Feminism and Joss Whedon: Time To Talk About the Boys

Welcome to the next post in the Feminism and Joss Whedon series! Since there have been some problems with this before: this is a series about viewing Joss Whedon through a feminist lens. You do not need to be a feminist to comment on posts in this series, but you do need to have a basic grasp of feminist theory. Comments indicating a lack of said grasp will not be published, because this series is not about feminist education. Finally, a Feminism 101 Blog, is a great resource to use if you aren’t very familiar with feminism. Don’t let this scare you from commenting; if you don’t know much about feminism, you may not be aware that you are making a 101 mistake, and I’m not going to be mean about it. Unless you keep doing it. I also want to note that these posts are part of a series, in which posts are building on each other. This means that they reference ideas/concepts which have been discussed before, so if you come to this series via a link to a single post and you think it’s superficial or is drawing false assumptions, that might have more to do with the fact that you haven’t read prior posts in the series than my abilities as an essayist.

As promised, my long-awaited post talking about the male Actives in the Dollhouse. Sorry about the somewhat cheesy title; I wasn’t feeling very creative. I’ve also got another Dollhouse-related post up today, over on Deeply Problematic, if you just can’t get your fill of Dollhouse.

But first, the traditional statement of bias: I like to talk about lady business and lady issues, which often intersect with men’s issues, but are not the same. Since I am not a dude, the treatment of the male Actives is more abstract to me than the treatment of the lady Actives. Since I am not a men studies scholar, I am approaching this subject from a feminist perspective, which means that there are some glaring issues I may be missing! I am sorry about that! Which means, you know, you may wildly disagree with what I have to say here. And that’s ok. And, I would like to extend an invitation to dudes (trans, cis, whatev’), feminist or otherwise, to consider writing a guest post for me talking about the male Actives and how they read them, because I would appreciate more perspective on this issue. If that sounds like something YOU want to do, please email me (meloukhia at gmail dot com) and present your credentials (as a writer, not as a dude).

Ok, carry on.

Much of the feminist discourse surrounding Dollhouse has discussed the show’s objectification of women and the treatment of the female Actives. In part, this is because this ties in nicely with feminist themes, and it’s also because we are more familiar with the female Actives; Echo, Whiskey, November, and Sierra have a lot of screen time, and we get to know them. The treatment of the female Actives also parallels the problems that women in face in the real world, which makes it tempting to focus on them and to draw parallels between their circumstances and the real world.

But there are also male Actives, and they are often neglected in the discussions about Dollhouse. As I explained earlier when people challenged me on my lack of discussion about the male Actives, their situation is complicated, and I felt that it wouldn’t do them justice to lump them in with a generalized post on Dollhouse. Victor and Alpha are both very complex and nuanced characters, and there’s a lot to unpack when it comes to discussing them. I am barely scratching the surface today (hey, if I can dedicate umpteen gazillion posts to the nuances of the ladies, surely I can do the same for the dudes).

One commenter pointed out that when contrasting the situations of men and women in the Dollhouse, viewers probably feel less sympathy for the males, because men are assumed to be always interested in sex, and therefore, the position of the male Actives could be viewed as pretty much ideal. But this is a bit simplistic, because Dollhouse is not just about sex; it’s fundamentally about depriving people of their personhood, and this affects men as well as women. For me, I actually register more shock for the men than the women, in a sense, because the situation of the women is all too familiar for me, while the situation of the men is entirely new.

Men in the real world are expected to fulfill a narrow set of gender roles and expectations, just like women. But, unlike women, we rarely see men in a state of disempowerment. The situation of the male Actives is, for me, quite jarring, because I am accustomed to seeing women deprived of personhood and autonomy, but I am not used to seeing men deprived of these things. I am not used to seeing men objectified and treated as set dressing, either, which definitely happens in Dollhouse; think back on all the scenes in which characters drift through the Dollhouse, and think about all of the male Actives in the background whom we never meet, seeing primarily as literal objects which decorate the scene. This is in marked contrast with other television shows, in which women are the background set dressing/objects/dehumanized ornaments.

