Monday, April 20, 2009

Dollhouse, Joss Whedon, and the Strange and Difficult Path of Feminist Dudes: Some Thoughts


Here is a thing that will surprise you: I did not like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I know! I know! Everybody liked Buffy! Specifically, every pro-feminist lady who's into Strong Female Characters and has a medium-to-high tolerance for nerdy science fiction stuff and had a hard time in high school, especially ladies who are aware that Joss Whedon, the show's creator, identifies openly and specifically as a feminist and talks about how great feminism is pretty much all the time. I fit, in pretty much every way, the profile of somebody who should like Buffy - yet, for reasons I can't quite articulate except in long-winded blog post form, I never connected to it in the ways I've been told I should.

Part of it was the cotton-candy sweetness of it all, the pandering to nerds and dorks and ladies in the form of delivering on-screen avatars who are far more articulate and charming and, in some cases, possessed of actual magical powers, than any of us could ever be. I, unlike a lot of feminist ladies, get annoyed with Strong Female Characters Who Kick Ass, because it seems to me that making your heroine actually magical and skilled in various made-up martial arts is a really silly way to go about delivering Female Empowerment to your viewers, who will have to be strong on a day-to-day basis without access to superpowers or magic. Yeah, yeah: it's a metaphor. It just wasn't a metaphor that worked for me. The strength was always just a little too superhuman, the magic too magical, the villains too obviously and literally demonic, and Buffy - most crucially - way too adorable for me to buy in. And perhaps it will help you to understand when I tell you that the only episode that I really connected with, on an emotional level, was "Ted," which nobody seems to like, and this was because (a) it was, to a spooky degree, representative of my own interactions with a certain stepfather, and (b) for the first two acts, at least, Ted was not a monster.

Which leads me to: this new show, Dollhouse. Are you watching it? Oh my goodness, it is amazing. It is also the Whedon show that has drawn the most critique from other feminists: because it depicts rape of a very "gray" variety, because it doesn't condemn the forced prostitution and human trafficking it conveys strongly enough, because its characters aren't Strong or lovable in the way they have been in past Whedon shows. Fair points, all! Also: points with which I disagree.

Dollhouse is, pretty much specifically and entirely, a show about consent. It's built around an organization - the titular Dollhouse - which erases volunteers' personalities and memories and renders them childlike and passive, in order to implant them with new, built-to-order personalities custom made for wealthy clients who wish to order the "perfect" person for a specific job. The purpose for which these mind-wiped folks (called "dolls," and I do not think that we are for a second supposed to miss how creepy that term is) are rented out is, primarily, sex. Also, they have no knowledge of or ability to consent to the "engagements" for which they are rented out. Also, they seem, in large part, to not really be volunteers at all - most of the ones we know about, including the central character, Echo, have become dolls in order to get out of jail time or worse, and one woman in particular was literally sold into the organization. Also, several Dolls have been used for sex by Dollhouse employees, sometimes with the illusion of consent in place and sometimes not.

So, at this point, people were like, "um, is noted feminist auteur Joss Whedon aware that he is making a show about forced prostitution and rape?" Whedon's politics have repeatedly been called into question, and usually for damn good reason. (Here is the thing about doing stuff that appeals to politically engaged audiences: you cannot fuck up politically and have people fail to notice or just go, "oh well, par for the course, ha ha ha!" You get yelled at. Sorry. Deal.) Dollhouse, in particular, had the potential to be hugely offensive. Here is the thing: Whedon, unlike most folks and many feminist or progressive-identified dudes, seems to actually listen when he is called out and to improve his work accordingly. In the case of Dollhouse, I think he is doing smarter work than he ever was. Getting smarter about oppression, I would submit to you, requires making the visible manifestations of it or metaphors for it much, much uglier.

The answer to whether Joss Whedon and his showrunners know how rape-culturey the entire Dollhouse concept is would seem to be, at this point, a big huge Yes. The Dollhouse is a giant metaphor, not only for rape culture, but for patriarchy and oppression at large: even the boy dolls are girls, stripped of agency or access to power and cast in pre-defined roles to fulfill the fantasies of the folks who are actually in charge. When they have sex, they aren't consenting - they've been made to think that they are consenting, by being made to think that they are the people who would consent to such things. They exist either in a state of infantilization and non-personhood (in which they are "cared for" by people who have a vested interest in continuing to use them) or implanted with false consciousness in which they are not aware of what's being done to them. I mean, false consciousness: Whedon's metaphors, they are rarely subtle. Their reactions to learning this, when they "wake up" (which Whedon has shown them doing, albeit briefly) are horror, disgust, and rage at how deeply they've been violated.

You can't just stake the enemy or cast a spell at him or throw him into Hell this time. The enemy surrounds you and controls you and is much, much bigger than any one person. The enemy is in your head: it controls what you're allowed to think, what you're allowed to know, who you're allowed to be. Resistance, this time, isn't about throwing punches. It's about getting your mind back. It's about reclaiming your right to define who you are - your right to be a person.

That seems, to me, like a much bigger and more profound and all-encompassing metaphor than saying that some boys are vampires and will turn evil if you fuck them. Just saying.

One of Whedon's perennial concerns is masculinity in a feminist era: if women are so powerful now, how are guys supposed to relate to them? It's a good question, and one of the better themes a male writer can explore, if he's willing to do it honestly. Whedon has offered solutions before but they've always been imperfect, because they haven't addressed how pervasive gender inequality is, and how much we're all complicit in it, how our thoughts and perceptions are informed by it from Day 1 simply because it is the context in which we live. In Dollhouse, he's giving it deeper and more sustained focus than ever, and is more willing than ever to implicate masculinity: in parallel to the story of how the dolls work to reclaim their personhood, there's the story of the people who take it away from them on a day-to-day basis, and how they justify their actions.

They tell themselves they're protecting the dolls. They tell themselves that they're doing the dolls a favor, by taking away the responsibilities of personhood. They tell themselves they're doing society a favor by keeping the dolls' services available. They tell themselves that the best way to fix the system is to work within the system. They tell themselves that the dolls aren't really people, so none of it matters. Sometimes, they don't have to tell themselves anything: they just like the thrill of being in charge.

Whedon has done a lot of shows about magically powerful women and the men who protect them (Buffy had Giles, River had Simon and Mal), which is sweet - hey, at least they aren't actively seeking to take power away from those women - but also paternalistic and troubling, and in Dollhouse he seems to know and specifically address just how creepy it is. Lots of parallels have been drawn between the "handler," Boyd, who is a protective father figure to Echo, and Giles, who is a protective father figure to Buffy, and those parallels are correct. However, this time around, Boyd is also directly invested in keeping Echo powerless: he's the guy in the creepy van, who takes her back to the Dollhouse to have her self taken away once she's served her purpose, and if she were a whole person, she might not need him at all. The question of whether he loves her enough to help her free herself is continually raised. Paul Ballard, the FBI agent who wants to "save" Echo, is also implicated: a hero, sure, but also weirdly and sexually preoccupied with "saving" a girl he doesn't know so that she will love him, a person just as involved in projecting his desires onto a blank slate as any Dollhouse client. The show doesn't steer around that fact. You don't hate these men - you love them, in fact - but Whedon is far more willing than ever before to implicate them in the oppression that he condemns. He's toyed with ambiguity and complicity before, but this time around, ambiguity and complicity are what the show is about.

Because then, there's Topher, the programmer, who is responsible for constructing the artificial personalities and implanting them in the dolls, who is a dorky blonde guy just like Whedon and who speaks in distinctly Whedonian cadences and lines, and who we are encouraged to dislike more than almost anyone else in the series. What you hear, when you hear Topher speaking about how difficult it is to construct a believable personality, how all of his creations have to be full and nuanced and have reasons for how they behave, how achievement is fueled by lack and he gave her asthma because that made her a more complete person and blah blah blah, is noted feminist auteur Joss Whedon reflecting, very consciously and very obviously, on his life's work - hiring gorgeous women and making them into who he wants them to be - and saying that sometimes, he feels kind of icky about it. It's a beautiful thing: brave, and self-questioning, and radical in a way that entertainment by dudes - even entertainment by dudes who identify as feminist - very rarely is, and in a way I trust more than I'm used to trusting my entertainment, and in a way that I've come to expect from the show as a whole.

