Fighting with the Sky

Dollhouse on DVD [Movie Monday]

Posted on: September 7, 2009

Dollhouse_DVD-Eliza_Dushku-Joss_Whedon-Tohmoh_PenikettI know, Dollhouse isn’t a movie.  But I just got the first season on DVD and I wanted to write about the show, so I figured I could blur the lines this time, right?  And I wanted to get you, my readers, caught up on Dollhouse before I start my weekly analysis of the second season.

I try to explain the concept of the show Dollhouse and why I think it’s feminist (or can be feminist) to other people, and if they haven’t seen the show, they don’t usually get it.  Maybe it’s just my skills at explaining the show, or maybe it’s just a show that’s hard to grasp.  I think it’s a little bit of both, but I am going to try my best here.  I should note my bias first.  I love Joss Whedon and will probably always defend his creations.  Joss Whedon has defined himself as a feminist, and even though he says Dollhouse is not a feminist show, his values seep into all of his creations.

Dollhouse is about an organization called the Dollhouse that provides a very specific service to elite clientele.  The Dollhouse can provide anything that you need through Actives.  The Actives are people whose memories and personalities are erased and then the Actives can be imprinted with any personality and skills that are needed by the client.  The Active can become an assassin, a hostage negotiator, a spy, a midwife, or the perfect girlfriend or boyfriend.  After each engagement, the Active is wiped “clean” again.  The Actives wander around the Dollhouse (which is pretty much a glorified spy) when not on an engagement with the “innocence” of children without any memories.

The Actives have supposedly volunteered for a term of service with the Dollhouse.  But this becomes questionable.  The Dollhouse recruits people who don’t have much to lose by signing away five years of their life.  Echo, who the show centers around, played by Eliza Dushku, has a shady past that we learn pieces of throughout the season.  In the first episode, Caroline (who is Echo pre-Dollhouse) contemplates signing the contract with the Dollhouse and talks about how she doesn’t really have a choice.  We also learn during the first season that the Active Alpha signed up for a term of service in order to shorten his prison sentence.  So the people who “volunteer” aren’t really given that much of a choice as to whether or not they want to sign up.

I have heard many arguments that Dollhouse is a sexist show.  I can understand this argument, even if I don’t agree with it.  This argument is basically that it is about prostitution and catering to male fantasies.  The Actives are passive and completely designed to be the “perfect” woman for that specific man.  The dolls are attractive and “perfect” physical specimens.  They are made to be everything the man wants with no care for what the Active wants, because they don’t really have any desires of their own.

But what about the male Actives?  Sure, the show has more main female Actives (Echo, Sierra, November, and Whiskey), but the main male Actives (Victor and Alpha) also play a key role in the show.  And not all of the engagements are about being the “perfect” girlfriend (or boyfriend for that matter).  While there are certainly a lot of engagements that center around sex, there are many that do not.

But I think the matter runs deeper than catering to male fantasies (or female sex fantasies for that matter).  I think Whedon’s shows are supposed to be read at a level deeper than the surface.  They are supposed to make you think.  What the show is really about is the issues of consent, personhood, and agency.  Do the Actives really have the ability to consent to any of the activities that they partake in while an Active or while imprinted?  Do the Actives have personhood if they have no personality?

If the Actives are sent out on a sexually-natured engagement, they are by nature, not consensual.  The Actives do not have the mental capacity to consent to sexual activity, much less any of the engagements.  In this sense, the show does depict a type of rape culture.  The show also depict human trafficking because the people who sign up to be Actives don’t necessarily have a choice in the matter or know what they are really signing up for.

But just because the show depicts rape and human trafficking does not mean that it can’t be feminist.  This show fosters discussion about feminist issues such as consent, personhood, and agency.  In a post about Dollhouse on the blog Deeply Problematic, meloukhia states:

The question is not “did Whedon realize he was making a show about human trafficking, rape, and the exploitation of women?” Obviously, he did. He’s said so on numerous occasions. The question is “are viewers of Dollhouse actually engaging with these issues as a result of seeing them depicted on the show?” And the answer, by and large, seems to be “no,” judging from the routine silencing of viewers who are engaging with these issues and would like to talk about them.

People who defend the show by arguing that it doesn’t depict rape are actually doing Dollhouse a grave disservice, because they don’t seem to understand that television can depict deeply problematic things which are Not OK, and still be good television. Indeed, some of the greatest television ever made deals with very difficult issues, and the creators of great television don’t feel the need to slap warning labels on their shows to let viewers know that they aren’t condoning or promoting the activities depicted, because viewers should understand this without needing guidance.

Feminist shows do not need to depict strong, empowered women.  Feminist shows can foster discussion about feminist issues.  People aren’t supposed to watch Dollhouse and say “everything is morally right with this show.”  It’s supposed to make you question why you don’t feel quite right with the story line of the show.  And this comes through with the character of Agent Ballard, the FBI agent investigating the Dollhouse.  His investigation and obsession with the Dollhouse bring to light the moral issues that Dollhouse presents.

Dollhouse shows an extreme objectification and disempowerment of women (and men, which I will touch on briefly in a second) that reflects — in a science-fiction-y way — the objectification and disempowerment of real women.  The male Actives, especially Victor (who is the one that we get to know the most), present an interesting situation to the view.  The Actives are objectified and disempowered, which is not a usual situation for men.  For the first couple episodes, Dollhouse focuses on the female Actives.  But when we learn that Victor is actually an Active, we are surprised because we are not used to men being disempowered in the way that women are.

A show that makes people think about “unpleasant” issues is not always well-received.  As happy as I am that Dollhouse was picked up for a second season, I was surprised that Fox did that.  But I guess they learned from their mistake with Firefly.  On top of fostering discussion and awareness about these feminist or unpleasant (not that the two are one in the same), Dollhouse is a story about trying to find who you are while people are telling you who you should be, which is a struggle that almost everyone goes through.  What is so great about Dollhouse is not just the writing and acting, but that it is not afraid to touch on those “unpleasant” issues that television producers often think people don’t want to hear about while still being relateable on some level.

Further Reading:
Feminism and Joss Whedon series [this ain’t livin’]
Dollhouse S1 DVD Review [Entertainment Realm]


1 Response to "Dollhouse on DVD [Movie Monday]"

As far as I can tell, Joss never said that Dollhouse wasn’t a feminist show. That’s a misquote that keeps being quoted by feminists, unfortunately. I wrote about it, with source material, here:

This site takes a few minutes to load to the proper post.

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