Although Westworld is unique in the way it weaves robots together with the Wild West, the story itself can be classified into two main science fiction categories: conspiracy sci-fi, filled with corporate espionage; and robot sci-fi, filled with ambiguous A.I.
But Evan Rachel Wood, who plays Dolores, alluded to a third tradition that one might find in a close reading of the show: androgynous science fiction. In a recent interview, Wood described her character as “not a male and she’s not a female” who has “evolved past that.”
Characters who are neither male nor female have a long and rich history in the sci-fi tradition. The best known example is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. While the story does not directly feature androgynous characters, it’s a story of birth that does not come from a mother, which set the table for its predecessors to run in a more radical direction.
NEQUA or The Problem of the Ages, published in 1900, furthered that cause by featuring a woman dressed as a man. But, most radical and notable of all is Ursula Le Guin’s 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness. This classic takes place on a planet whose inhabitants are genderless except for their monthly sexual phase, when they briefly develop male or female qualities. A culture clash arises when the human protagonist (and reader surrogate) finds himself unable to move past this.
Androgynous sci-fi has two main approaches: the anthropological approach and the radical feminist approach. Le Guin used it in a cerebral, anthropological sense, to hold the mirror up to our own perceptions of gender — as does Ann Leckie in her more modern space opera Ancillary Justice, which depicts a non-binary future where everyone uses the pronoun “she.”
Marge Piercy’s 1976 novel Woman on the Edge of Time, and Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975), both take the second approach, toying around with gender conventions in a way that directly comments on patriarchal oppression.
Westworld seems to be more conventional, but for characters whose humanities are skin-deep, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface. Even if they all look traditionally feminine or masculine on the outside, half our main characters are non-binary beings whose sexualities are subject to change at the whims of the programmers. Teddy Flood is hardly effeminate like Ursula Le Guin’s characters are in Left Hand of Darkness; he looks like he came from Central Casting’s idea of a square-jawed cowboy, but if the programmers want him to think he’s a woman, well, he’ll do that without protest. He’ll accept it just as readily as he accepted his new backstory with the villainous Wyatt.
Delores and Maeve’s storylines can be seen as examples of the feminist androgynous tradition. Within its Western faux-reality, women in Westworld are primarily valued for their appearances. Dolores is everything that is quintessentially feminine: She is conventionally beautiful, wears a dress that makes her look like Alice in Wonderland, and she inspires big, strong men to protect her. Maeve, meanwhile, is a prostitute, whose sole function is to please the male visitors.
On the surface, it doesn’t look all that feminist, but viewers who have followed their arcs know that the two have taken control of their own fates, fighting against perhaps even their own programming.
As the show is braiding several disparate narrative threads together, we can expect many sci-fi subgenre tropes to come into play. And the next time you’re at party and your friend tries to tell you Westworld is just boobs and blood, slap them with your copy of The Left Hand of Darkness. Then offer a sinister robotic smile.
Photos via HBO