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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?