This site will work and look better in a browser that supports web standards, but it is accessible to any browser or Internet device.

Whedonesque - a community weblog about Joss Whedon
"Dear Diary... today I was pompous and my sister was crazy."
11971 members | you are not logged in | 18 January 2021


April 20 2009

On ambiguity and complicity in Dollhouse. A very good, and very positive, look at the issues Dollhouse raises, and how it's doing so, from someone for whom Buffy didn't work. Worth reading.

Sorry, Bix. I tried to take this review seriously, but in the end, all I could say was *yawn*.
Given that you're impatiently waiting for your much-desired cancellation notice for the show, I'm not surprised. ;)

(To be clear/fair, I'm not dissing that viewpoint. I'm just poking at the context.)

[ edited by The One True b!X on 2009-04-21 02:37 ]
I, on the other hand, was nodding in agreement (well, not with the Buffy part). A good read. Thanks, b!X.
I loved this analysis. It put into words a thousand things I had been feeling and saw clearly things I was trying to see my way to understanding.
I already forwarded the analysis to several friends.
Thanks The One True b!X.
I like this blog post a lot. I've had similar thoughts about the show, but this expresses them much more clearly, and with more ideas that I hadn't quite wrapped my head around yet. It was a thought-provoking read.

I love Buffy but mostly the later seasons where everything's way more conflicting and everyone's gotten more morally complex.
Really liked that, thank you b!X. Agreed with much of it. And while I've always loved the series BtVS, I've had similar (if not as seemingly severe) feelings about some elements of it as those expressed in this piece.
Bix! I never knew you noticed me that much :)
If it's renewed, I'll be on the front lines cheering it know that, right?
I didn't have any trouble at all taking it seriously. I thought it was great.

The Dollhouse is the world, or the patriarchal system. Everybody is implicated, including Boyd and Ballard. The critics who don't feel that the show comes out strongly enough against what it depicts because it doesn't have villains twirling their mustaches are missing how profoundly complicity is being depicted.

Loved it.
If it's renewed, I'll be on the front lines cheering it know that, right?

If you say so. I'm just going by when you said, "Dollhouse is a major disappointment, and I'll be relieved when we get the official notice that there'll be no second season." ;)

[ edited by The One True b!X on 2009-04-21 03:00 ]
Honey, I've had husbands that didn't track me that closely :)
That's a very good blog on the ambiguity and complicity in Dollhouse. It's actually the best review/meta of the series I think I've read thus far. Thanks for the link, b!x. I enjoyed reading it and it gave me lots of food for thought.
very well-written. I overall agree with the writer's insistance that this show be read as actively trying to wade into issues that it knows full well are extremely icky or icky-adjacent. I don't know if the author will find their way to our humble corner of the Jossverse, but if so, what I would add is the following:

If the show does get another season, there is one large area of the idea of "consent" that the writer doesn't really touch (well, sorta tangentially touches it with an implied dismissal), which is this: what issues might get opened up around "consent" if we are shown one or more of the actives really did try very hard to consent to joining the dollhouse -- that is, if one or more of them is shown (prior to their initial mindwipe) to have really deeply felt that they were consenting, had been informed of the range of types of engagements they might be sent on, and did not feel themselves to be coerced. What might their culpability be for the actions that they performed as an active? What might their impression be of their dollhouse experience once/if they are given back their full original self (and not without the memories to give their past history of joining the dollhouse context, as we saw in "Needs")?

To be abundantly clear, I am not in this post attempting at all to provide a defense of the morality of the dollhouse or its staff, nor to suggest that this would be a common scenario amongst the people who become actives. I am also not suggesting that a character like this would magically erase all the queasy issues around contracts and the honesty of the dollhouse, etc. What I am suggesting is that there would be interesting territory to be mined in looking at what the limits are of what you can even try to consent to or believe yourself to be consenting to. (Here, by "believe," I am referring to our ability to conceptualize the things we are imagining to lie in our future. I am not talking about the separate issue of the truthfulness of the dollhouse in its dealings with a soon-to-be active.)

