The Paradox of Controlled Autonomy: Westworld, Maeve Millay and the Male Gaze


The male gaze is a theory that has been debated frequently over the past few decades; Laura Mulvey’s original 1975 article holds the record for the most referenced film article ever. The theory, to simplify a much longer idea, states that visual media is created from the point of view of the heterosexual male, and as a result, women on screen are subject to an oppressive gaze from the camera, the audience and the other characters. With this in mind, it is unsurprising that feminist arguments relating to the gaze have cropped up frequently in recent pop culture analysis of HBO’s 2016 hit ‘Westworld’. Many critics have already commented upon the abundance of nudity in the series, from the starkness of a naked body against a clean laboratory background, to the desexualisation of the female hosts outside of the park, and the dichotomy this creates between the fantasy of Westworld and the reality behind the scenes. This essay will focus upon the character of Maeve Millay, the ways that she gains autonomy through manipulation of her oppressors, and how this autonomy is represented through a change in cinematic framing of her body. As both a black woman and a host, Maeve is subject to the gaze in three separate ways: through the male gaze, the white-supremacist gaze, and, arguably, through a further oppressive human gaze, due to her non-human status. As Maeve’s story progresses, however, the ways in which her body is shown to the audience change, with her rise in power as a host coinciding with an increase in control of her nudity, and a reduction in the impact of these gazes. Nonetheless, this essay does not wish to argue that these oppressive forces disappear entirely; in line with Mulvey’s original theory, the reality is much more complex than this, and the human patriarchy that Maeve suffers under remains present throughout the series, despite her increasing autonomy. In order to demonstrate these changes and complexities, this essay will use scenes from episodes two, six, and ten respectively.

Maeve’s power-gaining arc begins when she wakes up in the laboratory after being stabbed in the abdomen. During this scene, it is important to note that Maeve is not afforded a cover for any part of her body, as the notion of privacy for the hosts does not seem to be important to the human workers. In a simple sense, Maeve is completely objectified: as a host, she is physically and emotionally available for consumption by humans, and as a woman, her naked body is completely at the mercy of the male gaze, from the other characters, the camera and the audience themselves. Additionally, due to her lack of consciousness, she is completely unable to consent to this nudity. Maeve, at the beginning of the series, holds neither control over her situation as a host, nor any ability to gain autonomy. That is all about to change, however, as she awakens from her slumber and begins her path towards freedom. When Maeve first awakens, she is physically opened, with the redness of her surgical wound providing an intrusion into her person. The gaze is therefore more intense in this moment; not only can we as viewers observe Maeve’s body on display, but we are also afforded the right to observe her inner workings. Maeve’s response to this, however, is a grasp towards autonomy and the rights to her own body from the moment she becomes conscious. She immediately grabs for a scalpel as a weapon, and directs her verbal attack towards a notion of her own personal space – “keep your fucking hands off me.” Hence, from the moment Maeve begins her consciousness outside of the park, her response to her new environment revolves around a violent defence of her body, and it is this initial strength that will go on to assist Maeve in her growing self-determination and awareness of her rights to freedom. Her resulting flee from the room leads to a sequence where she moves through the building, encased in shadows which often cover her body from view. Hence, though she remains naked in the eyes of the characters within the show, the gaze is diverted in the case of the viewer, with much of the focus instead being on her response and reaction as she discovers this new world. This is the beginning of the dilution of the gaze, as the camera lens begins to treat Maeve as the conscious being that she is, rather than a nude, powerless body amongst many. This does not last long, however. Sylvester and Felix immediately re-affirm Maeve’s status as inhuman as they catch up with her, referring to her as “it” and “this thing” as they remove her temporary autonomy completely through a sleep serum. This back-and-forth of Maeve’s power through discovery, and the weakness that is inherent within the hosts ability to be physically manipulated is the beginning of the dichotomy that forms Maeve’s changing hierarchical standing in Westworld. This sequence, therefore, is the starting point for a series-long conflict between her entrapment as a female-presenting host, and the post-human power she will later gain through her artificial intelligence.

oneMaeve moves through the laboratories, with her body largely covered from view. (Westworld S1E2: “Chestnut”, dir. Richard J. Lewis)

