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.