Feminism and Joss Whedon: Men, Women, and Dollhouse

Before I plunge into this post, I would like to alert readers to the fact that I am going to be using generalizations. Generalizations are very useful for discussing broad social trends, which I am doing here, but they are not so useful at discussions about individuals. This means that for every use of a generalization you see here, you’re probably going to be able to come up with a number of counterexamples. Those counterexamples don’t make the underlying assertions and discussions made here wrong, they just illustrate the fact that generalizations aren’t good for discussing individuals.

So, when I say “men,” this should not be taken to mean “men are a homogeneous mass of misogynistic mouthbreathers.” When I say “women,” I don’t mean “all women everywhere, all over the world, with no exceptions, ever.” When I say “feminists/feminism,” I don’t mean “there is one universal brand of feminism which everyone who is a feminist subscribes to,” and when I say “nonfeminists,” I don’t mean “antifeminists,” I mean “people who have not been exposed to feminism, or have not thought deeply about feminist issues.” Not belonging to a social movement doesn’t mean you’re against it or that you can never join it. (Edited to add: “man” and “feminist/feminist ally” are not exclusive terms, just as “female” and “nonfeminist” are not exclusive.)

Now that we’ve got that out of the way.

I’ve been pondering the highly polarized response to Dollhouse and the reasons behind it, and I think that the fault lines lie in a familiar divide. Men and women tend to respond very differently to the show, as do feminists and nonfeminists. That’s a topic worth exploring, because a lot of the most vicious debate over certain subjects in the show has featured people on both sides of the divide who aren’t really listening to each other. One end of the scale, we have “Dollhouse is a rapefest,” and on the other we have “nothing wrong here, sexually speaking.” The truth, as it often does, may lie somewhere in the middle. (Edited to add: Why people have difficulty reaching that middle ground is the subject of this post; people who are already in the middle obviously are thinking about the ethical complexities of this show.)

The thing that Dollhouse has done is divorce body and personhood, and this brings up some uncomfortable discussions about agency and consent. Because we live in a world where body and personhood cannot be separated, it’s very difficult to wrap our heads around the core concept of Dollhouse, because it is extremely alien, and thus we are attempting to cobble together a response with the knowledge we have. And, as we watch the show, we are informed by our own experiences, which may explain the extreme polarization in response to Dollhouse from fans, including fans like me who love the show but think it has some problems which should be talked about, and haters alike.

In Dollhouse, we have a situation in which it is possible to strip someone’s personhood from the body and shelve it somewhere. Then, the body can be imprinted with various personalities. Do these personalities have personhood? It’s one of the trickiest aspects of the show, and it can’t be fully answered. One could argue that they do, because they are complex and fully realized human personalities. One could argue that they do not, because they are artificial, and because they are programmed to behave in a particular way. Or, one could argue that they occupy a grey area, both having personhood and lacking it.

As the concept is originally introduced to viewers, they are informed that the original people inside the bodies are consenting to work for the Dollhouse, and that informed consent is involved, with the people understanding fully what is going to happen, signing up for a set period of service, and being compensated at the end. As the show progresses, viewers learn that the truth is more complicated, and that some employees/Actives/Dolls may have been coerced or even forced into working for the Dollhouse, which kind of changes one’s perspective on the initial intake.

A complex question which comes into play, even with people who give free and fully informed consent, is whether or not it is possible to consent on behalf of your body when you will not be in it. While most people would agree that when someone has personhood, he or she has the ability to exercise consent and agency, can a body alone have agency? Or is it more like a borrowed glove, in which case whichever person happens to be occupying the body has control over it and the ability to consent?

And how can you give consent to events which are happening in the future? If I go in for a splenectomy, I’ll sign an informed consent form which makes me aware of the risks of surgery, additional steps the surgeon may take during the procedure for my safety, and my full spectrum of choices before surgery. If the surgeon notices that I have stomach cancer during the surgery, the cancer can’t be removed, because I haven’t consented to it, and the surgeon won’t remove it because I had no way of knowing, when I signed the consent form, that this situation might arise. For the original personalities who give up their bodies on Dollhouse, the situation is similar: they’re signing up for one thing, but how will they know that’s all that will happen? How could the Dollhouse possibly include a discussion of every possible contingency in a consent form? Would the situation in Dollhouse be less troubling if the original people were briefly booted up prior to each engagement and asked if they were ok with what was being planned?

