Feminism and Joss Whedon: Welcome to the Dollhouse

(Hello there, Whedonesque viewers! I want to note that this post is part of an extended series (which includes other discussions of feminism and Dollhouse including posts which specifically address questions/comments which appear in the comments thread here); a complete archive of posts in the Feminism and Joss Whedon series can be found here. As one might imagine from the title, the Feminism and Joss Whedon series is exploring, er, feminism and Joss Whedon. Also, since apparently people have difficulty grasping this point, this series is a work in progress, which means that it contains my opinion and reading of Whedon’s shows, not some be-all and end-all truth, and it is very much opinion which is based on my own personal brand of feminism, which means that it does not necessarily purport to speak for feminism as a whole. And, in fact, my opinions and thoughts have changed over the course of this series because a lot of these posts are early ruminations and explorations, not polished and finished pieces. Were this series to be published in, say, a book, it would undergo substantial editorial revision (including changes sparked by criticisms and discussions of the series). You’re welcome to disagree with my sometimes poorly articulated thoughts, but please remember to be polite about it; my goal with this series was to spark a discussion and to get people to engage with the content, not to attract people who react by trashing me/this site. Also, for every person who bitches that this post/essay is “verbose,” “too long,” or “boring,” I’m adding another 500 words.)

With the first season of Dollhouse over, we can start examining the show’s overall arc and tone, although of course we can’t make any final judgments, because it could change rather radically. The final episode of the first season definitely contained a lot of content which could be used to pull the show in any number of directions, which may mean that we see a completely different show next season.

For those who haven’t been watching or reading along here, the premise of Dollhouse is that a company has developed technology which can be used to wipe human personalities and replace them with new personalities. An underground organization known as the Dollhouse utilizes this technology to create custom people, using subjects known as Actives who have allegedly volunteered, for engagements with very well-connected clients. When not engaged, the Actives are kept in a neutral state, living in the Dollhouse, and at the end of their terms of service, they are supposed to be released.

Like all of Whedon’s television, Dollhouse can be read on a lot of levels. For people who want to stay shallow, the show is a chance to see the actors and actresses in totally new roles every week as they work on various engagements which often involve lots of action, and the show also includes a plot which involves an investigation of the Dollhouse by an FBI agent, creating an overarching arc to keep people tuning in to follow and see what happens. But the major themes of the show are human trafficking, prostitution, and the sense of personal identity, and it is on these levels that the show becomes interesting and engaging, and pushes viewers to start thinking and exploring.

I think that the biggest criticism that could be leveled against Dollhouse is that the show sometimes demonstrates an appalling lack of self awareness. The show occasionally delves into very deep and complex issues but stops short of realizing their implications, and sometimes it seems as though the creative team has not fully realized the implications of what it is doing and portraying. There’s a great deal of moral ambiguity on Dollhouse, and it’s a bit disconcerting when that ambiguity isn’t recognized or addressed.

Human Trafficking and Dollhouse

Whedon surprisingly admitted that he didn’t at first see the parallels with human trafficking when he was developing the show. Yet, at it’s core, what the Dollhouse does is traffic human beings. As the show unfolds, even more parallels develop as we seen that people have been coerced into working for the Dollhouse. People are asked to give up their personal autonomy and personalities when they work for the Dollhouse, much as the victims of human trafficking do, and there’s no guarantee that they will be released, let alone enforcement of the terms of contracts.

And, in fact, a major part of the show revolves around an FBI agent, Paul Ballard, who is investigating the Dollhouse as part of a human trafficking investigation. So, clearly, the connection has been grasped by the creative team and they are playing with the idea.

But this is a glamorized version of human trafficking, which hides a lot of the ugly sides. The Actives are kept in a spa-like environment when they aren’t in use, for lack of a better term, and that’s a far cry from the environments many victims of trafficking are held in. The engagements are also presented, for the most part, as valued and vital services in which the Active is treated with respect, although I’m going to be going into more detail about the engagements and the structure of the Dollhouse a bit later.

