Where is female fantasy in HBO’s ‘Westworld’?

(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.

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On Geekdom and Authenticity

© Andrew Evans / PR Photos/Courtesy Starpulse.com

© Andrew Evans / PR Photos/Courtesy Starpulse.com

I’ve been reading with interest the write-ups in various news outlets this week on Chris Hardwick, the current King of the Nerds for all us geeks, dorks and miscellaneous tweedy people out there. He’s generally likeable and I enjoy watching him host @Midnight on Comedy Central and AMC’s Talking Dead, the Walking Dead after-show.

But his interview in the New York Times this past Thursday gave me pause.

I suppose I’m mourning the gradual loss of the “authentic” Chris Hardwick. He used to use the @Nerdist Twitter handle personally, and now that his company has been sold twice (once to Legendary Entertainment and again to a Chinese conglomerate), he’s handed it over to a staff of folks. I assume that even before these transactions, the account was managed by someone on his behalf, but this move simply confirms it. He is seemingly everywhere and nowhere these days. Hosting three shows, a weekly podcast, and dozens of other projects, he’s become ubiquitous not just in the geek world but in pop culture at large. Screen Junkies parodied him as “nerdy Ryan Seacrest” and while I think that’s a bit harsh, I understand it on the over-saturation level. He’s so busy building an empire that it seems to me like he’s lost a bit of what made nerdy people like me cotton on to him in the first place and enable him to become our Palpatine.

From the New York Times interview:

The Internet can be a harsh place, full of nasty personal attacks. Mr. Hardwick, a digital evangelist if there ever was one, gets particularly exercised about such viciousness. Discussing his philosophy for the podcast, he said he “always wants people to leave feeling a little bit better than when they got there.” And that optimistic maxim serves as a guiding principle.

His celebratory tendencies get him bashed regularly on social media as a cheerleader — don’t turn to Mr. Hardwick if you’re looking for a brutal takedown of “Batman v Superman” — but he wears those criticisms proudly.

“I feel there’s enough negativity, there’s enough cynicism, there’s enough walled garden and exclusionary behavior,” he said. “You can get that so many places.”

There’s none of that snobbishness in Mr. Hardwick’s empire.

“The soul of it, if I were really breaking it down psychologically, is pretty simple: I always felt excluded when I was in grade school, and I wanted to create something where no one would ever have to feel that way.”

That last part made me glad–glad to see a fellow bullied kid rise above it and become successful–but it also made me a bit sad. If you’re always “a cheerleader,” as the NYT puts it, are you being honest? There’s a way to not be a troll or a geek elitist but still be true to your own feelings on all these cultural entities.

In fact, I think that the cheerleading is actually hurting some of Hardwick’s properties. On Talking Dead, he never takes the network to task for questionable storytelling tactics. The show has become a stage for formerly behind-the-scenes staffers to suddenly have a public persona and a platform for their own musings. There are no hardball questions for them and really nothing for them to do except have their egos stroked.

I don’t feel that Hardwick’s really got a handle on how the audience feels about what the writers and producers are doing on Walking Dead, and that’s a problem both for Talking Dead and for AMC as a whole. Their flagship show is losing viewers–as of the end of season 6, that includes me–and it stands to reason that their after-show will as well. Season 6 was all about audience manipulation, at least in my mind, and if Hardwick is really a fan like the rest of us, it would be nice for him to at least acknowledge that he’s felt jerked around, too. He claims “it doesn’t bother” him, that he trusts the producers, but that doesn’t feel real to me. It doesn’t have to be an “attack” or “snobbishness,” just honesty. I don’t question whether Hardwick is a real nerd; I question whether he’s an honest one. Because if everything is always positive, then authenticity isn’t even a question anymore; it’s a joke.


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Remembering George Oesterling

mr-oGeorge Oesterling, known as “Mr. O” to his students, taught me chemistry (and so much more) in the late ’90s at North Catholic high school. The following is text of a eulogy that I delivered at his memorial service on March 28, 2015.

I have no idea how I made it into honors chemistry. I was such a disaster at applied science.

I got a 20% on my nomenclature exam.


On lab days, I was as skittish and nervous as a white rat being weaned off some experimental drug.

I probably held the record at North Catholic for number of test tubes broken in a single class period.

Somehow, none of that mattered, because I passed Mr. O’s class. Though he couldn’t quite get chemistry to stick in my brain, Mr. O himself managed to stick there. I remember so many things he said so clearly.

He told us that chemistry is just applied biology, and physics is applied chemistry, so all science is really based in biology.

He told us that ordinary classroom chalk could be used to calm an upset stomach, but he warned us against using the yellow kind, as it would leave a ring in your beard.

