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May 02 2010

A Thousand Blooms: Inside Joss Whedon's Dollhouse. One of the best articles you will ever read about the show.

That was an utterly brilliant read, thanks Simon.

Possibly the first commentary on Dollhouse that I've encountered, that gives the show it's due in terms of depth and complexity, as well as the multiple layers of social commentary woven through even the most flawed episodes.
Yeah this was fantastic, thanks for sharing. I assume that as DOLLHOUSE sinks in for more people via the DVDs, and they have more time to ponder the show's deeper threads and concepts, its creepy brilliance will become fodder for thousands more sci-fi essays, pop culture term papers and entertainment blog posts.
I concur. Excellent essay.
Just an addendum:
* The Doll names are also military alphabet, perhaps a reference to their anonymity and their weapons potential.
* Echo is aptly named, for dramatic irony, as she uniquely retains "echoes" of all her imprints.
* Rossum may be aptly derived from the old sf classic R.U.R by Karel Capek. R.U.R. is the acronym for "Rossum's Universal Robots." The parallel to "dolls" is self-evident.
I didn't like it at all. The author barely seemed to have been paying attention to the show. Sierra's friend for Topher was a 'sexpot'? Sierra joined to forget about rape? Um... no. And what proof does she have that the Dollhouse is basically female? The whole point is the mixed gender. But it didn't fit in with her preconception, so she ignored it.

I found the author basically ignorant of the show, and trying to disguise it in academic speak.
Ah, who can forget the wonderful performance of Alan Rudyk?
I think you miss read some of the piece SteppeMerc. The Topher and Sierra line you are referring to actually reads:

He also has an unusual lust for female geniuses: of all the personalities he can conjure, he desires not a sex partner but a dweeby girl counterpart. As an annual treat for Topher, Sierra — who is often imprinted as a sexpot — is programmed as his geeky companion, in a setup that is both "sweet" and disturbing


I do agree with you in part though and I am not as won over by the article as others are. I knew immediately that it would not be getting the universal discussions that Dollhouse deals with when I read the paragraph:

Which brings us to the fact that the dollhouse is full of women. The house is designed as a kind of pan-Asian retreat, where "getting a treatment" is regarded as casually as selecting from a spa menu. The atmosphere of calmness allows the dolls to recover from the violation of an imprint. If Whedon intended to subvert the notion of female passivity, this is one of the most successful gender-based satires I've seen. Like Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, this dystopia is a red-coded female world, in which women are either maidservants or cool priestesses — like the classy and beautiful Adelle (Olivia Williams), head of the L.A. dollhouse. Much of the house's activity is explicitly coded as feminine — it's interesting how many of Echo's missions are domestic thrillers, including one in which she ends up as a terrorizing mother in her own house


Ignoring the fact that Whedon has said many times that it is not meant to be a feminist piece (Death of the Author and all that), the numerous male dolls seem to just be mostly ignored by her. Her attempts to include Victor and Daniel in this discussion of the female dollhouse seems to just come down to her claiming them to be female figures, something that I'm not really sure about. Instead, I like to see Dollhouse as demonstrating a position that we are all a part of, whether male or female.

I also disagreed with the statement:

Nerds in previous Whedon shows have tended to be unsexed, harmless personalities, riotous in their constant babbling.


I don't think you could ever describe Warren as one of those "harmless personalities" and Wash certainly wasn't "unsexed." In fact, I don't think you could describe any of Whedon's nerd characters as "unsexed." They may have been established as such, but that was a stereotype that was always destroyed very swiftly by Joss.

What I do like about the article is that it does acknowledge the depth and complexity of Dollhouse. The fact that we can agree and disagree with elements of the article shows that there is much to debate about in the show.
Its always refreshing with someone who actually seemsto have paid attention, even if I not agree with her 100%. One aspect which she failes to adress is what I call the "omni-objectification" of persons regardless of gender, and the fact that everyone objectifies everone around them to an extent.
LOL. I agree that it was both fascinating, but at the same time it was flawed. To be sure, there is a lot of emotinonal complexity going on in Dollhouse. I just don't necessarily agree with some of the opinions that are being expressed as facts here.

