March 30, 2009

Dollhouse

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.

More Commentary:

11 Comments

I can accept that you will probably hold Wheddon to a higher standard than some other producers, but I'm still going to say that you are being a bit harsh. After reading this review, I went back and looked at some of the other films/shows you rated 2 stars. Although this may be a case if simply being more generous in the past, I feel Dollhouse stands head and shoulders above some of the other "So close"s.

I am apparently less concerned than some about the premise of the show, it is made clear that there are male dolls, and that the "shadowy corporation" is no more interested in exploiting females than males. For me, the biggest problem from a feminist perspective is indeed the seemingly gratuitous and unnecessary nudity of several scenes (yes, including the trying on outfits scene). Although to be fair, they have not hesitated to show Ballard wandering around without a short.

There is undoubtedly more diversity in the casting of Dollhouse than many other shows, including past Wheddon work, but two things that do bother me though are that there are no female handlers, and the stereotypical "asian doctor/lab assistant" role, though if the latter grows in prominence and gets an actual part, that is easily resolved.

Despite all this though, I still feel that this is on a level above works such as Indiana Jones, PotC, and Charlie's Angels. I do know for sure though that in a few weeks, we will surely have a clearer picture.

We may be overdue for a general re-assessment of our past rankings compared to each other as you describe - out of all the "so close" picks, do any of them stick out as being better or worse, etc. As time goes on and we review and learn more, our opinions definitely change.

Yeah, that's definitely true.

And it's also true that I am holding Whedon to a higher standard, if for no other reason than he gets so much credit for being woman-friendly.

But, like I said, I think Dollhouse has the potential to be more than a two star show. It's just not quite there yet. Hence, "so close."

" Sierra [...] was unexpectedly and brutally made into a rape victim"

They're ALL rape victims. The dolls. The difference here was that it happened when she was in blank slate state, instead of after getting brainwashed to have sex with one of the Dollhouse's clients.

I don't disagree. But the "blank state" rape was still unexpected and portrayed brutally, rather than being portrayed as consensual, like the sexual enounters that happen when the actives are "active."

I don't personally see the premise as something that needs to be made up for. I see it as a challenging premise which needs to be handled delicately. I think the shows I've seen so far could have done a better job, especially the first ones, but are not horrible in the way they handle the subject matter.

I agree with all the dolls being rape victims, unless there is one who was fully informed and completely enthusiastic at the idea of becoming a doll. Has it been mentioned whether they have a way of protecting them from STDs?

I just found your blog and felt the need to comment. I love it! It was a bit what I had had in mind, but my plans chenged a bit. I'm generally very interested how the women are portrayed in popular media, so this is right up my alley. And the anti-racist angle is always good too :) So, thanks!

But about Dollhouse: I'm a total Joss Whedon fan and I might give him a bit too much of a slack, but I think what Dollhouse needs is time. I think it takes time for Joss to develop his ideas and I actually enjoy the way he doesn't rush into things but introduces the world he brings us. So I have high hopes for the series.

Also, I think Joss is learning. The fact that the cast is more varied makes me believe that he has actually listened to the criticism about his earlier shows. He might have been blinded with white priviledge, but at least he seems to be picking up (then again, I'm white, so I don't know how people of color would feel about this). Anyway, I'm really hoping Dollhouse gets the second season!

First off, to the first poster J, there have actually been several female handlers portrayed in the series so far. In fact, the pattern always seems to be having the handler be the opposite gender of the Active (Ramirez, for example, is Victor's handler, while Echo, Sierra, November, and Tango all have male handlers). Not sure if we ever saw Mike's handler, but in the episode where Echo tries to free all of the dolls, there are several female handlers shown in the “handler break room”, where Boyd actually has a lengthy conversation with one of them (a woman, not sure if her name was ever given).

I agree completely with Grace’s review, but one thing has been bugging me about the premise of the show that I couldn’t quite put my finger on until I watched the last episode. It finally hit me; I could maybe forgive, at least partially, the “horrifying premise” of the show if they had demonstrated that the Dolls were significantly better at their respective tasks than someone who was not a Doll would be. The first episode where Echo becomes a hostage negotiator is a prime example. I can understand under the circumstances that the client needed an extremely talented negotiator right away, and that you could maybe argue the merits of mindwiping a person to fill this role in the case of an emergency. But you have to ask (even putting aside what happened in the episode with the repressed memory), did Echo handle the situation any better than a trained hostage negotiator, who actually chose to be in that profession? I’m not convinced, and I don’t know if that’s been shown for ANY of the tasks that the Dolls have performed. You want an escort? Fine. You want a secret agent? Fine. Why not get an actual person who does these things for a living? If it’s simply a matter of convenience (i.e. satisfying the whims of the client virtually instantaneously) rather than a matter of the Dolls being better at their tasks than an ordinary person, then that makes the premise even more horrifying. The only reason for the Dollhouse to exist is to cater to our I-must-have-it-now fast food culture. And that’s even more sickening than the premise is to begin with.

I could be wrong, but I thought both the actors playing Ballard and Mellie are biracial, with one white and one Native parent (I think he's from NW Canada, and she's Hawaiian). So I would count them as actors of color, esp since the Ballard guy's name outs him ethnically.

HOWEVER, judging from your review, and from others that I've read, they've been cast to play white, either explicitly or by "default." The writers could have made the character's name less Euro-sounding than "Ballard" when they cast the actor, for instance, but they didn't.

A black ex-cop "protector" of a young white girl and a young Asian girl raped and kept in a state of submission sound pretty deep in stereotype territory to me.

Have you read this http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2009/4/25/724353/-We-interrupt-this-channel... ? It's a statement about what the show is really about and why the women characters are what they are. The person who wrote it points out that he figures the show is about what it means to have a tv show and how mostly its men who create simple, blank and meaningless titilation and how there is so much more which can be done with television shows than what is readily available on tv.

Its an interesting theory and I think it kind of hits the nail on the head.

Also my one question about the male actives, are they used sexually as the others? Also do the actives know that they are going to be used sexually, if so then it isn't rape, it's prostitution (I don't think its any better but it is different).

I finally had a chance to read it, and I think it's right on. I actually hadn't "gotten it" either, but that analysis totally makes sense.

The male actives ARE used sexually. I don't know if you have seen all of the episodes, but there is a running joke (which turns out to be something else entirely) about Victor going out over and over again to be a boy toy for an older woman.

The actives don't know they are going to be used at all, so no, I'd say they don't know they are going to be used sexually. Remember, they have no memories, so they have no knowledge of what is going to happen or what has happened. There is some lip-service paid to all of them having volunteered to be actives, but, at least in Echo's case, you see the hard-sell that gets her into it. It reads much more as rape than as prostitution to me.

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