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June 29 2015

An examination of Joss and Dollhouse. Jeopardy champion/pop culture blogger Arthur Chu takes a look at the meta aspects of Dollhouse.

The author seems to blame Joss for how his shows are advertised and marketed, which is more the purview of the studios.
This is an interesting analysis. I find a fair amount to both agree with and disagree with. I'm a Dollhouse fan, myself. His point of view had never occurred to me. I think his argument works, for the most part, but one of the things I kept wondering is, if this guy really believes everything he says here, why is he "a diehard fan" of Dollhouse, and presumably of Whedon? Also, I would love to hear Whedon's response re: did he intend to create this metaphore and if not, what he thinks of it. (I want to read the other article the author refers to, but the link seems to be broken, and I can't get into the Thought Catalog site.)
This appears to be an astute analysis, and it's an angle I had not considered. On the other hand, I am not a H'wood insider so my opinion is uninformed, and this essay may be ridiculous.

One thing that this essay (and others, some linked in this essay) gets wrong, in my (uninformed)) opinion, is the idea of the creator/showrunner having some sort of monopoly power in casting decisions. Unless the creator also is actually funding the project, casting decisions are going to be controlled by a lot of people — many of whom likely don't really give a rat's tuchus about acting talent, or body-size issues in contemporary society.

Case in point: Eliza Dushku as Echo. If I remember correctly, she was the one who had a series-development offer from Fox, and she asked Joss to participate. So it was a given that she was going to play the lead role; Joss would not have had the latitude to cast a different actor.

Money guy says to hire size-0 actresses, or one particular actress, or there's no money. What's the creative person supposed to do, walk away from the project?
Physically unreadable; the pic alternated between jumping up and down too quickly to read anything to freezing on single paragraphs
I think his argument works, for the most part, but one of the things I kept wondering is, if this guy really believes everything he says here, why is he "a diehard fan" of Dollhouse, and presumably of Whedon?


As a huge fan of watching Dollhouse when it first aired who finds the bulk of the author's opinions eerily in line with my own (~90% - imo there's just a tad too much overthinking going on here, even for my tastes) then it's due to how much both Dollhouse and Whedon's works in general make him think. Speaking as a professional theatrical performer and graphic artist (ie. someone who spends most of my time actively analyzing and absorbing thoughts/ideas for a living) I have found there to be two basic underlying aspects that make up the perception of entertainment: How something engages your emotions and to what degree that same something engages your intellect.

In my experience everyone has their own preference for how they like these two quantities to balance out when it comes to being entertained. Many people who work in more cerebral fields seem to prefer stuff with a great deal of emotional appeal but very little intellectual content (eg. brain surgeons/scientists/college professors going home to watch formulaic procedurals and sports programming) whereas people who spend their lives in less mentally taxing professions tend to go for the exact opposite (eg. watching shows that aim for storytelling complexity and fine arts presentations since they are the equivalent of mental 'sports' programming.)

My personal thought is that the best entertainment is that which has both strong emotional appeal and significant intellectual weight to it since they aren't mutually exclusive by nature and it provides the audience with the most options for viewing pleasure - individual members are free to tune into whichever aspect most tickles their fancy (an option I find especially appealing since my tastes tend to vary widely with the time of day and I am exceptionally good at ignoring things when I feel like it.) ;)

But back to Dollhouse and Joss Whedon.

In my opinion Joss Whedon is one of the finest living examples of an artist with the skills necessary to simultaneously deliver massive amounts of emotional and intellectual value into his art form. It is why I am such a big fan of him, despite the fact that he isn't perfect - neither as an artist nor as a human being (as this article so refreshingly illustrates) and there are times (such as Dollhouse, or - cough, cough - his contributions to the MCU) where both aspects aren't quite there. With that said, I have yet to see anything from him that wasn't - at the very least - either extremely emotionally fulfilling (Avengers ahoy!) or at least intellectually fascinating (Dollhouse) to the extent that it was still worthy of being obsessed over (at least a little bit) and - after all - that sort of obsession is what makes you a fan at the end of the day.
Brinderwalt, I agree with what you say. I found Dollhouse intellectually fascinating (when it was airing, I would wake up on Saturday mornings thinking about it, which has never happened to me with *any* other series, ever), and there was some emotional value too. What I am bewildered by is the author's being a diehard fan when he is also quite snarky about Whedon and the show on so many levels.

