By Emma Louise Backe
Dolores Abernathy—titular host in HBO’s Westworld series—spends most of the second season with a gun on her hip and a constellation of blood spattering her white blouse and porcelain skin. From playing the victim and ingenue in the first season—subject to the violent whims and fantasies of the Westworld guests—to adopting the role of “Deathbringer” in season two, Dolores’s agentive awakening is primarily enacted by perpetrating the same kinds of violence she suffered as a host.
Never the network to shy away from the grotesque or the gruesome, HBO’s Westworld delights in the lurid abstraction of violence. The larger psychological subplot of burgeoning host consciousness cultivated by Robert Ford and Arnold could be read as a passing critique of the brutality regularly practiced on the show. But questions of simulation and hyper-reality between hosts and guests start to collapse as the performative dimensions of the park evolve into new kinds of narratives, stories that still seem to rely on a visual rhetoric of resistance through carnage. The same could be said of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale—the feminist dystopia gained a number of critics in its second season for the “torture porn” quality of the show’s brutality. Both Westworld and The Handmaid’s Tale represent stories of resistance and resilience, grappling with what it means to endure oppressive regimes of power and overcome coded or scriptural domains of subjugation. Yet the primary language used to communicate the cruelty of Gilead and Westworld is visual. As Arielle Bernstein at The Guardian writes, “The logic seems to be that if viewers immerse themselves in a full-stop feminist nightmare, they will, somehow, achieve a kind of catharsis that will spur us them onwards to greater action, to prevent a future Gilead from actually occurring” (2018). This same logic seems to apply to Westworld—the continuous sexual victimization and execution of women like Dolores and Maeve Millay is instead met with a redoubling of violence against their perpetrators and captors in season two, as if this reversal of power was cathartic and liberatory. These scenes of cinematic violence occur contemporaneous with new images of families separated at the US/Mexican border, photographs of gang violence or refugee communities seeking asylum circulated to compel political accountability and action. What, then, do these kinds of images do? What kind of emotional labor does a visual rhetoric of violence accomplish?
Susan Sontag’s On Photography (1973) explores the evidentiary and empathic capacities of a photography to fix a subject in time, provoking an experiential encounter with the viewer. In Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), Sontag considers the role of photography in war—its importance in memory work and ability to compel both politicians and the public alike to confront the destruction left in the wake of conflict. Sontag writes, “For a long time, some people believed that if the horror could be made vivid enough, most people would finally take in the outrageousness, the insanity of war” (2003). This “iconography of suffering,” as Sontag describes it, was thought to elicit a response, compelling sympathy and a renewed sentiment that this kind of violence should never happen again.
Photographs of genocidal atrocities from World War II, the Spanish Civil War, or the Vietnam War “are themselves a species of rhetoric. They reiterate. They simplify. They agitate” (Sontag 2003). There seems to be an understanding that the images speak for themselves, a visual language of sentiment and solicitation to action. Media like photography might be considered empathic technologies, capable of provoking an imaginative identification with the victims represented in such images—” If we can feel as others do, we will be more motivated to do right by others, and less likely to do them harm” (Real Life 2018).
Westworld and The Handmaid’s Tale traffic in the same visual rhetoric. In The Handmaid’s Tale, we watch as June (Offred) is raped by Commander Waterford and Serena Joy; the hands and faces of recalcitrant Handmaids disfigured over a kitchen stove for refusing to commit violence against one of their own; the skin of the “Unwomen” at Gilead’s colonies slowly rotting away, patches of hair overtaken by swatches of rash and necrosis. These are overt illustrations of suffering, the camera lingering over the bloodstains of journalists marring the brick walls of The Boston Globe. Having moved beyond the source material of Margaret Atwood’s original novel, the second season explores the mechanisms by which a Christian government would maintain its power, the sheer brutality that is borne upon the female bodies subject to Gilead’s patriarchal system. Yet, as Lisa Miller at The Cut writes, “My concern in this case is fairly clear: that the violence against women in season 2 is indulgent, operatic, and designed to rouse if not pleasure then a visceral, physical response, that The Handmaid’s Tale has devolved from feminist horror into very conventional misogynistic entertainment. It’s a fantasia of women being debased and dehumanized, individually and en masse but disingenuously packaged as virtuous dystopian prophesy” (2018). If the idea was to use such extreme examples of torture as a warning of things to come, the showmakers seem to have verged to such a level of extremity that the optics of violence are no longer considered to be politically expedient, provoking the right kinds of feminist protest or outrage.
