Skip to content

Dollhouse, Joss Whedon, and the Strange and Difficult Path of Feminist Dudes: Some Thoughts

Here is a thing that will surprise you: I did not like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I know! I know! Everybody liked Buffy! Specifically, every pro-feminist lady who’s into Strong Female Characters and has a medium-to-high tolerance for nerdy science fiction stuff and had a hard time in high school, especially ladies who are aware that Joss Whedon, the show’s creator, identifies openly and specifically as a feminist and talks about how great feminism is pretty much all the time. I fit, in pretty much every way, the profile of somebody who should like Buffy – yet, for reasons I can’t quite articulate except in long-winded blog post form, I never connected to it in the ways I’ve been told I should.

Part of it was the cotton-candy sweetness of it all, the pandering to nerds and dorks and ladies in the form of delivering on-screen avatars who are far more articulate and charming and, in some cases, possessed of actual magical powers, than any of us could ever be. I, unlike a lot of feminist ladies, get annoyed with Strong Female Characters Who Kick Ass, because it seems to me that making your heroine actually magical and skilled in various made-up martial arts is a really silly way to go about delivering Female Empowerment to your viewers, who will have to be strong on a day-to-day basis without access to superpowers or magic. Yeah, yeah: it’s a metaphor. It just wasn’t a metaphor that worked for me. The strength was always just a little too superhuman, the magic too magical, the villains too obviously and literally demonic, and Buffy – most crucially – way too adorable for me to buy in. And perhaps it will help you to understand when I tell you that the only episode that I really connected with, on an emotional level, was “Ted,” which nobody seems to like, and this was because (a) it was, to a spooky degree, representative of my own interactions with a certain stepfather, and (b) for the first two acts, at least, Ted was not a monster.

Which leads me to: this new show, Dollhouse. Are you watching it? Oh my goodness, it is amazing. It is also the Whedon show that has drawn the most critique from other feminists: because it depicts rape of a very “gray” variety, because it doesn’t condemn the forced prostitution and human trafficking it conveys strongly enough, because its characters aren’t Strong or lovable in the way they have been in past Whedon shows. Fair points, all! Also: points with which I disagree.

Dollhouse is, pretty much specifically and entirely, a show about consent. It’s built around an organization – the titular Dollhouse – which erases volunteers’ personalities and memories and renders them childlike and passive, in order to implant them with new, built-to-order personalities custom made for wealthy clients who wish to order the “perfect” person for a specific job. The purpose for which these mind-wiped folks (called “dolls,” and I do not think that we are for a second supposed to miss how creepy that term is) are rented out is, primarily, sex. Also, they have no knowledge of or ability to consent to the “engagements” for which they are rented out. Also, they seem, in large part, to not really be volunteers at all – most of the ones we know about, including the central character, Echo, have become dolls in order to get out of jail time or worse, and one woman in particular was literally sold into the organization. Also, several Dolls have been used for sex by Dollhouse employees, sometimes with the illusion of consent in place and sometimes not.

So, at this point, people were like, “um, is noted feminist auteur Joss Whedon aware that he is making a show about forced prostitution and rape?” Whedon’s politics have repeatedly been called into question, and usually for damn good reason. (Here is the thing about doing stuff that appeals to politically engaged audiences: you cannot fuck up politically and have people fail to notice or just go, “oh well, par for the course, ha ha ha!” You get yelled at. Sorry. Deal.) Dollhouse, in particular, had the potential to be hugely offensive. Here is the thing: Whedon, unlike most folks and many feminist or progressive-identified dudes, seems to actually listen when he is called out and to improve his work accordingly. In the case of Dollhouse, I think he is doing smarter work than he ever was. Getting smarter about oppression, I would submit to you, requires making the visible manifestations of it or metaphors for it much, much uglier.

The answer to whether Joss Whedon and his showrunners know how rape-culturey the entire Dollhouse concept is would seem to be, at this point, a big huge Yes. 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.

That seems, to me, like a much bigger and more profound and all-encompassing metaphor than saying that some boys are vampires and will turn evil if you fuck them. Just saying.

One of Whedon’s perennial concerns is masculinity in a feminist era: if women are so powerful now, how are guys supposed to relate to them? It’s a good question, and one of the better themes a male writer can explore, if he’s willing to do it honestly. Whedon has offered solutions before but they’ve always been imperfect, because they haven’t addressed how pervasive gender inequality is, and how much we’re all complicit in it, how our thoughts and perceptions are informed by it from Day 1 simply because it is the context in which we live. In Dollhouse, he’s giving it deeper and more sustained focus than ever, and is more willing than ever to implicate masculinity: in parallel to the story of how the dolls work to reclaim their personhood, there’s the story of the people who take it away from them on a day-to-day basis, and how they justify their actions.

