Connect with us

Analysis

Westworld’s Deconstruction of the ‘Whore’ and ‘Virgin’ Archetypes

Despite all the headlines you have been reading, HBO’s new hit series Westworld is not “the next Game of Thrones,” and that’s a good thing.

As the first season starts to wrap up, it is clear the show runners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan have implanted something there that the show’s HBO comparative has not: intention. While Game of Thrones is plagued by the writers’ lack of conception of what the implications of their writing may be, Westworld is the polar opposite. Perhaps it is due to the diversity in their staff and writing team which isn’t comprised solely of white males, or perhaps it is due to the level of professionalism and experience in both features and television the creative team have had, but either way, the picture they are painting this season is a thematically relevant response to the problems a great deal of us have had with a lot of mainstream media and pop culture giants like Thrones (though certainly not everyone here agrees).

Westworld is a show that is intrinsically self-aware and culturally aware due to the meta narrative that dominates its plot: a Wild West theme park that allows you to live without limits, follow quests and characters, just as you would a video game…except everything is tangible. With that comes the thematic focus of deconstructing popular storytelling techniques and faux pas. It’s a constructed retrospective on narrative storytelling and media, and from that comes meta critique about the show’s own genre as well as the current state of the entertainment we rapidly consume.

Through Westworld’s two leading protagonists, Maeve, the current Madame at the Mariposa portrayed by Thandie Newton, and Dolores, a rancher’s daughter played by Evan Rachel Wood, the show represents two of the most damaging archetypes women are categorized into in our media; the “whore” and the “virgin”. However, the show does so purposefully with the intention of retrospection and deconstruction.

Maeve and Dolores are our eyes and ears on the show. They are our lens and who we see the victimization through, which is important as they are the “victims”. They represent these archetypes that plague the majority of our narratives and are all too often written by men in order to make one of Westworld’s most powerful statements about how women are treated in our media.  Westworld does this knowingly, forever on the journey with its characters of self-awareness, and it is becoming the ever more explorational deconstruction of the “whore” and the “virgin” who are taking back their agency and narratives from their exploitative male writers in order to write their own stories.

thandie-newton-as-maeve-credit-john-p-johnson-hbo

It is important to note, when discussing Dolores, that showrunner Lisa Joy specifically set out to make the Western and Science Fiction genres accessible to people like her, women, for whom those genres had previously shut out.

Dolores, as she is written by the story specialists in the park, is the Western ideal. She is the embodiment of what women in that genre were allowed to be (allowed being the operative word considering her narrative loop is being written for her without her knowledge or consent). Women in westerns were always the damsels in need of saving, a victory for the male hero on his journey. Her loop is exactly that but the pure depravity comes when people are allowed to experience such a power fantasy trip without limits. The Western genre has always been a masculine fantasy and although Westworld caters to all, there is a clear demographic the park is marketed towards. Dolores is an optimist. She sees all the good in the cruel world that she is forced to live within. She’s the Western ideal.

james-marsden-as-teddy-flood-and-evan-rachel-wood-as-dolores-abernathy-credit-john-p-johnson-hbo

Every day for Dolores is the same day, but she doesn’t know that. She is first and foremost living for the good of the guests, not herself. She wakes up every morning, greets her father, and goes into town. It is there that her day may change should she interact with a guest, or a newcomer as the hosts call them. Dolores is asked what she thinks of the newcomers and she replies that “at one point or another, we were all new to this world…looking for a place to be free.”

What Dolores doesn’t know that despite the fact that she was programed to want freedom, to look for the good in people, she was also programmed to never reach it. What does it say to create life or the shadow of life, fill it with the concepts of wants, desires, and conscience, but then deny it from ever reaching fulfillment?

