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The problem with Dollhouse is not that I don't understand subtlety

The problem with Dollhouse is not that I don’t understand subtlety

Yesterday coffeeandink pointed to this amazing Dollhouse vid set to the tune of “It Depends on What You Pay” from The Fantasticks. It’s so spot on I can’t even describe. Go watch, if you’re inclined, but be aware that it could be triggery. C&I mentioned in her post that the vid author warned that it could be, while whoever posted it at Whedonesque warned that it might be offensive. Lordy. I should not have looked at the comments over there because, well, it’s Whedonesque. And yet.

Lots of varying reactions, but one of the opinions I’m seeing over and over is that people who hate the show and hate the rape and are just haters do not understand the subtlety going on in it. That we need to have the idea that the Dollhouse people are bad overstated or spoon-fed to us, etc. And to that I say: bullshit.

The problem here is not that I don’t appreciate subtlety and I don’t need a show to explicitly point an arrow at a character and scream, “This person is BAD OMG, hate hiiimmm!” After all, I watch Doctor Who, a show about the subtlest subtle asshole who ever subtled through time. I also love Dexter, another show one of the commenters brought up. In the latter, the wrongness of the main characters actions is perhaps a bit more obvious (he’s a serial killer, can’t get much more wrong than that) and with the former there are differing opinions on whether the show’s opinion is that the Doctor is a jerk. In both cases I watch and enjoy because I trust that the show’s creators/writers know what they’re on about. The bottom line is: I don’t trust Joss Whedon.

I don’t accept his feminist cred as a given. I don’t accept his talent/genius as a given. And that colors all of my reactions to Dollhouse — both the premise and the actual episodes I’ve watched.

Perhaps this is wrong and unfair of me. But consider this: I started watching Dexter knowing nothing about the show creators or writers or about the author of the book the show is based on. I didn’t know their stance on serial killers except to assume that it was similar to mine: serial killers (really any killers) are bad. And watching that show, I never once find myself thinking that serial killing would be okay if Dexter did it. Or even that killing is okay because he kills people who are criminals. And yet, with every season, I love the show and the character more and more. I find it awesome the way the show gets me to identify with and root for him without ever making me feel like everything he does is okay. That’s part of it — it’s not okay. And yet I am complicit. Crunchy!

Dexter earned my trust based on the strength of the episodes and writing. Joss Whedon has not yet earned my trust. Therefore, I don’t read all the good intentions into Dollhouse as other fans do. Even without trusting him at the outset, Joss still could have earned my trust by the way the premise was handled. He didn’t, he hasn’t, and I refuse to give it to him just because he created Buffy and Angel and Firefly. I don’t owe him anything.

So again, it’s not about my lack of appreciation of the subtle. I get subtlety. I just don’t don’t believe the show is as nuanced as fans want it to be. I didn’t assume it would be super nuanced and complex from the beginning. Did you?

ETA: Amazing post on FeministSF about this topic. Shannan makes the point that Dollhouse expects the viewer to do some pretty heavy lifting when viewing that a lot of people will refuse to do. (Or, possibly, not consider doing because they don’t know they should be.)

69 comments to The problem with Dollhouse is not that I don’t understand subtlety

  • i stopped watching dollhouse after the 8th episode. just too triggering.

    whatever feminist cred that whedon had with me from buffy/angel – and it was never much – he lost with dollhouse. i don’t care about supposed subtleties – dollhouse is a show that normalizes rape, and i am done with the show and done with whedon.

  • I wanted to like Dollhouse, as a Buffy fan, but week after week the premise strikes me as just a flimsy excuse to indulge in the “fantasies” (whether sexual or violent) and then to try to frame the immorality in “dark and gritty” inner conflict for Ballard. And I still don’t buy the premise that you would want to hire a fake expert over a real expert.

    The big problem is that while the show could be ABOUT abuse, rape, slavery, human trafficking, etc., the fact that the victims have no “humanity” means that all the show displays IS abuse, rape, slavery, and human trafficking. You see the crime, but none of the suffering, none of the reality, because they wipe the victims’ minds afterward. So there is no deeper commentary, no character exploration, no character arcs at all, just the ACTS of abuse with none of the consequences. Which is a Bad Thing, especially since there is so much talk about how it might be a Good Thing for some people in some situations.

    Plus, the show lacks whimsy!

  • Dollhouse is incredibly sketchy. I still am not sure how I feel about it; I keep giving it more chances because I want it to be better than I think it actually is.

    I wanted to link to the only essay I’ve ever read that indicates how the show might be convincingly read as progressive and feminist: Spec(tac)ular pop culture I: The conceptual apparatus of Dollhouse. It’s based on Luce Irigaray’s idea of “specularity,” which the blogger explains pretty clearly in the post. It’s definitely an interesting read, even if I still remain unsure that the show is quite this sophisticated.

  • Oh thank you for this! I’m so tired of seeing the defenses of this show from feminists. Did you see the video of Whedon accepting his Bradbury Award? Where he makes a joke about hot chicks?

    I thought the latest episode was especially triggering with that scene between FBI guy and Mellie. I suppose that bit was really all about how rape culture Hurts Men Too(tm). boo hoo.

  • deathblossom

    Perfect video and perfect post. I’ve managed to see through around 3 episodes of Dollhouse (the first episode, half of the second, 5 minutes of the third – yes it was that bad, and the ‘mythical’ Number Six!) and every time it’s been a gagfest. I’ve read reviews, spoilers, and seen press releases of the other episodes and it boggles me how people can watch it.

