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July 19 2009

Dollhouse and feminism. This ain't living takes a look at the depiction of human trafficking, prostitution and personal identity throughout the first season.

Thanks b!X for the heads up.

Wow, I hugely disagree with pretty much everything in this analysis except for this brief snippet near the end:

...I would argue that the show definitely touches on some feminist ideas, and that when you have a show which is developed by a feminist, it’s hard for it to not be feminist on some level. I’m not sure that this necessarily means that Dollhouse should be obliged to present feminist models and explorations of feminism...


Most of this analysis (it seems to me) revolves around the lack of script-based clues telling us what we're supposed to feel or think about the actions that occur in the show. It's something that's been picked up many times before. But I get the feeling, at least from the people around here, that many fans find that aspect particularly appealing. The audience is expected to come to their own judgement.

This is why I find statements like
The strident refusals by many fans to view what happens on the show as rape, for example, illustrates the fact that Dollhouse has not done a very good job of articulating itself.

so frustrating. Maybe the author's hanging out in different areas of the interweb than I am (very possible), but I certainly get the impression that most fans realise that what the Dollhouse does is a violation of every kind of personal freedom (including the ability to consent to sex). And even if there are people who profoundly misunderstand the purpose of the show - hell, I might be one of those people! - I much prefer that possibility to the alternative of characters endlessly telling us what to feel.

I don't think Joss is infallible, and there are several parts of Dollhouse that I found to be wanting, but for me this essay is way off the mark.
Yes I tend to agree with Ildeth.

I myself have been involved in discussion about the issues of consent and if it is or isn't rape. I wouldn't say anyone is "missing the point" no matter what side of the discussion they're on. One of the positives of the show is that it makes you ask yourself these questions and it’s good that there’s room for each person to come up with their own interpretations.
I find it intriguing how easily such phrases as 'I find it intriguing' can be used to insinuate a point, without committing in any way to defending that point should it come into issue later.
Yeah this has been discussed a lot (on here at least) though I like the "strident" usage, little bit of NLP goes a long way (people that disagree or even see it as an open question are "strident" as opposed to the calm voice of reason of those that have it right).

I do find it puzzling (intriguing even ;) that so many people seem not to believe that the show is deliberately staying ambiguous. It's not just a matter of what the creators don't show us, it's as much what they explicitly do show (e.g. Madeline thanking Adelle afterwards or Ballard realising himself that he's now a "client" - both examples that just don't make sense to me except in the context of deliberately making us consider these questions, consciously saying it's not black and white). Disagree and claim it is black and white by all means but don't claim the writers etc. haven't even thought about it when to many of us it's as plain as day that they have.

As to the racial stuff etc. well, maybe there's a point there though i'm not convinced by Boyd is the clichéd black ex-cop or Ivy is the clichéd Asian cutie mainly because that's an easy game to play - e.g. Topher is the clichéd nerdy white techy/science guy, Adelle is the clichéd "stiff-arsed Brit", Saunders is the clichéd caring, wounded medico (and certainly in Ivy's case you have to wonder who hired her ? I'd bet Topher had a hand in it at least so her being the stereotypical geek's wet-dream may well be another deliberate choice the creative team aren't getting credit for).
I got bored and stopped reading.
Woah, I got linked on Whedonesque! Neato!

I probably am hanging out on some very different parts of the Internet, hence my comment about "strident fans." A lot of the Whedonesque comments on the issue have, in fact, been very balanced, especially after season one concluded. However, while season one was airing, I think that there was a lot of pretty strong rhetoric thrown at people who had the audacity to call "rape," and that's what I was referencing.

"Most of this analysis (it seems to me) revolves around the lack of script-based clues telling us what we're supposed to feel or think about the actions that occur in the show. It's something that's been picked up many times before. But I get the feeling, at least from the people around here, that many fans find that aspect particularly appealing. The audience is expected to come to their own judgement."

--So true. What makes Dollhouse exciting to me is that we are forced to actually think about it and come to our own conclusions about that's going on. At the same time, that leaves a lot of room for conflicting and differing interpretations, which is also what makes the show so lovely. There are so many levels to read Dollhouse on, and this is just one.

(Incidentally, Ildeth, if you'd like to read even more things that you disagree with, check out the "Feminism and Joss Whedon" archives on my site; this post is actually part of a series..)
meloukhia - thanks for wriing and for joining usbto discuss after you wrote :).
Yeah, welcome ;).

However, I really think
The strident refusals by many fans to view what happens on the show as rape, for example, illustrates the fact that Dollhouse has not done a very good job of articulating itself. I hope that this is something we see remedied in future seasons.

is inconsistent with

What makes Dollhouse exciting to me is that we are forced to actually think about it and come to our own conclusions about that's going on. At the same time, that leaves a lot of room for conflicting and differing interpretations, which is also what makes the show so lovely. There are so many levels to read Dollhouse on, and this is just one.

