Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Much Ado about Dollhouse [Television Tuesday]

This is a guest post from meloukhia, who writes on this ain't livin'. You can read more of her critiques of Dollhouse here. You can also read her 50 Books for Problematic Times entry for The Sparrow.

When the last episode of Angel aired in 2004, television viewers had no idea that they'd be waiting five years to see the creative genius of Joss Whedon on the small screen again.

Joss Whedon is often described as a feminist, not least because he has called himself one. He's been an outspoken advocate on behalf of women all over the world, he's engaged with feminist issues in his shows, on interviews, and with his fans, and his groundbreaking series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) made leaps and bounds for women on television when it aired. However, he's also been criticized by the feminist community for his failure to include people of colour on his shows, for the lack of size diversity seen in his productions, and for his sometimes troubling approach to sex work, among many other things.

Thus it was with some trepidation that feminists awaited Dollhouse, which debuted on the rather inauspicious date of Friday, 13 February 2009. The premise of the show: a shady company has developed technology which can be used to strip people's personalities and memories from their bodies, and the same technology can be used to imprint a new personality. The company has amassed a stable of powerful, high-paying, very elite clients, providing people, made to order, in the form of Actives who can be programmed by the company to be anyone a client desires. The Actives are uniformly beautiful, examples of sleek physical perfection, and they can be imprinted to suit any whim.

Viewers learn that people can sign up for a term of service in the Dollhouse as an Active, living in a neutral state in a posh facility dripping with Chinoiserie until called for, at which point they are imprinted and sent out on engagements under the protection of a handler. Birth coach one day, hostage negotiator on another, perfect girlfriend the next. When they return, they are wiped again, and allowed to wander the halls of the Dollhouse, receiving massages, taking tai chi classes, and learning bonsai.

On the surface, Dollhouse can be read as just another science fiction adventure show. The same actors play different characters every week, often wearing revealing and impractical costumes*, and viewers can be entertained by a side plot featuring a rogue FBI agent on a quest to bring the Dollhouse down. But Whedon's shows aren't meant to be read on the surface. Dollhouse is a story about personhood and agency, and as the series unfold, we watch one of the Actives, Echo, reaching a state of self awareness. And we learn more about the workings of the organization behind the Dollhouse.

Critics have argued that Dollhouse blatantly depicts rape culture, and to some extent, Whedon agrees. He openly admits that the operations of the Dollhouse are misogynistic (source) and is not trying to shy away from the ugliness that the show depicts. Yet, some viewers have apparently missed this, which is raising some interesting questions about Dollhouse.

Numerous feminists have discussed the fact that what is happening on Dollhouse is rape (1, 2). When Actives are sent out on engagements which involve sexual activity, that activity is, by nature, not consensual. Whedon openly admits this, and says “I'm not saying that nonconsensual sex is ever OK.” It sounds like this is one place in which Whedon and his critics are in agreement: the show is depicting the rape and exploitation of people, with a focus on women.

Speaking in defense of the show, many people have brushed this point aside, saying that critics (and apparently Whedon himself, since he agrees with these criticisms) “don't understand subtlety” or are “missing the point.” It's a classic silencing technique used to marginalize feminist discourse: by ignoring it, the respondent believes that the criticism is invalidated.

Dollhouse is definitely a subtle show. There's a reason for that: Fox told Whedon to make it more subtle, because they were uncomfortable with the themes being explored. Being subtle isn't necessarily a bad thing; as The Angry Black Woman pointed out, we feminists are capable of comprehending subtlety, and of appreciating it. A show can be subtle, and be making good points, and still be problematic, and this is what much of the debate which surrounds Dollhouse seems to be swirling around.

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 critiques of Dollhouse, even from Whedon fans, seem to be taken by a subset of Whedon's fan community as an attack on Whedon himself, or on the show. In their hurry to retaliate, they aren't engaging with the criticisms, and they are (dare I say it) missing the point. The argument isn't “Dollhouse isn't good,” although some critics certainly do feel that way, the argument is “hey, this show is depicting some awful stuff! Let's talk about it!”

In a way, and I suspect that some people will disagree with me quite vehemently, I think that Dollhouse is a highly feminist television show, and that it may in fact be more feminist than other Whedon shows, thanks to the unflinching depiction of issues like exploitation and disempowerment, for all of the problems with the show. Depicting rape and exploitation doesn't make it inherently antifeminist, even when the framing is sometimes highly problematic, and I am enjoying the exploration of complex moral issues in the show and the conversation that it is sparking. This is a show which requires work from the viewer, something several critics have taken issue with, but the outcome of that work can be highly beneficial.