It is interesting to contrast the way in which we are introduced to Victor with the way we are introduced to Echo. We meet Echo on an engagement; understanding the premise of the show, we know that the opening scene of the first episode depicts Echo for hire, fulfilling someone’s dream of the perfect date. Victor, by contrast, is introduced to us as something totally different: a member of a Russian gang, putting pressure on Ballard to keep him from investigating the Dollhouse. We see Victor as a real person, by which I mean “not a member of the Dollhouse.” From the start, we are aware of male Actives in the abstract, but not in the personal sense. We are, in other words, lulled into a sense of false security: this is going to be a show about the exploitation of women, the dehumanization of women, the problems that women face. These are familiar themes. Comfortable ground.

And then, the tables are turned, abruptly, and in doing so, the tables on the whole show are turned. Victor, we learn, is actually an Active, which raises the question: who else is an Active? How many layers are there in this enchilada pie? And, woah, Dollhouse is actually about the exploitation and dehumanization of people of all genders. This is new.

We learn bits and pieces of Victor’s history. He obviously has a connection of some form with Sierra, he seems to have had a past in the military, and, like other main characters, something appears to be going wrong with his imprinting. Something about Victor makes him unique, causes him to stand out from other male Actives: something in his brain is different enough that we see him fighting the imprints, to some extent. Glitching. Remembering.

This is brought home in “Miss Lonelyhearts.” We’ve seen staffers discussing the fact that it’s not a good idea to keep sending Victor out on the same engagement over and over again, which raises interesting questions about how imprints evolve: apparently Victor is responding to something in those engagements which lingers even after he is wiped. Yet, I think that a lot of viewers saw this recurring romantic engagement as something kind of cute, a minor plot point, perhaps. My views on the show (as stated before) are that sexual engagements with Actives are a form of rape, so I found the Miss Lonelyhearts storyline deeply repellent and disturbing.

Here’s a woman who justifies repeated rape to fill a lonely spot in her life. Here’s a woman who, for whatever reason, doesn’t want to pursue a real romantic relationship: she’s too busy, she has a sensitive job, she doesn’t want to commit. In a way, Miss Lonelyhearts is actually like a stereotypical male: she’d rather hire a professional to get sexual gratification than do things the hard way, except that in this case, she’s having a mate programmed to suit her whims. Ugh. (Let me note that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with hiring sex workers to fulfill certain needs, but I should add that this activity is stereotypically associated with men, and often treated very pejoratively, and we are not used to associating this activity with women, let alone viewing it sympathetically.)

When we finally meet Miss Lonelyhearts, we lean that it’s Adelle herself, and the situation gets much more complicated. I think that a lot of viewers adjusted their point of view on the Miss Lonelyhearts situation at this point, seeing it as abuse, because, suddenly, Miss Lonelyhearts was someone they knew, so they could feel a sense of repulsion. But I think many saw it as “Adelle is breaking the rules,” rather than “Adelle is raping one of the Actives.” And I think it’s interesting to contrast the response to the Sierra/Hearn plot with the response to the Adelle/Victor plot. Both involved people in power abusing an Active who was helpless to refuse: one was condemned as rape by almost everyone, and the other wasn’t.

Is this because people don’t view sex with an Active on an enagement as rape? Or because of entrenched attitudes about male rape, namely, that male rape can’t exist? How would the original man who inhabited Victor’s body feel about the fact that rather than being programmed as a throwaway one-time object, his body would be used again and again for a charade of a romantic relationship? That a woman would establish a connection to his body with someone else’s mind/imprint/personality inside, and that this connection would be erased at the end of each engagement? Is Victor’s body going to end up with some sort of sense/muscle memory which will come back to haunt the Original Victor (for lack of a better term) when he is returned to his body?

How could Adelle justify her actions? She’s fiercely protective of the Actives, yet she abuses her privileges and sexually violates one of them? One might say that Adelle clearly feels safer establishing a relationship with a fake person because she’s emotionally closed off, and isn’t interested in forging meaningful connections. Yet, this clearly is not the case, because Adelle is creating an emotional relationship with someone; a Ken doll she can take out of her box when she wants to play with it, and put away once she’s done.

In the season finale, Victor is mutilated by Alpha. We’ve grown accustomed to Whiskey’s scars at this point, but the mutilation of Victor is especially shocking, perhaps, again, because we are not used to seeing men mutilated like that. Slashing the face is very much a crime committed against women (in the real world as well as in Dollhouse) and it is unsettling to see it happen to Victor. We also have the same gut reaction to Victor’s scars as we do to Whiskey’s: he’s ruined now. He’s no good. He’s useless. He’s a broken doll, because his pretty got taken away. In other words, we were lured into viewing Victor as an object, and thereby into participating in the institutional dehumanization of the Dollhouse.