Indeed, Dollhouse almost makes this form of human trafficking seem appealing. How many of us have thought that it would be rather nice to mentally check out for a few weeks or months while being pampered and not having to worry about anything? To get a big check at the end of that would be even more enjoyable. And, indeed, one the major questions that viewers are left with from the start is: would you do this? Knowing what you know about the Dollhouse at the end of the first season, would you still?

Prostitution and Dollhouse

Some people might argue with me on this point, but I do think that prostitution is a very important theme in Dollhouse. One could view the Dollhouse itself as a business which facilitates prostitution, sometimes literally, and sometimes more abstractly. The entire structure of the Dollhouse is much like that of an escort agency: a stable of carefully reviewed clients make appointments, the staff select the best Active for the job, the Active is sent out (with a driver for protection), the engagement is completed, and the Active is returned. We are repeatedly reminded that the Actives are valuable to the Dollhouse, and that there are ground rules for engagements which are carefully negotiated beforehand.

The fact that some of the engagements are explicitly sexual, from the girlfriend experience in the pilot episode, “Ghost,” to the explicit use of an Active for sexual engagements in “A Spy in the House of Love,” adds to the theme of prostitution, and brings up some interesting questions about consent. I have argued in the past that the show depicts rape, as have many feminist critics. The owners of the bodies cannot consent to sexual activity, and while they are implanted with personalities which do consent, those personalities are coded and expected to consent, and that kind of eliminates the ability to choose to consent, whether it’s November being programmed to have sex with Ballard to get close to him, or Victor being sent out for sexual engagements with the mysterious Miss Lonelyhearts.

Whedon has depicted prostitution before on his shows, and it’s very interesting to look at how he handles prostitution. The Dollhouse is a model of highly controlled prostitution, much like the Guild on Firefly/Serenity, and although the Dollhouse is generally presented as a negative institution, I do think it’s interesting that Whedon’s major models of prostitution are framed as part of a tight system in which people, primarily women, are heavily controlled “for their own safety” and so that they can provide services of the highest caliber. Both the Guild and the Dollhouse are justified with claims that they provide important services, that control ensures everyone’s safety, and that members choose to join. One could argue that both of these models may represent an idea of how prostitution should be in the eyes of Whedon.

By contrast, Whedon’s models of “bad” prostitution can be seen in the whorehouse in Firefly and in the fate of Sierra, a former callgirl* who ends up being kidnapped and sent to the Dollhouse when she defies the wrong client. Both cases specifically show women, as opposed to women and men, and they play heavily on the idea of women in danger, and the idea that women cannot work safely as independent sex workers. In fact, exercising autonomy over their bodies sexually results in punishments.

Whedon also has a bit of obsession with men who have a Cap’n Save-a-Ho complex. From the literal Cap’n on Firefly/Serenity to Agent Ballard, Whedon does seem to like including male characters who save women when they get in over their heads. Ballard is determined to rescue Echo, going to extreme and sometimes illegal lengths to do so. While Ballard is usually unsuccessful, I think that there are some interesting overtones here to be explored, and that it’s intriguing to note yet another Cap’n Save-a-Ho in the form of Angel on Angel in “She.”

Personal Identity and Dollhouse

When you have a television show which revolves around the idea of wiping personalities and replacing them with new ones, it’s pretty clear that personal identity is going to be a major theme. What makes us human? Are personalities really that easy to code and manipulate? Who are the Actives, really? If your identity is wiped, stored on a hard drive, and later restored, are you still you?

A big part of the first season involved Echo exploring her past, and learning more about who she was. Ballard argues violently against the Dollhouse because he views it as wrong, suggesting that the Actives are basically dead because their personalities and sense of self are taken away. Boyd Langton, who works within the Dollhouse, is also deeply uncomfortable with the Actives and the business that the Dollhouse does.

