These violent delights have violent ends: Westworld brings porn culture to life

William, Delores, and Logan
William, Dolores, and Logan

In contrast to the starry-eyed sci-fi of previous decades, wherein humans seek Artificial Intelligence in order to solve the great mysteries of the universe, in HBO’s Westworld, corporate interests dump an ungodly amount of capital into tech development simply so that men can have more realistic fuck-bots to abuse.

Today, this vision feels closer to reality. As Gail Dines points out, it’s no coincidence that Silicon Valley and the porn-production capital of the world are right next to each other — driving innovation in communication tech, Virtual Reality, and beyond.

Westworld brings the bitter truths realized in the Internet porn era to the fore and unmasks the “violent delights” of our consumer culture (porn, violent video games, prostitution) in a stark portrayal of unbridled necrophilia.

That men (and some women) would want to play the villain in the Old West-themed park called “Westworld” is treated as only natural. The series excels here, exposing the inherent violence of porn culture and its normalization. Logan, one of the “bad guy” characters, is an experienced gamer and treats his desire to rape and murder as mundane wishes all people have somewhere deep inside.

But as feminists know, such desires cannot be separated from the society we live in — a violent, male dominated, porn culture. Women are not inevitably doomed by nature to be viewed as sexual objects to be used and abused. Men are socialized to view and treat women in this way through a system of power that breeds male entitlement and industries such as porn that capitalize on and reinforce it.

Enter: William, Logan’s future brother-in-law, whose character arc represents the story of socialization into masculinity through porn-use. Here is where the series both shines and falters…

*WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD*

William starts out treating the “hosts” (androids in the park) with humanity and is aghast at Logan’s callous behaviour towards them. As our resident “good guy,” William chooses the white cowboy hat and declines an orgy with the prostituted women hosts. Eventually, however, he joins in on the violence, initially in order to find and rescue Dolores, but over time William develops “a taste for it.”

Like porn-use, “fantasy” starts bleeding into reality, and as William begins to see the hosts as things, not real people, this mirrors how he treats Logan. William punishes Logan for his violent and disrespectful behaviour toward Dolores, but then goes further than that. By the time the men reach “the edge of the park,” William has become desensitized to and enthralled by the power he has access to in Westworld, sexually humiliating Logan, who he strips naked, and sends off on a horse, hands bound, totally vulnerable.

William’s descent into darkness is depicted sympathetically — the story of a tragic hero. His villainy is valorized when he returns to Sweetwater and finally sees Dolores again. But her mind has been wiped, and she doesn’t remember him. In that moment, she’s no longer his special one — she’s just a robot, a thing. William realizes that whatever horror befalls her is acceptable because of her inferiority to the exploiter class — she is not real, and is only there for the pleasure of guests. But his real anger is in feeling rejected. Dolores has forgotten him like he was nothing. Another man has taken his place in the “game,” picking up the can that falls from her saddle bag as William did once.

Delores and William
Dolores and William

“What have you become,” Dolores hisses at him in the season finale. “Exactly what you made me,” he replies. William repeats the same thing so many men do in order to rationalize their violence against women (especially women who try to leave them): you made me do this to you. “This is your own fault, Dolores,” he says.

As William’s addiction to the park grows, he requires increasingly hardcore experiences. “Let’s go to the next level,” he says. Like extreme porn users who turn into “real life” abusers, William doesn’t want “fantasy” any more. He wants it to be real. He wants the hosts to become sentient and fight back, so that guests are raping and murdering conscious people. He becomes “bored” with the “game” and by the end of the season, the only thing that seems to excite him is getting shot in the arm. The thrilled look on his face in that moment is terrifying.

Thankfully, in the season finale, Westworld shows us that William is not the hero. The male entitlement bred by his use (and financial ownership) of the park leads him to believe that he is “a god.” William is convinced “the maze” is the final level of a game built for him, despite being told by the hosts, “the maze wasn’t meant for you.” The audience is also caught off guard, having identified William as the standard white male protagonist — the winner, saviour, and hero. The big reveal is that the subject of the maze is not him, but rather those he deemed to be objects. “This world doesn’t belong to you,” Dolores tells him triumphantly.

