Westworld as an (unintentional?) feminist metaphor

I am really enjoying Westworld.  Not because I’m theorizing and trying to figure out who, what, and so on, but because I’m seeing reflections of some really feminist topics reflected in this show, both subtly and overtly (and I’m not seeing others remark upon them, which puzzles me greatly).  Last week’s takedown of the manic pixie dream girl trope was pretty overt, but in S01E08 “Trace Decay”, there’s several topics that get tied together, and some of them aren’t quite that obvious.

And perhaps most important of all, they don’t even have to be there intentionally.

Spoilers for S01E08 and before follow after the picture of Maeve and Dorothy!

You kick ass, ladies.

With Dolores’ “freakout”, Bernard’s beginning flashbacks, and Maeve’s blunders this week from resurging memories, it’s not too much of a stretch to see the erasure, implantation, and manipulation of memory as a big metaphor for gaslighting.

This doesn’t take away from Ferrett’s analysis of Westworld as a metaphor for mental illness; in fact, he mentions the gaslighting analogy in that post.  Considering that the point of gaslighting is to get one to question one’s own mental stability, these metaphors can quite easily co-exist.

Which brings us to William. He’s oddly calm about Dolores’ freakout – because he’s a stand-in for the “well-meaning guy”. He started off being very compassionate and caring – to the point of being ridiculed by Logan (who is acting as one of many Archie Bunker stand-ins). Over time, though, we’re getting to see that caring doesn’t quite go all the way down. Last week, we saw him try to make Dolores into nothing more than a catalyst for his own story, and this week we see that despite his assertions of caring, deep down William still sees Dolores as less-than-human.

William:  We gotta get you closer to Sweetwater. This far out, it’s like you
You start to break down or something.

The key here is realizing that William does not mean “break down” as in “get emotionally upset”.  He means “break down” as in malfunction.  This also explains his lack of emotional response to Dolores’ fugue state; she’s suddenly snapped back to being less than a real person to him.

I don’t think this is malice, though. William’s heard about Westworld for a long time, and has had it driven home time and time and time again (both explicitly and implicitly) that the hosts are lesser.  That kind of societal training has an effect.

Another example of that effect is in the revelation from the Man In Black.  While talking to Teddy, the MiB lists off several ways that he is a “good” man – titan of industry, philanthropist, and so on. Immediately following that, the MiB tells Teddy and us) about his wife and daughter.  It’s worth quoting his monologue:

I’m the good guy, Teddy.  Then, last year,
my wife took the wrong pills.
Fell asleep in the bath. Tragic accident. 30 years of marriage vanished.
How do you say it?
“Like a deep and distant dream.”
Then, at the funeral,
I tried to console my daughter.
She pushed me away,
told me that my wife’s
death was no accident,
that she killed herself
because of me. Emily said that every day with
me had been sheer terror. At any point, I could
blow up or collapse
like some dark star…
They never saw anything
like the man I am in here.
But she knew anyway.
She said if I stacked up all my good deeds,
it was just an elegant wall I built to hide
what’s inside from everyone,
and from myself.

This reminds me of nothing so much as when I suddenly realized that every woman in a night class with me checked under their car when heading home when I never did. It reminds me of when I insulted a woman and didn’t realize it.  It reminds me of the other side of the “well meaning guy”, who suddenly realizes that no matter what their intent, they were still participating in the Monopoly game of structural inequality.  The MiB was suddenly faced with the existential crisis of his self-perception being completely out of phase with those whose opinions he cared most about.

Sadly, it seems that rather than use that critique as a starting point of actual self-discovery (and self-improvement!), the MiB instead went straight to Westworld to see if he (could be) was as bad as his daughter claimed.

Have you met humans?  We can all be pretty damn awful, and there’s quite a bit of research indicating that if we want to (or are encouraged to, as the park does, Ford’s protestations about white-hat storylines notwithstanding), that any of us can do horrible things.

Especially if everything around us teaches us that some of the people around us – hosts, women, people of color – are somehow lesser.

Which brings us to Ford and his watered-down nihilism and watered-down Nietzscheanism. To Ford’s machismo.

Yes, machismo.

Ford: And as exquisite as this
array of emotions is,
even more sublime is the ability
to turn it off.

Ultimately, Ford views this kind of control, this kind of power to be far more valuable than any other achievement. It may be dressed up in fancy clothes, but it’s raw control – or power, or force – that matters most to Ford.

It’s here that it’s important to back out of the story for a moment. The writers may not have intended these topics and themes at all. But they do exist in the narrative. This isn’t a contradiction at all; we are all steeped in the society and morés of the culture we’re raised in… and the global West has been a patriarchy for a very, very long time.

Therefore, it’s not a stretch to think that these themes and topics have seeped into the show from the cultural zeitgeist, without any kind of deliberate intent. And likewise, it’s not a stretch to think that the machismo of the fictional Westworld park likewise stems from the now clear values of its (fictional) head storyteller and caretaker of the last 30 years, Dr. Ford.

Whether intentional or not, Westworld is highly rooted in the cultural patriarchal narrative of the current day.

This manifests in obvious ways, like the independent but related struggles of Dolores and Maeve.

It also manifests is more subtle ways, such as the high female mortality rate of characters in the series.

Because in the park, in the show, and in our current society at large, it is literally the system killing women.

You want to know who to root for?

Root for those who want to break the loops and tell their own stories.

Root for those who want to break the system.


One thought on “Westworld as an (unintentional?) feminist metaphor

  1. I am really enjoying WestWorld. I love this post as I have been thinking along those lines too. How the erasure and rewriting is a form of gaslighting thats particularly sinister when Delores is put through the same nightmare over and over and then forced to forget and supress. Even when she has almost ptsd style flashbacks.

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