Tag Archives: feminism

Apparently only dudes in Westworld are complex enough to have darkness

I’ve been watching Westworld on HBO, and I intend to watch it through to the end, but I’m not very satisfied with it. I mean, besides the fact that I’ve always had a huge mental block against sympathizing with robots as characters, as I still basically think they’re always going to just be things, it’s not that fresh a robots-as-people narrative. Basically, they’re gaining sentience as their programming advances, and they’re probably going to make humans pay for the horrific treatment they’ve undergone when utilized as things. I am absolutely sure that will happen if AI ever gets advanced enough in the real world, and we’ve seen it in stories a million times before.

But the thing that gets at me the most is the logic behind the Westworld park itself. It’s appeal is basically presented as a place to indulge your darkest urges free of consequences– specifically, they assume, things that take the form of hurting others. The park is full of robots, not people, so you can hurt or use them in any way you want and it doesn’t matter. And that’s basically the reason why people like to come.

Well. Even leaving aside what a morbidly cynical view of humanity is– I don’t even think that’s all that representative of the way people’s badness manifests. Personal I’d say most of the worst of us manifests not as sadism– the desire to cause or the enjoyment of suffering in others –but rather as selfishness. It’s not so much that you WANT other people to hurt, it’s that you care so much about yourself and your own gratification that the harm you do to others doesn’t matter to you. Sure, causing pain often gives us power over others, which is another thing we’re all susceptible to, but again, I’d argue that you want the feeling of being powerful so much that you don’t worry about causing pain. True psychopaths, who LIKE causing pain in and of itself, exist, but they’re much rarer. Faced with no consequences for our actions, that morbid indifference to the feelings of others in favor of indulging the self is the true danger that is likely to come out of us.

I mean, I can imagine if I were in a scenario like this– leaving aside the other problems with the workings of Westworld, which are beside my point here –I might have fun being the best shot in the West and beating a horde of rampaging gunslingers by being the fastest draw. That appeals to my sense of adventure and excitement, plus the thrill of being the best. I could see conceivably being so selfish that I care so about my enjoyment in that way I don’t care that I subjected a bunch of people to painful death. But it adds nothing to that appeal to see the men I beat twitching and gasping in pain as they die from the bullets I put in them. I could see prioritizing my sense of fun such that I didn’t care that I killed them. But having to witness their suffering is distasteful, such that the imposition of their pain is a consequence that would make my victory less fun. I think it would be to most people.

But even beyond that– the version of the “dark urges” the park is designed to caters to? Is this totally one-note, stereotypically masculine conception. Basically, the form of indulgences it expects its guests to want are all extremely retrograde masculine fantasies, mostly sexual, violent, or a combination of the two. Sure, given how toxic they expect people to want to behave, you’d expect them to appeal to people’s toxic masculinity, but there’s no appeals to any impulse that are not coded masculine. It’s all just about the chances for brutal violence or increasingly outre sexuality.

I can’t figure out if it’s intentional or not. Is it as a statement of how prevalent such fantasies are in people, or even how hypermasculinity encourages it? Or is it because the SHOW can’t imagine dark impulses under any other encoding?

If it’s intentional, there has yet to be any explicit acknowledgment that Westworld is designed under that assumption. I’ve seen no commentary on the problem of that conception. There’s been no connection of the horrors being committed to the idea that they rise from hypermasculinty– in fact, the only suggestion the show gives is that it comes from HUMANITY in general, rather than specifically from males. And I don’t think depicting an idea without any form of critique, in so many words or otherwise, counts as commentary.

On top of that, most of the women characters in the show have been portrayed in really limited ways. The only female guests tend to be either wives supporting the adventures of their husbands, or else having identical dark urges to straight men. (There’s been some portrayal of lesbianism, but it all smacks of “chicks that act like straight guys” rather than women attracted to other women. By contrast, the one bisexual dude’s orgy? A woman riding his dick, another woman making out with him, while the one other guy… rubs his belly. Cowards.) The women host robots fall into a pretty stark virgin-whore dichotomy. Again, if there was some suggestion of critique of this, that women suffer even more when people act like objectification is just okay, then I might see it as a meaningful choice. But again, I’ve seen no sign of this.

