We’ve all seen it, we needn’t belabor it: The entertainment show host and the game show host, the one who’d called her “it” moments ago, get out of the bus to meet her, smiling, and demand she embrace them. Without knowing they’d just spent a long time planning exactly what to do to her, she has to touch them. Very politely, her body in full contact with theirs, directly after they’d called her “it” — and she didn’t know any of it. She didn’t know as far as they were concerned, she wasn’t a person: She was a thing.
HBO’s “Westworld” — which in its earlier incarnation as a Michael Crichton movie wasn’t much more than a dry run for the more successful “Jurassic Park” — spends so much of its first two episodes dwelling in the same territory as the Trump tape, tapping the same chilly horror of bodily violation and misplaced trust, that I find it hard not to see “Westworld” itself through that frame.
The android “hosts” of the titular park function, essentially, as NPCs in a video game; they “live” through the same narrative loops over and over again. But they exist to provide gratification for human “guests”: If you’re a “host,” a “guest” can talk to you, touch you, insult you, have sex with you, kill you and you can do nothing to stop him. Worse: You don’t want to. “We all love the newcomers,” a damsel-in-distress bot played by Evan Rachel Wood affirms. When a guest (Ed Harris) who raped her in a previous “loop” flirts with her, she does not recognize or fear him: Like Zucker in the tape, the hosts smile and play their part, unaware of the threat right in front of them.
There are other parallels: We’re introduced to “Westworld,” show and park, by men sniggering on a train about how much fun it is to go “full evil”; we spend time with a leering alpha-male type and his toady, talking about the thrills of the park, how much you can get away with. (They let you do it. You can do anything.) The helplessness of the robot “hosts” is visually affirmed through unwanted and unavoidable touch — a kiss forced on a host who’s unable to move — or simply how their harmlessness, the fact that they “can’t hurt a fly,” is repeatedly demonstrated with the image of literal flies crawling over their faces and eyeballs. There’s that pronoun slip, the way humans refer to the robots interchangeably as both she and it.
Obviously none of this is intentional parallel to such recent real-life events. But it’s not coincidental that the predatory “guests” we’ve met so far — the rapist cowboy, the bro-y bachelor party guy and his wimpy beta sidekick — are men. Nor that every android we’ve gotten to know in depth (Wood, and Thandie Newton’s Maeve, a madam) is female. All of this is standard for the genre.
For some time now, robot stories have been a way for us to explore female fears: Both women’s anxieties, and the anxieties we still, sneakily, have about women getting too much control. About the world changing, which is to say ending, when the story it tells about itself starts changing. When the normal routine, the narrative, the story loop, begins to crash, the whole world can quickly begin to feel threatening; to look like a disaster.
It wasn’t always this way. The word “robot,” invented for his play “R.U.R.” in 1920 by Czech writer Karel Čapek, comes from robota, meaning “slave.” Robots began as exploited workers, their uprising a workers’ uprising, a labor revolution. Even in “Metropolis,” the robot-girl ur-text, evil robot Maria takes time to foment a revolution in between sexy dances. But everyone remembers the sexy dances first: Maria was, first and foremost, a flapper, one of the dreaded yet seductive “emancipated women” of the day, whose unleashed, ruthlessly self-serving sexuality was enough to send a city up in flames.
Ever since then, we have used robot girls to tell stories about feminism and its discontents. When we think of objects created to please — human-like beings with no inner life, or an inner life that centers entirely around gratifying and serving others — we automatically think of women. Even in the real world, when we want to create an accommodating digital helpmeet that takes abuse without walking away or striking back, we invariably make it female. And we repeatedly tell stories in which, should these artificial women ever develop real subjectivity, or the ability to form their own agendas, humanity would suffer.
The fantasy sometimes plays as romance, as in Spike Jonze’s “Her,” where a man heartwarmingly trains his iPad to have phone sex with him — the fact that he literally owns the object of his affection is never discussed.
