Despite, as BeckySharper often says to me, being “such a huge bonerkiller,” I harbour affections for certain products of patriarchal pop culture. (Even feminists have to succumb to the temptations of hot buttered popcorn and sweatpants every so often.) And so, readers, I must confess: I am among the dorky multitudes who DVR’d Joss Whedon’s new TV series “Dollhouse” on Friday night. I would, of course, have preferred to watch it live, but a houseguest got in the way and insisted I venture out among the buzzing human drones of the East Village. I got hit on by a charming young man who was still wearing cufflinks at 2 a.m. and wanted me to know he found my lips “plush.” Boy, did he have something coming to him…
Anyway! I would have been much happier to spend my evening with Joss. See, my relationship with him goes way, way back to my pre- and proto-feminist days, when I was a twentysomething equivalent of a bored housewife and not sure exactly how I was going to get out of my predicament. I got into Buffy the Vampire Slayer sometime around then, as a means of distraction and escape. So deep was my obsession that still, today, I can usually identify an episode number for you should you quote me a line or a plot point. (History of William the Bloody Awful Poet, also known as Spike? 5×07, Fool for Love. “That’s me as a vampire? I’m so evil, and skanky… and I think I’m kinda gay”? 3×16, Doppelgangland.)
Anyway, Joss and I are gonna be having a bit of a fictional lovers’ quarrel over this new show, methinks, because… well, I don’t get it. Dollhouse is, in short, about a bunch of people who have, for unknown reasons, agreed to have their personalities “wiped” and replaced with new ones that then are used to do “good works.” The vast majority of these “Actives,” I should mention, have hotness (as conferred by eyeliner) and vaginas in common, though at least one penis seems to be in the mix, for good measure. I’m not entirely sure who is supposed to be the protagonist in this scenario, despite the fact that the person who gets the most airtime is the Active “Echo,” played with appropriate vacuity by Eliza Dushku. But Echo, it seems, exists only as a vessel for these personalities – whoever she was before seems to have disappeared – and so she’s a bit difficult to talk about as a character, because she isn’t, herself, much of an individual.
And this is where Joss is gonna get himself in some trouble with me. I am now well on the path to crusty old man-hating cat-ladydom. But I still think of Buffy as a pretty feminist show. One of the things I loved about it was how, unlike much of the ‘90s girl-power culture with which it is associated, Buffy didn’t lie to you about the consequences of being a powerful woman. Buffy was never particularly “happy” or “comfortable” in her efforts to save the world, and more often than not her crusades against evil came at great personal cost. (She never did manage to get that guy, or any other.) Sure those are tropes borrowed from comic book culture, but the self-critical way they were wielded in Buffy, the notion that fashionableness and self-owning were not necessarily one-to-one correlations – well, that was useful. It was useful to know that awesomeness was complicated, and could not be achieved merely by the purchase of a pink “Girl Power!!!” t-shirt (or twenty) at the local mall. (Spice Girls CD optional.) Because Buffy’s (and Willow’s, and Xander’s) complicated awesomeness matched up to a lot of my own experience, of being smacked down when I stood up, of having to hide the good things you do from the people you love to avoid the confrontation,
So how, how, HOW, I cry to The Powers That Be, is Joss now helming a show that has the erasure of female identity and agency as its plot premise? I have deliberately not read any of his own commentary on the work before writing this post because I wanted to write about my pure reaction to the show, and also because I’ve always found his comments on Buffy’s feminism to be a bit wide of the mark. (Women are not awesome because they are pretty whilst kicking demon ass, dude.) And obviously, having written one show with feminist leanings does not mean Joss will or must write all other shows about feminism.
We do, however, know that Joss identifies at least partially as a supporter or ally of women. But unless Dollhouse is some kind of twisted statement about how the patriarchy controls women – and damned if it was as easy to find patriarchy as just finding a bunch of people in an office building who were surreptitiously re-programming my brain to enjoy rape – or Echo wakes up, and fast, to what’s happening to her, I can’t see why any living feminist, male, female, intersexed, whatever, would want their name associated with it. While in the guise of different personalities, for example, Echo has sex with men. Which, you know, would be great if she actually seemed capable of consenting, but since her body is treated as a hollow vessel by the show, I’m not quite sure who it is exactly that’s getting her groove on. Echo? Her pre-Echo self? Her implanted personality? Some combination thereof?
You see where I’m going with this, readers. Echo is what we over here at the No-Fun-According-to-Feminism committee would call raped, repeatedly and onscreen, under the roofie-like guise of having been implanted with a personality that wants the sex. We can talk about layers of consent here, I guess, but I don’t particularly want to, mostly because I’m sort of grossed out that Echo’s “owners” – who, by the by, monitor her every interaction with the outside world – are apparently totally comfortable with this.
Did anyone else watch this? Was anyone else as shocked as I?