For people who believe that people can fully give up consent on behalf of their bodies, one would logically assume that when a new imprint is placed in a body, that imprint now controls what happens to the body, while the old personhood and previous imprints exist in a state of limbo. This means that, theoretically, if an imprint decides to have sex while in a body which actually belongs to someone else, the sex is fully consensual, and could not be considered rape.

But, can imprints really “consent” to anything? Does an imprint have personhood? If an imprint is artificially created and deliberately programmed to do something, how is it exercising agency? Put crudely, when I hit the “send” button on my cell phone after writing a text, my phone is not consenting to do anything; it’s doing exactly what it has been programmed to do.

And what about people who did not freely consent to be used for imprints in the Dollhouse? Is what happens to their bodies automatically rape, no matter how you feel about the personhood of imprints?

This becomes the crux of the debate: if imprints have personhood and it is possible to give consent on behalf of your body when you know that you will not be in it, than what is happening on Dollhouse isn’t rape. If imprints do not have personhood, but it is possible to consent on your body’s behalf, then it may not be rape either, because the imprint isn’t a person, and the body has agency. If imprints have personhood and you can’t give consent on behalf of your body, then it may well be rape, because while the imprint is consenting, the body is not. Conversely, if you can’t give consent on your body’s behalf and imprints don’t have personhood, it’s most definitely rape.

This brings us to the male/female and feminist/nonfeminist variations in response to Dollhouse.

We are taught, as a collective society, that women’s bodies are public property, and that they are always available for sex. The female body is an object of collective social consumption, not something which is private. While people may argue that rape is viewed as socially unacceptable, our entire society is structured around the idea of female availability, which is one of the reasons why many women and feminists have reacted so strongly to the troubling themes of  personhood, body, and agency in Dollhouse. Even the perception of rape in the real world is complicated, which makes a reading of the events on Dollhouse far from simple. For women and feminists, the show is skirting dangerously close to a reality which already exists, a world in which women’s bodies are assumed to come with consent attached and in which grey areas are automatically not rape. In perhaps the most classic example of how this plays out in the real world, it is assumed that rape cannot take place in a relationship, because consent is built into the structure of the relationship, which means that the body is always available for sex, even when the body’s owner “isn’t there” in the sense that she is drugged, or drunk, or asleep. Even when she explicitly denies consent, it is not rape, because, in the eyes of society, how could you revoke consent once you’re in a relationship?

Women and feminists are also very familiar with the idea that female personhood is regarded as largely nonexistent in collective society. Women are assumed to be always available for sexytime, which is why women who refuse the advances of men are “frigid bitches.” Thus, it’s deeply troubling to watch a television series in which people can be literally programmed to suit the whims of the people who buy them; again, it’s a theme which skirts dangerously close to the beliefs of the real world, namely that women are socially programmed to be sexually available.

For many men and nonfeminists, these ideas are rather abstract, because people aren’t thinking about them, or aren’t living with them on a daily basis. And when you don’t think about something, it’s hard to comprehend it, or to see the point of view of people who are bringing it up in discussion. As a result, the tendency, I suspect, may be to err on the side of “nothing is wrong here.” Once you do start thinking about it, you become consumed with it, and you start seeing it everywhere, but that doesn’t happen overnight.

Now, I would argue that the fact that Dollhouse is dealing with these issues is one of the things which makes the show so great, because it is confronting people with complicated moral questions, even if it doesn’t always do so in the best way. As the debate over this issue illustrates, it’s also sparked a lot of conversations. I think that people who haven’t thought about feminist issues may have started thinking about them because of Dollhouse, and even if they haven’t changed their minds about some things, their minds have been opened, and that may have carried over into the way they interact with the real world.

There is no right answer to the moral ambiguities in Dollhouse. I know where my reading of the show falls, and I know that my reading of the show is informed by the pondering of feminist issues, and what it’s like to be a woman in this society. We are already stripped of agency and the ability to exercise consent, which makes the situation of the Actives feel more immediate and stark to us.

I suspect that there is a strong correlation between the point of view that Dollhouse is not depicting rape and a general lack of awareness of feminist issues. However, I’m hoping that this debate is going to lead some people to start exploring feminism, and to start rethinking their read of the show, in addition to their read of the real world. (Edited to add, since several people have pointed out that this is not clear: this is not to mean “once those illiterate heathens discover the magic of feminism, they will, of course, immediately subscribe to my point of view.” Rather, it means that people who have not been thinking about feminist issues at all may come to a deeper perspective in their understanding of the show by considering feminist issues.)

