(Spoilers ahead for the first two episodes of ‘Westworld’.)
HBO’s expansive new sci-fi drama, Westworld, premiered earlier this month to mostly rave reviews. Based on the 1973 Michael Crichton-written movie of the same name, it’s the story of a futuristic full-immersion theme park set in the American Old West where lifelike androids called “hosts” interact with paying guests.
Like much of Crichton’s work (Jurassic Park), it’s an intriguing concept that practically pulls viewers in to find out where the plot could lead. But true to most media, including (and especially) its oft-likened sister show, Game of Thrones, it seems to be laid out from a particularly male perspective.
The original film considered Westworld from the guests’ point of view, but the series takes a different tact, focusing on the android hosts. We spend most of episode one following Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), a rancher’s daughter. But despite this focus, it’s clear that the Westworld universe is set up with men in mind, and not simply because the real Old West was truly a man’s world. The staff behind the scenes (real humans, not androids—or are they?) repeatedly mentions the fantasy of the place, but there seems to only be a very specific type of fantasy offered.
One of the first hosts guests encounter when exiting the train that brings them into the park is a big, burly man who bumps roughly into them, courting a fight. Further up the street, there’s Dolores, who always seems to need help retrieving her dropped groceries. Across the way, there’s the hotel with a lobby full of prostitutes, gambling, and free-flowing liquor. Other hosts offer additional encounters such as bounty hunting, heists, and similarly violent events. It’s made clear to us that rape fantasies are a popular reason people visit the park.
The few female guests we encounter are mostly wives or significant others of male guests. When the sheriff proposes to a newly-arrived couple that they help him apprehend an outlaw, the husband seems gung-ho, while his wife looks far less than enthused, despite the gun belt hanging from her hip. Episode two is told mainly from the perspective of two soon-to-be-brothers-in-law who are treating this trip as the ultimate bachelor party.
I’m disappointed in this, especially because one of the screenwriters is female. Then again, the showrunners could be making a point about the staff running the Westworld park itself. The head narrative guy we meet, Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman), is very alpha-male. The storylines he invents all seem to involve aggression, violence and sex, which doesn’t seem to sit well with the park’s creator, Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins).
Let’s face it: many of the fantasies that would appeal to most conventional women wouldn’t be as dramatic for television. Perhaps this is because it would be a true programming challenge for the park’s staff to imbue the androids with the kind of emotional depth women typically need to feel connected to a romantic partner, whereas the instantaneous nature of male attraction means that lifelike robots are perfectly suited to the quick come-on and insatiable demands of a mostly straight male audience.
Yes, the Old West was a realm of white male privilege, but Westworld is a fantasy based on that, so incorporating women’s fantasies should be a natural component of this fictional construct.
What do I mean by female fantasies? One example is what I call the “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” scenario, where you get to dance wildly at a barn raising, eat all the pie you want, and have your pick of seven burly backwoodsmen to spend the winter with, wink wink nudge nudge.
One thing I did see was mainly the destruction of plots that might be popular female fantasies. Thandie Newton’s character, Maeve, has flashbacks to a previous build, in which she seems to live an idyllic “Little House on the Prarie” existence with her young daughter until they are suddenly attacked by Native Americans and the mysterious Man in Black (Ed Harris).
If Westworld can’t expand beyond the male-centric plots, I have a feeling this show will get old quickly, as intriguing as its premise is. How many times can we watch Dolores Abernathy need a man’s help to pick up groceries and defend her homestead? How much longer can we stand to see Maeve trapped in a stockyard of horny men? It’s hard to believe the park’s been in operation for more than 30 years, as we’re repeatedly reminded, when such a large chunk of its potential clientele is ignored. It’s clear from the show’s trajectory that we will soon leave the routine of the park’s canned narratives, but until then, I’ll keep holding out for one’a them Pontipee brothers.