Victor’s role in the piece is almost a constant reminder that anyone can be deprived of personhood and agency. Except, in Victor’s case, he isn’t being deprived by society (as women are), but rather through an institution. An institution he chose to join (as far as we know) and he put his trust in. In fact, he is a victim of a situation common to women: he put his trust in the wrong people, and he surrendered agency in the process.

Not being male, I can’t really speak about this with too much authority, but I am wondering how male viewers are reading Victor’s situation. For me, it seems like Victor’s situation humanizes that of the female Dolls: by imagining yourself as Victor, raped, violated, deprived of agency, perhaps you can emphasize with the situation of the women on the show. And, by extension, with women in real life. But I may be way off-base here.

Alpha is an interesting character. His situation brings up a lot of ethical issues beyond the obvious question of whether or not the technology used by the Dollhouse and the way in which the organization operates are OK; he was brought into the Dollhouse because he was a prisoner, and he wanted to reduce his sentence by serving. In the real world, of course, this is not legal or viewed as ethical, because it’s a form of coercion. For Alpha, this puts him in a position akin to that experienced by Caroline/Echo, which may be why he felt such a deep connection with her.

It seems to me that Alpha’s violent personality may have spilled through into his imprints even before the composite event, and that a fundamental flaw in his brain may have been a contributing factor in his insanity after the event. Alpha’s singleminded obsession with Echo is terrifying, not least because, again, it mirrors the real world: frightening men can and do become obsessed with women, killing to “protect” them and obsessively stalking them. In the real world, such relationships often end in death, which is essentially what happens to Echo in the season one finale, as she submits to being wiped again.

Is Alpha a villain? Or has he been turned into a villain by society and the Dollhouse? I think this is a complicated question, and it’s one which comes up in the real world again and again when we look at violent male criminals. Inside every criminal is a victim, some people say, arguing that such people should be humanized, because they are made, and not born. In the case of Alpha, he was literally made, and warped in the process, even if the process did exploit an existing brain abnormality (which we don’t know; I am positing that it did, but I could be wrong).

It’s also interesting to see how we shift in our perception of Alpha. I at least regarded him as a hero initially, trying to free Caroline and expose the Dollhouse, but as it turns out, he’s actually a psychopath. This is something we also see with violent male criminals, many of whom  are described as “ordinary” and “perfectly nice” people who managed to fool everyone. Alpha’s situation certainly humanized such criminals by showing the way in which someone can be turned into something evil.

As readers will note, I brought a lot of this discussion back to women, and back to the treatment of women in society. That’s obviously my own bias coming through (and a subtle dig at the “but what about the men?!?!!” argument which seems to be appended to any feminist discourse, anywhere). But, bias aside, I do think it’s a valid comparison: the situations of the male Actives shock and trouble me, as I imagine they do many viewers, not only because the idea of being deprived of personhood and autonomy is disgusting, but because they are men, and I am not used to seeing men in this position. I am not used, in other words, to seeing men reduced to the position of women. Obviously, the situation on Dollhouse is much more complicated than this, but this is my gut reaction: the male Actives are especially troubling to me because they are so far beyond my experiences.

You ask for a feminist read on the male Actives: this is one feminist’s take on these characters. There are lots of other interpretations, and some people may be reading these characters radically differently than I am.

6 Replies to “Feminism and Joss Whedon: Time To Talk About the Boys”

  1. You bring up some really interesting issues. I never really thought about seeing the treatment of the male Actives as more disturbing because men don’t usually face that type of disempowerment. But it’s true.

    I really appreciate these posts, not only because I love Joss Whedon and feminist critiques of pop culture, but also as a refresher in preparation for the next season. I’m so excited!

  2. I don’t think Adelle’s treatment of Victor is necessarily hypocritical, which seems to be what you are describing. She sees her ‘product’ and services as something that is genuinely needed by people. She is so disparaging about the Dollhouse clients for relying on the dolls, but a lot of that vitriol is directed at herself and her needs.