In a sense, the show is very empowering. We constantly see women doing amazing, kick-ass things, demonstrating high levels of physical ability, intelligence, and practical skills. But those personalities are encoded by a man, who treats his female assistant very poorly. (It’s also interesting to note that his assistant is one of the few people of colour on the show.) The Dollhouse is controlled by a woman, who initially comes off as a very cold fish, but as the show unfolds, we learn that she’s struggling with her own secret sorrows and problems.

One of the interesting things about the show is that with the exception of Adelle, all of the major female characters on the show are Actives. They are literally malleable dolls who can be programmed to do whatever someone with enough money wants, and sometimes the same personality is imprinted in more than one Active, underscoring the fact that the bodies are totally interchangeable. By contrast, there are several male characters who are not Actives, who are allowed to exercise free choice, and I find it intriguing that most of the female characters in the series are mostly just programmed identities, not real women.

The issue of personal identity is a critical theme, because it definitely colours the reading of the show. If we accept that the Actives on engagements are real people with real personalities, even though those personalities wink into existence briefly, it creates a very different feeling from the idea that the Actives are nobodies until their personalities are reloaded into their minds. And are their own personalities reloaded, or are they imprinted with entirely new personalities upon release? Are the Actives real people when they are in the Dollhouse, in their neutral state? In a show about human trafficking, is it safe to use language like “real people” when talking about human beings?

One of the most terrifying things presented in Dollhouse is the idea of being sent to the Attic, literally wiped and shoved into storage somewhere. It’s a bit unclear why the Attic would be used for this purpose when someone who breaks the rules could just be wiped and imprinted with a new personality, but perhaps the Attic is designed to exist as a threat and a constant reminder of the consequences of behaving badly. Being reprogrammed and released isn’t very frightening: the idea of being turned into a body with barely any brain function, on the other hand, is quite scary.

The stripping of personal identity definitely has a lot of resonance with feminism. Feminists have been protesting for centuries that they are deprived of their identities and of personal autonomy, especially autonomy over what is done with their bodies, and Dollhouse cuts to the root of a lot of these ideas. It presents a terrifying potential idea, of erasing people and reprogramming them to suit, although it stops short at drawing the obvious parallels between this and feminism, let alone the parallels between human trafficking and feminism.

Is Dollhouse Feminist?

Whedon says no, although I would argue that the show definitely touches on some feminist ideas, and that when you have a show which is developed by a feminist, it’s hard for it to not be feminist on some level. I’m not sure that this necessarily means that Dollhouse should be obliged to present feminist models and explorations of feminism, but it does mean that when the show makes false steps, they can feel very jarring. I don’t think that all television needs to be explicitly feminist, anti-racist, pro-LGBQT, anti-ableist, pro-size acceptance,etc., but I do think that when shows contain offensive content, they do need to be called on it, and it does need to be addressed.

The show’s approach to sexuality and personal autonomy is very troubling. I’m glad to see this issue explored because I think it’s critical, but I think that the creative team did not fully realize the extent of the can of worms they were opening here. The strident refusals by many fans to view what happens on the show as rape, for example, illustrates the fact that Dollhouse has not done a very good job of articulating itself. I hope that this is something we see remedied in future seasons.

From an intersectionality perspective, the lack of people of colour on the show is pretty disappointing, and it is unfortunate that some of the people of colour are also heavily stereotyped. Langton, for example, is a cookie cutter example of the Black Ex-Cop Fighting For Good, while Ivy, Topher’s assistant, is very much the Cute Asian Girl With the Funky Style and Dash of Sass Added for Colour.

I am also intrigued by the show’s approach to disability, and would kind of like to hear more from people who are more active in that community. A number of people have complained that the show features a cast of conventionally beautiful people, although I don’t view this complaint as entirely fair because a. look at the television industry as a whole and b. think about what the Dollhouse does. One of the major plot points of the first season, though, is the mutilation of several beautiful Actives, who are effectively ruined in the process, and Alpha is of course profoundly mentally disturbed as a result of the composite event he experienced. In the cases of Whiskey, Victor, and Alpha, we are supposed to read their physical and neurological damage as a sign that they are now ruined and useless, which does not strike me as a very positive view of disability.