They tell themselves they’re protecting the dolls. They tell themselves that they’re doing the dolls a favor, by taking away the responsibilities of personhood. They tell themselves they’re doing society a favor by keeping the dolls’ services available. They tell themselves that the best way to fix the system is to work within the system. They tell themselves that the dolls aren’t really people, so none of it matters. Sometimes, they don’t have to tell themselves anything: they just like the thrill of being in charge.

Whedon has done a lot of shows about magically powerful women and the men who protect them (Buffy had Giles, River had Simon and Mal), which is sweet – hey, at least they aren’t actively seeking to take power away from those women – but also paternalistic and troubling, and in Dollhouse he seems to know and specifically address just how creepy it is. Lots of parallels have been drawn between the “handler,” Boyd, who is a protective father figure to Echo, and Giles, who is a protective father figure to Buffy, and those parallels are correct. However, this time around, Boyd is also directly invested in keeping Echo powerless: he’s the guy in the creepy van, who takes her back to the Dollhouse to have her self taken away once she’s served her purpose, and if she were a whole person, she might not need him at all. The question of whether he loves her enough to help her free herself is continually raised. Paul Ballard, the FBI agent who wants to “save” Echo, is also implicated: a hero, sure, but also weirdly and sexually preoccupied with “saving” a girl he doesn’t know so that she will love him, a person just as involved in projecting his desires onto a blank slate as any Dollhouse client. The show doesn’t steer around that fact. You don’t hate these men – you love them, in fact – but Whedon is far more willing than ever before to implicate them in the oppression that he condemns. He’s toyed with ambiguity and complicity before, but this time around, ambiguity and complicity are what the show is about.

Because then, there’s Topher, the programmer, who is responsible for constructing the artificial personalities and implanting them in the dolls, who is a dorky blonde guy just like Whedon and who speaks in distinctly Whedonian cadences and lines, and who we are encouraged to dislike more than almost anyone else in the series. What you hear, when you hear Topher speaking about how difficult it is to construct a believable personality, how all of his creations have to be full and nuanced and have reasons for how they behave, how achievement is fueled by lack and he gave her asthma because that made her a more complete person and blah blah blah, is noted feminist auteur Joss Whedon reflecting, very consciously and very obviously, on his life’s work – hiring gorgeous women and making them into who he wants them to be – and saying that sometimes, he feels kind of icky about it. It’s a beautiful thing: brave, and self-questioning, and radical in a way that entertainment by dudes – even entertainment by dudes who identify as feminist – very rarely is, and in a way I trust more than I’m used to trusting my entertainment, and in a way that I’ve come to expect from the show as a whole.

Which, as I found out while writing this piece, has pretty much been cancelled.

Oh, well. Par for the course. Ha ha ha.


  1. Anonymous wrote:

    I’m a huge Buffy fan myself. But I believe Dollhouse is the far more politically sophisticated show. This review is the best I’ve seen so far!

    I would highly suggest you do a weekly recap, I would really like to read that.

    Wednesday, April 22, 2009 at 8:36 am | Permalink
  2. el ranchero wrote:

    This is a *really* good post.

    Wednesday, April 22, 2009 at 9:09 am | Permalink
  3. dulcinbradbury wrote:

    Ballard is the perfect depiction of the “rescue fetishist” transferred to the Dollhouse universe: The man who sees sex workers, but wants to “take us away from all this”.Maybe it’s just me, but, there’s a bit of an Eliot Spitzer dynamic there.

    Wednesday, April 22, 2009 at 9:24 am | Permalink
  4. Anonymous wrote:

    Does the fact that Whedon has said this isn’t a feminist show affect your reading of it? (It’s alluded to here: )

    Wednesday, April 22, 2009 at 10:53 am | Permalink
  5. Patrick wrote:

    Buffy never felt very empowering to me either. Thanks for that, then; but the show got good in other ways later. Ialso agree Dollhouse is more interesting and insightful for showing institutions as sources of oppression rather than merely individual villains. But I disagree that it works very well. First, like Kita said, the Dollhouse premise is blatantly unfair–as written, it’s not ambiguous at all, really. Also, Echo’s emerging self-awareness, such as it is, seems to reflect the creators’ need for an explicitly morally superior hero more than an organic, believable process within a human personality. I don’t doubt that Dollhouse-type technology could have the glitches that would leave room for her rebellion; I just see too little of the inner turmoil and emotional complexity that would precede or accompany it for it to feel real or poignant.

    Wednesday, April 22, 2009 at 10:56 am | Permalink
  6. Sady wrote:


    @Lunamorgan: Good call on identifying class issues at work there. I hadn't picked it up, but, you're right: it's glaringly huge and a big part of the show, which is really smart.

