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Alexandria, Virginia, USA
September 18
I'm a liberal secular humanist who enjoys writing, reading, playing video games and watching sports. I am a former member of the Armed Services who now enjoys the sweet sweet freedom of civilian life. My blog will be centered mostly on politics, football and video games. I'm not a professional hater, but I am a highly ranked amateur. Also, yes, I am a girl.


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MAY 7, 2009 3:41PM

Feminism and Dollhouse - Every Fan (and Hater) Must Read

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Feminism and Dollhouse - Every Fan (and Hater) Must Read

When I first posted about the new Joss Whedon show Dollhouse, I got a lot of interesting responses on my reviews of early episodes. Some fans stuck around and are enjoying the show in the second half of the season. But other fans were repelled at the basic premise of the show. I saw commenters charge Joss Whedon with creating a misogynistic, sexist show. There was a lot of vitroil in some of those comments.

Anyway, I wanted to bring to your attention this excellent article from Tiger Beatdown, entitled "Dollhouse, Joss Whedon, and the Strange and Difficult Path of Feminist Dudes: Some Thoughts" Here's an excerpt:

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.
Anyway, I highly encourage you to head over to that blog and read the whole piece. It's really thought-provoking, even if it doesn't bring some of you around totally.


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That's a most astute post. It's also a pretty good explanation of why Whedon will never be a crowd-pleaser. Oh, well. At least some of us love him.
It's just such a damned pity FOX fucked this show up so badly with their insistence on those first godawful six episodes. Now that it's finally gotten GOOD, nobody's watching. Grrr.
I hate men too. Does that help?

I am one and can't stand me (sometimes I'm OK).

I read a review that agreed completely with Verbal: The first six episodes suck.

She's right, nobody is watching anymore.

And they're blaming Eliza Dushku for it's suckiness.

They talk about acting... are you trying to tell me all the people on major successes can act?
Sorry, I have missed all but your first post, so do not know what others have written about what they feel. The following is likely redundant after all this time, but I have written it, so will post it:

I am not sure I can find words, even this far into the season, to reveal how repulsed I am by this show. My husband has it on every week and I try to give it the benefit of the doubt but just cannot find any premise within the whole thing that is not dehumanizing.

If the purpose of the show was meant to make us question our own responses to this type of behavior in that particular setup, and realize that we are repulsed by these dehumanizing concepts, then the show is a huge success. Time has not diminished its effect on me -- I am hugely sickened and appalled by the concept.

I only "half-watch" because it is on TV in my home -- no room in my house gets me away from it. In result, I watch because I am looking to understand my husband's fascination as well as to ferret out any moral message that may be hidden. I don't find much morality except that one agent didn't want to put another agent in the chair because he didn't consent...Oh, the fine points of the Dollhouse sense of morality...

Then, last week the slashing started up, again. It is grotesque. I am being honest and I am trying to be fairminded, but I think I will never be able to take any of the actors seriously when I see them in other roles in the future.

They are branded forever as "dolls" in a sickeningly twisted presentation of life that lacks the essence of what makes us human. If their memories are taken away, are they shells with no soul? Echo seems to be able to tap into what could only be her innate nature but the whole premise is stretched thin and implausible most of the time.

Not sure why I feel so strongly, but the whole concept still gives me the CREEPS after all these weeks...Unless awareness of the Dollhouse as a bad thing is being generated, its presence is certainly NOT a good thing on the airwaves.
I think the bossman has been very careful.

If we look carefully, the doll that was most repetitively abused by the same customer... well was Victor... and he was rented by the boss of the Local Dollhouse itself.

Not to excuse anyone's actions, but he also hasn't focused on just the smutty used of dolls. Even in the smuttiness there are a lot of male dolls too ( honestly i haven't counted the ratio) We still have no idea why we got to see echo deliver a baby.

The trouble with words like feminism is that they have become so big that they cover too much for everyone to agree on definitions. Same with progressive.

IN a lot of ways, Dollhouse is liek Firefly. it is a projection of what the future could be (though like Max Headroom it could be 10 mins. into the future).

Dollhouse t is not a show about how the future SHOULD be (he is not advocating dolls or the use of dolls), but rather a picture of what future dirty bastard humans will probably make... and some people trying to get buy in that future (and maybe even stopping it).

All of his shows have been like that. 'What if X" and how will people deal with it. People can't be trusted with the technology the dollhouse has, nor can lawyers be trusted to deal with demonic powers (Wolfram and Heart? I'm spacing on the company name).

