How Westworld Dissects Rape Culture

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How <i>Westworld</i> Dissects Rape Culture

HBO’s Westworld takes the idea of robotic interaction and pushes it to the nth degree, giving us a world where the line between real people and robots is smudged beyond repair. Robotic women immediately conjure up comparisons to the Stepford Wives, or to Ava in Alex Garland’s film, Ex Machina, but to watch Westworld is to ponder the very nature of womanhood today. In addition to considering female identity and its connection to sexuality, Westworld dissects and investigates consent, whether rape culture can be erased and who should wield the eraser.

As the train pulls into the dusty theme park known as Westworld, the audience, and the guests paying $40,000 a day to play in it, are aware of the robotic “Hosts” inhabiting the town. Part of the show’s fun is deducing who’s real and who’s a Host. Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), Maeve (Thandie Newton) and Clementine (Angela Sarafyan) are the feminine trio Westworld has cast its gaze on so far. They are lessons in the female personality as envisioned by men, representative of fantasy itself: Dolores, the sweet farmer’s daughter; Maeve, the town madam whose personality isn’t quite right for the experience of the paying guests; and Clementine, the wide-eyed prostitute always in danger.

Driven by its creator, Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the Westworld theme park is presented through a predominantly male viewpoint, one at odds with its female heroines. These archetypes aren’t new to the Western, with facsimiles in cowboy-themed entertainment for decades. The distinction lies in the Westworld experience, which allows the men to indulge their inner id on the female characters because of the women’s robotic makeup. As Dolores and Maeve learn more about themselves and question their own existence, they’re forced to confront their own tortured pasts and their role within the Western genre—one filled with rape, violence and murder.

As Ford says, each character’s story has a small grain of truth buried within it, so it’s not difficult to fathom that Ford utilizes his own outdated notions of women and their role within popular Western culture for the park. His ability to play God allows him a chance to recreate Eve without Adam’s rib, while still condemning her: Though each women is created free from sin, men write it on them. Ironically, Dolores and Maeve taste from the Tree of Knowledge by changing their loops—the history, repetitiously played out, that Ford has written for them.

Westworld’s Alice in Wonderland, Dolores’ good girl nature makes her perfect prey for black hats, and this violation of goodness is meant to titillate. For Dolores to retain her traumatic memories—of the rape in her loop and her parents’ murder—taints her as damaged goods. To crack her exterior is to ruin what makes her valuable: her virginity, goodness and wholesomeness. This backstory prevents her from engaging and acting on her own desires. Her unfulfilled romance with Teddy (James Marsden) never focuses on the physical act of sex—it’s assumed intercourse between Hosts doesn’t happen—but on the amorphous concepts of “freedom” and “being together.” Dolores is apple pie, a source of stability and true love. Possibility, but never purpose.

Unaware of their robotic nature, Dolores and Maeve are, much like humans, unable to ignore the lingering doubts they have about their way of life. With that comes re-defining their purpose as women within the grander society. Westworld is a land to indulge fantasies, but said fantasies aren’t created with an eye towards the female experience. The female characters’ sexuality is written into their origins, where physical and sexual violence dominates. Dolores’ “loop” punishes her with the death of her parents for failing to return home by curfew and sees her raped in the barn: The implantation of these events in her loop reflects the park’s use of Dolores as an object of rape. The second time the assault occurs, though, an inner voice tells Dolores to kill her attacker, giving her the ability to stop the repetition of rape in her life. Once Dolores pulls the trigger, it alerts the audience to the first serious break in her narrative.

Whether Dolores’ actions are influenced by her conversations with Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) is debatable, but Maeve’s curiosity is free of male influence. Maeve’s backstory remains ambiguous, but it’s evident she’s suffered some attack and has also encountered the Man in Black—a harbinger of change and negativity for both women. Maeve’s placed in control of the brothel, acknowledging it as a means of finding quick sex, thus gaining authority by accepting women’s place in the Westworld theme park. Where the existence of rape culture is debated and questioned at every turn, Westworld casts an eye on the men who keep the fantasies flowing while demanding erasure and acquiescence from women. There are female characters in the series who aren’t prostitutes (or Dolores), such as the female gunslinger who accompanies Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro) or the tattooed Armistice (Ingrid Bolso Berdal), but they’re still configured as damaged in some form.

Dolores and Maeve don’t seek revolution, but want to change their loops. Dolores initially says she’s happy with repetition, but the deviations from her loop allow her to chart her own destiny. The same is true for Maeve, who’s so desperate for answers, and to prove her questions have merit, that she digs a bullet out of her stomach.

The women’s refusal to let go of their questions demands control by the park supervisors. The process of memory erasure allows each Host to start their routine over and over again, but while pitched as a “kindness,” the procedure encourages the guests’ ill treatment of the Hosts. Wiping the Hosts’ memories is the only mercy the company provides, a limbo that both acknowledges the Hosts’ human-like ability to think and feel while treating them like a piece of machinery to be reset like a coffee timer. Where does consent lie, though? Since the robots are property, consent isn’t necessary, but since they possess artificial intelligence the rules of consent require acknowledgment and rewriting.

On the surface, each of the women seeks consent—consent to be who they are. What defines consent, particularly with regard to ownership? What does it say about us that the question of consent is raised because the women aren’t human? The guests have the ability to do anything to the Hosts, and coupled with the fact that these women are created with sexual degradation written in their (mechanical) DNA, this leaves the impression of callousness on Ford’s part during his creation of Westworld.

It isn’t enough to know the hosts are reset and their memories are wiped—it’s that they still experience the terrifying sexual violation. Clementine, in a moment that hints at self-awareness, declares she’s more than happy to forget the horrid men she’s slept with. For her, the sheer amount of men she’s seduced is what aids in her memory lapse, not the physical process of having her memory wiped.

Erasing rape trauma sounds beneficial, in theory, but it ignores the primary reason for the female Hosts’ creation, which is to be degraded. They aren’t offered a choice, because Hosts are considered property. Dolores asks Bernard why she would want to erase the memory of her parents’ deaths, because to her, grief comes from a place of love. She wouldn’t grieve her parents’ death if they didn’t mean something to her, and to remove that erases the people she cares for. Dolores is presented with a choice in this instance, and decides to hold on to her trauma. Would the rest of the women say the same? Ford and his corporation don’t care to ask.

Kristen Lopez is a freelance writer and critic whose work has appeared on Flavorwire, Pacific Standard, Film School Rejects and Culturess. In her spare time —what little exists—she watches and reviews classic movies at her site Journeys in Classic Film and is on Twitter @Journeys_Film.

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