by Hannah Gentry
After being on hiatus since late 2018, the dystopian Web series Autodale has returned on January 10th with the latest episode that delves deeper into how the brainwashed society functions. Autodale, created and animated by David Armsby, explores the idea of a society where humans are being controlled by an artificial government that decides who is acceptable, people who are labeled “pretty,” and who is unacceptable, which they call “ugly.” The adult citizens wear a mask on their face at all times, while the children remain unmasked until they reach a certain age when they can be evaluated. If they are deemed unfit for Autodale or have an imperfection, then they are executed by robots. These robots, referred to as the “Handy Men,” oversee the city and make sure that their perfect system is running smoothly and unquestioned. Needless to say, the idea of being killed simply for not being perfect or compliant enough is horrifying. Yet, this concept has garnered the attention of many, and despite the long wait, Autodale has once again gone viral and its popularity has only increased in the 2 years that the fans waited for its return. Although the dystopian genre sometimes gets written off as being overused and generic, the genre has remained popular and still sparks serious conversation today. With Autodale, instead of its world feeling like it would only be possible in a distant future, the series reveals societal dangers that startlingly echoes our world’s past and present.
To start with, the first episode “Being Pretty” introduces the viewer to a monochromatic 1950s-stylized suburban neighborhood that was built as a part of this society of perfect individuals who wear creepy masks as they go about their day. Two children, a boy and a girl, sit in front of a TV screen as a robot (Handy Man) begins a PSA to educate them on their wonderful city, Autodale. From a young age, the children are brainwashed into becoming another cog in the machine. They feel proud of their status and are told to strive to be like their parents who conform to their roles and idolize authority. Everyone around them is pretty, so they must grow up to be the same way. The Handy Man chilling tells them, however, that “not everyone is pretty. Some are ugly. We don’t want uglies. We take the uglies away, so that you, and your friends, and your neighbors, and your family, can stay pretty.” The scene then changes to show the robots policing the city and the episode ends with the Handy Man executing those with labels (such as being deaf, fat, crippled, depressed, gay, etc.) and tossing their bodies into a giant pit. Their only option is to be pretty or to be executed.
In his explanation of the animated short, creator David Armsby states that he wanted to make “a civilization of human beings that aren’t human anymore.” It is a place that is run by an artificial hivemind that sets the standards. It is a place void of individualism and the citizens are less concerned with escaping and more concerned with being pretty and proper at all cost. The masks that they wear is a symbol of status and uniformity and it is not forced onto them but something they take pride in wearing. The children must grow up and be exactly like their parents and they are not granted the freedom to be original or to be their own person. While creating this dystopia run by AI, Armsby wondered, “what would it model the perfect civilization on?”
He answers, “the American dream.”
Yes, this chillingly dark and twisted world is modeled after our own. It is set to replicate America in the 1950s and the American dream is reflected in how the perfect family in Autodale’s society consists of a car, a nice house, a hardworking husband, a loving wife, and pretty children. Unfortunately, those children need to grow up and please the Handy Man just like their parents did and do not have the freedom to pursue any creative interests. While the American dream sounds great on paper—that anyone can achieve anything if they work hard enough—it is something that in modern media has been criticized and chalked up to being false idealism or American propaganda. Many counterculture films of the 60s and 70s ridiculed the traditional pursuit of the American Dream and it’s more common to mock its ideals than to take it seriously. So, how does all of this relate to Autodale?
Armsby seems to relate the American dream with brainwashing the next generation into becoming the next piece in the cycle, or the next useful members of society who will keep everything running, just as the kids in Autodale need to be just like their parents and idolize authority. Furthermore, in modern context, people have criticized the American dream by stating that discrimination has always been a challenge in achieving this dream and makes it unrealistic for many minorities to achieve. We see that discrimination in Autodale, as those with less advantages, those with flaws and imperfections, are eradicated from their society and not even given a chance to begin with. In Autodale, there are things more terrifying than being controlled by robots and facing execution. Rather, Armsby says Autodale “explores the horror of thinking purely logically, removing all the flaws and oddities that make humans, human. Where art, personality, and expression are taken from you. Your face is literally covered with a permanent compliant smile, where you are not an individual. You are a cog.” It is possible that, if taken to the extreme while chasing an ideal of the perfect citizen, America could also end up like this.
