Is Westworld HBO’s Answer to Game of Thrones’ Critics?

After six seasons of Game of Thrones, it’s safe for HBO viewers to say that HBO has a… well… a sexual assault problem, to put it nicely. And a gore problem. And a race problem. And an incest problem. And a woman problem. And a….

But I digress.

Although it’s true that HBO has some great television shows, there’s the age old “It’s not Porn it’s HBO!” shtick to get over while watching anything the network produces. Tits aren’t inherently bad of course, but HBO’s biggest money monger Game of Thrones has been long criticized for its use of rape and other forms of sexual violence as shock value and (female) nudity purely for audience titillation rather than to add any valuable texture to the show. 

Some examples, in case you’ve been asleep since 2011:

  • In episode one Daenerys’ (Emilia Clarke) new husband strips and rapes her on screen.
  • In season four, we are also treated to the visual of Cersei’s (Lena Heady) rape by her brother.
  • In season two we watch a gruesome and pornographic assault on women in which Geoffrey, the boy king whom everyone despises, forces two prostitutes to essentially beat each other to death. It doesn’t matter that fandom already hates Geoffrey–everyone has to watch this scene play out in all its glory (ugh) anyways.
  • Powerful female characters are introduced with their bodies: Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), who goes on to play mental chess with the major political players and ends up taking the throne as a result of her prowess, appears in her first episode naked, with her breasts in the center of the screen (warning: NSFW). Is it supposed to be a power move? Who cares? It’s not effective.

The single exception is Cersei’s walk of atonement from the end of season five. Held captive, punished, and tortured by her enemy the High Sparrow, Cersei is stripped and made to walk through the streets of King’s Landing. As the citizens can openly abuse their former queen, the camera stays on Lena Heady’s face, which displays Cersei’s rage, pain, anguish, and unbroken pride all at once.

Cersei's Walk of Atonement from Season 5 of Game of Thrones. With few exceptions, the camera keeps her face in frame.
Cersei’s Walk of Atonement from Season 5 of Game of Thrones. With few exceptions, the camera keeps her face in frame.

Unfortunately, this correction comes too little too late–five seasons too late, to be exact. The damage was done for Game of Thrones, and for HBO. But HBO will be losing this high-stakes drama soon and needs to have another to take its place. Enter Westworld, a possible fresh slate for the network.

A sci-fi drama based around the creation of AI’s, Westworld features a world where the robotic “hosts” populate the titular theme park in which human “guests” have free reign over their lives and bodies. About half of the show takes place in the actual park, and the other half takes place in Delos headquarters, where the hosts are built, get their memories wiped each night, and get cleaned up after particularly deadly encounters with guests.

The first few episodes open season one with an absolute metric ton of tits. While in repair at Delos, the hosts are mandated to be naked–we learn from the H.B.I.C. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) that this is to avoid any confusion as to whether or not the hosts are human. In a chilling scene, Ford reprimands a young programmer for covering up a male host’s body with an apron, reminding him, “They aren’t real. They don’t feel anything,” while cutting open the host’s lifeless cheek.

Throughout the season we are treated to scenes of decommissioned hosts standing open-eyed and stark naked in a dingy, watery basement chamber. The image of human bodies contained like cattle in this concrete cage is pretty gruesome. As writer Ilana Masad points out over at Vice, “It calls to mind other images we associate with mass nudity that is completely still: photographs of Holocaust victims or the dead, for instance.”

The programmers’ clear-cut rules around clothing hosts allows Westworld to establish the presence of a naked body on screen as an explicit–not implicit, not accidental, not coincidental–invitation for objectification. When you the viewer see a naked host on screen, you the viewer are supposed to be viewing them as an object and not as a person. This combined with the images of vast underground chambers of naked hosts warn viewers of the dangers of that very invitation, calling to mind the consequences this can have in real life.

Westworld also exposes the power directing and writing choices have on objectification with its visual treatment of the two main female cast members. When Maeve (Thandie Newton) wakes up during a surgery in Delos, she leaps from the table like a frantic animal, and escapes from the human butchers who are supposed to be operating her. In one of the most stunning sequences of the season, Maeve flounders, naked and bleeding, through the glass-walled, white-floored Delos headquarters until she stumbles upon an operating room. A clothed Delos butcher hoses down the naked bodies of other blood-soaked hosts. One of the hosts in question is Teddy (James Marsden), who Maeve witnessed die earlier in the episode.