Which, as I found out while writing this piece, has pretty much been cancelled.

Oh, well. Par for the course. Ha ha ha.

97 comments:

  1. Man, I understood the kill bill thing, I def see the whole superbad issue, but man...I just don't know if I can handle you dissing BUFFY!!!!! Not my Buffy. I just. can't. believe it. I feel like our friendship is based on lies. I'm going to go cry in my bed, holding a picture of us...

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  2. Awww, Kelly. I'm sorry. Let's get drinks tomorrow night and I can tell you why everything you love is wrong.

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  3. Don't assume it's cancelled. There are people inside Fox working hard to find a way to make it financially viable to renew, because they WANT to renew it.

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  4. This post is a lot like thoughts I've had about the show, but much better expressed than my attempts so far. I really like how we're following people (likeable to different degrees) who tell themselves they're helping some people by trafficking others. Because that's exactly how this kind of thing works in the real world. Both in the broader terms of denying people rights and in the specific terms of human trafficking. Even the idea of "well you signed a contract" is very real.

    I was pretty much beside myself when it was revealed that the "escape" was Dr. Saunders' idea. She and Boyd have been the two characters who've voiced dissent and true concern for the Actives, and yet they're both deeply invested in the Dollhouse. So few writers will show such sympathetic characters doing such terrible things out of a kind of misplaced kindness and dutiful obligation to an organization. It's chillingly accurate how realistically at odds their own actions and supposed motivations are.

    I really hope it comes back for a second season.

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  5. I came here from Whedonesque and your is the best analysis of this show that I have read. Thank you for helping me see the show more clearly. I am much happier now in my discomfort. Here's hoping Fox gives Whedon a chance to really explore.

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  6. Wow, I really enjoyed this. Your analysis is eloquent and engaging. Thank you for sharing!

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  7. The enemy surrounds you and controls you and is much, much bigger than any one person. The enemy is in your head: it controls what you're allowed to think, what you're allowed to know, who you're allowed to be. Resistance, this time, isn't about throwing punches. It's about getting your mind back.YES. This. This is the metaphor that I love about Dollhouse, and why I love the show. It's not just about rape or prostitution or human trafficking (though it is about all those things). It's about civilization and the world around us; how we, as women, have to struggle every day against messages that our worth is based on our bodies and our ability to please others. Watching the dolls struggle against this is like watching myself wake up from the long nightmare of my childhood and early adulthood: It's horrific and terrifying, which is exactly why I can relate.

    Thanks for this post. It was a great read.

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  8. This says it so much better than I did, thank you!

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  9. This is a great post! I have been watching Dollhouse since the beginning because my husband is a Joss Whedon fanatic. I really like it-- my main problem is how sometimes the creepy Doll activities seem kind of oversexualized like you (the viewer, I mean) are supposed to think they're hot-- all of Echo's revealing Doll clothes, for instance. But as the show goes on, all of the ambiguities and horrors have been coming out so that you can feel how creepy it all is and I love that the show is doing that.

    This post helps me appreciate it more because you extended the metaphors in some ways I didn't think of before.

    I hope it doesn't get cancelled!

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  10. I've come here a couple times via Shakesville, and today via Whedonesque. First time comment, and it's, unfortunately, a rather weak one, but, YES. This. Dollhouse does have all the stylistic things I like about Whedon, normally, but also this complexity and grayness to both the world and the characters that he's never had before. I think the show is fantastic, and I'm praying it'll be renewed...

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  11. This is articulated amazingly well--kudos. Your comparison between Whedon and Topher is particularly insightful.

    I was thinking that the Fox execs had made Whedon sex up the show a bit too much in the beginning, but whether or not that came from them or him, after reading your blog, I can see how he's making it work in really interesting and important ways.

    I'm definitely throwing in my vote for a second season. In my opinion, anything Joss does is, if nothing else, worth allowing to play out and worth keeping close tabs on.

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  12. Oddly enough, I was just mulling over the moral ambiguity in Dollhouse myself, and I have to say as a Buffy fan that you put your finger on one of the big problems of the show. It is indeed hard to accept as a lesson in female empowerment when women become empowered on the show primarily through supernatural means.

    This is what makes Echo's gradual awakening and self awareness all the more interesting, because she is fighting the enemy in her own mind, with her own powers. (Assuming that Alpha is not totally manipulating her.)

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  13. As you've pointed out, the real struggle is the assertion of personhood, or subjecthood, which is a drama played out in Echo's head - a perfectly inaccessible region where our attempts to understand fuse with our desires, until you can't be sure that your identification with the character is anything but your own wishes projected onto a blank. I'm convinced that Whedon contains inside him the mind of a dirty old man, running as if on a virtual machine, which he can examine and take notes on.

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  14. I'm a Whedon fan, and a Buffy fan. I had very high hopes for this show. I still wish it the best.

    But my personal bottom line is: I don't need someone to tell me how awful rape and human trafficking are- Every week, in new and exciting ways!

    I already got that memo, thanks.

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  15. Excellent analysis of Dollhouse! Thank you for the interesting read.

    The part of your post about "the enemy is in your head" reminds me of young River in Serenity: People don't like to be meddled with. We tell them what to do, what to think, don't run, don't walk. We're in their homes and in their heads and we haven't the right. We're meddlesome.I feel like Whedon would have explored the idea that civilization is the enemy in Firefly with the Blue Sun Corporation and the Alliance if the show hadn't been canceled. Nice that he has another chance to write about it.

    (I'm here from Whedonesque too.)

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  16. Thanks for such a well-written and insightful post; it articulated a lot of the reasons why I find the show so intriguing. I'm interested in how little faith viewers had in Whedon, even before the show began. Obviously, yes, the premise is repulsive, but after shows like Buffy and Firefly, I thought viewers would know to expect something subversive and thought-provoking. Instead the intarwebs were abuzz with articles like this one at Queerty, which opined, "Whedon has a thing for girls who have been empowered and abused by men (see: Buffy and the Watchers, River Tam and the men in blue gloves on Firefly) and Dollhouse looks to be the fullest expression of Whedon's inner desire to be the nerd capable of making the perfect woman." (http://www.queerty.com/joss-whedon-opens-a-dollhouse-of-infinite-sexuality-with-a-price-20090212/)

    "Empowered and abused by men"; "[his] inner desire to be a nerd capable of making the perfect woman"--what the shit? Were we watching the same shows? That was my reaction, anyway. And I wondered if the show would still be read as evidence of his possibly perverted desires if he were a noted *female* feminist auteur.

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  17. Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this.

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  18. Great analysis. Thanks for this!

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  19. This is a really fantastic analysis and has helped me to reconcile my conflicting thoughts about the show. So, thank you! And thanks for commending Joss for questioning himself as a person and a writer, rather than condemning him for it.

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  20. Very interesting piece you've written here. Very well thought out and interesting. I applaud you for that.

    While for the most part I agree with your assessment of the point and purpose of the show (a show about consent and a person's right to be), there are a few points I don't exactly disagree with, but could use some further clarification.

    In Dollhouse, he's giving it deeper and more sustained focus than ever, and is more willing than ever to implicate masculinity: in parallel to the story of how the dolls work to reclaim their personhood, there's the story of the people who take it away from them on a day-to-day basis, and how they justify their actions.

    Implicate masculinity in what exactly? Your next paragraph goes on to say,

    They tell themselves they're protecting the dolls. They tell themselves that they're doing the dolls a favor, by taking away the responsibilities of personhood. They tell themselves they're doing society a favor by keeping the dolls' services available. They tell themselves that the best way to fix the system is to work within the system. They tell themselves that the dolls aren't really people, so none of it matters. Sometimes, they don't have to tell themselves anything: they just like the thrill of being in charge.