Even given the show’s problems, I really like it, and I think that it is exploring some tough and interesting topics. I am excited to see where it takes us in season two, and I like that Joss Whedon continues to produce work which makes me think.

*Edited to add: Saje on Whedonesque pointed out that I was evidently hallucinating when I thought that Sierra was a sex worker (though he put it very politely), which kind of changes some of the discussion in this post. Since it’s referenced in the comments and it’s part of the discussion on Whedonesque, I’m leaving that erroneous information in here rather than, er, wiping it, but the fact that she wasn’t a callgirl negates some of my criticisms of Whedon’s framing of prostitution and it’s important to keep that in mind. Mea culpa. People have questioned my decision to leave that comment in this essay, and the reason I’m leaving it in is that I don’t want to create a memory hole. A lot of the comments here and elsewhere would not make sense if that section of this essay vanished, and it’s my general policy on this website to not cover up my stupid mistakes, but rather to issue corrections. This ain’t 1984. Were I to republish this elsewhere, it would obviously be taken out. And a lot of the issues which people have brought up would be addressed; keep in mind that this is a blog, not a professional publication, and that means that most of the content on this site is not perfect.

**Edited again to add: woah! I am not accustomed to this much traffic, and I’m kind of astounded that my server hasn’t crapped out yet. I’m really glad to see so many people engaging with this piece, but I do want to include a note about some of the criticism I have been receiving. For the most part, the critical response been really positive even when people disagree pretty violently: people have pointed out logical inconsistencies, questioned my conclusions, or disputed my reading of the show, and I have welcomed the thoughts that they have brought up here and elsewhere. However, comments on this site which resort to personal attacks with language like “missed the point” are going to be deleted because they are not productive or helpful, and they don’t add to the discussion. Furthermore, personal attacks cross the line into silencing language; people who disagree with me and are able to address the piece itself, not the author, are welcome and I’m glad to have them, but people who disagree with me and decide that this must mean that I am stupid/narrowminded/what have you are not welcome here. Likewise, if you leave an extremely long (think upwards of 300 words) comment, I am not going to accept it for publication whether or not it agrees with me, because it belongs on your own website. Also, I reserve the right to arbitrarily delete comments which piss me off, because this site is not an open forum or a democracy.

19 Replies to “Feminism and Joss Whedon: Welcome to the Dollhouse”

  1. Interesting read. I like how you approach the show.

    I am not sure if you can say that Whedon portrays the Guild and the Dollhouse as examples of “good” prostitution. The Guild is relayed to us by a main character we are encouraged to root for, and Inara is defined as the not-Guild. Also the whorehouse i “Heart of Gold” is imo marked as good prostitution in the sense that it is sexual work defying and fighting against the male control over the sexual work. I also fail to see any positive depiction of the Dollhouse’s control over the Actives. Sierra’s story is tragic because she got punished by being sold into the slavery of the Dollhouse, and the fact that the Dollhouse has Actives like Sierra makes clear and explicit that they do have cases where consent never ever entered into the question the way it seemed to do (quite arguably) with Caroline/Echo. Sierra’s story imo specifically marks the Dollhouse as an unacceptable form of control over sexual autonomy. From that perspective, I don’t think that Whedon presents the Guild or the Dollhouse as the way prostitution should be.

    I also think that he clearly went for a Cap’n Save-A-Ho theme with Ballard, but that he did tell quite a different tale about him than anything he’s told before: The tale of male obsession and how it ties into complicity. Ballard (unlike Mal and Angel) ends up working for the powers he wants to free Caroline from, and on the way to get there he becomes a client of the very thing he fights against. His obsession with Saving The Girl is paralleled with Alpha’s (the Big Bad of the Season) and they end up working together to get to Caroline/Echo. His obsession (and complicity) is furthermore paralleled to our obsessions with Echo Regaining Her Identity And Achieving Freedom, a theme I haven’t seen explored in Whedon’s work before.

