The Regressive Heteronormativity of Westworld

By  · Published on December 7th, 2016

It’s the future without limits and we can’t get a single gay cowboy?

The dating app Tinder announced a new feature this week which gives users 37 different gender identity options. It’s called ‘Why Democrats lost the election.’

Colin Jost’s tasteless Saturday Night Live joke at the trans community’s expense in November built on fear, resentment, and a regressive attitude towards acceptance. It’s backlash towards progressivism’s perceived political failures, groveling to a hateful minority (yes, minority) that has its values couched somewhere between Leave It to Beaver and a frat house. That same attitude rears its head almost as explicitly in HBO’s Westworld.

Westworld’s technology (both fancy robots and high-tech, three-beam flashlights) and high-collared fashions make it clear that this theme park and its patrons live in the future. Its sexual politics argue they live in the ‘90s.

Ah yes, the glorious normativities of the past decades, when the kind of “dudes high-fiving when two girls kiss” hetero-broness that fetishized lesbianism and completely demonized any other lifestyles metastasized through time into the Entourage-worshipping Twitter eggs of the present. Westworld, for all its narrative construction and emphasis on escapism, isn’t just a blandly vanilla bystander ‐ it’s a serious step backwards.

Taking a few case studies, we can see that Westworld’s focus on sleepy exposition and violent fantasy leaves its sexual stances woefully untended ‐ which means they revert back to the embedded bedrock of heteronormativity in our culture.

Let’s look at the one gay character, Christopher Gerse’s sleazy Destin. He’s not even explicitly gay, just a nasty necrophiliac surgeon that wants to have sex with Hector’s (Rodrigo Santoro) ripped, powered-down form. Destin’s co-workers abhor him as a sex criminal (which, yes, he is) though not enough to report his activities, despite Elsie’s (Shannon Woodward) blackmailing threats. When Hector penetrates him from behind with a bonesaw, his is a death we must applaud. A would-be rape victim took revenge.

That’s the single instance of male homosexuality. A pervert doctor that has one of the most gruesome (and symbolically macabre) deaths of the season.

The one instance of male bisexuality? Logan (Ben Barnes) takes both a male and female host in his arms as he heads up the brothel’s stairs. The subsequent foursome (including a very safe voyeur role for the second male with no sexual touching) is an orgy meant to show the character’s complete hedonism and foreshadow his evil indulgences later in the series. Bisexuality already has to put up with its share of myths and specific prejudices, including its renown as the “slutty”, “greedy”, and “promiscuous” sexual orientation without being a signifier for a corporate Caligula.

The men in the foursome barely touched, yet the man’s inclusion is just as obvious an indication of Logan’s character as the basic wardrobe comparison between his black shirt and William’s (Jimmi Simpson) white one. Logan also gets slapped exactly one time to show that he is an edgy connoisseur of fancy future sex.

Westworld’s group sex is the ogling of undefined bodies and the same male-gaze titillation used to throw bikers skidding off their Harleys in this Smash Mouth-scored scene from The Sweetest Thing.

When looking at a 2015 Westworld casting notice, the calls for actors comfortable with

genital-to-genital touching, simulat[ing] oral sex with hand-to-genital touching, contort[ing] to form a table-like shape while being fully nude, pos[ing] on all fours while others who are fully nude ride on your back, [and] rid[ing] on someone’s back while you are both fully nude

make it laughable that the show couldn’t feature two men kissing. As Caroline Framke writes in her delicious takedown of Westworld’s boring sex, the orgy is

a clump of grinding bodies in which naked women cater to men, women kiss each other while men look on, drooling, and men surely never touch each other. It’s a straight male fantasy through and through.

The fantasy world’s escapism is an erroneous extrapolation from the face-value heterosexuality of traditional westerns.

Hell, the westerns it riffs on are far gayer than Westworld. There’s a great video supercut Elliott Kalan did for the Oscars when Brokeback Mountain was nominated about how old westerns are rife with homosexual undercurrents, and Westworld gets around even these historic subtexts with its scant character relationships.

The show may have a labyrinthine plot that it’s very proud of, but its human characters have as little backstory as Teddy. There’s no time for men to have moments of intimacy because they’re constantly lecturing each other about the larger plot or blasting people’s brains out. The straight male fantasy applies, leaving the men to further the plot with the straight-as-an-arrow damsel (with a gun, proving she’s no ordinarily underwritten woman). The hosts, their personalities and presumably sexualities coded into their bodies, are perfect symbols of sexual fluidity, but only the women experiment.

Elise kisses robotic prostitute Clementine’s frozen body and various female patrons slink away with the madam’s girls, but no wealthy men could possibly have a thing for ridiculously handsome cowboys. The hosts’ programming, controlled by two men without the hint of a romantic backstory, is as fantastic as assuming everyone in the world is either a straight male or a straight girl who’d make out with her friend after a shot of tequila.

The park’s slogan is “live without limits,” but it’s subject to one of the most foolishly restrictive limitations its subject matter could employ.

Related Topics:

Jacob Oller writes everywhere (Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Playboy, FSR, Paste, etc.) about everything that matters (film, TV, video games, memes, life).