Go Westworld, Young Man

Like many people, I have been captivated by HBO’s new series “Westworld.” Based on a 1973 Michael Crichton movie of the same name, the show fictionalizes a future where incredibly life-like robots populate a western-themed adult fantasyland. The rest of this post contains some potential (but not obvious) spoilers to the show, so if you have not finished season one, you might consider stopping at this point.

With this blog post, I wanted to highlight how the show uses the idea of a theme park to play with our ideas of what the U.S. West was, or at least what we think it should have been. So much of our national identity is bound up in the West. Indeed, when historian Frederick Jackson Turner proposed his “Frontier Thesis” in 1893, positing that the West was over, the country went through a bit of a shock. The nation’s western expansion had helped to craft a national self-image just as much as any founding father ever had, and the supposed closing of the West meant that the United States would need to find a new way to define itself. (Imagine an historian creating such ripples today!)

With that in mind, in what ways does “Westworld” play into our sense of what the West was? Well, for one, the show and park are incredibly violent. Murders and rapes abound, and bandits frequently ride into town for “mayhem” (as they say), only to gun down every civilian they can find. In actuality, however, the real U.S. West was not terribly violent, at least toward whites. A tremendous amount of violence was visited on American Indians, but the sort of outlaw culture that we popularly imagine simply did not exist on anywhere near the scale as it does either in “Westworld” or our imaginations.

Non-white groups are similarly misrepresented. Historian Susan Lee Johnson has called the nineteenth-century Gold Rush “among the most multiracial, multiethnic, multinational events” in U.S. history up to that time (Roaring Camp, 12). For sure, Westworld is not specifically about the Gold Rush. But the U.S. West, in general, had many non-white peoples who were and are central to the region’s history. American Indians were the land’s first inhabitants, and they, along with Hispanics, had to be violently removed for whites to take over the land. Asian immigrants, particularly Chinese workers, played prominent roles as well, especially in building the railroads. These people led complex lives, had their own dreams and desires, and sought to make the West into a space that they envisioned.

Those peoples, however, are not treated with any sort of care in “Westworld.” American Indians only appear as exotic threats who might kill the white protagonists (similar to what Neva Jacquelyn Kilpatrick describes old Westerns in Celluloid Indians). Hispanics appear, but only as peripheral to the story, and often in a bandit or outlaw context. And the only hint at an Asian influence occurs in the train station when guests arrive at or leave the park—we hear Chinese spoken over the loudspeaker. The “Westworld” space is therefore a fairly milquetoast world—it looks much more like a John Wayne movie than the West ever did.

The environment also gets a short shrift. Historians like Donald Worster have made a career out of showing that the environment constricts human choices (Worster once wrote, in an article “New West, True West,” “My West is, by contrast [to frontier tales], the story of men and women trying to wrest a living from a condition of severe natural scarcity and, paradoxically, of trying to survive in the midst of entrenched wealth.”) “Westworld,” however, gives little-to-no sense that the natural world plays a role in human lives, likely because that is not how we want to think of the West (why watch a story about farmers in dry land when you can see cowboys and banditos?).

I should point out, of course, that “Westworld” does not pretend to be historically accurate. The show is mostly playing into our cultural memory that the West was a violent, white place where humans exerted their will on the environment. But, the show does get a number of feelings right, more or less. For example, the park has a sort of timelessness (made especially clear by the last episode) that pervades our thoughts. The West, in U.S. culture, is an unchanging place. Of course, this is not historically accurate, but it matters a great deal to us culturally that the West might always exist in a certain way.

Similarly, the show portrays women in an interesting way. While there are a plethora of female hosts, the guests are almost entirely male, emphasizing that the U.S. West was, for the most part, a male space. Not only was it demographically such, but it has remained an important male fantasy space to this day. “Westworld” thus finds a way to include more women while still maintaining the place’s “male” identity.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention the pubic hair. Yes, the show has a lot of pubes. One thing that becomes obvious, though, is that the hosts do not have much else in the way of body hair—just hair on their heads and pubic hair. This seems an odd choice historically, but works in current U.S. culture. Historically, it is unlikely that any of the citizens in “Westworld” would have shaved any hair off their bodies. Of course they would have had pubic hair, but they would also have chest, underarm, and leg hair (men and women!). But, in current U.S. culture, body hair is often seen as unseemly, and therefore showing any body hair, especially pubic hair, has its own sort of risqué appeal. We viewers want things to be messy, but not that messy.

“Westworld” thus plays with the history of the U.S. West in a way that reflects prevailing U.S. cultural memory about the West. Far from faulting the show from being historically inaccurate, I actually really like the way it plays around with our popular memory of what the West was or perhaps what we think it should have been. The show has fashioned a truly fabricated fantasyland and overtly told viewers that everything on the park, from the landscape to the lands to the narratives, has been crafted by humans. In doing so, we find that “Westworld” was not created with the sensibilities and desires of the guests in mind, but instead with ours at the forefront. It is not so much that the human characters in the show desire a violent, sexual West to act out their deepest desires, but more that we viewers crave such a place, voyeuristically yearning to watch others act our own delightfully wicked desires.

With that in mind, I am ready for season two.


**Sincere thanks to Anne Greenwood and James Katowich for watching the show with me and discussing it at length, sharpening my own thoughts a great deal. The best parts of this post I likely subconsciously (or intentionally) stole from them.