Admitting that the show is depicting something morally deplorable doesn’t mean that the show is bad, and it’s not even an attack on Joss Whedon and the creative team. In fact, I would argue that it’s a supporting argument for suggesting that the show is good, and that the creative team are brilliant for bringing up these issues, for presenting them in an ambiguous way to force viewers to actually think about what they are seeing, and for creating a very complex mythos which cannot fit tidily into a neat little box. They may make some false steps in the process due to ignorance or a need to serve creative demands, but that, again, doesn’t make Dollhouse bad, and it doesn’t make the people who criticize those false steps bad either.

(Need more Feminism and Joss Whedon? The series archive is here.)

(Edited to add: more discussion on this post at Whedonesque.)

24 Replies to “Feminism and Joss Whedon: Men, Women, and Dollhouse”

  1. Wow! Fantastically well written. Your arguments were clear, thoughtful, and very well organized. Plus I agree with you. Great job.

  2. Er, thank you? I’m not sure that I was really presenting arguments here so much as differing perspectives; the post is designed to be fairly generalized and topical because I wanted to acknowledge that there are lots of points of view here, and none of them are necessarily right/wrong. And, critically, that the perspective from which you personally approach the show very much colours how you perceive it.

  3. I don’t have time to read it all, I have to be somewhere in about 20 minutes, but one thing I thought of was the case of November/Mellie. When she had sex with Ballard, before he knew she was an active, would that have been rape? Not in his case, certainly, but on the part of the Dollhouse, if she could not consent..?

  4. Great post! I love Dollhouse and Joss Whedon in general. One of the main reasons why I like Dollhouse (besides the great writing and acting) is that it brings these issues into mainstream thought.

    As for the November/Millie situation with Ballard, I think it says a lot that Ballard finds it hard to have sex with Millie again after he finds out that he is a doll. His investigation of the Dollhouse and his relationship with Millie are a lot of what brings the issues of consent to the forefront of the show. But I will definitely take a look over at the More on Rape and Dollhouse post…

  5. Yeah, the Mellie/Ballard situation is hugely complicated. I think there are a lot of perspectives on that, like maybe Ballard feels like he is raping her, but has no choice. Or, that he has in a sense been raped and violated because he entered into a sexual relationship with her without knowing some, you know, kind of key details. At the very least, he obviously feels tormented and, to some extent, dirty.

  6. There are some terrific issues addressed here, but it’s a somewhat limited discussion in that it only seems to address the depiction/treatment of the female characters in the show. (I’m female, BTW.) Granted, thusfar we have gotten to know more female actives than male, but Victor is no less a victim than any of the others. At one point, he is shown being at the service of someone in whom his real personality put all his trust by agreeing to volunteer for the program, for their own selfish ends. (I won’t note who that is for fear of spoiling someone who hasn’t seen the show yet, but their identity muddies the feminist argument even further.)

    There are no clean-cut arguments about this show. Yes, it’s frequently very uncomfortable to watch but it IS raising questions about needs, and loss, and what makes us human.

  7. Letty, the objectification of men in the show is also, I think, a feminist issue, but a lot of the discussion about the show has revolved around the women, which is why I specifically addressed that here. I am actually in the process of working on an essay talking about the men on Dollhouse and Victor and Alpha specifically, so you might want to check back in a few weeks.

  8. Ooh, can’t wait for that. I think they’ve been rather ignored in terms of this type of discussion, in general; looking forward to it!

  9. I thought it was well written. One thing that did bother me though is that you seemed to be implying that Dollhouse doesn’t have male dolls who are or are not being raped. It’s a two way road in my opinion.

  10. I wasn’t “implying” anything; as you can see, other commenters asked why I didn’t mention Victor/Alpha, and I explained that this post was centered on the discussion of female sexuality in Dollhouse, and that I am in fact planning an entirely separate post to discuss the male Actives. Their framing is an especially complex issue and I didn’t want to do them a disservice by only briefly referencing them here, or turn this post into a megalithic wordfest by devoting a lot of space to the male Actives. So, in other words, if you stick around, you will be rewarded.

  11. And this, kids, is why the comments policy specifically asks people to read other comments before commenting!

  12. Maybe I missed something, but I didn’t notice anything about sex with a body while it’s in the doll state. To my mind that is clearly rape. The implants are personalities, they’re not brains. The doll isn’t just a body, it is still a living sentient person, capable of limited thought, but not capable of responding if any sexual advances are made.