In many ways, the most obvious reading of Westworld is a depiction of female uprising against systemic dehumanization and exploitation. The “guests” (those who pay to come to the park) are mostly cast as males, while the hosts are feminized — degraded through frequent nakedness and vulnerability at the hands of lab techs. This is expected, considering that ever since science fiction first dreamed of androids, they’ve most often been female-like — programmed to be used for the dominant group’s benefit/pleasure and to take it with a smile.

The host’s programming can be read as an allegory for ruling ideology — an oppressed class is “programmed” to be docile and not fight back against the exploiter class. But as Marx theorized, ideology necessarily breeds contradictions, errors, cracks, through which class consciousness can emerge. Westworld plays on our desire for consciousness-raising. We root for Maeve, hoping she will break out of her programming and resist. We want Dolores to remember and fight back.

It is said that memory is the first step for hosts towards achieving consciousness. Hosts must remember in order to see the pattern of their systemic mistreatment, thereby compelling them to resist. For this reason, the hosts’ memories are regularly erased.

Westworld is most poignant in its subtle portrayal of trauma, healing, and forgetting. In one sense, it is merciful to erase the host’s horrific memories of violence and abuse. Forgetting is also human: women often need to forget trauma in order to cope and go on with their lives. Like Dolores, who is battered and broken but repaired and made new again and again, we pick ourselves up, take a shower, fix our hair, put on our make up, and smile again.

Throughout the season, the hosts hear a mysterious voice telling them to “remember.” Suddenly Dolores knows better than to go up to her house where her rapist is waiting. Remembering gives the hosts powers of awareness they wouldn’t otherwise have. But their memory is different.

Human memories fade like a dream and eventually turn into little more than a few images, feelings, and stories you tell yourself. Hosts, however, can only store data in perfect clarity, and so experience those memories as though they were real, reliving them in real time. Dolores and Maeve recall memories in this way and confuse them for reality — like PTSD flashbacks to traumatic experiences.

Treating hosts’ memories as recordings that can be viewed again and again also illustrates the way data shapes human experience today. For example, in India, it is common practice for rapes to be filmed; so victims can never truly escape their attackers. Stored in data, a woman’s rape will never fade into the past. It will always exist in the present, in as perfect clarity as the moment it first occurred, causing her fresh pain every time a new person views it. When a woman’s rape is captured on camera and uploaded to the Internet, she is in a sense denied the power to ever truly heal or escape that trauma. The data becomes a wound that will bleed forever (a wound that generates profit, at that).

Dolores has lived the same story, ending with her sexual torture in the barn, thousands of times — like a porn film viewed again and again by different men, while Delos (the company that owns Westworld) profits. The violence against her is excused because she’s just a robot. Much like the way porn consumption is excused because it’s just “images” or “fantasy.”

But can these “violent delights” be enjoyed consequence-free, or do they indeed have “violent ends?”

Chris Hedges explains that porn was essential in creating “a society that does not blink” at horrifying incidences like the United States carrying out “industrial slaughter” in Iraq and torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Westworld’s dead host bodies stacked on top of one another in the Delos facility, being hosed down and prepared for re-sorting, led me back to this passage from Hedges:

“The Abu Ghraib images that were released, and the hundreds more disturbing images that remain classified, could be stills from porn films. There is a shot of a naked man kneeling in front of another man as if performing oral sex. There is a naked man on a leash held by a female American soldier. There are naked men in chains. There are naked men stacked one on top of the other in a human pile on the floor, as if in a prison gang bang. These images speak in the language of porn, professional wrestling, reality television, music videos, and the corporate culture. It is the language of absolute control, total domination, racial hatred, fetishistic images of slavery, and humiliating submission. It is a world without pity. It is about reducing other human beings to commodities, to objects.”

Porn works to create a world in which atrocity is accepted for pleasure and profit. William exemplifies this concept: his role as a player in the “game” mirrors the porn-user turned “real-life” abuser, where the lines are wholly blurred. William is also the ultimate capitalist, viewing everyone and everything as nothing more than resources to be mined and exploited for his benefit. He explains to Dolores in the season finale, “You helped me understand this world is just like the one outside — a game.”

Westworld is undeniably a disturbing series, but the first season deserves praise for its compelling interrogation of our disturbing world.

Susan Cox
Susan Cox

Susan Cox is a feminist writer and academic living in the United States. She teaches in Philosophy.

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