As promised, after much mulling and editing, my thoughts on rape in Dollhouse, the framing of the show, and Whedon’s presentation of it. I should note that this post may be triggering for some readers, and they may opt to skip over it.
A lot of criticism has been swirling around Dollhouse and the world it establishes. Much of the harshest and most valid criticism involves the depiction of human trafficking. Interestingly, Whedon himself admitted that he didn’t really think that the show dealt with human trafficking until someone pointed out that trafficking was pretty much the premise of the entire show. I think this really illustrates a major blind spot which probably played a role in how the show was framed and presented, and I am a bit aghast that a self-proclaimed “feminist” didn’t realize that he was making a show about human trafficking.
But, Whedon says this is “not a feminist show.” So, how can you be a feminist and set out to make something which is explicitly not feminist? In fact, a lot of the criticism of the show surrounds the fact that in some ways, it can be read as antifeminist. I think that if you’re a feminist and people are calling your work antifeminist, you have a serious problem; the fact that Joss missed the human trafficking angle and has so far expressed no understanding of the fact that Dollhouse is about sexual abuse is extremely troubling.
Defenders of the show tend to view critics very narrowmindedly. They say that critics are “missing the point” and that the show is not glamorizing human trafficking, but rather showing viewers how terrible it is. They compare Dollhouse to Dexter, arguing that you can make a show about terrible people doing terrible things, and still establish sympathy for the characters, while reminding viewers that the things depicted in the show are horrible, and really should not be happening.
But I think that defenders are the ones missing the point. Critics aren’t saying that Dollhouse is a bad show because it depicts awful things, or even that it’s glamorizing human trafficking. Many of those critics in fact like shows in which the characters are awful people, and they enjoy subtlety and an exploration of human emotions just as much as everyone else do. They have absolutely no problem with shows in which sympathies are established with bad people.
What critics are angry about is not necessarily the content of the show, but the way in which the show is framed. Most importantly, a lot of critics are concerned with the way in which people, including Whedon, view the Actives. Many supporters of the show seem to be missing the fact that Actives are not consenting to what is happening. They are coerced and in some cases forced to join the Dollhouse, they clearly don’t fully understand how their bodies will be used during their terms of service, and, critically, they lack the ability to consent to each engagement.
Actives are not “having sex,” as Whedon puts it. They are being raped. When you cannot consent to sexual activity, and your body is being used for sex, you are being raped. Period. It doesn’t matter that the Actives are loaded with personalities which do want to have sex: their bodies are being raped, that small part of their consciousness which still exists inside that body is being raped, and the personalities with which they are loaded are also being raped, because they are programmed to have sex, and they are not spontaneously expressing themselves. Having sex with an Active is rape, just like having sex with someone under the influence who lacks the ability to consent is rape.
But nowhere in the show do you see this being addressed. Yes, there is a plot line which deals with rape in “Man on the Streeet,” in which Sierra is raped by her handler. But this plot line actually compounds the problem, because it is the first time that rape is explicitly labeled and discussed, and it sets up a dichotomy in the show: Sierra is raped, but what happens on engagements, evidently, is not rape. And this is what people are angry about, is the normalizing of rape within the context of the show.
Yet, critics who raise these points are being repeatedly silenced and pushed to the margins of discussion. Their discussions are being totally shut down as “missing the point,” when means that their voices are not being heard at all, and this is a disservice to them and to the critical discussion of the show.
Because when you don’t tell it like it is, you aren’t serving your viewers well. And viewers are evidently not understanding that what is happening with the Dollhouse, the services that the Dollhouse offers, this is rape. Now, perhaps the show is going to spell this out at some point, but it had better do it in a hurry, because there is obviously a huge gulf in understanding occurring here.
(I’m editing this to add some links related to this issue: “Joss Whedon Has Not Earned My Feminist Trust: Dollhouse is a Rapefest” on The Angry Black Woman, and “Working in the Dollhouse” at FeministSF.)
(I’m editing this again to note, for people who may be seeing this out of context, that I love Dollhouse. I think it’s a great show, and I am really enjoying it. I wrote this post because I happen to agree that what is happening in the Dollhouse is rape, and I was really frustrated by the dismissive attitude towards people who raised this criticism. I thought that by approaching the show as a fan who loves it, yet still recognizes that it depicts terrible things, I could perhaps help the show’s ardent apologists and defenders recognize that there are some valid criticisms to be made, both of the events which occur in the show, and the way in which they are presented. I view the show like “Guernica.” It’s a kickass painting/show, but that doesn’t change the fact that it depicts something very disturbing, and we should be talking about why it’s disturbing, because the whole intent of the artist was to get us to confront and think about the disturbing.)