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September 25 2009

"Dollhouse was meant to be about power, desire, identity, and sexuality". Want to read something a bit different from the Joss interviews doing the rounds at the moment? Then have a look at this piece, there's some very interesting and controversial issues to explore and it's quite possibly the best Joss interview in ages.

Joss (and I know I got that shade of purple wrong) said:

"The people at Equality Now have been fighting human trafficking and sex tours for years without any real support. In fact, when I pitched Dollhouse to the staff there, one of them objected to the character of Ballard, saying a helpful FBI agent would be an unforgivable myth."

I know corporations as a whole often don't like being petitioned/pestered/guilted-into-doing-things by humanitarian groups like Equality Now, so this isn't so surprising to hear, but I imagine the staff there just unfortunately hasn't had any luck at getting in contact with helpful people. 'Cause it's a little too blankety of a statement to say that helpful FBI agents (at least when having to to with human trafficking) are a myth, to be believable. There've gotta be some that care (at least some of the folks who get into law enforcement fields do so because they give a damn) and would be willing to talk/cooperate with an organization as big as Equality Now. Perhaps these theoretical potentially helpful folks just aren't in a position of power that would allow them to do so. Just sounds kinda low of whoever Joss talked to at Equality Now to slag an entire organization, though I keep in mind that continually attempting to gain the attention of something like the FBI on issues that likely aren't high up on their list of priorities would be hugely frustrating.

"I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with people paying for sex IN THEORY."

This makes me miss missing out on seeing what was intended for Inara's storyline in Firefly even more.

"The Dollhouse fantasy is a dark one, but the darkness is more about why people give up their lives and what people with control over them will do."

Occasionally turn them into assassins and mediators-for-hire, apparently ! That couldn't have been in the contract. Looking forward to the scene where Caroline finds out and rages about it or breaks down with the knowledge that she has killed people.

There's a lot of meat in that short interview.
There's a lot of meat in that short interview.


Really is.
Wow, this is one of the best interviews about Dollhouse I've seen so far. Excellent link.
Kris -- individuals in the FBI may certainly care, but the impression I get is that unless the women in question are being trafficked by people with Arabic names, the FBI hasn't had the time or manpower to pay much attention these last eight years.

Which is why I trust individuals, and not organizations.

That last line of Joss's is rather realistic... I think the last ep is going to be another big wrap-up.
The interviewer said:

Obviously, you’re skating around a raft of major political and moral issues in Dollhouse, but thus far, the show’s very much a piece of genre fiction. Do you contemplate doing episodes that have a greater sense of realism?


Y'know, this interview wasn't quite what it could've been. Yes, it's great that someone came in to talk in a specific, blunt way about the political subtext(s) of the show, but could we for Christ's sake please get politically-aware interviews from people with an appreciation of art-and-moral-complexity? Dollhouse has been 'skating around' these heavy issues? That's ridiculous. The show's been plowing right through the center of a hell of a lot of issues from the very start.

I get the impression that the interviewer was disappointed that the show isn't more didactic, e.g. in quotes like this:

We know from the pilot that Caroline was in desperate when she signed up to become a Doll, but the episodes that have been aired so far show Echo enjoying her assignments. Is that ambiguity intentional, or will a clearer perspective emerge throughout the subsequent episodes?


AMBIGUITY AND AMBIVALENCE ARE NOT THE SAME. Aaaargh!!! The show has never been 'ambiguous' about the moral stakes in the Dollhouse, but it has explored the morality of the Dollhouse in ambivalent (literally 'having mixed feelings') ways. From the first sequence of the first broadcast episode - the bikes and dancing and blah - it's been clear that (1) sexual exploitation is creepy and ongoing, but (2) it's often a two-way street, and (3) legitimate human needs can be met in morally questionable ways, so (4) we need to think more complexly about how we judge such situations - and there's nothing remotely ambiguous about Whedon's treatment of these topics.

