stay Silent Any Longer'. 28 November 2016.
Elliott, Elise. Engendering Non-Humans in Science Fiction. 17 February 2017.
Holloway, Daniel. 'Westworld' Star Evan Rachel Wood Teases Episode 5 Plot, Tackles Sexual-Violence Criticism. 28 October 2016.
Koehler, Sezin. These Violent Delights Have Misogynistic Ends in HBO's Westworld. 7 December 2016.
McFarland, Melanie. To Be A Woman In "Westworld": HBO’s Brutality Fetish Still Going Strong In Presumptive "Game of Thrones" Successor. 28 September 2016.
Newton, Thandie. CBS This Morning Gayle King. 11 November 2016.
Okwodu, Janelle. Does Westworld Have a Woman Problem? 23 October 2016.
Radish, Christina. 'Westworld': Thandie Newton on the Power of Nudity, Subverting Expectations, and More. 17 October 2016.
Rivera, Joshua. What's Holding Westworld Back? Mysteries. 29 November 2016.