    You jump from gender inequality, the rise of feminism and how males might not be able to deal with that, to one of the shows core principles and I'm not quite sure of the correlation between masculinity and the people of the Dollhouse justifying their actions.

    Unless of course your implying a parallel between the justifications of men for the oppression of women and the justifications of the Dollhouse for its oppression of everyone. But I'm still at a loss as to what you claim Whedon is implicating masculinity for given that the Dollhouse personnel are women as well....which is an interesting consideration as well.

    I'm also a little ambivalent about your comparison of Topher and Whedon. I understand the similarities, but it's one thing to "recreate" people and enable for "use" by the highest bidder and quite another thing to write scripts and hire actresses to play the parts. Especially given the consent issue and how it's quite questionable in the case of the Dollhouse.

    What I also find interesting, more than anything else really, is the character of Topher in light of nearly everyone else involved with the Dollhouse. He alone is probably in the least amount of denial with regard to what he's doing Chalk it up to his scientific and analytical mind, but he is in full knowledge of his actions and he finds the whole process utterly fascinating, cool, and is completely without remorse. He is perhaps the most selfish person ever created by Joss Whedon and I think he is also the most honest.

    Anyway...I've rambled on long enough. In case you're wondering, I really did enjoy reading this piece.

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  21. @Sunfire: EXACTLY. I kind of love the fact that we're not allowed to hate the employees of the Dollhouse, because it allows you to think about how good people lie to themselves or shield themselves from the consequences of their actions in order to stay powerful and safe within a messed-up system. Which isn't just about patriarchy (although it is about that), but about every kind of privilege, and how most of us are implicated and complicit in one thing or another, and how we're encouraged to ignore or excuse that in our own lives. I really like the direct parallels you're drawing to sex trafficking, too.

    @masagoroll: Yeah, I mean, some of Echo's outfits on her assignments are WAY pornsexy - that dominatrix outfit? That was a LOT of Dushku on view - but I think back to the scene where an "awake" Echo watches a lady speaking French wander by in a similarly sexed-up outfit, and how sick and grossed-out she looks. We're continually encouraged to question the sexualization of the Dolls, I think, and our own responses to that.

    @Lauren: I love the Topher=Whedon thing. I was thinking it from the first episode, with his speech about creating character, but then, in one of the episodes (I can't remember which) he said, "if this is about the dolls speaking Mandarin instead of Cantonese, I can explain..." in this super-defensive, I-fucked-up tone. Which was a DIRECT reference to the criticisms of "Firefly," and exoticizing and misrepresenting Asian and Chinese culture therein, and it was coming THROUGH TOPHER'S MOUTH. Amazing.

    @meloukhia: Right? I mean, I could watch Buffy - maybe I overstated and made it seem that I disliked it, rather than just not actively liking or loving it - but, even with the magic-as-metaphor thing, I think that Echo moving from a disempowered place, and empowering herself, rather than having strength and power given to her by some outside force, is way more powerful. The enemies on Buffy didn't seem big enough or powerful enough to me, although I'm told this changed in later seasons - it's one thing to have a clearly defined enemy outside yourself, but more scary and realistic to find that enemy within.

    @kita: Really? I mean, I kind of think we don't address this stuff enough in entertainment - at least, not outside the whole "Taken" paradigm of some strong white dude coming in to rescue the ladies and fix it all in 90 minutes.

    @Everyone: WHOA, Whedonesque, that is a huge honor, and I really love everyone's comments. I'm going to come back and respond to more of them later because I feel like there are about nine billion potential awesome conversations going on. But thanks! So much! To everyone!

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  22. Very nice try. But. No. The idea of the show is repulsive. End of story. I know we can't all be as smart as you and Joss Whedon but from my vantage point there is exactly one guy today trying to make money off of the dollhouse idea. You know his name.

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  23. I love Buffy, but I actually totally agree about Dollhouse being a better feminist show. All the people who talk about it promoting prostitution, human trafficking, etc... It's kind of silly, don't they realize that the operators of the Dollhouse are the ANTAGONISTS? It's interesting, because some of the most heavily featured characters aren't supposed to be cookie cutter heroes...

    But yeah, I liked your thoughts. :)

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  24. Paul Ballard, the FBI agent who wants to "save" Echo, is also implicated: a hero, sure, but also weirdly and sexually preoccupied with "saving" a girl he doesn't know so that she will love him, a person just as involved in projecting his desires onto a blank slate as any Dollhouse client.Ballard is the perfect depiction of the "rescue fetishist" transferred to the Dollhouse universe: The man who sees sex workers, but wants to "take us away from all this". Who wants to save us so that we don't have to do this job anymore... except for the bit where he still expects the rescued whore to act grateful and sexually available, and remain in "work mode" for HIM once he's "saved her".

    The dream sequence that opened one ep where Echo thanks Bollard for saving her by pulling him down on the couch and making out with him is seriously textbook Captain Save-a-Ho fantasy.

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  25. There are also many women making money "off of the Dollhouse idea", so if that's your problem with it there is always Eliza Dushku (who created the whole thing along with Joss) and Maurissa Trancheon-Whedon to take the up with as well.

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  26. This is why I love your blog. You take things that I want to believe, so much, and you argue for them in a way that makes me believe. You talk about feminist issues in a way that is clever and amusing enough that I can read your posts aloud in my school's computer lab without fear of retribution.

    I also like how the women characters don't all look like perfect carbon copies of one another. November is hardly fat, but it's still pretty neat to see an average-sized woman in a major role on the Teevee (or really the Hulu, since I don't actually have a Television). And Dr. Saunders has all scars on her face and stuff! I have scars on my face, too (not as cool as hers, but still), so I like that. And several of the characters are almost as flat-chested as I am, and I also like that!

    Also, I'm really tired and have been working on stuff for finals for like sixteen hours straight because I am graduating really soon, so I'm sorry if this is totally incoherent.

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  27. I think all of this is really great, and that you break it down really well. I'd also like to add that there are other important issues at play here. On the whole, it's all very feminist-tastic but Dollhouse is also speaking on the broad range of problems in the patriarchy because the dolls and their handlers (essentially the blue collar Dollhouse positions) are often not only female/feminized but also of disadvantaged ethnic and/or class backgrounds.

    Sierra is ethnic, Victor is arguably ethnic, Sam (should he ever be officially introduced) is ethnic. Victor, based upon his accent and behavior during the test escape episode, is probably from a working class New York background. Sierra, while we don't know her financial status before entering the Dollhouse, was obviously not of a status to basically buy back her right to her own life after the jerk put her in. Echo's accent places her, like Eliza, as a lower middle class Bostonian. Sam, during the episode at the university, had a mother facing financial hardship to the point that he was willing to kill, steal, and possibly become a doll to save her. November was almost definitely a young, single mother considering that she would have to have few familial ties to suddenly disappear and we know that she lost her daughter.

    So I feel that, when contrasted with the fact that the people in charge of the company and doing the actual technical work are white, educated individuals, that's also an important aspect to consider.

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  28. I've enjoyed reading the post and the discussion continued in the comments following it. I'm not ashamed to admit that some of it, maybe most of it went over my head. Thank you all the same for pointing out few more layers behind the obvious ones and making me think twice the next time I watch an episode.

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  29. Great post. I think you might want to give Buffy season 6 a go - it's got up and downs, and Willow's magic-as-addiction-metaphor is one of the crudest, but the Warren storyline is one of the best ever, as a young misogynist dick turns out to be way more repulsive, and dangerous, than the worst demon.

    I think the challenging thing about Dollhouse for some is that you have to actually think about it. The morality isn't all neatly explained to you every 10 minutes, it relies on you working out that selling people into a form of slavery is awful all by yourself. And it shows you that you can care about the protagonists as well as the victims, and perhaps more frighteningly, you can identify with them.