The first comment is fairly clearly saying it is rape (i.e. there's no question about it) which is fine given that it's the author's opinion but the comment about the show not articulating itself very well and this hopefully being fixed in future seems to be saying the creators must also believe there's no question about it (but are just expressing themselves badly) and that seems to be saying other interpretations are just incorrect i.e. not an opinion that the author disagrees with but actually wrong.

And again, for clarity, was the rhetoric thrown at those audacious enough to express an opinion on here or elsewhere ? If it's on here I can have a look back, if not well, frankly I don't much care (other sites are their own affair and I pretty much avoid them specifically because of all that "rhetoric" that gets "thrown").

(as an aside BTW, when did we find out Sierra was an ex call-girl ? Sierra's easily the least consensual doll that we know about but I think I may have missed that bit of her backstory. Was it actually revealed in an episode or was it e.g. in interview ?)
Regarding Dollhouse: read Plato's "The Allegory of the Cave."

Any classicists out there?

Perhaps an essay on Whedon's classical foundations would be in order?
Although he's also a big fan of 'The Matrix' so who knows ;).

That'd be an interesting essay though, even if it'd be nigh impossible - without word from Joss - to know whether he was directly inspired by the classics or whether the elements just crept in there as part of the "kruft" that comes with western civilisation (and with being human). I mean, even if you haven't read of Plato's cave or Descarte's demon or whatever, most people have still probably wondered "What if none of this is real, how could I tell ?", to me it's a natural consequence of realising that some things are big-T True and some things aren't.
Hello Saje, thank you for your thoughtful comment. :)

I could write for days regarding the nature of Deception and True Knowledge. It should be no surprise that in Orthodox Christian belief, Satan is referred to as "The Great Deceiver," and that evil flows from our inability to have True Knowledge from our senses alone (an idea that seems to have originated from Pyhrro of Elis and further explained by Plato), that we are actually deceived and need 'help' to see the true nature of things.

[ edited by Peanut Noir on 2009-07-19 18:09 ]
Criticism such as this always says more about the viewpoint than the thing being observed. It is still worth it as long as it doesn't degenerate into critique, which this piece mostly stays clear of.

For some reason I feel very strongly about Humanism being the only valid framework for critique and it really bugs me when somebody uses their pet model of how the world should work to value judge literature, film, etc. Guess I'm in the same boat though.
A brief apology: I had originally used the word "doxology" in my immediately prior post, but was horrified to learn that all of these online dictionaries used only one definition: a praise of God. Although that is true, the term has another meaning, that is 'belief system." It derives from the Greek "doxos," or belief, with the 'praise' added during modern times.

[ edited by Peanut Noir on 2009-07-19 18:16 ]
Criticism such as this always says more about the viewpoint than the thing being observed. It is still worth it as long as it doesn't degenerate into critique, which this piece mostly stays clear of.

Much like this criticism of the linked criticism.
Now you’re just talking crazy.
We're every one of us biased away to all buggery in our thinking I reckon, the best we can aim for (IMO) is to try not to actively and unfairly bias other people with our language - if your point stands then it stands, it shouldn't need rhetoric to be true. Which is probably incredibly naive and (partly) why i'll not die rich ;).

I could write for days regarding the nature of Deception and True Knowledge.

Yeah, it's a doozie Peanut Noir. The real world surely has to be the best (only ?) benchmark for truth but then how can we know it except by our senses ? And that's where the big assumption comes in i.e. that we can know it (to a good approximation) by our senses.

The Bible seems to have a slightly ambivalent attitude to truth since Satan was "the great deceiver" but it was God that didn't want Adam and Eve to know anything - maybe the thinking was it's better to know nothing than to be stuck trying to figure out what's true and what's not ? Trying to figure stuff out can lead to all sorts of dangers - like atheism for instance ;).

And i'm woefully ignorant of Plato but from what I gather he believed there "just was" a higher, immutable truth and at base I guess science comes to pretty much the same conclusion, albeit via a different route.
I am loving all of the commentary here. It's why I like Whedonesque; there's a lot of intelligent conversation and thoughtful, well formulated criticism and discussion. And yes, Saje, I remember some rhetoric being thrown on this very site from a minority of commenters, although I am a little bit too lazy right now to go into the archives and hunt it down. It was indeed far worse on other sites, which I guess just goes to illustrate the diversity of Whedon fans/communities.

I would be very intrigued (?) to see an essay on the classical influences in Whedon's work (though I am definitely not qualified to write it); Peanut Noir, I think you have a new mission. And a venue, if you'd be interested in guest posting on this ain't livin'.

