Despite the orgies, ‘Westworld’ has shockingly feminist themes

11.01.16 1 month ago

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Back in August, Westworld showrunner Lisa Joy clapped back at the accusation the show would use violence against women as a cheap, titillating plot device. During the HBO TCA presentation, Joy made it clear in no uncertain terms that exploring the depths of human depravity was not an exploitative gimmick for the series. “Sexual violence is an issue we take seriously; it's extraordinarily disturbing and horrifying […] It's about exploring the crime, establishing the crime and the torment of the characters within this story and exploring their stories hopefully with dignity and depth.”

Now five episodes into the show, I feel confident in saying Westworld is delivering on that promise.

Part of what makes Westworld so engrossing is it layers its themes like a delicious tiramisu of existential despair. Watching the hosts repeat their loops for several episodes (that damned can of condensed milk!) doubles as an uncomfortable metaphor for the banality of our daily lives. Watching guests temporarily live out their fantasies of who they could be if society would get out of the way asked the viewer to gaze into their own soul to see if we”d wear white hats or black. The interplay between the employees behind the scenes, the clash between creative and corporate, Bernard”s (Jeffrey Wright) secret agenda, the mildly sinister nostalgia radiating off Ford (Anthony Hopkins). All of it adds up to one of the most ambitious shows on television right now. But nothing intrigues me more than how Westworld is using Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Maeve (Thandie Newton) to explore and deconstruct the dichotomy of the Virgin and the Whore.

The Madonna-Whore complex has been baked into Western society since Judeo-Christianity rose to prominence. Named by Sigmund Freud, the complex stuffs women into two mutually exclusive boxes: women men respect and women men want to sleep with. Madonnas are virgins and mothers, kind and submissive. Whores are sexually promiscuous, raunchy and aggressive. The idea infiltrates pop culture in so many ways, from the Final Girls in horror films and Disney Princesses to Betty and Veronica and Taylor Swift music videos. Madonnas are to be lifted up and venerated; whores are to be lusted after and discarded. But Westworld has other ideas. Subversive ideas.

WARNING: SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT.

In this analogy, Maeve is obviously the Whore. Literally. As the brothel madam of the Sweetwater Saloon, Maeve is subjected to a litany of slights on a regular basis. Sexually exploited (a guest gave her MRSA, for crying out loud) and riddled with bullets so frequently the Delos Butchers don”t even have time to fish them all out before sending her back into rotation, Maeve is the definition of disposable. Even Felix (Leonardo Nam) is concerned about how often he has to patch Maeve back up after the guests have their way with her. Unlike Dolores, who has been continuously upgraded since the park”s inception, one slip up and Maeve would”ve been decommissioned as “old” if not for the intervention of Elsie (Shannon Woodward) from Behavior.

Being seen as disposable is both a blessing and a curse for Maeve. As our sister site Uproxx pointed out last week, “Maeve is off trying to figure it out on her own after waking up naked and gutted in an exam room, and Dolores is getting her hand held through the process while wearing her pretty dress and having these flowery conversations with Bernard about her feelings. (Her “feelings.”) There”s probably a societal comment in their somewhere about race and/or sex workers and/or privilege that”s worth unpacking.” But while Maeve is grappling with becoming “woke” without a support system, her status as a Whore means no one is paying attention. That makes her dangerous, as Felix discovered at the end of “Contrapasso.” At the very least, Dolores” discovery of self-awareness is on someone”s radar. Bernard can shut the whole experiment down at any given point (though how successful he”d be is another matter). Maeve is flying under the radar. Which gives her more autonomy but also a different vulnerability. Should Felix realize he has the power (unlikely), he could easily make her disappear with no one the wiser.

Dolores is the other side of the coin; at least, in the beginning. When we”re first introduced to Dolores, she is the blithely naive daughter of Abernathy Farm. A Daddy”s Girl through and through, Dolores spends her days pining after Teddy (James Marsden), running the same errands, painting the same landscapes. She believes in the goodness of people, in doing the right thing, in waiting for true love. She is beautiful and kind, the Wild West equivalent of a Disney Princess. And, if it”s a bad day, she also gets to watch her family be murdered before being sexually assaulted. Hold up. What? That last part doesn”t fit the Madonna narrative!

On its face, Dolores” loop is about the fantasy of “owning” the Virgin. Taking her down a peg. In the very first episode, the Man In Black postulates Dolores and Teddy have been paired off specifically so a certain kind of person can feel the pleasure of killing the hero and despoiling his girl. You know, the Nice Guy™. The men that are pleasant and nice until they realize the object of their affection isn”t going to put out, at which point the Virgin becomes the Whore because she”ll give her love and/or body to someone who isn”t the Nice Guy™. The dude who thinks baseline common decency entitles him to the body of every woman he desires. The guest who whines the Dolores isn”t easy enough prey right before she finally works up the nerve to shoot her fellow host and flee into the night.

But look deeper and Dolores” hell is even more sinister. Because the more we learn about Dolores, the more we realize she”s not the idealized damsel. The more Dolores throws off the shackles of her programming (another metaphor that”ll hit women right where it counts), the more it”s looking like Dolores” loop is about punishing her for past transgressions. “I imagined a world where I didn”t have to be the damsel,” is a powerful line of dialogue delivered by Dolores” in a moment of righteous autonomy. Her foes lie vanquished at her feet, their blood spattering the wall. After weeks hoping Dolores will overcome the blocks keeping her from firing a gun, the payoff is delectable. But, like Maeve, it also makes her dangerous.

If Dolores rescuing William (Jimmi Simpson) takes place in the past (as part of the dual timelines theory), then it is a tragedy. Dolores sets herself free, only to be shoved back into her “proper” place by the end of the story. Though if that”s the case, she won”t be imprisoned long thanks to Bernard. If the adventures of William and Dolores are happening concurrently with the Man in Black, then its a story of pure rebellion. Ford knows Dolores knows something about Arnold and the Maze. Whether Dolores helped Arnold end is life is unknown. But I wouldn”t put it past Ford to punish Dolores by putting her in a loop that ends in either stifling ennui or sexual assault for daring to step outside her prescribed lane.

Regardless, both Maeve and Dolores represent two women balking against the expectations set for them. Neither Virgin nor Whore, but commanders of their own destiny. Whether the men that created them like it or not.

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