    It might be more difficult than a cookie cutter "bad men rape women" style SVU thing, but it is ultimately much more effective because in the real world, quite nice people do horrific things. And people who should know better turn a blind eye because they don't want to upset anyone, and worse, because they understand. We feel more compassion for the pharma company manager with the debts and the sick kids who speaks our language and shares our culture than the faceless people who die because the medicine is too expensive. Or something like that. sorry, hard to think of the right example.

    And the show encourages the audience to enjoy some of the icky-ness - particularly the sexualised clothing and stuff. That's done with a knowingness too. It's not just Topher/(Whedon?) who participate, it's us as well. Which is why it is uncomfortable. And also why it is important.

    I think the beauty of it all is also that it's not some feminist-theory-based construct - it's people. Whedon is throwing real people (in not-so-real situations true) up on screen, and isn't afraid to show how they really do behave.

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  30. Woah! Thanks for such an insightful analysis, it's one of the best I've read on the web to date!

    I know lots of people have had problems with Dollhouse's "grey" morality, but I think it makes it all the more realistic. We don't live in a black & white world, but within shades of grey. Good people sometimes do bad things. Bad people have sometimes had things done to them that makes you understand them and feel a bit sorry for them. And all this is portrayed in Dollhouse. Joss may have overdone it in the sense that he is asking A LOT from his public, but personally I prefer that than being treated like a brainless sheep and being served up the latest procedural which is just a clone of the last x procedurals already out there!

    So here's for Joss Whedon and intelligent TV that makes us think, question our world and gives us lots to talk about!

    And here's to hoping we'll get a second helping! FINGERS CROSSED! :o)

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  31. Thank you for your insightful article. It's been linked to both Whedonesque and Television Without Pity, so I bet you get a lot of new readers (like me!)

    You deserve a PhD in Joss Studies and I hope they invite you to speak at one of those symposiums and publish your essay in a book. You've clearly and concisely expressed the many ideas that I've had rumbling in my head for 9 weeks now (and you've touched on some of the things I didn't like about Buffy, too.) There is no doubt that Dollhouse is Mr. Whedon's most mature work. It certainly has the potential to be landmark television--please don't cancel it, Fox!

    Your essay is really helping me re-examine how I feel about the early episodes. I had just dismissed them as Fox-mandated cheese with some Jossian satire and bits of mytharc thrown in, but now I'm grasping that they are sort of the control group of the Dollhouse TV experiment, the placebo pills before we were administered the hard stuff in Man on the Street. This is making me appreciate the appreciate the structure of Dollhouse's first season much more--it is also freaking me the hell out.

    Thanks again,
    RaginCajun67

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  32. Very well articulated. Interesting opinions on dollhouse- although i do feel like you might take the time to look deeper into buffy. You write as though Buffy is the only character in the show- decidedly not true. Yes, buffy was cotton candy with a side of kick ass wrapped up and stamped with the word "feminist", but what about faith, anya, terra, darla, cordelia, and all the other non-major female characters? I mean, cordelia was one of the best manifestations of feminism i've ever seen portrayed on t.v. or movies. She's a shallow, self-centered, snobby little bitch who only cares about designer cloths and being cool. Yet she picks up an axe on occasion- she faces down the same monsters buffy does without bursting into tears or running away, and what super powers does she have? I didn't watch and love buffy for buffy- i hated buffy- i loved it for the scubies and the monsters. In my expirience with joss (and i've seen almost everything he's ever done) it's never the main character who is most compelling.

    I feel the same way about dollhouse, yes i appreciate echo and her issues, ect. But echo is not the one to present us with the dollhouse's moral ambiguity. Adelle does that when she sleeps with victor, and when she curls up in his arms and cries because she has no one else. She says more about feminism and the complexities of human nature than some drone in sexy pajamas who occasionaly shows a spark of intellegence.

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  33. Also found your blog via Whedonesque; thanks so much for saying what I have wanted to about Dollhouse and not being able to articulate it. It's a show you need to see past the surface to comprehend, but you're right, for all its darkness, it is actually one of the best tales/discussions of empowerment I have seen recently on TV. It just does it from the perspective of someone needing/seeking empowerment, rather than someone who just starts the story empowered--which is why it is a much more effective story.

    (For the record, I DO like Buffy, but I agree its too literal demons and superpowers undermined any efforts to give it deeper meaning at time. Not to say you can't be effectively metaphorical with demons, but that particular show didn't always do a great job of it, especially early on.)

    I may have missed it being mentioned in your other comments, but no, the show is not (yet) cancelled. Here's a neat interview that discusses that and more: http://featuresblogs.chicagotribune.com/entertainment_tv/2009/04/dollhouse-joss-whedon-fox-eliza-dushku.html

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  34. The enemies on Buffy didn't seem big enough or powerful enough to me, although I'm told this changed in later seasons - it's one thing to have a clearly defined enemy outside yourself, but more scary and realistic to find that enemy within.If you haven't watched the later seasons of Buffy this is exactly the point. Many people didn't like season six for this reason, but I feel that makes season six the most important season of all -- it focused on the enemy within.

    I like your analysis of Dollhouse and am curious what you think of Joss so often putting a woman in charge of inherently patriarchal institutions of this type -- Lilah Morgan was in charge at Wolfram & Hart, now we have Adelle DeWitt. What does this say about the women who were complicit in the torture at Abu Ghraib, or about Margaret Thatcher, or about Sarah Palin, or about anyone who appears to be acting against their own self-interest, either in their use/abuse of power over others like themselves, or in their seemingly oblivious behavior?

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  35. Hi thanks for your article, I only had time to glance through the comments and I see that some others were feeling as I do, creeped/icked by the mind control/paternalistic/wait-a-minute-is-this-poorly-disguised-misogyny/or are there some things I cannot articulate/and f.c.s I just need things to be what they are sometime and not hidden in metaphors aspects. And wondering about my allegiance to Whedon... I still wonder but I feel somewhat less conflicted. I hope you decide to say more about this.

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  36. @Brian: My reaction to the Queerty piece was maybe not as negative as yours: I think they were in the same place that a lot of us were, towards the beginning of the show, identifying the issues but not sure whether Whedon would ever deal with them. What's interesting is that, while Whedon (and Eliza Dushku, who helped him to come up with the premise, apparently) conceived of it as a show about objectification and the roles women are made to fit into by society, Whedon has said that he didn't realize he was depicting ACTUAL HUMAN TRAFFICKING and rape until the show was already pretty much in place - and he hasn't been shy about implicating himself in interviews or in the show itself, ever since, for that blind spot. Which I think is a really courageous move on his part, looking at these fantasies and realizing that they contained things of which he was not initially aware.

    @shamoogity: Well, questioning yourself is what it's all about, right? It's especially a really crucial part of being any kind of ally. People who can't do that can't grow in any measurable way. So when someone does that I really admire them, and want to give them as much support as I can.

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  37. @stoicana: OK, your comment contains a lot of stuff, and my response will probably be really long-winded yet incomplete, but, the paragraph that you didn't conceive of as connecting to masculinity was actually me trying to rephrase a lot of patriarchal (or in other ways oppressive) lines of thought.

    "They tell themselves they're protecting the dolls" = Women just couldn't handle power the way men can, so let's not give them any. My sexism allows me to open doors for women! How horrible it would be if women had to open their own doors!

    "They tell themselves that they're doing the dolls a favor, by taking away the responsibilities of personhood" = Oh, Kitten, don't you worry your pretty little head about it, Daddy will take care of everything. Whatever would you do without a man to take care of you?

    "They tell themselves they're doing society a favor by keeping the dolls' services available" = But if women are empowered, who will clean our houses and birth our babies and give us blow jobs and such? We need an underclass so that society doesn't tear itself apart!

    "They tell themselves that the best way to fix the system is to work within the system" = OK, maybe some forms of VIOLENT misogyny are bad, but my benevolent sexism represents a vast improvement! No further change is necessary!

    "They tell themselves that the dolls aren't really people, so none of it matters" = Bitches are crazy, man. Can't live with 'em, can't kill 'em, am I right?