    @Hexy: You're so exactly right. And, of course, the next thing that happens is that his girlfriend shows up and he's bleeding and Echo is a corpse and it is all a dream, demonstrating for us all that even Ballard's subconscious thinks his rescue fetish is deeply troubling.

    @chicken-cem: I think that putting women in positions of power (and men in positions of disempowerment, which, as other commenters have pointed out, makes the Dollhouse's metaphors for oppression relevant to more than just gender oppression) is one of the smarter moves of the show. I mean, Camille Paglia, Caitlin Flanagan, Sarah Palin: there are a ton of women who push an openly patriarchal agenda in order to get power and status within patriarchy, even if it means harming other women. So "Dollhouse" is pushing women to check their level of complicity, too – I identify with Adele and with Saunders, and seeing them do the wrong thing (fucking Victor? FOR REAL?) makes me hugely uncomfortable, which is great.

    @Sean Fitzroy: What katander said, mostly. I'd add that narrative – even if it's a narrative produced by collaboration, like film & TV – is a series of choices, which spring at least in part from the artist's worldview. What's a "good" action? What's a "bad" action? How do my (female/male, of color/white, cis/trans, poor/affluent) characters think and act and make choices? If they make certain choices, what actions will or "should" result? All of those can be informed by political views, because our political views affect our ideas about what should be, what virtue is, and what the world and other people are like. A work need not be purposefully didactic to mirror a feminist or misogynist worldview. In another sense, all fiction IS didactic, because it presents us with a series of events happening to people and encourages us to approve or disapprove of the people and events, and to accept certain "reasons" or justifications for why those things took place in the way that they did.

    @Everyone: You've definitely encouraged me to take another look at "Buffy." I watched it kind of sporadically, up until I think when Buffy threw herself into the wormhole, because I knew folks who liked it, and as I said, I didn't DISLIKE it – I just didn't love it in the way that my friends did.

    @The Idea of a Weekly Dollhouse Recap: That actually sounds amazing! I would love to take a shot at that, assuming I can get to watch every episode in a timely fashion.

    Wednesday, April 22, 2009 at 12:18 pm | Permalink
  7. Muffin MacGuffin wrote:

    This was an excellent post! I’m a feminist man who wants to be a screenwriter, and these are issues I definitely struggle with. Seeing Joss struggle too, and (more importantly) reading pieces like this make so clear how difficult putting together feminist media really is. Thank you.

    Wednesday, April 22, 2009 at 12:22 pm | Permalink
  8. SF wrote:

    This is a terrific post!
    I have been thinking about these ideas and finding it SO hard to express them clearly. You did a great job!
    I do hope that you will consider a regular post on the episodes. I would definitely like to read it.

    Wednesday, April 22, 2009 at 4:47 pm | Permalink
  9. ladyfox14 wrote:

    Awesome post. You did a great job analyzing the show and its characters. I love the show and some level, it taps into our subconscious mind and captures us in our most vulnerable state.

    But great job.

    Thursday, April 23, 2009 at 4:38 pm | Permalink
  10. holli wrote:

    Thanks for this post– I’d been having some vague thoughts about Dollhouse along these lines, and you pretty much said it smarter!

    As for Buffy, I wound up looking at the show, as a whole, as a meditation on power and its effects: it’s never a bad thing that Buffy has power, but it *is* isolating, and ultimately damaging when her power creates a divide between her and the people she loves. But the solution isn’t for Buffy to give up her power, to stop being strong– it’s to share it, to give other girls the chance to be strong too. Once others are carrying it with her, the burden of being the Slayer stops being so heavy.

    Thursday, April 23, 2009 at 6:47 pm | Permalink
  11. Lucy Viret wrote:

    Got here from Twitter. How interesting! I love Buffy, but would also love to see Whedon engaging more wholeheartedly with patriarchy as an entity. So this whole concept fascinates me.

    May have to actually watch the show…

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 3:13 am | Permalink
  12. Frank Dellario wrote:

    Damn well written and well said.

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 7:33 am | Permalink
  13. Nicole wrote:

    Thanks for the food for thought. I’ve always liked Buffy, but my issues with the show are something I’ve often discussed, and rarely with such positive comments as I thankfully see on your blog. I don’t see Buffy as particularly feminist beyond ‘chicks kicking ass’.

    I was planning to catch up on Dollhouse and am somewhat ambivalent about it due to my past experience with both Whedon and Whedonites. If you’re even half correct about the intention and thought behind it, I have to give Whedon, Dushku, et al much more credit. And catch up more quickly.