He told us he’d instituted a reverse-alphabetical-order seating chart because he’d hated always being stuck toward the back of the room when he’d been in school. Though as an “L” myself, it didn’t really make much difference either way.

He told us about his wife and kids, especially Nathaniel, and it was obvious he was incredibly proud that his son shared his own passion for history.

He told us Jerry Garcia would have played him in the movie of his life, if he hadn’t died in 1995.

And he told us about Sam Sebastian.

Sam Sebastian wasn’t responsible for some important scientific discovery, but he was an influential person in Mr. O’s life. He was a Pict—a Celtic tribesman—who contacted Mr. O and a group of his friends through a Ouija board one spooky night at Thiel College.

Most of the details are lost to me now, but I do remember that he would tell the story every year as close to the same date as possible. And everyone at school knew exactly when that day came, because he’d wear the same funky psychedelic necktie. It happened to be the tie he was wearing the first time he ever told a class the story, and it became a tradition.

Countless upperclassmen would beg to be let out of other classes to come to Mr. O’s room to hear the story again. You could’ve heard a pin drop in the room, we were so engrossed in the tale he wove for us. To this day, the first person I think of when I hear any mention of a Ouija board is Mr. O.

Another of Mr. O’s proud traditions was his annual series of Civil War lectures for the AP US History class. He’d play a few scenes from the 1993 Gettysburg movie and then wistfully tell us that he could’ve been an extra in it. But Nathaniel and Natilee were very little at the time and it was at least a six-week shoot. Then he’d always be sure to tell us that the extras that had made it on-screen were all too fat and healthy-looking to have been realistic.

And that, I think, is what made Mr. O such an indelible personality to me. He wasn’t just a science person. He was a learning person. He loved knowledge and wanted to share it. He was passionate about so many topics, whether it was conspiracy theories about air travel terrorism, the infamous grassy knoll in Dallas, elaborate pop culture trivia questionnaires or his rock ‘n roll days playing with Kindred Spirit.

Though I’m sure much of his chemistry material was the same from year to year, Mr. O’s classes certainly weren’t.

He’d begin each class period by coming out from behind his lab bench, settling his backside against the front of it, and resting one arm across his chest. With his other hand, he’d nudge his glasses up the bridge of his nose and stroke his beard. “What’s on your mind?” he’d say. “Ask me anything.”

This was an irresistible challenge to a roomful of teenagers, to see how long we could keep Mr. O talking about anything other than chemistry. It wasn’t too difficult.

We had just switched to a double-period, every other day schedule when I had him, and it was a triumph if we could keep him talking until the end of the first period.

It was certainly a unique approach to starting class. At the time, more of my teachers than I’d like to admit seemed to have given up on finding new ways to engage students decades earlier.

Not Mr. O. He was a veteran teacher in the best way possible, one who understood that learning never ends and encompasses more than what can be taught in a classroom. He yearned to share all of his knowledge with his students, not just the part he was required to.

And that is the part of him that has stayed with me over the past 15 years and will continue to inspire me for the rest of my life.

I’m sad that he’s gone. I’m even sadder that I never got the chance to have a drink with him and just hear what he had to say about life. I’ve thought of him often over the years, especially with the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Civil War going on. I’d love to be able to tell him that he played some part in my becoming a historian. But instead, I’ll have to tell you.

If what we were always taught is true, he’s in a place now where he has attained all knowledge, all answers, and all wisdom. And that is the most comforting and satisfying thought I can share on Mr. O’s behalf.

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Thoughts after binge-watching HBO’s “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst”


Courtesy HBO.


As I write this, it is 9:26 a.m. and I’ve just finished binge-watching all six episodes of The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, HBO’s answer to Serial.

The series explores Bob’s connections to the 1982 disappearance of his first wife, Kathleen Durst; the murder of his college friend Susan Berman in 2000; and the 2001 murder and dismemberment of his neighbor Morris Black, for which he was tried and acquitted.

While it appears that the filmmakers managed to answer the biggest question of the series in its finale (the reporting of which got the New York Times into trouble with its audience), I still have questions that seem to have been glossed over during the documentary.

There’s creepy, and then there’s creeeeepy.

While three murders would appear to be a chilling enough portion of the documentary for most people, I was most creeped out by two things: the death of Bob’s mother in 1950, and his eyes. The latter are apparently light brown, but in the film they appear to be dead, black, beady, iris-less sinkholes full of repressed emotion and secrets. They peer out of sunken, heavily creased eyelids, staring down Jarecki and the camera until succumbing to tics, twitches and other unsettling (involuntary?) movements.

