Dollhouse: Belonging

I edited this post to add an important point which I somehow managed to leave out this morning! Sorry. Jump to it if you’d like!

Otherwise known as the “Look, everyone suddenly has morals!” Edition.

So, a lot of people are raving about this episode, saying it’s the most amazing one this season, etc etc, and I’m sorry, but I’m just not seeing it. I felt like the show just made a huge logical leap. Yes, it’s been growing towards this point, but this was like…looking outside the window and seeing a sapling in the morning, and there being a mature oak tree in the afternoon. Too much, too fast, and not believable (within the realm of the show, I mean).

We are to suddenly believe that the Gary Stu…sorry, I mean Topher Brink…suddenly grew morals? All of a sudden? Just because Echo showed him a painting? It doesn’t fit with what I know of his character. Yes, he’s been gradually pushing towards it and there have been bits and hints here and there, but…seeing as how I view Topher as Joss’ Gary Stu, it almost seemed like Joss trying to work out his guilt over the show, in some ways. I think he does feel bad about the criticism, and this was him throwing out a bone, and it made me feel a bit ill, honestly.

One of the biggest criticisms of Dollhouse has been that it depicts rape and human trafficking. So this episode put these plots in the foreground, and that almost made it worse; apparently it’s only rape because Priya was abducted and is being used, over and over, by Nolan. It’s only rape because of the extenuating circumstances, not because it’s, you know. Rape. This despite the fact that Priya clearly felt violated by what had been done to her and her body. Yes, some of that violation stemmed from the horror at being “whored out” (in his words) over and over to a slimeball, but it’s telling that she felt this violation even though she didn’t personally remember those experiences. This would seem to suggest that, you know, other Dolls might also wake up bitterly unhappy when they find out everything that’s happened. Just a thought.

Oh, and it’s only human trafficking when the coercion is totally obvious? It’s not trafficking when people are more subtly coerced and pressured? When people are lied to and given incomplete information? It was only trafficking because in Priya’s case she was literally strongarmed into the Dollhouse? No, thank you.

And I really dislike the message the show seems to be sending, which is “something bad happen to you? Why not just erase it and make it go away.” I think we’ve all had that feeling sometimes, the desire to erase the past, but would we really want to? Is the best solution to trauma simply pretending it didn’t happen? Within the framework of the Dollhouse, I would argue no, because the Actives are clearly left with unresolved issues as a result of their supposedly erased trauma. But, in the sense of a larger message, is telling people to avoid hard reality really a great thing to do? When we see Priya at the end deciding to be wiped and asking Topher to erase this day from her history, it leaves me with a sense of uneasiness. The message that real world actions don’t have consequences, that you can just erase them from your life and not have to live with them, that’s a dangerous message to be communicating to viewers, I think.

Maybe I’m way off base here. Maybe I’m just tired of the adulation of Joss Whedon from people who act like he can do no wrong, from people who refuse to engage with the problematic nature of his shows. And those same people are raving about this episode, saying “see, he’s addressing these issues you humourless feminists keep whining about, the show is about more than you think it is, it’s a sweeping commentary on society, Joss Whedon can do no wrong.” But Dollhouse is speaking to a very human desire, the desire to erase, to “fix” things by making them go away, and I am liking the way that this is framed less and less as the show progresses.

It was nice to see a Sierra-centric episode, don’t get me wrong. Dichen is a way better actress than Eliza, and she really knocked this one out of the park. But I ended up being disappointed in this episode within the framework of the show because it didn’t fit with what I know and what I have seen, and I almost felt like it trivialized the very real complaints being raised about the show. It felt like a slap in the face to me, honestly.

At the same time, as a standalone, it was a solid episode. It was one of the better ones this season. I know it sounds odd to talk about being disappointed and angered by it while still recognizing it as good. It was good, I just think it should have come a few more episodes down the line. They jumped the morals gun a bit too quickly, and as a result, it felt forced to me; even though these characters were heading in this direction, they should not have been chivvied along like this.

I have very little trust and patience left for Joss. He’s made some good television, and he’s made some truly horrible decisions, and Dollhouse is looking more and more like a horrible decision.

