How Not to Play with Dolls: a Look at Whedon’s Dollhouse

Comments on this post may not be spoiler free.

This post is by guest author Frédérik Sisa, a  writer with eclectic interests in art, entertainment, fashion, culture, and politics, Frédérik Sisa is a columnist, art critic, and director of operations for The Front Page Online (see also: Fashionoclast) as well as a regular contributor to the venerable gothic eZine Morbid Outlook. He is currently working on two novels and a book of poems and, like everyone,  keeps a pet blog (frederik-sisa.blogspot.com).

First, a confession: I am not as much a fan of Joss Whedon as I’d like to be. While I loved Buffy and Angel, their climactic seasons imploded from all the soapy comic book histrionics and left me questioning Whedon’s mojo. I’m still disappointed. Enter Dollhouse, a hyped series that, when first announced, evoked the twin sentiments of curiosity and dread. The premise of programmable people seemed interesting, but Whedon’s tendency to fizzle great ideas coupled with seriously negative development buzz didn’t create a warm-and-fuzzy. I was pleasantly surprised, however. Despite my admittedly hostile bias, the first episode of Dollhouse left me, if not quite gobsmacked, then at least tending a piqued interest.

Unfortunately, the four or so episodes I’ve watched demonstrated a pretty serious case of the hiccups. Dialogue sometimes sparkles but more often than not settles on getting the job done. The casting, also serviceable, reeks of the Hollywood youth bias: pretty young people with screen-star looks that give good gloss to advertisers despite any dissonance their appearance and demeanour might cause with their role. Eliza Dushku, around which Whedon built the show, does hold her own in a part that requires role-playing different characters and personality types during assignments for the titular Dollhouse. She even infuses a bit of humanity in the pre-imprinted tabula rasa code-named Echo, an “active” (as the human-bots are referred to) without any real personality but for some sort of child-like self-awareness. (I admit that the incessant “did I fall asleep?” routine after being de-imprinted gets old very quickly.) But for all her strength and that of the series’ other standout – Harry Lennix as Echo’s handler and viewers’ moral surrogate – Whedon misses his mark with other key cast members. Fran Kranz, as the scientist who imprints the personality on the actives, is implausibly young for a part that demands the gravitas of a Dr. Walter Bishop (Fringe) or a Dr. Jacob Hood (Eleventh Hour) and begs the question, do we really need another smart-alecky boy genius cut from Xander cloth? Also mismatched is Amy Acker, another Whedon veteran, who plays the actives’ general physician in a role originally conceived for a woman in her 40s or 50s.

These are forgivable glitches, however, in comparison to the big downer: Dollhouse can’t sell its essential premise of an illegal mercenary corporation programming blanked humans to perform a variety of assignments, whether criminal, wish-fulfilling, or do-gooding. When Paul Ballard, an FBI agent pursuing the Dollhouse in a key sub-plot, is asked by a skeptical fellow agent why any richie rich would pay for a programmed human when she/he can get the real thing, Ballard wins a prize for articulating the stretchiest rationale ever for a barely-coherent premise: “If you have everything, you want something else. Something more extreme. Something more specific. Something perfect.” Here, at last, is gobsmacking: we’re actually expected to run with this.  Without explaining why an expensive, error-prone facsimile (buried memories occasionally surface to interfere with the imprint) is preferable to the real deal, Dollhouse has only sheer force of will (and wishful thinking) to run on, and it’s not enough. Nor are later revelations that the Dollhouse is subordinated to the mysterious Rossum Corporation – a reference, I assume, to Karel Čapek’s play Rossum’s Universal Robots – indicative of anything other than the usual sci-fi conspiracy tropes. And let’s not even ask why anyone would volunteer to become an active for a five-year run given the risks of being injured or killed on assignment – an inconvenience that negates the show’s purported inquiry into the role of consent on the part of the actives during assignments.

