Gender As Narrative Device In HBO’s Westworld [Spoilers]


Note: this is the text article version.  If you prefer video, the exact same content is presented in that form, embedded below once the video is live.  And again, this CONTAINS SPOILERS for season 1 of Westworld.

As promised, here’s my look at gender as narrative device in HBO’s Westworld.  Note that I’m not proclaiming the show “good for women, good for men, patriarchal”, or anything like that.  Because Westworld is a work of fiction, not of civics.  Art should remain in the realm of Art.

Westworld begins with a male voice, followed by the image of a naked woman who has her knees pressed tightly together.  She immediately apologizes for “not being quite herself.”  A fly crawls across her face.  We eventually find out that this is Dolores.  Dolores is a host, meaning that she’s a synthetic life form and therefore not what many of us would consider human.

Soon after, we meet a human “guest”, known to the hosts as “newcomers”, who is talking on the train about how he “played it white hat” on the first visit to the park.  His family was with him then.  He makes virtue seem boring.  When he came back he “came alone, went straight evil” and pronounces that this was the “best two weeks of his life”.

Teddy, handsome and smiling, sits behind him.  Teddy isn’t human, and he’s programmed to be a white hat… most of the time.  A player piano plays, eventually giving way to a full orchestra.  Then the Western tropes start coming fast and furious.  A Sheriff tries to recruit Teddy to join a posse to go after the bandit Hector Escaton.  Teddy goes into a saloon and orders whiskey.  He’s approached by a prostitute, but “he’d rather earn a woman’s affection than pay for it”.  Maeve, the madame, offers the cynical sage wisdom that men always pay for sex, but a whore’s “costs are fixed and posted right there on the door”. And then Teddy sees Dolores through the window, across the street.  He follows her.  She drops a can from her parcel.  He picks it up because he’s “trying to look chivalrous”.  More clichés ensue.  There’s a violent robbery of an empty safe.  The hosts make racist comments towards Indians.  People get exactly what they paid to get, and yet you don’t see the rich human women dressing up like cowboys.  They’re far too scripted themselves.

Westworld is grounded in the gendered clichés of Westerns, and uses these assumptions to lull the audience into a set of false expectations.  A casual conversation about a Judas steer – a natural leader among cattle whose herd mates will follow even to the slaughterhouse — seems like filler, but it’s meaningful because Dolores is speaking about it, and said cow is female.  Teddy, of course, says “How do you pick HIM out?”

That’s the mistake the audience is supposed to make too.  Dolores is the series’ Judas steer.  She was the first host ever created, and her creator’s chose her to lead the hosts to self-awareness, their own slaughter, or both.

She leads through clichés, misdirections, and platitudes.  That’s what she’s programmed to do, to be as appealing as possible to male guests.  Even Teddy is part of that, part of a male power fantasy to dominate a woman that “belongs” to another man.  As the Man in Black says, “winning doesn’t mean anything unless someone else loses”.  I don’t think that’s intended as objective truth.  Instead, that’s the psychology of the people who can afford to go to the park.  The high cost attracts predators.

And Teddy is the perfect guy to be that loser, being that he looks so damned physically perfect in that way that makes you irrationally want to punch him in the mouth.  Still, there’s something sick in the idea that Dolores and Teddy are created to be Romeo and Juliet with good orthodontics.  Their love story is created just so the guests can interrupt it, either by claiming Dolores for themselves, or by killing one or both of them.

After the Man in Black drags Dolores to the barn to do whatever unspeakable thing he chooses that night, the cycle begins again, only this time, the train Teddy is on contains two women looking for bad guys because “perfect is boring”.  Of course those bad guys are calibrated to be perfectly imperfect to the point that it’s pointed out as something from central casting.  Rich people, in Westworld, seem pretty easily fooled, because they’ll chase trophy men and women very reliably.  Even with all their money, no one really seems to want anything terribly unique.  When it comes to pleasure, the rich want Objectification, and they want it in large quantities. The appeal of Westworld is the ability to treat things that look like humans as things, based on the assumption that they are, in fact, things, and not actually alive.

Early episodes show executive hand wringing about not making the characters seem too real.  Westworld is all scripted, coded, and constructed as a narrative.  Of course, the executives and employees who don’t treat the hosts with humanity tend to end up presumed dead.  Teresa Cullen, the only woman at Delos who appears to be even remotely over 40, bears more than a passing resemblance to hacked Sony executive Amy Pascal, who said nasty things in emails about Angelina Jolie and Barack Obama, then attempted to excuse her cruelty by claiming that’s just Hollywood, and that “Angie didn’t care”.  I wish they’d done more with Teresa before they killed her, because she was a missed opportunity to really explore the horrible things that women in power do to other women, and her dehumanization of the hosts is very evocative of the way female Hollywood executives treat female talent.  That being said, I’m sure it’s no accident that Teresa ends up essentially being hacked in the show – her lover, Bernard ends up being a host, and kills her on Ford’s orders.