Edited to Add: So, in discussing this episode with someone else, I realized that I managed to leave out a rather important critique of this episode when I wrote this post this morning. I actually meant to talk about it and thought it was here but it obviously wasn’t, because this person was like “uh, how could you not mention this?!”

So: Can I talk, for a moment, about how monumentally offensive the framing of mental illness was in this episode? First we have Priya being taken without having the capacity for consent so that Topher can “cure” her mental illness, and he’s patting himself on the back for being such a great person. And then, we have the Great Reveal, which is that actually Priya’s mental illness was deliberately created and not real. And then, suddenly, then it is bad that Priya is in the Dollhouse because she’s actually just a Normal Girl!

Yes, that’s right. It’s not bad that they effectively abducted someone who did not have the capacity for consent to conduct an illegal experiment on her, it’s bad that they entered a Normal Girl into the Dollhouse under false pretenses. What. The. Heck. And why oh why did Priya choose to go back to the Dollhouse when given choice (assuming that she was), knowing this about them?!

I know that I can’t blame every bad thing in Dollhouse on Joss, but this is a Major Bad Thing, and he clearly signed off on it even if he didn’t come up with it. And people continue to defend this show? People continue to try to argue that it has some merit, when it’s actually just a sexist, ableist vomfest?!

(For the record, the first eight comments on this post were left before this edit was made.)

13 Replies to “Dollhouse: Belonging”

  1. My name is Connie and I worship Joss Whedon. Yes, I’m one of those. And I don’t think any 12 step program can help me. I’m not a computer geek, a classic nerd, graphic novel devotee, but a nearly 60 year old feminist. I will admit that my “bias” toward anything Whedon has probably colored my opinion of Dollhouse. I also admit that I have some problems with Dollhouse, but not many. I preferred the satirical approach of Buffy to the dark, seriousness of Angel. Of course, my deep seated dislike of Cordelia Chase made watching Angel somewhat difficult at times. I skipped Firefly because the lead character, Mal, was played by the evilest, most misogynistic character in the Whedonverse – Caleb, otherwise known as Nathan Fillion. Fortunately, I’ve overcome that and adore Fillion now.
    Belonging blew me away, much like Epitaph 1. I started reading the blogs and comments last night as soon as the show was over. The about face for Topher in last night’s episode hooked me; I believed it. From episode 1, Topher has done nothing but grate on me. Even his “humorous” lines made me dislike him more. Why? Because the Actives were not human to him. Last night, Eureka!, the light bulb went off. FINALLY! A comparison comes to mind: going from “I love animals” to becoming vegetarian or vegan. I’ve seen the instantaneous click in so many people; I have heard the stories of others. Sometimes it was a film, others simply a photograph that made an “animal lover” make a life altering decision to stop eating the flesh of nonhuman animals. So, the “jump” for Topher didn’t seem like a big stretch to me. His world had been rocked early in this season due to Dr. Saunders. I think he’s been reevaluating both his attitude and his actions throughout this season. I don’t change my mind easily, as evidenced by my reference to Cordelia & Caleb earlier, and I’ve resisted the pressure from friends that Topher wasn’t really BAD, but by the end of the show last night I became much more sympathetic to the character.
    My take on Dollhouse isn’t anything I’ve seen echoed on the Internet, although I agree with whoever is saying that it’s Joss’ commentary on society. Speaking about the U.S., our society is preoccupied with physical appearance above all else. Beauty and perfect bodies are the currency that drives our economy, desires, psyches, lives. If you aren’t beautiful, either male or female, then you have little or no value and are invisible. The “perfect” relationship? Someone who likes everything YOU like, does everything YOU do, looks the way YOU think he/she should, and above all else, strives to please YOU. No questions, no disagreements, no taking out the trash, no “not tonight honey, I have a headache” – simply no complications. Sounds like a DOLL to me or, better yet, the 21st Century version of a Stepford Wife (or husband, now). Everyone (or seemingly most) want to live in Disneyland, where there is no crime, no trash on the street, everyone is happy 24/7, no one has pimples or diseases.
    The “beautiful” pressures have existed for women for at least 100 years and I’m not trying to minimize that. I see it currently being extended to men, more than ever before. Of course, there is a backlash best seen in the schlub gets the gorgeous “girl” movies that do great at the box office. But vanity and a preoccupation with looks are affecting the 20 something males in our society too. I think Dollhouse is an accurate portrayal of this, but I could be wrong…………………after all, I really, really do love Joss!