    "Sometimes, they don't have to tell themselves anything: they just like the thrill of being in charge" = Shit, I'm a MAN, I am who I am, I don't need to worry about what some hysterical hairy-legged lesbians think.

    And you can tie all of this into other rationales for other forms of oppression, too - I mean, people used to tell themselves that slavery was OK because black folks were essentially childlike and primitive and couldn't survive without benevolent slave-owners to feed them and clothe them and occasionally beat and/or rape them brutally and deprive them of their essential human rights. Some people are STILL arguing that black people should be GRATEFUL for slavery because it gave them a chance to come to America. These ways of thinking are pervasive and Dollhouse is doing a good job of showing how fucked-up they are in practice.

    Does that make sense?

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  38. I found this article via google. I posted a link on the Fox Dollhouse Wiki, so you should be getting some comments from people there.

    Your comments were very insigtful, and helped to explain why some people just can't seem to watch the show; for all its apparent sci-fi genre, it is just a little too realistic. I love how the show offers insight into just how manipulated; by media, politics, and society in general we all are.

    -Wrynn

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  39. Hey,
    I just popped over here from Whedonesque and I've not yet watched Dollhouse because it doesn't air in the UK until May.
    I was trying to decide whether or not the show is for me,but your post about it above has just sealed the deal.
    It sounds like a complex and very interesting show.
    Thanks for posting.

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  40. I'd agree with everyone who said you should check out later seasons of Buffy, in particular because of your Giles/Boyd comparison: "However, this time around, Boyd is also directly invested in keeping Echo powerless"

    I think it's made pretty clear in later seasons that the same is true of Giles and Buffy, and that it's a dynamic that was deliberately built into all slayer/watcher relationships.

    And while I totally agree with your analysis of Dollhouse, I just can't get into it the way I go into Buffy. It may be a more feminist show (though I'm not totally convinced), it might be a more challenging show, but it's just not as good a show.

    The acting isn't great, the dialogue is lackluster (and I don't mean just the lack of Whedonesque banter, I mean the constant, clumsy exposition, the way the FBI scenes play like a bad cop show knock-off), and while the mythology is interesting, the actual episode plots tend to be pretty thin.

    I really, really wanted to like this show. I've gone into every episode hoping it would be the one that turns it around, and I've been disappointed every time.

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  41. Thanks for the article - it's very close to my own feelings (I'm another whedonesque visitor). I do have some other niggling issues with Dollhouse, most notably its feeling of clunkiness which does surprise me compared to other Whedon shows (especially Firefly, being the most amazingly coherent and smoothly-flowing world), but as far as the themes go - yes, totally, that. I love the complicity of absolutely everyone in the show in the horrors that surround them, I love the constant rationalisations and refusal to accept that they are damaging other people through their own fantasies (Boyd as father figure, Ballard as white knight, Topher as incredible scientist, etc etc). I love how messed up it all is and how it shakes my morality up and makes me look at it from new angles.

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  42. I haven't actually watched 'Dollhouse' in part because I've never been able to fully embrace his previous shows (I too absolutely couldn't enjoy Buffy the TV series - the original movie, however, is a campy family favorite for my mom and I) and because the "gray rape" elements of this show kind of freaked me out from the beginning. However, maybe it's time I catch a few episodes online (since Fox relegated it to the graveyard time slot from the beginning)

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  43. lol you are dumb

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  44. Thanks for posting this, Sady. Got here via @katander on Twitter.

    I would argue that one can perform a feminist critique of a dramatic work or an artist's body of work, but I don't believe a dramatic work can be inherently (at least not primarily) "feminist" - without devolving into propaganda, at which point the drama becomes secondary to an infomercial of personal politics.

    The eagerness by many to categorize Joss as a "feminist writer" or even describe a piece of work as "feminist" encourages sloppy thinking, though this is likely unavoidable when any area of critical thinking becomes institutionalized into a movement. At his recent award acceptance talk at Harvard, he seemed less than comfortable with the connotations of the label when applied to him by others.

    I agree about the Buffy-crit: a girl in miniskirt doing a lot of unrealistic ass-kicking seems to largely be just a female actress playing the role of the traditional male hero (not unique to Buffy, and not at all meant to imply that the characters in Buffy aren't rich or complex). But the female action hero appears, to me, to be feminism in only the most superficial way. It's novelty at best, and perhaps just raises the bar for hyper-masculinity in characters of any sex.

    Maybe, though, that is what passes for feminism in media because it's overt and visible, and perhaps that's a big issue. Not that these characters necessarily constitute bad drama, but when the stories become categorized as representing a linear step toward some objective political ideal, they either fail immediately, or the work becomes both embraced as well as excused as a baby-step, invariably setting up the next work to fail under the burden of fulfilling some implied promise. As if a group should support Buffy and its author, with the implied expectation that Dollhouse somehow be even "more" feminist.

    Maybe we need a post-feminist word for dramatists that, first and foremost, explore universal themes by depicting characters, of any physical sex, struggling with ambiguous, changing, and situational gender roles.

    Maybe that word is simply "good"?

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  45. I also came over from Whedonesque. I have liked "Dollhouse" from the beginning and was willing to give it a chance to break out into something extraordinary (which I felt it did in ep 6) because I'm a big Joss Whedon fan and trust that there is always more to his work than first meets the eye.

    I may have been late becoming a Whedon fan (starting with "Firefly" when it was on TV) but I love pretty much everything he does, including comics, and especially "Buffy"; also "Serenity" and "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog", okay "Angel" too. :)

    Your analysis is well-done and thought-provoking. Thank you.

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  46. Thank you! That's an extremely articulate analysis of what I've found so intriguing about Dollhouse. Firefly remains my favourite Whedon creation because the ensemble and writing gelled so well, and I think Dollhouse still has some weak links, but Dollhouse strikes me as the most sophisticated artistic statement he's made so far. If it's true that he has a vision of this thing that spans more than a year -- wow. I desperately hope we get to see where it goes.

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  47. @"lol you are dumb" dude: SHIT! I are dumb! You totally win!

    JK LOLZ.

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  48. In regards to Sean Fitzroy's comment (@fitzroy on Twitter):
    Whedon has labeled himself with the dubious title of feminist so feminist readings of his work are not totally out of line. However it is a mistake to think that every line and every action of each of his works is feminist. How can it be? The real question to ask of the work is: overall does it instill feminist values in the viewers? My answer would be yes, particularly with over masculinized works such as Fight Club, 300 (and Snyder's work in general)... in contrast, Whedon balances real world violence and horror (particularly in Dollhouse) with ideals that can lend themselves to a feminist reading.

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  49. This pulled me in. As long internet peices rarely do. I agree with you, although I don't see how you can't like buffy! What about the emotionally strong women, such as Tara and Joyce

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  50. I'm a huge Buffy fan myself. But I believe Dollhouse is the far more politically sophisticated show. This review is the best I've seen so far!

    I would highly suggest you do a weekly recap, I would really like to read that.

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  51. Ballard is the perfect depiction of the "rescue fetishist" transferred to the Dollhouse universe: The man who sees sex workers, but wants to "take us away from all this".Maybe it's just me, but, there's a bit of an Eliot Spitzer dynamic there.

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  52. Does the fact that Whedon has said this isn't a feminist show affect your reading of it? (It's alluded to here: http://io9.com/5207864/joss-whedon-accepts-award-drops-dollhouse-hints-names-winner-of-buffyriver-fight )

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  53. Buffy never felt very empowering to me either. Thanks for that, then; but the show got good in other ways later. Ialso agree Dollhouse is more interesting and insightful for showing institutions as sources of oppression rather than merely individual villains. But I disagree that it works very well. First, like Kita said, the Dollhouse premise is blatantly unfair--as written, it's not ambiguous at all, really. Also, Echo's emerging self-awareness, such as it is, seems to reflect the creators' need for an explicitly morally superior hero more than an organic, believable process within a human personality. I don't doubt that Dollhouse-type technology could have the glitches that would leave room for her rebellion; I just see too little of the inner turmoil and emotional complexity that would precede or accompany it for it to feel real or poignant.

