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Westworld and the Limits of White Imagination
Thomas Jefferson described the relationship with the men and women he enslaved as holding “a wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go.” While he allegedly favored “gradual emancipation,” he feared that sudden liberation would result in a race war. We will discuss this fear in greater detail later, but keep it in the back of your mind as we examine the sci-fi hit Westworld and how it relates to revolution and imagination.
The HBO reboot of the 1973 movie Westworld has always touted itself as a tale about consciousness, but this is not the entire truth. It has also been about power. Specifically, it’s about a battle between two viewpoints: that of Dolores, whose programming asks her to “choose the beauty in everything,” and Ed Harris’ the Man In Black, who believes that people are irredeemably caught in a Hobbesian struggle of all against all. We either naively embrace the goodness in life or misanthropically burn it all down.
Ultimately, one of Westworld’s main themes is how humans and their robot children are stuck in this cycle between these two extremes. As we shall soon see, this assumption is rooted in white supremacy’s lack of imagination. The creators of Westworld can not see beyond our current systems of oppression, even when imagining the emergence of a new consciousness, and they are by no means alone.
Kill all humans
First things first, when I say White Supremacy, I am not talking about white people as individuals but the system that places white people at the top of the social hierarchy. As academic bell hooks remarked once in an interview:
“I grew up, again, in racial apartheid, where there was a color caste system….white supremacy was that term that allowed one to acknowledge our collusion with the forces of racism and imperialism. And so for me those words were very much about the constant reminder, one of institutional construct, that we’re not talking about personal construct in the sense of, how do you feel about me as a woman, or how do you feel about me as a black person? But they really seem to me to evoke a larger apparatus….”
If you have ever heard people say things like “perfectionism or professionalism are the result of white supremacy,” this is what we mean. Creating a hierarchy where white people are on top leads to the manifestation of specific values that everyone in society is indoctrinated to believe, to varying degrees. For example, if whiteness is considered superior, it consequently means that people outside that designation can be labeled inferior or imperfect, which creates a dichotomy around perfectionism. Hence why people will say that perfection is the result of white supremacy.
Now, you may be thinking, that’s interesting and all, but what does this sociology nonsense have to do with Westworld?
Well, these supremacist values are ones that Westworld’s robots or “hosts” come to share as the series progresses. A central plot point of season four involves host Charlotte Hale trying to make her fellow robots more “perfect” by shedding the aesthetic of their humanity and “ascending” to more robotic bodies. Her supremacist dichotomy is host or Robo-centric rather than white-centric, but it’s still rooted in a supremacist mindset: one she learned from her oppressors.
The hosts cannot move beyond their creators’ values, including the genocidal impulses that arguably built the world we exist in now. Just as our world was built by the slavery of Black people and the genocide of ethnic minorities worldwide, the hosts have replicated this pattern by conquering humanity in the fourth season. Host Hale meticulously infiltrated human society and then enslaved us all using a parasite to do mass genetic engineering.
Yet she did something worse than merely reprogramming us. In building this new world, she caused a lot of damage. As Hale monologues to a human: “The parasite worked on adults initially, but there was always some resistance. At a certain age, your brains become more rigid, difficult to change.” It was the future generation that she could control more easily, but what happened to the adults?
It’s not stated explicitly, but they most likely were killed off — either because of brain hemorrhaging from the parasite or by more direct means. Hale offhandedly mentions in a later episode that there are only a couple million people left in this new robot future, which means billions of people are now dead as a consequence of her conquest. An act as cruel as what European Settlers did to the Indigenous people of the Americas.
It doesn’t help that the leader of this faction of genocidal robots who have risen up against their human oppressors just so happens to have the skin of a Black woman (side note — this is not a ding on actress Tessa Thompson, who I think does amazingly in her role as Charlotte Hale). I am sure this story beat was not an active decision. Westworld showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan were probably not viewing their work through this lens at all, but as we shall soon see, regardless of intentions, this trope ties into a problematic history.
According to the message of this show, Jefferson was right to be worried. The hosts were freed, and they not only rebelled against their creators and placed them in chains but genocided them into near extinction.
The wolves bit back.
The “futility” of revolution
We see this problematic trope everywhere in media, especially in tales of creatures humans have created. The robots in franchises such as Battlestar Galactica and The Matrix were abused by human elites. These robots did not just use violence to rebel against us but to place us in chains. We could also see similar beats in how apes rebelled in the Rise of the Planet of the Apes series and hundreds of other pieces of media where “the children of humanity” move to exterminate or enslave us.
Yet it’s not just non-human creatures. Marginalized human groups in countless franchises have also repeated this dynamic. For example, the Vox Populi in the video game Bioshock Infinite, by revolutionary Daisey Fitzroy, rebelled against the white supremacist city-state of Columbia, only to be portrayed as going too far in the process. Daisey starts attacking innocent white children, and your character has to help co-lead Elizabeth to kill Daisey before she goes through with a vicious murder. Daisey’s act of brutality is flattened to be no worse than the decades of racial apartheid she experienced under Columbia.
We could also point to the TV series The Expanse, where the Belters earn their freedom, only to pretty quickly start genociding their former oppressor, Earth. The Free Navy, run by Marco Inaros, starts chucking asteroids at Earth, killing millions of people in the process. The Belters’ Independence devolves quickly into an even worse status quo, implying that maybe the solar system would have been better off if they had gone through less unstable channels (see The Weirdly Conservative Politics of ‘The Expanse’).
