When Westworld premiered, I questioned the show’s insistence that its Old-West-simulation amusement park populated with lifelike cyborgs, or “hosts,” would hold equal appeal for men and women. Do women really dream of gunfights in an old-timey saloon? Wouldn’t the presence of robot whores make them uncomfortable, if not downright sad?
Sunday’s episode, “Trompe L’Oeil,” complicates the power fantasy element of the show by offering a window onto a new character, Charlotte Hale (Creed’s Tessa Thompson), the executive director of Delos, the company that manages Westworld. Charlotte arrives at Westworld’s corporate headquarters in last week’s episode to depose Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) about a secret project that someone on the internet has probably already guessed.
In “Trompe L’Oeil,” the park’s head of standards and safety, Theresa (Sidse Babett Knudsen), knocks on Charlotte’s door despite the very loud sex grunts coming from her room. Charlotte answers the door buck naked. “I’m sorry, I thought you requested a meeting,” Theresa says. “My mistake.” “I did,” Charlotte replies with a grin. “Come in.”
On the bed behind Charlotte is Hector (Rodrigo Santoro), a bearded, bad-boy host, naked with his wrists tied up to the bedpost. “Get back here,” he tells Charlotte as she invites Theresa into the room. But Charlotte simply picks up a remote control and “mutes” Hector, who freezes mid-sentence, and conducts her business with a visibly stunned Theresa.
The scene hints at a key element of Westworld’s appeal for women. Like men, if women get off on the Wild West fantasy, a big part of that appeal is fear. Charlotte can have rough sex with a wanted criminal knowing it can’t go too far: He can’t rape or beat her, or worse, because she has literal control over him. It’s not really the element of danger but the guarantee of safety that makes Westworld exciting for women.
Of course, the opposite is true for the park’s hosts. They can feel pain, even die, and the people charged with “taking care” of them are simply setting them up for a never-ending loop of misery and suffering. It’s in the “real world” (I use quotes in case some Reddit revelation reveals that it’s not so real after all) that things look scariest for the hosts, like Maeve (Thandie Newton), who witnesses her friend Clementine’s (Angela Sarafyan) lobotomy in this week’s episode. It’s enough for her to threaten two hapless robot repair workers with a scalpel, demanding they find a way to get her out.
In an earlier scene, Angela is taken from the park and brought to the underground programming center where she’s brutally beaten — before she turns on her corporate overlords and beats one of them to death. It’s the kind of scene that fans of Westworld have been waiting for since Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) was dragged into a barn and raped in the opening scenes of the show’s pilot: We’ve been promised a robot uprising, and it looks like we’re going to get one.
It’s not hard to root for women (or robots embodied by human women) who are used as sex dolls to rise up and avenge their masters. Cyborg hookers spilling blood! Women using male hosts as sex puppets! Let equality reign! But there’s something troubling about the implication — not unique to Westworld — that the liberation of women depends on our ability to act like men.
Women can be very active participants in our own subjugation, taking pride in our misogyny; any woman who grew up with brothers is well aware of the near-automatic impulse to ape the behavior of men and boys who we understand hold more power than we do, even if we can’t quite articulate the feeling. There’s something depressing and even dangerous about the implication that women can only achieve equality by acting as boorish as the kind of men who represent the worst strains of macho-man prejudice.
For women, to revel in this brand of equality is its own kind of fantasy. And yet, women can find catharsis in characters like Charlotte or Maeve precisely because they represent a kind of best-case scenario that’s actually plausible in our world. (It’s telling that the first time we see a woman have sex with a male host, it’s not in Westworld but the “real world” of the park’s corporate headquarters.) There are plenty of women who have found a path to professional success by aping the behavior of even the most abhorrent men. Westworld’s humanoid sex robots are flashy and provocative, but a black woman in her thirties who’s in charge is perhaps the bigger trompe l’oeil of Sunday’s episode. A woman’s equivalent to the gun-slinging, whore-fucking cowboy fantasy that flatters men’s sense of total dominance is the fantasy of being any old man.