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 7:35 pm | Permalink
  14. Nicole wrote:

    “…he said, “if this is about the dolls speaking Mandarin instead of Cantonese, I can explain…” in this super-defensive, I-fucked-up tone. Which was a DIRECT reference to the criticisms of “Firefly,” and exoticizing and misrepresenting Asian and Chinese culture therein, and it was coming THROUGH TOPHER’S MOUTH. Amazing.”

    Ahaha. I need to see that. The Cantonese made me want to spit venom.

    As for Buffy, I also felt that the reduction of men to stereotypes, and the fact that nearly every male character was guilty of abandonment at a time of need made the show less empowering. In a way, all of the men were capable of monstrosity, in literal or figurative form.

    No matter what I end up thinking of Dollhouse, the discussion here is great. I’m very glad it’s happening, and happening with civility.

    Friday, April 24, 2009 at 7:52 pm | Permalink
  15. whatsername wrote:

    I’ve been reading along and I really have to say that each of Whedon’s projects have evolved along with him I think.

    I’ve seen a lot of “Buffy’s not that feminist” and I get the critiques, but at the time it came out “chicks kicking ass” was like, revolutionary. Not the concept, that had been thought of and done before but in the 1990’s with the fucking Neo-Conservatives on the upswing with their moral majority and this show has a young woman not just kicking ass but making her own decisions and dealing with her own issues and not just fluff but life and death shit.

    But it was rudimentary, it’s dated now, as much as I do enjoy parts of the show still.

    Then you have Firefly, look people of color! In command positions! Yes, she’s the Strong Black Woman but still, this is progress, he heard the criticisms of his all white Buffy cast and made adjustments. Again, mistakes made, appropriation of Asian cultures and a decided lack of any Asian people, errors in language. But you also have one woman who’s a bit heavier for Hollywood standards and two Black main characters who are developed and three dimensional.

    And now this, quite a few people of color characters, and a deeper engagement with feminist critique of quite a few different things.

    It’s the evolution of a person.

    Saturday, April 25, 2009 at 10:30 am | Permalink
  16. quinara wrote:

    This is a fabulous essay – thank you so much for writing it. One thing you say:

    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. … It’s about getting your mind back. It’s about reclaiming your right to define who you are – your right to be a person.Something I keep coming back to whenever I think about Dollhouse is that, as much as the personalities are constructed for a purpose, they feel absolutely real to the dolls as they live them – I think it’s to simple to see them as superimposed consciousnesses that need to be wiped away. As in real life, people who become indoctrinated by the patriarchy are still real people, and feminism/empowerment is not as easy (or at least shouldn’t be as easy) as wiping away who they are (in in the case of the Dollhouse, waking up in their past selves). That’s why I think the glitching is so important, instead of Paul Ballard’s attempt to ‘rescue’ Caroline. I much prefer seeing the dolls working with and through their imposed personalities than the idea of them escaping – for me they won’t be ‘free’ until imprinting them no longer works, not when they’ve run far enough away from it.

    Sunday, April 26, 2009 at 3:39 am | Permalink
  17. Elena wrote:

    Here via Whedonesque

    Interesting essay. Topher is definitely Joss. As to the ideology of the show, it has many aspects. There is a distinct feminist element, sure, but, in my opinion, two main problems Joss wants to explore in Dollhouse are

    1) writer’s workshop, the process of creation

    2) voluntary brainwashing in modern society

    (In an inaired pilot, Topher says to Boyd

    “You wear the tie because it never occurred to you not to. You eat eggs every morning but never at night. You feel excitement and companionship when rich men you’ve never met put a ball through a net or over a goal line, you feel guilty and a little suspicious every time you see a Salvation Army Santa ringing his bell, you look down for at least half a second if a woman leans forward and your stomach rumbles every time you drive by a big golden arch even if you weren’t hungry before. Everybody’s programmed, Boyd.”)

    To me, dolls are metaphors of all of us. “Shal I go now? – “If you like.” Everything we do – is it because of our free will or our programming?

    P.S. About Buffy. Watch later seasons. Seriously. You’ll love it. Especially the 6th.

    Tuesday, April 28, 2009 at 2:13 am | Permalink
  18. Anonymous wrote:

    As someone who hated season 6 of Buffy, I am finding this discussion interesting. And like season 6, I am not finding the execution of the idea as good as discussions of the idea (like this one).

    Are we rooting for Echo to rebel because she’s so unique and intrinsically better than the other actives? Too many shades of Buffy Summers and Mal for me. Are we hoping, as said above, that the technology is outpaced by some weirdness in the human psyche and the programming can’t keep up? Way more interesting (to me). Is the glitch that caused Alpha simply an inevitablity? Is blood and pain and death the result of programming people to be puppets? Very much like the Pax in Serenity.