Just as women in the genre (and in most of our media) are subjected to being objects and victory prizes, plot points for the men, Dolores lives out her every day horror of the sweet, innocent girl arriving home to find her parents being brutally murdered and the threat of sexual violence hovering over her should no one decide to live their white hat power fantasy and come to save her. Her life is an attraction in the park, a narrative that gives way for people to live up to their white hat or black hat playthrough, saving the damsel or having your way with her. It’s the pure machination of the ‘virgin’ archetype narrative that exits in our media and is highly pronounced in the genre Dolores lives in. She’s a male fantasy of purity there for them to either save or procure.

evan-rachel-wood-as-dolores-jimmi-simpson-as-william-credit-john-p-j

Dolores is consistently treated as an object, as all the hosts are, to fulfill the guests desires. When Teddy, narratively written to be her romantic anti-hero as the quintessential Western protagonist, tries to teach her to use a gun to combat the violence she inevitably faces and it’s time for Dolores to grip the weapon and shoot, she squeezes as hard as she can but simply can’t do it. She physically cannot pull the trigger because she wasn’t programmed to. Dolores was programmed to be a victim a never fight back, be it against a guest or even a host. She’s a victim by design and will always be because they have written it into her code that she cannot and should not ever be able to defend or save herself. She was written to never be more than the damsel, the Virgin archetype she was programmed to be.

evan-rachel-wood-as-dolores-credit-john-p-johnson-hbo

As the narrative progresses, however, and the hosts start to delineate off their conscribed paths, Dolores starts to gain consciousness and reject the narrative, the caricature of the male fantasy, that she has been forced into and begins to write her own. She is the personification of the wish fulfillment fantasy many women have watching television where they dream that the female characters they love and are seeing exploited, misrepresented, or abused would be able to gain awareness and fight back against the male writers who put them in that situation in the first place.

Just imagine Sansa Stark learning that her world is all being written by men and realizing that said show runners manipulated the narrative to force her into that Winterfell horror solely to live out a rape revenge fantasy plot for the entertainment of others.

For the hosts, Westworld is a nightmare and the real world that plagues their dreams are the tinges of hope of a world greater than theirs where they are not bound and controlled. Ford chastises Dolores, asking her if she sees herself breaking out of her “modest little loop” and “taking on a bigger role.”

Dolores denies all of this, even though we see her do this very thing during the episode. Dolores, and really all of thee hosts, which are mostly female POV’s for us (with purpose and reason) are on pathways to break out of the confines of what they are told they have to be, paralleling women’s real life journeys, as well as the confines female characters are stuffed into in the industry. Dolores is the perfect example of breaking down that mold and pushing past archetype, especially as she’s situated in a western. In westerns, Dolores represents the typical patriarchal formula; the farm girl who is the damsel in distress; a sidepiece who waits for her hero to save her before the train comes to run her over. That’s the narrative they’ve put her in.

However, unlike in classic Westerns, we are seeing it from her perspective. She’s a character and she doesn’t want to be that damsel in distress. In doing so, the creators have not only made the genre of Westerns accessible for a female audience who never found a home in them before, but also breaks the stereotypical and patriarchal mold that plagues them and many modern narratives that derive from the classics today.

evan-rachel-wood-as-dolores-jimmi-simpson-as-william-credit-john-p-johnson-hbo

In one of the most characteristic and on -he-nose moments, but chillingly so, Dolores outright denies the damsel narrative that has been written for her. When outmanned and outgunned by he Confederados and William completely incapacitated, he screams for her to run, to fulfill the damsel narrative she has been forced to live out. She stops and in blink of an eye, all of the Confederados go down in gunfire and William looks up to find Dolores has shot them all down. “You said people come here to change the story of their lives,” she says in the most powerful line of the episode. “I imagined a story where I didn’t have to be the damsel.”

Actress Evan Rachel Wood described just how much this moment meant to her an actress and her visceral reaction to it as Jimmi Simpson (William) first shouted at her to run and she literally ran, out of instinct, as we are trained to do both as women and as we constantly see reflected to us on the screen. Her body was so used to being forced into that damsel role that it fulfilled it for her until she was able to stop for a second and think about what she was actually doing. For Dolores to do what she ends up doing, for her to resist not only her written narrative, but the narrative that women have been conscribed to follow forever, it’s a revelatory moment that felt like a personal victory for show runner Lisa Joy, who is clearly using Westworld as an outlet to deconstruct and break down the sexist narrative that runs rampant in the industry.

evan-rachel-wood-as-dolores-abernathy-credit-john-p-johnson-hbo

Finally, all of it starts to come to fruition as William and Dolores start to bond, but her progress, her path of self discovery and freedom doesn’t get left behind. William wants to find meaning. “The only thing I had when I was a kid were books. I used to live in them. I used to go to sleep dreaming I would walk up inside one of them cause hey have meaning. This place, it’s like I woke up inside of one of those stories. I guess I just want to find out what it means,” he tells her. However, Dolores insistently reclaims her agency and identity. “I don’t wanna be in a story. All I want is to not look forward or back, I just wanna be in the moment I’m in.”