Some things I did enjoy: the focus on the emotional content of the theme song, the focus on manufactured convictions, the idea of resistance inherent in Echo, and the aversion to specialization were quite interesting.

Things I didn't enjoy as much: shoehorning the entirety of Dollhouse into the feminist lens when it is in fact much broader than a simple critique of gender, fitting the charecters into metaphors rather than fitting the metaphors around the charecters, and some of the charecter reads just didn't make sense.

At least, I don't personally remember feeling encouraged to rejoice when Dominic went to the attic (and I didn't think he was good charecter at the time either), or that Alpha was a nerd, or that Adelle was dismissing male dolls to be gigolos. I could have missed it, but I just don't remember it.

Good stab at the subject though.

[ edited by azzers on 2010-05-02 20:59 ]

[ edited by azzers on 2010-05-02 20:59 ]
As good as the article was, it also had serious flaws. It's awfully glib about Topher. It also asserts that the dolls are rented out mostly for sex. While sex is a common theme, I can't really accept the assertion that it dominates. What about Echo's roles as hostage negotiator, thief, cult member, bodyguard, dead person, FBI undercover agent, mother, "therapist", and a few others? There are nods towards some of these, but nowhere is there acknowledgement of how common the non-sexual engagements are.

On a much bigger issue, the omission of any analysis of Whiskey's breakdown, or the corruption of government through using Senator Perrin as a doll, leaves the article feeling very incomplete. And the author completely avoids the issue of composite personalities such as Alpha or end-of-series Echo.

And one more small nit: the Washington Dollhouse used Greek and Roman gods for doll names.

What the article does do is make me want to watch the whole series again, end-to-end. I feel a Dollhouse marathon coming on, and I can't wait for season 2 on DVD.
Azzers said:

Some things I did enjoy: the focus on the emotional content of the theme song


I forgot to mention this. I thought that was a really interesting way to interpret the theme tune. It certainly grew on me as the series progressed, but I initially found it to be very unremarkable. When I heard the full song, I wished that they had used at least one of the versus along with the chorus, as the lyrics really work very well with the themes the show deals with. This article gives a good reason why they made the song, which is "punchy and exciting", into something much more "anesthetized" and like a "greyed-out depression." I still wish that they had of used the ensemble for the titles, but the theme tune definitely feeds into the feel of the show quite nicely.

MissyKittysMom said:

While sex is a common theme, I can't really accept the assertion that it dominates. What about Echo's roles as hostage negotiator, thief, cult member, bodyguard, dead person, FBI undercover agent, mother, "therapist", and a few others? There are nods towards some of these, but nowhere is there acknowledgement of how common the non-sexual engagements are.


I often felt that we were supposed to believe that the normal duty of a doll was sexual engagements. The fact that we didn't see these every week or even every other was simply the fact that it would have gotten tedious if the point had of been rammed down our throats constantly. We certainly saw a fair few sexual engagements, or, as the article puts it, "girlfriend experiences." You also have to remember the fact that FOX wanted Joss to stay clear of the high-tech hooker angle. It may not have been as overt as he originally intended, but it was certainly there.

What the article does do is make me want to watch the whole series again, end-to-end. I feel a Dollhouse marathon coming on, and I can't wait for season 2 on DVD.


I agree with that completely. I'm hoping there will be lots of Joss commentaries this time too, as the first one was a tad lacking. That should hopefully fuel some of these debates a lot more too.
I agree with what most have said here. It was a great article but the author did seem to be bending the series to fit the points she wanted to make. The biggest example of that being the gender issues and how she basically ignored Victor and Alpha’s pretty significant roles in the show. And what about Perrin? I don't think we were ever meant to believe that there were more female dolls than male. I would often look at all the extras playing dolls in the background and it seemed pretty evenly divided between men and women. So that did stand out to me as odd when I first read the article.

I think I agree with azzers that she was "fitting the characters into metaphors rather than fitting the metaphors around the characters."

