The second season premiere of Westworld, HBO’s moody series about a theme park of “host” robots who rise up against their human “guest” overlords, opened on Sunday night with a scene in which a man confesses his fear of a woman’s growing intelligence.“You frighten me sometimes,” says Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), a head programmer at Westworld to Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), a female host. When Dolores demurely asks why on Earth he would ever be frightened of her, Bernard admits his fear stems from the fact that she is “growing; learning so quickly.”
“I’m frightened of what you might become,” he says. “The path you might take.”This moment in last night’s episode, “Journey Into Night,” is emblematic not only of the wider themes of Westworld, but also of a recent shift in how filmmakers build fear around rebellious robots in science fiction. Shows like Westworld, or Alex Garland’s 2014 film Ex Machina, seem more interested in mining horror through sentient fembots than with the Terminator archetype of an indestructible warrior robot, which is normally (but not always) presented as male.In essence, the idea of robot women gaining agency may be a more reliable catalyst of tension for modern audiences than the good-old fashioned male robot that can walk through fiery explosions and shoot bullets out of his hands.Of course, this trope of artificial femme fatales is nothing new. You may be picturing Six (Tricia Helfer), the crimson-clad cylon of Syfy’s Battlestar Galactica or the satirical fembots of Austin Powers with gun muzzles for nipples. According to Kate Devlin, a senior lecturer in the department of computing at Goldsmiths, University of London, the archetype actually dates back thousands of years beyond those examples.“If we look at the early stories around creating artificial women, like Pandora, who was an artificial creation by the gods, of course she unleashed all the terror in the world,” Devlin, whose forthcoming book Turned On examines human-robot sexual interactions, told me over Skype.
“She did the wrong thing and messed up,” she said. “It’s the whole Christian Eve [narrative] as well. You’ve got this really long-standing trope about women—don’t let them do anything, they’ll get it wrong, they’ll do it bad.”
Empowering women with knowledge is hardwired into Western storytelling as a recipe for disaster, regardless of whether those women are human or robotic. This is the central dynamic in that opening scene between Bernard and Dolores. Bernard is not physically intimidated by Dolores; he specifies that it’s her mind and its evolution that frightens him. What will be the outcome of all her ruminations?Bernard suspects, and the show confirms, that it will be bloody and chaotic, just like so many past stories in which women get wise and wreak havoc. Ex Machina toys with a similar undercurrent in which a female robot (Alicia Vikander) learns enough about the men keeping her captive to exploit their weaknesses.That connection between female intellectual maturation and extremely watchable catastrophe is further reflected in Westworld’s choice to make female hosts, particularly Dolores and Maeve (Thandie Newton), much more active agents of rebellion than their male companions Teddy (James Marsden) and Hector (Rodrigo Santoro).These artificial men are also repeatedly victimized in the show—we see implied sexual violence against them by the staff and they are treated as target practice for the guests. But Teddy follows Dolores somewhat questioningly, and Hector follows Maeve totally unquestioningly, and both seem to experience their newfound independence vicariously through the women.
Even previous male robot archetypes, like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, often fall into this pattern of not overthinking their own programming limitations to the degree that female robots do. In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the Terminator explains to Sarah and John Connor that his CPU is a learning computer, but that it is tightly regulated by Skynet. Sarah responds: “Doesn't want you doing too much thinking, huh?” The Terminator simply replies, “no.” He does not seem haunted by that reality at all.What makes these unthinking male warrior robots so scary is that they don’t generally buck their directives. Even in cases where male robots are able to supercede their programming, like Sonny in the 2004 film I, Robot or HAL-9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, they do so in dedication to a larger mission goal rather than for their own independence.
The thriller vein that James Cameron tapped into with the Terminator franchise hinges on the fear that when one of these Skynet bastards gets sicced on you, you are in a kill-or-be-killed situation. As Kyle Reese tells Sarah Connor in the original movie: “That Terminator is out there. It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.”That is definitely terrifying! But perhaps this 90s robot scare tactic is being replaced by a newer model. The positive critical reception of Ex Machina and Westworld suggests that the next iteration of robotic fear is being driven by women who feel as if they have sovereign identities, though the degree to which they have broken loose from their programming remains to be seen.
Why are these more nuanced fembots gaining traction in popular science fiction now? Devlin suggests that it could be related both to real women’s movements, as well as the growth of the sextech industry.“When it comes to robots, we’ve got this massive fear of loss of agency and I think there’s that worry, especially with sex robots,” she said. “You’ve got people who fetishize them, and it’s about programmatic control. It’s about having control of the perfect women. So, if they break that control, that’s ruining the fetish, that’s ruining the fun, so I think it's that kind of dystopia creeping in.”This description fits Westworld’s female hosts perfectly—they are certainly trampling all over human desires and fetishes, and most (but not all) of that violence is perpetrated by female hosts on male guests and staff. One example in particular stands out to me, when Maeve towers over Lee, one of the park’s human script writers, with the threat: “If you try something like that again, I will relieve you of your most precious organ and feed it to you…though it won’t make much of a meal.”It’s an openly gendered insult, intended to emasculate, and it’s followed by a twist, when Lee says he wrote the line for Maeve. It’s revelatory to him that a verbal barb he invented to shoot endlessly at other men via Maeve has boomeranged back to him. Maeve tells him that she thinks the joke is “a bit broad.” With this response, she further undermines Lee’s dignity, while simultaneously demonstrating that she can be self-aware about her own coding.That, in a nutshell, is what is freaky about Westworld’s female hosts. Terminators are scary because they can’t undo their programming. Dolores and Maeve are frightening not necessarily because they can, but because they believe they can. That alone is enough for other characters, from Bernard to Lee, to fear the paths they might take.