This show encourages us to examine both obvious and subtle ways that the dollhouse and its staff can be creepy or (fill in a circumstantially appropriate negative adjective). It also encourages us to think, uncomfortably, about the implications of the "manufactured-consensual" or perhaps "a-consensual" artificial state that the dolls are in. Having done this, viewers face, I think, a real temptation to jump quickly to the judgement that the entirety of the issues surrounding, the consent for the person who is soon to become an active (who is not yet a doll) are null and void and not worth examining. But I think there is interesting narrative material there, material that can lead to some deeply unsettling or uncomfortable stories that also might be amazing.
I thought it was great, too. Love her take on Topher=Joss. And although I love BTVS to bits, I get why she prefers Dollhouse. It doesn't always "work" perfectly, but for my money, it's as interesting as TV gets.
I am not sure I agree. The idea that the show implicates masculinity is not one that I see jibing with the power structure demonstrated by the show. And I am confused as to why, once you have the consent of the pre-dolls, you would actually need to mind wipe them between assignments; you've already told them what you will do to them, so why is wiping necessary at all? Even if Mellie has reason to forget, for example, did she agree to have her mind erased in order to handle really icky tasks? Why not just get therapy? There is a lot here that does not hang together for me. And the point about complicity is banal- if we have learned nothing from the past 8 years, it is that everyone in power is complicit. Nothing new there.
Wow. Great blog.

Personally, I didn't have any trouble with the "paternalistic" relationships of Buffy and River: they were after all, minors when the relationships were formed. Personally, I like it when it's okay for strong people to be weak at times.

It was nice to have some of the stuff I've been thinking about concerning Dollhouse be so clearly articulated.

I do take exception to the constant reference (in this blog and elsewhere) to the dolls being "childlike." They are as far from children as I can imagine. Children are sponges. They are curious. They have emotional responses. The dolls in contrast, I think are rather alien or robotic, if you prefer. They are non-responsive except to specific stimuli and have appear to have a very small emotional range. They really aren't people as we understand it in normal every day existence.

I am still missing the thing that I think has so strongly drawn me to Joss's work though; that sense of family and unique individual relationships. Everyone is all alone, operating out of their own heads, without concern for anyone else's view point. They are all in survival mode - the dolls and the employees.

Both internal and external conflict is great and all, but I still don't have anyone to identify with or root for - Echo? or Caroline? for example. I feel like I have nothing to hope for... no goal, no outcome. All that I have been shown is this complex puzzle for me to wonder about. It has no fixed viewing point what so ever and that's just a little too ambiguous for me. I'm hoping the last three episodes change some of this.

Bed now.
I'm not sure I get your criticism, Dana. Are you arguing with the very premise of the show (wiping people's minds) or are you suggesting that there cannot be consent because there is mind wiping (which is kind of what the article seems to be saying, too)?

I liked the article. It hit on a lot of things that I have thought/said about the show (so of course I like it!): the metaphor of false consciousness, the metaphor of Joss's own life, the showing the nastiness of oppression in order to critique it, etc.. So, since it sounds like something I would say, I approve!
I didn't like the article. I love Dollhouse, and while the points were generally valid, any one that didn't like Buffy I really am not a fan of their opinion (or anyone who talks about how they dislike any of my favorite things, be it Buffy, Dollhouse, Battlestar Galactica Re imagined, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Mongols, what have you).. That may be close minded, but it is my mind, I choose what I let in or don't. If she were to argue that the morality was too black and white in Buffy that would be one thing, but the points she chose were not valid in my eyes.

[ edited by SteppeMerc on 2009-04-21 03:57 ]

[ edited by SteppeMerc on 2009-04-21 03:58 ]
I think within the context of the show, you need to wipe their minds because you can't put personalities on top of other personalities - Topher said it would fry his mind if he was imprinted with a personality. So thats why the dolls need to be dolls and can't be themselves in between.
I really, really liked this commentary. In fact, it's my favorite piece I've seen written about the show to date, bar none.

It's generous, without being apologetic; critical, without being antagonistic; and most of all, like so many of us that hope Dollhouse succeeds, it looks into the future of the show with eyes open, unblinking.

I'm going to be sending this to people who haven't been watching.
I love Buffy as an entire series, and "Ted" is perhaps my very least favorite episode of any Whedon show ever; however, I thought she made some very valid points about Buffy and particularly expressed well why it didn't work *for her*. The Dollhouse stuff was fabulous - brought up some stuff I hadn't seen, and I generally just found it insightful. Thanks very much for the find, B!x.
I want to thank you for articulating my own impression of Dollhouse so succinctly. I think it's worth re-iterating what you noted about the differences between adolescents and adults when it comes to reading subtexts into relational bonds. You'll notice Dollhouse is Joss first tv work in which all the major characters are adults. This, I think has a lot to do with why DH has such a different feel to it.