Nevertheless, it was a very interesting read and I enjoyed seeing someone delve into the show with such thoughtfulness. I do think it's greatly underrated and has probably replaced Ats as being the least appreciated of Whedon's shows.
Apart from its general sense of academic-minded vagueness, cherry-picking specific aspects of the show in forming an overall analysis, and failing to recognize the role played by the fact that the show's perspective on the Dollhouse and its inner workings was sexy female-centric due to the fact that the main character was - as it happens - a sexy female, not a bad article.
vandelay_ I also considered Warren when she made her comment about nerds. Who is worse, Topher or Warren?
I thought it was pleasant enough, it just highlighted certain points for its thesis about gender roles and slightly tweaked some points for that sake. (Before sort of going on a totally different point towards the end.)

...Which made it particularly weird to me by pointing out that Claire was a "lady doctor." I've been so conditioned to not treat "lady" as a relevant word nowadays and it's mostly used as something of a punchline like how Tina Fey uses it a lot to comedic effect, or there's layers upon layers of irony in the use-- so I imagine-- in terms of characters like "Lady Bullseye" or people making fun of vaudeville.

Also somewhat on that point of female writers, it is a bit weird she put so much attention on Jane Espenson (as awesome as she is) when Maurissa was on the show for both seasons and the various female writing partnerships he brought on to showrun.

Otherwise there were some points that had merit that I sort of overlooked as the episodes actually aired that thematically could work even if in practice I didn't quite enjoy the episode itself. (blind cult member particularly.)

Yeah, there are some points that threw me off though. Like in terms of nerdy talkative vaguely sexless characters, it seems like that's mostly the domain of male characters and I suppose Andrew is a pretty good example of that, but that seems to sort of write it off as a negative thing whereas generally Whedon sort of embraces that fastidious fanbase. Or there's the fact that both Willow and Xander arguably could have been described that way but eventually went in different directions.
Warren 'just' killed one person - Topher ended society, and so the world. The nerds in Joss's work are often the most dangerous people in the room.

For me, Dollhouse was being in my 20s. It's about being everything to please everybody else, and losing yourself and your happy in the process. It's about how we use and objectify other people, and how people use and objectify us. It's about being complicit in the breakdown of society, even though we didn't mean to be.

[ edited by gossi on 2010-05-03 01:14 ]
I think Warren was worse. Topher didn't want to end society, but I bet Warren would have if he could. He'd love to control the tech and be the ruler of the world. What happened with Topher was an unfortunate series of events, which I think could be understood to be an accident. Warren was evil, and Topher had a heart.
Insane request. I almost wish Joss would give us a Warren backstory. I mean, amoral guy who builds female robots and kills people is all fine and dandy. But I'd be curious how he got that detached.
Wait, i thought Warren killed two people at least? I seem to remember a quasi date-rape thing going on with him. That was of course before the skinless wonder and I reckon he's killed more.

Also, I did sort of see that Dollhouse metaphor working for back to high school too. Or basically a lot more of society than people think when they write it off as just being a Hollywood reference/in-joke. I sort of figured a lot of people feel pressured to try and conform to what other people expect of them? Friends, family, jobs, yada yada.
As far as I see it Warren is much worse then Topher. Topher started out as completely amoral and enjoyed playing with the minds of people but discovered, to his own surprise I guess, that he actually cared. This might have something to do with being confronted by Whiskey.

Warren on the other hand whent the other way. When he realised what he could do and get away with it he started to enjoy it. So he started out as a basicly insecure person who just wanted love but ended up as someone who enjoyed using his powers and forcing his will upon others.

While Topher probably started more or less the same his journey was different. He was indeed fashinated by what he could do to the dolls, but from a more, totaly moral-less, point of view or scientific quriosity. But when he realised the consecvences of his actions he took responsibility. As I see it Topher is quite like Willow, not Warren.
'Dollhouse' was frontier work of the most disturbing kind possible, taking off from the fact that we have, from birth, absolutely no say in what our given identity is -- not a single one of us has anything to do at all with the DNA or soul input we start out with at birth -- and that we awake to forge something like an identity despite the arbitrariness & exteriority of the influences that go into making us.
Liek so many of you said, my feelings are mixed. I really can only buy into a certain, less than 50%, portion of this article, and I don't ascribe all that to my own politics, I think the shortcomings are real. But there are many good insights in it.
Plus props for the link to the article on the Searchers; I've always had a good grasp of the "why" of that movie but the "how" had largely escaped me.

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