    I also think the show went to great lengths to keep disability a not one-sided aspect of the show’s characters. Alpha’s crazyness is the Big Bad of the season, but his goal of freeing Echo is also Paul’s and ours, and he is definitely marked as a victim of the Dollhouse tech gone mad (or a victim of Topher), while Echo (undergoing basically the same procedure as he did) clearly ended up more sane. That particular disability is therefor not portrayed clear-cut, imo. Whiskey and Victor even have a conversation about their disability being the “broken” aspect of their being – under the rules of the mighty Dollhouse. Whiskey became Dr. Saunders because she got broken and useless in the eyes of the powers that control her. It is the evaluation of the Dollhouse that marks her disability as a deficit, and from that perspective she passes on that sad message to Victor. Nita Walsh on the other hand (scarred by Kraft just like Whiskey and Victor were) is not under the heels of the Dollhouse and her disability is not preventing her from living a normal life, a point which “Omega” explicitly makes with her being “on the way to work” when she gets approached by Paul and Boyd. As for Echo, her brokenness is constantly questioned throughout the show, as it’s only the opinion of some handlers and some staff that Actives are “all broken”. Echo declares herself “not broken” in “Gray Hour”, and DeWitt (in MOTS and ASITHOL), Topher (in ASITHOL) and Boyd (at least in “Ghost” and “The Target”) at times seem to think the same. Dominic (arguably the coldest member of the Dollhouse staff) had to be brought to the death bed to actually acknowledge Echo’s brokenness as something positive – but mainly because he hopes she will bring the people down that brought him down. For the most part of the show, he is the one treating her like a disabled child, and Echo (secretly) defies this throughout the first few eps and then explicitly brings him down in ASITHOL.

  2. Great food for thought here; I think you make a very good point when the Guild/Dollhouse are not necessarily framed as “good” examples of prostitution, and I’m not sure that’s quite the word that I wanted to use. I think a more accurate phrasing might be that both of these systems are the ones which viewers are made most familiar with, although the characters themselves are actively fighting against them, and the powers that be (Alliance/Dollhouse) believe that they are promoting “good” models for society. I do think, however, that Whedon’s shows definitely seem to suggest that independent sex work is dangerous; “Heart of Gold” definitely shows us independent operators trying to fight the Guild and patriarchal values and needing the intervention of Good Ol’ Captain Save A Ho because they can’t handle it on their own. And Sierra’s story is tragic because, working as a more independent operator, she was in a vulnerable position which allowed her to be exploited/abused by a client.

    You also make some interesting points about the framing of disability. I am really curious to see if the show explores that at all next season, because I think there’s some interesting stuff to work with.

  3. Interesting article! Well written!

    I just disagree with your statement that the fans refuse to see rape in the events of the show. Actually I don’t think you’ve hung out with many whedon fans lately, because if you did you would have seen what they see is far from denial of the creepy aspects of the idea of dolls. So far from it.
    Whedonfans don’t want to be told what to think, that’s what they love about Joss, the fact that he doesn’t assume they are stupid. We just don’t need to have a freakin’ light sign to see the moral problems of the mechanism of the Dollhouse and the human exploitation part, we are intelligent enough to see it by ourselves and debate it by ourselves…
    So I don’t think the show fail on that part as you say (even if it fails on some other parts).

  4. DarthMarion, I highly recommend that you read “Tell It Like It Is,” my discussion of rape on Dollhouse which I posted in the middle of the season, when the topic was highly controversial and a lot of people were indeed stridently arguing that what was being depicted was not rape. My intent with that phrasing was not to tar all Whedon fans with the same brush, but rather to address the small subset of fans who doggedly argued that the show was not depicting rape. Obviously, many more fans clearly saw the issues with consent and creepiness, but those aren’t the “strident fans” I’m thinking of.

    The rape issue is really important because midway through the first season, a lot of feminists and critics were crying “rape,” and a lot of Whedon fans were shutting them down, marginalizing them, and ignoring them, which is pretty much the opposite of what Whedon intended when he made the show highly ambiguous.