How much would people be complaining if the main character was Victor? He's a better actor, but would more people watch? Is there a double standard on exploitation?
Yay... for too many damn typos.
Yep, the audience reaction to this show makes me glad I'm not a successful creator of a series. It would kill me to have so many people be so stupid about my work. I'd be going on talk shows hopping up and down like a loony and shouting, "You dorks don't get it! The villains are SUPPOSED to be bad! That's the whole point!" and everyone would be tisking all over the blogosphere because it's breaking the rules to call your fans a bunch of numbnuts. :)
Like the author of the post above asutely states - if you're going to court a political, saavy audience, then expect to have that lens turned on you at some point. So I do sometimes have a problem with the themes of Whedon's show (again, the version of feminism on Buffy never really jived with me, though I love the show, and even Firefly had its moments that made me uncomfortable). However, it's weird that so many people seem unable to accept that showing something unpleasant isn't the same as endorsing it.

I think Boyd is the most fascinating character on the show, because:
1. He's the most aware of the moral implications of what the Dollhouse is about.
2. He's the one most troubled by what the Dollhouse is.
3. He still CHOOSES (important word there) to work there.
don't forget ..

4.) he can act.

I agree, in may ways he is the pivotal character in the show, especially now that he has a leadership role in the Dollhouse.

You are right about the choosing too. Now he can make really important choices... making his moral qualms even more important.
Grotesque? GROTESQUE? Hey, I've seen enough Tyra Banks model makeovers on ANTM to know what grotesque is, and Dollhouse ain't it.
Sorry to be vague...the slashing is grotesque.
I too am repulsed by the concept of the Dollhouse- and I agree with a few others that THAT is the point. We're all immoral, we're all the villains. If a technology exists, it will be used and if there's an unethical use for it, that's where humanity will take it. Why is the fact that Joss is showing us a world where this truth plays out so shocking? It's certainly getting all of us to talk, isn't it?

Even those of us who are self-aware enough to recognize our complicity in evil (like Boyd) aren't always strong enough to make the right choice. He cares about Echo and wants to protect her- but who does he see when he looks at her? His reaction to last week's infiltration by Ballard was telling- in protecting Echo, he was doing his best to destroy the man intent on saving her. And I didn't see any doubt that he was doing the right thing.
Okay all you offended folks, take a deep breath and relax. There. Feel better?

Try to keep in mind that this is just storytelling. You'd think a website full of writers would understand that the Dollhouse is merely a plot device that sets up the ongoing conflict for our characters. It is also a very interesting shadow character, as it has its own arc that roughly parallels Echo's.

"The Dollhouse" is not *promoting* rape and slavery, it is using the situation to set up the sympathetic underdog nature of our plot-focus characters. It makes them frail and vulnerable, and has us rooting for them from the beginning. They are, after all, in a situation against their will, with their very selves at stake each week.

Also, Whedon fills each episode with moral hand-wringing over the whole situation, and we even have a particular character -- no, not the FBI agent, but the Dollhouse head of security -- that is the embodiment of our shared anguish and morality, as he struggles to protect our vulnerable dolls from week to week.

We all realize that the so-called consent that got them there is nothing more than coercion and a pretext for slavery, and that angers us. But we also realize that these were desperate people in desperate circumstances, and that if the Dollhouse lives up to its word, this "contract" may very well have saved their lives. So we are of two minds, as is our head of security, and with struggle with the morality along with him.

I think it's a fine device, filled with inherent conflict and drama, and people in deep need of redemption. Good on Whedon.
Exactly. Suggesting that we can't manage a presentation of deeply grey human behavior on fictional television is just - that g- word.
Past the first six episodes, the show has been very smart about showing how very much the show is about society and the very serious problems in a society that's about the money of it all.

There is no 'promotion' of sexual slavery. In fact, it's just the opposite. The show's quite good in that respect actually. There's no celebration of the situation that the 'dolls' are in.

As for possible cancellation, Dushku's acting isn't as bad as all that; it's much more about Fox messing with the show and putting the show in such an unbelievably bad time slot. The reason that the show hasn't been canceled as of yet (as far as I know) is because someone at Fox is utterly aware of how much that they fucked it up, I think and so, they are toying with keeping the show and trying to build the audience.
As a confirmed Whedonite and aspiring Whedonerd, I have to point out that it was at episode 6, "Man on the Street," penned by himself, that the tide turned. The first five episodes sucked.
I know the first 5 episodes were weak overall, but I still maintain that #2, which was very Boyd-centric, was a real stand out episode. The episode is critical in understanding the season long arc, because it establishes a lot of detail about the Alpha composite event, plus it gave you a ton of understanding about how the Echo/Boyd relationship had evolved. The implicit trust Echo has in Boyd, so crucial in the last episode, is first introduced in episode 2.

