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I've been watching Westworld on HBO, and I intend to watch it through to the end, but I'm not very satisfied with it. I mean, besides the fact that I've always had a huge mental block against sympathizing with robots as characters, as I still basically think they're always going to just be things, it's not that fresh a robots-as-people narrative. Basically, they're gaining sentience as their programming advances, and they're probably going to make humans pay for the horrific treatment they've undergone when utilized as things. I am absolutely sure that will happen if AI ever gets advanced enough in the real world, and we've seen it in stories a million times before.

But the thing that gets at me the most is the logic behind the Westworld park itself. It's appeal is basically presented as a place to indulge your darkest urges free of consequences-- specifically, they assume, things that take the form of hurting others. The park is full of robots, not people, so you can hurt or use them in any way you want and it doesn't matter. And that's basically the reason why people like to come.

Well. Even leaving aside what a morbidly cynical view of humanity is-- I don't even think that's all that representative of the way people's badness manifests. Personal I'd say most of the worst of us manifests not as sadism-- the desire to cause or the enjoyment of suffering in others --but rather as selfishness. It's not so much that you WANT other people to hurt, it's that you care so much about yourself and your own gratification that the harm you do to others doesn't matter to you. Sure, causing pain often gives us power over others, which is another thing we're all susceptible to, but again, I'd argue that you want the feeling of being powerful so much that you don't worry about causing pain. True psychopaths, who LIKE causing pain in and of itself, exist, but they're much rarer. Faced with no consequences for our actions, that morbid indifference to the feelings of others in favor of indulging the self is the true danger that is likely to come out of us.

I mean, I can imagine if I were in a scenario like this-- leaving aside the other problems with the workings of Westworld, which are beside my point here --I might have fun being the best shot in the West and beating a horde of rampaging gunslingers by being the fastest draw. That appeals to my sense of adventure and excitement, plus the thrill of being the best. I could see conceivably being so selfish that I care so about my enjoyment in that way I don't care that I subjected a bunch of people to painful death. But it adds nothing to that appeal to see the men I beat twitching and gasping in pain as they die from the bullets I put in them. I could see prioritizing my sense of fun such that I didn't care that I killed them. But having to witness their suffering is distasteful, such that the imposition of their pain is a consequence that would make my victory less fun. I think it would be to most people.

But even beyond that-- the version of the "dark urges" the park is designed to caters to? Is this totally one-note, stereotypically masculine conception. Basically, the form of indulgences it expects its guests to want are all extremely retrograde masculine fantasies, mostly sexual, violent, or a combination of the two. Sure, given how toxic they expect people to want to behave, you'd expect them to appeal to people's toxic masculinity, but there's no appeals to any impulse that are not coded masculine. It's all just about the chances for brutal violence or increasingly outre sexuality.

I can't figure out if it's intentional or not. Is it as a statement of how prevalent such fantasies are in people, or even how hypermasculinity encourages it? Or is it because the SHOW can't imagine dark impulses under any other encoding?

If it's intentional, there has yet to be any explicit acknowledgment that Westworld is designed under that assumption. I've seen no commentary on the problem of that conception. There's been no connection of the horrors being committed to the idea that they rise from hypermasculinty-- in fact, the only suggestion the show gives is that it comes from HUMANITY in general, rather than specifically from males. And I don't think depicting an idea without any form of critique, in so many words or otherwise, counts as commentary.

On top of that, most of the women characters in the show have been portrayed in really limited ways. The only female guests tend to be either wives supporting the adventures of their husbands, or else having identical dark urges to straight men. (There's been some portrayal of lesbianism, but it all smacks of "chicks that act like straight guys" rather than women attracted to other women. By contrast, the one bisexual dude's orgy? A woman riding his dick, another woman making out with him, while the one other guy... rubs his belly. Cowards.) The women host robots fall into a pretty stark virgin-whore dichotomy. Again, if there was some suggestion of critique of this, that women suffer even more when people act like objectification is just okay, then I might see it as a meaningful choice. But again, I've seen no sign of this.

So it's increasingly striking me as unintentional, which is both a staggeringly limited view of humanity-- even humanity's darkness --and also misogynist. I mean, why do women come to Westworld in this universe? Just to support their husbands' hero hypermasculine-coded hero fantasies, or if they want to indulge in THOSE EXACT SAME HYPERMASCULINE FANTASIES themselves? Is there nothing here to enjoy that's actually geared toward the interests of women-- or even the ways women specifically tend to break down? If nothing else, where are the hot male whores throwing themselves at female guests?