  5. I don’t believe “rape” is a great fit for what is depicted in Dollhouse; I think what is depicted is morally much, much worse, and a far greater violation. You could say mind rape, but that still strikes me as inadequate. I guess “rape” is just the closest word we have to express that level of violation in our world in the present day, when brainwashing isn’t possible. The fact that sex is involved sometimes is an important part of the issue, but far from the primary one.

  6. I disagree with your assessment of Langton and Ivy: they don’t get a lot of screen time or character beats on the show, but they are given an extra intriguing character dimension just by the fact of their participation in the Dollhouse. How did they come to a point in their lives and moral development where that seems ok? It’s a plain fact that Langton isn’t doing very much Fighting for Good, at least not enough to make any difference, and Ivy’s fun sassiness has a sinister element when you consider that it’s people’s minds, not circuitboards or testtubes that she is messing with.

  7. I think you bring up some good stuff here. Just thought it worth pointing out that the Heart of Gold whorehouse employed men also. So it wasn’t *just* women needing the Captain’s help.

  8. You are absolutely right; however, the focus on sex workers in Firefly/Serenity was definitely on women. We primarily saw men in fleeting glimpses and they were only occasionally referenced. In fact, I would argue that male sex workers were pretty marginalized, actually.

  9. I’m happy to see you engaging these issues. I’m working on a piece exploring sex work in Joss Whedon’s oeuvre in general, and on Dollhouse in particular, so your thoughts were especially appreciated.

    A few things:

    -While I do think Dollhouse touches on human trafficking, at least by extension, I don’t really see the Dollhouse itself as engaging in such. Human “trafficking” refers to the business of migrating people for labor purposes. Unless I’m forgetting something, there is no smuggling of actives across borders, so I don’t see how they are trafficked. There’s a kind of sex work parallel, to a degree, but trafficking and sex work are not synonymous.

    Issues of agency and coercion are explored, but I think it confuses issues to say that the Dollhouse engages in human trafficking. Coerced labor situations don’t have to involve trafficking, and trafficking (at least by many legal definitions) does not necessarily involve coercion (beyond the degree of coercion always present within global capitalism.) “Trafficking” has come to mean kidnapping of one sort or another in common parlance, in the US at least, but anti-trafficking organizations and items of legislation often make no distinction between those crossing borders by choice and those crossing by force. But now I’m digressing

    -I’m not sure I know what you mean by the whorehouse on Firefly as an example of “bad” prostitution. I thought the madam and house (which included male prostitutes in addition to the women you mention,) was portrayed as a kind of parallel to Mal and Serenity. The madam (whose name I’m blanking on…) and Mal saw each other as kindred spirits on an embattled mission for independence. Yes, the independence of the brothel made them vulnerable, but it also made them heroic. And again, their vulnerability was in many respects analogous to the vulnerability of Mal and his crew. I saw them coming together as political allies, not as part of a paternalistic “save-a-ho” crusade ie Ballard.

    -Ballard’s obsession with “saving” Echo is explicitly critiqued and problematized in the final two episodes of the season.

    Thanks for writing, I look forward to reading more.

  10. Hi, I found you from Whedonesque. If you’re interested, I’ve also blogged on Dollhouse and consent at echidneofthesnakes.blogspot.com. I’m much less likely to read fan comments these days because I’ve been so disgusted by the number of fans who say what happens with the actives isn’t rape and that it’s all a moral gray area.

  11. One more point: Tahmoh Penikett and Dichen Lachman also are people of color. Tahmoh is a member of the White River First Nation. Dichen’s mother is from Tibet.

  12. You are correct about this, Suzie, and neither of their characters could be accused of being a racial stereotype; Dollhouse has certainly done a better job than other Whedon shows at integrating people of colour into the cast, and I was remiss to neglect mentioning them! However, both are read as mildly exotic versions of white people rather than people of colour by a lot of viewers, sadly. Also, I would love some links to specific entries on your site; I actually remember reading stuff there in the past, but your archives are a little challenging to navigate. (Or I’m an idiot, which is entirely possible.)