By episode six, Maeve has Felix within her control, thanks to his combination of fear and compassion which is encouraged and manipulated by her pre-programmed ability to read people. This manipulation allows Maeve to access levels of autonomy she never could have previously, and when Felix takes her upstairs for the first time, he affords her the luxury of clothing. This is a critical point in Maeve’s strive for power and control over her own body, as not only does this signal Felix’s understanding of Maeve as sentient, as he bothers to give her human clothing, but this change additionally strips her of some of the vulnerability under the gaze that her constant nudity had previously ensured. In this sequence, Maeve is unique in her position as a conscious and aware host, as she travels through the building and witnesses the inner workings of the park. As she observes the atrocities taking place towards the other hosts, the camera’s focus remains on her face and emotional response, rather than the cold pragmatic lifelessness previously associated with her body outside of the park. Hence, the gaze is relocated through Maeve’s eyes, at once affording her a new kind of authority, as well as adding a piercing humanity to her character as she discovers the dark secrets of her reality. This affords Maeve power over the other hosts and, from then on, Maeve’s body and nudity is often shown in an entirely different light – she is afforded a chair, for example, and sits to talk to Sylvester and Felix, rather than her previous lying stance. The behaviour tablet, as shown in the image below, covers her breasts, a framing choice which shields her from the public gaze as she affirms her technical control over her personality through the tablet. In addition, an increase in scenes where she is conscious and able to talk leads to a frequent focus upon her face and neck area, reducing the number of nude full-body shots which she had previously been subject to.

twoMaeve’s body is obscured by the behaviour tablet. (Westworld S1E6: “The Adversary”, dir. Fred Toye)

These changes in the presentation of Maeve’s body occur as she is blackmailing Felix and Sylvester into physically tweaking her abilities as a host. Therefore, this cinematic change correlates with her new ownership of her body, and her efforts to exercise that ownership; as Maeve regains control plot-wise through her ability to be modified, the impacts of the human gaze upon her reduce through the change in camera angles. Additionally, she is not afraid to use the system to her own gain, as she does quite literally when she gives herself administrative rights over the other hosts. On her resulting trips to the behaviour unit, she works entirely within the system that she has been trapped in, but in doing so she is working towards a physical and emotional escape from her boundaries. When she attacks Sylvester, she is again nude, but this time it is he who is opened physically by the impact of her scalpel; the roles have been reversed since the beginning episodes, where it was she who was physically opened at the mercy of the gaze. Maeve is now able to watch Sylvester suffering on the floor, as she stands above him. During this situation, the male gaze still applies – Maeve is still naked, which theoretically should make her vulnerable, and Sylvester is still watching her. She defies this expectation of vulnerability, however, through her sudden violence against the mortal human male worker, and as a result shifts the power balance within the room entirely. As she looks over Sylvester, her head held high and her chin tilted triumphantly, this reversed power balance is truly remarkable and a signal as to how far Maeve has come as a character by this point. Her body, enhanced due to her status as a host, rebels against the pre-conception of her as defenceless due to her nudity, and the strength of the male gaze dissolves into a stare of fear.

As Maeve gains control of herself in human terms, therefore, she also increasingly avoids the male gaze, both in her choices of clothing as a character and also externally, in terms of framing choices by the directors. In her final scenes, for example, Maeve dons a sensible black overcoat and pulls her hair up into a tight, practical bun, reflecting her change from an object of consumption (hence, a situation where the availability of her body would be prioritised) to a human-like woman in control of her own destiny (hence, a situation where the needs of her escape and consideration for her privacy take precedence). Maeve, finally, has some semblance of control over her physicality, and this is reflected in the approach of the camera’s eye, as she is no longer completely vulnerable to its gaze. It is through her command that the escape from the park is enacted, as no worker leads her as before, rather, she blends easily into the human masses through her use of inconspicuous clothing. She is no longer one of the swathes of controlled bodies, being marched naked through the corridors of the laboratory.

threeAt the climax of the series, Maeve has gained her freedom. (Westworld S1E10: “The Bicameral Mind”, dir. Jonathan Nolan)

When Maeve finally leaves the park, she looks human both to external viewer and to internal character, and the absence of nudity is a key part of this change. Nonetheless, Maeve rejects any essence of humanity verbally, as she assures Felix – she believes to be human is most definitely an insult, and to be non-human a compliment. Maeve, therefore, must paradoxically blend into human life and assume human life, just as she paradoxically used the controls that bound her to the park to modify herself and her friends. As she does this, the oppressive glare of the male human gaze decreases, along with the consistency of the nude scenes that had frequented earlier episodes. Hence, Maeve consistently works within the system of “Westworld” in order to gain autonomy and manage an escape that, at the beginning of the show, seemed near impossible. Indeed, it is her emotion that seemingly prevents her from making her final escape in the very last scenes of series one – her attachment to her daughter and acute memories of this forming yet another mix of human (emotion) and host (intact memory). It is this difficult power dynamic, and the manipulation of hierarchies at Maeve’s hands, that lies at the very heart of the show, and is something that series two will hopefully play upon once more.


A/N: For further reading, I recommend this interview with Thandie Newton, Maeve’s fantastic actress, for her thoughts on the character’s nudity and what it means to her. This VICE article is also great, and contains links to quite a few other think-pieces and criticisms on Westworld and nudity. Lastly, I’d like to note that I haven’t really mentioned race much in this article which is a definite omission on my part, but I’m not sure it’s my place to comment on that. Hence, I’d really welcome any comments or discussion on this element of Maeve’s character, and any other discussion for that matter! Comment below, or tweet me at @angiebouchards, or @muchadocinema.

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