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?
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I found Julius’ story of his ex, Zed, really fascinating. In particular, I was struck by the similarity between Zed’s decision to restore from a pre-Jules backup, and the plot of the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
For those who haven’t seen the movie, the plot revolves around a new technology that can erase all your memories about a specific person. So, when Joel and Clementine break up, Clementine decides to erase all her memories of Joel. Hurt, Joel reciprocates by erasing Clementine, but as re-lives all his memories as part of the erasing process, he realizes how valuable their relationship was, and decides that he’d prefer to remember the pain along with the good parts, rather than lose it all, and starts trying to fight the erasure process. There is also a theme running through that if you erase your memory of doing something, you’ll just do it again– a couple of the minor characters do this. In all, the movie pretty strongly rejects the idea that people would be happier if they erased unhappy memories.
So, when Zed was able to do basically the same thing, by restoring from a backup that had never met Julius, I started wondering how common that kind of decision was, and what effects it had. Does anybody tell them, when they wake up without their memories, what they’ve done? The book mentions that people get synopses of important events that they’ve missed; can you ask that certain things be left out? Or is just hearing about it sufficiently different from living it that it doesn’t matter if they tell you or not? What if you bump into somebody else that you knew at that time, and you don’t remember them? Or someone you still remember asks what happened to your husband?
Did Julius and Zed get divorced, or is Julius a widower now?
I also find it interesting that Jules didn’t reciprocate. I’m not surprised that he didn’t, because he’s been pretty opposed to using the backup system to manipulate his memory. He talks a lot about not wanting to “lose” time, wanting to experience his whole life all the way through for thousands of years. So, he wouldn’t wipe his memory of Zed for the same reason that he doesn’t deadhead through airplane flights, and for the same reason that he is so worried about losing his last year with Dan. To him, it doesn’t matter that the him-who-wakes-up won’t even be aware that anything’s missing; the him-who-is-not-yet-dead doesn’t want to lose anything. Which is actually a fairly un-Bitchin way of looking at things.
To the people who have been talking about a lack of emotional connection– do you think this might be part of it? That the Bitchun attitude towards memory is that it can be manipulated to make you happy, and that relationships can therefore never quite be permanent?
Eternal Sunshine is pretty clear that there are no advantages to erasing your memories of someone, but the people in Down and Out don’t seem to have a problem with it. What do you think– might it improve some people’s lives? Is there anything you might want erased?
I’m pretty leery of memory-erasing. For a long time, I couldn’t remember 2007 (long story), and it was upsetting. But I wonder if it would have bothered me as much if I hadn’t constantly had people asking me about the things I couldn’t remember. If I didn’t even know there was a gap– well, I wouldn’t even know, so I wouldn’t know to worry about it. But that’s almost creepier… I don’t think the me-who-remembers could choose to forget, even if I knew that the me-who-forgot wouldn’t even know about the gap. In that way, I’m like Julius.
What about you?
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In The Disposessed, the utopian revolution on Anarres was meant to be “a permanent one, an ongoing process” (p. 176) but by the time of Shevek’s life, the society has become static. Bureaucracies are given power in times of emergency, but when the emergency is over that power is not revoked. The desire for societal approval saps individuals’ willingness to challenge any aspect of their lives. As Chris Ferns puts it, “the future is something which they believe has been attained and, in their efforts to ensure that it does not revert to the past from whose contradictions it emerged, they are in the process of transforming it into something more sterile, lacking in the transforming vision and energy that was once capable of imagining the genuinely new” (p. 258).
Thus, from Ferns’ point of view, Shevek’s trip is successful because it “restore[s] the possibility—on both worlds—of genuine change” (p. 259). Because the revolution on Anarres was so isolated from the society on Urras that it was meant to revolt against, both planets are stuck in stasis, each convinced of its own superiority. Only Shevek, by breaking the barrier between the societies, can re-start revolution on both planets. Ferns seems to consider Shevek himself to be central to this process, and he connects Shevek’s individual “freedom from fear of the genuinely new” (p. 259) to his individual approach to time and physics.
