Saturday, March 07, 2009

Dollhouse, Or O JOSS WHEDON NO

As (threatened) promised, here are my thoughts on Dollhouse. Even worse, they are some thinky thoughts. I am rather conflicted about this show, for reasons that I will get into further along in this post. There are going to be spoilers, so you might want to proceed with caution if you're trying to catch up with the show.

The premise of Dollhouse is that "actives" are individuals whose original personalities have been wiped so that they can be programmed with new traits and personalities that match the clients' needs. After each mission, they are wiped back to what the show refers to as the "tabla rasa" state, which means that they're sort of child-like and lounge around in as little clothes as possible (at least the women), and hangout in the world's greatest spa. They have handlers they trust implicitly, no matter what personality they're programmed with. Oh, also, there's some awesome consensual issues I'm going to be getting to do later.
If you can't tell by the feminism tag down there I'm going to be addressing some of the scuzzy gender issues on the show. If this isn't your thing, feel free to join the Alan Mooremas celebrations (and, yes, I will be participating for Mooremas, never fear).

So part of my conflicted feelings is that I love Joss Whedon. I watched Buffy and loved it, stuck with Angel even through the couple of crappy seasons, and Firefly/Serenity is my happy place. I read his run on Runaways (the run took forever to come out), and I sing songs from Dr. Horrible. So the fact that I find Dollhouse to be not very good is distressing to me.

The pilot is pretty awful, although some of the badness can be explained away by the fact that Fox wanted it rescritped and reshot, which Whedon did. But beyond that, the gender issues on the show make me deeply uncomfortable and, in spots, angry.

Whedon is widely recognized as a feminist. He has written strong roles for women, such as Buffy from the titular show, and Zoe, River, Kaylee, and Inara from Firefly (although there was some discussion about his legalized prostitution companions in it). Hell, he was even tapped for the Wonder Woman movie, which subsequently fell apart (and how sad is it that the only one in Hollywood who really wanted to do a Wonder Woman movie is Whedon?), and yet this show has so many sketchy issues dealing with women and sex that it's surprising coming from Whedon.

My god, how feminist.

At his 2006 acceptance speech for an award he was given from the women's human rights group Equality Now, Whedon said, "The misogyny that is in every culture is not a true part of the human condition. It is life out of balance, and that imbalance is sucking something out of the soul of every man and woman who's confronted with it."

And yet Dollhouse's premise could is pretty misogynistic: a young woman who has no will of her own and is programmed to be the perfect woman for paying men.

In this NPR interview, Whedon has this to say in response to those criticisms: "I won't necessarily say that it isn't that. The fact of the matter is that, in the wrong hands, it is a completely misogynist thing, except it's happening to men as well — but what we're trying to do is take someone's identity away in order to discuss the concept of her identity."

Oh, Joss Whedon. While there are, in fact, male dolls, the focus is on a woman. Also, from what we've seen so far, the female dolls usually wear a lot less than their male counterparts. So good job on that front! Not to mention that in the pilot, Echo (Eliza Dushku's character) is supposed to be the strong, professional woman who shows up in a tight pencil skirt, skin tight shirt that's unbuttoned to her bra line, and wearing three inch heels. That's feiminism at work!
Also, Joss Whedon, just because you have men doesn't make it not misygonistic. That is a lazy, automatic retort to all criticisms and is far beneath you.

Whedon goes on to say he presented the idea to Equality Now board: "I knew that would be the toughest room I would ever sit in. What I basically told them was I was examining the idea of fantasy, and some of the stuff that would happen would be good, and some of the stuff that would happen would be kind of awful, and that the whole point was going to be to blur those lines, to take what we want from each other sexually, how much power we want to have over each other."

And we come to the sex part. While Whedon is upfront about this being essentially a show of prostitution, there is no real address to consensual sex. Whedon talks about power, giving the example of the second episode where a man hires Echo to have sex with and then tries to kill her, but he doesn't discuss the agency, or lack thereof, Echo and all the dolls have in a sexual context.

It is rape. The dolls cannot make a choice. They are not allowed to choose. They are programmed to be some man or woman's perfect ideal of a partner, and in doing so are programmed to have sex. Sure, the personality may think it's their choice, but they are programmed that way. They can't consent. It's one thing for fantasy to come into play in prostitution, but the women in that are fully aware of the situation and have made a choice to perform those services for money. These women and men dolls cannot make that choice. That choice is taken away from them, and it is rape.

He does say this in response to the rapey rapey issues: "I'm not saying that nonconsensual [sic] sex is ever OK. This is, after all, a science fiction show."

So in the contex of science fiction rape is okay? And from what I've seen of the show so far, there has been no effort made to address the rape of the dolls, and I doubt that there will be. To introduce dubious consent and not address it is just irresponsible.

To his credit, Whedon is aware of that in having complete control over someone sex is going to be a factor in it, but as I've said, you have to address that. You have got to make it clear that non-consensual sex is not okay, and so far all we've had is some offhand comments about "romantic" encounters and nothing about the rape. Come on, Whedon, I expect better.

The idea of exploring identity, of taking it away and seeing what remains, is intriguing and I want to see more of that. But the way the show's going about it so far, having these characters with very little agency and, again, the rapey rapey issues, are really turning me off.

I want to give Joss Whedon the benefit of the doubt and hope the show gets better, but I don't think I should be expected to hang around ten episodes or so for it to get there.

I'm not the only one to finds this grappling with gender issues and rape to be troubling, if the forums over at Television Without Pity are anything to go by, and the other Internet discussion taking place.

That's not to say the show isn't without some good points. Boyd, Eho's handler, is developing affection and protective feelings for her, and Echo seems to be retaining some previous aspects after each wipe, which is supposedly impossible. There's Alpha, a male doll that had a "composite" event, which means he kept personality traits after a wipe and took out a lot of people and has an obsession with Echo. Agent Ballard, played by Tahmoh Penkitt from Battlestar Galactica, is an FBI agent looking for the Dollhouse, and also, on a shallow note, he's is ridiculously good looking. Sierra, another doll and Echo's friend, is interesting, especially seeing that friendship development. But I'm not sure if those elements can overcome the scuzzy issues for me.

I want to give Joss Whedon the benefit of the doubt, that he'll find a way to subvert the themes he's working with. And yet I look at some of his other work and I find myself doubting he is going to do this.

Take Penny in Dr. Horrible. She was fridged. Compared to Billy and Captain Hammer, Penny got very little character growth or definition. Her sole purpose was to die and give Billy a reason for going completely evil. And if it were anyone else but Jos Wheodon I would haven't hesitated in pointing it out, and yet since it is him I've been trying to rationalize it.

And here's the thing, even though Joss Whedon is a feminist, has been given an award by Equality Now, that does not make everything he does okay. Calling yourself a feminist is not a get out of misogyny free card. You can write strong women characters and have progressive writing and still be guilty of of writing some sexist crap.

Whedon's track record has been pretty good, and he does have his work cut out for him in this show, and I'm hoping that maybe Whedon will prove me wrong and make my fears groundless.

And yet all I can think of is this from Chris at The Isb:

Whedon has proved in the past that he's capable of writing strong roles for women, and addressing sexism and misogyny, and maybe he'll do that for Dollhouse, but I think I'm done with the show. I already have to put up with this crap from other shows, I don't need any more from Joss Whedon.

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