So it’s increasingly striking me as unintentional, which is both a staggeringly limited view of humanity– even humanity’s darkness –and also misogynist. I mean, why do women come to Westworld in this universe? Just to support their husbands’ hero hypermasculine-coded hero fantasies, or if they want to indulge in THOSE EXACT SAME HYPERMASCULINE FANTASIES themselves? Is there nothing here to enjoy that’s actually geared toward the interests of women– or even the ways women specifically tend to break down? If nothing else, where are the hot male whores throwing themselves at female guests?

I’m only three episodes in. Maybe they’ll deal with it. But I don’t think it’s been handled well so far.


Bechdel-ing my work

I made myself a promise that anything I wrote longer than than ten minutes was going to pass the Bechdel Test. It is not a very high bar to include at least two female characters who talk to each other about the point of the story/something besides a man, so I am determined to do it. I have succeeded since I instituted this rule, which includes all Mrs. Hawking stories, Mrs. Loring, The Tailor at Loring’s End, Puzzle House Blues, and Adonis. Heh, Adonis only has one speaking male character period, a fact with which I am extremely pleased.

For the record, I do not believe that the presence/lack thereof of female characters in storytelling is a reliable indicator of whether the piece evidences a feminist or sexist worldview. I think you can usually tell through observation whether a story exists in a universe where women are viewed as complete people. I have seen plenty of stories with female characters that do not meet that metric, and even some with all male characters that do. I’ve written some of the latter, specifically in the standalone scene or ten-minute form, so I seriously hope that comes through.

But do not mistake me. There are ENOUGH all-male, or too-many-male, casts out there at this point that I think it’s almost uniformly preferable to make an effort to include more women. I know sometimes you imagine a piece a certain way and it needs to be that way; I’ve been there, I get it. I respect authorial vision probably more than most other Angry Media Critic Feminists. But I also believe that so-called “authorial vision” is sometimes influenced by our prejudices more than we realize. We are all socialized to see Straight White Men as our default center of the story, and sometimes the stories for other people don’t spring to our minds because we just don’t see them as having stories worth telling. That is something all artists need to make an effort to GET OVER. And sometimes getting over it means consciously deciding to make a character a woman (or some other figure underrepresented in fiction) in order to start changing our ingrained assumptions.

I thought of this because it occurred to me that my Cabin Pressure fan ficton that I’ve been noodling on may technically pass, but only on a technicality. It’s challenging in this case because what of what I’ve chosen to write about– someone else’s cast of four main characters, only one of whom is a woman, those characters specifically talking about romance, the setting is self-contained where the only other characters present are a horrible nasty couple that is fighting with each other. Even if those two female characters talk to each other, it’s tough to not make the subject in that context a man. So I do understand that sometimes it’s not as easy as it should be. But I don’t want this to be my first piece of substantial length (a runtime of about thirty minutes) to fail since I made my vow. So I am going to make sure it passes legitimately before it’s finished.

As we write the Adonis sequels, I figure we’ll probably EVENTUALLY have to include another speaking male character. If we do, I kind of want to make them fail the reverse Bechdel Test. If there has to be more than one male character, they won’t talk to each other, and if they do, it won’t be about something besides a woman. 😝


Sex in my writing

I don’t write about sex much. I don’t know if those of you who have read much of my work have noticed that, but I tend not to deal with it very often. To be frank, I think there’s something approaching a prudishness in a lot of my writing— not a lot of exploration of sexuality, not much drug use, few truly crude behaviors. I don’t even like my characters too swear too much. A lot of it’s just taste. I think dialogue’s more interesting when people don’t swear all the time, I’m a bit put off by human grossness. Those are just things I am not all that interested in exploring in my writing.