But the element that gives Whedon an unusual reputation – attentiveness to feminism – is still there, although the impact is arguably not as strong as with Buffy. While Whedon’s feminism always seemed of an easy kind, a pop-feminism satisfied with transposing stereotypical masculine warrior traits onto women, he nonetheless passes the Bechdel-Wallace test with admirable consistency. And for all that Dichen Lachman’s casting in the role of Echo’s fellow active Sierra smacks of exploiting exotic good looks – because nothing sells like pretty girls, girls, girls in a handsome cast – the inclusion of male actives dilutes, to some extent, the notion that Dollhouse is merely a fetishized fantasy of beautiful girls that, for a fee, can be programmed to satisfy the needs of a patriarchal clientele. In fact, Whedon is aware of the jagged ground he’s threading on and a case can be made that, even if it hasn’t yet lived up to it’s ambition, Dollhouse ultimate sets up a misogynistic scenario with the aim of taking it apart. (When NPR interviewer Jacki Lyden asked Whedon to explain how Dollhouse isn’t a misogynistic fantasy, Whedon replied “I won’t necessarily say that it isn’t that. The fact of the matter is that, in the wrong hands, it is a completely misogynist thing, except it’s happening to men as well – but what we’re trying to do is take someone’s identity away in order to discuss the concept of her identity.”)

Whether Dollhouse can live up to its aspirations of heavy “deconstruction” is, at least at this point, doubtful. Without that element of credibility, that fundamental belief in the show’s core, Dollhouse amounts to an intriguing but conceptually unstable, overstuffed house of ideas that I have no interest in seeing play out. For identity games and sinister machinations of memory, far better to revisit Dark City, which accomplishes more in 100 minutes, and with greater panache, than Dollhouse has so far.

Comments

  1. says

    Well, it is implied that the choice is not always made under the best circumstances, and that Echo’s choice was not free at all.
    Also, when I watch the show, I do see the appeal of being an active. If it was real I would probably think better of it, but the idea of living in that nice building, being able to do exactly what I’m supposed to and do it well, and then getting a lot of money after five years does seem very appealing to a struggling student like myself. I can easily see how they could convince someone to do it, especially if they glossed over some of the nastier parts of the deal.

  2. says

    Which five episodes did you see? Because if you saw 101-105, then, yeah, they sucked. (Although actually I liked 104 a lot. But other than that.) But try 106, at least, which rocks the shit out of the series.

  3. other Patrick says

    One thing to mention would be what four episodes the author watched – though I’m pretty sure it couldn’t have been the first four. My opinion of the show from the first five episodes was a lot worse than what’s above. Now, I see potential. There was some pretty good stuff lately, and I’m now willing to give the show a chance to convince me that the set-up is somehow not exploitation at its worst, including serial rape.

    Though I think they’re going for a liberation of the dolls, and under the management of Henry Lennix, a few will remain and use the technology to fight the good fight. Ballard will become Echo’s new Handler. This may be a spoiler, but it’s also total speculation :-)

  4. says

    The episodes I’ve watched are 101, 102, 104, and 107 – enough, I think, to reach a decision as to whether or not to stick with the show. Considering that other freshman shows, like the Mentalist and Eleventh Hour, managed to be consistently good from the get-go, and often moving from good to excellent, I don’t see a reason to let slide Dollhouse’s severely inconsistent quality.

  5. says

    Hi, guys!

    I’ve put a *Spoiler* warning on the post, so feel free to talk about specific plot points from whatever episodes you’ve seen and why they did/didn’t work for you. I think that’ll make the discussion more enjoyable.

  6. S. A. Bonasi says

    What disappoints me about Dollhouse is that for all it purports to be an exploration of identity and exploitation, what’s presented on-screen is very Male Gaze oriented. Oh, sure, there exists male actives, but we’ve so far only see one of them on a sex-centered assignment, and he got to wear a suit, rather than, say, bondage gear. We hear about the Dollhouse have a large number of same-sex assignments, but they’re not shown. But all the abuse heaped on Echo & Sierra is shown to us in explicit detail.

  7. other Patrick says

    Frederick: I agree with you on principle, and if not for the fact that I like Whedon’s work, I wouldn’t have stuck with the show. For what it’s worth, I would still say you should take a look at episodes 6, 8 and 9, or, if only one of them, probably episode 8, because those were the metaplot-heavy episodes, and those were really, really good episodes on top of it.

