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.)