This election, choose your own adventure—or Trump will choose Westworld for you
I’ve become an avid watcher of the new HBO series Westworld. The show takes place in a “Wild West” theme park that sprawls across miles of what appears to be the American southwest. Wealthy guests visit the park to live out their fantasies — from sex to bounty hunting to murder — with the “hosts,” cyborgs who have largely moved beyond the uncanny valley and seem genuinely human.
Westworld’s viewers become acquainted not only with the hosts and guests, but also with the people who run the park — the programmers, roboticists, scriptwriters, management, and one of its founders. The park’s staff craft intricate, interwoven story loops through which the hosts run; the rancher’s daughter, for example, visits town each morning, interacts with guests and hosts, and returns each night to almost inevitably fall prey, with her family, to homicidal rapists. The prostitutes in the saloon charm guests until they die in an armed robbery.
Guests insert themselves into these stories, as literal black- or white-hat characters, saving hosts’ lives or taking them. As the guests sleep each night, the park staff repair the hosts and wipe their memory before setting them back on their narrative loops.
Every once in a while, however, through a glitch (or feature?) in their programming, hosts flash back to previous trauma. Sometimes these memories manifest as nightmares, but increasingly the hosts’ flashbacks happen during the day. Occasionally an external stimulus causes the hosts to short-circuit; in one case, a rancher finds, half-buried in the dirt, a photo of a woman on the street of a modern city. He cannot comprehend this woman.
Throughout Westworld, we see men gaslighting women: the park’s programmers ensure the cyborg women question their own memories, and men on the staff try to persuade two human women that their perspectives — including things they have observed — are not valid. According to these men, the explanatory narratives the women employees have crafted for themselves as they seek to understand the park and its hosts lack the proper perspective.
The park’s male leadership and male guests are invested in a very particular, and very narrow, understanding of the nineteenth-century west. In this narrative, the only women entrepreneurs are prostitutes and madams; the most admirable woman is a naïve young white woman who dutifully serves her father and depends on men to defend her from sexual violence; an outlaw woman who remembers the wrongs of her past has no recourse but to avenge them; and brown children serve only as mysterious oracles who drop verbal or material hints to hosts and guests.
Westworld’s fantasy Old West narratives appear to attract white male guests who feel insufficient in the modern world — wealthy men who nonetheless are unable to see themselves as heroes in their everyday contexts. These are men who long for a mythical time when there were no consequences for murder, for days when no one blinked or even feigned outrage at sexual violence against women.
Westworld’s themes could well be drawn straight from 2016’s presidential election: wealthy men with egos so fragile they seek new kinds of power over others, often through violent means; women as amnesiac bots whose bodies exist merely to please men; a refusal to believe women’s stories about their own experiences; people of color who tend to remain marginal to the story loops; a widespread lack of empathy toward the hosts’ experiences and feelings.
In its primary slogan, the Trump campaign embraces such a misguided simulacrum of history: Make America great again, the campaign tells us, as if the U.S. is not already the best version of itself to date, especially for women, LGBT folks, and people of color. Elect Trump, we’re promised implicitly and explicitly, and he’ll return us to a magical era of white supremacy, submissive women, and sufficient factories to employ the working class. It’s an attractive vision for a vocal minority of Americans.
Clinton, meanwhile, often has been dismissed as distant and unlikeable — yet it is Clinton’s campaign that evinces the greatest empathy for a broad spectrum of Americans. The Clinton campaign understands the past is not a place where many of us flourished. Clinton comprehends “America’s long struggle with race is far from finished.” She knows the stories of women are powerful in shaping the larger narrative of justice in this country. She understands coalitions matter and we’re at our best when we care for one another’s mental and physical well-being.
I’ve heard people talk about Clinton’s candidacy as a sign that women are reaching parity with men in many areas of our lives. Clinton knows this is far from the case — and that justice and equity may be more within our reach than equality.
The election of a woman to the presidency will not solve sexism any more than Obama’s election ended racism. However, it will demonstrate the proposals of the Trump campaign and its partisans — plans that move us backward toward fewer rights rather than forward toward equity and justice — is indefensible.
Throughout this election, I’ve been reminded of a woman whose story I found in the archives during my graduate research. Elizabeth McClintock, a botanist who worked for the California Academy of Sciences from 1949 to 1977, labored under a director whom she observed made her professional life exceptionally difficult. In an oral history interview in 1985, McClintock lamented other women’s and her own slow progress in the sciences and opined “the diehards have to die. Those who are really against women — they have to be gone entirely.”
While I sympathize with McClintock’s perspective, I don’t think we merely need outwait the most alt-right and reactionary voters. Instead, those of us who believe better times lie ahead need to demonstrate we prefer to live in hope rather than react out of fear.
We can do that by standing up to their bullying, to their lies and half-truths, to their distorted narratives, to their beliefs that women, LGBT people, and people of color are destined to play only minor roles in the stories where they are the gun-wielding heroes in white cowboy hats.
When you vote for Clinton and down-ballot candidates who embrace hope over fear, you’re voting not just for those candidates, but for a vision of America where we all write our own narratives, where fewer of us live at the mercy of oligarchs and the ignorant who would control our bodies, narrow our children’s educations, and keep too many of us just out of reach of our middle-class aspirations. A vote for Clinton is a vote for autonomy over control, for generosity over selfishness, for an American story in which we are all protagonists.