    I think the people claiming the show does address its problematic elements are giving Joss too much credit because he’s Joss and thus reading their own feelings about what Joss *must* have meant, instead of what he’s actually doing ( which is creating a world where there aren’t any checks and there won’t be any checks, since Echo’s never gaining consciousness ensuring that the series will constantly be told from the point of the view of the Dollhouse). Joss could have made this show something a mythos with a comment on society without having to drag a pink elephant into the room. I had thoughts of something like Ghost in the Shell when I first heard about it, so yes, I did think it could be complex and subtle. However, by his own admission, he’s had to change elements of the show to pander more to Fox’s desire for skin and sketch. To me, that means the show has mutated from whatever “good intentions” he had to something problematic that he can’t fully explore and should stop. Couple that with his comments which basically amount to “All my other projects failed, so let the pandering begin!”, he gets no pity or credit for anything he did before.

    Also, the comments. I couldn’t get past someone saying the last episode was a humanization of Topher. Forgive me if I don’t feel sorry for a loser geek jerk who can’t get laid and has no friends, so he treats himself to a birthday present of the perfectly programmed Asian Girlfriend.

  • I couldn’t get past someone saying the last episode was a humanization of Topher.

    Yeah, what was that about? Not just offensive but dumb, too. It was nothing more than a stereotype-ization of someone who is already just a stock character.

  • osiyo

    Thank you. I don’t find Whedon to be a feminist ally in any way. I didn’t think Buffy was all that great either. All slayer bosses were d00ds.

  • Zahra

    What a great post. Thank you for this.

    The whole “but it’s subtle!” or “but it’s complex!” defense irritates me, chiefly because it reminds me of the way I responded to literature & the like when I was in high school. At the time, I thought this was a smart way of ending an argument. Then I grew up and realized that things could be subtle/complex AND problematic. Whoa!

    In other words, this response reflexively shuts down of discussion, rather than making a dissenting argument. Made worse in this case because Dollhouse…isn’t. It’s, well, the opposite of subtle. (Though I have to admit I haven’t yet made it through an entire episode.) Why would it be? There are many things I enjoyed in what I’ve seen of Buffy, but subtlety isn’t one of them.

  • I didn’t assume it would be super nuanced and complex from the beginning. Did you?

    Yep, I did. Because I came off of a summer and fall semester watching Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog over and over and subjecting it to a thorough picking apart analysis. The subtlety I found there told me to look for it in this show, and it is there.

    I said this at Tiger Beatdown’s review, which is, imo the best I’ve seen so far [Link]: With each of Joss’s shows you can see his personal growth reflected in the work. Glaring mistakes made in all of them (except maybe Dr. Horrible), but a progressively deeper understanding and nuance of the space in the world he occupies and his role in it, as well as the roles of others. You can see it in Dollhouse in his casting, in Topher’s words (“if this is about why they’re speaking Mandarin instead of Cantonese I can explain!”) and in a lot of other aspects of the show. One of the projects we discussed at Tiger Beatdown’s is that it seems he is critiquing the industry as a whole. Writers, directors, and producers do what the Dollhouse does every week, they take a blank slate and mold it into what they want it to be, the show, the characters… It’s wish fulfillment, and much of it racist, sexist, classist, ableist, etc. Like Dexter, complicity of the audience ourselves in this came up in this week’s episode.

    The meddling of “Fox” is also obvious though, especially in the first five episodes. But it’s gotten progressively better, starting with ep 6, “Man on the Street”. Everything before that was extended pilot, introducing us to the workings of the Dollhouse.

    I’m not going to tell everyone here they don’t appreciate subtlety, but I am going to say that this is a really, really, easy show to write off quickly. It’s an easy show to critique. The surface elements are not feminist, not progressive, and very re-affirming of kyriarchal values. But just like the construction of the Dollhouse itself, the surface doesn’t tell the story.

  • One of the better things about Whedon’s shows is definitely the ability to stand up to analysis. Which is also why it’s “easy” to critique. Because there is substance there. I’m so sick of people suggesting that people critiquing it aren’t looking deep or aren’t looking into the complexity of the show.

    Something like Cleopatra 2525 gets “this is gratuitously misogynist but at least women are the stars of an action show.” Because it’s shallow. If critiques of Dollhouse were seeing it as a shallow show, that’s all that would be necessary, too.

    But that doesn’t mean that what’s being seen is the Truth of the show, or that it’s what’s intended by the writers. The fact that feminist critique is being put down as shallow or failing to see Whedon’s Grand Plan is extremely frustrating to say the least.

  • The fact that feminist critique is being put down as shallow or failing to see Whedon’s Grand Plan is extremely frustrating to say the least.

    And that’s definitely not what I mean to suggest. I hope that’s not what my post came across as. If so, I apologize.

    After 16 pages of a feminist analysis of Dr. Horrible, trust me, I have a vested interest in feminist critique, it’s what I do too. It’s the lens I am also looking through in my thoughts on this show.

  • This is the problem with literary theory: Someone shows you 44 minutes of rape and you start talking about the deeper commentary on patriarchal values entrenched in mass media culture, and somehow overlook the fact that millions of people are sitting in their living rooms watching 44 minutes of rape.