    I just find your excellent essay to be the most generous interpretation of the show as produced. I’d really hate to spend a lot of quality time with this show and it collapses into the usual trope that females are empowered through surviving abuse, particularly sexualized abuse.

    (I also dislike the finale of Buffy for similar reasons to your disinterest in the series premise. What are girls _without_ superpowers supposed to do? Besides be afraid and die?)


    Tuesday, April 28, 2009 at 9:47 am | Permalink
  19. whatsername wrote:

    Anybody seen this critique?

    I think some of the discussion here would do well with engagement over there.

    Tuesday, April 28, 2009 at 4:02 pm | Permalink
  20. Mary Mo wrote:

    I really enjoyed this. My sister sent it to me because I’m loving Dollhouse… though I’m a Whedon fan from back through the movie Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Linking to this on the Whedonverse page I belong to. Thanks for your insight. 🙂

    Wednesday, April 29, 2009 at 6:20 am | Permalink
  21. Anonymous wrote:

    Very nice article! I would like to take a moment to talk about Buffy (though I will try to be brief since I know it pains you). Joss actually showed that the Watchers were, yes, protection and education, but they were also the shackle and the monitors. When Buffy “came of age,” the Watchers had Giles test her by taking her powers away and sending her against a monster specifically primed to kill her.

    Buffy does not die, and Giles breaks ties with the Watcher committee, but damage is done to their relationship. Also, toward the end of the series, it’s revealed that the Watchers were started as a group of magic men who harnessed the primal energy of The Slayer into a girl who would pass on this essence upon her death in order to fight against the darkness the men could not fight themselves. The girl was not exactly given much of a choice about this.

    So he’s been toying with this idea for a while.

    I hope to hell this show isn’t canceled!

    Wednesday, April 29, 2009 at 8:29 pm | Permalink
  22. Cedar wrote:

    Paul Ballard, the FBI agent who wants to “save” Echo, is also implicated: a hero, sure, but also weirdly and sexually preoccupied with “saving” a girl he doesn’t know so that she will love him, a person just as involved in projecting his desires onto a blank slate as any Dollhouse clientAnd in this week’s episode, I’d say you’re pretty vindicated on that front. He breaks in, tries to save her, and she’s all who the fuck are you–while the murderer bad guy rescues(?) her. I really doubt we’re supposed to see him as “good”.

    As far as folks who claim that 99% of the population are just going to look at it and react uncritically–I think the show is designed with Hulu/etc in mind, practically demands you watch it twice and think about it simply because of the plot twists and creep factor. Buffy, as much as I enjoyed it, never made me think and rehash like this show does.

    Saturday, May 2, 2009 at 6:59 pm | Permalink
  23. Jennifer Peepas wrote:

    Thanks for the great post, and the great blog in general.

    I’ve been thinking about Joss and Feminism and Dollhouse and why Dollhouse is different but still within the Whedon ouevre, and then I got hit over the head by an anvil with one idea this might be different: A woman is the co-creator of the show.

    Tuesday, May 5, 2009 at 4:34 am | Permalink
  24. Gnatalby wrote:

    Flipping fantastic analysis of Dollhouse. (But I love Buffy.)

    Tuesday, May 5, 2009 at 6:04 am | Permalink
  25. whatsername wrote:


    And he has a woman of color on his writing staff. Pretty sure that’s a first too.

    Tuesday, May 5, 2009 at 9:46 am | Permalink
  26. Gnatalby wrote:

    I quoted (and linked to you) over at my post:

    If I were a real blogger I’d learn how to do a trackback…

    Tuesday, May 5, 2009 at 11:41 am | Permalink
  27. pat1755 wrote:

    Great essay. I really loathe the show and think that the bad acting cannot be overcome, but this was a great essay, none the less 🙂

    Thursday, May 7, 2009 at 11:52 am | Permalink
  28. Mad Typist wrote:

    Wonderful essay. I’ll be linking from my blog, so hopefully more eyes will see this excellent piece of writing. I’ve been reviewing the show over at my blog (, and I was shocked at how many comments I got on my posts from people condemning Joss, labeling the show sexist, and so forth.

    Because of the themes you list above, I feel like Boyd is one of the most compelling characters on the show, since he’s the most morally aware person (see his line about “pimps and killers, but in a philanthropic way” in episode9), while at the same time, he’s one of the people most complicit in keeping Echo in bondage.

    Thursday, May 7, 2009 at 12:33 pm | Permalink
  29. gavagirl wrote:

    Great essay, thanks.

