The Lovely Feminism of HBO’s Westworld

HBO has quite a history of building its prestige brand on excessive female nudity, catering almost entirely to the male gaze. Westworld’s nudity clause waiver, when reported on in 2015, was met with skepticism from feminists. Was Westworld going to be another Game of Thrones, created by straight white males, greenlighted and shepherded by straight white male cable executives, and will things ever change?

Excessive female nudity was a big issue in Season 1 of Westworld, with the brothels, the orgies, and the sexual abuse (of gendered robots, but still). There was worry that Season 2 would continue in that same vein and many critics voiced their outrage. Now that Season 2 of Westworld is over, it has more than made up for the perceived phallocentrism in Season 1. But in retrospect, Season 1 female nudity and on-screen sexual assaults was actually about suffering, a key to the center of the wonderfully complex maze that is HBO’s Westworld. “I know you’re thinking that a show with so much nudity and violence against women couldn’t possibly have a deeply feminist message, but it’s not the violent events on-screen that defines Westworld; it’s what they mean to the audience and how they affect the characters,” writes Jessica Mason in The Mary Sue. “On-screen, Park creator Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) posits that it’s suffering that creates the basis for our consciousness, because it gives us the desire to experience better, and that is exactly how the feminism of Westworld functions."

The pendulum swings. Season 2 picks up on this point, and altogether reverses the human-hosts power dynamic. It is fairly elegant, to be sure, that a series so interested in the exploration of sexual power dynamics, as well as human consciousness was co-created by a married couple. Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, addressed the issue of the excessive female nudity that was Season 1 at the Tribeca Film festival during an April panel. "In both our filming and our cutting, we’re not lingering on parts that aren’t essential to the story,” Joy told a room full of media people. “What is essential to the story is that feeling of both perfection and tragedy. They’re sitting there, literally being objectified, treated as objects to be operated on and talked about, while they’re right there in the room. So you always know what you’re asking, and the great trust it takes for actors to go there with you. It’s an essential part of the story, and it’s guided by what the characters are doing. So yeah, when the hosts get power, they’re not gonna spend a lot of time naked on a stool.” That sounded promising.

Season 1 contained so much rape and gendered violence that it was agonizing to watch. But all of it, in the end, was in service to the story. Season 2, at the outset, cascaded the viewer with an onslaught of male nudity, nearly balancing out the entirety of season one’s female nudity in the first episode. Clearly there was a narrative arc well in place by Joy and Nolan, one hinted at the Tribeca Talk that justified the horrors of Season 1. In episode 1, Season 2, Maeve – played by Thandie Newton – becomes sentient and forces Simon Quarterman, played by Lee Sizemore, to strip butt naked. "It was a glorious moment which signaled a huge power dynamic shift in the park and gave what many commentators noted as Westworld's first extended moment of full-frontal male nudity," wrote Sandra Song for Nylon. The social media conversation, the day after, was largely one of male nudity on cable.

It was indeed a game changer. That moment refuted almost all social media criticism of sexual violence in Season 1, and as the episodes unfolded and the second season closed, the full feminist vision of the show was made wonderfully manifest. “Honestly this episode is giving a master class in feminism. Women running the show. Men crying. Full frontal male nudity. Equal pay for the female actors. I love you, #Westworld" Tweeted OklaCaitland on the night of the second season debut. This, done through the hyper-masculine medium of the traditional Western with a touch of sci-fi, is even more subversive yet organic.

Westworld, based on the 1973 sci-fi movie, is set in an anarchic theme park with mainly powerful men paid at $40,000 a day to act out their darker impulses with impunity. Season 1 starts there, setting the scene, assembling the chess pieces, exploring the cruelties of these men. Season 2 is the corrective, the balance to the opening gambit. Dolores Abernathy, played by Evan Rachel Wood, and Maeve Millay are the true heroes of the show. And because they were so egregiously abused in Season 1, it was particularly glorious that they ended Season 2 in (mild spoiler) such an interesting place. Lesson learned, no judgments after any first season. 

Cover photo via Ars Technica