This focus on Shevek is interesting to me in light of Tom Moylan’s criticisms that “the activists in the novel who might most reflect the various movements of the late 1960s—anti-war activists, ecologists, school reformers, anarchists, working-class and poor, Third World revolutionaries—are displaced to the margins” (p. 113) in favor of “a type of commitment that revolves around a single redeemer, a vanguard intellectual, and a dominant male” (p. 109). Moylan seems to suggest that in life, revolutions cannot be brought about by a single person, and that LeGuin is again undermining her own ideology by showing us a revolution that is not a dynamic, continuous social movement, but rather a single individual carrying out a single action.
I think that there is more to the revolutions on Anarres and Urras than just Shevek’s actions. Bedap’s group of friends existed long before Shevek’s involvement with them, and in fact seem to have carried out much of the work of the Syndicate of Initiative without Shevek’s input. The revolution on Urras, as well, significantly pre-dates Shevek’s involvement and acts independently of him, organizing an immense general strike. However, I agree with Moylan that these other revolutionaries were not given attention proportional to their impact. Although we know they must have been there, to set the stage for Shevek’s actions, the book does not linger on their activities, so that what we see of revolution remains focused on Shevek.
What do you guys think? Who is really most important to the revolutions in The Disposessed? Does anybody take issue with characterizing either of them as revolutions? What does a revolution look like?
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In episode 15 of Star Trek season 3, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” we receive two messages about the nature of utopia. First, when reprimanding the warring idividuals Bele and Lokai for attempting to violently control the starship Enterprise, Kirk informs him that in the United Federation of Planets, “We live in peace, with full exercise of individual rights. The need to resort to violence and force has long since passed” (timestamp 30:29). Later, when urging Bele to listen to Lokai’s grievances and reconcile their factions, Spock says, “Change is the essential process of all existence” (timestamp 37:20).
In both instances, Kirk and Spock are reacting against Bele and Lokai’s violent pursuit of social change. Both Bele and Lokai invoke the word “utopia” when they first reunite in the Enterprise’s sickbay, but Kirk and Spock’s responses seem to say, “That’s not how you do utopia; this is how you do utopia.” However, the writers of Star Trek are SF writers, not Utopian writers, as described by Edward James in “Utopias and Anti-Utopias”; they reject the “largely static society” of traditional Utopian writing, because exciting story-telling cannot be reconciled with “a denial of adventure, of risk-taking, of the expanding of spatial or technological horizons” (p. 222).
Instead, the world of Star Trek envisions a dynamic utopia, in which “change is the essential process of all existence” but in which our protagonists have, in many ways, completed the evolutionary progression “from the lower levels to the more advanced stages” (as Spock describes evolution at 37:58). The social structures of the Enterprise are well-established and incredibly static; when Bele changes the ship’s course, his disruption of the status quo is considered such a threat that Kirk threatens to destroy the ship and everyone on it. However, the universe in which the Enterprise moves is anything but static, and the goal of the Enterprise is to constantly change position in order to sow change.
Thus, we have a utopia in which the universe is struggling to advance towards a better future, but our main characters are able to live in a stable world in which racial conflict is something they heard of in history class once. We are made aware, through the day’s adventure in each episode, of an imperfect world, but that is not where we live.
Or at least, that’s what the story tells us– the interesting questions come in when we compare what we’re told with what we observe. To what extent can Star Trek’s vision of a dynamic utopia really be seen as utopic? There are serious concerns both in the Federation’s definition of equality (in which serious questions can be raised about the characterization of women and people of color, and from which LGBT individuals seem to have been excluded entirely) and in the ever-expanding quest to spread this utopia (which is often unhelpful or insensitive to the people they encounter, and which has more than a whiff of colonialism about it). Was it really best for Kirk to refuse to take sides on Bele and Lokai’s conflict? Is life on the Enterprise really so perfect that nothing else can be considered?
What do you guys think?
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My name is Laura, but I am known more widely on the internet as eloriane so that is how I will be blogging. I’m a sophomore, and I’m planning a Program II in film. I live in Keohane 4D. Yes, about six feet from our classroom.
I am a gigantic geek, and I’ve been reading science fiction and fantasy since I was a kid; I read a lot of obscure stuff but I also consider myself well-versed in the “classics.” It’s always been a pastime, though, so I’m excited to take a more serious and in-depth look at my favourite genre.
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