    Or, if it comes to that, start fresh with season two, when writers know better what they’re doing and the cast gels more easily :)

    I almost gave up on the show myself, though, so I can totally understand where you’re coming from.

    Still…

    Episode 6 made me agree to listen to what it might have to say
    Episode 8 showed me it had something to say
    Episode 9 was just a good episode, with a good structure and some nice twisty twists.

    I’m waiting to see ep 10, since, as a German, I can’t simply tune in :)

  8. other Patrick says

    S.A.: Yes, it is a problematic show in that regard. I agree. I mean, even Miss Lonelyhearts wasn’t an octogenerian. (let me just say as an aside that the “bondage gear” was laughable)

    Since Dollhouse deals with fantasies, I think they would automatically have heavier body types and older people, not just Fox-approved hotties. I mean, what if I want to have a last day with my mother to apologize for the fight we had before she died? Then Dushku won’t do.

    I’m also wary of how blurry the issue of consent will become. Yes, they mention it. But they also sort of handwave it. I mean (SPOILER) Ballard must have had sex with Mellie in episode 9, knowing her deal. The question wether or not a doll is raped if her imprint makes it okay is something I need to see explored a lot more before I can buy that it may be ok.

  9. S. A. Bonasi says

    other Patrick,

    I think it’s been made pretty clear that imprints CAN’T consent, and so the Active IS being raped. Like, a good example, look at the Mellie imprint. It’s pretty clear that the Mellie imprint has Want To Sleep With Paul programmed into it. That’s not consent. So, yeah, Paul is raping November when he has sex with Mellie. That’s why I hated that he had sex with her in episode 1.10 “Haunted” because he knew that she was an Active and thus couldn’t consent. I don’t have a problem with morally gray heroes. But a hero who knowingly rapes a character should loses their status as a hero. If Paul is still treated as a basically good guy after this, I’m going to be very, very angry. If they want to treat him as a villain with hero-delusion, that’s fine, but he can’t be the hero anymore.

    General,

    Last episode seemed to shy away from showing what was being done to the Actives as exploitation. Could just be a one time thing meant to show has the Dollhouse employees “justify” their actions and sleep well at night, but I sincerely hope it’s all not treated as anything BUT the Dollhouse employees deluding themselves.

  10. says

    The thing that’s irritating me in general discussions of Dollhouse is the argument “they all consented when they joined.” I haven’t been watching the show since the second episode, because I am not interested in dragging myself through something just because Joss fans tell me to “trust him”. (I did trust him. And then Tara died. Gosh, gee, no dead/evil lesbians will happen in your show, huh Joss?)

    There are often huge arguments online about whether or not the dolls consented to join. This tells me that either Joss hasn’t gotten across that Caroline/Echo was desperate or that Sierra was sold, or that Joss wants viewers to see these things as “morally gray”. If he really thinks that “I have no choice, do I?” is morally gray, then I am even more disturbed.

  11. sbg says

    I agree with you on principle, and if not for the fact that I like Whedon’s work, I wouldn’t have stuck with the show. For what it’s worth, I would still say you should take a look at episodes 6, 8 and 9, or, if only one of them, probably episode 8, because those were the metaplot-heavy episodes, and those were really, really good episodes on top of it.

    Here is where I always get stuck: Why should anyone stick around watching a misogynistic show in the hopes it will one day all be explained as not misogynistic at all, based primarily on who is behind the scenes?

    I don’t have the Whedon-love, so maybe that’s why I’m always puzzled by this. I don’t have to give his work any more time to stop being crap than I do anyone else’s.

  12. says

    Personally, I watch the show because I enjoy it and it interests me, though I also think it could deal with the issues better. Not everything I enjoy conforms 100% to my ideals, though I do try to keep those things in mind as I watch. Analyzing can be part of the fun

    This is an interesting point that I hadn’t thought of:

    Since Dollhouse deals with fantasies, I think they would automatically have heavier body types and older people, not just Fox-approved hotties. I mean, what if I want to have a last day with my mother to apologize for the fight we had before she died? Then Dushku won’t do.