The Operative,
I think it's worth noting that the "scientific process" behind the "doll programming" is virtually identical in form to the way modern computers work: Every computer (an active's body) has an underlying layer of software known as firmware (the doll persona) which is never removed, and the purpose of which is to provide a useful set of tools and a clean interface to a piece of software (an imprint) loaded on top of it. If you were to take a piece of software and install it on a computer without the appropriate firmware, not only would the software not work, but whatever form of programming that existed on the hardware prior would be so muddled as to be irrecoverable, and that's not even considering the potential for physical damage to the hardware itself!
Personally, it's my estimation that even if the morally gray areas, already noted, of the Dollhouse could be justified, the knowledge of the sheer number of undoubtedly lethal trial-and-error test cases the original developers of the doll system would have had to carry out is more than enough to eliminate any chance that the Dollhouse could ever effect society for the better.
A well worded essay. I have always felt that Dollhouse is a reflection of the acting world. The only difference I see is that in the Dollhouse you don't remember what you've been asked/made to do for the sake of your career. Actors are constantly asked to become someone else, to do thing they wouldn't otherwise feel comfortable doing (naked scenes, sex scenes, gay scenes) all for the sake of money and their career, often at the insistent hands of their handler/manager.

I find it hard ot like Boyd. I want to. It's obvious he cares about Echo, but he does nothing to help her. All the handlers (besides the obvious) seem on the whole like nice people, but apparently a job is a job, and you don't question the job. It certainly highlights the grey areas that come up in peoples jobs.

It takes the issues out there in a much bolder way. You can't get people to think abut the issues without showing them frankly to the viewer, and Joss does that beautifully in DH. How can you get people thinking about the gray areas of consent, without providing examples? The way dolls are imprinted to believe theyre consenting is no different to those cases where fathers or uncles or whoever groom children into child sex abuse, by getting to believe it's a fun game they want to play, that it's all perfectly fine, and that they want it. Joss presents his issues very well. Getting across the ideas of feminism and female empowerment doesn't have to be about giving power to women over men.
Though I love Buffy to death, I do find many of her critiques of the Buffster as a feminist hero to be very interesting (and kinda true). As for DH, this is certainly one of the best analysis of the show I'v read thus far. More proof that it has potential to be a hell of an interesting story, if it gets to live.
I love Buffy to death too and I'm totally okay with what she says because she says it the right way: she explains *why* the show doesn't work for *her*. I don't understand why people would be upset by that and to the point of dismissing her opinions on Dollhouse or anything else, no less. For once that somebody on the Internet doesn't equate "I don't like it" with "It sucked"... I'm definitely bookmarking her blog.
I love Buffy.. but not because it's feminist.. I don't just watch shows for that reason.. I think Buffy is great because is delves in to human emotions, and tells great stories, plus it was funny and had great twists... I never realy saw it as an overtly feminist show.

Dollhouse is much easier to see in that way... although it also deals with male dissempowerment (is that a word?).
I really didn't like the Buffy-hate part. Ok, maybe the shows feminism wasn't extreme enough for her, but come on. It was already a bold and groundbreaking thing, especially for its time. Sure, feel free not to like the show, but if the main reason for the dislike is that it's not feminist enough...

The Dollhouse part was well written and thought out though, thumbs up. Now, if the network only had the sense to pick it up already, I'm sure it would drive the watching numbers up (seriously, who wants to start watching a new show when you're pretty sure there's only a third of a season to watch before the probable cancellation)...
Thanks a lot B!X for sharing this. I liked it a lot.
This review did really have a good take on Dollhouse. First episode ran last night in Sweden, but on a channel I have no access to. Worse Bummer now that I have read this.

I belive there is a difference between hating and "not working". Buffy worked very well for me, since there were a lot of other females without superpowers getting into their own. But to me the superpower angle is deflecting from the "How to" part of the empowerment process. But it was still way more than we usually get.
I also agree with her on the pretty part. My only ( and very tiny ) personal issue with all the Whedon shows so far is the general leaning towards prettyness. Both in the look of the shows and the casting. To my european eyes that makes it one whiff harder to connect to the characters. Maybe that has more to do with TV-land but I have heard Joss confess a few times that he likes "the pretty".

I feel I have a different relationship with everyone of his shows. And these relationships have changed over time. They have grown and become more nuanced. I can see the small imperfections in each and still love them dearly. And I keep finding new things in them. A lot because of you guys.