Saje, I thought that in "Needs" it was implied, if not explicitly stated, that Sierra was a call girl who dared to say "no" to a client, and that's how she ended up in the Dollhouse. Upon rewatching the segment I was thinking of, I see that she was sold to the Dollhouse simply because she refused a man who wasn't used to hearing the word "no" and she wasn't a sex worker at all; apparently I just completely imagined that she was a sexworker, and stand corrected.

Also, I freely admit that I occasionally lapse into logical inconsistency, as your quotes illustrated. I actually stand by both, even though that sounds paradoxical, because I really *do* think that what is depicted in Dollhouse is rape, but that doesn't mean it's not open to discussion, or that we can't talk about the larger ramifications of what that means, and how it is presented. And I think that there's a ton of ambiguous content in Dollhouse, all of which is ripe for discussion and disagreement (from any number of viewpoints).
Upon rewatching the segment I was thinking of, I see that she was sold to the Dollhouse simply because she refused a man who wasn't used to hearing the word "no" ...

I'm intrigued that someone so interested in gender issues could fail to read that possibility immediately. Not so sure she was sold either. It "cost" Mr. Icon-Of-Misogyny "a fortune" to place Sierra under his control via the DollHouse. I read that as far more likely that she was imposed upon the organization.

Mr. "turn the object of my desires into a pliant cipher"-guy is actually the most bang-on feminist archetype in the show. Male. Part of the power structure. Dominating a woman by stripping her agency. Simply to get what he wants. Especially sexually. And it's extra-good when she pretends to like it.
Oh to that fella (and I use the term loosely) it's better still - she actually does like it, can't help but like it in fact. He's another of the men we see in the show that can't best a woman on equal terms (like "Richard" in 'The Target' or, ultimately, ) so he has to cheat (he uses "the system", "Richard" uses drugs, ).

And I think that there's a ton of ambiguous content in Dollhouse, all of which is ripe for discussion and disagreement (from any number of viewpoints).

Personally I think it's all ambiguous and open to interpretation so i'm totally with you on that. Is it rape ? I honestly don't know though from the little we see of her backstory I think it is with Sierra since she apparently didn't give any consent, Caroline's right in the grey (since she made her own decision but was coerced, either by circumstances or more directly - again we don't really know enough), Mellie seems to have actively volunteered (but was it informed ?) and with Victor we don't really know anything about his sign-up process (it looks like he had PTSD but whether he signed up or was sectioned or something else we don't know). Pretty messy and (to me) not black and white.

But then the great thing about the show is, one question just leads to others. If they gave active consent, can you consent to things that will happen to your body even when you're not "in" ? And what moral responsibility do you bear for the "people" that are "in" at the time ? Are they even people ? And if not, can a non-person even be raped (since you could argue that consent is entirely meaningless for non-persons) ? Especially when they don't think they are ? And so where's the line between people and non-people (scary but - IMO - true answer: it's arbitrary and ambiguous and that's exactly how the show portrays it i.e. they're not dropping any balls or articulating their position badly, they're telling the truth as they see it, hard to stomach though it may be for a lot of us).

And yes, Saje, I remember some rhetoric being thrown on this very site from a minority of commenters, although I am a little bit too lazy right now to go into the archives and hunt it down. It was indeed far worse on other sites, which I guess just goes to illustrate the diversity of Whedon fans/communities.

Well I was in a lot of those early discussions and I guess I remember what rhetoric there was being pretty evenly distributed between "sides". But memory and perception are tricky and dependent on that bias I was talking about so (short of an actual statistical analysis ?) I guess we're stuck with hearsay and anecdote - and "the plural of anecdote is not data", as they say ;).
Is it "anecdotii"? Please let it be "anecdotii".

[ edited by The One True b!X on 2009-07-19 20:05 ]
If there were any justice it would be (where do we lobby to get stuff like that changed ? I say we go and stand outside the offices of the OED and shout new slang words in their windows until they cave. Kind of like a denial of service attack but for dictionaries).

[ edited by Saje on 2009-07-19 20:09 ]
Yeah, BierceAmbrose, I'm not really sure where the idea that Sierra was a sex worker came from, because it's very much not there. I think it's probably because I was working on an article on sex work at the time that episode aired and everything was starting to blur in my mind.

However, I do think that the male character reads as a misogynist icon whether or not Sierra is a sex worker; my misreading influenced my perception of Sierra's characterization far more than it influenced the way in which I viewed him. Believe it or not, sex workers also say no sometimes, and some of their clients really don't like hearing that word from a woman they've "bought." I don't think that I was trying to argue in any way, shape, or form that he was not an anti-feminist archetype.

Dollhouse is like a very large onion when it comes to questioning consent and personal autonomy, which is definitely one of the things I was trying to get at. As you pointed out, Saje, any question you ask about Dollhouse just turns into 12 more questions with no hard answers. And one's reading of the show is definitely informed by personal views (as indeed is one's reading of, uhm, everything).