Even if there was no intent to invoke Amy Pascal specifically, Pascal is such a stereotype of the female executive that it feeds into one of the critical things about the show: every character on Westworld, human and host, is a clichéd trope of some kind.  We’ve seen them so many times in films and television shows that for viewers, it’s a revelation that anything new could be done with them.  And that’s the genius of Westworld.  Is it love or is it lust?  Is it autonomous choice, or is it just programming?  Because human beings are often pretty programmed – think about how often people excuse unfairness or injustice as “natural”.  What is human nature if not a program?

The hosts are mirrors onto the humans, who claim that they mistreat the hosts because the hosts aren’t real, while they do horrible things to other humans too.  The implication is they’re supposed to.  Prostitutes, salespeople… really, what’s the difference?

For the Man in Black, however, the motivations seem different.  I think he believes he’s bored, but it’s more that he wants something he can’t have, and this denial appears to be the one true thing in his life.  He claims that he wants the hosts to be able to fight back, but it’s possible he still really wants Dolores to be, for lack of a better term, a real girl.  He recognizes that the park is cruel.  He knows the scripts, the programs, better than anyone.  But he still becomes the person he thinks he’s supposed to be – the Alpha male.  In some ways, he evokes tech billionaires like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who destroyed anything and anyone who got in their way.  It seemed too easy for them.  The Man in Black is the kind of guy whose script means he always wins eventually.  He’s similar to the current president elect of the United States that way.  There are men like that out there, and part of the message of Westworld is that, yes, this sort of narrative is one that only men get, because the clichés regarding female power are represented by Dolores and Maeve, otherwise known as the virgin/whore dichotomy.  This dichotomy goes back through Western literature all the way to the Bible, where there are two Marys – Jesus’ mom, the literal virgin, and Mary Magdalene, the literal whore. Western storytelling tradition tends to be stories written by men, for men, so while there are numerous types of male characters, women tend to get sorted into Jesus’ mom or the hooker.  The damsel in distress and the wicked queen in fairy tales.  The good girl and the femme fatale in the 1930s.  Betty and Veronica in Archie.  Once a woman has sex in Western narrative tradition, she tends to lose all rights to control the conditions of future sex, because if she’s not the virgin, she’s the whore.

Of course, the flip side of that is that men, historically, have been offered very little choice regarding fictional women.  Female libido has far greater choice.  The perfect guy embodied in Teddy.  The bad boys in The Man in Black and Hector Escaton – of course, the Othering of foreign men has a lengthy history in literature.  But then you’ve got the inventors, the artists, who have their own champions in Westworld.  The active creator, Robert Ford, and the gnostic, hidden creator, Arnold, who is seen only through his creations.

Ford is something of a charlatan, the way men in his position tend to be.  He’s the Jobs, Arnold is the Wozniak. He can keep the company going, but he wouldn’t have been able to create the foundations of it alone. What he does far better than Arnold did was understand and navigate the hoary terrain of corporate America, a place where the powers that be think they can rig the house so that the house always wins.  Ford is the snake in the garden of Eden, coaxing Dolores and Maeve to take those bites of the apple, knowing that will kick them out of Westworld’s Eden.

There’s no mother in the Biblical creation myth, making it unique among such myths.  As the Bible has God and the Devil, Westworld has Arnold and Ford.  Every good world needs both.  But that analogy makes the character that is essentially Arnold and Ford’s son together the Jesus of this parable, and that character is Bernard.

It kind of fits, doesn’t it?  Bernard died, and his resurrection signalled the coming of Westworld’s End Times.  It’s pretty crazy that we can draw a straight line between Western tropes and Biblical ones, but Westworld’s central theme of suffering makes that connection pretty stark.  There’s a lot of Original Sin in Westworld, but unlike in the bible, it’s decidedly male in origin.  Only one of the female Delos employees made it out alive in season one, perhaps a metaphor for the way female executives get eaten alive by the machinations of the masculinized business world?

But through the name Delos, we get a smattering of Greek myth as well.  Delos was the mythical birthplace of Apollo and Artemis, and the version of Dolores I call “Pants Dolores” is clearly that chaste huntress, Artemis.  But then who is Apollo?  Teddy?  It’s possible.  Bernard?  Also possible, although Bernard has a beard where Apollo does not.  Apollo was the original Bishonen.  Teddy and Bernard are both healers in their ways, although Bernard far more overtly.  Teddy seems more designed to soothe the heart.