This is what Dolores and Maeve’s arcs have both been. They have been on a mission to reclaim their agency. William wants to put up a wall here and wants to still believe Westworld is all a big story but Dolores is here, what she’s saying is real and he sees it. She doesn’t want to be apart of someone else’s journey for once, just a plot point on the way to the end. She wants to go on her own. This notion is why he decides to mention his fiancé back home, Logan’s sister. What he’s feeling of Dolores is real and the prospect of returning to the “real world” after this wont replicate this reality, this feeling. He’s trying to reground himself as he gets swept up. “The place you’re after I will help you find it but I can’t stay. I have a life waiting for me. I’m sorry.” William tries to put the wall back up, tries to remember where he is, but Dolores is clearly upset. She’s not reacting like a regular host, she’s invested in them too. She’s not just there to cater to his experience for the first time in her life.

evan-rachel-wood-as-dolores-abernathy-credit-john-p-johnson-hbo

As the season wraps up and with the revelation this episode that the multiple timeline theory is definitely true, and further evidence that Dolores is recalling two pasts, one from the beginning of the park’s inception and one with William, while she is currently retracing her steps in the present day on her own, there’s a lot more weight to every little thing that happens. We start to see the small moments that flicker across Williams face that set up his possibly transition from a white hat to the man who is literally defined by his black hat and perhaps the notion of the multiple timelines isn’t as retractive as we might have originally thought, given the concept that Dolores is simply recalling all of as she’s on the same path, but this time on her own.

If she is indeed going on this journey again but this time by herself, it is rather empowering and beautiful and a continuation of the show’s theme of reclaiming one’s own narrative as her arc this season focuses on her finally reaching that moment of awareness on her own.

thandie-newton-as-maeve-millay-angela-sarafyan-as-clementine-pennyfeath

Maeve is on a similar journey, a journey towards freedom but she gets there a different way. Maeve was written by the story department to be a stereotype; a vivacious, strong wild, sexy, manipulative and enticing sex worker. All of the hosts are living lives and representing a fantasy to cater to the patriarchal vision of the park. It’s no surprise that two men created the park, the head writer is a man, and while women are certainly in positions of power and are too guilty of exploiting the hosts, Westworld is a reflection of our current society, be it the video game world or the movie business, both absurdly catered towards men.

Maeve and Dolores represent two different fantasies and they are forced to play those parts in the fantasies over and over again without being consciously aware of their choices and having any memory that would inform them to chose or decide otherwise erased. Maeve appears to enjoy her job at the Mariposa and delights in her position, but there is no depth to who she is at the surface level of the in-show narrative written by the storytellers at Westworld. She’s a whore and she is tough. She’s enthralling and scary. She is designed to make you want to sleep with her and with only that purpose in mind.

Sound familiar? There are jokes within the show at how surface level some of the hosts backgrounds are are certainly meta commentary on the type of female characters we see on our screens all the time.

ptolemy-slocum-as-sylvester-leonardo-nam-as-lutz-and-thandie-newton-as-maeve-credit-john-p-johnson-hbo1

However, Maeve isn’t a character. She’s not a two dimensional cardboard cutout of a person, as most of the hosts are expressing and will be the detriment of people like Ford. So despite the fact that she started out as this charismatic charmer there to seduce and seduce only, when the confines of her loop started to peel away, the audience was clued into who she actually is. She’s more than just one thing: she’s kind, she’s angry, she’s emotional, she’s a fighter. She’s all of those things and while initially representing the ‘whore’ archetype, the narrative never punishes her or judges her.