I also think (and others are welcome to disagree) that the creative team does occasionally drop the ball and misarticulate, but they definitely didn't in the parts of the show which highlight the debate about personhood and autonomy. It's definitely messy and unpleasant to ponder, no matter what your end conclusions are. And I certainly don't have any end conclusions.

Edited to add: I think that denial of service attacks for dictionaries actually occur on a small-scale rebellious level every day as people just start using new words, and eventually so much momentum builds up that dictionary editors are grudgingly forced to make new entries. I for one would be delighted to add "anecdotti" to common usage (and I'm still lobbying for the return of "ou" to common English).

[ edited by meloukhia on 2009-07-19 20:10 ]
Yep, grassroots DDDoS, it's the future. Or should I say "it's morrowstuff" - yeah, viddy that you... OED employees ! And there's plenty more semi-gibberish where that came from !

When it comes to slang we're all pwned, phat-piped zombots.

I also think (and others are welcome to disagree) that the creative team does occasionally drop the ball and misarticulate, but they definitely didn't in the parts of the show which highlight the debate about personhood and autonomy.

Fair comment, just to clarify, I don't think every script they wrote was perfect and in that sense they certainly dropped some balls (and in the sense I think you mean meloukhia, i'd have liked to see Topher's viewpoint made more sensible and coherent - as it is in the unaired pilot for instance - so that was a fumble IMO). But I really feel the show's refusal to answer outright the harder questions it asks (and the rape question has to be right up there) is very deliberate so ball droppage is an unjust accusation on that one (have we dropped enough ball dropping references ? I vote yes ;).
We could move on the horse beating references...no, obviously, the ambiguity of the show is a very deliberate creative choice, and as I've said, the ambiguity is what makes Dollhouse so great. If we were being spoonfed all the answers, it would be terribly dull, and we wouldn't get to have genteel arguments about what it all means. I would hate to think that my commentary comes across a petulant whine that the creative team has failed to answer the big questions for me, because that's definitely not something I want to see happening.

When I talk about misarticulation, I'm referring primarily to small details and wrong notes which don't feel quite right to me, not the overarching creative direction of the show. Many of my complaints in this realm come from the earlier episodes of season one, which were, uhm, not Joss Whedon at his shiniest. And, I mean, let's face it, if I was writing a series of television, I'd probably be misarticulatin' all over the place.
I think it's a very fair critique of the show, and I nodded my head muchly when reading it.

I think the show was more exciting by the end of the season (and with the reveal and activities of Alpha) but it's still very disquieting, and I'm not sure it's for good reasons.
i really appreciated that article! Thanks for linking it over here
Sierra presents an interesting case vis-a-vis the rape argument. In addition to her unfortunate pathway into the dollhouse, she was raped by her handler. Did that scene evoke a different response for any of you than the more playful Echo-on-a-hot-date or mournful Echo-plays-the-dead-wife? Am I remembering correctly that this is the only (conventional)depiction of rape?

On a separate note, can someone point me toward instructions for how to hide spoilery text? I'm new to this.
If you go to the 'About' page linked at the top of the site haney-hop it's got the site rules and a section on spoilers which explains about [span class="invisible"]the text you want to hide[/span] (except you need to use < and > instead of the square brackets when you really use it).



Re: Sierra, yep it felt different because it was in my view. Assuming blank-slate Sierra should be accorded human rights (and I think she should) then she clearly and actively didn't want to do it - there wasn't much grey area where consent was concerned, not only did she not give it, she explicitly said "No" so that was pretty clearly rape to me (and, basically, child rape at that).
Thanks Saje!
Ah, but Echo-on-a-hot-date has been programmed to say yes; consent has been manufactured as part of the services the Dollhouse offers. Can she truly said to have given consent when she lacked the ability to say no? Like someone who has been given a dose of flunitrazepam, her ability to consent has been pretty compromised, don't you think?

I think that, with Sierra, the ugliness of the action was forced in our faces, and we as viewers were very much supposed to read that as rape and be horrified by it. But when the Actives are sent out on engagements which involve sexual activity, the lack of consent is hidden, and the Actives appear to be enjoying themselves (or are enjoying themselves, depending on how one feels about imprinted personalities), which causes many people to read those scenes very differently.

I really don't want to ignite a firestorm here, because I think that my response really hinges on how I read the show, and it gets back to the questions about personal identity and autonomy which are pretty central to the show. I think that the Actives can't consent on engagements because they are manufactured people, akin to a state of being under the influence of a drug. I think (I hope) that most people would read a scene in which someone sober had sex with someone drunk/high as pretty ethically questionable?

Furthermore, and I ask this because I genuinely don't have an answer, what about in "Haunted," when Echo is implanted with an entire personality, rather than one that's been tailored for the job by Topher? Had Echo-as-Margaret had sex with her husband, how would we have read that scene?

[ edited by meloukhia on 2009-07-20 14:45 ]
The author wrote:

Whedon surprisingly admitted that he didn’t at first see the parallels with human trafficking when he was developing the show.


