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Race and Violence in Westworld: Spoiler – It’s Problematic

Never has a microaggression made me so relieved. Towards the beginning of last night’s episode of Westworld, Akane No Mai, white Sylvester asks Asian Felix to talk to the Samurais holding them hostage. Felix responds to that ridiculous request by declaring he’s from Hong Kong, aka not-even-Japanese.

It’s the type of exchange that is common to so many people of color and present in so much of our media. Usually it signals who is bad, oafish, course, and racist (here Sylvester) and who will not let that ish go (here Felix). While we’ve long known which is the good one of the two, I think the creators of Westworld were doing something a bit different here – they were telling us that racism still exists in the human society of the show. Before we only saw racism in the power structures of the park, the fantasy land where the rich choose to play colonizer (subjugation has never been more fun!) – and it was exclusively used against robots. Here we see regular, everyday racism between two humans. We don’t know if this racism is the type we know, a structural system that oppresses people of color, but we do know that Sylvester and Felix have the same job and one seems much smarter than the other.

So while the other humans-of-color seem to be on an even playing field with their white counterparts (just look at the makeup of the Delos board), we at least now know that the society that created the parks and made them a wildly successful economic venture is not post-racial – glad we cleared that plot hole up!

Of course, that Felix-and-Sylvester moment was but a small part of the story as we followed Maeve on her journey. This episode was all about her finding her “voice” – and I so wanted to root for her in that discovery but couldn’t. You see, she meets her Shogun World double (as does the rest of the gang) and uses this foil to recognize some important things about herself. Primarily, she discovers her capacity for ruthlessness. Yes, it was amazing to see her tap into the host’s intranet and issue commands with the power of her mind. By why did she have to use that power to kill? And not just once, but to the point of committing a massacre. I’m not rejoicing in that. Can’t she, can’t we, imagine some other way to use her new-found power? Why not command the ninjas to be her army? Or just make them lay down and take a nap (and maybe wake “woke” as the kids say)?

To me, the question of season two is whether or not the robots can be more human than the humans. Maeve and Dolores (and I guess we have to count Bernard too) reject the toxic masculinity that has taken over humanity (now with an explicit dash of racism too)? Or will they fall into the same patterns and only create more othering, hierarchy, and destruction?

The answer last night seemed to be that violence only begets violence. Perhaps we should stop expecting different. I do so want to see a dash of hope in the Ying and the Yang of Dolores and Maeve’s power and not the two pitted against each other as some have hypothesized. You see Dolores has the power to bring hosts back from the dead, to survive any wound. And that’s just what Maeve’s group needed after the death of Sakura. While Maeve has the power to control other hosts, just what Dolores has needed in episodes past (and presumably future).

So will these two join forces? They’ve experienced other parallels. In this episode, for example, we saw each of them sacrificing the man in their lives. Maeve used Hector as a decoy and he seemed not to mind. We can only hope he survived to be reunited with her someday.

Dolores, on the other hand, spent the whole hour riding around with Teddy, trying to decide what to do with him. Along the way the two have robot-on-robot sex that demonstrates, to Teddy at least, that their love is real and they are no longer simply performing romance for human entertainment. At least theoretically that is. You see, this wasn’t a two-people-fall-into-bed-and-the-camera-turns-to-the-fireplace type sex scene. We saw the sex. And how it was shot – fragmented body parts, often unclear who’s were who’s, and ending with Teddy’s butt artfully lit – invited the viewer to see these two as objects for our consumption. So even when these robots are alone, we (the real humans) are still watching them, still using their love and pain as entertainment. As audience members, we are thus not that different from the guests to the park. And the robots can’t escape our prying eyes no matter what they do.

And what’s a girl to do when facing these mighty odds? Well, if you’re Dolores, you opt for re-programming. Will Teddy still be the man/robot she fell in love with afterward? We don’t know! But just imagine if you could change the things about your partner that you don’t like. Would you do it? Would you still love them after?

These are some of the interesting questions Westworld asks. About love, identity, and humanity. But the show handles race horribly. And last night’s episode reinforced dominant power structures more than it undermined them. Whether it’s the scalping of its Native American characters or the brutal decapitation of its Japanese characters (after Asian characters getting so little screen time despite the park probably being located on an island off the Chinese coast), or the reenactment of the killing of Maeve’s daughter, Westworld does not hold back from vividly depicting brutal violence against people of color. The show’s unflinching eye toward this violence is only possible in the world we live in, the one where racism has real consequences. Where the police “forget” to cover Michael Brown’s body for hours on end, leaving his corpse exposed on the street. Where our President says of Mexican immigrants (gang members or not) that they “aren’t human. They’re animals.” Where black women are three times more likely to die in childbirth than their white peers. The show’s use of extreme, vivid violence contributes to the dehumanization of people of color and this narrative isn’t fiction – it’s killing real people in our world today.

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