The Least Sexy Naked People on Television

It’s not a review of Naked and Afraid… Just my first follow-up on Westworld

In its pilot Westworld provided me early warning to expect smart, unsettling things from by convincing me its numerous naked bodies were not important features in the story. As the gal who still hides behind the locker doors while changing at the gym, no one is more surprised about this than I—which is also why I think this reaction is worth sharing.

When HBO started promoting its new sci-fi meets western project, I was immediately interested in the premise but skeptical I could handle Westworld. An initial teaser includes several actors (mostly shot from the shoulders up) who appear to be both naked and confined to glass holding cells. The voice-over juxtaposes descriptions of the freedom offered visitors of virtual reality Old West vacation with shots of these confined characters, most of which appear dazed and vulnerable.

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One clothing-challenged individual, however, is pictured  horrified as she stumbles, injured, through a corridor lined with glass boxes occupied by other naked bodies. The trailer’s accumulated images triggered memories of Twilight Zone, X-files, and Fringe episodes that dealt with experiments on human test subjects—memories of some of my favorite sci-fi series and of some of their most upsetting tales.

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Their nudity is accompanied by the contrast of darkness with harsh fluorescent lights; their eerie silence interrupted with a few foreboding quotes. (“These violent delights have violent ends.”) HBO primed viewers to feel for these disrobed figures, whether that feeling is curiosity, concern, or dread. 

After months of such advertising, the series pilot explains that the naked figures are robots of a kind, 3D printed humanoids being whisked back to glass-walled labs for physical repairs, diagnostic work, and software updates.westworldlukehemsworth-xlarge_transy81phnlw26k7kws-prb1cmepeuo_wdycc5nwa1yrmnu

With that single, early-on reveal, I shifted in my seat and attempted to also shift my perspective on these exposed bodies.
Effectively part of the hardware of the Westworld experience, the characters didn’t need my pathos anymore, didn’t require that almost protective concern that the preview had carefully if obliquely invited. It was less upsetting to relate to them like Barbie dolls that had made the transition from beloved Christmas gifts to ordinary possessions, left unclothed between play-sessions and stashed unceremoniously in drawer.
I moved from a kind of viewing anxiety about nakedness and vulnerability to a detached viewership by reminding myself to think of the exposed actors as objects (just as the inventor of Westworld, Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) reminds an employee or two in every episode so far).

Using this strategy, I felt more at ease. Then quite quickly caught myself—with great satisfaction—becoming uncomfortable all over again.

In offering viewers the strategy of consciously dehumanizing the naked bodies that exist simply for entertainment inside its narrative, Westworld produces a moment to become freshly aware of how we objectify bodies for entertainment outside its narrative.

The hosts are, after all, still played by real people , actors who really are naked in service of a story. And if these weren’t real bodies—say, they were digital animations or motion-captured performances in a different platform than TV—they would be bodies created precisely in order to be objects for our diversion, not unlike the “hosts” relationship to visitors.

If you are fan of either Hitchcock (e.g., Rear Window or Psycho) or feminist film criticism (Laura Mulvey and so many after her), the unsettling relationship between voyeurism and media viewing is not a new revelation, but it does seem to me that Westworld is peculiarly creative in restaging this relationship for our contemplation.

hbo1I’ve come to appreciate how disciplined the series has been in its use of nudity since the pilot as well, almost always reserving it for scenes when the hosts are being studied, repaired, or stored.  In other words, HBO’s usually frequent and frequently graphic sex scenes are surprisingly infrequent.

It is clear, nevertheless, that these mechanical and computerized bodies are cultivated for entertainment that very often includes visitors fantasies of sex or violence.

Westworld‘s creative team makes the interesting choice of keeping visible the gruesomeness of fantasy violence perpetrated on these bodies—a choice that also keeps the show’s questions about why people find violence pleasurable in view. Contrariwise, by keeping rape, prostitution, and even consensual sex largely off screen, Westworld regularly denies its viewers’ looking pleasure, making us confront whether we crave or at least have come to expect to be part of a sexually objectifying gaze when we watch “mature” media.

The least sexy naked people on TV may also be the medium’s smartest yet.

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6 thoughts on “The Least Sexy Naked People on Television”

  1. This is so solid. Somebody from Christ and Pop Culture please give this woman a regular column!

    On Tue, Oct 25, 2016 at 11:41 AM, RemotePossibilities wrote:

    > remotepossibilities posted: “It’s not a review of Naked and Afraid… Just > my first follow-up on Westworld In its pilot Westworld provided me early > warning to expect smart, unsettling things from by convincing me its > numerous naked bodies were not important features in the story. As t” >

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