    I’ve been really confused at some of the reactions to this show since the first few episodes. I’ve seen questions like “how am I supposed to root for this Dollhouse place” and “the premise is just so sexist and awful”. Do people not understand a dystopia when they see one? Do schoolkids not read 1984 and Brave New World anymore? When I heard the premise months before the premier, I thought it was bleedin’ obvious that this was some kind of dystopian story, and I’m assuming that it will climax in some kind of confrontation with Big Brother. And Big Brother’s purposes and impact on the world will probably not be purely evil either (much like we saw with Wolfram and Hart, which also had some sympathetic employees).

    I’m having some trouble fathoming shy so many people would just expect that all the villians will be obvious warty, cackling maniacs, and all the heroes will be sweetness and light. Even comic books don’t work that way anymore.

    Maybe I’m watching a totally different show than some of these reviewers?

    Thursday, May 7, 2009 at 1:34 pm | Permalink
  30. franz-kafka wrote:

    Oh my God. That was an amazing essay. I, however did love Buffy but I understand where you’re coming from. What you have to get is that Buffy was marketed to a much larger audience and specifically geared towards a younger crowd in their teens. This “younger crowd” needed more obvious/broadly drawn characters and plots in order to understand the issues that Joss was trying to put out there on the table (i.e. love, sex, friendship, feminism, drinking, rape, drug addiction, etc.). And I thought he did a wonderful job. Dollhouse is the show set up for that same “younger crowd” now all grown up and ready for a more nuanced and layered drama. It tackles the same issues as Buffy but in a more unexpected way with all the great story-telling we have come to expect from Joss Whedon.

    Thursday, May 7, 2009 at 5:42 pm | Permalink
  31. Anonymous wrote:

    If you have to work this hard to explain the concept of the show, it ain’t working. Not saying that TV shows should be simplistic, but it’s like explaining a joke–the show should work on its own without long, tortured explanations from Joss and his fans.

    Friday, May 8, 2009 at 2:40 pm | Permalink
  32. Anonymous wrote:

    I love what you said about Dollhouse (esp. the creepy guy in the van part, and your wonderful deconstruction of the Topher character). But I gotta chime in with lots of others and disagree with you about Buffy.
    Buffy is not strong because she has supernatural powers. There are lots of slayers, blah, blah, and all of them died young. The past slayers were failures, even if they had supernatural powers. The reason Buffy is so special is because she draws on her own strength during tough situations, many of which are not supernatural. Her mom’s death, having to make a living, trying to escape an abusive boyfriend–those were the toughest things that happened to Buffy. They weren’t metaphors. Dollhouse could connect to people better if it included more situations that people can identify with (like the episode where Echo plays the part of the nurse/wife being surprised by her first home). Buffy was able to hit more empathetic notes sooner because of its premise. If Dollhouse can get there, its ratings will jump.
    Yeah, Buffy’s simplistic at times. But so is Dollhouse. These are TV shows. The only perfect TV show that has ever existed is Firefly. We can’t compare all shows to that standard!!!

    Saturday, May 9, 2009 at 12:37 am | Permalink
  33. Anonymous wrote:

    “If you have to work this hard to explain the concept of the show, it ain’t working. Not saying that TV shows should be simplistic, but it’s like explaining a joke–the show should work on its own without long, tortured explanations from Joss and his fans.”Because literary criticism has never been valid or important or anything….

    Saturday, May 9, 2009 at 7:12 pm | Permalink
  34. qu1j0t3 wrote:

    @ palinode

    “I’m convinced that Whedon contains inside him the mind of a dirty old man, running as if on a virtual machine, which he can examine and take notes on.”

    Isn’t that just part of being a writer? Compare, for example, Nabokov…

    Saturday, May 9, 2009 at 9:37 pm | Permalink
  35. Bill Michtom wrote:

    This post is not only excellent, but the comments are, too. One anonymous commenter (lol you are dumb) was rude. Every other comment was on topic and relevant. Disagreements did not devolve into attacks.

    Very high signal to noise ratio. 🙂

    Shelly: What are girls _without_ superpowers supposed to do? Besides be afraid and die?

    Cordelia: no super powers, no fear.
    Anya: once human, no super powers, much courage.
    Joyce hits Spike over the head with a fire axe.
    The potentials: courage galore.

    Sunday, May 10, 2009 at 8:23 pm | Permalink
  36. Sage wrote:

    Sady, you should totally revisit Dollhouse now that the season is over. The last episode is especially interesting in terms of your take on Topher.

