Doesn't Look Like Anything To Me: How 'Westworld' is Showing Us What Resistance Looks Like

In the first of episode HBO’s new sci-fi thriller Westworld, Delores, the heroine played by Evan Rachel Wood, wakes up to the same encoded day about a billion times.  During her slumber, the maintenance crew of the high-end western theme park, Westworld, reset her code for another day of responding and catering to the sexual, emotional, or violent fantasies of paying ‘visitors’.

In the same episode, the cyborg coded to play the part of Delores’ protective father finds a photo by the gate of his cattle ranch of a man and woman posing in a city.  The landscape is far unlike anything the he’s ever seen, and it drives him mad as he fries his circuits trying to figure out who and where they are. When he shows Delores the same image, she looks at it as says: Doesn’t look like anything to me. She continues on with her day, seemingly unaffected, but later we learn that this the beginning of an awakening of consciousness in Westworld.

Westworld is a futuristic story that, with technological advances being made on a daily basis, doesn’t seem that far-fetched or fantastical in the way that audiences assumed after watching these envisioned futures of sci-fi in the 60’s or 70’s. In the past, a main theme in science fiction has focused on suggesting how technology will advance and impact mankind.  Today, technology is ever-present and as much a part of us than ever.  The reality that the technology proposed in Westworld doesn’t challenge our beliefs about technological evolution suggests that contemporary viewers are, instead, being challenged to think about how the fictional world of Westworld relates to our own, and how the behavioural norms that structure those worlds frames our experience, and how we respond when those frames are disrupted.

The original Westworld (1973), written and directed by Michael Crichton, focused it’s campy lens on the impacts of creating a technology man can’t control. Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan’s take, while still demonstrating this theme, moves away from the position of fearing the impacts of technology, and focuses more on the humans that create it, and the perspective of the feared ‘other’.  In our generation’s Westworld, we are asked the question of what it means to be a man, woman, and human by having it reflected back to us in the form of cyborgs.  

Here are the facts about Delores’ Westworld:

  • High-end amusement park; a utopia for the world’s elite.

  • Visitors are invited to be themselves, however heroic or villainous.

  • Hosts are coded to be responsive in predictable loops called ‘storylines’.

  • It’s creators (Ford, Arnold, and Lee) are all male.

  • It’s western theme is nostalgic of a past that belonged to founding fathers, and all the gendered tropes from damsel in distress to valiant cowboy.

  • Success is measured by ‘engaging storylines’ created to reinforce its demographics point-of-view.

Here are the facts about our Western world:  

  • Cultural influence and norms are largely informed by the world’s privileged elite through mediums like education, advertising, media, private industry, and government policy.

  • Those with privilege can afford to be themselves, to take risks for good and bad, with usually very little consequence.

  • Those without privilege have little choice in the behavioural patterns - or ‘loops’ - they adopt from birth through mediums like education, advertising, media, private industry, and government policy.

  • We live in a westernized patriarchy, with founding fathers that,as far as we know, were all male.

  • The mainstream performance of gender is hetero-normative, and reinforces femininity as small/soft/weak, and masculinity as big/hard/powerful.

  • Peace is only recognized when people with privilege determine that day-to-day life is ‘comfortable’ or ‘safe’.

Sound familiar?

In Westworld, we see our world reflected back at us - a world that is built to be safe for some, but not for others. The concept of ‘safety’ is built on it’s members knowing what to expect.  Safety is a key feature of a proposed utopia. Without trust in one’s environment, there is no vulnerability. Westworld is considered a safe place for visitors who trust the environment reinforces their values. As a result, they are able to be vulnerable because there is no perceived threat that their world can be disrupted. In other words, there is no friction. It is safe for Westworld’s visitors to take risks the same way it is safe for those with privilege to take risks in our world. Therefore, it is disruptive to the utopian ecosystem when hosts recognize they can take risks too, in the same way it is disruptive when (and this isn’t a conclusive list):

  • A scrappy little startup takes on a publicly held industry titan

  • A black or brown person draws a crowd in their observation of systemic injustice

  • A woman marches into a room full of men

  • A lesbian explains sex to a man

  • A man behaves ‘unmasculine’ or a woman behaves ‘unfeminine’

The characters in Westworld are showing us what our world is like, and we live in a world where:

  • Men that show signs of femininity are always getting killed and/or replaced with more masculine personas (Teddy/William/Bernard v. The Black Hat).

  • Women are seen as pristine objects of delight instead of capable heroines (Dress Delores v. Pants Delores) if not flat out objects of delight (Clementine).

  • The perspective of the cultural script being read and performed is male.

  • Difference is only acceptable if you are permitted.

  • A revolution, or evolution, is labelled a ‘glitch’, or ‘system breakdown’ instead of ‘progress’ or ‘breakthrough’

In 2017, we are undoubtedly living in a reality that is in increasing conflict, and as Nolan & Joy are hinting at, we are in a time where the marginalized are being called to disrupt our own dystopian reality and status quo. If we take the dynamics in Westworld to heart, we can assume the following: in the act of performing contrary to one’s own originality, we are performing someone else’s reality. In the act of subverting the dominant reality into unpredictability and/or abstraction by no longer being submissive, we present the threat of ‘danger’ for the people that exist in that reality. Both perspectives exist and each is valid, but need to coexist in balance. The pain and uncertainty of being in ‘disorder’ is a necessary step to eventually introducing a meaningful and truly safe ‘order’ that is consented by all perspectives. Hosts are called to speak up and claim their stake in their world. Visitors are called to listen and recognize they share the world with others.      

To summarize our discussion, being a marginalized - in gender, sexuality, or race - is not unlike the life of a host in Westworld.  These are worlds where the rules are created and enjoyed by those who have privilege; where we are coded to operate in predictable ways that create the least amount of friction, so we don’t disrupt a convenient reality; where we often cannot see the game around us until someone on the fringe of perceived and actual reality leads us to a new understanding of ourselves.  If we, the marginalized, are like Delores, then people like Westworld’s Arnold and Maeve are here to tease out our subversive originality.  

This is what all the waking up is about. In a way, many of us can be seen to be artificially intelligent as we perform in predictable loops, maintaining and reinforcing scripts we never wrote for ourselves. Change only occurs when we take a look at something unfamiliar, like a photograph that doesn’t make any sense when you first see it, and are brave enough to ask the important questions about what it means with the aid of those who might already know the Truth. This is how something that doesn’t look like anything, suddenly begins to look like something.