I'm only three episodes in. Maybe they'll deal with it. But I don't think it's been handled well so far.

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( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 18th, 2016 08:13 pm (UTC)
I have yet to see or read anything that makes me want to watch this show.

The dark-urges thing has puzzled me ever since The Hulk. If you stripped away all of my inhibitions, what you would get is not something that likes to beat the shit out of people.
Oct. 19th, 2016 06:12 am (UTC)
Darn, the previews looked good. I'll still give it a try but... I guess we'll see.
Oct. 20th, 2016 07:20 pm (UTC)
Hmm. I disagree with several of these points; let's see if I can articulate why. Note that I've only seen the first two eps so far, so I'm slightly behind you. Suffice it to say, I think the show is brilliant, if *remarkably* dark and critical of society.

Personal I'd say most of the worst of us manifests not as sadism

Possibly I'm just more cynical, but it looks to me like there is an *awful* lot of evidence that goes the other way. But there's an important nuance to that: the sadism presented in Westworld has everything to do with Othering, and I think that's horribly realistic.

I mean, looking at the way that tribal warfare throughout history *usually* degenerates into horror, there's a lot of evidence for this. I agree that the motivation tends to lie in selfish ego gratification, but the frequency of unnecessary rape and carnage says that it's really common. We like to believe that we Educated Elite Westerners wouldn't do things like that; I believe the show is calling BS on that, and saying that, given the *opportunity* to engage in ego gratification of that sort, a lot of people would avail themselves of it.

Even more, though, I think there's a really interesting commentary here: that this sort of maliciousness is usually associated with defining the Other. You wouldn't do that sort of thing to "people" -- you do it to Others. And once you've done it once, you're committed. You've invested some *serious* ego in the notion that the Others aren't really people -- that's essential to being able to look at yourself in the mirror afterward. And having done so, you're now invested in convincing everybody *else* to think the same way, because if they don't, they are implicitly saying that you're an evil person for having done so. In that light, I found episode 2 (specifically the "friend" relentlessly trying to convince William that he not only can but *should* be abusive) *chillingly* realistic, a really good illustration of how the meme of slavery propagates.

I can't figure out if it's intentional or not. Is it as a statement of how prevalent such fantasies are in people, or even how hypermasculinity encourages it? Or is it because the SHOW can't imagine dark impulses under any other encoding?

Hard to say for sure, but based on Jonathan Nolan's work on Person of Interest (my pick for best SF series of recent years), it's hard to imagine it being accidental.

Rather, I think that, as is usual for science fiction, it's largely talking about modern-day society. I mean, consider how much of *big-budget* media -- whether we're talking about TV, movies, games, whatever -- is similarly hyper-masculinized and over-simplified. That's not accidental: simplistically playing to humanity's darker side is one of the more reliable ways to make money, so the Money tends to force things in that direction. I am *really* curious to meet Management in this world (I'm sure it's coming), but we've already gotten some commentary on this in Episode 2. (Where Dr. Ford critiques Sizemore's proposed new storyline.)

The only female guests tend to be either wives supporting the adventures of their husbands, or else having identical dark urges to straight men.

I mentioned this point to Kate, who pointed out that we're only seeing Westworld itself, so this is automatically a self-selected slice of humanity -- basically, we're only going to see the women who *like* this particular masculine fantasy, or have been dragged their by their spouses. As she points out, given this future world's premise, she'd personally go to <a href="http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1985019/>Austenland</a> instead. Overall, I'm assuming that we're only seeing a tiny bit of this world so far, and that it's going to get a lot more nuanced as the picture widens. (If, possibly, even darker -- I wouldn't be surprised if this world is pretty dystopian.) I could be wrong, but given that they say they have five years planned, and based on the execution of PoI (which got steadily deeper into its premise over its run), I think it's likely. Anyway, I'm hooked -- it's one of my two Best New Series of the year. (Along with the silly but surprisingly funny and clever The Good Place.)
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

About Me

My name is Phoebe. I'm Boston area theater professional and English professor focused in writing, acting, directing, and modeling. I'm known for having lots of interests, lots of opinions about those interests, and a very high estimation of the value thereof. This blog is for talking about whatever's on my mind, from my daily life to my activities to musing on any number of abstract topics. Thanks for taking the time to read.

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"The Tailor at Loring's End" screenplay
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