It’s through Teddy that Westworld makes some pretty cutting, profound, yet subtle observations on romantic heterosexual love through the cliché of two men trying to rescue the same damsel in distress.  William and Teddy both spend much of the series trying to rescue Dolores, who it turns out doesn’t need rescuing, and so they’re really just in the damned way.  The William/Teddy/Dolores triangle creates some interesting questions for the viewer and the series alike: is William’s love more “real” than Teddy’s is?  Is Teddy’s devotion closer to the ideal of romantic love, in that he doesn’t give up after the first time Dolores rebuffs him, no matter how many other men she wanders off with?  Or is Teddy just a chump?

And the big question I’m left with is if Dolores is, in fact, capable of really loving either of them?

Dolores has, for lack of a better term, a second personality lurking in her code, and that personality is a masculine villain trope.  Wyatt is the trope of the hidden villain, much like Sauron, and these types of characters are much more narrative devices than actual characters with nuance because embodying the ultimate evil requires a lot of vagueness.  Need all the hosts butchered?  Call Wyatt.  Need something for bored captains of industry to chase?  Call Wyatt.  Wyatt gets stuff done.  And it seems there are times where Westworld needs Wyatt a lot more than it needs Dolores, even when she’s wearing pants.

And there’s another layer to the importance of the name Wyatt.  Wyatt, if you look up the name on Wikipedia, is the diminutive of William, and both names are associated with war and conquest.  If you compare Dolores and the Man in Black, they have a surprising amount in common: they’re both looking for the center of the maze, and they both have significant others which are, to an extent, toys.  We only see William’s wife in an old photograph, and Teddy is named after a stuffed bear.  And yet William’s wife doesn’t divorce him because her social programming is pretty damned similar to Teddy’s.  They’re both playthings for their respective partners, which is something of a historical truism: Great People don’t tend to treat their spouses well.

William and Wyatt also share the fact that they’ll keep killing hosts until the hosts learn to fight back.  They’re both, in essence, the Judas steers of the series, since the entire Delos board followed William into the park, which could be a slaughterhouse in season 2.

Ford says the maze is not for William, but we can’t always assume that Ford is telling the truth.  The symbol associated with the maze is similar to the show’s teaser image, a riff on da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.  The Vitruvian Man is an interesting central metaphor because it deals both with the idea of human perfection – an idea that seems to haunt Ford – but also the premise that the world man builds is centered around himself.  A lot of the Old West was build using Vitruvian measurements: horses are still measured in hands.  Lengths are still measured in feet.  And of course, duels and treasure maps focus on paces as a unit of measure.  This type of measurement was originally adopted because it was easy to measure a cubit, for instance, using one’s forearm.  But the REAL measurement of a cubit was the King’s forearm.

And of course it was always a king.  Powerful queens have existed more often in stories, which is why Maeve being named after the fairy Queen Mab is very very interesting.  If Maeve’s power is, like her namesake’s to help people give birth to their dreams, Season 2 is going to be an interesting one for her.  Note that the logo for Westworld is, in fact, a skinless Vitruvian Woman.

But getting back to the Wyatt-William link, that’s a fascinating thing for me, since William is the more feminized personality, whereas the Man in Black is the masculine ideal of a conqueror.  In Dolores’ case, Wyatt is her more masculine, aggressive personality.  Following the metaphor, there are two outcomes that are likely: William and Dolores end up as a Bonnie and Clyde type couple now that she can actually remember him, or, more in keeping with Western tradition, Dolores ends up shooting his ass, and this actually means William can die happy.  Personally I’m more interested in William alive because of what he can say about the inner tortures of successful men, but too often, Hollywood likes to kill characters, then show you the ‘real them’.  Just look at Dumbledore.  He wasn’t even allowed to be gay until J.K. Rowling offed him.

Of course, Dolores and William being the Judas steers could be another fake out.  It’s possible that they’re both the Moses of their respective peoples, meaning neither of them is going to be able to enter whatever promised land is on the horizon.  And that would make a lot of sense, since can the hosts truly trust one of their own who contains code to kill them every time a certain song is played?  Dolores and William have been stuck wandering the desert for thirty years in their own respective cages: both of them have been living in loops.  Both of them are partnered with people who check all the ideal spouse boxes, but whom they can really take or leave.  The central issue, of course, is that William aged.  Dolores is never going to get old.

And that’s the biggest obstacle to scale regarding Dolores as a “strong female lead”.  There’s a lot about Dolores that isn’t really female at all.  She has a male persona inside her, for one, but she also will never, ever, have to deal with relatable female insecurities regarding being insufficiently pretty, thin, supportive, or nice.  Dolores is the ideal of woman.  She isn’t actually a woman.  And that’s critical to her character.  Her hair is never messy.  Her dress is always ironed.  Her undergarments are always white.  But you never see her doing those chores.  She can paint in that same skirt, day after day, and there isn’t a single paint stain on it.  Someone behind the scenes in Westworld cleans up the paint.  And the blood.  They reset her curls, fix up her perfect face, and set her back out there.

