Dollhouse 1.01: Ghost
Every new Joss Whedon show will be evaluated first and foremost on its feminist merits, which may be exactly how Whedon likes it. That’s difficult going, however, as feminism has as many different definitions as there are feminists and misogynists. That single question alone could be debated without end without touching any other quality, with tea break to deride Eliza Dushku’s lack of range.
(Which, by the way, is getting so old it’s drawing a pension. I’ve generally agreed with that assessment, but hearing it repeated with every mention of the show has made me re-evaluate its fairness. Why exactly do we condemn young actors, comparing them with those who didn’t get their breakout roles until their thirties with an additional decade of experience behind them? My judgement on the actress is based on only two roles, neither of which particularly interested me as written or called for a range broader than appearing young, inexperienced, and clinging to bravado – exactly what many young actors would be feeling in their first major roles. Give her a chance to do something interesting with a meatier role.)
My particular bias in judging fictional feminist cred is toward equality across individuality, ie male and female characters have an equal shot at characteristics without them being processed through a ‘manly’ or ‘womanly’ scale. Buffy Summers, for instance, has never passed on my criteria (as much as I and was affected enjoyed the show) because he character is built around the shockhorror! of a young woman being physically strong and tasked with the mission to save the world. The times she revelled in her strength or was proud of ability to save people were paltry compared to the moments she worried her strength made her too unfeminine to be attractive (as opposed to the garden-variety teenage insecurities that made her a good audience identification figure). Angel wasn’t the best for non-stereotypical adult women, but Firefly provided three adult women who were comfortable with their balance of skills and femininity. Even the Companion (Fox’s requested ‘hooker with a heart of gold’) drew confidence in uncivilised surroundings from both her charismatic sex appeal and her skill with a sword.
The glimpse of a traditional geisha in the first episode’s teaser heading out on assignment recalls both Inara, Whedon’s most problematic character so far, and the Japanese figure often misidentified in Western culture as a simple prostitute. The question is the same, but amplified: where is the liberation in prettily presented human trafficking?
To partially address this issue: Whedon is expanding on a concept from William Gibson’s technological dystopia, the “meat puppet.” Two of his characters, Molly Millions in Neuromancer and Rikki in Burning Chrome worked as prostitutes to finance their dream enhancements, a specialised subset in which they would be put into a planned trance while they acted out their clients’ pre-programmed orders. Their designer orgasms would be real, but unfelt; the entire process was to occur without their awareness, but unsettling images inevitably began to slip into their dreams…
The narrative doesn’t follow the women into the brothel. Instead, this employment is discovered by the male protagonists, and the focus in on their shock and confusion that someone they see as an individual had been working as someone they consider a non-person. Both women slip out of the men’s lives without resolving their lovers’ uncertainty, and thus out of the story.
In Dollhouse, the workers are the story, and the men who hire them and sleep with them are the ones who leave the narrative. The focus is on the Actives who have had their own personalities removed (and hopefully stored on several back-up servers) and are implanted with the ordered personalities as needed. Much like the artificial humans in Blade Runner (this show certainly has deep sci-fi roots), the central tragedy is that the most intense human experiences are pushed from ordinary lives to non-people, and the memories and character built are flushed away. The losses of the trafficked victims are the focus, not the reactions of those who use them.
In any case, it’s far too soon to make any judgements. The exact nature of the titular Dollhouse and those who run it is still a mystery. Exposition tells us it is extremely illegal and, if discovered, would put all employees in prison for a very long time, but the FBI agent assigned to the trafficking investigation is several credibility rungs below “Spooky” Mulder. The Dollhouse staff exhibit varying levels of commitment and unease with their jobs. One exposits that those in charge feel they are serving a humanitarian purpose, and he pushes them to briefly live up to this with a little risky pro bono work (which is quite profitable in the end). There’s apparently a large enough pool of super-rich folk aware of and willing to work with an extremely illegal service to at least cover the extensive spa overhead. No Blue Sun branding has been in view thus far.
They do something to the Actives to make them so strong, and it looks like it hurts.
The dolls themselves are possibly volunteers, or else coerced. Central character Echo’s obviously among the coerced, by some mysterious means, which may involve a charismatic professor who inspired her to save the world. Her work often involves sex, which, given her programmed state, can be defined as both prostitution and rape. This week’s first client clearly wanted the full meat puppet experience, ordering a three-day weekend of excitement and adventure complete with growing emotional attachment along with his vanilla-kinky bondage workout.
Yet the bulk of the episode was given over to a different job, in which Echo is implanted with the intellectual gifts and physical weaknesses of a crack negotiator. As this character, there’s no nurturing for the male client, no emotional interactions she isn’t being paid for. She only has to be smart and in control. When she does invest, facing down the demon that drove the originator of her borrowed personality to suicide, she saves the day as that professional, being both brave and very good at her job. Then, like a ghost, she is exorcized, and I missed that character.
I hope to see more grown women like that as the show goes on.