It might be confusing that nobody in Autodale is rebelling against their robot overlords or trying to escape. Well, there are a few characters who have attempted to, but the general public seems strangely content in staying where they are. In the episode “No Monsters” a woman labeled as “exceptional” tries to run away from the robotic monster that is chasing her. Although she manages to hide, she is near a marching line of people labeled as “ugly” and they see her. There is no sense of community or sympathy for their fellow man. The uglies are literally marching towards their death, but they immediately point at the woman and expose her location to the Handy Man, who were also searching for her. Armsby explains, “the uglies don’t necessarily see through the system. In fact, they still believe in it.” Even though they are discriminated against and ultimately going to be executed, the uglies still obey and bow down to the system. They too are a part of the collective. The only people who think outside of the box and notice the troubling world they live in are labeled as “exceptional.” Both pretty and ugly people are compliant, the only difference being those who are pretty are a “functional member of society” and those who are ugly have something “wrong” with them.
One can only rise to be the Handy Man’s standard of “perfection,” but not exceptional. If one is exceptional, then they pose the largest threat because they challenge what they are told. Everyone has to be equal with no one rising above to see the reality for what it is. Some people in the comments section of this episode have related this ideology to the education system in our world and criticize American public schools. It seems as of late to be a system where students are all made equal and kept at the same level with only some exceptions made. While that is a somewhat extreme comparison, there could be some truth to it. If the education system becomes so concerned with matching everyone equally and having everyone on the same level when each student is actually unique, then that in and of itself destroys individualism. Those who are “exceptional” are not allowed to achieve their full potential and become held back by a system that fails them.
So then, how does one survive in Autodale? If you can’t be exceptional, then what if someone is pretty, complies to the Handy Man, and does everything right? What happens to them? The latest episode that brought with it the return of the series answers these questions. In “Model Citizen,” the story explores the societal roles from the parent’s worldview instead of the children. The episode follows the Robinsons, who are living the lives of the American nuclear family. They live within the rules of their city, happy and unbothered. They are satisfied within their boxed world. Armsby states, “the people of Autodale live very happy [short] lives.” They are not scared of the Handy Man, and they even call the one who visits them every day “Joe.” They are proud of their masks and, like the rest of Autodale, don’t want to revolt. They just want their son to grow up to be like them and to become a model citizen.
Armsby says, “the horror of Autodale to me is not that people live scared under some dystopian iron ruler where everyone is oppressed and scared of making some wrong move. It is that the people live with these rules and they are happy and unquestioning and delusional.” They have complete faith in the system, even the uglies who turned the exceptional woman in. The Robinson family is also like this. They do not fear their circumstances or question why they are monitored every day by a Handy Man, in fact, they call the robot their friend. Everyone in Autodale idolizes their lack of individualism and they look up to the mechanical and emotionless entities as an exemplar to strive for.
Alas, the Robinsons’ son does indeed grow up to be exactly like them. The parents are proud of their achievement, but then they also sadly embrace each other. Because now they are old, and their work is done. They get in line to be classified as “ugly” and prepare to be executed. Everyone in Autodale knows that, regardless how good of a job they do or how perfect they are, they will one day become ugly and be tossed out. Everyone knows, and yet they accept it.
When the Robinsons hear their friendly Handy Man Joe say they did a good job, getting Autodale’s approval satisfies the Robinsons, and even though they are about to be killed they are pleased with themselves. Armsby yet again compares this to the American dream propaganda as he comments that the city is a place “where being a functional member of your community and fitting in with your neighborhood is so toxically important.” This desire to fit in and be praised for their hard work is the poison that blinds the citizens of Autodale from seeing beyond their walls. Their inevitable execution is an accepted truth, and what they really value in life is doing a good job while being a cog in the machine. Once the parents are executed, their son will eventually have kids, and the cycle is forever doomed to continue. All model citizens, no matter how perfect, will meet the same gruesome fate.
Autodale is not entirely implausible with no ties to reality. Actually, a lot of Armsby’s inspiration comes from our history and present-day existence. Autodale is very clearly mocking our society’s standards of what being acceptable is. If you do not fit into a certain criteria, you are cast out and shamed for not being “pretty.” If you aren’t perceived as a perfect human being, then you are mistaken for being worthless. Nowadays, we are so judgmental of one another and even just one mistake can end someone’s career and have them outcasted by society. We point the finger at those who are foreign to us and stay within our walls instead of trying to get to know someone who is different. It is more comfortable to stay as you are with people that are like you than to question the system and fight for change. Autodale is an example of when this drive for perfection descends into madness. Individualism is lost, one becomes apart of a collective instead of being their own person, and all unique ideas and people are discarded. It is discrimination and conformity fueled by fear. The lack of humanity in Autodale is scary, but we also can be the same way. These behaviors in our society are dangerous, but by remaining open-minded and not judging people for being imperfect, then we can embrace, as Armsby puts it “the flaws and oddities that make humans, human.”