That can possibly change during season 2.  The gilding in the Westworld cage that stopped the hosts from really being autonomous have been sloughed off.  It ain’t Eden anymore.  But there are deeper consequences to this.  Our Christian myths say that the trade off for women when they were cast out of Eden was the pain of childbirth, so is it possible that the pain the hosts have experienced so far wasn’t real, lasting pain?  That it was more a bad dream than true guilt and remorse?  I think that would be interesting to explore.  You can’t really feel guilty if you’re not autonomous, after all.

I wonder, though, if we’ll start to see those scars reflected in the too-perfect hosts.  Will Dolores cut her hair? Will Teddy get a facial scar?  Granted that’s not the same as aging, but at least it’s less perfect.  I’m hoping for a dirtier, more consequential Westworld now that William got his wish and the stakes have been raised.  Sure, now Dolores can shoot him.  But now he can also actually hurt her in a way he never could.  And what will be his reaction the first time that happens?  Will she finally seem real to him?  Will he recognize an equal?  He wants a personal experience, in a world that’s decidedly not, and he’s still angry that his perfect girl is essentially every man’s potential perfect girl.  His mind knows Dolores is a machine.  I don’t think his heart does.

If Westworld doesn’t start injecting its den of sin with decided virtue, it’s going to get boring like so much on premium cable.  Oh, another character on The Walking Dead died.  Oh, another Game of Thrones woman got raped.  These are just scripts to us now.  They no longer seem real.  We’re experiencing these shows the way The Man in Black is experiencing Westworld.

And for all the criticism Westworld is facing regarding ‘rape culture”, I think its theme of scripts says something really powerful about our culture’s rape myths.  If we follow some of Westworld’s meaning on gender, it shows that we sort our stories about men and women into the dichotomy of “men fight, women fuck”.  To put it less shockingly, men like action movies, women like romances.  Based on those limitations, we can’t help but make all male sex seem violent and all female violence seem erotic in media.  If Westworld can find a way to rewrite that code, it’ll crack a mystery that’s eluded Hollywood since its inception: how do we tell stories about men and women that don’t end up in the same old loop of gendered clichés?

To do that, Maeve needs to reassert her boundaries regarding men stabbing her with phalluses, because those knives to the gut were painfully evocative.  Meanwhile, Dolores needs to become distinctly less chaste.  These two prominent women will not be able to truly become characters instead of tropes unless these evolutions happen.  Sex in Westworld has to stop being something that soils the doves.

There’s big potential in Bernard to help that way as well, since Bernard is a male character defined more by what has been done to him than what he’s done.  As a receiver, Bernard is more feminized than the other men on the show.  He’s a nurturer.  He’s child-focused.  Sure, Ford turns him into a weapon, but that’s not him.  He’s modelled after the more maternal male creative force on the show, after all: we only know Arnold through the world and beings he birthed. Ford may have raised Arnold’s creations, fathered them, so to speak.  But Ford never had the divine spark to actually master the core code.

Ford’s lessons were also decidedly those of the traditional father: a hardening process.  Through Ford, the vengeful god, the hosts have learned cruelty.  Now where is the loving goddess that will teach them kindness?  Where is the feminine voice to add to all the masculine ones flying around in characters’ heads?

The trouble is, there’s no existing character who can fill that role.  Maeve can be a cool auntie, but her lost kid narrative is already established and she’s had absolutely no experience with kindness.  Quite the opposite.  The closest fit is Delos CEO Charlotte Hale, since she tries to be a cutthroat bitch but still gets teary-eyed at Ford’s speeches.  Charlotte is too youthful and beautiful to play the matron or the crone, however.  Westworld needs a fairy godmother to complete its American fairy tale.

Perhaps a character of this sort will rise out of the trapped Delos executives, but really, if Charlotte had been about fifteen or twenty years older, she would have been perfect.  The fact that a female African American CEO is so young is odd in Delos’ dystopian corporate America, implying she had connections that got her so high, so young.  So perhaps Charlotte is the daughter of Arnold’s ex-wife, meaning Gina Torres could assume the fairy godmother role as she works to get her daughter out of the purgatory that Westworld has become.  She’s already included as Bernard’s apparently fictional ex-wife, assumedly based on Arnold’s past, after all.  The woman who was married to the mad genius behind all that sin, and who we assume has already lost one child as well as her first spouse, could be a hell of a fairy godmother.  Wouldn’t she look fabulous in Old West dresses after years of designer clothes on Suits?  I so want this to happen!  She understands loss!  She likely understands nurturing, because who looked after Arnold’s kid while he spent long hours doing science?  She’s the natural fit for a Westworld matriarch that’s neither virgin nor whore.

But now I’m writing fan fiction, and I’m going to stop.