“The vast amounts of terror dispensed on characters of color makes for a disturbing picture.”
Episodes Reviewed: Season 1
Creators: Original story by Michael Crichton 👨🏼🇺🇸, TV show by Jonathan Nolan 👨🏼🇺🇸 and Lisa Joy 👩🏽🇺🇸
Writers: Original story by Michael Crichton 👨🏼🇺🇸, TV scripts by Jonathan Nolan 👨🏼🇺🇸(10 eps), Lisa Joy 👩🏽🇺🇸 (10 eps), Jason Lanier Brown 👨🏼🇺🇸 (10 eps), and various (5 ♂, 2 ♀, 1 POC)
Reviewed by Monique 👩🏾🇺🇸
Westworld is a show based on one of the most seminal themes of science fiction since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: If consciousness is put into an empty vessel, does that constitute humanity? Westworld tackles this and then some, but if you’re squeamish, the message might get dulled by the sheer amount of body horror and sex. To be fair, the violent and animalistic (and, in many cases, non-consensual) sex is meant to make a point about the depravity human beings are capable of when they know they can’t get in trouble. But call it the HBO curse—it seems like much of the sex and even some of the gore is there just to earn its MA rating.
Aside from that, Westworld is brilliantly shot and, like the robots that inhabit the fake Western park, beautifully designed and morbidly enchanting. Through the surrealistic use of flashback and atmosphere, Westworld keeps you gasping out loud and yelling “WHAT??” It’ll also have you wondering about how human nature works when consent isn’t an issue. At the very least, Westworld asks its viewers to have more compassion and, yes, humanity towards things and people we don’t understand.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES, but barely
Westworld is a show that tells the story of robots subjugated to the vilest of humanity’s whims and writers use a very male gaze and male voice to tell it. While technically every robot in the park has been killed, raped, or otherwise used for sexual gratification by human guests, much of the brutality (including implied rape) happens to the female characters. It’s especially nauseating to binge-watch, as the violence towards women quickly becomes overwhelming.
In fact, the series opens with a scene involving Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) being dragged off by the man in black (Ed Harris), leaving the audience to assume she will be raped. What makes the scene even more disturbing is Wood’s own history as a victim of rape.
The showrunners addressed these problems, saying that they weighed these scenes with regards to the impact they’d have on the story. “It was definitely something that was heavily discussed and considered as we worked on those scenes,” said Joy to The Hollywood Reporter. “Westworld is an examination of human nature. The best parts of human nature—paternal love, romantic love, finding oneself—but also...violence and sexual violence.”
Wood, too, has discussed the amount of violence directed at women in the show. “The thing about Westworld is that we don’t actually show any act of rape,” she said to Rolling Stone. “It’s the initial knee-jerk reaction—which I totally get because it is a problem and valid. You know, I was affected by things being written off as locker-room talk—I had a very, very visceral reaction to it. But the show is definitely a commentary on that.”
Wood also alluded to the fact that she uses her past as a way to help fuel her characterization of Dolores, saying, “I mean, your demons never fully leave. But when you’re using them to create something else, it almost gives them a purpose and feels like none of it was in vain.”
The argument for and against sexual violence in Westworld can be made. But personally, it was a lot for me to take, especially considering how the sex objectifies female androids but defines human manhood. This takes some of the wind out of the sails of the “we’re not fetishizing” argument.
For example, there are several scenes depicting women androids servicing male customers, or kissing each other to please the male gaze. However, when a female customer takes up with an android saloon girl Clementine (Angela Sarafyan), we don’t see anything; the camera stays with android cowboy Teddy (James Marsden) before cutting to the next scene. The only time we get a closeup on a woman kissing another woman is when Elsie (Shannon Woodward) kisses Clementine during a repair session. But even then, it seems like Elsie’s gaze is also written from a male perspective.
To be fair, there are certain moments when male robots are used for sex, but these moments are few and far between. A key moment would be when Charlotte (Tessa Thompson) has sex with android Hector (Rodrigo Santoro), who is handcuffed to her bed. However even then, Hector’s manhood is cared for because the show has the modesty to only allow us to hear them having sex through the door until Charlotte opens it to reveal their nakedness.
Race is also target of objectification, unfortunately. If you’re an android and you’re not a white male or a particular type of white woman, you’re bound to be tragically used. Maeve, the saloon madam (Thandie Newton) and her compatriot Clementine are both women of color, and both are used for sex by human guests. In fact, a quick scan of the saloon girls shows that a good number of them are women of color—a telling glimpse at how women of color are utilized on this show and, in many ways, stereotyped in society.
There are virtually no women of color in powerful positions until later in the season, when we are introduced to Charlotte, who is the executive director of the board and Maeve herself, who takes control of her life after officially waking up from her loop. The show would do well to showcase more women of color who aren’t defined by sex.
Men of color are also objectified. In one scene, we see Elsie sizing up a black android with her eyes as she’s calibrating him for wait staff service. Hector is, as already stated, used for sex by Charlotte and is almost raped when offline by a tech who has been caught by Elsie for previously raping offline androids (naturally, we see the graphic video).
Meanwhile, the Ghost Nation, the only Native American characters in the series, are barely characters. Instead, they are broad stereotypes of Native Americans with no lines of dialogue. They are only there to yell and kill. Perhaps the show is trying to make a commentary on the fact that the Western is a genre invented to solely tell the story of the white man’s “heroism” against the “savages”, as the park’s narrative comes from a white male gamemaster. But if that’s the case, the show didn’t provide enough breadcrumbs for viewers to connect the dots, leaving the Ghost Nation simply another form of overt and intense stereotyping.
Interestingly, most of the characters we see taking advantage of androids are white men. The vast amounts of terror dispensed on characters of color makes for a disturbing picture. It’s probably intentional, then, that the characters who do help the androids are men of color. Arnold posthumously helps Dolores and the other androids through powerful code left to them, and tech Lutz (Leonardo Nam) is Maeve’s key to learning more about herself and preparing her escape. But as with the Gender category, this is not enough good to outweigh the sheer amount of violence and objectification depicted against androids of color.
The few instances of same-sex interaction and bisexuality that are shown in Westworld are vilified or, worse, grounds for murder. The latter was the case for Elsie, who is killed when she learns too much, and the former happens to Logan (Ben Barnes), one of the long-time guests of the park. He only uses the park to fulfill his bacchanalian fantasies, which includes having foursomes with women and men (and even then, we only see him get sex from the two women androids, while the male android present simply caresses him, once again putting sexual onus on the women of this show). Logan’s sexuality defines his role as a villain, and this is most apparent when he, his friend William (Jimmi Simpson), and Dolores head to the lawless town of Pariah, where a huge orgy takes place.
It’s unfortunate that there aren’t more LGBTQ characters humanized beyond their sexuality. It’s even more unfortunate that the only one who is—Elsie—ends up as yet another dead LGBTQ character on TV.
Mediaversity Grade: F 1.88/5
Westworld is gratuitous to a mind-numbing degree. Does the amount of sex and violence help or hurt the show’s main thesis? That’s probably up to the individual viewer. However, for this particular viewer, it was simply mind-numbing. Even still, as the show wraps up with Dolores and Maeve calling the shots, I’m curious to see how far the androids’ newfound liberty will take them in gaining leverage over their awful human overlords. I’m just not sure if I’ll be up to watch the second season.