Racial Stereotyping and “Westworld”
Spoilers ahead for Season 1
The uncomfortable relationship between humans and machines has been compounding since the development of modern agricultural. Our options for labor have been predicated on innovation, where occupations that were established on basic necessities have been ousted by mechanization. The unveiling of Tesla’s new driverless semi-truck is but one recent example in this ongoing development. And with the growth of tech, the nascent wave of artificial intelligence in our everyday lives makes Westworld’s sci-fi future become less fantasy and more unsettling thriller.
Although last season’s finale foretold a world where humans are overtaken in violent revolution by robots, the more present horror that it projects is that humans will unwittingly and enthusiastically adorn the crown of slave master. The journey climbing out of the uncanny valley will dull our ability to observe A.I.’s growing sentience, and only by being outside viewers watching the show do we begin to relate more to the robotic ‘host’ than the human creators and patrons. And our just reward for this mistake is annihilation.
Aaron Bady wrote a piece for The New Yorker outlining Westworld’s idolization of the Western while simultaneously neglecting the relationship of slavery and race in the development of American Reconstruction’s “fantasy of white reconciliation.” Indeed, the concept of the West is deeply routed in the American aspirations of Manifest Destiny; to see the west as a post-Civil War utopia where the fight is no longer North versus South but instead man against the savagery of nature’s untamed splendors — and those that already inhabit it. Westworld’s first season isn’t about American slavery or indigenous genocide nor does it aspire to be. And it is this break between slavery’s history and slavery’s future where the show fumbles in it’s ability to commentate on our own technological development.
But this lack of enthusiasm to comment on race isn’t relegated to the narrative of A.I. subjugation. Compared to the 1973 movie of the same name it was based on, it is clear that Westworld the show had a much greater emphasis placed on representing people of color in its casting. And each one of these characters not only have speaking roles, but contain complex and compelling narratives that are brilliantly crafted into the world-building of Westworld’s universe. Whether they’re host or human, the viewer is encouraged to empathize with their struggles through the good and the bad, complicating the moral topography of the plot and forcing us to constantly re-evaluate our expectations.
And every single one of these POC characters falls into the pit of racial stereotyping. Here are a few key examples.
- Felix Lutz (Leonardo Nam)
Felix is one of the few human characters in the show who is portrayed entirely sympathetically. Working in the Livestock Management division of the park, he is the Asian brain who has the intelligence to work on the highly technical host, but not the vision to mastermind their narratives. Upon Maeve’s awakening, he immediately follows her orders despite his white counterpart, Sylvester, being openly combative towards her. His role as the intelligent but weak Asian man are complimented by Maeve’s role as the strong black woman. The two are unable to accomplish anything without each other, with their strengths implying their innate racial deficiencies.
2. Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton)
Maeve is a host who serves as a brothel madame in Westworld. She is designed to be intelligent and perceptive and is the first host to realize her life is a simulation. However unlike Dolores and the other hosts, Maeve’s awakening is not part of a larger plan on behalf of the park creators to lead to open revolt, but rather she is a rogue agent. Each of her own ‘decisions’ (it’s implied that even her rebellion is coded by Robert Ford, the park’s creator) center her own solo escape from the park and shows little to no concern for the fate of either humans or hosts she enlists into her struggle. She embodies the image of the strong black woman, a perspective that is further reinforced by the park’s executive director, Charlotte Hale. Both women are portrayed as powerful characters with conniving intentions, and despite their bold maneuvers are ultimately not in control of their own fate.
3. The Ghost Nation
There is something to be forgiven in the depiction of the violent indigenous hosts referred to as The Ghost Nation. After all, they are never meant to be a true representation of Native Americans, but rather the most vile and fantastic imagining of indigenous peoples that the Western has created. Their existence is less a problem so much as that their place in the show as a mere a plot device. They have no arc, no developmental changes, but rather appear only when the plot requires a violent commentary on the nature of park. None of the hosts that are featured as primary and even secondary characters have any relation to The Ghost Nation, cementing their function as a sinister, mystic, and inhuman mass that operates outside the circle of subversive empathy the other non-white hosts enjoy. Season one ends without making any serious changes to their function, and begs that the second rectifies.
4. Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright)
By all accounts, Bernard’s introduction at the beginning of the series contradicts the stereotypes of black men. He is smart, well educated, high-ranking in his position as head of Westworld’s Programming Division. He is also calm, quiet and reserved in his reproach of Robert Ford’s decisions. So when it was revealed that he was in fact a host—a replica of Ford’s deceased co-founder Arnold, Bernard’s identity as a programmed android also brought him under the subjugation of his creator, Ford. His intelligence and rank are gifts given to him by his superior with the explicit purpose of aiding Ford in the programming and masterminding of the park. Bernard, like the rest of the hosts in the park, is ultimately a slave. His calm and pensive exterior established in the formational episodes of the show also directly contradict his prime directives in service: a tool that follows and a tool of brutality. Bernard becomes a weapon for Ford to murder and silence any employees that stand in the way of his narrative, echo the legacy of the violent black male.
Bernard’s identity as a slave is further entrenched by his traumatic memories of family. The death of Arnold’s child and his distance from his wife constantly plague his dreams and perception of reality throughout the show. This same experience is shared by Maeve, who is terrorized by the fictional memory of her daughter’s death, placing Bernard and Maeve as the two black hosts who’s relationship to family are held hostage by Ford’s narrative. What makes these memories so eerie is that they evoke the image of pre-Civil War America, where slave families were torn apart at the auction block, husbands and wives, parents and children, never to see each other again.
Whitewashing is a serious problem in media that can significantly hamper the quality of art and storytelling. So it stands to reason that when re-imagining the cast from 1973’s Westworld, the creators decided to veer away from the predominantly white cast. It is also clear that each of these characters were taken into careful consideration in their inception so that the story of Westworld would constantly have you on your toes, uncertain what twist and turns would be waiting for you from episode to episode.
That is what’s so surprising about it’s handling of race: it feels sloppy. Every time Felix avert’s his eyes from Maeve’s glare or the Ghost Nation’s warriors arrive in full black and white body paint, there seems to be a colorblind approach to the racial continuity of the show. The writing and pacing is so strong in this series that it wouldn’t be inconceivable (though woefully optimistic) that these gaffs were intentionally placed to be explained in a later season. But until it arrives, there is something left to be desired in these character’s representation.
Not every show that features people of color in the cast needs to be about race. It can be refreshing to see an Asian actor who’s identity isn’t defined by his ethnic background, after all representation demands diverging experiences. Nor does every show require people of color to be in it to be compelling (it’s just that’s been the norm for so long.) But if having people of color present is nothing more than a check-box for Hollywood to fill, the intention will be revealed in the quality of the product. Unfortunately for Westworld, the West has never been the whites-only utopia that Manifest Destiny dreamed of, and its legacy is overdue for a careful revision.