This isn't just terminological pedantry on my part either. I'm taking issue with a fundamental misreading of the show's intentions and methods - one that pops up in, as near as I can tell, the majority of published criticisms of the show. Frustrating.
Except, waxbanks, Joss himself says (in the other day's Ira Glass interview) they were "pussyfooting" around the premise and its implications because of FOX. I think "pussyfooting" qualifies as "skating around".
Remember that she hadn't seen all the episodes yet and the ones she did see she were the first 6. So her questions reflect that. I'm glad we have this interview but I am also glad it is only one of many because it gives an unbalanced view of what the show is about. Naturally. She did have a particular point to pursue.
Except, waxbanks, Joss himself says (in the other day's Ira Glass interview) they were "pussyfooting" around the premise and its implications because of FOX. I think "pussyfooting" qualifies as "skating around".


What Joss considers the show to do and what we consider the show to do are still two different things, b!X. I'm with waxbanks on this one.
@waxbanks
How is the sexual exploitation a two way street?
This is quite a bit unfair to the FBI, which has a massive anti-trafficking unit that does a lot of great work. Not to mention that the FBI is only one of the many Department of Justice agencies working on the problem. To say that they're only interested in "people with arabic names" only means that you have *no idea* what you're talking about. Most of the trafficking, by the way, comes from Asia, not countries speaking Arabic.

The FBI's anti-trafficking unit has been expanded massively over the last eight years. There was a huge, massively effective push by the Bush administration for that. I'm trying to figure out what Equality Now is thinking.

I worked for five years in DC, from 2001-2005, following this issue (as well as other international human rights issues), and got to know quite a few people on the Hill and in government who were working on this, especially the FBI. The amount of energy expended on fighting human trafficking is enormous, and the people working on it are passionate and truly care about the victims.

If you want to know more about what the DOJ is doing, go here: http://www.usdoj.gov/whatwedo/whatwedo_ctip.html
I'm trying to figure out what Equality Now is thinking.


I did wonder about that too. I suspect bitterness somewhere but I doubt it'll ever get followed up.
@waxbanks

How is the sexual exploitation a two way street?


I mean two things: (1) 'exploitation' is a neutral term that often shades negative (but doesn't always) and (2) the arrangements on the show essentially involve consenting to abdicate consent, which is a thorny situation. i.e. The dolls seem to know what they're in for, but they can't, really. (Certainly Alpha, Echo, Victor, and Whiskey didn't.)

The show isn't about prostitution as such (hence some of my irritation about Rosenberg's questions). Rather, it connects various kinds of exploitation and self-selling; Ballard is a madman/hero who sells himself at the end of S1 for a chance to 'save the girl' or something, revealing just how compromised that heroic fantasy always was. He and the Dollhouse surely feel they're exploiting one another.

More generally: once you acknowledge people's right to make bad decisions we can't take a 100% judgmental attitude toward the ('bad') decisions they make.

Remember that the inspiration for the show was Eliza Dushku's life in Hollywood! Remember that she's advertised for the show by posing for teenage skin magazines! This 'exploitative' system is benefiting plenty of people in the short term.

i.e. It's not about 'trafficking' in the absolutely bad sense of e.g. child sex slavery. It's about trafficking in dignity and freedom - which indicts much more than pimps.

Sorry for the earnestness here.
The "speaking Arabic" line was in reference to the "War on Terror" -- the notion that the only way the FBI got anything done since 2001 was to claim it had to do with hunting al Qaeda. This may be a misconception on my part, but I've certainly heard that the FBI had to massively alter its caseload and emphases in order to meet the Bush Admin.'s requirements on terrorism.

Oh, and I won't deny that there's a lot of push on the Hill for this. But -- to my cynical mind, at least -- that almost proves my point. The real power and the real investment flows through the Hill almost without making a sound. The Farm Bill and the budget for the Pentagon? Massive and influential. Nobody talks about them; they're already done deals.

You only have to push Congress to do things when it's not already doing them. A truism and an oversimplification and, as I said, massively cynical... but then again, if there are there more slaves than ever before in this world, why aren't we invading those countries? Oh, that's right. There's no money in freeing slaves...