  13. Er, I don’t want to sound snippy, but yes, you definitely missed something. The entire crux of this piece is about the issue of whether or not consent is possible when you have an imprint in an Active’s body. I’ll refer you to this:

    “For people who believe that people can fully give up consent on behalf of their bodies, one would logically assume that when a new imprint is placed in a body, that imprint now controls what happens to the body, while the old personhood and previous imprints exist in a state of limbo. This means that, theoretically, if an imprint decides to have sex while in a body which actually belongs to someone else, the sex is fully consensual, and could not be considered rape.”

    And this:

    “This becomes the crux of the debate: if imprints have personhood and it is possible to give consent on behalf of your body when you know that you will not be in it, than what is happening on Dollhouse isn’t rape. If imprints do not have personhood, but it is possible to consent on your body’s behalf, then it may not be rape either, because the imprint isn’t a person, and the body has agency. If imprints have personhood and you can’t give consent on behalf of your body, then it may well be rape, because while the imprint is consenting, the body is not. Conversely, if you can’t give consent on your body’s behalf and imprints don’t have personhood, it’s most definitely rape.”

    I’d definitely read again a bit more closely if I were you.

  14. Great essay. The only thing I would argue against is when you say the show explores the issues you presented, and that’s what makes it “so great”. As far as the concept goes, it’s probably the most interesting and provocative on television right now. Look how much debate it ignites. However, in the show itself, there’s barely any discussion. Issues are presented but rarely questioned. We have Boyd looking doubtful a lot of the time, we have Paul searching for the Dollhouse to expose it, but neither ‘protagonist’ argues in detail why they think the Dollhouse is wrong. I understand ‘less is more’ in TV and film, but to me, it feels like it’s not living up to its vast potential.

    Perhaps it’s better as it is, leaving the viewers to ask the moral questions. What do you think?

  15. Well, I am arguing that the neutral presentation of the issues is what makes Dollhouse compelling and interesting viewing, because people are forced to think about the issues independently, as you saw in my last paragraph. Questioning the issues or getting into moral dithering would, in fact, dilute the show in a lot of ways (in my opinion), because it would start becoming entirely too meta. Viewers shouldn’t need to be told that they are seeing something ambiguous and ethically questionable: they should know that, and use the material as a starting point for further discussion. By leaving things up in the air, the show is creating fertile ground for discussion and debate, even if that ground sometimes becomes acrimonious.

  16. I think there are several things many critics have missed in their readings of Dollhouse. The first, and I think the original pilot brings this out quite clearly, are the centrality and complexity of moral issues in the show. The pilot lays these moral questions surrounding consent/lack of consent, if wishes were true/breaking through delusions quite successfully, much more successfully, in my opinion, that the early broadcast episodes of the series. The discussions between Dr. Saunders and Topher and Ballard/Echo in the original pilot are central here.

    The second thing I think critics of Dollhouse have missed are what I see as the influences on the show. I see a lot of Welles’s Touch of Evil with its focus on difficult moral issues in Dollhouse. I also see a lot of Hitchcock, specifically Rear Window and Vertigo in the show. These take us, in a quite sophisticated way, into issues related to voyeurism and the patriarchal remaking of women in our own images of them. Both of these are, in my opinion, central to Dollhouse. And as in Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Vertigo, we, we the viewers, we the voyeurs, are implicated in quite interesting ways, in what is going on on screen. Perhaps it is this that makes some watchers squirm.

  17. My point was about the reaction of the viewers of Dollhouse, not about feminist fundamentals. I stated my lack of knowledge of those fundamentals because I thought that you probably were referring to a well known feminist thesis, but that lack of knowledge doesn’t mean I didn’t understand what you wrote. I think that the difference in reaction between male and female dolls is incompatible with that.

    Now, if you don’t want to discuss that, feel free to remove this post, I really don’t mind, but the link you provided doesn’t seem to answer my “question”, quite the contrary. It seems to me that the viewer sees the female actives not as available bodies, but as virgins who are made prostitutes against their will/knowledge, and that’s what makes things shocking, whereas it’s not as shocking for males because they should be happy to have sex.