    Prime-time science fiction action/adventure shows are not the appropriate venue for public discourse on gender and sexuality. Prime-time science fiction action/adventure shows are for mass entertainment, particularly for children and people who prefer passively watching television to actively talking about literary theory, sociology, or the patriarchal values entrenched in mass media culture.

    The highest realistic social value of prime-time entertainment is in role-modeling. TV shows can illustrate for viewers, particularly young viewers, that male/female/black/white/latino/asian/straight/gay/young/old/able/disabled people can be heroes.

    Where are the heroic role models on Dollhouse? Ballard, a white male cop “forced” to take advantage of his fake lover? Echo, a white female mindless object? Boyd, a black male with strong ethics yet still works for the villains? Is that the best Whedon has to offer these days? He used to create large ensembles of clearly heroic men and women (despite various flaws).

    The bottom line is this: I would have no problem with my daughter watching Buffy, but I would steer her away from Dollhouse.

  • Thank you for this. Living with, dating, and socializing in a group of people who, for the most part, think Joss Whedon walks on water has made my refusal to have anything to do with Dollhouse, after reading about the first few episodes a bit, shall we say, fraught.

    And the base reason is because I do not true Whedon. Or, rather, I do. He will kill off characters you like, and emphathize with. He will twist you up inside. His main characters will be twisted and conflicted. Sex is tricky, and often tramatizing.

    So… maybe it is not, in my case, a lack of trust, but rather not enough positive trust to make up for the knowledge that I will be a less happy person after watching this show than before.

  • Glaring mistakes made in all of them (except maybe Dr. Horrible),

    You don’t see killing off the only major female character in order to further the arcs of the male characters as feminist problem?

    • The Angry Black Woman

      I forgot to say this before, but that was my first thought. I didn’t ever watch Dr. Horrible because someone informed me of this before I settled on downloading it.

  • You don’t see killing off the only major female character in order to further the arcs of the male characters as feminist problem?

    A feminist problem? Potentially, sure. There are a number of ways of reading Penny’s death as problematic.

    But what I said in my comment was “glaring mistakes”. What I’m talking about there are things like: Buffy; No characters of color, simplistic understanding of feminism. Firefly: culturally non-specific Asian appropriation, but no Asian characters. That sort of thing. Outright, glaring mistakes and omissions.

    Penny’s death might be a feminist problem but I wouldn’t put it in the same category as these. But that is also why I put the qualifier “maybe” in my quoted sentence, because while I think DH had the most well developed gender and culture critiques I would not argue it’s perfect, and recognize spots some could point out. Such as Penny’s death. And the cast was again a bit white, arguably a step back from Firefly.

  • Here from a link on Hoyden about Town.

    I sometimes think Joss has no idea what made Buffy click for so many women that it became not only a feminist-icon but also the show that many of our current crop of “kick-ass women” shows trace back to.

    I thought what made Buffy work was that, essentially, Buff allowed the whole “power fantasy” thing to happen for women, the same way a comic book like Superman or Batman or Ironman can for men. I can watch Buffy and see a variety of those power fantasies, from the geeky girl who gets to date the band member, to the girl who gets to kick ass and take names while looking awesome and dealing in quips.

    Who am I supposed to identify with the in Dollhouse?

    This is why the show doesn’t work for me at all. I’m sure there’s lots of stuff in it that’s good, but if I’m going to make myself watch something, can I at least expect one character in the show I can go “Ah, that’s my POV character”?

  • Anna:

    Nail. On. Head. These issues with media aren’t about themes or messages or commentary. They’re about heroes, characters you identify with or sympathize with. And how characters (“people”) act and are treated.

  • I feel the same way, Anna. I can see several feminist interpretations of Dollhouse that some people have suggested elsewhere, but that doesn’t make it a feminist show, IMO. Buffy specifically and explicitly challenged sexism in at least a few way: Girls and women don’t have to be helpless victims. Women can be the stars, the heroes. Women and girls don’t have to identify with just the romantic interest. We want to kick ass too.

    Despite possible feminist interpretations of Dollhouse (which I don’t credit Whedon or the other writers for; I think those interpretations are a valid way of reading the show, but I don’t see evidence that it is the writers’ intent. I also don’t agree that a discussion of consent whcih relies on a focused analysis of the victim’s behavior is really all that feminist), I don’t really see it challenging the status quo in any way.

  • Chuck B.

    Wheldon has never been nuanced, or original. Buffy was mysoginistic crap, as was angel. Firefly made heroes of Confederates if anyone was paying enough attention. On top of the THE SCIENCE WAS CRAP, Wheldon’s work show a lack of knowledge of rudimentary astronomy!! I mean its like the fact that mostly fantasy types think Star Wars was so great, because is had na na science and had people flying from one star to another under the speed of light in only a few months! And on top of that Firefly was a blatant rip off of a RPG called Traveller. Kinda like Star Wars was of the StarQuest trilogy of the 1960′s.

    Sure Dr. Horrible’s was nice, but really it was just Neal Patrick Harris that made it, and again it was predictable. Hell…it wasn’t even original.

    I’m sorry but Farscape was a lot more feminist than anything Wheldon has done. There were at least a few women there who were fighters and not stereo types turned into fighters for a laugh (that’s right, I said it, because That’s what Buffy was all along).