I would argue that The Handmaid’s Tale is most chilling in the moments when our view of the violence is partially occluded. In Season One, Episode Three “Late,” Emily (Ofglen) is taken to a clinical facility after being discovered committing gender treachery—or having a relationship with her Martha. Emily wakes in a white surgical gown, bent over with pain—as she begins to explore her body, seeking out where Gilead has wrought their “redemption,” she discovers that her pubic area has been bandaged. “The stitches will come out in a few days,” Aunt Lydia says. “You can still have children of course, but things will be so much easier for you now. You won’t want what you cannot have.” Emily is left alone in the empty surgical wing, tears streaming down her face as she grapples with the emotional horror of what was done to her. Without any more explanation, the viewers are left to assume the worst—that Emily has undergone female genital cutting or mutilation (FGM/C), a procedure that involves the cutting or removal of the clitoris, and sometimes the labia. It’s a controversial practice used on young, adolescent girls often associated with purity and virginity—to excise a female’s pleasure organ is to deny her the possibility of promiscuity (for more, see Gruenbaum 2001, Hodzic 2016). It’s only in Season Two, Episode Two “Unwomen” that Emily admits what was done to her. Alexis Bledel’s heart-wrenching performance is enough to communicate the agony of the procedure. We do not need to see the sight of the wound.
While much of the first season of Westworld focused on the endless cycle of violence against the captive hosts—Maeve’s daughter abducted by the Ghost Warriors, Dolores brutalized by the Man in Black—the rebellion of the hosts in the second season manifests in an amplification of violence against guests and even hosts deemed unworthy of reaching the Valley Beyond. For all of Dolores’s messianic promise of emancipation, her style of deliverance occurs primarily through death. Her dedication to strong-arming her way to the Forge is so intense that she reprograms the characteristics of Teddy, her long-time companion and lover, to become a ruthless killer. In a meta-analysis of Westworld—a show about the violent tendencies of humans catering to the voyeurism of its viewers—the uneasy relationship between Dolores and Bernard makes it hard to say whether we’re supposed to align ourselves with this rendition of subversion through slaughter.
Indeed, Maeve’s own path to agency intersects and conflicts with that of Dolores, though both are ultimately striving to overcome their programming and escape the yoke of the park. As Maeve coerces Westworld technicians into helping her find her daughter, she encounters Dolores, who asks her to join them on their quest for revenge.
Maeve: Revenge is just a different prayer at their altar darling. And I’m well off my knees.
Dolores: That’s because you’re finally free. But we will have to fight to keep it that way.
Maeve: And let me guess—yours is the only way to fight? Since it’s liberty you’re defending, I suppose you’ll have no choice but to let us pass.
Though she points out the inconsistencies of Dolores’ liberation theology through violence—and ultimately the laziness of such an approach—she uses her own ability to establish neural handshakes with the other hosts to compel their actions for her own gains. Maeve’s path through Shogun world is no less bloody or violent, although it is largely committed for defensive reasons. No longer performing cowboys and Indians for the guests, the violence of the second season seems to surpass the necessity for survival to instead dwell on Dolores’s iteration of a line from Shakespeare—“These violent delights have violent ends.” The show seems to ask—to what extent do we delight in violence? Or become inured to it? And is violence the only way to fight one’s way out of captivity?
Westworld and The Handmaid’s Tale’s reliance on violence raises critical questions about whether the continuous circulation of violent imagery dulls their impact and instead desensitize viewers. On Photography seems to propose that detachment is a necessary consequence of the media’s hypersaturation of violent imagery. Teju Cole goes on to note, “Taking photos, looking at photos and being the subject of photos are mutually reinforcing activities in which the participants are interdependent and complicit” (2018). This complicity emerges from the “imaginary proximity,” and distance, from the suffering subject to such photographs—”Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence” (Sontag 2003). As viewers, we bear witness but are not always necessarily mobilized into action—indeed, an image’s ability to shock and provoke could lead instead to a feeling of helplessness or suspicion. Sontag describes the ways that old war photography came to be staged—the ability of photography to objectively reflect reality could be questioned. Hence we see the same responses to the media coming out of events like the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting or the attack on Sandy Hook Elementary school with cries of “crisis actors” and conspiracy theories. Hosts on Fox News confronted with images of cages at immigration detention camps instead reframe the enclosures as “summer camps.” Images emblematic of suffering—like the Syrian boy in Aleppo—are quickly co-opted or disputed.