But I get a bit funny when it comes to writing about sex and sexuality. I have no DISTASTE for it the way I do with that other stuff. I feel like it’s an interesting and important part of most characters, something that could really add drama and dimension and intensity to stories. I can talk about sex with friends in person. But for some reason– maybe it’s an immaturity, a silly hangup –I get nervous, even embarrassed, when I trying to write about it.

I have a weird impulse to worry, “What would my parents think if they saw this?” Which is stupid, for several reasons— not least of which because I only have one parent anymore —a silly thing for an adult to be concerned over. I also worry that the way I try to depict it won’t work the way I intend it to. Like somebody will read it and think I’m a freak for thinking that’s how you depict sexuality and eroticism. “What the hell was that?” “It was supposed to be sexy.” “That’s not sexy. That’s weird. And you’re weird.”

I ran into that challenge with Bernie and my Adonis screenplay. I don’t think sexuality ever played a bigger part in my work than in this story. A major theme is flipping the typical hetero power dynamic, and a big goal for that was to write a romantic relationship with a slowly growing sexual dimension to it that people would actually find hot. And with my nervousness that was challenging. It was made worse for the fact that I was using a lot of things I personally find hot to accomplish it. My muse for much of the project was Chris Evans, given my extreme attraction to him with the Captain America presentation— blond, smooth, and huge with muscle. So writing my lead character Aidan, the titular Adonis, to be played by him was a starting point. And naturally when I was looking for ways to express my characters’ attraction to him, I referenced how I experienced my own.

Sex is personal and idiosyncratic. Even when there’s nothing really wrong with how you relate to or experience sex, it’s not always something you want everybody to know about. People might not get it if it’s too different from their own way. This made me feel particularly vulnerable— like, what if you thought I was a weirdo for things that were actually representative of me? Or what if I just didn’t get the job done as an artist depicting sexiness and it came off as clunky and awkward and now you knew way more about me than you wanted to for your trouble? A lot of the time I would feel shy as I was writing and then sort of pull back from the depiction for fear that if I got too specific, or too detailed, or too whatever, it would just be uncomfortable rather than sexy or furthering to the story. Or what if you read too much into a lot of the ways in which sexuality plays out in the story, particularly the problematic ones, and got uncomfortable because you suspected those things were representative of me? That one was particularly worrisome to me. You might find something a little disturbing in the fact that the man I modeled to be my physical ideal I wrote to be a multiple sexual trauma victim, which in certain instances plays out onscreen. I want that to be a circumstance driving the emotional arc of my story, not to come off like the author’s weird rape kink.

The truth is, if you care, what I mostly drew from myself for the various depictions of sexuality in Adonis is how I experience intense physical attraction. In this story I wanted to both celebrate and elevate the female gaze, as well as highlight the dangers of investing too much power into the mere concept of gaze. When it came to the former, I tried to depict the way I feel awe of extreme beauty, the somewhat fallacious but poetic attribution of some great deeper meaning to that beauty, the indulgent, rhapsodic cherishing of each quality in turn. When it came to the latter, I worked in the threat of that attraction to push out rational thought, the tipping over from appreciation into objectification, and the encroachment of a possessiveness that comes from the impulse to self-aggrandizement. Female gaze is my pet feminist issue, so I’ve given a lot of thought to deconstructing it, particularly how it expresses in myself. I joked a lot about how awesome it was to be able to claim looking at hot photos of Chris Evans as research. But I am being a hundred percent serious when I say that when I felt blocked, experiencing what my attraction to him felt like would help me figure out the right words to embody such a reaction for the story. I flatter myself that I think it gave the exploration of female gaze some real power.

It can be scary to put too much of yourself into your art. When people criticize it or don’t like it, it feels like a personal attack. But oftentimes that personal element can make something more complete, genuine, or powerful. So you have to be willing to open yourself up to that vulnerability. I hope it improved my work here, though it was definitely not an easy thing to do.