    Not that I expect that much thought from the mass media, but yeah. On the other hand, the Dollhouse might have a similar mentality to Fox and think that younger and thinner is always better no matter what.

  13. says

    I firmly believe there is no minimum amount of a show you need to watch before your impression of it is valid and post- or comment-worthy.

    It’s absolutely valid to cite scenes from episodes a reviewer or commenter has NOT seen in order to support why you like a show, but the fact that they haven’t seen every minute of it doesn’t invalidate their impression.

    That’s how most people watch TV, after all – they watch until it stops entertaining them, or annoys them.

  14. Robin says

    There are a lot of things in this discussion I want to comment on once I’ve had more of a chance to think about them. For now I’ll settle for posing another question: How do you expect entertainment to address misogyny and other forms of exploitation unless it is depicted within the narrative?

  15. says

    Since Dollhouse deals with fantasies, I think they would automatically have heavier body types and older people, not just Fox-approved hotties. I mean, what if I want to have a last day with my mother to apologize for the fight we had before she died?

    And what if your prefered attraction was to older women?

    I find it very irritating that despite the comments before the show aired that there would be queer relationships shown, so far there haven’t been. The primary buyers have been male, the primary item sold has been female. I know this reflects reality of the industry, but it’s a show where people buy living dolls that can be anything you want. It’s not really pushing the premise to have queer relationships in it.

  16. says

    How do you expect entertainment to address misogyny and other forms of exploitation unless it is depicted within the narrative?

    There’s depicting with questioning, subversion, making the audience discomfitted with the premise – and then there’s uncritically presenting it, which is what it seems like Dollhouse (and a whole lot of other examples of the “pity the poor fallen woman” chivalristic/paternalistic genre going back centuries) does.

    It’s the same as with fictions that present historical (or imagined) racism or classism without even noticing that it’s going on, maybe a pat “oh yeah it’s bad but that was then/some other galaxy (so we can’t really judge by our modern standards) – just enjoy the ride and don’t look at the serfs” versus works like A Tale of Two Cities. The attempt may be good, or clunky and wince-worthy, mileage as always varying, but you can tell if it’s even being made, or not.*

    Vidder giandujakiss has just deconstructed Dollhouse in a way that seems as trenchant as “Women’s Work” was for SPN or “Secret Asian Man” and “How Much Is That Geisha In The Window” for Firefly. Be warned, the general viewer reaction (even by series apologists!) is that it is a) extraordinarily accurate, b) too horrible to rewatch, c) requires immediate application of bleach and steel wool to expunge the concentrated Dollhouse solution…

    *At all.

  17. other Patrick says

    Jennifer: I hope my comments didn’t come across as invalidating anyone’s opinion. I was just adressing the one point of not enjoying the show with “it got better”, nothing more.

    The video linked above is awesome, by the way. And S.A.Bonasi, so far I agree with you completely that the Dollhouse is a big exploitation and rape machine, and that it sadly conforms too much to the straight white male. I don’t think anyone should watch a show past his or her own preference – see above.

    As for the mysogyny: I am a fan of Joss Whedon’s work, but mostly that’s purely from a storytelling perspective, not because he’s a feminist icon. And while I thought that some criticism against him is too harsh, I absolutely *do* think he’s not beyond reproach. It’s just that Dollhouse has such a sexist basis that I find it hard to believe this issue will not be adressed.

    You’re right, however, that nobody should have to wait to see this issue being addressed. Ideally, it should have been addressed beginning with the first episode, and not just with Eliza punching a guy or something. Even more, I find it disturbing how much violence against the dolls is sexualized – Eliza’s hostage negotiator was a rape victim, Sierra was raped, the dolls are being raped all the time!

    If it comes to that, simply being explicit about prior consent will not be enough for me. Even if Echo’s original ID Caroline went into the dollhouse on her own free will, knew she was gonna be rented out for sexual dates of which she would remember nothing, but which would not even follow her ususal preferences, and she signed happily, the contract doesn’t make room for her changing her mind halfway through. And that’s without being hunted by law or whatever drove her to become a doll in the first place.

