It’s weird trying to blog Dollhouse, because, more than anything else we’ve done this semester, Dollhouse is exactly what I would have covered at my old blog. Every single day for nine months, I read pop culture feminist blogs and chitchatted about the movies and TV shows I’d seen. Nine months! That’s a baby! And trying to write about Dollhouse just sends me straight back into my-own-blog mode. So, I’m not going to fight it: you guys are getting a blogaround.

Based on the archives of my RSS reader, these are the posts on Dollhouse that made me decide not to watch the show when it first aired. They’re all feminists of various stripes picking apart what the show is doing and how well it’s doing it. They mostly date from around the 6th episode of the first season (which is the episode we watched in class), because at the time Joss Whedon and the rest of the cast were telling everybody to wait for the 6th episode before judging the show.

Please note that these are not academic essays, but chatting-about-TV conversation-starters for the feminist blogosphere “in group” — so there’s not a lot of explanation or effort at persuasion for people who aren’t already familiar with feminism, and the tone is very familiar. Also, there is cussing.

Dollhouse, Joss Whedon, and the Strange and Difficult Path of Feminist Dudes: Some Thoughts, from Tiger Beatdown.

Whedon has done a lot of shows about magically powerful women and the men who protect them (Buffy had Giles, River had Simon and Mal), which is sweet – hey, at least they aren’t actively seeking to take power away from those women – but also paternalistic and troubling, and in Dollhouse he seems to know and specifically address just how creepy it is.

Because then, there’s Topher, the programmer, who is responsible for constructing the artificial personalities and implanting them in the dolls, who is a dorky blonde guy just like Whedon and who speaks in distinctly Whedonian cadences and lines, and who we are encouraged to dislike more than almost anyone else in the series. What you hear, when you hear Topher speaking about how difficult it is to construct a believable personality … is noted feminist auteur Joss Whedon reflecting, very consciously and very obviously, on his life’s work – hiring gorgeous women and making them into who he wants them to be – and saying that sometimes, he feels kind of icky about it. It’s a beautiful thing: brave, and self-questioning, and radical in a way that entertainment by dudes – even entertainment by dudes who identify as feminist – very rarely is, and in a way I trust more than I’m used to trusting my entertainment, and in a way that I’ve come to expect from the show as a whole.

Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse: Srsly?, from The Pursuit of Harpyness

You see where I’m going with this, readers. Echo is what we over here at the No-Fun-According-to-Feminism committee would call raped, repeatedly and onscreen, under the roofie-like guise of having been implanted with a personality that wants the sex. We can talk about layers of consent here, I guess, but I don’t particularly want to, mostly because I’m sort of grossed out that Echo’s “owners” – who, by the by, monitor her every interaction with the outside world – are apparently totally comfortable with this.

Regarding Dollhouse, from The Pursuit of Harpyness.

Unfortunately for all of us on that score, Joss does not appear to have any particular philosophical commitments when it comes to the question of prostitution.

This became clear to me when the show began emphasizing the (pretty clear, because nobody was paying) sexual abuse of one of the Actives, Sierra (Dichen Lachman).  … The problem with distinguishing Sierra as an “abuse victim” this way is that it implies that what happens to the other Actives when they are on a mission is “different,” and certainly, in the way the show frames it, less objectionable.  There’s an element here of “well if she doesn’t know she’s having sex, and she’s having an orgasm, that’s marginally more okay!”  Which is a pretty fucked up way to characterize the premise of the show, IMHO.

Again, this would all be made easier if somewhere, anywhere in a Dollhouse episode somebody sat down and tried to sort through the show’s extremely confused notions about consent and its implications.

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.”)

Whether Dollhouse can live up to its aspirations of heavy “deconstruction” is, at least at this point, doubtful.

Working in the Dollhouse, from Feminist SF – The Blog!

The continuing narrative thread is human trafficking. But in order for that narrative thread to resonate even when it’s not the explicit theme of that week’s story, the camera has to serve as the narrator. IT has to do the work. It has to make us feel what the Dolls can’t. It has to make us remember what they don’t. It has to tempt us and disturb us, to capture aspects of performance that the glossy fast-cutting versions we’ve been seeing of the Dolls’ assignments elide.

And it’s not doing any of that.

My own opinion: it’s a great set-up to talk about society. There’s nothing wrong with telling a story about human trafficking, prostitution, and rape. But if you don’t tell it well, it’s not a critique anymore.

In the 6th episode — the one we watched — a lot of things bothered me that weren’t a product of the writing, but of the filming. To me, it’s fairly clear that when Caroline is programmed to have sex with someone, that’s rape. “Rebecca” consented to have sex, but “Rebecca” isn’t real; the body belongs to Caroline, who is essentially unconscious and has certainly not consented. So, it made me uncomfortable when Sierra’s rape (and Mellie’s attempted rape/murder) was juxtaposed with Caroline’s rape in such a way as to suggest that Caroline’s rape was somehow not problematic. Sure, the FBI investigator points out pretty clearly that the client doesn’t just want to make “Rebecca” smile, that there’s sex too– but the final shot, in which Caroline returns to “finish,” totally overlooks the sex aspect. We see smiling faces, sunshine, and cuddles– we don’t see the client raping Caroline. It should be a creepy scene, but it’s not; it’s downright cheerful, which leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Contrast that with Mellie’s attempted rape: a hugely drawn-out, obviously violent scene. Or with Sierra’s drawn-out, obviously creepy scene. They don’t gloss over the lack of consent. Instead, they were almost gratuitous about it– especially Mellie’s assault. So, the filmmakers obviously know how to make a scene creepy and uncomfortable– they just chose not to do it for Caroline and her client.