Assuming you're using 'developing' in the U.S. TV sense, as Whedon himself would, this isn't surprising at all; 'development' is a long period of solo/small-group work in which the show becomes a show. The series is obviously about human trafficking from the very start.

Some people might argue with me on this point, but I do think that prostitution is a very important theme in Dollhouse.


Who'd argue with this? The show is explicitly clear on this point from the first scenes, which are after all a standard best-date-ever scenario as I recall. Anyone arguing this point is in denial about the whole point of the show. Good lord, what websites are you reading that take issue with this stuff? Anyhow, you're right. The show's about prostitutes.

I have argued in the past that the show depicts rape, as have many feminist critics. The owners of the bodies cannot consent to sexual activity, and while they are implanted with personalities which do consent, those personalities are coded and expected to consent, and that kind of eliminates the ability to choose to consent, whether it’s November being programmed to have sex with Ballard to get close to him, or Victor being sent out for sexual engagements with the mysterious Miss Lonelyhearts.


This is of course not nearly so cut-n-dried - and is the latent content of the 'no provision for consensual [sex] slavery' conversation in the last (second-last?) episode. The key moment of consent has indeed occurred - some Dolls might have faced a bad choice in whether to join the Dollhouse, but it was indeed a choice, and the choice explicitly involves consenting to sex. Indeed, the choice is: 'We'll never put you into a situation where you won't be safe, a capable Watcher Handler will be around to watch over you, we'll even give you super-skills you don't currently have, to deal with unforeseen situations on the job. You may get fucked, but it's only fucking, and rape that leaves no trace isn't really...well...'

And of course the show takes every opportunity to show how disingenuous and self-serving the House's offer was.

i.e. It's a drama, not a lecture, so the question of whether the Dollhouse's transactions should be treated in the blunt-instrument language of rape/invasion is left open by design. That the House fails at so many turns to protect the Dolls is an indictment of the show's built-in apologists; that it does plenty of good along the way by the sound of it, and really does offer the Dolls an unparalleled opportunity to live in an environment and attitude of utter Serenity (huh), is meant to make things harder for the House's critics...

...who include Ballard, Echo, etc. If you've put dissenting voices onscreen, you've thought about this stuff. Strong criticism can start with that structure.

Whedon also has a bit of obsession with men who have a Cap’n Save-a-Ho complex. From the literal Cap’n on Firefly/Serenity to Agent Ballard, Whedon does seem to like including male characters who save women when they get in over their heads.


This is a simplistic reading, of course; Ballard is the obsessive goat/maniac of the show, and later goes to work for the House, while Mal is depicted as an honorable man whose every plan goes awry - never more than when he steps in at the whorehouse (which he does as a favour to his lady-love, after all, not realizing how serious things will be on the ground). Plus you've mischaracterized the Guild - where is there any indication that the Guild is run by men? I don't recall such mention. Wouldn't that complicate your reading, here?

And in any case 'Heart of Gold' ends with the whores unionizing in the desert, throwing off the laser-toting asshole's coercive reign (and executing the man themselves). That's 'bad prostitution'? Sounds like 'complex prostitution' to me. (Atop which, Inara's 'They're whores, Mal' line is an immensely revealing bit of psychology.)

(It’s also interesting to note that his assistant is one of the few people of colour on the show.)


Is it?

We hear this about Buffy all the time, but that show's inadequacy as exploration of racial dynamics has always seemed like not a terribly big deal next to its complexity as exploration/celebration of outcasts and minorities in an abstract or allegorical sense. Same for the new show. Bad as checklist, surprisingly complex as drama.

Who are the main characters? Echo, Ballard, Victor, Boyd, Adele, Saunders, November, Topher.

Among eight-ish principals I count one black man and one half-Asian woman. Let's not even describe the complexities of their characters; suffice to say Boyd's as compromised as everyone else in the ensemble.

I also count one big gorgeous hunk of meat of a heavily-objectified and -satirized white man whose shown nearly every episode to be a dangerous madman who doesn't understand what he's getting into, and who incidentally gets shirtless not just a couple of times (Ballard); a middle-aged woman running the local branch of an immensely powerful corporation in which she by-the-way has to justify whoring out young girls (Adele); a prostitute with the same figure as half the show's audience, a rare thing on TV (November); and a geek-boy-proxy who's practically an avatar of the fandom (and the writers...), whose dialogue may as well be Xander Harris's half the time, and who's maybe the most sociopathic and sinister being on the show (Topher, of course).

(Not to mention the pity-hire working in the medical ward, not actually qualified to be a doctor by the looks of it, but kept on because she's a defenseless little girl...)

In other words: yes, the show would be different and probably richer with a more racially-diverse cast. But the failure to provide such diversity at the production level is outweighed by the variety and complexity of motivation, moral standing, and compromise that the show presents.