  • Zahra

    Anna, I just want to chime in and say, yes! It’s the female power fantasy that made Buffy work for me as long as it did. It’s not necessarily the deepest or best-constructed part of the show, but it made something in my gut light up. That’s why I kept watching despite a episodes that were racist punches in the gut, and why I gave up on the show at the end of season 5. In some ways it’s a cheap thrill, but it’s not readily available enough.

    Dollhouse thus far looks like a show I might enjoy taking apart and critiquing, but not enjoy enough to actually watch.

  • So there is no deeper commentary, no character exploration, no character arcs at all, just the ACTS of abuse with none of the consequences.

    There’s only been ten episodes, far too early to tell if there will be deeper meaning or not. There has definitely been character exploration and character arcs, now are they “good” character arcs, that one is definitely more questionable. I would say that there is some decent character development mixed with some bad.

    I don’t how you can say there are no consequences. There have been plenty of consequences and even an entire episode derived around the whole principle that even “wiping” people’s minds still leave horrible scars of traumatic experiences.

    At this point I still feel that the series could go either way and since I’m a masochist I’m going to see how it turns out. :)

    I guess I know why Whedon is always the guy who gets called out, because a lot of the mainstream, who doesn’t really understand feminism, like to call his work feminist. But really, anything truly feminist friendly is pretty hard to find on television these days. Dexter mentioned originally isn’t too bad but Rita and Deb are both subject to those “emotional women are crazy” moments.

  • Bruce Jackson

    The show requires a person to “think” about what the characters are feeling and thinking. Boyd’s “fake” love is not fake top her. If you watched the show, you realixe that “echo” has traces of herself still imprinted and we have yet to find out why all teses people are just “shells”. Are they convicted criminals, serving some sort of sentence? This show isn’t about rape and identifying with women…It makes us question our own morality and our definition of right/wrong, would I, could I?? The latest episode dealt with a woman’s self doubt and her wanting to find who murdered her nad in the meantime finding out how people really felt about her and realizing she was a good person who lived a true and meaningful life. Watch, listen and think about what’s happening…BS with supposition!!

  • There has definitely been character exploration and character arcs

    I disagree. The Dolls, by definition, are incapable of character arcs. We have almost no idea who they used to be, and as Dolls they are nobody. Adelle and Ballard are the only ones with *real* lives that seem to have some complexity and possibility of evolution.

    There have been plenty of consequences

    There may be scifi consequences of tinkering with peoples’ brains, but there are no *real* consequences of the Dolls’ abuse. They get a personality, go out and kill people or have sex with strangers, then come home and forget it all. In reality, a person would have to cope with the trauma of these sorts of events, immediately and deeply, but in Dollhouse the trauma is magicked away in Topher’s chair.

  • There may be scifi consequences of tinkering with peoples’ brains, but there are no *real* consequences of the Dolls’ abuse. They get a personality, go out and kill people or have sex with strangers, then come home and forget it all. In reality, a person would have to cope with the trauma of these sorts of events, immediately and deeply, but in Dollhouse the trauma is magicked away in Topher’s chair.

    Yes, seeing rape and consent as more than something to be discussed in terms of theory requires a look at what happens to victims, something that Dollhouse does very poorly. If we accept the premise that this show is about rape* then we have to also acknowledge that it has set up a conversation about rape in which the premise is that the victims are actually phsyically enjoying the sexual experiences during their assignments, and are not permanently harmed. Marcella of Abyss2Hope has done a fantastic job of revealing rape-apologist arguments, and one thing they always try to do is posit an argument for rape without a rapist or rape that supposedly doesn’t do any harm. The show plays right into that, IMO.

    This adds to the problem I had with the FBI guy/Mellie scene in the last episode. (SPOILERS, obviously). Not only did it show a man taking out his sense of self-loathing on the body of a woman he knew he was raping through aggressive, unemotional sex just after her statement that she would give all and all he had to do was take, she loved it. There were no consequences.

    Any consequences for the people who are dolls will be so far down the line that I don’t trust it will be effecitve as any kind of statement about rape or consent.

    *I don’t keep up with everything Joss Whedon, but the interview with him that I heard did not suggest to me that he was really concerned with talking about human trafficking or rape, but that this situation was his metaphor for issues of identity that were more “universal.”

  • The Dolls, by definition, are incapable of character arcs. We have almost no idea who they used to be, and as Dolls they are nobody.

    And yet they have character arcs, and in the main character’s case we have seen her background and who she used to be. In addition we have seen inklings of what the other three mains used to be. Even in Doll form they have character arcs because as we saw in “Needs” they are remembering and retaining and synthesizing their experiences (not the only place this is seen btw) and that their “real self” cannot be totally erased.

    In reality, a person would have to cope with the trauma of these sorts of events, immediately and deeply, but in Dollhouse the trauma is magicked away in Topher’s chair.

    Not for Sierra. Not for Echo either, she remembered that Dominic tried to kill her.

  • whatsername,

    Barely. “Inklings” do not equate with genuine memory and emotional response. The premise, the framework of the show, is not capable of providing a “realistic” or “reasonable” treatment of any serious character issue, especially abuse.

    The show might be more successful if the Dolls were actually evolving, but we’ve had 10 or so episodes and almost nothing has been developed or revealed. By dragging out the premise (taking a full season for Echo to “wake up”), the show demonstrates that it cares more about the sensationalism of the fantasies than the impact of their consequences.