The producers spend a few short minutes discussing the death of Bob’s mother, Bernice Durst, at age 32. The family refers to it as an accidental fall, but it clearly seems to have been a suicide. Bob describes witnessing the horrific event at the encouragement of his father, Seymour Durst. What kind of husband sees his wife standing on the roof of the house and calmly remains inside? Moreover, what kind of father proceeds to call his 7-year-old son to the window to witness his mother’s gruesome death? It’s clear to me that Bob Durst was irreparably damaged by this episode and the funeral afterward. It’s also clear to me that Seymour was also deranged, hinting at possible genetic mental illness on Bob’s part.

Was an autopsy conducted on Bernice Durst? Did she have hallucinogens in her system? Did she have a history of mental illness, perhaps post-partum psychosis after having four children in seven years while married to a psychopath? Did Bob ever seek any kind of psychotherapy at any point in his life?

Random questions:

  • After watching, I was wondering how Bob was able to remarry if Kathie was still legally “missing.” The answer? She is now legally “dead.” The filmmakers don’t make it clear that Bob actually divorced Kathie Durst in 1990, without even telling her family, who found out nine years later and had her retroactively declared dead (to 1987) so her estate could be disbursed. It seems like this would have been an important point for the producers to mention at least in passing, considering they introduce second wife Deborah Lee Charatan in the early moments of the first episode.
  • After Bob was acquitted of the murder of Morris Black, why couldn’t they bring charges of abuse of a corpse or obstructing justice after the fact? Would that count as double jeopardy?
  • If Susan Berman was the daughter of a prominent Las Vegas mobster, why was she living in virtual squalor at the end of her life? It doesn’t seem to make sense.

To me, Robert Durst appears to be a modern-day Harry K. Thaw, wealthy, mentally ill, and committing brazen murder and dodging any real consequences.

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On ‘Gone With the Wind’ prequels and literary rage

gone-with-the-windYesterday I had a piece published in The Huffington Post books section on Ruth’s Journey, the forthcoming prequel to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Thanks to my sister’s encyclopedic knowledge of the original book, the two of us were able to piece together the relevant facts from canon that Donald McCaig seems determined to disregard.

Great balls of fire, indeed!

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The Half-George Vanderbilt Challenge: 2013 Edition

george-vanderbilt-john-singer-sargent-1895It’s time once again for an update on my annual attempt to make George Vanderbilt proud. Last year, I stalled at 47 books, so I was determined to finish this year’s challenge. However, seeing as at various times this year I worked full-time, wrote a book of my own and had a baby, my ability to read 50 books was not a foregone conclusion. Another unforeseen challenge to this goal came in August, when my husband and I finally succumbed to the Game of Thrones juggernaut and George R.R. Martin took over my reading bandwidth for several months. I took to reading what I call “internet junk books” to catch up on my numbers. The upside to that is it allowed me to revisit many of the blogs I first began reading in college and “find out how they all ended,” as Vera Charles would say.

My ratings and reviews for this year’s full list are available through my Goodreads account. Here are my top five picks for this year, accompanied by the reviews I posted on Goodreads:

7544639Honorable Mention: Regretsy: Where DIY Meets WTF, by April Winchell
I’ve always thought this blog was hilarious (Next Etsy trend: hand-knit gloveless fingers, anyone?), but this book is even better. The author’s commentary had me literally rolling over laughing. An added bonus: the what-were-they-thinking crafts in this book prove that the eccentric stuff I buy really isn’t so bad.

161419245. Dad is Fat, by Jim Gaffigan
Dad is Fat just might be the perfect book for busy parents. It’s a series of (extremely) brief essays that will make you laugh out loud about everything from the logic of snaps on baby clothing to the (lack?) of logic behind the author and his wife raising five children in a two-bedroom Manhattan apartment. If you know Gaffigan’s stand-up routines, you’ll recognize a few recycled jokes, but it seems like he’s used this opportunity to flesh them out a bit more. I just can’t figure out how someone who has five kids and enjoys napping and eating so much found time to write a book!

113875154. Wonder, by R.J. Palacio
Reading this book as a former victim of middle school bullying and as a currently pregnant woman was an intense experience for me. My heart went out equally to the main character, August, and his parents for the lifetime of negative experiences they’ve all had to endure because of the cruelty of others.

Wonder is one of the few books I’ve encountered that accurately captures how psychological and social bullying plays out in school settings. I thought it also did a good job of showing the power of words, actions and forgiveness for both kids and their peers and parents and their children. I was relieved that this book had a happy ending; it would have been absolutely heartbreaking if it didn’t.

63079643. A Storm of Swords, by George R.R. Martin
Well, apparently Jon Snow knows a thing or two.



118700852. The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green
I didn’t review this book for Goodreads, but I was struck by Green’s ability to write from the point of view of a teenage girl in such a realistic way. The movie version was filmed in my hometown this year, so I’m very much looking forward to the adaptation.


