Saturday, June 11, 2011


[This show frequently addresses issues of rape, coercion of all stripes, and sexual violence, which will be discussed further here, so please be forewarned if this may be triggering for you.]

Since there's so much discussion 'round this part of Blogdonia about the feminism (or lack thereof) of Joss Whedon, I thought I'd give some of my own brief run-down, since having just finished the series a couple of weeks ago.  I'm intentionally avoiding reading any other critiques before writing this before giving my own opinions. 

A summary of the plot, from the site's Wikipedia page:
The story follows Echo (Eliza Dushku), a "doll" or "Active" for the Los Angeles "Dollhouse", one of several fictional facilities run by a company which hires out human beings to wealthy clients. These "engagements" range from romantic interludes to high-risk criminal enterprises. Each Active has their original memories wiped and exists in a child-like blank state until programmed via the insertion of new memories and personalities for each mission. Actives such as Echo are ostensibly volunteers who have surrendered their minds and bodies to the organization for five-year stints, during which their original personalities are saved on hard drives, in exchange for vast amounts of money and a solution to any other problematic circumstances in their lives. Echo is unique however in that she remembers small amounts even after personality "wipes", and gradually develops an increasingly cognizant self-awareness and personality. This concept allows the series to examine the notions of identity and personhood.

A haphazard list of things that stuck out to me while they're still fresh in my mind:

The cover of the DVD.  This may be the one and only time that the Sexy-Woman-With-Blank-Expression-and-Cleavage is an accurate reflection of exactly what the show is about.  

The constant sexualization of Echo [Eliza Dushku] and other female characters.  This is at once both infuriating and understandable.  Echo and her fellow dolls -- both the female and male dolls -- are often used for "romantic engagements," which usually involve sex; hence, the frequent sexytime clothes.  Alternately, there are many, many times when Echo and the other women are wearing something ridiculously revealing and unrealistic while sprinting and kicking and shooting or even simply wandering dumbly around, without the excuse of her having been on a romantic "engagement."  The male dolls, on the other hand, do that real-life thing where they wear sensible clothing for their many violent interactions with villains and wandering-around activities.  This leaves a bad impression of objectification and relying on women's bodies to sell the show.

The "Romantic Engagements."  This is one concept whose ethics are debated constantly.  Are the Dolls being trafficked, or was their tacit agreement to sign over to the Rossum Corporation their bodies (and minds) for five years to be considered "consent" to sex (and everything else) at any time?  When the Dollhouse sends their Dolls/Actives on romantic engagements, it is with the expectation and contractually-enforced agreement that the Active, in their constructed personality or imprint, is consenting.  But is that really consent?  It's a different mind, in the real person's body.  Looking at it like that -- that you consent with your active mind, not with your body alone -- it seems that all it would take to have the Active consent to having his or her body used is an advance agreement to consent to it physically whenever the imprint programmed into her body consented.

The first glaring problem with this is that the Actives we encounter are only Dolls because of some traumatic event in their life, or a desperate need for money, or to forget a painful past.  And even under the protection of the Dollhouse, Actives are constantly in danger of being assaulted, sexually or otherwise.  The only people who can afford an Engagement are clearly extremely wealthy, and Whedon makes it pretty clear that he's trying to communicate something larger about the implications of extreme wealth, and what can happen to people who have it... and what they could be capable of.  Additionally, there are stark parallels between the reasons the Dolls sign a contract with the Dollhouse, and the reasons why many people assume that sex workers are not making free choices to work in that industry.  These questions remain largely unanswered, which I think is for the best.  The audience is free to form their own conclusions based on the evidence in front of them.

One active, Sierra, was raped repeatedly by a repeat client, and we later find out that her entire involvement with the Dollhouse was as a result of an obsessed fan of her artwork, who'd rejected his persistent advances, drugging her to make her effectively schizophrenic, and then basically selling her to the Dollhouse so that he could literally buy her love and affection-- while we are led to believe that those in the Dollhouse thought that she was actually schizophrenic and that they could help "cure" her.  This was consistently triggering for her and caused significant psychological damage to both the Doll and the real person, whose original personality was supposed to have been "wiped."  Clearly, Sierra was trafficked.  She was prostituted, in the most literal sense of the word.  And while this might make a lot of viewers uncomfortable, nothing in the show would indicate an acceptance of this behavior.  I bring this up because of prior reviews of Whedon's work that indicate that, because Whedon writes a rape scene or a misogynist character, that the writer, and therefore show, is misogynist.  When it became clear that the client was a rapist and the fact that he was responsible for coercing Priya into coming to the Dollhouse,  Adelle DeWitt, the boss of the House in question, attempts to put a stop to the behavior by ending the client's relationship with the Dollhouse.  He's only murdered after blackmailing DeWitt, and as previously noted, he was killed by his victim, who remembered the incidents of rape regardless of "who" she was at the time and exacted revenge.

Overall, Whedon tends to write his female characters as over-the-top skillful and bad-ass.  This is often mistaken for empowerment and an equal standing with male characters, and I think Whedon is guilty of putting his female characters in unrealistic and unnecessary pedestals.  Additionally, though, I don't think that the frequent misogyny present in his show (on the part of the characters) is indicative of misogyny on the part of Whedon.  To watch an entire scene play out where a male character is treating a female character in a sexist manner, it's apparent that the audience is not to accept the validity of the actions of the character.  The female is typically quick to retort an insult or bad argument, and they all know how to kill people with their bare hands, it seems.  The misogyny and abuse of women that occurs in his shows seems immediately to me to be more of a lesson to the audience against such behaviors, or an admonishment of them.

I intend to watch this show again in its entirety for a more thorough look at its overall qualities, but my general impression of the show is positive.  Whedon is at his best when imagining far-reaching, futuristic scenarios where an astute, morally-"correct" female character is tasked with righting the wrongs of the biggest, baddest, and most powerful corporations or institutions.  She often has to fight misogyny, because, what "modern woman" doesn't?  And she often has to overcome a great deal of personal issues, as well.  In Dollhouse, specifically, the larger ethical dilemmas of the "romantic engagements" are what stick out the most, because those question are left to the viewer to answer for themselves, and are not concretely decided upon by the writers.

I recommend giving it a shot.