HBO’s new hit show riffs on one of Second Wave feminism’s signature tactics
At the start of the pilot it was Dolores. At the start of this weekend’s episode, Maeve.
These shots of two of Westworld’s central characters waking up help visually underscore the narrative parallels of these two characters. As stereotypes of women they represent the Westworld poles of the madonna/whore dichotomy. Both are attractive to a number of the park’s visitors, though one for her romantic innocence as much as the other for her worldly knowing.
The similar shots of waking also provide us reminders that Westworld is a story in no small part about androids waking up to their circumstances as objects designed for entertainment that are also frequently objects of desire, sex, and violence.
The theme of awakening to the true structure of their reality is also echoed in the script followed by employees performing diagnostic interviews with “hosts” in the corporate laboratory. In this set-piece, the host in question (often Dolores) answers the question, “Do you know where you are?” with, “Yes, I am in a dream.”
Thus the movement between the real world as dream and the “awake” world of the Westworld theme park takes on irony and existential weight for main characters Dolores and Maeve.
Viewers can expect that as these women awaken to their circumstances, something in the narrative world will change.
And that expectation feels like a pop cultural legacy of Second Wave feminism to me.
In the middle of the 20th century, women met in small groups in homes around the country to talk about their personal problems and to listen without judgment to the struggles of other women. Add a bottle of wine and you and I might call that “girls night in.” Add an explicit intention to awaken one another to the way women’s shared problems point back to social institutions and the power of patriarchy and the name “consciousness raising” is more apt.
The idea behind “consciousness raising” (CR) was that too often women thought of their problems in isolation from one another. After all the sort of things that get labeled “personal issues” included “personal” failures to live up to aspirations, to balance family roles, the foibles and disappointments specific to a given woman’s biography. Looked at side by side, however, these personal stories testified to something larger at work: patterns of dismissiveness and discrimination, of objectified bodies and subjugated selves.
Feminists believed that this new awareness would be the foundation of social action. That being conscious of one’s oppressions was the first step in challenging the authority of one’s oppressors.
Westworld has taken the tactic rather literally.
The primary characters coming to consciousness of their circumstances as “hosts” inside a virtual reality vacation venue are women. Frequently pictured waking up or talking about their dreams, brothel madame Maeve and cattleman’s daughter Dolores are now on different but parallel attempts to break with their usual “loop” of experience, to discover a different way of being themselves.
As Westworld’s riffs on feminist consciousness raising, it has reminded me of another feminist sci-fi story. The Stepford Wives (a 1972 novel made into a 1975 film), provided another powerful and powerfully grim pop culture rumination on artificial intelligence. In one of the film’s most unexpectedly unsettling scenes, several female androids (spoilers largely spoiled already by general cultural knowledge) attend a consciousness raising.
By situating its androids within idealized suburban locations and traditional marriages, the Stepford Wives‘ most forceful critique was not of artificial intelligence, but of men’s power over women, even how men’s fantasies about women exert real-life power over women’s destinies. I’d argue that the source of the horror in this 70s thriller, is more the callous patriarchy of the husbands than the uncanniness of robot technology.
Which brings me back to Westworld.
As was the case in Stepford, the source of the horror for female protagonists of Westworld is also not the technology or that they are technology. The source of the horror is the way humans treat them.
I can not think of a more literal way to depict consciousness raising’s relationship to an alertness to issues of female oppression that what Westworld is beaming at its audience each week. Both Dolores and Maeve experience their sentience as a return of their memories which they misunderstand as dreams. (And it turns out that androids do not dream of electric sheep.) Their dreams/memories are particularly stained with blood and loss–lost fathers, lost lovers, lost children. Lost control over who gains intimate knowledge of their bodies–as lover, rapist, coroner, or repairman–is another theme.
Freed from the social policing of caring what others think or simply imagining that strangers are looking at you, the Westworld destination’s guests don’t just drop the social graces. The high price tag of their visit buys a vacation to the Old West that is also a vacation from respectability and from physical consequences (like being hurt) and criminal ones. Even basic personal ethics seem off the table for most visitors so long as they regard everything in Westworld including nearly everyone they meet as a thing.
The awakening consciousness the hosts however, revives, the question of moral consequences for the guests actions.
As hosts Maeve and Dolores regain their memories, become articulate about their own desires, and increasingly improvise new courses of action for themselves, they are not alone in their rising consciousness.
We viewers are also part of the consciousness raising. Meeting with them in the intimacy of our living rooms, taking in their stories, and fitting them with our own, Westworld viewers are challenged to see our own complex role in the narrative:
We are proxies for the visitors for whom these women’s plights provide entertainment. We make our own weekly escape to Westworld to consume their sexiness or sorrows and stories for pleasure.
And we are also proxies for these increasingly enlightened female hosts as each week the series also opens the possibility of becoming aware of our consuming gaze and how it relates the objectification of both Westworld’s women and to the objectification in our own world, from TV programming to campaign “locker room talk.”