Once Maeve starts to become aware, she’s the only host who ever sees her world for what it really is, and it seems fake. She sees the archetypes, she sees the confines. It is this narrative line they take with her, not only humanizing her but allowing her to be the hero of her own story, to revel in her intelligence that is what sets Westworld apart. They aren’t limiting her, stereotyping her, or undermining her because of what she is. While sex workers are normally chided, punished, categorized, and exploited, Maeve is allowed to be a human (or host, rather) who is a sex worker. She’s allowed to be the one on the true path towards greater resistance. She’s our protagonist that will lead what the audience is expecting to be the inevitable host rebellion.

angela-sarafyan-as-clementine-thandie-newton-as-maeve-credit-john-p

Her true personality is apparent when she re-enters her world, self aware. Her world seems fake. We see the same action play out that it already feels like we’ve seen so many times, yet it’s all fresh. What had Maeve smirking an all knowing grin before was just a facade for the Maeve we see know. A Maeve who is all knowing but who is breaking apart to see her reality crumple. She’s comping to terms with her autonomy, or lack there of, and it’s both hardening her and devastating her. It’s essentially the age old question she chooses to answer that Neo gets asked in The Matrix. She either chooses the blue pill returning to her endless world on loop, unaware yet unperturbed, abused and used yet naive. Or she can choose the red pill and continue down the rabbit hole that is Westworld changing all she has known, for better or for worse.

The world was simpler before but it wasn’t better and once you know, you can never go back. No more cognitive dissonance, no more naive innocence. There’s no more pretending and to then do what Maeve is doing, to still live your life, now with her eyes wide open in a world where everyone’s are closed, and to play the long game, is truly impressive.

thandie-newton-as-maeve-credit-john-p-johnson-hbo

She’s also allowed to feel. Both she and Dolores use violence to a certain extent on their path towards autonomy but they aren’t pushed into that forced ideal of violence equaling empowerment and femininity equalling weakness. Both are undoubtably feminine and both are allowed to feel and be soft. As we saw in the most recent episode, it is Maeve’s emotions that make her the most human. Despite it being the episode where she is the first host to truly harm a human, the show doesn’t turn her into a monster.

It instead parallels her humanity with her change, her awakening coming long before this updated code. She began fighting against her loop long ago, and her fight began with her daughter. The Man in Black killing her child spurred her to push behind the confines of her code, holding on to life and defending herself and her daughter with everything in her that she overrode her restrictions against hurting a guest. The fact that her initial awakening, her initial resistance against the system came out of defense and love for her daughter is another hammer to break down the ‘whore’ archetype she is initially suppose to represent. We’ve seen her live a life outside of her job and it doesn’t make her current life, her current loop, any less valid to her. “This pain is all I have left of her,” a line we’ve heard a few times already, is what she says when pleading with Ford to allow her to keep her memories, her feeling, further exemplifying how these women are allowed to be more than what they are told they are. They are allowed to be the sum of their experiences and revel in their complexity.

Thus, while the two women represent opposing archetypes, Westworld uses the confines of said archetypes and the genre they are placed in to deconstruct them and break them down. The two women are on similar journeys but it’s their journey in their narratives that allow them to break out of their conscribed loops and reclaim their stories from the male writers who initially confined them. Dolores is working towards freedom within the confines of the park, a notion that pairs right up with her idealist attitude, versus Maeve who seeks true freedom, an escape from the prison she sees Westworld as. She is trying to take back her life, take back her agency, by working the behind-the-scenes of Westworld, a path that lives up to her intelligent, brash, and shrewd manner. The two women are on paths of self-discovery, freedom, and reclamation of their own narrative, but just as they are different people, they have different methods of achieving their ultimate freedom.

Maeve and Dolores are two sides of the same coin, alternative, but ultimately on the same mission. They are just going about it in different ways; ways completely reflective of their personalities. Maeve, the madame at a brothel is curt, seductive, and sly. Thus, she decides to dive first into the rabbit hole and find out what’s down there, for better or worse and not afraid to do whatever it takes to get what she wants. She skips the journey and heads straight for the source. Dolores is caring, kind, and honest. Thus why she coopts the heroes journey for herself, determined to break free by playing the game. Maeve wants to break it.


Images courtesy of HBO

Jess
Written By

Currently a film major with a focus in directing and a passion for all things writing, film, television and theater, oh my!

Comments

FM+ Community Chat

Advertisement

Trending

Timelines, Twists, and Old Friends Muddy the Waters on Westworld

Television

Westworld Finds a New Voice in Shogun World

Entertainment

Westworld Asks and Answers All Your Questions

Television

Westworld Finds Its Conscience Through Suffering

Entertainment

Reunions Disappoint on Westworld

Television

TV News Round-Up

Digital

The Good Place is Everything Westworld Pretends to Be

Analysis

Grimdark and the Daemon Ex Machina

Analysis

Advertisement
Connect