Do you really think the people responsible for 'Nobody's Asian in the Movies' never gave a thought to what it means to have a nerdy little Asian neuroscience intern working silently and subserviently for the White Boy Wonder asshole in the lab?

Particularly on a show that explicitly evokes the figure of the geisha as a model for its Dolls?

The point here being: it's important to underline the show's dangerous engagement (and just flirtation) with a host of 'hot-button' issues of particular interest to feminists. And I thank you for it! But criticism of smart storytelling that glories in the possibility of beating the author to the punch, or being somehow more cosmically/politically aware than someone like Whedon, is always going to be a little suspect. And on this particular score I think we should be giving Dollhouse more credit than it's received thus far - for its ambivalence and anger, its skepticism about political dogma and vicious subversion of the mass audience's lazy hedonist-relativism.

Enough from me for today. Not a bad post, but I'm dubious about its style of criticism, so I overreact. (Heh: I typed 'overreach.' Which works too.)
But when the Actives are sent out on engagements which involve sexual activity, the lack of consent is hidden...

Again, saying it's "hidden" is assuming that there is a lack of consent (but it's less obvious) when one of the questions we've mentioned above (that the show asks) is whether the initial sign-on process constitutes consent for what happens afterwards i.e. "can you consent to things that will happen to your body even when you're not "in" ?" (in reality it's not necessarily a particularly meaningful question since "you" are - partly - your body but it's an aspect of the premise of the show so we kinda need to engage with it on that level).

To put it another way, if you see the consent issue as ambiguous then it's not "hidden", it's just an unanswered question. It's only "hidden" if you already think they haven't consented when they signed up.

With the imprints it makes sense to me to ask who is being forced against their will (given that the imprint's will, such as it is, is to consent) ? Once you ask that question it becomes a lot less clear-cut IMO. For it to be categorically rape, without question, you need to assume the imprints are people, that they're entirely separate agents to the "original host" and that it's even meaningful to ask "What would they choose if they had an actual choice ?" (since if they had a choice they wouldn't be the same "person" so it's a bit like saying "What would you choose if you were Margaret Thatcher ?" - it might be fun to speculate but that's all it'll ever be). In other words you need to have categorical answers to some of the bigger questions of the show in order to answer the rape question categorically. And I don't so I can't.

Margaret also seems more clear-cut to me BTW - she explicitly consented absolutely every step of the way, not only consented but actively sought out the imprinting process so anything she does is wholly voluntary (but again, that's making the assumption that "Margaret" can meaningfully exist outside of Margaret's body and, even more to the point, in someone else's).
Man, I really shouldn't write Whedonesque comments before I've had my morning tea!

I should have said that the rape/not rape debate really does hinge on interpretation of the show, and it's one of those debates that has no right answer because the show is so ambiguous. (Have I mentioned that I really like that Whedon has made it possible for us to have this debate by maintaining ambiguity? Because I do.) And I'm still exploring my interpretation; right now, I think that it is rape because I view the body and the imprint as separate, and the body cannot consent, while the imprint is programmed to do so. But one could just as easily view it entirely differently, and neither of us would necessarily be right or wrong.

I think that Margaret is a really interesting case to explore because she is a whole personality. As you say, Margaret herself explicitly consented and in fact asked for this, and conversely, one could argue that Echo "consented" to be used for this purpose, which means that whatever happens to her body with Margaret in it could not be considered a violation of consent.

I think that what I was trying to get at with the "hidden" issue was that for people who are viewing the show on the surface, rather than those who are exploring these issues, that the question of consent isn't brought to the forefront like it was when Sierra was raped by her handler. And I think that's why the rape debate was so explosive in some places, because some people genuinely hadn't considered the issue before since those scenes were dressed up with bells and whistles and the appearance of consent, unlike the stark and deeply creepy scenes with Sierra.
I really enjoyed reading Meloukhia's essays on "Dollhouse" & "Angel". Much as I love it, I've had many of the same thoughts about the Whedonverse over the years. It was great to read these well-reasoned, elegantly written pieces. (& thanks to Whedonesque for the link!)
"What would you choose if you were Margaret Thatcher ?"

I ask myself this very question every day. I went with Rainier cherries this morning over the cheaper variety - I think that's what she would have done.

I should have said that the rape/not rape debate really does hinge on interpretation of the show, and it's one of those debates that has no right answer because the show is so ambiguous.

I think you did pretty much say that meloukhia (here, if not in the article) even without your morning tea... at least, that was the impression I got from your previous posts. Once we've all agreed "there's no right answer" though, it's still fun to hash out why we secretly think we're right ;).

