Don't Let the Bastards Shut You Down

March 3, 2019

Sexual violence and human nature in HBO's "Westworld".

a picture of train tracks

When HBO’s Westworld premiered in October 2016, expectations were riding high.

Studded with the likes of Thandie Newton and Anthony Hopkins and produced by none other than The Force Awakens’ J.J. Abrams himself, much was riding on the show to deliver that signature cocktail of captivating characters, sprawling narrative, and explosive set pieces for which the premium network had come to be known. The result is a disappointment - an uninspired and familiar allegory of robotic slavery and violent uprising. More troubling than its artistic or creative shortcomings, however, is the show’s pervasive depiction of sexual violence, and the producers’ attempts to justify it.

In the pilot episode of Westworld, there is a key scene in which the Man in Black, a mysterious human parkgoer (played by Ed Harris) beats a female robot named Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), then drags her away into a barn, heavily implying that he then rapes her. The scene is unflinching and unwavering in its brutality and is repeated several more times throughout the season, and this disturbingly blasé attitude towards sexual violence is at the foreground of the entire show. Ostensibly, the violence serves the narrative by showing the perpetrators as either heartless human visitors finally allowed to live out their lifelong fantasies, or robots simply following their programming for the enjoyment of the human guests.

None of this precludes the actual imagery of a man so casually beating a woman from being any less disturbing. At best, it comes off as gratuitous - repetitively showing the audience just how evil these men are, while at the same time doing very little to develop their characters or the characters they’re abusing. The main issue is that by depicting this very specific type of violence as nothing of consequence to its male perpetrators, the show normalizes and reinforces the systemic violence against women within our real world.

This issue of normalization has been brought up at press events even before Westworld ever aired. At the Television Critics Association press tour in July 2016, three months before the show was scheduled to premiere, HBO programming president Casey Bloys was asked several questions about sexual violence depicted in premium-cable shows. Regarding the prevalence of sexual violence in these shows’ narratives, he stated that, “I can tell you violence, it’s not just specific to women. It’s indiscriminate,” adding that “plenty of men are killed as well.” When asked specifically about the potential for scenes of sexual violence to have a normalizing effect, Bloys replied, “I think it’s something we take into account. It’s not something we want to highlight or are trying to highlight.”

Bloys’ responses to these questions are concerning and confusing. If not highlighting sexual violence was truly a goal, then why are there so many scenes of men brutally beating women throughout the show? Depicting sexual violence, and specifically the way in which Westworld’s story justifies its scenes of violence against women, is in itself highlighting it. And simply stating that men are subject to violence as well as women is irrelevant; the point is that violence against women is a specific problem that should be addressed with care. Saying that lots of male characters are killed and beaten too isn’t an excuse.

In a separate Variety interview with Evan Rachel Wood shortly after the fifth episode aired, Wood had this to say about the early criticism of the show's depictions of sexual violence:

“I thought [it] interesting, because there are no scenes of rape. It’s all implied. Early on when we were getting that criticism, I just encouraged people to stick with it and wait for the context, because obviously that was the starting point, and 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.”

Just because something is implied, however, doesn’t excuse the scene or render it harmless after the fact; images on their own, outside of whatever narrative or creative context they’re in, can still carry inherent meaning and power. Having a scene imply rape but not explicitly show it doesn’t make it any less disturbing, and certainly isn’t something that needs more context.

In addition, the character arc that Wood is describing here is a classic sexist trope too often seen in media: the rape and revenge plotline. A character, usually the protagonist, usually female, is raped at the beginning of the story, and the plot revolves around her exacting vengeance upon her abuser. Dolores' character arc follows this trope closely, and the show seems to have nothing new or interesting to say about it.

At the TCA tour, Lisa Joy, one of the showrunners of Westworld, stated that the show “is a consideration of human nature. The best parts of human nature…and the basest parts of human nature. That includes violence and sexual violence.” There are a number of problems with this statement. By conflating human nature with sexual violence, Joy makes a sweeping generalization about men and masculinity, with the conclusion being that men in general are prone to violence and sexual violence - “boys will be boys.”

The second problem is with the concept of human nature itself. Joy doesn’t elaborate on what she specifically means by this term, but it seems like she’s referring to the concept of human nature as something that resides within all human beings, and that people’s “basest” desires amount to little more than violence and sex.

The problem with this lens of human nature, then, is that it’s an excuse. Through this, the world is the way it is simply because people are the way they are. If rules and laws didn’t exist in society, people would sooner or later give in to their “basest” desires. This is why the park of Westworld is so popular - it gives people a space in which to act on these dark desires without consequence. As one human character says to another early on in the season, “…this place is the answer to that question you’ve been asking yourself: who you really are.” By arguing that these desires reside innately within all human beings, as opposed to being constructed by the societies we live in and the culture we consume, Joy’s definition of human nature renders the issues of rape culture, sexism, and systemic forms of oppression completely moot.

Ultimately, the saddest part of Westworld is its wasted potential. The premise of the show could have gone in so many other, more productive directions; it could’ve been an exploration of the ways in which society reinforces and normalizes the systemic oppression of women, and how that oppression could manifest itself in a controlled environment. It could have critiqued that concept of human nature that Lisa Joy talks about, showing how people are products of their environment and shaped by society, instead of being inherently violent and depraved. Instead, the show is yet another story of man-made robots struggling to become more than the sum of their parts. “Less human than human” might as well be Delos Inc.’s motto.

Ironically enough, the biggest critic of Westworld is the park’s own creator, Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins). In one of the best scenes of the show, Ford listens quietly as the park’s pompous narrative director, Lee Sizemore (played with relish by Simon Quarterman), unveils his newest storyline to the Westworld staff - a clichéd tale of brutal excess that Sizemore boasts “is the apex of what the park can provide.” After the presentation, he turns expectantly to Ford, who responds with a soft chuckle and a simple, “No.” Sizemore is crushed, and Ford continues:

“What is the point of it? Get a couple of cheap thrills, some surprises? It’s not enough. It’s not about giving the guests what you think they want; it’s not that simple. Titillation, horror, elation - they’re parlor tricks. The guests don’t return for the obvious things we do, the garish things. They come back because of the subtleties, the details. They come back because they discover something they imagine no one had ever noticed before, something they’ve fallen in love with. They’re not looking for a story that tells them who they are; they already know who they are. They’re here because they want a glimpse of who they could be.

The only thing your story tells me, Mr. Sizemore, is who you are.”