    That being said, it’s interesting to note the similarities between Victor and Alpha – both noticed a particular face, and were drawn to it despite being wiped. In some ways, I think that helps us identify a little more with Alpha’s Echo obsession, because we like Victor so much. Or at least I do. It’s not that much of a coincidence that the men are the ones who react this way, because of the general concept that women are more passive in establishing relationships.

    I like how you pointed out the initial emphasis on women, and then the shock that came when it was revealed Victor was a Doll. I like to think that’s something Joss Whedon did on purpose. He mentioned how he wanted to work in people of all different body types into the Dollhouse, but I think the shock with Victor was the closest he could get on network television. Like you wrote, anyone is fit for exploitation. And then there are the shocks with November and Whiskey.

    The Dollhouse does not have a focus on human trafficking despite the fact that is the entire premise of the show. (I think you mentioned this in earlier posts) Thus, I think a lot of people sympathize a lot less with the dolls’ total lack of control and more on the relationships between characters in different states. The shock factor mostly came from the fact that identity is totally unsure and less from outrage that people could be treated so callously. The show has done a good job of making them less than people.

    Epitaph One lends an entirely different spin to this, though.

  3. I’m really glad the show and you! – brought up the “Alpha as prisoner” angle.

    he was brought into the Dollhouse because he was a prisoner, and he wanted to reduce his sentence by serving. In the real world, of course, this is not legal or viewed as ethical, because it’s a form of coercion.

    I’d actually disagree with that. I mean, not that the Dollhouse is illegal, but we do allow all kinds of inequitable tradeoffs when it comes to the imprisoned and people accused of crimes. We allow people to go to jail over clearly false or coerced confessions. In a lot of ways, it looks like Alpha had the most agency in his decision-making, or at least the most to gain and least to lose. Karl, or Alpha, goes from the only place an adult male is likely to be sexually assaulted, to a place where he will be raped. He goes from long-term discomfort to short-term comfort. And why would the Dollhouse go with him instead of someone with a non-violent background (God knows there are enough non-violent offenders in jail in southern CA!) to experiment on? I’m really intrigued by this line of thought, if the point isn’t dropped in whatever retool happens next season it could be a really interesting commentary on the criminal justice system.

    When we finally meet Miss Lonelyhearts, we lean that it’s Adelle herself, and the situation gets much more complicated.

    My initial reaction was also surprise and revulsion. But stepping back, it’s even more interesting given my theory that Adelle is a survivor of sexual or relationship violence. Her choice of Karl/Alpha to be wiped, as an experiment, maybe never to be re-created? (I know she seems, in “Omega,” to think Kroft’s history is irrelevant, but it wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen her hide her knowledge, and not to know would be pretty solidly against DH policy of “collect and save every bit of information, then back it up, a lot.”) Hearn didn’t have to be murdered, and he definitely didn’t have to be killed by a sweet-faced killer doll, and she didn’t have to watch with that satisfied smile. Adelle actively enjoys having this power over men who are violent towards women, and sharing that power with other women, and while I don’t think survivors of VAW become violent, I think that in combination with her controlled, high-achieving personality and flexible moral code, it would explain the way she treats her position. (As I write this, I’m starting to think it might turn into a next season post; would it be okay if I reproduced parts of this comment? With links and credit to your post, of course.)

  4. Hrm, some very interesting thoughts about Adelle. I would be most interested to see those expanded (and you own the content in your comment, so you are allowed to do whatever you like with it).

    I believe, in regards to your first point, that we may be arguing at cross purposes. Specifically, I was saying that the scenario depicted, in which he trades prison time for time in the Dollhouse, is illegal in the real world. Prisoners are not allowed to trade participation in experiments for reduced sentences because there is a clear element of coercion involved. I was certainly not suggesting that coercion and corruption are absent from the criminal justice system.

    You’re absolutely right; horrific things happen to people who enter the criminal justice system. Like, say, the man in Texas who was executed despite evidence demonstrating that he was innocent. It would be interesting to see Dollhouse exploring these issues, but the show has a lot on its plate, and I would kind of prefer to see them glossed over than have them handled badly. I guess we’ll find out where the show is headed on Friday night (well, Saturday morning for us Hulu watchers).