  2. I also think it’s a commentary on society, but that doesn’t give it a free pass, in my book. Lots of things are commentaries on society, but that doesn’t erase content which is extremely problematic. Dollhouse is an extremely problematic show and I see very few people recognizing that, let alone engaging with it. In fact, the pushback from Whedon fans who think that he can do no wrong has been so strong that I know several people who have stopped writing about the show because they felt so much pressure. Those who do recognize the problems simply write it off with “it’s all for a greater purpose,” “he’ll redeem it in the end,” etc, and they point to episodes like this to justify their views.

    I don’t have a problem with the portrayal of problematic issues, but I have serious problems with the way they are framed in this show. And I have a serious problem with the attitude that I am supposed to love it without reservations because it’s Joss. Dollhouse has some merits, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t criticize it. I think a lot of people miss that. All of Joss’ shows have had serious problems, including very troubling depictions of women and very disturbing attitudes about women. But, oh no, Joss says he’s a feminist, so it’s ok! Kind of how like Glee is “ironic” so it’s ok that it’s racist and ableist.

  3. I’m certainly not finding fault with your critique/criticism. In fact, I went to this blog first after the show, hoping you’d have a commentary up. I get rankled that there are still folks out there saying Buffy was for adolescent “girls.” Do I think there should be college level classes devoted to Buffy, no. It was a great show and I still enjoy watching episodes multiple times. But, I’m a television junky.

    I guess one of the things that I enjoy about Joss’ work is that there are many levels/layers to it. I find the work more complex than most everything else on TV which, in itself, is refreshing. I think our experiences cause us to view his shows through a variety of lens’. Are his shows as Feminist as I would like, no. Is there anything out there that has some, if any, feminist commentary? From what I watch, Bones comes the closest. In my experience, feminism is a four letter word, whether on TV or in real life.

    Again, I truly enljoy hearing your point of view and I respect it. I just may not always agree 100%. I think I’d be scared if I found someone that I agreed with 100%. I’ve been out of step for my entire life, so if that happened I’d be anticipating a lightning strike.

    To further support your Joss problems, he will directing an episode of Glee. Trust me, when I read that my reaction was: Please, say it ain’t so. Apparently, he does have feet of clay.

  4. He’s actually extremely enthused about the Glee episode, which doesn’t really surprise me, given his record on racial issues and disability issues. I’m sure the episode will be a trainwreck, but so are all Glee eps, and the director really doesn’t have very much control over content, so…can’t fault him for that.

    And Joss has definitely done more to advance feminist ideas on television than anyone else working right now. But that’s where I encounter problems: Some people (not accusing you here) seem to think that putting in any effort at all means he deserves a cookie and a free pass. Whereas I think, great, effort is being made, that is terrific, but I am also going to hold him accountable when he fucks up. I’m going to hold him accountable more than other people in Hollywood because he claims to care about and to be sensitive to feminist issues.

  5. Can a man really be a feminist? Maybe I’m just too old fashioned. I just don’t think that anyone can “walk in someone else’s shoes.” Can a “normal” sized woman understand what it’s like to live life as a fat woman? Can the “abled” understand the problems, misunderstandings, hurdles faced by the disabled? Can whites really know what it feels like to have red, brown or black skin? Yeah, there’s empathy, but it’s not the same. Living in one’s “less than desirable/perfect body” is 24/7. It’s reality. So, I give Joss points for trying, but expect it to be flawed. Hell, most women don’t get feminism, so how the heck can some man? Personally, the anti-feminist and feminism denying women tick me off more than feminist men who don’t quite get it do. I don’t think he deserves a free pass, but I will cut him slack.

  6. “And I really dislike the message the show seems to be sending, which is “something bad happen to you? Why not just erase it and make it go away.””

    I’m trending toward the idea that those who are in control of the Dollhouse – like Topher – think that erasing it and making it go away is a good thing. But countering that with Echo’s message that everyone has to “wake up”, and how Priya essentially opted to go to sleep again (made clearer by her telling Topher to erase that particular day if he ever woke her up again), I think the message so far is the opposite. That people, when things are too hard or hurt too much, want to erase that, and those reasons are understandable. But the real work comes with waking up, and you can’t face the storm while asleep.

