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Not Another Fembot

‘Westworld’ is a welcome improvement on tired female AI tropes

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In 2011, Silicon Valley analyst Tim Bajarin told CNN that most AI voices are female because 2001: A Space Odyssey and its homicidal computer character, HAL 9000, spooked programmers away from creating male AI. A dubious theory, though it is true that the AI voices we know best — those of Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Amazon’s Alexa — are female, and ready and eager to help people yell at phones. Many robotics companies, like Hanson Robotics, have fashioned AI machines that look, talk, and act like women, leaning into the idea of female robots as human helpers. Then there’s the other robot trope in sci-fi, one that has also already made the leap into reality — the sex robot, passive and supple. This sexualized fembot is a symbol of a particular fantasy of techno-utopia, one in which the fraughtness of intimacy is buffed into a pneumatic, one-way pleasure facilitated by an algorithm, a simulacrum so good you don’t care that it’s fake.

While we look for lady AI in real life, fictional depictions of gyndroids (which is a real word and not something I just made up) veer into viciousness; from the fembots of Austin Powers to Ex Machina’s Ava, female robots are often portrayed as sexy and evil. Meanwhile, most of the friendly, non-soul-crushing robots in recent films — li’l Wall-E from Wall-E, Robin Williams’s Bicentennial Man, even creepy wee Haley Joel Osment in AI — have been male. (There was a whole internet thing over whether BB-8 from Star Wars was male or female, and while the concept of a fictional future robot ball causing a gender crisis is undeniably silly, I kinda get why people rooted for BB-8 to be female — can’t we have one damn robot that’s not murderous or dourly servile?)

The androids in Westworld exist in both genders, but we mostly follow the female droids as they negotiate the Old West theme park where they’re trapped. They’re attractive, deferential, and on an amnesiac loop, starting each day blank and happy. The droids are not supposed to log the lootings, shootings, and rapes that have happened to them; the show opens as some of them — specifically our protagonist, Dolores, played by Evan Rachel Wood — are beginning to remember.

Westworld is an attempted corrective to Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name and its general premise. The cocreators — Lisa Joy (currently working on the Battlestar Galactica movie) and Jonathan Nolan (Person of Interest) — are familiar with the whole “AI That Hates Mankind” thing. Isaac Asimov named the fear of uncontrollable artificial intelligence the “Frankenstein complex,” and it’s a well-worn Hollywood standby — 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, AI: Artificial Intelligence, RoboCop, The Stepford Wives, etc. To differentiate themselves, Nolan and Joy seem to be pushing a fresher Frankenstein complex, one trained on the creature, rather than the creator, since Westworld’s bad guys are humans and its good guys are confused robots — and crucially, mostly female robots.

Thankfully, Dolores is not portrayed like other fembots, since we see through her eyes, instead of watching her through the eyes of another human, as we do Ex Machina’s Ava or Blade Runner’s Pris, Zhora, and Rachael. As far as a fictional analog, she reminds me the most of Kathy, the protagonist of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. While Never Let Me Go is about clones, not robots, it’s an exploration of dawning consciousness and despair among human replicas who are enslaved as subhuman tools and viewed with revulsion by their creators. Kathy and Dolores each labor to discover why they were created, and struggle the more they learn. While the characters in Never Let Me Go do not try to murder their creators, they do attempt to subvert a truly evil system created by humans who continue to let them down. (I haven’t seen the end of Westworld’s first season yet, but I suspect that the robots will have their day.)

In September 2015, Deadline highlighted the extreme demands of a central-casting call for Westworld extras that reads like a contract for a Caligula-themed porno: “contort to form a table-like shape while being fully nude; pose on all fours while others who are fully nude ride on your back; ride on someone’s back while you are both fully nude.” This went over about as well as you’d imagine. At the Television Critics Association’s press tour in July, critics questioned HBO chief Casey Bloys about Westworld’s sexual violence; he allowed that the criticism was valid. “It’s not something we’re wanting to highlight or trying to highlight, but I think the criticism is point taken on it,” Bloys said. And the show’s depictions of sexual violence have not gone without questioning: “Even now, when the expanding television industry offers greater opportunities to modify or reconsider clichéd modes of storytelling, drama writers continually resort to the rape, assault, and murder of women to provide inciting incidents, or to make a show seem ‘edgy’ and to ‘raise the stakes,’” Maureen Ryan wrote in a review of Westworld for Variety. “Westworld feeds into these tropes while signaling its concern about them, but that concern rings hollow the more its bloody and repetitive scenarios play out.”

Ryan accurately identified several weaknesses in Westworld — it is too repetitive — but I didn’t find its gore and sexual scenes unnecessary. Dolores’s offscreen rape is integral to her story, not a lurid flourish. The sexual violence against Dolores and the other female robots is a direct way to underline the idea that it is impossible for the female androids to consent, that they are truly enslaved, and that their masters have absolutely no respect for them. While I found the sheer number of shootout scenes boring, I thought the approach to the abusive sexual dynamic was pretty thoughtful. Westworld is not telling a story about androids as much as it is using androids to tell a story about the consequences of violence, the origins of violent impulses, and the effects of violent television shows. (If Westworld is a metaphor for television, then we, the audience, are the bloodthirsty guests.) Westworld is not the most original AI story, but its attention to Dolores as a character who processes trauma is the show’s strength, and what sets it apart from other dramas that regularly rely on violence and rape.

Watching Westworld reminded me of a passage from critical theorist Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto: “In the tradition of ‘Western’ science and politics — the tradition of racist, male-dominated capitalism; the tradition of progress; the tradition of the appropriation of nature as resource for the productions of culture; the tradition of the reproduction of self from the reflections of the other — the relation between organism and machine has always been a border war.” Westworld’s drama hinges on the idea that these borders may be more porous and convoluted than they appear, and that human and machine may strive to cross them.

Donna Haraway’s vision of human and machine commingling is rosier than what comes across on Westworld, where technology is a vector for hubris and sin first, and a means of gaining personhood only when used off-script. (See: Dr. Ford’s glitchy “reveries.”) But even in Westworld, that personhood does seem possible. “Liberation rests on the construction of the consciousness,” Haraway wrote. She saw the idea of a cyborg — i.e., a hybrid of machine and organism — as a way to transcend gender and alienation from labor. She saw technology as a route to a less restrictive identity for women. In Westworld, technology boxes in the androids, but it is also only through programming advances that they are able to create senses of self. The “happy ending” for Westworld may be Dolores and her fellow droids obtaining cyborg status, where they are recognized as beings instead of objects, even if they aren’t accepted as human. It’s a step up from fembots, at least.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.