While I wouldn't say that an imprint's manufactured consent is consent in the way that a not-imprinted-person's consent is, I also don't think it's all that similar to being drugged and raped (though I do see your point there). There are kinds of consent happening... in most cases, we think, the "volunteers" are consenting to give over their bodies, though that's more like somebody who feels cornered into sex (for example) than someone who wants it, and then there is the "consent" of the imprint, and how real they are and whether they can consent to anything at all is the Big Question, but still, much less clear-cut than a person who is unwittingly drugged to the point where they don't know what is going on at all. If we want to compare it to being drugged, it's either a case of somebody agreeing to be roofied, or somebody feeling like accepting a roofie is the only choice they have left (but having a good idea of what might happen once they take the drug). Which is still more complicated than having it slipped in your drink, say.

And I think that's why the rape debate was so explosive in some places, because some people genuinely hadn't considered the issue before since those scenes were dressed up with bells and whistles and the appearance of consent, unlike the stark and deeply creepy scenes with Sierra.

I think you're right that not every viewer of the show necessarily "got" the questions the show was asking, though I was happily just here and missed explosive debates elsewhere - I tend to stay away from Scary Other Websites. But I do remember a link to an interview with a Bostonian reporter who said something along the lines of "It's awesome! You program the chick to do whatever you want!" or something, and Eliza and Joss exchanging a "how do we answer that?" kind of look.

I don't think I got into any of the rape debates here. I don't think I would call it rape, though I can see why one would. I'm not sure I'm even up for an in-depth discussion of how we define that word and why... but while it's clearly something very ugly and very murky that's happening at the Dollhouse, I think "how bad" it is depends on the Active - who they were before / how they came to the Dollhouse / what they knew they were getting into / what they end up doing, etc. In other words, it's sort of case by case. But I agree with what Saje said above - that how we define it hinges on the most interesting questions the show is asking re. who is the imprint?

Anyway, I'm enjoying reading this thread!
the Actives can't consent on engagements because they are manufactured people, akin to a state of being under the influence of a drug. I think (I hope) that most people would read a scene in which someone sober had sex with someone drunk/high as pretty ethically questionable?

I don't agree that actives are akin to a state of being under the influence of a drug. At the Dollhouse, the original personality is removed and the body gets a manufactured (I prefer engineered) replacement. This engineered person makes its own decisions. It may be predisposed to say "yes" to sex with the person it is with due to selected personality traits, but it may also say "no" to sex (we haven’t seen this yet but we don’t know it isn’t possible). I think in all the engagements we saw, the engineered personalities said "yes" to sex because they were compatible with the people they were with (they had been selected for “compatibility” success, thus making them predisposed to want to have sex with the people they were with). If you think you are in love, then you are. That is different than being under the influence of a drug, which would impair a person’s decision making abilities.
I think that it is rape because I view the body and the imprint as separate


I think this is an interesting position in the context of feminist theory. On the surface we are, of course, asked to see the person and their body as separate things - the show's premise is built on the idea of a technology that can force the separation of the two - but the example of Margaret once again complicates things. She provides a commentary about the person/soul living in a new body, about the new configuration of self and body, as it were. It doesn't negate who she is, but I suspect it alters it in interesting ways.

We haven't really talked about the status of the imprints, but clearly they are 'living' through different bodies, aquiring experiences, 'mattering' (ala Butler), although briefly. Can we think about the imprinted dolls as cyborgs?

Really enjoying the thread. Thanks, meloukhia, for your essay and wiesengrund for linking.
Man, I really shouldn't write Whedonesque comments before I've had my morning tea!

Say no more, any pre-tea/coffee posts have the greatest latitude possible in my book meloukhia - pretty sure it's become an essential neurotransmitter for me, I just don't work properly without it ;).

I went with Rainier cherries this morning over the cheaper variety - I think that's what she would have done.

No, no, no. The correct response to the question "What would you choose if you were Margaret Thatcher ?" is always "Whichever option screws the Scots over most". Bitter, moi ? ;)

(as it happens you're right though, those are easily the most anti-Scottish cherries around. Fact)

There are kinds of consent happening... in most cases, we think, the "volunteers" are consenting to give over their bodies, though that's more like somebody who feels cornered into sex (for example) than someone who wants it,

I wonder if they feel it doesn't matter because it's not happening to them ? And depending on how the volunteers view the imprints, they may well feel it's not happening to anyone. As far as they're concerned they "go away" and then 5 years later they "come back".

That is different than being under the influence of a drug, which would impair a person’s decision making abilities.

I dunno, love makes you do the wacky as a wise (well, ish ;) character once said. That's only semi-facetious BTW because I think it's actually true to say we're all under the influence of drugs that "impair" our decision making abilities all the time (to varying degrees i.e. our hormones. Even Topher (AFAIK) doesn't talk about how the different bodies' varying chemistries will affect how they respond to experiences and even to their "own" implanted memories. In fact, I think he refers to the bodies as "hardware", as if they're like unbadged PCs all having the same motherboards/processors/etc. It might be necessary for the show's premise but it's nearly as fantastical as the imprinting machine itself (and not really something someone like Topher would actually think IMO - it's a bit of a simplistic caricature of the scientific materialist position).