I just that, as executed, the potential for interesting critique has been squandered, and the show actually embodies the problems it claims to deconstruct. But I also think that I’m coming from a fairly specific perspective, with a unique background on the show because I read so much about it when it was airing.

I’m going to close with another link, to a fanvid that really highlights why I’m just so uncomfortable with the show: “It Depends On What You Pay.” (If you only click on one of my links, make it this one!)

What do you guys think? Are there any of the posts that you find you agree with, or disagree with? Or any that at least made you think? And what about the music video? Does it affect how you view the events of the show?

3 Responses to “I present: a Dollhouse blogaround!”

  1.   Hunter Says:

    It certainly is interesting that the show displays these different takes on rape in very different lights. Firstly, as to whether or not it is rape, I think one’s opinion rests solely on whether you see the mind or the body as one’s identity. Our day to day experience firmly asserts that the two are inextricable, but Dollhouse, like DAOITMK, explores the implications of them being separable. When this separation occurs, where are “you”? In the mindless body or the bodiless mind? DAOITMK would argue the former, that a person consists only of a consciousness and that the body is merely a host.
    I think however, that Dollhouse would argue that our bodies are an important part of our identity, and that they’re not for other people to own. The two different presentations of rape in the show are, to me, there to highlight the ambiguity of the argument. We’re more likely to see the text as being valid, interesting and well-considered if it presents both sides of the argument, allowing us to come to our own conclusions, instead of preaching one view only.

    This is the only episode that I’ve seen, but I’m predicting that as the series goes on, we’ll see that the former selves of the dolls aren’t completely lost. I don’t think it’s that their old consciousnesses were removed, but overwritten. When you delete a text on a phone you can no longer access it, but it *can* actually be retrieved – it’s never fully gone. One time, I was recording on a videotape, it screwed up and the footage we ended up with was footage that had actually been recorded over *twice*. Nothing’s ever fully gone, and I’m betting their old selves will find a way to come back. Not only that, but they may in fact remember things they’ve done in the Dollhouse.

    A couple of questions:
    - Mellie is obviously a Doll, is the Mellie we see most of the time a programmed personality or her “real” self? Is there even such a thing?
    - Why did Echo have that epic fight with Ballard? It was entertaining in a love-watching-chicks-who-can-kick-someone-in-the-face kind of way, but then she just gives him a message and leaves. Couldn’t she have just done that at the start?

  2.   mvn3 Says:

    After reading all of the blog comments, along with Gerry’s comment about the sexual advertising of the show and Laura’s notes on the filming, I’m convinced that the Dollhouse is a show that failed to live up to its viewer’s (and creator’s it seems) expectations, especially in the department of deconstructing and commenting on misogyny. This can be seen in all the blog comments, which range from heavily critical to praising, but that all seem to have beef with how the episodes are turning out, and not the concept of the dollhouse as a whole. I think Laura’s video link makes it pretty clear why the reactions are turning out so badly. As of the sixth episode, it would seem that the show is about nothing but rape. Not only is it rape everytime the dolls a “rented” out, but we get even more on the side between the abuse and the idea that if Mellie also is a doll, then even the Knight in shining armor just violated her. The problem is that from a writing perspective, all of these actions make sense in that they can foil against each other to ask the poignant question of what really is rape. But instead of giving us the correct answer of “all the above”, as Laura pointed out the show is mired in ambiguity. Perhaps the ending scene of “man on the street” was meant to make the viewer cringe (I think it was), but indeed the cinematography doesn’t quite play it like that. There’s also the question of how much cringing someone can do in the span of an hour long episode. Maybe Whedon is trying to play “mind games” with us, getting the viewer to smile at a rape scenario and then leaving them to question their own ethics. But again, this is not at all overt and would certainly be lost on the majority of television viewers. This all being said, I think there are a couple of things that could be done to the show to reduce this problem of overwhelming moral ambiguity, and while they might occur in later episodes as Hunter predicts, to have these things absent for most of the first season sends a confounding message. First and foremost I think one of the dolls needs to become self aware. Certianly not all of them, as you need an example of a true “doll”, but having the perspective of someone actually trapped in the system could really make the show more potent… i.e. if we were introduced to the “real” Caroline beforehand, we really would be creeped out to see her taking on the Rebecca role. Second, there would need to be a serious revamp of the way the show is advertised, and also how the characters appear. As long as everything has that “fantasy shine” and every teaser shows Eliza Dushku shaking it on the dancefloor, it’s hard to take it seriously. The show seems to be sold on alot of sex appeal in itself, so imagine if it had a much more gritty tone. Yes, the “spa” style Dollhouse is supposed to be decieving, but if we never really see it as a brothel, through whatever stylistic interpretation, it might never really come across as one.

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