What The Rape Scenes In Westworld Say About Rape Culture

Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
In the pilot of the new HBO drama Westworld, we meet the young ranch girl Dolores. Played by Evan Rachel Wood, Dolores is the quintessential virtuous heroine. She rides her horse into the small town of Sweetwater, promising her father she’ll be back before dark. During the course of her day, she is delighted to run into her handsome beau, Teddy (James Marsden). They ride back to her ranch together, where they discover bandits brutalizing her parents. Teddy is shot, and Dolores is dragged kicking and screaming into her family barn by the mysterious Man in Black (Ed Harris). We don’t see what happens in the barn, but the implication of sexual violence makes the scene extremely upsetting. After that, the show takes a turn for the meta, and we learn that what we’ve been watching is anything but what it seems.

Dolores, it turns out, is a very realistic robot, residing in a vast amusement park designed for the gratification of paying human guests. She is a “host” — but she is not aware that her existence is fabricated, her consciousness synthetic. Everything about Dolores’ life is pre-programmed, scripted, and endlessly repeated. Everything she experiences, from her morning conversation with her father to the “surprise” of running into Teddy, serves a story in which she is more of a supportive player than a protagonist.

Every single day, Dolores and her android community, who are artificially intelligent but not sentient (at least, not yet), flow through interconnected choose-your-own-adventure stories. Every single night, they are repaired by the park’s technicians and set back in motion with no memory of their past experiences. They do not, in fact, choose their own adventures. They are not the heroes of their own stories.

The human guests of the park know that what happens in Westworld stays in Westworld. The robot hosts are no more real to them than the animatronic characters on the Pirates of the Caribbean rides are real to you and me.

Can you do something to someone against their will if they technically have no free will?

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In Westworld, murdering, torturing, or stealing from a robot is not considered illegal or even immoral. In fact, it’s kind of the point of going there. After all, is it really killing or torturing or stealing if the robot was never alive, cannot feel pain, and doesn’t actually own anything? Can you do something to someone against their will if they technically have no free will?

Consider the rape of Dolores, and the probability that robot rape is commonplace in this amusement park. Can a robot actually consent to sex? Can a robot refuse sex? Is there such a thing as consensual robot sex if the robot is programmed to consent? Is there such a thing as raping a robot if the robot’s resistance is programmed?

Exploring something as horrifyingly real as rape in such philosophical terms runs the risk of insensitivity, even sensationalism. Yet that is precisely what HBO and the producers of Westworld aim to do. Only one episode has aired, and already the cast and creators have been asked to answer to the show’s depiction of sexual violence. Encouragingly, co-creator and executive producer Lisa Joy has said, “Sexual violence is an issue we take seriously… It's about exploring the crime, establishing the crime and the torment of the characters within this story, and exploring their stories hopefully with dignity and depth.”

The way I see it, science fiction allegory is one of the most potent ways to critique social problems. I have faith that a show this postmodern — which is both luring viewers with its exciting old-timey violence and nudity while also indicting them for that very interest — has something progressive to say about consent. The guests are proxies for us. We are the guests of Westworld the show just as the human characters are guests of Westworld the attraction.

Ask yourself whether you would go to Westworld if you could. Would it be fun to cosplay in an immersive Wild West setting? Could you get out some of your pent-up aggression on a robot outlaw in the same way you shoot an opponent in a video game? Would this immersive fantasy be a great way to spend a vacation? And finally, if you could fuck someone attractive, skilled, game, and insatiable, would you do it — even if you knew that someone was technically a something?

I felt enormous empathy for Dolores — not only because, as a woman, I live every day with the terror of rape, but also because, as a woman, I know what it’s like to be treated like an object.

The robot characters of Westworld are so far much more sympathetic than the human ones. I felt enormous empathy for Dolores — not only because, as a woman, I live every day with the terror of rape, but also because, as a woman, I know what it’s like to be treated like an object. As much as she resembles a person, Dolores is literally an object. Generally speaking, rapists do not care about the free will, preferences, or determinism of the people they rape. They fail to recognize the humanity in their victims. Watching a fictional character like the Man in Black violate a woman who is technically an object underscores the horrifying reality that real people treat real women like objects every day, in the worst possible ways.

Of course, practitioners of BDSM understand that women can consent to being objectified, just as we can consent to erotic role play of non-consent. In my experience, erotic fantasy is a cathartic way to reclaim the power that society systematically tries to keep from me. The times that I choose to be objectified, or choose to relinquish control, are the times I feel the most erotically empowered.

Maybe that’s one thing that separates humans from artificially intelligent machines. We can enjoy objectification, which makes us subjects. We can create contexts to explore everything that truly scares us, and that’s what makes us feel safe. We can consent to fantasies of non-consent, and that’s what makes us powerful.

It remains to be seen whether Westworld’s robot allegory will contribute something meaningful to the movement to dismantle rape culture. Perhaps the most hopeful promise is that fictional, synthetic Dolores will get her revenge against her patriarchal oppressors and make her own justice, just as real women have always had to do.

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