My own feeling on Margaret for instance is, if she stayed in Caroline's body she'd gradually start to diverge from both the Margaret she was and the Margaret she would've become if she'd stayed in her own body. The way her senses mediated her experiences, the way her brain responded to them, basic stuff like her ability to recall facts etc. would be changed (maybe subtly but still changed). And that's not even touching on how people acting towards her would change (cos she's prettier/younger/shorter/brunette/whatever) and how that would then change how she in turn acted towards others.

(I missed the episode thread on that ep BTW so I don't know if anyone else mentioned it but it reminded me a lot of a pretty decent sci-fi novel by Walter Jon Williams called "Voice of the Whirlwind" where a clone imprinted with a slightly out of date copy of the original man's consciousness - probably entirely by coincidence referred to as "the Alpha" BTW - is activated on his death and sets out to find his killer. As you probably would, since at the start at least you'd still consider yourself the same person, more or less, and therefore a bit miffed at whoever murdered you. There's some nice stuff in there about identity and continuity as the character tries to come to terms with who he is and whether he's the same man or even "his own man" and how much he owes the alpha copy)
I haven't had time to read most of the these, but I would like to point out my take on this, from the article:

By contrast, Whedon’s models of “bad” prostitution can be seen in the whorehouse in Firefly and in the fate of Sierra, a former callgirl* who ends up being kidnapped and sent to the Dollhouse when she defies the wrong client. Both cases specifically show women, as opposed to women and men, and they play heavily on the idea of women in danger, and the idea that women cannot work safely as independent sex workers. In fact, exercising autonomy over their bodies sexually results in punishments.

Overlooking the incorrect reference to Sierra, as the author has already corrected it (although I think it needs to be stricken from the article, because it's a falsehood used to illustrate an important point) .... I disagree with this interpretation of Heart of Gold. What I say in that ep were women and men working together to overcome misogynist oppression. One of the independent sex workers died in the fight, but it was the misogynist oppressor who was "punished".


Perhaps an essay on Whedon's classical foundations would be in order?
Peanut Noir | July 19, 17:08 CET


Try "Why Buffy Matters" by Rhonda Wilcox. The main thrust of the book is much broader than "classical foundations", but it touches quite a bit on the parallels between the characters in Buffy and AtS (mainly Buffy, Angel and Spike) and the classic "hero's Journey" described in Joseph Campbell's books and essays on classic Greek myth.

I know that Meloukhia mentioned an interest in this also, but .... skimming, and regretfully have to run.

Damn, the most interesting threads always get posted when I don't have time to really dig into the conversation. ;(
Sage (Sage's response to drugs affecting personality)- I dunno, love makes you do the wacky as a wise (well, ish ;) character once said. That's only semi-facetious BTW because I think it's actually true to say we're all under the influence of drugs that "impair" our decision making abilities all the time (to varying degrees i.e. our hormones.

If we are going with that argument then we are all programmed from the start so what's the diff? We never had the ability to say no, we just thought we did ;)

Also, I was referring to artificial (additional) drugs introduced to our existing body chemistry. Specificly mentioned earlier in the thread were "drunk/high "
Yeah, I understand that Passion, i'm not really disagreeing with what you said, my intent was more to point out that there are pre-existing, perfectly natural parallels to drugs and "programming" e.g. if someone deliberately makes you angry in order to stop you thinking clearly why is that different to someone drugging you ? Or uses pheromone perfume - assuming for the moment that they work - or even just deodorant ? Over here you can buy men's deodorant that smells of chocolate, to me it's pretty sickly but presumably someone thinks it's going to be attractive to women (it's a brand called Lynx the marketing of which is entirely focussed on how their smellies will attract women). The show does what the best science-fiction has always done i.e. use extreme examples as a sort of thought experiment to talk about what might be going on in reality.

I agree BTW that we're all "programmed" by our genes, our experiences, our culture etc. and (IMO) in a very real way we don't have the ability to choose other than we were going to choose (hey, it's tautological cos it's true ;) and I think the creators are deliberately making us ponder that point.

What the show does by having an explicit programmer is remove some of the messier variables in order to let us discuss it without getting bogged down in all that juicy real-world complexity. But it's the same idea (drink/drugs or endorphins/testosterone/etc., explicit programming or 60 foot billboards telling us what beauty is, they're only different in degree IMO, not in kind).

edited to --'the'

[ edited by Saje on 2009-07-21 18:10 ]
Over here you can buy men's deodorant that smells of chocolate

Ooh, I love a man with chocolatey armpits!
Exactly. Is there anything sexier than sweaty chocolate ? I think not.
Sweaty hairy chocolate! yum yum.

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