160020281. Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas, by Jim Ottaviani
A great intro to the life’s work of Louis Leakey’s three best-known proteges. This book brought out the ten-year-old in me…I just wanted to keep reading and socking away more trivia about some of the scientists I admired most as a kid.

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Tolkien

Hobbit Desolation of Smaug Bilbo Treasure

© Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc

I heard somewhere that Peter Jackson was making a movie about a hobbit.

Silly me.

The movie I saw last night was about orcs, Sauron, Legolas and maybe a few things actually mentioned in J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 book.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug doesn’t feel like its own film, unlike Jackson’s other mid-Middle Earth movie, The Two Towers. Rather, it seems more like one part King Kong and two parts Lord of the Rings. The remaining 25 percent of the film is taken from the book to serve as frame and foil for Jackson’s fight scenes.

Once again, Jackson tries too hard to make the dwarves’ quest into a noble one, somehow linked to the fate of Middle Earth itself. It’s not noble–it’s greedy and self-interested, and characters like Beorn, the skin-changing man-bear, serve to show that they’re not a universally-liked group. Beorn has a larger role in the book, and it takes the dwarves a much longer time to win him over. I’d been hoping Jackson would milk it for all it was worth. Now, he’s become no more than the appetizer in a 2.5 hour fight scene feast.

The fight scenes themselves have become caricatures of Jackson’s earlier work. Instead of consisting mostly of “normal” kills with a few awe-inducing examples thrown in for the audience, every fight in The Hobbit is like watching a cherry-picked list of the most gruesome, never-before-seen ways to kill various creatures of Middle Earth. It’s exhausting.

And yes, it is a fantasy movie, (and perhaps I sound like Sheldon Cooper here) but in what universe does an open-ended barrel holding a 400-pound dwarf not burst when landing at the bottom of a waterfall? Not to mention that the CGI effects in the water scenes looked like video-game quality, at least when seen in IMAX 3D.

Additional Jackson tropes I could do without include the sweeping copter-cam long shots of every location; slow-mo, majestic zoom-outs of characters with their hair blowing in the wind; non-English-speaking creatures speaking veeeeeery sllloooowwwwwlllllyyyy (Why the orcs in these films speak only Orcish when the LOTR orcs spoke cockney English is beyond me. Then again, why they are referred to only as orcs and never as goblins in these films is beyond me, too.) There are so many dramatic swells in the music that the score essentially becomes one giant swell. Again, exhausting. Boring to watch. I was praying I’d need to use the bathroom at some point, but no such luck.

The film managed surprisingly decent reviews from critics at the New York Times and the Washington Post. Luckily, NPR’s critic seemed to actually be awake and not sneaking out after the first hour.

Like most everyone else, I’ll hang on for part three, The Hobbit: There and Back Again, but for basically the same reason this unnecessary three-part project was greenlighted to begin with: it’s Peter Jackson doing J.R.R. Tolkien. Part of me will still be hoping that he’ll redeem it in the end.

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Pittsburgh’s Foodie History

2013-11-30 14.59.47While doing a book signing last week at Mystery Lovers Bookshop, one of the staff members handed me a fabulous new book (that’s technically not out yet). Pittsburgh Chef’s Table: Extraordinary Recipes from the Steel City is a nifty set of recipes from some of the city’s most prominent chefs as well as rising stars, collected by the bloggers over at Eat Pgh. As I skimmed through page after page of gorgeous photography, noting the restaurants I’ve been to, what really struck me about the book is its secondary function: time capsule.

It’s common knowledge that the restaurant industry is one of the toughest, with most new eateries closing within five years of opening their doors. This book, with its who’s who of the Pittsburgh culinary scene, probably already contains a few out-of-date entries as chefs come and go.

2013-12-04 20.12.19With these thoughts still fresh in my mind, I came across The Flavor of Pittsburgh at another book signing today at Amazing Books. Published in 1976, it gives a nod to both current and former dining establishments and includes recipes from local newspapers and women’s publications (Some interesting entries include Green Beans Westinghouse, Colonial Aphrodisiac Salad and Whale & Monkey Hot Fruit Soup.). A fantastic collection of historic photographs is interspersed throughout.

The book was produced by the Pittsburgh Diners Guild, which appears to have been a dining loyalty program headquartered in the Frick Building. A 1978 newspaper ad for the organization touts a discount of $6.50 at 29 area restaurants, including many featured in the book. Most of the restaurants mentioned therein now exist only in memory, such as Lemon Tree (McKeesport), Tavern on the Pike (Churchill), Johnny Lounder’s (Robinson) and Tivoli (Penn Hills).

In five to ten years, Pittsburgh Chef’s Table may be more valuable as an historic portrait of the 2013 dining scene than as a catalog of restaurants to try. Perhaps that’s even more reason to get out and try some of its featured establishments sooner rather than later.

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