  5. Thought provoking narrative on the male Actives. I was struck by your comment on Alpha’s obsession with Echo and comparison to stalking. You characterized it as terrifying, which I don’t disagree with. However, it made me think about Ballard’s obsession with Echo. He’s perceived, I think, as a heroic figure. You know, the typical knight in shining armor trying to save the damsel in distress. After all, he’s FBI and a “good guy”, right? I think it would be interesting to explore the parallels between Ballard and Alpha: both want to save her, both want her for themselves, both are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their goals. Do either of them have Echo’s interests at heart, or are they exercising their own male sense of knowing what is best for her?

    I honestly see Dollhouse as Joss’ updating of the Stepford Wives to the “Stepford” Companions. I think it’s a commentary on how society has become obsessed with appearance over substance, the superficial over the substantial, the easy way versus the compromise and hard work of establishing a relationship with another fully independent human being.

    Thanks for this forum and for making me THINK!

  6. I’m male, but autistic. I may be able to help with your query in acquiring male perspectives, but I am not the same as the grand majority of male individuals. I often don’t check gender boxes because for the most part I am not a part of the male demographic recognized by the check of that box. That said…

    Victor – I agree to an extent that it seems worse somehow to see that men are also victims of the Dollhouse. This is because society in general values males higher than females. During the (real world) investigation of the polygamous Mormon compound, there was a news clip I saw that said evidence suggested that boys as well as girls were suspected to have been sexually abused, the message being shock at the idea that boys could have been hurt. Were there no influence of sexism, it would have been described just as more children than previously suspected.

    Anyway, I think the main shock of Victor’s dollhood involves the fact that men are turned into submissive sexual objects. These traits in particular, I mean. I’ve seen a lot of shows with male slaves. In the play (I haven’t seen the movie) The King and I, there’s male slaves all over the place, treated as background objects, and there’s a sexualized female slave character. This fits the norm, pretty much. The movie Spartacus has male slaves who rebel heroically. At one point a male slave runs away from a bisexual guy who threatens to rape him. This is fairly normal depiction here, with straight men retaining macho characteristics, not to mention some using homophobic shock value. On the other hand, Victor is not only sexualized but turned submissive, which is not something usually seen in male characters. When it’s November and Echo, we accept it more because it just (excuse me) echoes that which we’ve seen over and over, but it’s jarring to see Victor at that same level. You could say the Dollhouse is gender equality, making everyone equal in their dehumanization.

    What I kind of think of Victor as is this cute and lovable guy. You just want to hug him when he’s so freaked out that people were fighting on him. That’s the kind of character that is usually female – I might make a comparison to Kaylee of Firefly. But he is actually a person, not a toy, and he has his serious moments that make you realize that.

    When Alpha cuts him, it feels like such a big crime because Victor is an innocent. While the face might be a big target for women, I can think of instances where men sport facial scars that speak of their coolness. Off the top of my head, there’s the cartoon ReBoot where the boy Enzo’s eye gets cut during a battle, and it’s an emotional defeat that turns into a cool scar when he grows up to become a warrior. Victor, though, he’s a submissive sex toy, like some of the women, so he feels like he’s on the same level as the women. As you say, there’s the focus on his beauty having been ruined.

    “Not being male, I can’t really speak about this with too much authority”

    I can’t speak for them. Not the people you mean. I empathize with women anyway. I do empathize with Victor in the same way I empathize with the female dolls, though.

    Alpha – The thing with him is that his “soul” was a psychopath, and so he is too. A theme in that episode is that who a person was before they were wiped never really disappears and in fact affects the imprints. Alpha’s original self was crazy and violent (and had a thing for face carving), and so Alpha was imbued (that’s the word) with these basic characteristics. Even in tabula rasa state he’s a creepy sexual predator and mutilates Whiskey on impulse. In contrast, Echo’s original self was a subversive liberator, and so are her imprints likewise imbued with these characteristics. So, I don’t think the Dollhouse is at fault at all with Alpha, or is society at fault for making him that way – he was that way already; the Dollhouse just accidentally made him a more capable killer.

    I think you may be biased by your initial interpreting of the Alpha character. I also thought he was a heroic sociopath character at first, but that’s more thematic structure than insight into his character. Remember, though, that the way he brought Echo out of her imprint was through sending a rapist psychopath to hunt her.

    “I brought a lot of this discussion back to women”

    The whole series of articles is about “Feminism and Joss Whedon”. Bringing the discussion back to women seems a perfectly natural function of the article. If you did so inappropriately, I didn’t see.

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