...Sorry. Maybe I should go do something happy for a bit, I might be better to talk to afterward.
Except, waxbanks, Joss himself says (in the other day's Ira Glass interview) they were "pussyfooting" around the premise and its implications because of FOX. I think "pussyfooting" qualifies as "skating around".


Except that the very first scene of the show contains a sex fantasy. And the second episode is also a sex-fantasy deal (though with a 'he's a psycho' escape-valve). Both episodes are unambiguous about the nature of the assignments, but the first is indeed ambivalent about its implications (and how bad we should feel about it). The sheer complication of the show's pleasures is right there in the first scene. Whedon couldn't be explicit about the fact that this is a show starring neuroscientist pimps and charming zaftig whores, but it's not like that wasn't completely obvious from day one!

From (my own probably error-prone transcript of) the 826NYC interview:

Joss: When the heard the premise it sounded...sexy, it sounded right...[They] said, "Sounds kind of like prostitutes." ... I wanted to go to a pretty dark place...to get a little tough with our ideas about sexuality and control and...fantasy...and then word came down: "That's not gonna be OK."

Ira: Do you mean...you were gonna make us feel weird about the fact that they were prostitutes, at times?

Joss: I wanted people to feel bad about feeling good and good about feeling bad, all of those things entwined. Because ultimately a lot of our fantasies are about either being completely in control or being completely helpless. Or about being someone else. There are many different levels of fantasy...Fox was very anxious to back away from those implications and get on with the gunning-down of people. (Which is perfectly OK.) And...though we're having a great time with the second seasons, that's something we've never recovered from...Every episode is ridiculously hard in a way it wasn't on the other shows...the central core's been ripped out enough so that we're constantly dancing around our own premise.


The show hasn't realistically depicted the international sex trade because it's not about the international sex trade, but it has realistically depicted some of the complex moral dilemmas surrounding sex work. The show is in no way 'dancing around' those questions. Joss says 'Man on the Street' was the first episode that didn't 'pussyfoot' around the ambivalence that people have toward this fantasy world, but that comment just makes me wonder whether he realizes how much of the premise's creepiness made it into the first half of the show regardless of stupid network injunctions against viewer discomfort.

i.e. I think Joss is right that there's a difference between the pre- and post-'Man on the Street' treatment of sex and power on the show, but it's not like the show was lacking in moral disquiet before that episode - it just wasn't as tight a show.

And in any case Rosenberg's interview is new, i.e. she's (presumably) watched the end of Season One and is still implicitly complaining about the show's unwillingness to be a documentary about sex slavery. [Update: I can't read, apparently. My point hopefully stands though weakened, but I gladly accept Saje's gentle chastisement. :) ] The show is about fantasy, power, agency, and what happens when we willingly give up part of our humanity. Dollhouse has never been 'ambiguous' in its treatment of those themes, nor has its presentation (however clunky or hackneyed at times) avoided their complexities.

[ edited by waxbanks on 2009-09-25 20:25 ]
The interview is from last March (mentioned in the intro paragraph). Presumably she's seen the end by now but it seems pretty unlikely she changed her questions as a result (since they then wouldn't be what Joss was answering).
Actually, now that I think more about something I just wrote...

Except that the very first scene of the show contains a sex fantasy. And the second episode is also a sex-fantasy deal (though with a 'he's a psycho' escape-valve).


I actually found the 'psycho hunts girls in woods' shit boring. The intriguing part of the episode is the disparity between the two versions of 'Do you trust me?' Boyd is a human being trying to convincingly seem trustworthy to his robo-whore colleague; Echo is a fictional creation reaching out instinctually to a man she doesn't 'really' know and making an intuitive connection in the midst of horror. The show hit some neat thematic notes in that episode (and the thriller bits were well-enough-done), but making the john a murderer is too over-the-top for me.

Except...