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  54. @Chex: CHEX IS THE BEST. PASS IT ON.

    @Lunamorgan: Good call on identifying class issues at work there. I hadn't picked it up, but, you're right: it's glaringly huge and a big part of the show, which is really smart.

    @Hexy: You're so exactly right. And, of course, the next thing that happens is that his girlfriend shows up and he's bleeding and Echo is a corpse and it is all a dream, demonstrating for us all that even Ballard's subconscious thinks his rescue fetish is deeply troubling.

    @chicken-cem: I think that putting women in positions of power (and men in positions of disempowerment, which, as other commenters have pointed out, makes the Dollhouse's metaphors for oppression relevant to more than just gender oppression) is one of the smarter moves of the show. I mean, Camille Paglia, Caitlin Flanagan, Sarah Palin: there are a ton of women who push an openly patriarchal agenda in order to get power and status within patriarchy, even if it means harming other women. So "Dollhouse" is pushing women to check their level of complicity, too - I identify with Adele and with Saunders, and seeing them do the wrong thing (fucking Victor? FOR REAL?) makes me hugely uncomfortable, which is great.

    @Sean Fitzroy: What katander said, mostly. I'd add that narrative - even if it's a narrative produced by collaboration, like film & TV - is a series of choices, which spring at least in part from the artist's worldview. What's a "good" action? What's a "bad" action? How do my (female/male, of color/white, cis/trans, poor/affluent) characters think and act and make choices? If they make certain choices, what actions will or "should" result? All of those can be informed by political views, because our political views affect our ideas about what should be, what virtue is, and what the world and other people are like. A work need not be purposefully didactic to mirror a feminist or misogynist worldview. In another sense, all fiction IS didactic, because it presents us with a series of events happening to people and encourages us to approve or disapprove of the people and events, and to accept certain "reasons" or justifications for why those things took place in the way that they did.

    @Everyone: You've definitely encouraged me to take another look at "Buffy." I watched it kind of sporadically, up until I think when Buffy threw herself into the wormhole, because I knew folks who liked it, and as I said, I didn't DISLIKE it - I just didn't love it in the way that my friends did.

    @The Idea of a Weekly Dollhouse Recap: That actually sounds amazing! I would love to take a shot at that, assuming I can get to watch every episode in a timely fashion.

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  55. This was an excellent post! I'm a feminist man who wants to be a screenwriter, and these are issues I definitely struggle with. Seeing Joss struggle too, and (more importantly) reading pieces like this make so clear how difficult putting together feminist media really is. Thank you.

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  56. This is a terrific post!
    I have been thinking about these ideas and finding it SO hard to express them clearly. You did a great job!
    I do hope that you will consider a regular post on the episodes. I would definitely like to read it.

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  57. Awesome post. You did a great job analyzing the show and its characters. I love the show and some level, it taps into our subconscious mind and captures us in our most vulnerable state.

    But great job.

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  58. Thanks for this post-- I'd been having some vague thoughts about Dollhouse along these lines, and you pretty much said it smarter!

    As for Buffy, I wound up looking at the show, as a whole, as a meditation on power and its effects: it's never a bad thing that Buffy has power, but it *is* isolating, and ultimately damaging when her power creates a divide between her and the people she loves. But the solution isn't for Buffy to give up her power, to stop being strong-- it's to share it, to give other girls the chance to be strong too. Once others are carrying it with her, the burden of being the Slayer stops being so heavy.

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  59. Got here from Twitter. How interesting! I love Buffy, but would also love to see Whedon engaging more wholeheartedly with patriarchy as an entity. So this whole concept fascinates me.

    May have to actually watch the show...

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  60. Thanks for the food for thought. I've always liked Buffy, but my issues with the show are something I've often discussed, and rarely with such positive comments as I thankfully see on your blog. I don't see Buffy as particularly feminist beyond 'chicks kicking ass'.

    I was planning to catch up on Dollhouse and am somewhat ambivalent about it due to my past experience with both Whedon and Whedonites. If you're even half correct about the intention and thought behind it, I have to give Whedon, Dushku, et al much more credit. And catch up more quickly.

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  61. "...he said, "if this is about the dolls speaking Mandarin instead of Cantonese, I can explain..." in this super-defensive, I-fucked-up tone. Which was a DIRECT reference to the criticisms of "Firefly," and exoticizing and misrepresenting Asian and Chinese culture therein, and it was coming THROUGH TOPHER'S MOUTH. Amazing."

    Ahaha. I need to see that. The Cantonese made me want to spit venom.

    As for Buffy, I also felt that the reduction of men to stereotypes, and the fact that nearly every male character was guilty of abandonment at a time of need made the show less empowering. In a way, all of the men were capable of monstrosity, in literal or figurative form.

    No matter what I end up thinking of Dollhouse, the discussion here is great. I'm very glad it's happening, and happening with civility.

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  62. I've been reading along and I really have to say that each of Whedon's projects have evolved along with him I think.

    I've seen a lot of "Buffy's not that feminist" and I get the critiques, but at the time it came out "chicks kicking ass" was like, revolutionary. Not the concept, that had been thought of and done before but in the 1990's with the fucking Neo-Conservatives on the upswing with their moral majority and this show has a young woman not just kicking ass but making her own decisions and dealing with her own issues and not just fluff but life and death shit.

    But it was rudimentary, it's dated now, as much as I do enjoy parts of the show still.

    Then you have Firefly, look people of color! In command positions! Yes, she's the Strong Black Woman but still, this is progress, he heard the criticisms of his all white Buffy cast and made adjustments. Again, mistakes made, appropriation of Asian cultures and a decided lack of any Asian people, errors in language. But you also have one woman who's a bit heavier for Hollywood standards and two Black main characters who are developed and three dimensional.

    And now this, quite a few people of color characters, and a deeper engagement with feminist critique of quite a few different things.

    It's the evolution of a person.

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  63. This is a fabulous essay - thank you so much for writing it. One thing you say:

    The Dollhouse is a giant metaphor, not only for rape culture, but for patriarchy and oppression at large: even the boy dolls are girls, stripped of agency or access to power and cast in pre-defined roles to fulfill the fantasies of the folks who are actually in charge. ... It's about getting your mind back. It's about reclaiming your right to define who you are - your right to be a person.Something I keep coming back to whenever I think about Dollhouse is that, as much as the personalities are constructed for a purpose, they feel absolutely real to the dolls as they live them - I think it's to simple to see them as superimposed consciousnesses that need to be wiped away. As in real life, people who become indoctrinated by the patriarchy are still real people, and feminism/empowerment is not as easy (or at least shouldn't be as easy) as wiping away who they are (in in the case of the Dollhouse, waking up in their past selves). That's why I think the glitching is so important, instead of Paul Ballard's attempt to 'rescue' Caroline. I much prefer seeing the dolls working with and through their imposed personalities than the idea of them escaping - for me they won't be 'free' until imprinting them no longer works, not when they've run far enough away from it.

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  64. Here via Whedonesque

    Interesting essay. Topher is definitely Joss. As to the ideology of the show, it has many aspects. There is a distinct feminist element, sure, but, in my opinion, two main problems Joss wants to explore in Dollhouse are

    1) writer's workshop, the process of creation

    2) voluntary brainwashing in modern society

    (In an inaired pilot, Topher says to Boyd

    "You wear the tie because it never occurred to you not to. You eat eggs every morning but never at night. You feel excitement and companionship when rich men you've never met put a ball through a net or over a goal line, you feel guilty and a little suspicious every time you see a Salvation Army Santa ringing his bell, you look down for at least half a second if a woman leans forward and your stomach rumbles every time you drive by a big golden arch even if you weren't hungry before. Everybody's programmed, Boyd.")

    To me, dolls are metaphors of all of us. "Shal I go now? - "If you like." Everything we do - is it because of our free will or our programming?

    P.S. About Buffy. Watch later seasons. Seriously. You'll love it. Especially the 6th.