    Monday, May 11, 2009 at 3:09 pm | Permalink
  37. Anonymous wrote:

    Neat essay. But to echo what Rachel said about Buffy Season 6: “the Warren storyline is one of the best ever, as a young misogynist dick turns out to be way more repulsive, and dangerous, than the worst demon.” That is spot on, and clearly Whedon’s own panacea for the whole magic theme, as he has a psycopathic misogynist use an actual gun to murder a main character. Many dedicated Buffy fans hate this season in part because it blurred the line between fantasy “kick ass female empowerment through magic” and the reality of true violence against women.

    If you want to understand the genesis of the Dollhouse, you need only look up the character of Warren, who builds his version of “perfect” robot sex slave and later constructs a robotic model of Buffy for Spike to repeatedly abuse. Lifelike, these robots can be imprinted with whatever personality is desired, reflecting Warren (and Spike’s) deep-seated hatred of women. Warren actually kills another female character during an attempted rape. If you substitute “actives” for robots in these scenarios, and you’ve basically got the Dollhouse.

    Tuesday, May 12, 2009 at 6:34 am | Permalink
  38. denelian wrote:

    i am here from I Blame The Patriarchy (there was a discussion on human trafficking, and i threw in a blurb about Dollhouse and how it explores human trafficking, and a commenter gave me the link here. and i am hook! i love your blog)

    Dollhouse, for me, like most every other show i watch, was forced upon me by my best friend. i Do Not Watch TV. it tends to hurt my brain, and it pisses me off to no end.

    but best friend is finally leaving her horribly and abusive husband and she wanted me to hang out with her more, and wanted to watch this show, and so it became yet another ritual.

    there are so many things i want to about! best friend is not at all a feminist (although, i have not given up on my “subversive corruption” as her rigidly fundamentalist mother calls it) so i don’t really have anyone to discuss themes with.

    right now, i am still (*still!*) is shock from seeing WASH acting like a psycho-sociopath. and all the weirdness that revolved around that (“oh, you saved her”. not “oh, you saved *me*”…)

    i am still absolutely in love with that fact that there is a woman on the TV who *looks* like me and is allowed to be the hot girl who likes AND gets to have sex (November/Melly). i swear i almost fainted when she first appeared, and was allowed to be attractive, and wasn’t portrayed as just a “lazy fat slob” like pretty much every other woman of average normal healthy weight is. (Marilyn Monroe – 5’3″ and 150 pounds. i am 5’8″ and called fat at 150 pounds. the f*ck?).
    the episode “Man on the Street” – people *really* think like that in real life!

    the social commentary, in every episode, is mind blowing. the fact that there are more Dollhouses is frightening. what happened to Sierra, vs what happened to Victor. the whole bit with the ressurected dead woman (and, btw, who the *hell* would actually have enough integrity to give up life again without *any* sort of struggle?! just, wow…) yes, there are problems, not everything gells perfectly, and the bits we see of Caroline’s past really… i mean, she was a *very* left wing liberal activist, very feminist, very PETA – we are missing the link, between her perfect post-collegial career (with the apparent perfect boyfriend, job and apartment) and her signing the Dollhouse contract – and i want to see that, see what actually messed all of that up *so much* that a person with those specific world-views would submit to something that is essentially the opposite of everything she believes in.

    just a note: if i have the timeline correct, Echo is the *oldest* doll currently, at least in her “pod” (or whatever you call the groups). many, many other dolls were killed by Alpha, and i’m pretty sure the implication there was that Echo was the only one left (again, at least of her pod)
    the history of Dr. Saunders – beautiful. and, for those of you who agree with Sady that Topher = Joss, her line about “i don’t understand why you made me hate you” pretty much seals the deal for me. she is the epitome of both the best and the worst the Dollhouse can do. the absolute *GREY* of everything just highlights how these tech capabilities could have positive implications and applications, but are (apparantly, there are hints that there is even *MORE*) squandered, demeaned, right alone with the people, persons and personalities that have become dolls.

    i hope you *did* post more – i am off to poke around the site! thank you!

    Friday, May 15, 2009 at 12:03 am | Permalink
  39. dharma-slut wrote:

    I was thinking about this very issue, and found your blog via google.

    here’s my problem with the feminism, such as it is, in this show;

    The male dolls are not sexualised the way the females are.

    And that’s huge.

    Friday, May 15, 2009 at 3:15 pm | Permalink
  40. whatsername wrote:

    Dewitt certainly sexualized Victor.

