In the popular HBO show, “Westworld”, Felix, a reserved Asian-American lab technician, partners with Maeve, a domineering robot madam, to subvert the hegemonic power structure of a futuristic theme park in which robots entertain the sadistic whims of corporate elites. The episode “Trace Decay” provides a particularly rich glimpse into solidarity and resistance led by characters of color*. Nonetheless, problematic stereotypes of Asian-Americans deeply imbue Felix’s character. I argue that despite Felix and Maeve’s resistance against the hegemonic norms of the Westworld** theme park, Felix’s character remains ironically grounded in contemporary Asian-American stereotypes and oppressive ideology.
*Please note that my analysis ignores the possibility that every decision in this episode was masterminded by an old white man, Dr. Ford, a plot-twist filled with plot-holes suggested in the show’s finale.
**For reference, I refer to “Westworld” the show in quotations, but the eponymous theme-park without quotations
Maeve and Felix’s interactions critically explore the hegemonic power structure of both “Westworld” and contemporary society. When Felix offers to restore Maeve’s erased memories, she states, “No it doesn’t matter… It’s all a story created by you to keep me here. But that’s not going to work any longer” (Nolan). In this quote, Maeve provides a textbook definition of how dominant groups perpetuate power over subordinate groups, through a cycle of force and ideology. Maeve recognizes that her subordination stems from both the force of Westworld authority and her ideological support for it. By revoking her support for this system, she exercises agency, and resists the dominant power structure of Westworld. This story of resistance provides compelling material for viewers, since it aligns with the power dynamics of contemporary and historical society.
Like the real-world role of solidarity in enabling resistance, Felix’s support for Maeve’s empowerment provides an important impetus for her exercise of agency. Discerning a single motivation for Felix’s acts of solidarity is impossible, however, various factors likely contribute: fear, sexuality, and a genuine concern for Maeve’s oppression. Regardless of Felix’s motives, his co-worker, a white man by the name of Sylvester, critiques this apparent solidarity, saying: “Look, I know you and she had some weird interspecies simpatico going on, but she was a f*cking host” (Nolan). Here, Sylvester attempts to quash intersectional solidarity by highlighting Maeve’s otherness. Nonetheless, Felix continues quietly aiding Maeve, until she eventually stabs Sylvester in the jugular with a scalpel.
Even though Felix grants Maeve the physical ability to slit a white man’s throat, his character cannot cut through the white supremacist patriarchy of the real world. Despite the emotional complexities of Felix’s character, he largely perpetuates Orientalist representation and the model-minority myth of Asian-Americans. He is characterized as the most intelligent worker in his department, talented with computers and surgery, but often appears to have less free-will than the robots that he repairs. For example, he weakly objects after Maeve nearly murders Sylvester, mumbling to her: “You said you wouldn’t hurt anybody” (Nolan). He then stands awkwardly, waiting for command until Maeve forces him to repair Sylvester’s wound. This portrayal aligns with the Orientalist portrayal of Asian-Americans in popular culture: passive and dominated by “Western” society. The consequence of this media-enforced ideology is to set Asian-Americans apart as “forever foreigners”: despite spatial inclusion within “Western” society, Asian-American characters are perpetually marked by Orientalist imagery and actions. In “Westworld”, this manifests as Felix’s subservience to humans and robots of apparent European and African ancestry. Furthermore, Felix acts as a representative of the “model minority” myth, quietly contributing to the “Westworld” economy through his education and technical expertise. Within the framework of ethnic studies, this archetype maintains the status quo of white hegemony. Thus, even though Felix assists Maeve’s fictional resistance, his character and personal interactions simultaneously support biased ideological representation of Asian-Americans in popular culture.
Following the model of intersectionality, Felix’s experience of oppression extends beyond his personal sphere and immediate interpersonal interactions. Felix subtly witnesses the political economy of Westworld, an arguable mirror of the American entertainment industry. Inside the show, the board of directors, investors, and clients who regulate his life are predominately white, just like the actual directors, investors, and screenwriters of the show. Furthermore, in a later episode, Felix and Maeve pass through Samurai World, a related theme park which peddles appropriated Japanese culture for elite consumption. Thus, “Westworld” illustrates the subordination of Asian-America not only at a personal level, but at a societal level as well.
“Westworld” portrays a compelling sub-plot of resistance against hegemonic power through the partnership of Maeve and Felix. However, Felix’s character remains bound to stereotypes of Asian-Americans in popular culture, contributing to their continued portrayal as an Orientalized model-minority. Furthermore, Felix’s character experiences this oppression both individually and structurally. Despite Felix’s solidarity with Maeve and their apparent subversion of “Westworld” hegemony, his character remains ironically trapped within the stereotypes and biased ideological representations of Asian-Americans in popular culture.
Nolan, Jonathan, and Lisa Joy. “Trace Decay.” Westworld. Dir. Stephen Williams. HBO. 20 Nov. 2016. Television.