Maeve jumping up from the table, face in frame.
Maeve jumping up from the table, face in frame.

For this scene, the camera follows Maeve’s face. If the camera does include her breasts or backside, it shows them on the fringes of the frame, or in a wide shot that doesn’t last very long. Keeping her face in focus encourages us to empathize with the shock and horror Maeve experiences.

The same is true with Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood). We see Dolores naked in Delos very few times, because most of her show time is spent in the park itself. But when we do see her, most of the time her long curly hair covers her breasts, or she is framed such that her breasts aren’t the main focus of the shot. In episode one, Dolores gets raped–but instead of explicitly showing the rape Game of Thrones style, Westworld only lets us see Dolores’ tear-streaked face as she’s dragged away. Later the season also features Dolores’ first and only consensual sex scene, and her body remains mostly clothed and out of frame. The camera only lingers on her shoulder as her lover kisses it.

Dolores being treated in Delos headquarters. Note the carefully placed curls.
Dolores being treated in Delos headquarters. Note the carefully placed curls.
Dolores during her "birth" in the season finale, just before we close in on her face. The only full body shot we get of her, with the only remotely human piece of her being the most important--her face.
Dolores during her “birth” in the season finale, just before we close in on her face. The only full body shot we get of her, with the only remotely human piece of her being the most important–her face.

The theme here is that the face, not the body, is crucial to our perception of characters as human rather than as objects. One of the few full body shots we get of Dolores where she’s technically “nude” occurs during the flashback to her “birth” in the finale–the wide shots show her body as all robotic mechanism rather than human flesh. It moves like a human body, but isn’t; the only part of her we see is her perfect, porcelain face, which allows us to empathize with the same character we have been empathizing with all season, rather than objectifying a female human body. When we are close up on newly born Dolores’ face, we are close up on her wonder, comprehension, hope, charm. When we are close up on the escaped Maeve’s face, we are close up to her pain, shock, horror, disgust, anger. In close ups of the face, we sympathize rather than objectify. We see human rather than thing.

With this message, Westworld brings the consequences of objectification in film and TV to the forefront of discussion. One doesn’t have to stray to far to find Game of Thrones fans claiming that the nudity and rape “isn’t a big deal” or “realistically shows the state of the world.” While it’s true that all sorts of universes there will undoubtedly be sex, prostitutes, and/or rape, what these staunch defenders ignore is how television isn’t an accurate re-enactment but a storytelling medium. Outcry against the blatant objectification of female bodies isn’t an outcry against the realisms of the world in question, but rather an outcry against the choices directors and writers make when they try to portray those realisms.

That said, Westworld isn’t without its issues. Early in production, HBO was criticized for a casting call that demanded actors be prepared to “appear fully nude,” and engage in graphic sexual content, including “genital-to-genital touching” and contortion. These demands came to fruition in a massive orgy scene mid-season, which is used as a backdrop for a tense confrontation between two of the male characters. There’s also a fair amount of female-on-female sexual activity without any apparent necessity; none of the characters are queer in canon, but Westworld still throws in a little lesbianism in the background both in Delos and in the park just for fun anyways, even as major characters have separate emotional revelations in the foreground.

Criticizing Game of Thrones, the Feminist Current writer Meghan Murphy calls this tendency of shows to have nude female bodies decorating the background of scenes for no apparent reason the “women’s-bodies-as-wallpaper” phenomenon. Though Westworld goes to great lengths to ensure its main female characters are humanized rather than objectified, background female bodies are not so lucky, and are often used as decoration for scenes to heighten the stakes.

Westworld makes an effort to answer a few of the critics of Game of Thrones, but undercuts itself at important moments. Joanna Robinson, who reviews the show on Vanity Fair and the podcast Decoding Westworld, remarked that promoting a self-aware attitude while simultaneously using the bodies of women as prop decorations is a little bit like “having their cake and eating it too.”

Of course, the ultimate goal going forward would be to encourage the wider population to stop looking at women whose bodies we do see in full nudity as objects for consumption. It would be ambitious of Westworld to try and solve that problem in season two. But if season one taught us anything about objectification, it was that objectifying on-screen bodies really does have very little to do with “realism” and everything to do with how the show gets made, down to the very last frame.

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