    (I’m not saying it should be this way, but that’s how I think most people react)

  18. Actually, your previous comment demonstrated a clear lack of understanding about basic feminist ideas, including the idea that women’s bodies are consistently viewed as sexually available objects for public consumption. That is very much a fundamental, and yes, if you don’t understand basic feminist concepts about objectification and personal autonomy, I can see how you might have difficulty evaluating the thesis I’m putting forward here. However, this is not an appropriate setting to discuss this, because I would rather keep the conversation here on track with the actual topic of discussion, which is looking at the different ways in which people view Dollhouse, and how their personal backgrounds have influenced their read of the show.

    Well, as I said in the comments above, I will be discussing the male Actives in the relatively near future, but that’s not really an issue I want to get into right now, because it’s nuanced and very complex. I am going to go ahead and disagree quite strongly with your take on the show and your reading of the different perceptions about male and female Actives; I think the read on males may be right on in terms of how some viewers respond, but your take on females seems totally out of left field to me. And with the statement that “most people” react this way; I have literally never heard anyone bring up virginity in a discussion of the show. Most critics have focused, in fact, on the objectification of people which the show clearly depicts, and the way in which the objectification of women on Dollhouse intersects with larger cultural themes.

    I am curious about your read of the show; I haven’t seen anyone else describe the actives as “virgins who are made prostitutes,” so I would like to know where that comes from. It’s pretty clear to everyone I’ve spoken to about the show that the female and male Actives are both heavily objectified, and far from being virginal, several of the female Actives are in fact being punished for their sexuality. Critics who are leaning towards the “this is rape” end of the spectrum are also considering the violations of male Actives to be rape, although that was not addressed in detail here. People who are more in the grey area may feel more nebulous about the role of male Actives, which plays into preconceived notions about masculinity, like the idea that it’s impossible for a man to be raped or that men always enjoy sex.

    It makes me a bit uncomfortable to hear you suggesting that the Actives are virgins forced into prostitution, because that skirts very close to some extremely icky male fantasies. And it effectively erases a lot of the narrative we’ve seen in the show and, to some extent, it implies (though you may not have intended this) that a female active who wasn’t “virginal” would somehow deserve what’s happening to her in the Dollhouse. The show clearly depicts rape culture and your stated read on it is deeply puzzling to me.

    I really want to stress that this is a feminist site, and that I do expect my readers to have a basic understanding of feminism, especially on posts tagged “feminism.” If you are not knowledgeable about feminist issues, I really think that you need to do some serious reading before re-entering conversation here, because both of your comments have really demonstrated that this is unfamiliar ground for you.

  19. I’m unsure about whether I should answer because you ask for clarification and yet believe I should not comment again before knowing more about feminism. I’ll just clarify about my choice of the term “virgin” and then leave you.

    I had just read the link you gave, and found an interesting bit about a so-called “virgin/whore dichotomy”, and I was refering to that. I should have been clearer. Of course the dolls are not technically virgins, they’re just, as far as the viewer knows, “non-whores”, aka “ok girls”.

    Yes, it does imply that an active who previously was a prostitute, or just a girl with many sex partners, would be less likely to shock viewers in the same situation. Do you think it wouldn’t make a difference ?

    Please don’t read this as my own opinion. I would care the same about Caroline if she was shown to have an “active” sex life before entering the Dollhouse, but I’m deeply convinced that for lots of viewers it does make a difference, and that it’s part of what feminists fight against. Again, not a specialist.

    (As a final note, English is not my first language, and that may explain why I have a hard time making myself clear.)

  20. Hrm, ok, this clarifies your thinking much more. You’re absolutely right that there is a virgin/whore dichotomy, and that may be playing a role here. The main flaw I see with this reading is that while none of the occupants of the Dollhouse were whores (to our knowledge), we certainly know that they weren’t virginal or innocent. Mellie, for example, had a child. Caroline broke the law (and, I believe, is seen having sex in a flashback). Etc.

    It would be interesting to see how viewers responded to someone specifically identified as an ex-prostitute as an Active, because I think you’re right in that people would be less “shocked” by her situation, due to social beliefs which suggest that certain kinds of women get what’s coming to them.

    So, in this case, I’m not sure that the virgin/whore dichotomy applies, because I don’t think readers are viewing the Actives as virgins or innocents. Except perhaps in the case of Sierra? What we know of her backstory fits into the virgin/whore dichotomy very well because we know that she ended up in the Dollhouse because she refused a man’s sexual advances.

    I’m glad to see you articulating yourself a little better; I know well the frustration of communicating with people about topics that might be a bit unfamiliar in a language which isn’t my native one. (English isn’t my first language either!)

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