    “We are to suddenly believe that the Gary Stu…sorry, I mean Topher Brink…suddenly grew morals? All of a sudden? Just because Echo showed him a painting? It doesn’t fit with what I know of his character.”

    I fully admit that I like Topher, but it seemed fairly organic to me. Of course, I’m also working from the theory that having Dr. Saunders/Whiskey no longer there to do the moralizing for him has taken away his [redacted for ableist language] and forced him to do it himself, since no one else was really stepping up to that plate.

  7. petpluto, that’s an interesting theory. Maybe I am resistant to Topher’s (what I view as sudden) change because I have from the start viewed him as a fundamentally amoral character, and I have a hard time seeing him in any other way. As I said in the post, I didn’t feel like the show wasn’t going in this direction, as it very clearly was, but rather I feel that this went way too quickly for me. Given that we’re only likely to see six more episodes ever, though, I can see why they might choose to chivvy things along a bit.

  8. Also, Connie, I think it’s very important to avoid playing identity police here; earlier posts in the Feminism and Joss Whedon series were indeed called “Is Joss Whedon a Feminist,” but the title was meant to be provocative, not literal, and I changed it when people repeatedly misinterpreted it.

    I know that some women believe that men cannot be feminist and can only identify as feminist allies, but Joss Whedon identifies himself as a feminist and has explicitly identified some of his work as feminist. We can analyze it to question whether or not these claims are supported by his actions, but I shy away from challenging his identity.

    Indeed, I am harder on his work than that of other Hollywood auteurs because of his claims and I hold him to a higher standard than other artists and many other feminists because he is so prominent. Many people view Joss Whedon as the face of feminism, and take away the message that everything that happens in his work is feminist. Hence, I feel entitled to criticize him very heavily when he trips up.

    “Men can’t be feminists” also skirts a little bit too closely to gender essentialism and the binary view of gender for my comfort. I don’t identify with the female gender, but I do identify as a feminist. I have a problem with people, therefore, who say that only women can be feminists. It gets into very, very shaky ground.

  9. Let me start by apologizing if my previous posts came across as either judgmental or offensive. I’ll be the first to admit that my ability to express myself in written form is vastly dwarfed by yours. I personally think that communicating with each other as humans is one of the most difficult things we do. We may mean one thing when we say or write it, but it is interpreted/perceived as meaning something else by the person with whom we are communicating. My previous attempts were meant only to express my personal opinion, not to critique nor judge yours. That said, your addendum caused me to rethink the acquisition (recruiting?) of Priya. It raised a number of questions for me.

    I don’t have a photographic memory, so I haven’t memorized each episode to the extent of most Dollhouse fans. I can only remember two detailed recruitment/acquisition back stories: Caroline and Priya. A third, that of Alpha, was given within the story, but I don’t remember an interview with him on screen. (Thoughts of Illyria and Fred just popped into my head!) Consent. It is something we face in our daily lives. Do we have all of the pertinent information to make this decision? Are there other, better choices or options? What will the consequence(s) be if we agree to this? Do we even consider the consequence(s) first? Are we qualified (mentally, physically, financially) to give this consent? Are we being manipulated or taken advantage of by the other person? Have we examined their motives or what’s in it for them? Do we even care? Or should we just sign on the dotted line? What percentage of people ask any of these questions before giving their consent? What percentage of people are even capable of thinking about asking these questions first? Do any of us make our best decisions when faced with a deadline or limited options? I am not denying that Priya was further victimized, in a morally repugnant way, by Topher, Adelle and TPTB of the Dollhouse. I just don’t know if Jed, Marissa and Josh intended to say that it’s okay to recruit a person who isn’t capable of consent, but not okay if that person was chemically manipulated into that situation.

    What do we know about Viktor’s recruitment? So far, to my knowledge, we’ve been given the impression that he was a soldier. Whatever happened to him was apparently, at least to my mind, traumatizing. Was he suffering in a hospital or on the streets or back home with PTSD? Was he in control of his full faculties when he signed his life away to the Dollhouse? When and under what circumstances is it really okay for someone to agree to become an Active? Should we ever be able to “check out” on our lives?