    Constintina, I would be very interested to read the project you’re working on, because it sounds like something right up my alley. I also wanted to draw your attention to my post on the differentiation between sex slavery and human trafficking, because they are not synonymous and to my knowledge they are not treated as such in this piece. It sounds like “exploitation” might be a better legal term to use for what is going on in the Dollhouse, but “human trafficking” is a term which has more resonance, which is why I use it here even if it’s not quite accurate.

    Your reading of the whorehouse is also accurate; they are obviously meant to be heroic rebels, and perhaps the biggest takeaway lesson is that being a rebel and maintaining your own freedom can be highly dangerous. That said, I still think that it’s extremely interesting to see the way in which the Guild and independent whorehouses are framed. (And to the commenter above who referred to Inara as “not-Guild,” er, Inara is very much a part of the Guild, as evidenced by the episode in which she needs to show up for her medical exams, even if she’s not totally happy with the way the Guild operates.

  13. The problem with racial stereotypes, which I specifically want to address because so many people have pointed out that a number of white characters are tropes, as though this somehow refutes my point, is that stereotypes tend to reinforce existing ideas about race in the minds of watchers. Tropes we understand as cultural shorthands, and they aren’t nearly as loaded as racial stereotypes because they don’t rely on race. Note that the Genuis Scientist, No-Nonsense Security Chief, Too-Caring Doctor, and Workaholic FBI Agent (incidentally, as discussed above, Tahmoh Penikett is actually First Nations) can be of any race and gender, unlike the very specific racial identities I referenced.

  14. Ah, yes, the Black Ex-Cop fighting for Good, and the Cute Asian Sidekick, as opposed to the Genius Scientist who has No Morals, the No-Nonsense Security Chief, the Too-Caring Doctor (now as a doll, but formerly real) or the Workaholic FBI Agent who can’t leave his case alone.

    I think most non-dolls in the show start out as stereotypical characters, and in fact, I don’t see the Boyd from season’s end as such. Boyd is working for the dollhouse, an arguably evil company, and he has even accepted a promotion. When he’s fighting with Ballard in episode 11, I genuinely didn’t know who to root for, because both were right in some cases and wrong in others. Ivy, okay, but she has a very minor role.

    What disappoints me most about Dollhouse (aside from the so-so storytelling) is that I’m open to hear the show explain to me why it’s not evil what they do, why it’s not rape. I can see what point they would make (a doll gives consent, and the body’s owner has given some sort of meta-consent) – but they need to make the point much more eloquently and forceful, even if I ultimately dismiss it. It needs to be addressed, because frankly I’m having problems watching the show as it is, and I need to know at least that the writers are conscious about the problematic content.

    Instead, they have Ballard join the dollhouse like nothing happened, and hey, he’s Echo’s handler now. What happened to the Ballard of the ten previous episodes? (Yeah, the one who knowing slept with a doll, something I might be able to overlook in that specific circumstance, once.)

    Instead, we get Patton Oswald giving a great performance as the poor man showing his dead wife their “new house”, which contains Ballard’s comeback: “And then you have sex” – exactly. It’s neither beuatiful nor romantic – nor in any way like that ridiculous dominatrix outfit (can’t we get a slightly better representation of BDSM?).

    Incidentally, BDSM is one reason why I think of Dollhouse as rape, because there is a safeword, and even in most extreme meta-consent relationships, one partner can always walk away. The dolls can’t; they can’t even ensure they’re let go after five years – if they survive five years.

  15. I’d like to write about Langton and Ivy being somewhat bland characters. My thought is that they will not stay that way and my reason for thinking that is because of how Topher’s character developed dramatically as the season progressed.

    Without saying too much on the subject, Whedon didn’t have full control of the show from the start and at the start of the show Topher was stereotypical Science Guy. Need a computer hacked? Need a gadget fixed? Need some math done or a chemical made? Just call Science Guy. He shows up in tons of programs across networks as a way to make technology work out nicely for the viewer. He typically has poor social skills so he doesn’t get much screen time and everyone’s ok with that as long as he pops in for just long enough to do some science.