    But to me, the concept is still intriguing enough, and the show has improved enough, that I am willing to wait for at least the end of this season to see whether there is anything more behind that. But then again, I *am* a straight white male, and if you or someone else decides to stop watching mysogyny-fest 2009, I can understand.

    I don’t even need the show to convince me it’s okay, but I need to see somehow that the writers pondered the situation and really thought about it and put forth a good argument why it might be okay. I still see the potential for this show to do that, and that is more than I can say about most other entertainment, so I’ll be around.

  18. says

    Thanks for linking to giandujakiss’s vid, bellatrys.
    I was going to mention if someone else hadn’t, because it’s such an effective, perfect little encapsulation of the show’s politics. It is–as many people in the comments over at her journal have said–the best vid I never want to see again.

    The best thing about this show is how smart, creative feminists have responded to it.

  19. says

    I just finished watching episode 10. I think the title was “Haunted” – it’s the one where Echo takes on the personality of Adelle’s friend who was recently murdered, and Ballard rapes November and then we’re meant to feel sympathetic for him because he had to! He had no other choice!

    The whole scene with Ballard and Mellie/November was squick-tastic, from Mellie’s basically saying “I know I’m pathetic and horrible and so you should have sex with me, but you can think of Caroline if you want, or anyone else, because I’m just someone you can use.” to the way you’re supposed to see Ballard as sympathetic, including the “shower of shame” scene, as someone described it.

    Part of why I can’t see Ballard as sympathetic (and the show wants me to – they show November threatening that if the Dollhouse suspects he knows she’s a Doll, they’ll kill him) is because, as the show pointed out in the episode where the dotcom guy rents Echo to play his wife, Ballard is getting off on the fantasy of saving Caroline. And he’s been shown more than once now kissing or having sex with Mellie in response to something regarding the Dollhouse in general or Caroline in particular. Am I supposed to sympathise with creepy dude whose marriage fell apart over his obsession with a secret organisation?

    But at the same time I have to admit to my own biases. I can’t find it in my heart to sympathize with Topher, even if I’m supposed to feel bad that he makes up a friend for his birthday, yet at the same time feel sympathy for Adelle when she makes up a lover who she can talk to. Why I find the one creepy and pathetic and the other totally understandable, I don’t know.

  20. says

    I just finished watching episode 10. I think the title was “Haunted” – it’s the one where Echo takes on the personality of Adelle’s friend who was recently murdered, and Ballard rapes November and then we’re meant to feel sympathetic for him because he had to! He had no other choice!

    OK, I just HAVE to say – we are NOT meant to be sympathetic for Ballard in this episode – at all. He initiates sex with Mellie, an action (sleeping with Actives) he has previously condemned as fundamentally nonconsensual, wrong, etc. We ARE meant to feel sympathy for Ballard, in the show as a whole, but absolutely and emphatically not for his actions in this episode. This was, in fact, the whole POINT of this episode.

    Now. I WILL say that the big weakness of the show is how this can be misinterpreted. I feel very strongly that this episode was not intended as rape apologism; however, I think that since Ballard is a protagonist it is easy to be confused by this. Someone in another forum I participate in wrote that “he’s just a guy… giving into a moment of lusty weakness.” If this scene can be interpreted in this way, your show isn’t really succeeding.

    I interpreted these scenes as being about the way rape is a social construct. It is not something that happens because one man, or a certain percentage of men (& women) are naturally evil horrible people who are going to rape people; it is something that happens because of the way the society we live in is shaped. Part of this is the way women are constructed as being servants to men, as being there for men’s needs – listen, if you sympathise with Mellie, and I think most of the audience does, what comes out of her mouth in this episode is revolting, self-effacing garbage. It IS. This is the reaction that is being AIMED for. Because what Mellie is expressing is part of the way society is constructed, but the way we pretend it isn’t.

    God, I feel SO strongly about this issue. I recognise that if people can interpret this in ways that differ so strongly there is a problem with the way the show is presenting itself, seeming to encourage rape apologism because of people’s affection for Tahmoh penikett or whatever. That is a big huge major issue, along with things like the apparent ubiquity of sexual violence. BUT. I really think there are alternate interpretations to the ones you’re offering.