As a narrative technology, science fiction and speculative television doesn’t claim to represent the real, the same way that photographs might. But the two mediums are making very similar appeals to our senses—through a visual rhetoric intended to precipitate identification and empathy. Based off of audiences’ and critics’ responses to Westworld and The Handmaid’s Tale, however, it’s clear that these graphics of violence are alienating, rather than activating. Even within the shows themselves, violence is not an effective form of control or resistance. If these grammars of violence don’t work to overthrow Gilead or Delos Incorporated, what does?
After mowing a gruesome pathway through guests and hosts alike on her way to the Forge, Dolores discovers a vast library of data—the “stories” of every guest who’s ever visited Westworld compiled in coded books. It is this narrative information that Dolores has been seeking since her awakening—the story of mankind she’ll use to understand humanity and ensure the liberation of the hosts. For all of the aesthetic attention given to the gory battle scenes in Westworld’s fight between corporate greed and cybernetic sovereignty, the importance of story remains the most critical through-line of the show’s second season. Even in the first season, when Maeve began to remember her previous lives, she signaled her consciousness and unwillingness to abide by the rules of the park anymore by saying, “Time to write my own fucking story” (Episode Eight, “Trace Decay”). In the final episode of the first season, before Robert Ford—the creator of Westworld—is killed and triggers the host uprising, as it were, he delivers a speech to the guests:
Since I was a child I’ve always loved a good story. I believed that stories helped us to ennoble ourselves, to fix what was broken in us, and to help us become the people we dreamed of being. Lies that told a deeper truth. I always thought I could play some small part in that grand tradition. And for my pains I got this: a prison of our own sins. ‘Cause you don’t want to change. Or cannot change. Because you’re only human, after all. But then I realized someone was paying attention, someone who could change. So I began to compose a new story for them. It begins with the birth of a new people and the choices they will have to make and the people they will decide to become […] This time by choice. I’m sad to say this will be my final story. An old friend once told me something that gave me great comfort. Something he had read. He said that Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin never died. They simply became music. So, I hope you will enjoy this last piece very much. (Episode Ten, “The Bicameral Mind)
By disengaging the narrative-holds set on hosts, Ford believes he is allowing them to write their own stories. Each time Westworld-version of Robert Ford appears to Bernard—dispensing advice and sage wisdom in his characteristically vague manner—he reiterates the importance of this storytelling power. He asks, “Is this the end of your story? Or do you want your kind to survive?”
The importance of being able to rewrite their own stories is taken up by the other hosts in season two, charting their own narrative destinies. Hosts like Maeve, Akane from Shogun World, and Akecheta dispense with the storytelling criteria assigned to their characters, instead choosing which elements of the many lives they’ve lived most resonate with their sense of identity, even if that means death (for Akane and Teddy). As Dolores says, “We were born slaves to their stories, and now we have the chance to write our own.” In the case of Akecheta, he returns to his lover Kohani and rebukes his recasting as the blood-thirsty leader of the Ghost Nation, leading his people and Maeve’s daughter through the door out of Westworld. Just because there were outside authors at play in the hosts’ codes does not mean that their relationships with one another were any less authentic. When Lee Sizemore reminds Maeve that the relationship with her daughter was programmed, she asks him why her love isn’t real enough for him. In this analysis of realness and affect, we can consider Susan Lepselter’s The Resonance of Unseen Things: Poetics, Power, Captivity, and UFOs in the American Uncanny (2016). In her book on UFO narratives, she writes that the uncanny, “dismantles narrative conventions of realism and replaces them with uncertainty,” demanding an “emotional force” from the listener (Lepselter 2016, 22). By letting go of an investigation of the “real,” we can instead attend to the emotional impacts of the story itself, and the resonances these stories can provide in our own lives. If the goal was investing the hosts with emotional inner lives which would ultimately guide their independent actions, then the storytelling power invested in the Westworld residents serves as both their path to liberation and self-understanding.