Anyhoo, I hope you all enjoyed the article I linked to. I thought it was very well thought out.
thank you for this thoughtful post and the link to that blog. i stopped watching after the first few episodes. now that i get it a bit about what he's trying to do, well, i may check it out again. it's just that i got the consent thing right away and didn't need to be bashed over the head with it. love lvoe love
Well I watched a couple of episodes, they sucked and I'm not going back. Deal. But we have now [in my household] embraced "dollhouse" as a description of any women on TV or off who remind us of stepford wives, ie. the three anchor babes on our local newstation now fall into the dollhouse description. When one of them goes on vacation, we are appropriately horrified on their behalf that they've been sent to the dollhouse for a tune-up and will return with memories erased and breasts bigger. So thank you Joss. I think.
Yay, your post made the cover! :)

I just wanted to say that after the week I've had, I wouldn't mind signing five years to the Dollhouse, wiping my cluttered and stressed-out brain, lounging around a luxurious hideaway (which by the looks of the occupants obviously has lots of wonderful spa and gym equipment they never show us), and have a turn being lots of people who are smarter, stronger, sexier and more exciting than I am.

So far from being an homage to rape and slavery, I think "The Dollhouse" sounds like a fantasy vacation for stressed-out lawyers.


Can't wait to see Alpha take the place down.
Heh, Dana - I too am cheering for Alpha, even though he's a psycho killer.

Here's the thing that they haven't really explored, but I hope they do if they get renewed: the Dollhouse has shown an ability to embed some pretty serious skills in their Dolls. Now, what if they could offer skill training, a la The Matrix? Is it a more intriguing show if suddenly clients come to the Dollhouse for some modifications that still leave them mostly intact? What if, for example, you could choose to instantly master a martial art, a new language, or take a life time of college classes in a subject you enjoy? What if you could selectively erase a painful memory, such as childhood abuse or a failed relationship (and now we'd be getting into Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind territory with that). I mean, again - my #1 frustration with this show is that there's so much POTENTIAL here, some really interesting moral and ethical dilemmas they could explore, but they just haven't gotten there yet.
Ah, Mad Typist, the eternal altruist. I don't think that would drive our characters' arcs very well, no matter how much good that would do humanity.

Besides, they can already give you a drug that will wipe out selected, painful memories. It's in clinical trials, now, being used to treat victims of child rape, war atrocities and other triggers of PTSD. There's a huge debate about whether that's a good or bad thing.
Correction to my hijack: the drug doesn't wipe out the memory; it just wipes out the negative emotional effects.
would - thanks for the pointer
Oh, I'm not sure I'm an altruist, because I'm not sure that having the ability to get master-level abilities without doing the hard work to gain that experience is a good thing. I'm also fairly sure there'd be some problem with only rich people being able to afford those advantages.

I had a good laugh at the belated cover slot.
Does anyone remember the movie "Restoration" with Robert Downey Jr., Meg Ryan, and Sam Neil? That movie was full of flaws (Meg Ryan) but its message was still powerful: determine for yourself what use you will make of yourself or other people will determine that for you, and you may not like the use they make of you.

That's not a message that is so blandly universal that it has no value for feminism; in fact, it's a core precept of feminism. The woman's traditional role is not to be self-determined but to live for others, to compliantly mold herself to be what others around her want her to be without a thought for the consequences. (Men have their own restrictive gender role burdens with always having to be "rugged individualists", always having to be masters of everything, never losing control of their emotions.)

I think this series cuts to the core of an innate human desire to give up responsibility, to not have to face the music. Okay, here's your chance. Sign on the dotted line and you will never have to take responsibility for your life again. Heck, you won't even remember what you did on whatever assignment we send you to. That's if the technology we work on you never has a glitch--but that's our problem, don't you worry your little head about that.

The male and female "dolls" in the Dollhouse are like children. Even their desires for each other are childlike. Their response to sexual abuse by fellow employees is childlike. They are also cogs, shifting from vapid childhood to fake adulthood with each download. Go ahead, think about those feminist implications.
I also really wished they had stuck with my initial impression of how the show was going to be structured. I had assumed that the Dolls would be lab-grown, and that part of Echo's evolution would be an exploration of what, exactly, constitutes the self? I think that would have been a really fascinating concept - the idea of the Dollhouse growing slaves in test tubes, just to be exploited. That would give the whole "they're not people, just empty vessels" an interesting twist.

Ah well.... I suppose we can armchair QB what this show COULD have been till we're blue in the face.
Here's the problem: if you have to spend this much time explaining the concept to your potential audience, the concept (or its execution) ain't working. I also think that Dollhouse wants to have its cake and eat it too--critique the exploitation of women while also treating Eliza Dushku as a live-action blowup doll. Every episode I watched gave me the impression that Joss was writing it surrounded by photos of Dushku with his hand down his pants.

