Monday, February 16, 2009

An Exploitive Show Vs. A Show Examining Exploitation

"I've had a relationship with the group Equality Now since its inception; and I was visiting the New York offices, which I hadn't been in, right after I had pitched the show. So I decided, just off the cuff, to sit everybody down and tell them what I was going to do, because I figured I would never have a tougher room than that. And I think the reactions were mixed. Some people thought there's a discussion going on there, and it's interesting and it's worthy. And some people thought it sounds just like glorifying human trafficking, which is something they particularly fight against. And so, you know, it was sort of a harbinger of what was to come, which is that this show is going to get some very mixed reactions, and I think it is going to make some people who are fans of my political stance probably angry; some others not, I think. But the idea was to open a discussion, and I think now there may be some shouting during it."
-Joss Whedon, on NPR's Fresh Air.

There's this thing floating around about Dollhouse, that it is somehow incongruent with Whedon's feminism, that it somehow detracts from his feminist cred card. It is there when Jacki Lyden, of NPR's All Things Considered, says, "I have to say looking at it, it looks to me and feels to me like the ultimate misogynistic male fantasy". I don't think that is entirely correct. If the show turns out to only be about the ultimate misogynistic male fantasy, if it is titillation and little else, then I think it would be a valid critique. However, just the first episode reflected some of the themes Whedon has penned before. When Paul says, "If the only way to imprint a human being with a new personality... to remove their own, completely, we're talking about people walking around who may as well have been murdered. Which, to me, sounds pretty bad", it mirrors Simon telling the crew about what the government had done to River, and when he discovered they stripped her amygdala. When Topher tells Echo that Sierra is undergoing a treatment and that they are making her better, it conjures Mal's soliloquy about how the ruling body will "swing back to the belief that they can make people... Better. And I do not hold to that". When the allusion is made to human trafficking when discussing The Dollhouse operation, the misogynistic male fantasy side of the equation drops down a bit, I believe.

What seems to be overlooked in this particular criticism of Dollhouse is that there is a key difference between an exploitive show and a show examining exploitation. There is a key difference between a misogynistic show, and a show that examines misogyny.

The world Dollhouse inhabits may have misogynistic themes and tendencies; it may be a sexist world. But so is our own. The Dollhouse and the Actives that are housed within it may merely be exaggerations of this life we live. And by doing that, by exaggerating and making more prominent these parts of society that Whedon is disgusted by or intrigued by, and watching how he attempts to reconcile Echo's eventual reclaiming of her life and her autonomy, Whedon may further his feminist message. When Lyden asks, "She's not in any sense in control of her own life, so why present that type of main female character?" she is doing Dollhouse wrong. Because the show isn't about a Buffy character (who, incidentally, was trapped in the same basic premise as Echo is, being used by an organization larger than she who believed her to be a worthy object but not an actual autonomous being); Whedon has already given us a Buffy - and a Zoe, and a River, and a Willow, and a Kaylee, and a Cordelia and the list goes on and on. He has already purposefully created a feminist icon; several, in point of fact. But the question becomes who am I most like? Who are most women like? What do most women have to deal with? I'm not really a Buffy no matter how much I want to be, even though part of my philosophy is made up by the phrase "What Would Buffy Do?" to the point where I had it on a key chain in a town where the prevalent thought was "What Would Jesus Do?" I'm more of a Willow (circa seasons 1 through 3) than probably any other Whedon character. I have to be vigilant when alone; I am not a force the demons fear; I cannot take back the night on my own. But there is a part of Buffy in me; at least, I hope there is. And in Echo, we have the opposite of Buffy, because all of us are, in some way, Echo. All of us are - in some way and some more than others and some less, some all in some ways and some all in others - marginalized, voiceless, objectified, used, weak, powerless; just like all of us are - in some way and some more than others and some less, some all in some ways and some in others - strong, powerful, commanding, charismatic, self-assured, self-centered, autonomous, righteous, wonderful, capable, kind, in control. When Joss Whedon says about River that "She is the monster. She is the damsel. She is the action hero", he is describing all of us. And Buffy represents one track of who we are and what kind of life we can live. As a feminist icon, Buffy kicks ass. But while she is also "the monster" and "the damsel" and "the action hero", she is least often the damsel. Echo is for those of us who are often, even when we don't want to be, the damsel, taken to the extreme partially so she can fight back and become more fully actualized and partially to demonstrate how damaging this particular track actually is and what it does to every one of us.