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  65. As someone who hated season 6 of Buffy, I am finding this discussion interesting. And like season 6, I am not finding the execution of the idea as good as discussions of the idea (like this one).

    Are we rooting for Echo to rebel because she's so unique and intrinsically better than the other actives? Too many shades of Buffy Summers and Mal for me. Are we hoping, as said above, that the technology is outpaced by some weirdness in the human psyche and the programming can't keep up? Way more interesting (to me). Is the glitch that caused Alpha simply an inevitablity? Is blood and pain and death the result of programming people to be puppets? Very much like the Pax in Serenity.

    I just find your excellent essay to be the most generous interpretation of the show as produced. I'd really hate to spend a lot of quality time with this show and it collapses into the usual trope that females are empowered through surviving abuse, particularly sexualized abuse.

    (I also dislike the finale of Buffy for similar reasons to your disinterest in the series premise. What are girls _without_ superpowers supposed to do? Besides be afraid and die?)

    Shelly

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  66. Anybody seen this critique?

    I think some of the discussion here would do well with engagement over there.

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  67. I really enjoyed this. My sister sent it to me because I'm loving Dollhouse... though I'm a Whedon fan from back through the movie Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Linking to this on the Whedonverse page I belong to. Thanks for your insight. :)

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  68. Very nice article! I would like to take a moment to talk about Buffy (though I will try to be brief since I know it pains you). Joss actually showed that the Watchers were, yes, protection and education, but they were also the shackle and the monitors. When Buffy "came of age," the Watchers had Giles test her by taking her powers away and sending her against a monster specifically primed to kill her.

    Buffy does not die, and Giles breaks ties with the Watcher committee, but damage is done to their relationship. Also, toward the end of the series, it's revealed that the Watchers were started as a group of magic men who harnessed the primal energy of The Slayer into a girl who would pass on this essence upon her death in order to fight against the darkness the men could not fight themselves. The girl was not exactly given much of a choice about this.

    So he's been toying with this idea for a while.

    I hope to hell this show isn't canceled!

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  69. Paul Ballard, the FBI agent who wants to "save" Echo, is also implicated: a hero, sure, but also weirdly and sexually preoccupied with "saving" a girl he doesn't know so that she will love him, a person just as involved in projecting his desires onto a blank slate as any Dollhouse clientAnd in this week's episode, I'd say you're pretty vindicated on that front. He breaks in, tries to save her, and she's all who the fuck are you--while the murderer bad guy rescues(?) her. I really doubt we're supposed to see him as "good".

    As far as folks who claim that 99% of the population are just going to look at it and react uncritically--I think the show is designed with Hulu/etc in mind, practically demands you watch it twice and think about it simply because of the plot twists and creep factor. Buffy, as much as I enjoyed it, never made me think and rehash like this show does.

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  70. Thanks for the great post, and the great blog in general.

    I've been thinking about Joss and Feminism and Dollhouse and why Dollhouse is different but still within the Whedon ouevre, and then I got hit over the head by an anvil with one idea this might be different: A woman is the co-creator of the show.

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  71. Flipping fantastic analysis of Dollhouse. (But I love Buffy.)

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  72. @Jennifer

    And he has a woman of color on his writing staff. Pretty sure that's a first too.

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  73. I quoted (and linked to you) over at my post:

    http://theboozetube.wordpress.com/2009/05/05/we-have-to-rape-this-village-to-save-it/

    If I were a real blogger I'd learn how to do a trackback...

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  74. Great essay. I really loathe the show and think that the bad acting cannot be overcome, but this was a great essay, none the less :)

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  75. Wonderful essay. I'll be linking from my blog, so hopefully more eyes will see this excellent piece of writing. I've been reviewing the show over at my blog (http://open.salon.com/blog/mad_typist), and I was shocked at how many comments I got on my posts from people condemning Joss, labeling the show sexist, and so forth.

    Because of the themes you list above, I feel like Boyd is one of the most compelling characters on the show, since he's the most morally aware person (see his line about "pimps and killers, but in a philanthropic way" in episode9), while at the same time, he's one of the people most complicit in keeping Echo in bondage.

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  76. Great essay, thanks.

    I've been really confused at some of the reactions to this show since the first few episodes. I've seen questions like "how am I supposed to root for this Dollhouse place" and "the premise is just so sexist and awful". Do people not understand a dystopia when they see one? Do schoolkids not read 1984 and Brave New World anymore? When I heard the premise months before the premier, I thought it was bleedin' obvious that this was some kind of dystopian story, and I'm assuming that it will climax in some kind of confrontation with Big Brother. And Big Brother's purposes and impact on the world will probably not be purely evil either (much like we saw with Wolfram and Hart, which also had some sympathetic employees).

    I'm having some trouble fathoming shy so many people would just expect that all the villians will be obvious warty, cackling maniacs, and all the heroes will be sweetness and light. Even comic books don't work that way anymore.

    Maybe I'm watching a totally different show than some of these reviewers?

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  77. Oh my God. That was an amazing essay. I, however did love Buffy but I understand where you're coming from. What you have to get is that Buffy was marketed to a much larger audience and specifically geared towards a younger crowd in their teens. This "younger crowd" needed more obvious/broadly drawn characters and plots in order to understand the issues that Joss was trying to put out there on the table (i.e. love, sex, friendship, feminism, drinking, rape, drug addiction, etc.). And I thought he did a wonderful job. Dollhouse is the show set up for that same "younger crowd" now all grown up and ready for a more nuanced and layered drama. It tackles the same issues as Buffy but in a more unexpected way with all the great story-telling we have come to expect from Joss Whedon.

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  78. If you have to work this hard to explain the concept of the show, it ain't working. Not saying that TV shows should be simplistic, but it's like explaining a joke--the show should work on its own without long, tortured explanations from Joss and his fans.

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  79. I love what you said about Dollhouse (esp. the creepy guy in the van part, and your wonderful deconstruction of the Topher character). But I gotta chime in with lots of others and disagree with you about Buffy.
    Buffy is not strong because she has supernatural powers. There are lots of slayers, blah, blah, and all of them died young. The past slayers were failures, even if they had supernatural powers. The reason Buffy is so special is because she draws on her own strength during tough situations, many of which are not supernatural. Her mom's death, having to make a living, trying to escape an abusive boyfriend--those were the toughest things that happened to Buffy. They weren't metaphors. Dollhouse could connect to people better if it included more situations that people can identify with (like the episode where Echo plays the part of the nurse/wife being surprised by her first home). Buffy was able to hit more empathetic notes sooner because of its premise. If Dollhouse can get there, its ratings will jump.
    Yeah, Buffy's simplistic at times. But so is Dollhouse. These are TV shows. The only perfect TV show that has ever existed is Firefly. We can't compare all shows to that standard!!!

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  80. "If you have to work this hard to explain the concept of the show, it ain't working. Not saying that TV shows should be simplistic, but it's like explaining a joke--the show should work on its own without long, tortured explanations from Joss and his fans."Because literary criticism has never been valid or important or anything....

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  81. @ palinode

    "I'm convinced that Whedon contains inside him the mind of a dirty old man, running as if on a virtual machine, which he can examine and take notes on."

    Isn't that just part of being a writer? Compare, for example, Nabokov...

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  82. This post is not only excellent, but the comments are, too. One anonymous commenter (lol you are dumb) was rude. Every other comment was on topic and relevant. Disagreements did not devolve into attacks.

    Very high signal to noise ratio. :-)


    Shelly: What are girls _without_ superpowers supposed to do? Besides be afraid and die?

    Cordelia: no super powers, no fear.
    Anya: once human, no super powers, much courage.
    Joyce hits Spike over the head with a fire axe.
    The potentials: courage galore.

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  83. Sady, you should totally revisit Dollhouse now that the season is over. The last episode is especially interesting in terms of your take on Topher.

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  84. Neat essay. But to echo what Rachel said about Buffy Season 6: "the Warren storyline is one of the best ever, as a young misogynist dick turns out to be way more repulsive, and dangerous, than the worst demon." That is spot on, and clearly Whedon's own panacea for the whole magic theme, as he has a psycopathic misogynist use an actual gun to murder a main character. Many dedicated Buffy fans hate this season in part because it blurred the line between fantasy "kick ass female empowerment through magic" and the reality of true violence against women.