The episode that really got to me was the one where someone hires Echo to be his wife in a new house. The douche has a long monologue where he tells Ballard that he's complicit, that he is just as guilty of exploiting Echo as the people who are paying the Dollhouse. Of course this was a way for Joss to address the audience and say, you too are complicit in this. You enjoy this exploitation too. And my reaction was fuck you, I don't enjoy this exploitation, I find it disgusting and repulsive. And BTW Joss, maybe you should look in the mirror because if anyone is getting off on this, it's you.
I also agreed with this post in the blog comments:

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.
Thanks so much for leading me to this post. Now I want to watch all the episodes again.
I am late to the party, but I'm compelled to mention a point that seems to be missed. I am a fan of the new show - and it is very new; to compare it to "Buffy's" long run is not logical at this point. That show took a while to develop.

I'm hooked even if Eliza was never my favorite Whedon actor (that title belongs to Alan Tudyk, who has popped up as Alpha on "Dollhouse.") It's an incredibly interesting premise we are being invited to watch. Made more so by recent turns in our history.

The complicit nature of watching the show - tuning in for such inhumane and unethical behavior - is a direct reflection of the American public's complicity in our post-9/11 actions. The invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, the change in our torture policy, the removal of certain formerly inalienable rights by our last administration. We were all complicit in the rending of the fabric of our nation, because we did not stop it.

I realize this is a leap of ethic and epic proportions, but I find it impressive that people can get so outraged by a TV show even as they allow attrocities to be committed in the name of their country... showing much less outrage for the real damage than the scripted.
I'll keep watching, but as I've said before (and will probably, in my pedantic way, say again), I only know a few things about this show for sure:

1) Boyd is far the most interesting character
2) Eliza Dushku really *can't* act; she's far too weak an actress to focus a show around
3) The Topher character irritates the living crap out of me on multiple levels
4) I love Alan Tudyk

And I still miss Firefly. A lot.
DaBerm--Believe me, there's plenty of outrage and anger to go around. I think we can spare a little irritation for a television show and still have incredible anger over what's happened over the last eight years. It's just not what we're talking about here at this post, that's all. This post is about a television show. I think we're allowed to talk about both serious and non-serious subjects at the same time. Create a post about that subject of war, etc. and I bet you get quite a few angry people talking about it.
Odette - I believe the show is intended to reflect the complicity of people who do nothing when they know bad things are being done. So, it's not that I need a new post about real-world cruelties; I mean to say that this notion of people "doing nothing" to stop cruelty is inherent to the show's premise.

I don't mean to say you can't comment on a TV show, I just wanted to point out the somewhat hypocritcal nature of the complaints in a country that has historically let evil go on its way if it doesn't affect "me." (Slavery, child labor, the treatment of the insane, women's roles, etc.) In other words, how many people - if they could get a ridiculously high-paying job in the Dollhouse as support staff would rat the place out? I think, rather, they might cling to comforting slogans such as, "We're helping people."

But maybe I'm reading too deep into the show. I'm about 7 levels down here and reminded of the famous Stanford prison experiment:

I have been laid off and I do have a lot of time on my hands! ;)
Previous to last night's episode, I commented :

If their memories are taken away, are they shells with no soul? Echo seems to be able to tap into what could only be her innate nature but the whole premise is stretched thin and implausible most of the time.

Someone else must have postured the same to Whedon because I could only laugh last night as the above issue was addressed in full. Apparently, Echo needed to hold 38 other personalities in her head to help her "get it" and yes, made several repetitions of same so that WE KNOW that she "GETS IT"...

Yes, she does have a soul -- yes, there is something innate that cannot be taken away by erasing a person's memories! Yes, all that we do leaves an imprint whether we are conscious of it or not. Yes, people, Whedon doesn't believe we are shells, empty vessels to be filled with other's notions on a whim or for a dollar.

But, some of the statements in last night's episode were way over the top at this point. Specifically:

Echos statement that signing a contract to put one's self into slavery could not be honored. Apparently, because we have a black President...OMG, Whedon...was that the very best way to get this message across? Sounded a bit extreme to my ear and heart -- my husband snorted as well. Slavery should be wrong with or without a "black" President...guess that statement was delivered for the dullards...

I guess I was meant to continue to watch this show. All the while protesting that it was against my will...slave to the noise box that I am.

Although some was heavy-handed and pedantic, all my issues were resolved in last night's episode, right down to the reason the freak called Alpha is a slasher . He was a slasher PRIOR to going into the Dollhouse -- a criminal destined for jail turned test experiment. Uhmm...guess they couldn't program that evil out of his heart or soul no matter how many personalities were pumped into his head. Valid point and strong statement about the role of our soul?

Dare I posture that this turn will make the show MUCH less interesting to the slave-loving, slasher-slurping fans of the show? Or, will they block out the messages that should not have escaped even the most dull among us and continue to watch?! Has the show gone all "humanist" on us? Uhmmm...I await the OS response...
It is a TV show. You have an "OFF" button. Chill.
This is America where one may choose to be a absurd as one wishes. Hopefully you would not have it any other way.
Wheedon is a strong feminist media figure in my opinion. He has been for some time. I'm glad he's on the team and I support his work 100%.