I have read about half of the scholarly article now, which he referenced, and am finding it more coherent and well thought out, and I'm looking forward to reading the rest of it, and maybe even tracking down some of the articles she has referenced. When/if I have time (sigh).
The scholarly article is much more nuanced and refers much more to Joss' original intentions for Dollhouse, and the way the direction of the show was manipulated by instructions imposed from Fox network. In that sense the metaphore becomes even more meta, with the series being the specific L.A. Dollhouse, Fox the evil Rossum corporation corrupting the good that they are trying to do, and Joss I think more a combination of Topher and Adelle, both the creative artist and the showrunner as s/he loses her grip over house.

As to how much it was intentional, who knows but it is one intellectually satisfying reading of a complex and challenging package.

But I also am bothered by the snarkiness and disdain in this essay, that I agree with tomg, seems to hold Joss responsible for not making all casting considerations and all representations of characters perfect. For one thing, the original BtVS was already 18 years ago. Dollhouse was 6 years ago. These may not seem like all that long, but when you look it's remarkable how much wider a range there is in acceptability in size, in diversity, of who get to be seen as pretty.

As for specifics, it was Eliza Dushku who had the contract for a new show with Fox and she brought Joss on, not the other way around. And while the original pilot for Buffy did include a heavier actress for Willow, I watched that pilot and the fact is that actress was awful. She didn't have the same sparkle that Alysson Hannigan did, or the chemistry with Sarah Michelle Gellar. If she had been kept in the role, I don't think the show would have lasted the way it did, not because she was heavy but because what made it so viewable, that sense of community among the initial scooby gang, wouldn't have been there.

I may be wrong, but the version I have heard of Charisma Carpenter's firing from Angel is that she didn't reveal her pregnancy until after the season was well under way, forcing the writers to completely change the planned season arc, which is how the horrible pregnancy with Connor business came about. Is that accurate or can someone contradict that?

Overall, I don't care for the Joss Whedon isn't a real feminist, he writes stories where beautiful women get hurt on television meme, which I've seen picked up elsewhere. I especially don't feel that as a woman I need to have a man be outraged on my behalf. The fact of the matter is I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer because she defends herself, her friends, the world, and she is a woman doing it. Sometimes she gets bruised and hurt and stabbed. That comes with the territory. It wouldn't work if she weren't allowed to be in danger. The argument that oh, Joss puts women in danger seems to me to be of the same piece with, he kills characters. Yes, he does. That's what makes it feel real. That's what makes it count. If his female characters didn't get hurt in the process of fighting then it would just be cheating, they wouldn't be real and they wouldn't be heroes. They would be like the superheroines from Marvel comics of the '60s who all had sissy powers that actually kept them from fighting like Invisible Girl and Marvel Girl, they made invisible shields or they had telepathy, because girls didn't do physical things, they certainly didn't engage in any fisticuffs. I love Firefly for many reasons but one of the main ones is because Zoe is so good with a rifle, and she doesn't stand for any nonsense from anyone. Dollhouse is a lot more complicated and I don't love it so much, but I'm not offended by the fact that it shows women being the victim of violence, because there's a huge amount of denial in the real world about how much violence there is against women. What we see happen to Sierra certainly isn't glamorized.

But I do think people have to distinguish between the Joss is a feminist, and if Joss were REALLY a feminist he would not write stories in which women fit Hollywood stereotypes of beauty, or wear high heels, or revealing clothing, or have abusive boyfriends, or have boring boyfriends (Riley), or there is non-consenual sex portrayed (Dollhouse) etc, or men impose their power on women (the source of Slayer powers) etc. etc. He is a storyteller, and a lot of things go into making up stories, first and foremost and always, conflict. Stories aren't going to represent the beautiful, wonderful, rainbow, peaceful world we want to live in. They represent the exciting, conflicted, scary world we want to be protected from. And also, in Hollywood, as embodied by good-looking people.

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