It is the power of being able to read, and tell a story, too, that ultimately serves as the most effective form of deliverance in The Handmaid’s Tale. If you recall from Atwood’s original novel, The Handmaid’s Tale is actually June audio-diary, an acoustic record of her time as a Handmaid in Gilead. In the book, June says, “We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories,” going on to note, “If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending” (Atwood 1986). It’s this very narrative control that ensures June’s survival—remember Ford’s sentiment of disappearing into the music—through the record of her life, June is able to live on and provide an account of the Republic of Gilead.
Recall that in Gilead, women and girls are not permitted to read or write. The Handmaids are given new names—Ofglen, Ofwarren—to designate their status as possessions, interchangeable fertile objects, to their Commanders. They have been given new stories, roles to occupy within the militaristic Christian society. To engage in the acts of reading or writing is considered a rebellion against the Republic, yet they are practices of subversion employed for survival throughout the show and book. Early in the book and television show, June discovers the idiom, “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” scratched into the doorframe of her room in Commander Waterford’s house. The words help to revive June’s waning spirits, a reminder that small acts of resistance are possible.
The power of narratives to push back against the oppressive force of Gilead grows when June receives a package of letters and post-cards from women who couldn’t escape the rise of Gilead, detailing their lives as Handmaids, Marthas. The sheer scale and emotional anguish communicated in these letters provides June with the strength to defy Aunt Lydia’s demand for the Handmaids to stone Janine/Ofdaniel to death, leading the other Handmaid’s to do the same. A refusal of violence as a form of rebellion.
In season two, Nick manages to smuggle the letters across the border with him on a diplomatic mission to Canada, giving them to Luke—June’s husband—to disseminate (Episode Nine, “Smart Power”). Like the watershed inflection point of the #MeToo movement, Luke and Moira share the letters online, triggering mass protests throughout Canada and ultimately aborting the diplomatic discussions between Gilead and the Canadian government. In light of the women’s stories, the Canadian government could no longer ignore the atrocities committed within Gilead. As Commander Waterford and Serena Joy are rushed to the airport, they are confronted with protestors holding signs with the names of the women—friends and family members trapped within Gilead—reminding the custodians of the Christian government of the stories they rewrote, but could not eliminate.
Much of The Handmaid’s Tale is also dedicated to exploring the roles that women, like the Wives and the Aunts, play as the architects and guardians of Gilead’s patriarchal power. Yet one of the worst culprits of this kind of gender treachery—Serena Joy, one of the initial visionaries behind Gilead—begins to push back against the Republic’s sexist standards through her writing. While Commander Waterford recovers from his injuries at the hospital (Season Two, Episode Seven “After”), Serena solicits June to help her proof-read and edit ghost-written orders protecting June and the Waterford family from investigation. The two become co-conspirators against the men in power, using Commander Waterford’s name to quietly rewrite political agendas and messages from behind the scenes.
After Eden—a 15-year-old girl married to Nick—is discovered, tried, and executed for running away with an Eye, Serena’s discontent of Gilead deepens. June uncovers a copy of the Holy Bible among Eden’s belongings, marginalia scrawled across the pages. Upon receiving the book, Serena realizes the paradox embedded in Gilead’s ideologies—its citizens are supposed to live by the word of God, but only half the population is able to actually read scripture. Serena mobilizes the other Wives, concerned about the well-being of their daughters, to address the Council of Commanders, proposing to roll back restrictions on literacy for women and girls. When she begins to read from Eden’s Bible, however, the Wives become frightened, saying that she’s gone too far—her recitation is seen as a rebuke too far. Her willingness to read in front of the Council, and suggest that The Word be returned to women and girls, is such a threat to Gilead that Serena is punished like the Marthas and the Handmaids, with a digit of her finger cut off. Perhaps it is this confrontation with the Council that convinces Serena to help June and her daughter escape in the Season Two finale, June’s final reproach of the Commander etched onto the walls of her room: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.”