Can't wait for my new relationship Dollhouse to start :)
Wow that was really good, I'm also bookmarking her blog!

I agree with mortimer, I never went into Buffy thinking OMG groundbreaking feminist show! I just thought it was a well written genre show with good characters so I appreciate the critical commments in this blog, I think they're well expressed and true to a large extent (also I love Ted).

Ivalaine, I think you can definintely read DH as a reflection of the acting world but if you look past the actual assignments the dolls are sent on don't you think it reflects a lot more about the rest of society? We're all actors after all. I thought that was kind of the main point about Man on the Street and why it was such a good episode.

Dana5140, interestd to know what you mean when you say "The idea that the show implicates masculinity is not one that I see jibing with the power structure demonstrated by the show", do you mean you don't think masculine power is portrayed in the show?
I really enjoyed that. It outlined some stuff I didn't get and outlined some stuff I did get, only better.

Forwarded that to some of my friends, hope they will take notice. Doesn't really matter though, we are English folk so we can only spread the hype...
I think it's very well worth noting that the biggest masculine power figure was Dominic. And we saw how he ended up. Also, I think the show has pretty well established why they need to wipe them: Imprinting on a "full" brain doesn't work. Also, riddance of trauma.

But, yeah, a great read.
I took issue a little bit with the idea that Echo/Boyd is completely different to Buffy/Giles when in fact they're increadibly similiar. This is not a criticism, there are differences and Boyd's actions are the more morally questionable, however the role of Giles in supressing Buffy (particularly seen in Helpless) and the Watchers Council's relationship to Slayers in general can be seen as a parallel to the Dollhouse. The Dollhouse goes further than the Council, but I bet the Council would have used the technology if it'd existed in the Buffyverse (well, they probably have if you consider the Tabula Rasa spell, though maybe that's a subject for fanfic!) - consider Kendra, who is taken from her parents at a young age and conditioned only to be a Slayer, or the First Slayer and the original Watchers. Of course the Dollhouse is more physical... instead of people knowing they're trapped or being conditioned to not see it (Kendra), these people literally don't know and as the writer says their very thought processes are being controlled by the Dollhouse which does make it all the more scary.

Now of course Giles breaks away from the council fairly quickly (and even before he does so officially it could be said that he doesn't play by their rules as early as the first episode) and it remains to be seen what Boyd will do either after seeing more of how the Dollhouse works or after being confronted by Caroline(or Ballard).

The rest of the article I liked (the non-Buffy liking parts aside).

[ edited by Leaf on 2009-04-21 12:23 ]
never mind
Finally, a critic who actually gets the show.
Awesome link, thanks bix. Very very close to how I feel about the show myself - and why I have not been posting about it much, given how easy it is for people to hate so many things about the show.

But hurray for people who also love Dollhouse for how horrible its world is.
Very very close to how I feel about the show myself - and why I have not been posting about it much, given how easy it is for people to hate so many things about the show.

Exactly why I wanted to make sure people saw it. She's spoken for a lot of people I know have not been speaking for themselves (or who couldn't quite figure out how to express it).
I really didn't like the Buffy-hate part. Ok, maybe the shows feminism wasn't extreme enough for her, but come on.

Um, nowhere did the author say that she hated Buffy or that Buffy sucked - she makes it pretty clear that it just wasn't her particular cup of tea. Nor did she say that the feminism wasn't "extreme" enough:

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.

The author's issue is not that Buffy wasn't feminist, but rather that the feminism isn't one that's grounded in the practical realities of everyday women. The ass-kicking fantasy of Xena and Buffy may be emotionally satisfying, but in the real world, women can't karate-chop their way through the indignities and injustice of pay discrimination and laws permitting marital rape.

Overall, I thought it was a good blog post and was pleased to see it get a positive shout-out at Community.Feministing this morning.
She's spoken for a lot of people I know have not been speaking for themselves (or who couldn't quite figure out how to express it).

I just about figured out how to express it to one small and trusted group of friends. But had not yet found the language to address a wider public, no. Well, not that I have one. Hmm. To do: become more influential.

[ edited by skittledog on 2009-04-21 19:38 ]
Excellent read, thanks b!x

The Dollhouse critique was probably the best I've read yet.

That said, I totally disagree with the BtS critique. First, I seriously love 'Strong Female Characters Who kick Ass', with or without supernatural powers. Male characters in TV and film get to kick ass all the time, with or without supernatural powers, no questions asked. I rest that case.

