Saturday, February 14, 2009

Joss Extravaganza Day 2: Premise Review of Dollhouse

So in a few hours Dollhouse will air in the US, sometime after that I will get my hands on the pilot and review that. But I thought, before I did that, I would review the premise of the dollhouse, bec. There are no plot spoilers here for any of the episodes.

For those who aren't crazy obsessed with Joss Whedon (what's wrong with you?) the idea of the Dollhouse is that an evil corporation (see I'm with them already) has people who can be programmed with any personality and ability. The actives (as the imprintable people are known) spend any time when they're not being someone else living in the dollhouse, a very controlled spa. They are supposed to remember nothing of who they are or what they've done. The actives may or may not have volunteered (and in what sense their volunteering involves meaning consent is left very open).

I'll have to admit that when I first heard of the premise I was very sceptical. Why would you care about the dolls? The whole point of television is that you grow to care, love and massively over-identify with characters. If Echo is a new person each week then why do I care

I think there are a couple of reasons I'm no longer worried about that. The minor one is that the non-doll characters seem interesting and engaging. The major one is that I've seen the metaphor - and I'm not sure how I missed it at first.

Joss has described the sort of questions he is asking as about identity, what makes us who we are, what is imprinted by society. And, of course, the main plotline is that Echo (Eliza Dushku's character) is starting to become aware, not as blank as she seems.

And that, though I imagine it will have to be reasonably slow for there still to be a show, is fascinating. So while I remain unconvinced that I'll be that into the procedural episodes of the week aspect of it (this week Eliza Dushku has ninja skills in a circus, but something goes wrong), I think there will be enough else that I love to make me stick around (apparently the episodes start quite stand-alone about engagements and eventually become much more about the dollhouse itself).

The other big question, that has got some attention, about the dollhouse, is the politics of the thing. Or more specifically the gender politics of the thing. The people who were always praising Joss for writing strong female characters, are now criticising him for writing a woman who is powerless in an absolute kind of way. In an article on npr dollhouse was called the anti-Buffy.

Now my love for Joss has never been that he wrote female characters that could beat people up. I love Joss because he wrote female characters that had relationships with each other and who fought misogyny in various forms.

And I don't think there's anything wrong with writing about women who have no power, because there are lots of women have no power. In fact I think it's anti-feminist to write as if it's all happy and awesome and women are free and equal, because that's dishonest. I worry that some of the sorts of criticisms that get dished out on-line, like criticising battlestar for the number of women who die. Women die because of misogyny all the time, and to engage with and depict that is a feminist choice.

Clearly, the point of showing someone so powerless is so that she can come to a realisation of her own power. The point of showing someone so controlled by others is that she can take control. And I think that's an important story to tell.

The final hesitation, is that a chunk of what the dolls are doing is sex, and sex that is quite clearly non-consensual. I have no problems with TV depicting non-concensual sex as long as they let it be creepy. And I think the dollhouse is supposed to be creepy. But that's not necessarily enough. Nothing Joss Whedon's done before about prostitution or non-concensual sex fills me with confidence in his ability to do this.* But the way he has been talking about it has made me feel that there's some hope, and he may have thought this through more than the things I found objectionable in Buffy and Firefly. Apparently Fox wanted him to tone down the sexual themes:

"My problem has always been, what happens is that you get the corporations basically enjoying the titillation of the thing instead of wanting to baldly talk about it," he says. "We really wanted to hit it in the face and say, well, what does it mean? Is it wrong to pay somebody to have sex? How wrong is it to try to create your own perfect experience? When is it appalling? And when is it a part of people becoming increasingly incapable of dealing with other people and living these incredibly insular lives?"

I'm really excited about the show, anyway. I think it's going to be fantastic, the ideas are interesting, the cast seems great, and it's Joss. Watch it tonight if you're in America, I'll let you know what I think of the pilot as soon as I get to see it.

*Clearly there is not time in this post for the problems with how ill thought through Inara's character's position was. There is also not time in this lifetime to describe all the problems of Buffy/Spike in season seven.


  1. It sounds really interesting...

    I've read a lot of discussion about Inara around the place, 'though I've not contributed to it myself. Wildly Parenthetical did a couple of long pieces on Inara which were in last month's Carnival of Down Under Feminism: Fictional Prostitution I and Fictional Prostitution II.

  2. Anonymous2:54 am

    Meh, I know you probably really want to think that it's going to be okay because Joss is a total feminist, but I really doubt that.

    He gave some really crappy interviews about this show and how the hyperporno photoshoot promo thing was totally okay because the actress is, like, "really comfortable with her sexuality". like most liberal men, he's only into the sort of feminism that doesn't interfere with his ability to get laid, for money if need be.

    Oh, and it's going to be aired on a misogynistic channel owned by people who make massive profits off of and own a slice of the sex industry. People Joss himself has described as having "prurient" interests.