(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.