More frequently, it plays as horror: See “Ex Machina,” where a hapless nerd finds himself “falling in love” with an artificial intelligence he’s meant to test. We’re not necessarily meant to doubt that these female machines have inner lives — if they don’t, “Her” is just a story about a guy masturbating for 126 minutes — but we are meant to find their subjectivity alien and unknowable, and to regret what happens when it develops into agency: Either she dumps her human suitor (“Her”) or she dumps him and locks him in a closet to die (“Ex Machina’s” slightly more strident conclusion).
Elsewhere, women’s ambitions arise beyond the mere killing of boners, and into more genocidal territory — not that boners ever entirely fall out of frame — as in “Battlestar Galactica,” which follows the aftermath of a robot-caused apocalypse. Probably the best AI story of the 21st century, and also one of its earliest, and like “Westworld,” though it features both male and female robots, we’re hard-pressed to remember a male Cylon by name: And I say this knowing one of them was played by Dean Stockwell, and three of the others were core members of the cast.
“Battlestar Galactica” talked a big game about God, war and empathy, but the weird, half-metal heart of the show lay in the female Cylons, and their stories about sex and power: Whether Athena could (or should) integrate into the human society that loathed her after giving birth to a half-human child, or whether Gaius Baltar’s relationship with several different versions of the same Six model was ever “love” or merely a warped adaptive response from the Sixes, who had seemingly been built to connect with the world through sex.
Both Eight and Six were attacked, in a plotline about humans using rape as a weapon of combat. It was a moment when the moral center of the show shifted; we realized humans were not always worth rooting for. It was also a re-enactment of real-world atrocities, with the justification rooted in real-world dehumanization: “You can’t rape a machine.”
You can’t hurt an object. If women exist solely to be looked at and to gratify the people around them — if they have no inner life, or if any independent inner life they have is a flaw in their programming — then it doesn’t necessarily matter what you do to achieve that gratification. Who cares, so long as it looks good?
If you know “Westworld’s” source material — or even just noticed the “Jurassic Park” connection — you already know where the story is going: Sooner or later, the safeguards are going to fail. The fence will snap and the theme-park attractions will start taking out tourists. It’s presented as a disease of memory; things start poking through the hosts’ consciousness, memories of other loops, other violations, ripping apart their sense of safety.
I asked a question I wasn’t supposed to ask, one host says, and I got an answer I wasn’t supposed to know.
But even in the other versions of this story, the more biological iterations — “Dollhouse,” the all-female “Jurassic Park” Frankenstein, the grandmother of the genre, written by the daughter of the woman who wrote the first book of feminist theory in English — it all comes down to bodies. The horror of having a body that exists as an amusement, or an experiment, rather than a self; a body that is not yours to control, and whose needs or wants are therefore irrelevant.
If you don’t root for the dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park,” at least a little, I don’t want to know you. All they are is hungry. Nothing that big can stand a cage. If this awakening is overwhelmingly portrayed in violent terms, so be it: That is a violent act, self-recovery. It’s a violent act to ask questions, when the current world and its continued operation depend on answers nobody wants to know. What is for the woman — the android, the female body, the other — a divine awakening is, unfortunately, always a terrifying act, violence, for anyone with the luxury of overlooking it, or how they’ve always benefited from it.
The catastrophe of women gaining selfhood, the creature learning to think and breaking its leash; all the bloodshed that results. But at least we’re on the robots’ side of things, this time. Because: How much of being female is just sheer blind trust? How many of us have smiled and opened our arms to some man, even though his body language was all wrong, the alarm bells were already going off, because it would have been crazy or bitchy to act on that suspicion? And how many times have we been wrong?
It’s a simple gesture that rings in the apocalypse, in “Westworld”: A woman reaches up and finally — finally — swats away a fly. She decides not to be touched when she doesn’t want to be touched, and the mechanisms that control her world, and her selfhood, start breaking down. When the it goes past even she and into: Me.
That world is going to fall apart around her, in short order. It always does, when these women wake up. It’s just getting harder and harder to understand — and for stories, in good faith, to portray — a world where that could ever be a bad thing.
“Westworld” airs Sundays at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.