  • By dragging out the premise (taking a full season for Echo to “wake up”), the show demonstrates that it cares more about the sensationalism of the fantasies than the impact of their consequences

    BINGO!

    And yet they have character arcs, and in the main character’s case we have seen her background and who she used to be. In addition we have seen inklings of what the other three mains used to be.

    but what we *don’t* have is any of the dolls struggling to regain their self-autonomy. we don’t see them struggling against the Dollhouse to assert any part, however small, of their innate selves. if the show were to show that struggle, then it can could perhaps be viewed as these women (and men) fighting against a deeply entrenched patriarchal and capitalist system. but that is not happening, and even in the episode that purported to show the dolls trying to regain their autonomy – ep 8 – it turns out that the dolls were still just being subject to a sophisticated manipulation – in other words, their supposedly “liberating” experiences were preprogrammed and preordained. in other words the Dollhouse retained complete control of the dolls and kept them trapped in this abusive nightmare. remember? as soon as a doll reached the preprogrammed resolution, the sedative was activated? just like an abusive partner emotionally twisting the abused partner around his mental little finger.

    that is why this show cannot possibly have any interpretation of feminist empowerment. and that is why i threw things and cried at the end of episode 8.

  • Galla,

    Yes!

    I didn’t cry, but I did roll my eyes something fierce.

  • even in the episode that purported to show the dolls trying to regain their autonomy – ep 8 – it turns out that the dolls were still just being subject to a sophisticated manipulation

    That wasn’t the most startingly example of the submerged original personality asserting itself, though. To me, that was when Echo comes to Topher and asks him to program her to help catch the mole and takes Dominic out. Now, DeWitt interpreted this as Echo protecting the Dollhouse, but imo she’s fooling herself (or maybe she wants Echo to take them down, not sure). But Echo was protecting herself, period.

    And in the episodes since no. 8 it was acknowledged that the staged need-fulfillment was barely a bandaid and did not “fix” the underlying issue.

    [quote]their supposedly “liberating” experiences were preprogrammed and preordained. in other words the Dollhouse retained complete control of the dolls and kept them trapped in this abusive nightmare.[/quote]

    Yes, just like the Kyriarchy, the Dollhouse adapted and attempted to get it’s way by appeasing something in the Dolls. And just like us, the Dolls (Echo most prominently as she is the main character) are not appeased and while that may buy the Dollhouse more time it will not stop the evolution of these people.

    • Oops forum coding instead of html! sorry.

      Let me just add though, to be perfectly clear: I’m not arguing that Dollhouse is a feminist show. Or about feminist empowerment. I don’t think it’s an ANTI-feminist show, but I wouldn’t argue it’s a feminist show.

      I do think there are feminist issues being discussed, and I do think there are feminist themes being explored. But I definitely wouldn’t say it’s a feminist show.

  • The show might be more successful if the Dolls were actually evolving, but we’ve had 10 or so episodes and almost nothing has been developed or revealed. By dragging out the premise (taking a full season for Echo to “wake up”), the show demonstrates that it cares more about the sensationalism of the fantasies than the impact of their consequences.

    Too early to tell! Considering that Whedon has stated he has a five season plan you are asking for far too much too soon.

    And this is directed at Galla too. If you started a show where the solutions made themselves apparent immediately it would ring so false. I mean, do you read a mystery novel where the crime is solved in the first chapter? It would ruin the whole thing. If Echo gained full consciousness within the first three episodes it would seem ridiculous that the Dollhouse ever came into existence in the first place. I predict the episode of “Needs” and similar circumstances are just the beginning. The whole point is that the Dollhouse thinks that it can handle every situation and we will see them slowly loose control.

  • The Angry Black Woman

    Two things.

    1 — folks interested in this conversation may want to check out this discussion of Friday’s episode.

    2 — hypatia, I find it the most ridiculous thing in the world for any show to ask me to wait 5 years for something as basic to the enjoyment of any story as a character arc. Additionally, any show with a 5 year plan better also have a 6 month plan or a 12 episode plan. No show can count on being around for years. Therefore, if you’re putting off important things in the hopes that you will have many seasons in which to do them, you need to be owning the network or have Rupert Murdoch’s dog held hostage or something.

    There are plenty of shows that deliver character arcs, complex mythos/backstory, character growth and an overall interesting and well-developed story in the space of 13 episodes. That Joss cannot reflects poorly on his skills.

  • It’s the worst of what television can do: broadcast imagery of sexism and violence made all very pretty with pretty bodies, pretty places and pretty clothes into our eyes — the eyes the entry to the soul that is seated in the head. And then pretend it never happened, and do it all over again the next week.

    But what does this do the collective, national soul?

    This is my principle objection to Dexter as well (unless this changed in later seasons). What such violent carnage of fetish serial killers really looks like, on this show is ‘artistic.’

    Love, C.

    • The Angry Black Woman

      I never thought of Dexter that way, but you may have a point. I suppose I haven’t sen it thus because Dexter’s art is that of killing people, and I’m fairly secure in thinking that the majority of people do not think that killing is okay, artistic or not. But the national conversation about rape gives me no such assurance — when we still must have discussions about whether forced or coerced or various forms of non-consensual sex is rape or not, images like this only serve to muddy the waters, and not in a way that really invites deep thought or consideration. Not in the average viewer looking to be “entertained”, anyway.