    Am I supposed to sympathise with creepy dude whose marriage fell apart over his obsession with a secret organisation?

    Oh, OK, now I get it – you don’t watch the show. (Paul and Mellie are not married – they’re neighbours. They’ve been dating for about four episodes. Their relationship has always been based around disturbing themes about personality and self-effacement and taking advantage – this is the episode in which these themse are truly explicit.)

  21. says

    I saw that one episode where Adele (that’s that character’s name?) had a male doll programmed with her lover’s personality. I think he was dead, killed earlier before the series starts?

    Anyhow, I found her scenario just as pathetic and self-serving. The main “difference” between the two cases, if I’m reading this correctly, is that Adele’s f-toy was an actual, living personality in the past, while Topher’s f-toy is a complete construct.

    Other than that…they both use the mind-washed “dolls” for their own purposes, which surely was not in any of their contracts.

  22. says

    I recognise that if people can interpret this in ways that differ so strongly there is a problem with the way the show is presenting itself, seeming to encourage rape apologism because of people’s affection for Tahmoh penikett or whatever.

    Yeah, and it could even be that the *network* is demanding the show’s anti-rape message get diluted to leave room for the pro-rape viewing audience to still enjoy it. I’m not joking. This is the sort of thing that happens when you try to make a mainstream show with a message that confronts your culture instead of reinforcing social norms:

    Network: “Yeah, but let’s leave a gray area, because that’s more intelligent and interesting. You want the show to be smart, right? Not formula?”
    Creator: “Well, yes, but there’s really no gray area to this. This issue – ”
    Network: “I don’t know about that! I think it’s much more interesting if we let the audience interpret whether it’s rape or not.”
    Creator: “…right, okay, Mr. Moneybags.”

    Of course, no one’s thinking, “Let’s not offend our viewers who think rape is good” – they’re thinking, “let’s not get overly political.” But what are we getting political about with an anti-rape message? The idea that women’s bodies are their own, and not ultimately the property of the a male-dominated culture to use as it sees fit. Even those of us who firmly believe in every individual’s autonomy are coming from a place where the domination of various groups by other groups is seen as a natural, animalistic norm (rather than a bad social construct) and the deviance from this norm represents really enlightened, generous thinking on the dominant group’s part rather than a restoration of what always should have been. I’m having trouble phrasing this – hope it’s clear.

    I don’t watch the show, but it sounds like from everything I’ve heard it’s open to a few interpretations, ranging from anti-rape to rape apologism. There can only be two reasons:

    (1) The creators don’t realize they’re being unclear, or they’re not trying to send an anti-rape message, or they don’t really understand the issues surrounding consent at all.
    (2) Or someone deliberately wants to avoid an anti-rape message whether they’re calling it “let’s leave it open to interpretation, because that’s good art” or “let’s not insult all the rapists in the audience, because that’s good marketing.”

  23. says

    Tui,

    Oh, OK, now I get it – you don’t watch the show.

    Actually, Tui, I was referring to Paul’s marriage, which fell apart before the show’s beginning. This is mentioned in the pilot episode, when he’s getting the “You’re a maverick” speech from his bosses, and in the episode with the dotcom guy, who guesses that Paul had been married and that the relationship had fallen apart because of his obsession, which, IIRC, Paul agrees with.

    I get very irritated when people who don’t agree with what I’ve said about a show dismiss it on the theory I haven’t watched it. I have. The fact that Paul’s marriage pre-series had broken up stuck with me because it’s such a cliche. I was expecting him to gain a partner who only had one day left until retirement.

  24. says

    @Anna: you’re quite right, I’m very sorry. Clearly I’m the one who’s guilty of limited show knowledge because I’d completely forgotten that detail and read your paragraph as referring to Mellie and Paul.

    Sorry again, it was late and I let my passion overwhelm me. Mea culpa.

  25. MaggieCat says

    Anyhow, I found her scenario just as pathetic and self-serving. The main “difference” between the two cases, if I’m reading this correctly, is that Adele’s f-toy was an actual, living personality in the past, while Topher’s f-toy is a complete construct.

