First, take a moment to consider my incredible restraint in waiting for six full episodes before telling you all what I think about Joss Whedon's new show, Dollhouse. It is amazing, is it not?
OK, now then, about the show itself. First off, the premise is pretty abysmal. Basically, some sort of evil corporation (about whom we are slowly learning as the show progresses) coerces young and beautiful men and women into human slavery, during which their entire memories and personalities are erased so that they can be imprinted with new ones in order to be rented out to the rich and powerful. For some feminists, this premise alone is enough to sink the show. The man behind Buffy makes a show about human trafficking? Inconceivable! But I found feminism in Deadwood, so obviously the premise isn't going to be sufficient to turn me off. It's all about how it's handled.
Over the course of the first six episodes, Echo (Eliza Dushku, the show's star and one of it's producers) is featured as a hostage negotiator, an outdoors/adventure enthusiast, a bodyguard/back up singer, a high-end thief, a blind religious cultist, an assassin/thug, and an average every day girlfriend. In each role, she kicks asses and saves lives (most notably in the second episode, where she turns the hunt around on a psychotic outdoorsman who is trying to kill her). That's to be expected. What's just as important to me, though, is that there is variety in the roles she's playing. While there are definitely a good number of revealing outfits and silly situations (the whole scene where she has to get topless while trying on backup singer costumes was ridiculous), Echo isn't made into a sex object on every single job. Even when she's supposed to be imprinted to be harmless as a kitten (as in the most recent episode, where she played a ridiculously innocent girlfriend to a spoiled rich boy), things always turn around so that she's actually doing something. It's clear in every episode that Dushku is the star on this show, and there are definitely shades of Buffy.
The other female characters impress me as well. For one thing, there are lots of them. The Dollhouse is run by Miss DeWitt (Olivia Williams), who is smart, British, sarcastic, and maybe not quite as evil as she lets on. Some episodes feature Angel's Amy Acker as Dr. Saunders, the scarred and resigned Dollhouse physician. And two other "Actives" (Dolls) are featured regularly. The first, Sierra, is played by the truly haunting Dichen Lachman and has popped up as various badasses in several episodes (and then was unexpectedly and brutally made into a rape victim). The second, Mellie (Miracle Laurie), has made the transition from frump-next-door to love interest to rape avenger to Doll over the course of just a few episodes. All four actresses are playing strong roles, with indications of much greater things to come.
As is so often the case with Joss' shows, the question of race is a bit stickier than that of gender. At Racialicious, Thea Lim wrote about racial appropriation in the show, saying:
Now, if I had never watched and despised Firefly with its Chinese take-out mania, I might never have noticed Dollhouse's opening motorcycle race through Chinatown, the decorative Buddha heads and bonsai plants in the Dollhouse's head office, the "midcentury modern motif with a Japanese aesthetic" that informs entire freakin' set. Or maybe I would've, but it wouldn't have irritated me as much, I don't think. You know, I could get over the glib and unbelievable characters, because Whedon has an amazing imagination and always interesting concepts. But now that the curtain's been pulled back on Whedon's cultural mining, I can't put it out of my head, and I don't really feel like watching episode two of Dollhouse.
First, I think this is a fair criticism. The cultural (in)appropriation in Firefly only becomes more obvious to me as a re-watch it, and it was already pretty obvious. But, six episodes in, I don't think Dollhouse is anywhere near as bad. The faux-Asian aesthetic of the Dollhouse reads to me as part of the blank, modern, lifeless feeling the set designers have to be going for. It's intended to be seen as senseless appropriation, as is, I think, the Dolls' yoga and Tai Chi. These things are included for a much different reason than the Chinese elements of Firefly--they are there in order to make the Dolls' keepers look that much worse.
The other big difference in appropriation is that there are actual Asian characters on Dollhouse. Sierra, who is the most featured Doll after Echo, is played by an Australian-Tibetan actress. Even more interesting, to me is Ivy, who has barely been seen yet, but works as an assistant to Dollhouse's scientific mastermind, Topher. Ivy is played by Asian-American actress Liza Lapira, and I fully expect her character to get bigger in the future.
The other major non-white Dollhouse character is Boyd, Echo's "handler," who is played by Harry Lennix. Boyd is an ex-cop who has a lot of qualms about what the Dollhouse is doing, and his mission on the show thus far seems to be to try to make the situation as easy for the Dolls, particularly Echo, as he can. It is Boyd who finds out who is raping Sierra and puts a stop to it. He's the "good guy."
Already we see that the racial profile of the show's cast is the best yet for a Whedon program. So maybe that's progress? I think whether or not it can be viewed as such really depends on what happens from here with the characters, particularly Ivy.
As of right now, I'm giving Dollhouse two stars. I think it represents an improvement in Joss' work when it comes to diversity in the cast, and it has definite feminist moments. However, it doesn't, so far, have enough of those moments to make up for the horrifying premise. As the first partial season closes, it may get better--if Miss DeWitt turns out to be something other than what she seems, if Echo is really able to break out of her conditioning, if Mellie and Sierra are allowed to do more. If it does, I may have to be more generous. I definitely think it's worth it to continue watching and see how it plays out. But for now, just the two.
- Working in the Dollhouse by Shannan Palma at Feminist SF - The Blog!
- Joss Whedon's Dollhouse, Just Like Ibsen's Except With More Yoga Pants at The Rest is Cream Cheese.
- Revisiting 'Dollhouse' by Arturo R. García at Racialicious