...that the actual horror isn't the murderer, it's that Adelle knows this violence might happen and has nonetheless convinced herself it's Just Gotta Be This Way. Ever seen Deadwood? In Season Two Joanie's partner, the aging madam, basically gives away the lives of a few of her young charges (also whores), hoping to blackmail Wolcott into supporting her retirement. He's the psycho (and spills blood aplenty), but she's the villain in that plot. Joss usually works in less murky waters than David Milch, but Dollhouse is certainly at that level of complexity in its best moments - particularly where Ms DeWitt is concerned. She and Ballard are scaaaaaary characters. Can't wait to see where they're headed tonight.
It's not a new interview

"Last March, Joss Whedon was kind enough to take some time out of shooting The Cabin in the Woods to email me some very entertaining and thoughtful answers to questions I had about the show, for a piece I was working on for The Atlantic (keep in mind, only a few episodes had aired, and I was largely pursuing the human trafficking metaphor)."
I stand strong in my refusal to read clarifying, essential introductory material because I hate you.
It's weird, because in a way I'm getting the sense that people are dealing with the show (and Joss) similar to how Spivak described the reception of Foucault: When he started talking about a genealogy of ethics, people were basically asking him in interviews: "You must be doing this?" And the answer was always "yes, yes, yes".

The weirdness comes in moments where people are actually reversing that constellation to say that Joss and his vision are not doing enough. The problem I have with that, is that it's veeeery close to the run-of-the-mill Richard Steven Hack that is going around the interwebs saying: "The show would be better, if Echo would work from the outside with Paul to take down the Dollhouse." While this effect may have something to do with people reading the show very differently than I do, I still can't shake the feeling of soccer fans being convinced that they could coach their team better than the coach of their team. Enough-ness, for me, just doesn't enter the question, since I cannot bring myself to read a show with a pre-figured sense of Accomplishment Levels it should reach.

However, I do think that the original reaction (as outlined on the first paragraph) is a very valid one, since it proves that the show is worth (re-)reading. And apparently, as Joss has said on numerous occasions, (re-)writing.
The weirdness comes in moments where people are actually reversing that constellation to say that Joss and his vision are not doing enough. The problem I have with that, is that it's veeeery close to the run-of-the-mill Richard Steven Hack that is going around the interwebs saying: "The show would be better, if Echo would work from the outside with Paul to take down the Dollhouse."


Indeed - this is pure wish-fulfillment, and the show is a gnarly critique of wish-fulfillment of that sort. Talk about the missing the point!
I thought the FBI only had jurisdiction in the United States? Or was the FBI comment meaning that there is a human trafficking problem in the US?
Of course there's a human trafficking problem in the US.

I still find fantasizing, not the sex trade, but people who are having sex without consent (and I do not think the initial contract can grant general consent) very disturbing.
Why "of course"? I haven't heard anything about it.
And...though we're having a great time with the second seasons, that's something we've never recovered from...Every episode is ridiculously hard in a way it wasn't on the other shows...the central core's been ripped out enough so that we're constantly dancing around our own premise.

Thanks for typing up what Joss said waxbanks. In another thread we were discussing whether Joss was saying the core was still missing from the show or whether he was just talking about season 1. Unfortunately, it seems it's still a big problem. Which infuriates me
I don't know if it's the best interview, but it certainly asks different questions. AS to the FBI thing, I read it as, "a person at Equality Now" rather than "Equality Now" says that a helpful FBI agent would be an unforgivable myth. Which I think is roughly what he said.

As someone else may have pointed out, that could simply be a bitter person. Honestly, I've known too many insane people who worked in philanthropic organizations to take a quote like that and issue a blanket indictment of the FBI.

Waxbanks, I think you're probably correct. Joss may have thought he was skirting the issues but both the premise and the different subtexts still seemed fairly obvious to me. He may have been sorry that he wasn't able to just be direct about it, but I think his intent was coming through. Unless of course he had a double-secret premise that we don't know about yet and we haven't guessed because Fox wouldn't let him make it.

[ edited by azzers on 2009-09-26 06:03 ]

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