I wasn't going to write this now, but then wanderlight
said that she would be interested in hearing my Dollhouse rant, and I started composing it in the comments, and halfway in I decided it might as well be its own post. It got slightly longer than I had intended, but I don't know why that even surprises me anymore.
Warning: This is a rant.
I wanted to love this show, I wanted that so much. I wasn't watching television when the first three Whedon shows were around; I discovered them all retrospectively, after much of the squee was over. I love watching shows simultaneously with other fans, I love the squee and the meta and the picspams and the excitement, and I wanted to have that with a Whedon show. The premise didn't immediately appeal to me; I mostly watch television for character development, and don't really see the appeal for amnesia. But I thought there was a lot of potential in terms of questions of identity. What makes humans human, apart from their memories? Can you create a character without a consistent personality who still emerges as a unified, compelling character? (So far, the answer to this one seems to be, no.) There's also a lot of room here for a meta-textual awareness as well, with Echo and the other dolls standing in for actors, and the Dollhouse staff as writers/directors/creators. As problematic as it is, the premise wasn't without potential.
Unfortunately, it hasn't gone in any of these directions. It seems to keep trying to be a show about empowered women, in a format that really undercuts the whole idea of agency and empowerment. Each individual episode aims to be an arc about how victimized women are empowered, and that that seems to be serving as the 'feminist message'. But these 'empowered' female characters are created by men at the beginning of each episode, and at the end of each episode they're wiped and erased. These empowered women aren't women at all, they're male creations, imaginations, fantasies. Sure they get to play at being real, at overcoming obstacles while looking hot and sexy and scantily clad, but it doesn't count as empowerment if you stick them back in the box at the end of the day, remake them in the morning.
A recurring Joss trope: womens' strength consistently arises out of their victimization
. I think Buffy (mostly) evades this problem, or at least moves beyond it, but the other shows fall into it over and over again. I could pull a number of examples from Angel (Cordelia's vision-suffering, Fred's cave, "Billy"), but it's much more evident in Firefly and Serenity. We get glimpses of child-River, but mostly we get River post her trauma, we get broken River, we get broken River drawing on her trauma and using it for her own ends, using it to become strong.
And it's not that this is necessarily a bad story to tell, the woman who is victimized and overcomes and rises above it. But more and more, this is the only story about women Joss seems willing to tell. River in Firefly is one of several female character arcs. River in Serenity is the main character arc. And then we get Dollhouse, which is all about this trope. And moreover, it seems to be wallowing in the act of victimization. (rachelmanija
has a very interesting post: Why I would not have greenlit Dollhouse
. Fascinating from a television perspective, but also points out that the structural problems of trying to tell this kind of story in this kind of structure. I might be willing to sit through a segment of female victimization in a movie, where the subversion of that system is always approaching - in the show, though, this exploitation is stretched out and stretched out, with no resolution even in sight. I don't need that.)
Buffy worked so well for me because it was about taking a trope of victimhood (the pretty blond girl who dies in a vampire movie) and completely subverting it. The very first scene in the pilot episode plays with our expectations; two characters sneak into an empty building to make out, a nervous shy girl and a confident guy who coaxes her along. But it's Darla who's the vampire, the guy who was the first of the series' (many, many) victims. Buffy takes the assumption of female victimization and moves on, subverts it.
Dollhouse takes the assumption of female victimization and explores it. How many different ways can women be exploited in the space of a few episodes? Even apart from the exploitation of the Dollhouse, within the space of the first three episodes we have: ( spoilers for first three episodesCollapse )
Okay. You know what? Female exploitation and female-directed violence exists, I get it. I'm afraid to walk home alone at night, I've been explicitly heckled on the street, I've been 'casually' touched in inappropriate ways by complete strangers, I've been threatened, I've been followed home, I've had a man try to grab me and pull me into his car. And I feel privileged, because nothing worse has happened to me. I am privileged, in that my only experiences with sexual violence have been ones of potentiality, implication, fear. I have friends who have not been so privileged, who have had that potentiality erupt into action. (And that's just going into direct acts of sexual violence, not to mention other forms of social exploitation.) I get it, Joss, WE get it. We live with this, the constant threat of male violence. Whether or not and to what degree we have experienced it, we live with that fear
, every day at school and work, walking home every night.
I want a show that takes this premise of female-directed violence and moves on
. Buffy moved on; Dollhouse is stuck in the constant reenactment. And the thing about reenactment is that you can't depict something like rape on a screen - you can't watch something like that - without entering into it a bit. Especially coupled with the way the show has been advertised, the way it's presented as "sexy Eliza Dushku doing different things every week" instead of even being a show about identity and overcoming victimization. It's pretty clear what kind of viewers Fox is trying to attract. Hint: it's not us. Their target audience for a show about female exploitation is male.
The thing is, Joss kept on talking about network interference, and I read and enjoyed the original pilot script that got scrapped. I kept on coming back in hopes that it would get better, that it would manage to get out of the network's attempt to make it about sexy woman and become the show I wanted it to be. And Joss kept on saying, just wait a few more episodes, it gets better, the sixth episode is the show I really want to make. So I gave up for a few weeks and then tuned back in for the sixth episode. ( Spoilers for 106Collapse )
*There's a great vid out there somewhere that compares Echo and River to make the point that Echo's sexual exploitation and River's physical powers/programming both result from the same kind of male manipulation, and that maybe this trope of the 'female fighter' that is so prevalent in Joss' work is exploitative in itself - I'll see if I can hunt up the link for that. ETA: My Medea
, by yunitsa
. You should check it out even if you haven't seen any of Dollhouse, because it deals with a kind of female exploitation in Firefly/Serenity that tends to go more unnoticed. Read her notes, too. Plus, it's just a great vid. (Vienna Teng, too, for those of you who love her.)
In all fairness, I should point out that despite vowing never to watch the show again, the good reviews of 107 lured me back in. I thought it was a pretty good episode, and it dealt with some of the consequences of 106, ( spoilers.Collapse )
It certainly wasn't perfect, but I wanted to like this show enough that I was willing to give it another chance. But I hear that last night's episode wasn't very good, so, bleh. I'm just about willing to give up at this point, except for ( casting spoilerCollapse )
Heh, I SO did not have time to write that. Too late now.
(Icon used with a certain sense of irony.)