HOW ‘WESTWORLD’ SUBVERTS THE MADONNA AND THE WHORE COMPLEX

The first episode of “Westworld” is a kind of endurance test in watching sexual violence against women.

We see a protagonist, Dolores (played by Evan Rachel Wood), experience one horrific day in a constant loop: after a peaceful trip into town she returns home to find her mother and father murdered. Her beau, Teddy, is killed right in front of her. She is dragged into a nearby barn, screaming, where she is raped offscreen. She’s forced to relive that trauma over and over again ― and we live it with her.

Before “Westworld” had even premiered on HBO, its pilot episode sparked criticism because of the general overabundance of sexual violence against women on the network, particularly on “Game of Thrones.” Critics wondered, was “Westworld,” like “Game of Thrones,” merely going to use the nudity and sexual violence of women as a gimmick, as a tool for shock value? Or was it going to delve deeper?

In August, during HBO’s TCA presentation, one of the show’s creators Lisa Joy responded to the concern. “Sexual violence is an issue we take seriously,” she said.

“[The show is] about exploring the crime, establishing the crime and the torment of the characters within this story and exploring their stories hopefully with dignity and depth.”

The problem that so many movies and TV shows run into, that “Game of Thrones” suffers from, is the fact that rape is so often used as a plot device, a way to move the story along. The aftermath of rape, the impact that it has on the inner world of a character, is rarely ― if ever ― truly unpacked.

“Westworld” is all about unpacking that trauma, as the show slowly and methodically picks up each piece of pain and holds it to the light. Indeed, it’s the pain of assault that drives the narratives of two of the show’s most important characters, Dolores and Maeve (played by Thandie Newton). These are two very different women who have one very specific goal: to break the loop and end the never-ending cycle of abuse.

Dolores and Maeve are two sides of a single archetypal coin. Dolores is the Virgin, and Maeve the whore. When we first meet her, Dolores is innocent, sweet, and almost unrealistically idealistic. With her rosy cheeks and perfectly-curled tendrils of blonde hair, she’s a fantasy of the girl-next-door; her only purpose is to be a virginal sexual prize for black hat guests at the park.

Meanwhile, Maeve, is the sexually aggressive, cynical and street smart madam at the Sweetwater brothel. Like Dolores, she exists to fulfill a particular fantasy for the guests, and also like Dolores she exists as a sexual play thing, a sentient blow-up doll.

In the Madonna-whore dichotomy, Dolores is meant to be a shining, pure beacon of femininity waiting to be defiled. Maeve is meant to be a disposable object of lust. In the world of the park, how the two women feel about these roles should be irrelevant. How they feel about their trauma, the physical and emotional scars made by the guests of the park, is irrelevant. The show brilliantly reminds us that it isn’t, though.

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read ahead if you have not watched the season finale of “Westworld.”

Both Maeve and Dolores subvert the personas thrust upon them early on. If consent is about choice, they each spend the entire series striving towards a kind of self-determination that breaks them out of these archetypes, that allows them to decide exactly what role they get to play.

Maeve literally holds her destiny in her own hands, after she conscripts Delos tech Felix to help her change her “settings” and escape the park. Later, however, she learns from Bernard that someone programmed her to decide to escape. It’s the ultimate violation ― her own desires and motivations, it seems, are not made with her consent. But by the show’s end, as she’s just minutes away from finally leaving Westworld forever, Maeve makes the decision to go back to the park and save a daughter who she has only vague memories of. Maeve’s motherly instinct overrides her programming and subverts her “role” ― she breaks the loop by finally ostensibly making a real choice.

And Dolores breaks her loop in much the same way. In episode five, after Dolores swiftly and coldly does away with five Confedrado attackers with a pistol, her companion Billy asks her how she did it.

“I imagined a world where I didn’t have to be the damsel.”

For much of Dolores’s awakening, she’s joined by the ultimate “nice guy,” Billy, who falls in love with her and pledges to help her find the center of the maze. But by the season finale, we learn that Billy grew to be The Man in Black, that he was so disillusioned with the idea that he could never truly possess Dolores, that he became an evil shadow of his former self.

What’s fascinating about Billy and Dolores’s relationship is that even in his quest to help her break out of her role, a “damsel” is exactly what he wants her to be. “You helped me discover who I really am,” he tells her in the season finale climax. Just like an abuser, he makes his victim’s trauma all about himself.

But, brilliantly, “Westworld” doesn’t end Dolores’s story there. Her pain, contrary to The Man in Black’s beliefs, is not merely for his entertainment ― or ours. The maze isn’t meant for him. It’s meant for her, and by the end of the season, both she and Maeve make decisions that not only cement their autonomy, but subvert the roles they are meant to play. They are not victims, or martyrs, or damsels, or plot devices merely revolving around assault and exploitation. They are whoever it is they want to be.

VIA: http://westworld-daily.tumblr.com/post/154165661421/how-westworld-subverts-the-madonna-and-the-whore

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