  • Thanks for the link ABW!

  • But the national conversation about rape gives me no such assurance — when we still must have discussions about whether forced or coerced or various forms of non-consensual sex is rape or not, images like this only serve to muddy the waters, and not in a way that really invites deep thought or consideration. Not in the average viewer looking to be “entertained”, anyway.

    I agree 100%. The scenario itself might be interesting in novel form as feminist speculative fiction. But not on mainstream TV, and not in the hands of someone like Whedon whose feminism is pretty unsophisticated.

  • Thibaud1995

    I like DOLLHOUSE. I don’t love it, and I certainly don’t think of it as feminist in any way. I do enjoy it as a statement about the extremes of capitalism and exploitation — we as a society are able to turn a blind eye to the trafficking of human persons but oh my, now they’re abducting pretty white people! Is it rape when a doll is activated and succumbs while on duty — you betcha! Is it easy to watch — not at all. The few characters that seem to be halfway decent have secrets, real and imagined. I believe Boyd has been coerced into service, just as I believe the physician is a doll herself. Adelle is just a very high priced madame and Topher, well, amoral technogeeks are a dime a dozen in Silicon Valley. I don’t know if I’ll keep watching or not; some of the stories have been interesting and others have been downright icky. But I’m willing to let it play out, mostly because BATTLESTAR is over and what else is there on Friday nights?

  • Skyweir

    I see….so problematic or dangerous themes should not be shown to the broader mass of people that watch prime-time television. Only people that already agree with the premise should be able to access the fiction, in form of a novel with a narrow readership?
    It is a wonder we even allow people movable type…

    Like Buffy and Angel, Dollhouse are attacking societal problems through the thropes of Sci-fi television. The mass media gets a huge whollop in most episodes, the nature of consience and consiousness are shown and debated, and the Dollhouse it self is a mirror of our society, where our personality is effectivly controlled by our parents, family and societal background (and yes, gender) to mold us into a shape that fits our percived role. The Dollhouse just does it faster.
    That fact that the show does not deal in simplisitc terms like good or evil, nor show direct consequences (which, if you remember, is what the Dollhouse offers their “actives” upon recruitment) does not mean that these subjects are not present. Dollhouse tries to mimick the way these things would acctually work in the real world.
    There are no “bad” or “good” guys, the consequences of our actions are not apperant, most people are not in control of their own life, even if they think they are.
    And a show does not have to have an obvious feminist angle to critic the way our socitey works, nor thus this angle need to be obvious.

    But seeing that most people here have not seen much of the show, and have not seen things like Dr. Horrible because a woman’s death was a plot device (as Angel’s death in Buffy was not?), I suspect that these words will fall on barren minds.

    ++++Thought of the Day+++++
    The closed mind is a tidy mind

  • The Angry Black Woman

    Skyweir,

    Your comments might have merit if they actually reflected the discussion going on here instead of being a bitter and pathetic attempt by a clearly non-deep-thinking person to defend a show they like against attacks by people with far more analytical skills and writing ability. Even if fully half of the people in this thread hadn’t seen many of the episodes, I have seen all of them, and my opinion remains unchanged. I need not have an “open mind” in order to make decisions about what i like and don’t. You need a course in critical theory, women’s studies, and how to construct arguments without building strawmen in order to participate in this conversation. Not that everyone does, but I suspect in your case that level of intensity would be required in order to combat the rampant ignorance on display.

  • Skyweir, i double dog dare you to show us where anybody commenting on the thread has said that the show should not be aired. critiquing the show is not the same as calling for it to be removed. i don’t like the show for reasons that i stated above; it simply means that i will stop watching it. or am i not permitted to do that in your worldview?

    and what abw said.

  • Again, I have no problem with a prime-time television show addressing serious issues and themes, including forms of abuse. But there is a world of difference between “addressing” rape and just “displaying” rape. When the victims don’t know they are victims, when the victims forget the crimes, when the perpetrators suffer no consequences, you are not discussing an issue. You’re simply showing it, in a highly stylized, glamorous, and unrealistic manner.

    And also, in the real world, there are most definitely “good guys” and “bad guys.” And the consequences of our actions are very often instantly apparent. Gamble and lose your life savings when the wheel stops turning. Look down at the radio and crash your car. Have unprotected sex and become a parent. Insult a drunk at a bar and get knifed.

  • Chuck B.

    I Don’t know ABM, I think that poorly written derivative, mysoginistic shows should not be aired. I mean I agree with your analysis of the show, but beyond your excellent points is that….well…Dollhouse just sucks and Wheldon isn’t the wunderkind that his fans see him as. In fact I can usually tell whether someone has any rudimentary knowledge of reading in the genre by whether they like his work or consider him original.

    Oh….so I guess he does have a use. :0)

    • Yeah see the problem here is that this is very much a “I Hate Joss Whedon” fest. Because honestly, if we all stopped watching “poorly written derivative”s there would be nothing left on TV and if we just stop watching shows that have elements of “misogyny” we would be left with… well I was going to say something like Jeopardy but even then you can’t guarantee that all the questions will be completely free of any type of sexism.

      I get why people are uncomfortable with the premise of the show, I’m uncomfortable with the premise of the show. That doesn’t mean that the show lacks character arcs or background stories or consequences however, because it has all of these things. It just doesn’t have the arcs and background and consequences that many people here would like to see, which is completely legitimate, but we have to remember that they are two different things.