    If you want to understand the genesis of the Dollhouse, you need only look up the character of Warren, who builds his version of "perfect" robot sex slave and later constructs a robotic model of Buffy for Spike to repeatedly abuse. Lifelike, these robots can be imprinted with whatever personality is desired, reflecting Warren (and Spike's) deep-seated hatred of women. Warren actually kills another female character during an attempted rape. If you substitute "actives" for robots in these scenarios, and you've basically got the Dollhouse.

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  85. i am here from I Blame The Patriarchy (there was a discussion on human trafficking, and i threw in a blurb about Dollhouse and how it explores human trafficking, and a commenter gave me the link here. and i am hook! i love your blog)

    Dollhouse, for me, like most every other show i watch, was forced upon me by my best friend. i Do Not Watch TV. it tends to hurt my brain, and it pisses me off to no end.

    but best friend is finally leaving her horribly and abusive husband and she wanted me to hang out with her more, and wanted to watch this show, and so it became yet another ritual.

    there are so many things i want to about! best friend is not at all a feminist (although, i have not given up on my "subversive corruption" as her rigidly fundamentalist mother calls it) so i don't really have anyone to discuss themes with.

    right now, i am still (*still!*) is shock from seeing WASH acting like a psycho-sociopath. and all the weirdness that revolved around that ("oh, you saved her". not "oh, you saved *me*"...)

    i am still absolutely in love with that fact that there is a woman on the TV who *looks* like me and is allowed to be the hot girl who likes AND gets to have sex (November/Melly). i swear i almost fainted when she first appeared, and was allowed to be attractive, and wasn't portrayed as just a "lazy fat slob" like pretty much every other woman of average normal healthy weight is. (Marilyn Monroe - 5'3" and 150 pounds. i am 5'8" and called fat at 150 pounds. the f*ck?).
    the episode "Man on the Street" - people *really* think like that in real life!

    the social commentary, in every episode, is mind blowing. the fact that there are more Dollhouses is frightening. what happened to Sierra, vs what happened to Victor. the whole bit with the ressurected dead woman (and, btw, who the *hell* would actually have enough integrity to give up life again without *any* sort of struggle?! just, wow...) yes, there are problems, not everything gells perfectly, and the bits we see of Caroline's past really... i mean, she was a *very* left wing liberal activist, very feminist, very PETA - we are missing the link, between her perfect post-collegial career (with the apparent perfect boyfriend, job and apartment) and her signing the Dollhouse contract - and i want to see that, see what actually messed all of that up *so much* that a person with those specific world-views would submit to something that is essentially the opposite of everything she believes in.

    just a note: if i have the timeline correct, Echo is the *oldest* doll currently, at least in her "pod" (or whatever you call the groups). many, many other dolls were killed by Alpha, and i'm pretty sure the implication there was that Echo was the only one left (again, at least of her pod)
    the history of Dr. Saunders - beautiful. and, for those of you who agree with Sady that Topher = Joss, her line about "i don't understand why you made me hate you" pretty much seals the deal for me. she is the epitome of both the best and the worst the Dollhouse can do. the absolute *GREY* of everything just highlights how these tech capabilities could have positive implications and applications, but are (apparantly, there are hints that there is even *MORE*) squandered, demeaned, right alone with the people, persons and personalities that have become dolls.

    i hope you *did* post more - i am off to poke around the site! thank you!

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  86. I was thinking about this very issue, and found your blog via google.

    here's my problem with the feminism, such as it is, in this show;

    The male dolls are not sexualised the way the females are.

    And that's huge.

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  87. Dewitt certainly sexualized Victor.

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  88. Hi there! I just found your blog yesterday (from a link at one feminist blog or another) and am loving it. Thanks for this thoughtful post. I've been watching Dollhouse and having some major issues with it, but you've made me reconsider a bit. There are still some things I can't get over, though. To give an example, at the end of "Man on the Street," Echo in blank-slate mode appears to request to go back and finish her engagement with Mynor -- which is to say, she asks to be raped. It's been explicitly said earlier that having a sympathetic reason for being a predator doesn't make Mynor any less of a predator. But you know what does? Having his victim ask to be preyed upon! It just felt like a huge misstep, one that severely weakened the point that the show does generally seem to be trying to make -- that people are abused by people, not by monsters, and that sometimes abusers are sympathetic too, but that doesn't mean the abuse is justified. Likewise with the end of the last episode, when Echo/Caroline appears to have come back to the Dollhouse voluntarily, even though she had convinced herself not to do so a few minutes before. I just don't know how to read those kinds of things as anything other than diminishing the severity of the abuse.

    Anyway, sorry for the long comment. If anyone has another reading of this stuff, I'd be happy to hear it.

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  89. Maybe even in that state she is asserting agency?

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  90. I liked Buffy. But it wasn't art. Sure, it had Themes, but...

    I feel like Dollhouse might qualify as art. It's self reflective. It's complex. It comments on the context in which it was created.

    I like what you articulated about Topher. I couldn't work out why I liked him so much. I think that's why.

    I'm only up to episode 10. The Melly/Paul dynamic in that is killing me. The bit where he knows that's not her, but it's her, but he can't tell her anything, but he loves her, but he knows she's not real... gah! The layers!

    I like that none of the characters are perfect. None of them are safe on the moral high ground. They are all real in a way Whedon's other characters haven't been able to be, because they swim in a world where there is no solid ground to be safe and Right on. Every choice has varying degrees of Right and Wrong mixed in. Welcome to the real world!

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  91. I loved what you had to say about Buffy. I too am the PERFECT audience for Buffy, and while I enjoyed it, I have a lot of misgivings, and you've articulated exactly what my misgivings are. And as a side note, for me, too, "Ted" was the episode that resonated most directly to me. From things others have said, it seems that the reason it's not liked very much is that it's just so unrealistic; Ted's behavior for the first 2/3 of the episode were too cartoonish for belief. But actually, Ted's behavior was so akin to the behavior of a certain step-parent of mine, and Joyce's behavior was so like a certain parent of mine (and equally improbable and unlikely), that it felt entirely too realistic and relatively subtle for me. I used to think the potential step-mothers in The Sound of Music and The Parent Trap (the original) were pretty cartoonishly evil... until I came into contact with step-parents exactly like that.

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  92. "Many dedicated Buffy fans hate this season in part because it blurred the line between fantasy "kick-ass female empowerment through magic" and the reality of violence against women."--Anonymous

    Not to argue, but I've never seen anyone imply that this was their reason for hating Season 6. Most of the reasons I've seen, and which I agree with, have to do with the general weakening of every single character's integrity, established traits, and relationships. Warren was interesting, but having Buffy do basically nothing to fight him all season, when in Season 2 it took her all of 45 minutes to capture a similar trio of evil science geeks, was not. I don't need Buffy to be perfect--she never was in the first five seasons, which contained plenty of darkness, but it was balanced out by moments of real character strength and humor. That was why people fell in love with the show and it's characters, and the absence of those redeeming qualities in Seasons 6 and 7 are what destroyed the show. Buffy, Willow, and Giles are not strong characters in those two seasons. They are depressing jerks who behave in horrible, stupid and outrageous ways. Which would be fine if "Buffy" had started out as a show like "Dollhouse," but it didn't. It also would have helped if there was some semblance of continuity, but Magic!Crack and the Ubervamps prety much shot that to hell.

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  93. Oh, and "Ted" is a truly wonderful episode. I really don't get why people don't like it. It's suspenseful, emotional and John Ritter is excellent.

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  94. thank you so much for writing this piece... I thourughly enjoyed it, as well as

    "Sady said...
    Awww, Kelly. I'm sorry. Let's get drinks tomorrow night and I can tell you why everything you love is wrong."

    Made my days (I'm so busy it took me two days to get through it.)

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