But I also seriously disagree with this "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".

I believe that both Buffy and River did more protecting of the men in question, when all was said and done, than the other way around.
But what I loved most, on both shows, was the give and take of it .... sometimes going one way, sometimes the other. That to me, is the perfect depiction of feminism and genuine gender equality.

And BtS 'cotton candy sweet'?? Nooo ... not really.

EF:should never post half asleep.;)

[ edited by Shey on 2009-04-22 10:06 ]

[ edited by Shey on 2009-04-23 10:28 ]
Well done analysis of the show. It definitely highlighted good questions we should be asking. I loved her paragraph on Topher and how he's a self-critique of Joss.

I was also interested by the statements about Boyd and Ballard, and how we're all complicit in the practice and endorsement of our patriarchies. It does lead me to wonder how anyone can truly avoid complicity. If we find our niche in the problems and just try to live our lives, we're profiting off the exploitation of other people. If we try to deal with the problems, we're just self-appointed heroes getting hard off our own altruism. What's a "good guy" (or at least a guy who wants to do good things) supposed to do?
Yeah, I'm not sure why being strong is sometimes confused with being invincible, at least in regards to women. I guess it's because we're just not there yet as a culture. We talk about men being strong enough to cry or be "in touch with their feminine side."

Being strong enough to be weak means being strong enough to bend, to admit to imperfections, and to needing help. Of course it could be that t.v. just isn't the place for the nuances of a character who is capable in some areas and majorly screwed up in others.


I really don't think the blogger was dissin' BtVS at all. I think it basically comes down to personal preferences in regards to how much fantasy one likes with their fiction. We scifi/fantasy people might be some of the most rabid and vociferous out there, but we are in a definite minority population-wise.

I really did love reading her take on it all. Hell, if all I did was consider the opinions of people just like me, I'd be going nowhere and have, I think, a grand total of one person in my life.
I do take exception to the constant reference (in this blog and elsewhere) to the dolls being "childlike." They are as far from children as I can imagine. Children are sponges. They are curious. They have emotional responses. The dolls in contrast, I think are rather alien or robotic, if you prefer. They are non-responsive except to specific stimuli and have appear to have a very small emotional range. They really aren't people as we understand it in normal every day existence.

Sorry, but I disagree with this. If anything, it is clear that Echo is more childlike than the rest (right now). She has questions, wants to help people, notices when the employees are in a bad mood, takes action, and is quite curious. Since the very first episode, Echo has been wondering in areas that she shouldn't be, and it has grown from there.

Now if we're talking about her facial expressions, I think it's because there is no external stimuli for that. Everyone there pretty much keeps a calm face (& so do the Actives). However, if one of them smiles (like Topher does to Echo in episode 1), she responds with a smile. In "Spy", everyone was in a bad mood (frown-y), as was Echo... until she suggested she could help. She half-smiled when she got in the chair, as if she knew that by helping, people could be in a good mood, which would give off smiles.

And it's not just Echo (although she is the most advanced. WHEN did she get there? I wonder at her doll-age; might help understand development), but the other Dolls are aware & childlike as well. Victor knows something is wrong (re: Sierra's rape), but he doesn't understand what he did wrong to make people unhappy. Sierra (in "Spy") is with Echo and curiously asks what's going on in the imprint room (when Dominic gets shot).

And the show has called in on this topic. Remember in "Needs", Dominic says, "Don't think of them as children. Think of them as pets." For the Handlers to easily have this confusion is because the Actives are child-like, even if the Dollhouse would rather them be bison. Something Miracle Laurie said at the Paley panel was that even though all the Actives are blank, they have their own blank personalities. She noted that she particularly liked Sierra's personality because she always seems to be in a daze. Which Joss took further in relating it to actors- you may hire an actor to be a doctor, but 30 different actors are going to have 30 different ideas on what a doctor is. Same thing with the Dolls. To me, that idea of child-likeness is what gives them their partial-humanity, their individuality from robots or aliens.
I loved this essay. In regard to how the dolls behave, please remember that people who are profoundly disabled, for example, or are in comas are still 100 percent human.
Also, loved this essay. Great find bix! *applause*

Good point, Suzie. Which lends to the question of our perception of people in comas. Do we personally treat them less because we are unable to interact with them (hence names like "vegetable")?

This thread has been closed for new comments.

You need to log in to be able to post comments.
About membership.

joss speaks back home back home back home back home back home