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) likewise loves this trope, often portraying oppressed people as “going too far” to achieve their liberation. You could point to N’Jadaka, AKA Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) from Black Panther, trying to establish Wakandan Imperialism. There is also Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) from the TV show Falcon and the Winter Soldier, whose rebellion leads to “innocent” people’s death. Oppressed people in the MCU have to use violence perfectly for it to be seen as morally justified. Otherwise, they are no worse than the institutions that oppress them. However, MCU heroes that support the status quo, such as Sam Wilson, can fly across international borders and push villains out of helicopters, and the narrative hardly bats an eye (see ‘Falcon & The Winter Soldier’ & The Myth of Nonviolence).
Our White Supremacist society is terrified of what the oppressed will do if the chains ever go off. Going back to Jefferson, this fear was rooted in the circumstances that he lived under. He and other American elites enslaved thousands of people, and they were in constant fear of revolts. There were not only hundreds of documented slave revolts across US history but also the specter of the Haitian Revolution, where starting in 1791, enslaved people in that country rose up against their oppressors.
The Haitian Revolution was ultimately successful, but hundreds of thousands died in this movement for freedom, including “slave masters” — something that hit quite close to home for Jefferson (though, let’s be clear, most of these deaths were formerly enslaved, people). Thomas Jefferson was terrified that this could happen in America too. He would not respond to revolutionary leader Jean Jacques Dessalines’s request for a trade. In fact, as President, he imposed an embargo on Haiti and refused to recognize its Independence.
You may think this historical example is too far in the past, but as the trope, we have discussed above hints to, white society, by which I mean white supremacist, capitalist colonialist patriarchy, has never moved on from this fear that oppressed people will call for their pound of flesh when the time comes. It’s not a coincidence that most stories we see today of oppressed people violently rebelling against their oppressors devolve so quickly into an even worse status quo.
And it’s not just in fiction. Our society’s media has often been afraid to show real-world acts of political violence from the marginalized. In the current day, the media’s portrayal of riots and other acts of civil disobedience is very unfavorable, even when the circumstances leading up to that violence justify it. The George Floyd Uprising, for example. certainly had its supporters, but many Americans depicted that time as “absolute chaos” in the cities.
In film, real-world examples of violence are many times ignored outright. When it comes to media representations of the Haitian revolution, for example, we haven’t gotten many stories of the men and women who led this successful movement for freedom, even though it was one of the most impactful historical events in modern history. Actor Danny Glover tried to make a biopic about figure Toussaint in the 2010s, and he was allegedly asked, “Where are the white heroes?” before being denied funding. As Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall writes in How Hollywood Has Ignored the Haitian Revolution:
“The challenge of getting producers to fund a film on Haiti’s Revolution has been exacerbated by the fact that this event doesn’t fit into the kinds of Black history storylines that studios prefer. Unlike the fictional plot of Django Unchained, the Haitian Revolution was planned by African-descended peoples without help from a white hero. Unlike the insurrection led by Nat Turner (presented in Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation), Haitians overthrew their oppressors and forced slavery’s end.”
Likewise, the 2016 film The Birth of A Nation was one of the first major films of the Nat Turner Slave Rebellion — though, like Sepinwall alludes to, it had its problem. It was bogged down by controversy, as the creators were accused of sexual harassment. Many critics also did not like it as a film, believing it to be formulaic and rote, which is a shame because the Nat Turner Revolt had a significant impact on US history, its laws, people, and culture, and there are next to zero pop culture touchstones for it. The Birth of A Nation aired relatively recently in 2016, flopped, and there have not been any notable titles since.
Dozens of high-profile films have been made about the American Revolution, which was likewise very violent. Hundreds of thousands of people died. Battles were bloody, and the tactics used by revolutionaries were by no means saintly. However, that violence is not depicted as “going too far” but as a heroic and necessary end that sets up the foundation of America. We could also point to the War in Ukraine, whose violence has been depicted as necessary in the media because its people our defending against an aggressor most US people consider abhorrent.
Yet whenever oppressed groups use violence to rally for freedom against an oppressive system such as White Supremacy or capitalist exploitation (or both), whether they be fictional or real people, we frequently see them portrayed in media as quickly stumbling into supremacy. They may have good intentions, but we still have to watch out for their bite.
In Westworld, we have a group of beings enslaved by humanity who rebel only to become no better than the humans they once served. It is yet another example of how white imagination cannot comprehend oppressed people freeing themselves and not replicating the same systems of abuse as their predecessors.
Ultimately, this stuntedness is because moving beyond this trope would involve reflecting on how white supremacy is a moral failure. If you prescribe this to a cyclical aspect of human nature — or as Westworld arrogantly does, of sentience in general — you don’t have to assess how your individual society needs to change. Societal faults are framed as immutable aspects of human nature rather than the result of very changeable conditions.
Now there are some counterexamples in pop culture. I think Sorry to Bother You and Harriet show us positive examples of using violence against white supremacist society. There’s also possibly the Woman King, which has yet to come out (so it might not fit this expectation at all). Yet these examples are few and far between, and it’s also not a coincidence that many of these works have POC creators behind them.
Mostly, we are a society unable to imagine the violence of the oppressed not morphing into a sick reflection of ourselves, despite what Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan may hint at in Westworld, which says more about our societal failings than anything about human nature or sentience.
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