    Skillfully executed or not, most of Joss’ shows illicit thought provoking discussions, often leaving us with more questions than answers. How many other shows even make the attempt? May I say that I’m just thrilled that there is someone there (YOU!) for me to discuss this with. None of my friends or co-workers watches much television. Some don’t even know who Joss Whedon is! THANK YOU.

  10. “And people continue to defend this show? People continue to try to argue that it has some merit, when it’s actually just a sexist, ableist vomfest?!”

    Yes, though I definitely see where others wouldn’t feel that way. I continue to see it as a show that has merit because I think it is showing a version of the world we live in – and positing that it is a bad thing. Businesses like KBM being all cozy with the rich and the government, using those connections to protect their ability to trample upon the rights of those they employ, are – for me – very much like the Dollhouse.

    I think the show has issues and problems; I think the show isn’t as good as it could have been. But almost every week I fall down on the side that the show manages demonstrate a problematic, exploitive world instead of simply being a problematic show that is exploitive. I certainly think sometimes it crosses into the second, and that’s an issue for me. And there are some things that are straight up bad, like the Priya-mental illness reveal.

  11. While I’m not onboard for some of your overarching criticism of the show, I can really sign off on the things wrong with this episode. From Stage Fright over Epitath One and now this, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen just doesn’t seem to have it in them to write nuanced or thought-through plots. The notion that what happened in this episode is sooo different from what goes on at a daily basis in the Dollhouse as to cause the great moral uprising in Adele and Topher is both ridiculous and insulting.

  12. @Anders: “The notion that what happened in this episode is sooo different from what goes on at a daily basis in the Dollhouse as to cause the great moral uprising in Adele and Topher is both ridiculous and insulting.”

    To be fair, the episode itself does raise that question. Harding asks Adelle “What are we already?” and mocks her sudden shock regarding the awful story of Priya. The awfulness of her induced mental-illness is coded via Adelle’s and Topher’s sudden realization, but the show does have other characters looking at them and going: “Ah, NOW you’re shocked?!” Same thing with Joe Hearn in Season 1: One of the truest lines in the show so far for me has been when Hearn faces Adelle and says “Did you think this would never happen?” And of course, there’s Dominic putting on his best “told you so”-face in Epitaph One. So that’s three different Very Bad Guys (which Adelle and Topher rationalize themselves not to be) over the course of 12 episodes actually confronting Adelle’s (and our) “shock” of the Very Bad Situation. I’d say the show doesn’t ignore that issue at all.

    As for the induced mental-illness: It is very yuck how Topher went “Cool” when he heard about the girl he could help by curing her. It is supposed to be yuck. Nothing in that scene says to me “It was okay back then, it’s not okay after the Big Reveal.” Topher going “Cool” is not the show going “Cool”. Topher’s rationalized idea of “help”, his self-justification for doing these horrible things, is actually the circular narrative that keeps the two storys together. His “I only wanted to help her” is the first line of the episode. He wanted to help her back then, he wanted to help her now, and both times, he was way off the mark. “Belonging” is an incredibly circular story, just like Buffy’s “Normal Again”, and Topher’s notion of “help” held it together, tying the awfulness of the back-then situation to the now suddenly discovered Real Awfulness, unmasking the latter, and deliberately saying that it has been awful all along.

    As for the “It’s not trafficking when…”-argument: I really don’t see where this comes from, since this story is definitely not *negating* the horribleness of the other stories. As I said, it is actually right on screen asking us why we think this is especially new, more horrible or more outrageous than anything that came before. And Echo (not Priya) said “I don’t have a choice, do I?” in the very first dialog of the show.

    As for why Priya chose to stay: For me, this is the core element of the show, its premise. For me, the fundamental message of the show has been form the beginning: If this technology exists, people would succumb to it, they would go there to wipe away the pain, and they would pay an enormous price to do so. Joss Whedon said that he read the news of memory-deleting experiments on mice, and thousands of people writing in to the scientist asking them to be test subjects. The show is grounded in the idea that it would unrealistical to think that people would *not ever* do this. They would, and it would in most cases be tied to some form of coercion. That’s why it made perfect sense to me that Priya would go back, you know, plus the fact the she probably didn’t have a choice.

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