This particular show isn't about giving us a heroine from the onset to root for and who is immediately awe-worthy. It is about us, and how we feel and what makes us sick. And while Whedon's focus of the show is on a woman, and while that may allow him to examine themes he finds most interesting and may bring to life what parts of the general culture he feels are most dangerous to women, the show as a whole seems to be about not just how society treats women but how we treat each other. Whedon apparently wants to examine "what we want from each other sexually, how much power we wanna have over each other". His primary focus is going to be a woman, possibly because tangentially, based on their position in society, women get hit with this sort of thing more often than men do (and also, Whedon seems drawn to exploring the lives and the trials and triumphs of women). But the overall theme of identity and how morally or ethically bad or good or indifferent an organization like The Dollhouse is goes beyond misogynistic fantasy and into how we interact and see other human beings - if we recognize, as Paul does, each human being's right to autonomy, or if we fall into the trap of using them as objects to fulfill our own pleasure without a care about them or their own.

That isn't to say that there isn't some valid criticisms of the way the show is going about portraying its eventual message about feminism or human trafficking or identity or autonomy or human worth. Aviva at Fourth Wave and Jaclyn at Bitch, Ph.D. asked some of those questions, and David BM Cooley on NPR's Fresh Air did as well; the most compelling question for me came from Aviva, when she asked,
"...doesn't the continued need for the Dollhouse as an element of narrative interest necessitate the continued exploitation of the "actives" for our viewing pleasure?"
That is, for my money, a great question. At what point does watching the exploitation of the Actives in the series become too much like the torture porn of the movie Captivity that Whedon himself railed against? At what point is there no intellectual value in watching the main premise of "these people are wiped and have to be a whole bunch of other people"? I don't have an answer for it. But I do have answers for some of the others, and those will be coming in a separate post on the subject.


John said...

From what I saw, the series seems designed to have the following arc:

THE BEGINNING - in which Echo is a cipher who works for the keepers of the Dollhouse, slowly becoming self-aware and regaining her individual identity.

THE MIDDLE - in which a more independently capable Echo works with others to bring down the Dollhouse and rescue the actives, either from within or from without.

THE TWIST - in which Echo & Co. end up grudgingly working with the Dollhouse to stop a threat that is far greater than they are.

THE (IDEAL) END - in which the Dollhouse is permanently shut down and the actives' personalities are restored.

If the beginning isn't exploitive, the narrative is over before it starts.

Out of curiosity, did the feminists say anything about the fact that there are both male and female actives? It seemed like equal-opportunity exploitation to me.

petpluto said...


Outside of The Twist, I think that's pretty much what's going to happen.

"Out of curiosity, did the feminists say anything about the fact that there are both male and female actives? It seemed like equal-opportunity exploitation to me."

Not really; plus, the show really is focusing on Echo and then focusing much of its not-Echo Active energy on Sierra, both of whom are women.

And then there's this, which sucks but should be taken into consideration:

Some forms of exploitation or oppression when represented in film or art or music are weightier/more problematic depending upon who the subject of that exploitation or oppression is. Since women are sexually assaulted more often than men and treated as public property more often than men, a show demonstrating that is more problematic than a show demonstrating men in the same situation. It turns into an
(action) + (power) = badness
thing; much like the sociological representations of racism and sexism where both racism and sexism equal prejudice plus systemic power to oppress.

I don't think that is what's going on here, in this Whedonian instance, but I think that the overall "equal opportunity" stuff generally fails to take into account that not all actions are equally distributed upon the bodies in question.

petpluto said...

Oh, and also, your Middleman dude's going to be in the next episode, if you didn't know that.

John said...