    As the show transferred away from the network’s control he was developed more from Science Guy to Lonely Genius Who Thinks the Essence of a Person can be Pulled Out and Put on a Hard Drive With no Remnant of a Soul… Guy. That seems like a much more complex character.

    My theory (and hope) is that other television staples (Black Ex-Cop Fighting For Good and Cute Asian Girl With Funky Style and Dash of Sass Added for Colour.) will also be replaced with actual characters who have some depth as the show progresses. We do see some added depth in the character of Langton as he’s clearly uncomfortable with what he’s doing and who he works for. I think it’s pretty doubtful that he sent in a resume for this job at Monster.com. The simple question of how it is that he came to The Dollhouse seems like a pretty important one and the story of how someone else who doesn’t agree at all with the institution ends up uncomfortably working for them is presented by Ballard. Hopefully the reason these characters haven’t been fleshed out is because of a lack of time that season 2 will allow for.

  16. I think part of my problem with the stereotypes is that I never heard of the Black Ex-Cop Fighting for Good before. How many others are there, and do they really have to be black? In other words, is this a racial stereotype? I can only think of Shaft.

  17. Well, Patrick, I’m not going to do your homework for you, but I invite you to spend a little time at your local video store, where you are going to see black cop and ex-cop stereotypes a-plenty. Remember; anecdotal evidence (your personal experience) is not substitute for actual data.

    (I’m editing this to add rather than creating another comment: I will reiterate that the character of the black ex-cop is pretty prolific in fiction/television/film, even though I don’t really feel like taking time out of my work day to hunt down examples. It was familiar enough to me that I read Langton’s character as stereotyped, as I might add did many other viewers. Is every single racial character a stereotype? Not necessarily, but I find it interesting that every other critical response to this essay had no problem with the characterization of Boyd as a stereotype, although people certainly had plenty of other very valid criticisms, and that readers clearly understood that the black ex-cop fighting for good is most definitely a common stereotype. (Not a trope, which is something different.) So, Patrick, move on to actually discussing the essay instead of arguing a nominal point, or just move on. This is not an argument which I am going to continue to have.)

  18. Brisk, you make an excellent point about the characterization of a lot of the people on Dollhouse. They did indeed seem hollow and one dimensional at times, and I hope that we’re going to see that end with the second season. I, too, am very curious to know why Langton ended up at the Dollhouse, because that’s obviously a pretty critical part of his character. (For that matter, as someone else pointed out, why in the heck did Ballard go from fighting against the Dollhouse to abruptly working for them? He’s a character who simultaneously repulses and fascinates me.)

  19. Hi. This was a very interesting read. I’m not going to debate every point of the article, but I will comment a bit on the “imprint consent=rape” aspect and some viewers’ denial of that.
    Firstly, I agree that the sexual encounters depicted on the show are cases of rape. However, my opinion of this as a writing decision differs.
    On Whedonesque comparisons between the “explicit and conventional” rape of wiped-Sierra and the programmed sexual encounters of the Actives were drawn to illustrate the apparent aim to disturb the audience in one and the lack of such in the latter. Putting viewers into the perspective of the victim is a highly disturbing experience, yes. But I would argue that being placed into the perspective of the eager, delusional abuser is even more disturbing, overall. By depicting these scenes in ambiguous light, Whedon & Co. call into question the audience’s ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality. In addition, the viewer is forced to reflect on how they view fellow human beings, both sexual partners and otherwise. Is the true aim of a human wanting companionship to find another to fill their two-dimensional fantasy, ready to ignore or forcibly remove all extraneous aspects of the other’s personality? Do we view other human beings as extensions of our own mind, or do we acknowledge that other people exist as surely as we do?
    The idea of obfuscation of identity as connected to sex is something I feel is integral to the show’s themes; I feel this will be even more thoroughly examined in the future. I commend you on opening this dialogue.

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