  • The Angry Black Woman

    hypatia, your contention that there are no TV shows without sexism and without poorly written, derivative characters is simply untrue. But even if it was true, then what’s wrong with saying “I’ll just skip watching TV since it can’t give me anything useful and it fails to entertain”? Only fools and people who are paid to watch continue to watch television that’s sub-par. If you dislike a show or dislike sexist or racist elements of a show, the best way to put an end to your misery and the show itself is to stop watching, tell other people why you aren’t watching, and search for other forms of entertainment.

    This is what I do. There are very, very few TV shows I watch, and a slice of them I watch because I’m paid to. The glory of not having a television and having to stream my shows is that I don’t ever, ever waste time on bullshit. My time is precious. Yours should be, too. Maybe it would be better spent searching for shows that aren’t sexist and derivative and are well-written and enhance your life.

    • Oh I totally agree with you that people should not watch shows that they find to be without value; that’s a no-brainer.

      What irks me is the whole “Anti-feminist Joss Whedon is at it again”, as if television were somehow generally a sexism free zone. It’s also an attitude which lets the real culprit off the hook, which would be our culture; because let’s be honest, if we actually did go through show by show, episode by episode on the look out for any sexist/racist connotations there would be very little TV left.

      And to be honest I can’t think of anything that is not derivative, everything is pretty much taken or “inspired” by other TV, movies, books, comics, or history. Even if it is an “original” idea you can usually find someone else’s past “original” idea that is very similar.

  • hypatia, yes, a lot of stuff on TV is sexist (I would say most), and a lot of writers are sexist. We are all products of a sexist society. But Whedon claims to be feminist and a lot of feminists hold him up as a kind of example, so calling him out on anti-feminism feels even more important to some people, including me. And when there are a lot of people online who want to argue that the show can’t be sexist because Whedon is such a feminist, it feels even more important to call out both the show and Whedon.

    I don’t see why Whedon should be off the hook just because he lives in a sexist culture and culture is somehow the “real” culprit.

  • Hypatia,

    You do realize that all “culture” amounts to is a bunch of movies, books, TV shows, commercials, t-shirts, pop songs, pre-packaged foods, slang terms, and magazine ads, right?

    So if you want to critique “culture” and hold “culture” accountable then you need to critique things like, oh, let’s say, TV shows and the people who make them.

    And the fact that something general like TV is failing is no reason to give something specific like Dollhouse a pass. I don’t hate Whedon. I like Buffy. I think Firefly could have been good if done a little better. I think Dr Horrible is funny. But since Whedon is going to have his Whedonites defending him no matter what, then we have every right to critique him in return.

  • Astraea, I know lots of people like to hold Whedon up as a feminist example (mostly among the media) but I have never heard him refer to himself as feminist or describe his work as somehow important to the feminist community. Obviously an argument that the show must be feminist because he is feminist is flawed either way but the appropriate response should not be complaints about poor storylining. (I will point out that this is directed at the comments section as the original post is quite good.)

    I don’t think we have to give Whedon or the show Dollhouse a “pass” but we also don’t need to hang them from the highest gallows or subvert real critique by going down the “he’s a hack and the show is crap” road either.

  • Complaints about poor storylining come from poor storylining. You can disagree, but don’t pretend that there hasn’t been substantive reasoning and analysis here and elsewhere to back up that opinion so you can argue that it’s just an anti-Whedon grudge.

    • lol You have every right to complain about poor storyline but it doesn’t make sense when the question is “Why is this anti-feminist?”

      And on this particular thread there has not been a whole lot of “substantive” reasoning, there have been 50+ comments but the comments with actual reasoning can pretty much be counted on one hand.

      • posting from elsewhere so correct avatar may not show.

        hypatia, you seem to have a problem with everything we’re doing here. If you’re not accusing us of unfounded Whedon hate you’re complaining about the lack of substantive criticism (which is, frankly, bullshit) and even if we disabuse you of that notion you’ll just come back with another reason why we’re horrible people for existing or having this conversation.

        Guess what? We’re not going to stop having the conversation, we were doing just fine without your inelegant critique and blatant ignorance, and we’ll continue doing just fine after you toddle off. If you have nothing to add except complaints about the way things are run or how the conversation flows, I suggest you click the “Home” button on your browser and find some other blog to visit. Because otherwise you’re adding absolutely nothing and making yourself look like an ass.

        I am by no means banning you from the blog — I save that for much more colorful trolls. But considering how you feel about us, I wonder why YOU wish to stay.

  • The Angry Black Woman

    Astraea, I know lots of people like to hold Whedon up as a feminist example (mostly among the media) but I have never heard him refer to himself as feminist or describe his work as somehow important to the feminist community.

    Then you have not been paying attention. Joss has explicitly stated on more than one occasion that he considers himself a feminist and that he considers his work feminist or at least in line with his values as a feminist. Google a pretty famous speech he did a couple of years ago on all the different answers he gives to the question “why do you always create these strong women characters?”

  • lol You have every right to complain about poor storyline but it doesn’t make sense when the question is “Why is this anti-feminist?”

    No, I think the poor storyline is integral to the anti-feminist aspects of the show.

  • I have never called Whedon a hack. His dialogue is usually sharp and witty, and his skill in composing musical numbers is very impressive. I listen to the Buffy The Musical Episode pretty often.