*Costuming on Dollhouse could probably consume an entirely separate post, but I do want to briefly address the issue, since the costumes on the show are often used as a glaring example that the show is exploitative and misogynistic. It's important to note that, yes, the costumes are often highly impractical and inappropriate, but the costuming on the show is not Whedon's fault. While Whedon does have a great deal of creative control, he can't be everywhere at once, and he doesn't micromanage his creative team. Fox has very clear ideas about how they want the show framed and presented, which means that on certain issues, Whedon actually has no control. Fox says they want the Actives sexed up on engagements, the costume department delivers. I'm happy to lay blame where blame is due, but we can't be attacking the poor man for things he's not responsible for.


  1. Great post! One thing that sometimes bothers me is that people think that a feminist tv show or feminist movie has to be about female empowerment. You have to see a woman being strong physically or emotionally (or both), etc. etc. But a feminist tv show (like this post suggests) can also be about raising awareness about feminist issues such as disempowerment, consent, human trafficking, etc.

    I also have a feeling that I will always stand up for Joss Whedon and his creations. But that doesn't mean I can't be critical about his shows. Dollhouse is great because it fosters discussion. I would watch it every week with one of my friends (or we would watch individually and get together later) and then we would discuss the show. We would talk about all these issues that Whedon raises. When a show like this comes along, it's important to talk about it!

  2. I'm going to state outright that I agree with Laura - my love for Joss runs deep and I will always find a way to defend him, because I do believe he's doing important work, and doing so intentionally. No theme he touches on is an accident. Which is why I disagree with you, RMJ, about the Agent Ballard storyline being relegated to a "side plot." As feminists, isn't this side plot the one we could relate to the most? Agent Ballard is laughed at for his pursuit of an urban legend that most people believe don't exist, and people view him as crazed in his desire to bring the Dollhouse down and release its captives. Don't we often face the same arguments when we fight against the many -isms many people don't take the time to see, tell us we're overreacting or crazed ourselves? Overall, I agree with your analysis, but I think that the Agent Ballard storyline definitely deserves another look. I'm particularly looking forward to ***spoiler alert*** seeing how Agent Ballard's collusion with the Dollhouse in Season 2 affects his desire to bring them down... which will hopefully be a whole new goldmine of discussion.

  3. Oops!! Correction - guest posting - so it's meloukhia I am disagreeing with, not RMJ. Sorry for the confusion!! Enjoying the discussion nonetheless.

  4. Sweet, I knew I could make RMJ take the heat for me!

    In looking at Dollhouse, I think that some people (the shallow viewers) are reading the Ballard plot as the B Plot, with their focus being on what's going on inside the Dollhouse and with Echo, though obviously there's some intersection between A and B plots going on, like, say, when Echo and Ballard meet. I'm not saying that's how I view it, that's just how some folks read it. And that's why it's described as a "side plot" in the superficial overview of the story.

    That said, you bring up a really interesting point when you talk about the fact that Ballard is fighting against many of the same things feminists struggle with. I can honestly admit that I hadn't reflected on that before: that Ballard's silencing and marginalization from his colleagues is paralleled by the real world treatment of feminists. (Including the, uhm, sometimes very disturbing responses I've gotten to articles in the Feminism and Joss Whedon series at my website from ardent Whedon fans who do not like criticism.)

    I'll have to consider that when I tackle Ballard's characterization, which is object number #1,356 on the list of things I would like to discuss about Dollhouse.

  5. Awesome post, meloukhia. I think you touched on a lot of thoughts I had about the show but wasn't able to verbalize.

    Dollhouse is a great show--I'm eagerly waiting for season 2 to begin in just over 3 weeks! It does touch on a lot of uncomfortable issues, but so did Schindler's List. One of the reasons people will watch a show repeatedly is that it makes them think, even and especially after the initial 'entertainment' value is gone.

  6. I think that one thing that the Ballard plot does (in addition to mirroring silencing of feminists) is bring to light for "shallow viewers" some of the issues that are not on the surface that critical viewers see. He often talks about the Dollhouse in terms of disempowerment, human trafficking, and consent. I think his story provides the criticism of the Dollhouse that "shallow viewers" might not see without some direction. And I too am anxious to see how his involvement with the Dollhouse plays out in season 2. I'm so excited for the next season to start!

  7. Terrific post! About the costuming though, has there really been any indication that Fox meddled very much in that department? If you listen to the DVD commentaries it seems that their main request was more stand-alone action and to shy away from controversial issues. For me, who admittedly went in expecting a feminist show, it seemed that a lot of the skimpy clothing etc was at least partly deliberate. It was one of the factors that made you feel slightly uncomfortable watching the dolls on their missions, and I think that rhymes with Whedon having said that even the viewers come away "compromised". That the viewers culpability in the exploitation of the dolls seems to be addressed is one of the many things that fascinate me with this show. It might of course just be your regular objectification and network interference, but at least to me it always came across as a bit too deliberately disturbing to be only that?

  8. Thanks for this piece. I should be more supportive of you on Whedonesque, but I get burned out arguing with the guys who think that the activities are consensual.

    I hope to blog about this Friday.


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