Why Westworld’s Throwaway Scene of Black Male Nudity Felt So Dehumanizing

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Photo: HBO

There is a very brief moment in Westworld’s fifth episode — hardly even noticeable if you’re watching while doing other things — that’s worth considering more fully. It’s a transitional scene, meant to build a bridge into a bigger plot for the episode: Elsie Hughes, behavioral specialist for the park, is doing a tune-up on one of the hosts, who’s calibrating his distances incorrectly. She sighs at him, frustrated that he’s still pouring water all over a metal tray rather than into a glass. Elsie looks up, realizes some techs are transporting the body of the woodcutter host who went rogue, and immediately abandons her current task to pursue the bigger issue. The whole thing takes about 23 seconds.

The host’s name is Bart. He’s an attractive, muscular black man. Like all hosts in the behavior-modification areas of the park’s facilities, he’s completely naked. As Elsie looks up from her tablet, she swings around on her wheeled stool to assess him, and his penis comes into the camera shot. First it’s briefly in focus, very visible in profile, and then it remains in frame but out of focus in the foreground as Elsie regards him frankly. If he can’t stop pouring booze all over the guests, Elsie tells him (rhetorically, as he’s clearly not responsive), “I’m going to have to reassign you to a narrative where your … talents … will go tragically to waste.”

Probably you don’t need me to describe the inflection with which Elsie says “talents,” or the pointed tilt of her eyebrows as she says it. Probably you don’t need me to do any more close reading of the scene to understand exactly what “talent” Elsie is referring to. And maybe you, like me, read Wesley Morris’s remarkable New York Times Magazine piece “The Last Taboo: Why Pop Culture Just Can’t Deal With Black Male Sexuality,” and thought, huh. Those two things seem related.

They are. And I suppose you could see this as a form of progress — after all, Westworld has done exactly the thing Morris points out there is so little of. The show actually puts a black penis on-camera. But this is not “black male sexuality with the same range of seriousness, cheek and romance” that Morris says we give to white sexuality. This is just a black body as an object, made into something both safe and laughable because it’s the object of a white woman’s lust. Elsie does not see Bart as a person. He’s quite literally not a person, nor has he been given any of the humanizing, robot-waking-up-and-thus-sexuality-becomes-a-moral-question narrative that Dolores or Maeve get. In both Westworld and Westworld, Bart has been built as an inert, controllable sex toy, appealing for his size and the resulting implication of power and sexual prowess. And at the same time, he’s rendered safe because he’s restrained.

It’s a tiny, throwaway scene. In a show that spends extensive time engaged in deep, meaningful conversations about the nature of humanity, it’s easy to dismiss this as something ultimately trivial in the greater scheme of the show. But of course, the stuff you throw away — the stuff that becomes a little joke, that doesn’t get examined, that flies beneath the radar — that’s where you put all of the stuff you don’t care about. That’s where all of the ideological bodies are buried. To put Bart and his anatomy into such a small, unexamined scene is to suggest both that it’s not something the show wants to examine, and that no examination needs to be done. It’s the storytelling equivalent of a bad, politically incorrect joke that your co-worker insists is meaningless fun. Those thoughtless asides are also doing important cultural work, communicating what’s important and what can be safely marginalized. Bart, his nudity, and his sexuality don’t rise to the level of narrative priority.

And the scene itself is built as a joke. Elsie’s face is there in the background, with the frame focused on her as she muses about Bart’s anatomy. Hers is the perspective (the face and the self-hood) we care about. In the foreground, out of focus but prominently visible, is Bart’s penis, hanging there like a piece of physical comedy. We don’t need a punch line or any further explanation, because the object is enough.

Westworld is hugely invested in building characterization through sex. In this episode alone, I’d bet that by saying “I’m talking about that one nude scene” you’d assume I meant the giant, gold-painted orgy that takes up a huge chunk of the hour, not a 20-second joke about one host’s dick. But for all of its ample sexual content, Westworld gives us very little range. We get many women (as hosts) who are violated, and we’re meant to probe our feelings about that. We have lots of men who come to Westworld to engage in as much meaningless (and mostly straight) sex as they possibly can. Beyond those two frameworks, there’s very little.

So it’s troubling that in this one, fleeting divergence from the women-as-violated-hosts, men-as-horny-guests paradigm, we get something so frustratingly reductive. A black man’s large penis, onscreen! But he’s not allowed to be a man, he’s certainly not allowed to have any autonomy, and his sexual life is considered acceptable (and funny) only because it’s the object of his white female handler’s attraction.

Not great, Westworld. Not great.