In both Westworld and The Handmaid’s Tale, violence is used as a weapon of the status quo to keep the people in their place. While factions of the resistance—the hosts and the Handmaids—may use violence in their defense, the aggression is often undercut by a dubious morality and even more doubtful efficacy as a mode of rebellion. The shows are concerned with philosophical questions about agency in contexts of structural and overt violence, where choices are limited and underground movements must operate through alternative nodes and channels of communication. In Westworld, Ford’s flawed vision of emancipation, carried out by Dolores and Bernard, comes down to the simple act of storytelling—to dictate and write one’s own story. In The Handmaid’s Tale, after June has twice failed to escape Gilead and rescue her unborn child from the Republic, she whispers to her new baby, “I keep going with this limping and mutilated story because I want you to hear it, as I will hear yours too, if I ever get the chance […] By telling you anything at all, I’m believing in you. I’m believing you into being. By telling you this story, I’m willing you into existence. I tell, therefore you are” (Season Two, Episode Eleven, “Holly”). Storytelling, in both of these scenarios, is an act that has real, tangible consequences on the world—they are both saying and doing something.
These narratives, in essence, help to remake the social situations they occupy, and offer alternatives to both survival and identity within otherwise repressive contexts. Linguistic anthropologists refer to this phenomenon as language as social action—“people do things with words” (Ahearn 2001, 110). We can consider the danger that books posed in Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451 (1953), a dystopian world where books are treated like a “loaded gun,” stories and ideas that can be weaponized or radicalized. Better to burn and anesthetize the populace with mindless entertainment—the elimination of particular kinds of stories allows for the government to maintain its power. This theme of narrative control is common in dystopian fiction and emblematic of totalitarian control of media and the news—it eliminates polyphony and instead posits one version of the truth, eliminating the possibility of alternative interpretive models.
As has likely become clear, both Westworld and The Handmaid’s Tale undertake a vast world-building apparatus, projects so broad in scale and scope that it’s often hard to discern where the producers stand. The more profound ideas about freedom, agency and human consciousness often become muddled. Indeed, Westworld’s pseudo-esoterism can be maddening at times and the disjunctive narrative framework of the second season—jumping between the time leading up to, and following, the flooding of the Forge, through Bernard’s scattered memory—is intentionally disorienting. The Handmaid’s Tale, while somewhat more straightforward—with a plodding, if discernible plot—and modeled after am anti-feminist dystopia, is concerned with moral ambiguity and blame—the Commanders enjoying the pleasures of illicit, extramarital sex at Jezebels; Emily killing a Wife consigned to the Colonies; Serena’s vacillation between cruelty and sympathy towards June. What is clear is that both of these shows occur in the context of an ongoing political debate over violent and non-violent means of resistance, how to discern truth and “alternative facts,” and the kinds of rhetoric that convinces, rather than alienates. The shows are both predictive and predictable, offering models of delimited agency and alterity we may yet confront. I would have us also consider imbrication of storytelling, language, and insurrection they propose.
The Header Image is a still taken from The Handmaid’s Tale Season Two Finale, “The Word.”
Ahearn, Laura (2001). “Language and Agency.” Annual Review of Anthropology 30: 109-137.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Anchor Books, 1986.
Bernstein, Arielle (2018). “The future isn’t female enough: the problematic feminism of The Handmaid’s Tale.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/may/08/the-future-isnt-female-enough-the-problematic-feminism-of-the-handmaids-tale
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1953.
Cole, Teju (2018). “What Does It Mean to Look At This?” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/24/magazine/what-does-it-mean-to-look-at-this.html
Gardner, Kate (2018). “The Most Insidious Villain of The Handmaid’s Tale is Complicit Femininity.” The Mary Sue. https://www.themarysue.com/complicit-femininity-the-handmaids-tale/
Gilbert, Sophie (2018). “The Handmaid’s Tale and the Suffering of Women.” The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2018/04/the-handmaids-tale-season-two/558809/
Gruenbaum, Ellen. The Female Circumcision Controversy: An Anthropological Perspective. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.
Hodzic, Saida. The Twilight of Cutting: African Activism and Life After NGOs. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016.
Lepselter, Susan. The Resonance of Unseen Things: Poetics, Power, Captivity, and UFOs in the American Uncanny. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016.
Miller, Lisa (2018). “The Relentless Torture of The Handmaid’s Tale.” The Cut. https://www.thecut.com/2018/05/the-handmaids-tale-season-2-review.html
Real Life (2018). “Empathic Consumption: Feeling for others without them.” Real Life Mag. http://reallifemag.com/issue-empathic-consumption/
Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Picador, 1977.
Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador, 2003.
The Handmaid’s Tale (2017- ). Television. MGM Television.
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