Friday, September 04, 2009

‘Dollhouse,' power & redemption (by Suzie)

First, I want to clear up a misquote that’s making the rounds. Some people quote Joss Whedon as saying “Dollhouse” isn’t a feminist show. This seems to stem from io9’s report on Whedon’s speech when he got a Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism.

Now the full speech* is on the Internet, and anyone can hear what he said. Because he talks publicly about being a feminist and a humanist,
“everybody is judging what I do by that. … I read today in the Washington Post, I think, that fans are calling [‘Dollhouse’] a feminist screed, and it’s not. It’s a work of fiction that I’m creating. If you use drama for didacticism, it’s not drama; it’s speech writing.”
On Whedonesque, he addressed the question of whether “Dollhouse” is feminist by explaining that the author’s intent does not necessarily mean a production will, or will not, be feminist. The viewers decide.

“I think there are episodes [of ‘Dollhouse’] that don’t say anything, and I’m ashamed of that,” he says in his humanism speech. He acknowledges that he caved in to demands, such as making all the dolls young, to keep Fox from canceling the show.
There are two things that interest me, and they’re both power. ... One is not having it and one is abusing it. … In my life … I went through a period, for a long time, of having none; not realizing I had it and abusing it; to an understanding of that and wishing to be redeemed of that.
Redemption is at the heart of everything he does, he says.

For me, the first season DVD redeemed “Dollhouse.” (The second season begins Sept. 25.) In the intro (thanks to the person who transcribed it), he compares himself to characters on the show.
I am a monster.

I am also a terrified young girl making her way through the dark, trying to find an answer, an exit, an identity. I'm a capricious and self-satisfied programmer, a ruthless and terribly vulnerable boss, and a scarred, lonely healer who cannot come out of the dark.

And this show is all about the dark; I was out of superhero land and into a world of the helpless and the corrupt. It kept me up nights, thinking of the tightrope I was going to start walking. But in the end it drew me in, almost the way it draws the noble FBI agent who just wants to help a woman free herself - 'cause I'm him too. We all live in the Dollhouse. We all play there. We're all abusers, victims, kind, callous ... cobbling our own narratives about who we are and what we want. We are programmed. We are programmers.
Earlier, Ladybusiness gave this analysis of the show:
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.
I’ve written before about "Dollhouse," including the issue of consent and the guys who keep insisting that the show is morally ambiguous.

Yes! Even smart men who discuss philosophy ponder whether it would be exploitative or immoral for an illegal, underground, commercial business to get young people to agree, sometimes with coercion, to have their personalities wiped clean and replaced with other personas that will do whatever the clients want. Feminists were treated to another of these discussions, as one frequent commenter said he preferred the pilot that aired and what he considered its moral ambiguity.

The DVD includes the original pilot, titled “Echo” after the main character, played by producer Eliza Dushku. To save the show, Whedon and Dushku scrapped the original pilot and made another.

In the DVD commentaries, Whedon says fantasy is a gray area: A person may imagine the perfect lover, or dream of wiping away painful memories. But if the Dollhouse were real, it would be unacceptable, and the sex the Actives have would not be consensual. The episode that sparks the most debate on this subject is “Man on the Street,” in which a gazillionaire rents an Active each year to be his wife on the anniversary of her death. Even if his motives are sympathetic, he’s still a predator, Whedon suggests.

The DVD also includes the 13th episode, “Epitaph One,” which Fox chose not to air. (Stop reading now if you don’t want spoilers.) The setting is 2019, by which time others have gotten hold of the technology. Some use this to jump from body to body, hoping to escape death. Some have turned mobs into killers. A few people who have retained their own consciousness stumble upon the Dollhouse, and hear the memories of the original inhabitants. The “terrified girl” is now helping others and may have killed the boss. The programmer, who calls himself a monster, has gone mad, knowing what his work has wrought.

What the Dollhouse did was not just wrong; it brought about an apocalypse. Take that, you lovers of ambiguity.
*For those who like Joss, the 90-minute video of the humanism speech is well-worth watching. It has various tidbits, such as: His two children have his wife’s last name.