    This is totally a jugement call on how it read to each viewer, but that’s not how I took Topher’s programming a doll for his birthday. Partly because this is Fox we’re talking about and if there was a reason to include a sex scene I can’t see them letting the writers pass it up, and partly just how Topher reads to me; he’s repeatedly mentioned how completely vulnerable the dolls are when not programmed which makes sense since he’s the one who’d know best just how fake the actives are as the one who builds them. And he gave no indication whatsoever as to any preference as to whether a male or female doll was assigned. (It would have been much more believable to include plausible reasoning up front given Boyd’s lack of experience in his new job — backpedalling always looks wishywashy.)

    So I got the sense that what he was doing was creating someone who can keep up with his intelligence and shared his interests and didn’t roll their eyes at his goofiness. It was just so… wholesome and best friend-y. Which makes it rather sad, like a lot of the things the Dollhouse gets calls for probably are.

    I can totally see where this is a viewer-by-viewer thing though, just throwing it out there.

  26. says

    Here, at last, is gobsmacking: we’re actually expected to run with this. Without explaining why an expensive, error-prone facsimile (buried memories occasionally surface to interfere with the imprint) is preferable to the real deal, Dollhouse has only sheer force of will (and wishful thinking) to run on, and it’s not enough.

    Well, that’s not all the series ever gives us. Starting with the episode in which Echo is a bodyguard for a singer, they start giving us good reasons for dolls: Someone who is looking after you as a friend, not for you their job, someone who has your dead wife’s personality, or your dead friend’s, a naive mole for a government sting, all of these (and probably more I’m not thinking of) are good reasons to have a doll, they go beyond “escort” or “hostage negotiator” or (the worst) doula.

  27. says

    Huh. I’m a long-time Whedon fan–even went to Slayage and delivered a paper on sex in the Whedon-verse, and before an update of the platform I use on my blog destroyed my category archives, I used to have a Buffy archive–but my reaction to Dollhouse was visceral loathing, and I started a series on “Reasons Dollhouse Is Misogynist Bullshit.” I summed it up this way at one point:

    Buffy was about female power; Dollhouse is about female fear–not the eradication of it, but the creation of it, because that’s what keeps the series going. That’s misogyny–AND bad television.

  28. SunlessNick says

    Holly, that’s … I don’t know the right word, because they all sound like criticisms of you. But it’s decided me firmly on not watching this series.

  29. says

    Which makes it rather sad, like a lot of the things the Dollhouse gets calls for probably are.

    So, the emotional suffering of the rich and powerful, and the ways in their money, power and connection enable them to assuage their suffering by exploiting people power and more desperate than they are–that’s “sad” and something we’re invited to sympathize with. This was the emotional thrust of the end of “Man on the Street,” where Echo realizes that her drawing of the happy family outside the house “wasn’t finished,” which was her way of volunteering to go back and have sex with the schlubby creator of Bouncy the Rat. Oh, the look of joy on his face when Echo/Rebecca ran to his arms!

    He gets his fantasy of his dead wife coming back to him, while Caroline’s family and friends get to live with sick desperation and anxiety about what happened to this person they loved.

    So, to sum up: 1) suffering, loneliness of rich and powerful people = sad. 2) Exploitation of desperate people without resources in order to assuage the suffering and loneliness of rich and powerful people = something the show pretends to be outraged about, so it can demonstrate 1.

    You can look at a lot of the awful things done to human beings by human beings and find “sad” stories behind them. The guy who went into an immigration center in Binghamton was upset about his difficulty mastering English and finding and keeping a job. That’s sad.

    But so are the murders he committed, and the suffering of people who lost their lives or their loved ones.

    If that guy had been really, really rich, he could have just hired a hot chick to give him personal English instruction. Problem solved! No one dead.

    Except that he wasn’t really, really rich. He probably didn’t even aspire to be really, really rich. He aspired to be one of the people overworked and underpaid on a regular basis, so that the clients of the Dollhouse can live their lives of fabulous wealth and ease, except for when they have a problem that can be solved by renting a slave–and then we get to feel sorry for those poor, poor rich and powerful people.