    And the reason we’re spending time and energy on him now is that his show is ABOUT abuse and we think it is failing. Other shows about war, or family, or business, or medicine, or crime may happen to touch on abuse in various forms, but when they fail it’s more of a drop in the bucket. Clearly, we think Dollhouse is its own bucket.

    • So I guess the question becomes, can we compare Dollhouse to other types of shows or is it unique enough that we simply can’t critique it against those of similar themes?

      Also is it even possible to have a show based, basically, on the idea of people being rented out that doesn’t send off the signal of holy human rights violation batman? I think it would be nigh impossible.

  • You could absolutely have a “good” show about human trafficking, if you present the traffickers as Villains and the people saving the slaves as Heroes, and you don’t glamorize the lifestyle or function of the slaves. But on Dollhouse, the “hero” Ballard is obsessed with one slave, and the traffickers are constantly humanized, and the slaves are serving altruistic purposes. Dollhouse muddies the waters where no mud is needed or desired.

  • Also is it even possible to have a show based, basically, on the idea of people being rented out that doesn’t send off the signal of holy human rights violation batman? I think it would be nigh impossible.

    Except the critiques of the Dollhouse mostly center around the fact that the show does not portray this seriously enough as OMG skeevy human rights violations, specifically rape.

    SPOILER for finale:

    Neither the self-aware Caroline or Madeline expressed any problems with having been a doll in the finale. So I’m disturbed that the show’s writing supports the people who refuse to think of what happens to the actives as rape.

    As joseph just pointed out while I’ve been typing this, there could be a good show with this premise that was not filled with skeevy issues. I actually thought the part of the finale where Echo was filled with different personalities and trying to save Caroline-on-a-card was the more exciting and engaging moment of the entire season. That could be an awesome show, because we could root for Echo and not be bombarded with sexy, pretty portrayals of her servicing clients. Other dolls could be recurring characters just as easily.

    But what’s disturbing is that they clearly WANT a show where they can show sexy pretty portrayals of Echo servicing clients, and they are doing everything they can to mitigate the skeevyness.

  • Astraea,

    I actually made that exact moment between Echo and Caroline the focus of my review of the finale!

    http://josephrobertlewis.wordpress.com/2009/05/09/dollhouse-finale-echo-trumps-omega/

  • I actually made that exact moment between Echo and Caroline the focus of my review of the finale!

    Yay! Running off to read. I’ve been impatient to read thoughts on the finale.

  • ha

    I’ve never seen the show, and hope dearly that the musical that the song comes from has some context that explains such a song.

  • Brent

    I actually watched every episode of Doll House because I had liked Whedon’s previous work. I watched and kept waiting for storyline to show the complexity of the plot and characters. However by the final episode I realized that it simply didn’t exist. We are left at the end with the flimsy excuse that being programmed is acceptable because the people involved are desperate escape the pain of their previous lives. Someone at Fox who obviously flunked both literature and film making failed to note that people have been doing that very thing for centuries with alcohol and other mind altering substances. Just compare the scene of the woman in the movie “Fresh” who is so desperate for a cocaine fix that she is trying to seduce a ten year old boy. The sad thing is that the health and cleanliness of the dolls are all that separate them from addicts with their lives being wasted just as casually as anyone on “Intervention”. What happens when these dolls are twenty years older and no longer in demand for sexual exploitation? The issue of whether a pleasant masquerade or illusion is better than a harsh reality has been done over and over. “The Menagerie” and a whole host of other Star Trek episodes, “The Matrix”, “The Truman Show”, “The Island”, and others have all treated this issue more honestly. Were Neo or Truman better off living a lie? “Dollhouse” failed to create any interest in me for what happens to either the company or the characters. That is quite a feat considering how easily the show would include issues of slavery, abuse, loss of free will and identity, and even the question of what it means to be human. I’m baffled how Whedon could have so easily forgotten the turmoil it caused in “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” when Dawn found out that her memories of being Buffy’s sister were all fake. I don’t see the subtlety either. I can’t see what isn’t there.

  • Shauna

    I think the problem here is that everyone is being defensive and attacking one another, saying, my opinion is better than your opinion because of X. So this argument is going nowhere fast because as long as everyone is attacking one another, then no progress is going to be made in terms of making someone else see your viewpoint(s).

    I am a feminist, and yes I have studied feminist theory, do no a great deal about it and don’t need someone lecturing on Feminism 101 because I think Buffy is feminist. Buffy is the most empowering most truly feminist show I have seen on the air and my thinking that certainly does not mean that I know nothing about feminism. How insulting is that? When I’ve taken Womens’ Studies classes, hold a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s Degree and am and always will be an ardent feminist? I have no doubt that you know just as much about what you are talking about as I do.

  • @Shauna,

    This conversation (which is now 5 or 6 months old and thus not going anywhere “fast”) was a fairly productive critique of Dollhouse. And most of the comments about Buffy are positive, including mine. So I’m a little confused by your comments.

    I don’t think anyone’s opinions here about Whedon TV shows are meant to insinuate that anyone, including you, “know nothing about feminism.” Most of the discussion centered on the issues presented in Dollhouse and Whedon’s position as a self-proclaimed and generally acknowledged “feminist,” which seemed reasonable in the Buffy Era but seems very flawed in the Dollhouse Era.

    What are your thoughts on Dollhouse?

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