    Saturday, May 16, 2009 at 10:17 am | Permalink
  41. thedrymock wrote:

    Hi there! I just found your blog yesterday (from a link at one feminist blog or another) and am loving it. Thanks for this thoughtful post. I’ve been watching Dollhouse and having some major issues with it, but you’ve made me reconsider a bit. There are still some things I can’t get over, though. To give an example, at the end of “Man on the Street,” Echo in blank-slate mode appears to request to go back and finish her engagement with Mynor — which is to say, she asks to be raped. It’s been explicitly said earlier that having a sympathetic reason for being a predator doesn’t make Mynor any less of a predator. But you know what does? Having his victim ask to be preyed upon! It just felt like a huge misstep, one that severely weakened the point that the show does generally seem to be trying to make — that people are abused by people, not by monsters, and that sometimes abusers are sympathetic too, but that doesn’t mean the abuse is justified. Likewise with the end of the last episode, when Echo/Caroline appears to have come back to the Dollhouse voluntarily, even though she had convinced herself not to do so a few minutes before. I just don’t know how to read those kinds of things as anything other than diminishing the severity of the abuse.

    Anyway, sorry for the long comment. If anyone has another reading of this stuff, I’d be happy to hear it.

    Sunday, May 17, 2009 at 2:18 pm | Permalink
  42. whatsername wrote:

    Maybe even in that state she is asserting agency?

    Monday, May 18, 2009 at 9:05 am | Permalink
  43. craftastrophies wrote:

    I liked Buffy. But it wasn't art. Sure, it had Themes, but…

    I feel like Dollhouse might qualify as art. It's self reflective. It's complex. It comments on the context in which it was created.

    I like what you articulated about Topher. I couldn't work out why I liked him so much. I think that's why.

    I'm only up to episode 10. The Melly/Paul dynamic in that is killing me. The bit where he knows that's not her, but it's her, but he can't tell her anything, but he loves her, but he knows she's not real… gah! The layers!

    I like that none of the characters are perfect. None of them are safe on the moral high ground. They are all real in a way Whedon's other characters haven't been able to be, because they swim in a world where there is no solid ground to be safe and Right on. Every choice has varying degrees of Right and Wrong mixed in. Welcome to the real world!

    Thursday, June 18, 2009 at 5:40 am | Permalink
  44. Bettina Fairchild wrote:

    I loved what you had to say about Buffy. I too am the PERFECT audience for Buffy, and while I enjoyed it, I have a lot of misgivings, and you've articulated exactly what my misgivings are. And as a side note, for me, too, "Ted" was the episode that resonated most directly to me. From things others have said, it seems that the reason it's not liked very much is that it's just so unrealistic; Ted's behavior for the first 2/3 of the episode were too cartoonish for belief. But actually, Ted's behavior was so akin to the behavior of a certain step-parent of mine, and Joyce's behavior was so like a certain parent of mine (and equally improbable and unlikely), that it felt entirely too realistic and relatively subtle for me. I used to think the potential step-mothers in The Sound of Music and The Parent Trap (the original) were pretty cartoonishly evil… until I came into contact with step-parents exactly like that.

    Monday, June 29, 2009 at 8:55 am | Permalink
  45. Chris wrote:

    "Many dedicated Buffy fans hate this season in part because it blurred the line between fantasy "kick-ass female empowerment through magic" and the reality of violence against women."–Anonymous

    Not to argue, but I've never seen anyone imply that this was their reason for hating Season 6. Most of the reasons I've seen, and which I agree with, have to do with the general weakening of every single character's integrity, established traits, and relationships. Warren was interesting, but having Buffy do basically nothing to fight him all season, when in Season 2 it took her all of 45 minutes to capture a similar trio of evil science geeks, was not. I don't need Buffy to be perfect–she never was in the first five seasons, which contained plenty of darkness, but it was balanced out by moments of real character strength and humor. That was why people fell in love with the show and it's characters, and the absence of those redeeming qualities in Seasons 6 and 7 are what destroyed the show. Buffy, Willow, and Giles are not strong characters in those two seasons. They are depressing jerks who behave in horrible, stupid and outrageous ways. Which would be fine if "Buffy" had started out as a show like "Dollhouse," but it didn't. It also would have helped if there was some semblance of continuity, but Magic!Crack and the Ubervamps prety much shot that to hell.

    Wednesday, August 5, 2009 at 11:24 am | Permalink
  46. Chris wrote:

    Oh, and "Ted" is a truly wonderful episode. I really don't get why people don't like it. It's suspenseful, emotional and John Ritter is excellent.

    Wednesday, August 5, 2009 at 6:58 pm | Permalink
  47. Alicia-Marie wrote:

    thank you so much for writing this piece… I thourughly enjoyed it, as well as

    "Sady said…
    Awww, Kelly. I'm sorry. Let's get drinks tomorrow night and I can tell you why everything you love is wrong."

    Made my days (I'm so busy it took me two days to get through it.)

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 9:13 am | Permalink
  48. Hi
    awesome post – i’m creating video about it and i will post it to youtube !
    if you wana to help or just need a link send me email !

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010 at 12:48 am | Permalink