Well, dag diggity. Sure enough, ol' Matt "The Middleman" Keeslar is set to be Echo's next date. Maybe he'll be nice and not completely shame Eliza with his prodigious acting ability.

You don't see the twist as happening? Maybe it's my comic book background, but I'm so used to a new big-bad showing up and it taking the collective might of both G.I. Joe and Cobra (or Spider-Man and Venom, or the X-Men and the Brotherhood, etc.) to defeat it. It's that whole "lesser of two evils / the enemy of my enemy is my friend" shtick that producers just can't resist. Heck, even the crew of the Serenity teamed up with the Reavers at one point (... kind of.)

As for the not-so-equal opportunity thing, I suppose that makes some measure of sense, but I still feel that it's worth taking the time to mention that the Dollhouse doesn't traffic exclusively in attractive young women. After all, they may be able to customize Echo's mind into anyone they want, but they can't swap her bits as easily as a Mr./Mrs. Potato-Head.

petpluto said...

"You don't see the twist as happening?"

I see potential for a twist happening, just not that particular one. Like, I can see Paul Ballard getting sucked into the Dollhouse. But I can't really see the twist you describe. It happened somewhat on AtS, but even in that scenario there was a twist on the twist. Angel became head of Wolfram & Hart, you know? And that was never truly portrayed as the best thing ever. And after all, Mal worked with the things beyond humanity (however fully they were manipulated into it) to free himself and his crew of the Alliance, and not the not-so evil Alliance in Serenity to destroy the Reavers. Out of the two, I'm sure most people in the 'verse who knew about Reavers would have chosen the opposite path, you know?

"I still feel that it's worth taking the time to mention that the Dollhouse doesn't traffic exclusively in attractive young women."

Oh, I agree; and Joss Whedon has, a lot. And while that mitigates it slightly, there's still that whole "there's a real sex slave trade of human girls happening every day" thing that kind of demands more attention paid to Echo and Sierra.

Plus, the head boy Active's character shifted from being an Active to being the mob guy. So that lessens the amount of men-Active storylines for right now.

Aviva said...

You make some really excellent points here. In fact, petpluto, this post really wants me to like Dollhouse way more than I do. That said, I worry that Dollhouse will not and/or cannot meet the theoretical expectations of its premise. If it really could be all the things you say -- a show that examines identity formation and provides a heroine with whom viewers who feel powerless/ill-defined in their own lives could identify with -- that would be awesome, but I'm just not sure those layers will come to the fore quickly enough (or at all) to not turn some people (way) off before it gets there. Maybe I'm just a pessimist... Ever since I started studying TV, I just haven't been able to enjoy it like I used to. ;-)

petpluto said...

"I worry that Dollhouse will not and/or cannot meet the theoretical expectations of its premise."

I actually think that is a valid worry, and I (obviously, as I'm just a humble viewer!) don't know if it can or if it will. But I think that the premise isn't as shallow as some criticism has made it out to be; I don't have that problem with your criticism, and I think that (like this point) you bring up some excellent critiques and questions about where the show can go and whether or not it can succeed in its philosophical journey.

"I'm just not sure those layers will come to the fore quickly enough (or at all) to not turn some people (way) off before it gets there."

Oh, I fully anticipate its cancellation! Which probably isn't a good way to start my Dollhouse viewing, but at least this way I'll be pleasantly surprised if it does end up being able to demonstrate its layers. I have heard that its necessary to get through the first 3 (heavily Fox-intervention laden) episodes before the series really starts its journey, because the first couple of episodes capitulated to Fox's demand that they be more procedural. I'm pretty sure that was a mistake on Fox's part, and on Joss' part. But I'm also willing to bet that the 13 episodes that have been filmed will begin to show a lot of promise.

Part of my optimism comes from one of Caroline's statements about never truly getting a clean slate. That being right in the first 5 minutes of the series tells me that sooner rather than later, Echo's slate won't be nearly as Tabula Rasa'd as the Dollhouse people would like.

"Maybe I'm just a pessimist... Ever since I started studying TV, I just haven't been able to enjoy it like I used to. ;-)"

Aw, that's so depressing!