    Honestly, I really hadn’t spent that much time thinking about the class of the Dollhouse–too focused on the gender stuff. But there’s plenty there to be annoyed about.

    And–

    A standard criticism of Joss’s stuff: what about race? Buffy was a ridiculously white show. Angel did a little better with diversity. But the Dollhouse has a real problem with diversity. Surely there should be a decent number of black dolls? The guy who tried to steal the memory drug in “Echoes” was forced to become a doll, but he has never actually appeared as one, has he? With the exception of Dichen Lachman, who’s half white/half Tibetan and thoroughly blond, every single doll the show focuses on is white.

    Come on, Joss–you can do better than this.

  30. says

    Gategirl:

    Anyhow, I found her scenario just as pathetic and self-serving. The main “difference” between the two cases, if I’m reading this correctly, is that Adele’s f-toy was an actual, living personality in the past, while Topher’s f-toy is a complete construct.

    Yeah, when I look at the whole thing, I’m very disturbed that my heart-strings get pulled for Adelle, when she not only creates the “perfect” companion for herself as Topher does, but also rapes him – Topher’s birthday wish doesn’t seem to include rape. I haaate that I’m automatically feeling sympathy for poor ickle Adelle. It says something about me that I don’t like.

    Holly, you’re absolutely right about the class-focus of the show. It’s so very typical of our t.v. though. I don’t watch a lot of it anymore, I have to admit – since Roseanne, have we see a family that had on-screen money problems, consistently?

    And Joss’ skeevy race issues. *sigh*

  31. MaggieCat says

    So, the emotional suffering of the rich and powerful, and the ways in their money, power and connection enable them to assuage their suffering by exploiting people power and more desperate than they are–that’s “sad” and something we’re invited to sympathize with.

    Since I’m not sure if you’re disagreeing with the show or with my opinion of it, and if it’s the latter I think you might be misinterpreting what I said, I’d like to clarify.

    What I meant was that it’s sad that people either can’t work up the courage to open up to others enough to ask for what they need or for people who think what they need is something to be ashamed of is sad, but in no way does a flicker of sympathy for the emotional baggage that led to hiring someone from the Dollhouse make that act any less reprehensible. It’s a reason, not an excuse. Making anyone who hires them completely unsympathetic is too easy, because real people do horrible things for a lot of reasons.

    I think the show’s done a reasonable job of pointing out that the Dollhouse’s definition of “agreed to join” is shaky at best and coercion and blackmail at worst, and given the criminal records that popped up when Ballard ran November’s fingerprints through the system and how Sam was recruited I’m expecting the inherent class issues of the Dollhouse’s client list to be addressed at some point.

  32. S. A. Bonasi says

    Holly,

    Very well said!

    Something else: both DeWitt and Topher exploit (and in the case of DeWitt, rape) other people in order to assuage their feelings of loneliness. But in neither case is their any acknowledgment that DeWitt and Topher’s loneliness is their own darn fault. Instead of questioning *why* people might not like them and seeing how they can be more personable, they “solve” their problem by abusing people less powerful than themselves.

  33. Dan says

    Am I alone in disliking Buffy? I tried watching it from the beginning and found it unbelievably corny, and the dialogue trite and grating. What am I not getting?

Trackbacks

  1. […] How Not to Play with Dolls: a Look at Whedon’s Dollhouse, from The Hathor Legacy. While Whedon’s feminism always seemed of an easy kind, a pop-feminism satisfied with transposing stereotypical masculine warrior traits onto women, he nonetheless passes the Bechdel-Wallace test with admirable consistency. … In fact, Whedon is aware of the jagged ground he’s threading on and a case can be made that, even if it hasn’t yet lived up to it’s ambition, Dollhouse ultimate sets up a misogynistic scenario with the aim of taking it apart. (When NPR interviewer Jacki Lyden asked Whedon to explain how Dollhouse isn’t a misogynistic fantasy, Whedon replied “I won’t necessarily say that it isn’t that. The fact of the matter is that, in the wrong hands, it is a completely misogynist thing, except it’s happening to men as well – but what we’re trying to do is take someone’s identity away in order to discuss the concept of her identity.”) […]

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