Monday, March 16, 2009

Dollhouse... male fantasy?

by Josh Franklin

A while back, Amelia wrote about the new Joss Whedon series Dollhouse. With some extra time on my hands this week, I was curious; 4 hours later, after watching the first 5 episodes of the show, I have to disagree somewhat with the NYT review's assessment, which obsesses with the idea of television serving male fantasy.

Dollhouse is the story of Echo, a woman who (for mysterious reasons merely alluded to in the first episode) agrees to allow a mysterious organization brainwash her, imprint her with a new personality, and send her on various assignments for mysterious, rich clients. Echo's assignments include at least a couple of 'romantic weekends,' and it seems that business as usual for Echo and the other dolls in the Dollhouse is glossy, high-tech prostitution; maybe this is what lit up the gender-identity lightbulb for NYT reviewer Alessandra Stanley. However, after watching the show, I think that watching Dollhouse in terms of male fantasy might not be seeing the whole story.

I'm not going to try to deny that "the permanent, untraceable roofie" represents a pervasive male fantasy. But I don't think the show is trying to sell that fantasy. First of all, the Dollhouse--a gorgeous prelapsarian spa--is populated by both male and female dolls; the show merely focuses on the story of Echo. Maybe the standard feminist analysis here is that Dollhouse is typical of entertainment that focuses on a female protagonist; Echo is portrayed in a 'female' way, without agency, highlighted merely for her role as the object of male sexual fantasy.

This is reasonable, but I don't think that the idea of a woman who can be brainwashed and reprogrammed to do anything is presented here in this way. The idea of a life without a history, purpose, or real human essence is unsettling and scary, not sexy. What's interesting in this show is how Echo, the brainwashed woman, is juxtaposed to readily visible female archetypes. In the third episode, "Stage Fright," Echo is assigned to be the bodyguard of a pop singer. There is an ironic confrontation where the singer tells Echo, "you weren't born in a factory, but I was." Rather than sexualizing a woman who is infinitely malleable to the whims of an awkward computer nerd, I think that Dollhouse is trying to see our lives as dolls, without agency or memory.

Alright, maybe that's an overstatement; Dollhouse isn't actually that wonderful. The first 5 episodes are so drenched in vague 'mystery' that it's hard to maintain a strong interest. And, predictably, every feminist moment is matched by one of subtle sexism that trickles in unchallenged from patriarchal culture. I don't want to champion Dollhouse as a shining beacon of feminism. Rather, I'm a bit uncomfortable with the way Stanley wrote about the show, musing for paragraphs about male fantasy, wish fulfillment, and The Feminist Mystique. Though it's certainly true that mainstream entertainment has a fondness for viewing women through a lens of male sexuality, I think it's counterproductive to assume that of everything we watch.


At March 16, 2009 at 11:44 PM , Anonymous Corita said...

I avoided watching this at first, despite the fact that Whedon, a self-professed feminist, has never disappointed before. But I finally watched it and I am really really hapy with it.

I don't think that a show has to narratively critique every single oppressive thing, at the moment it happens, in order to be "feminist". I expect that the story arc will serve as a critique as well.
Meanwhile,each episode has held up for examination lots of attitudes toward women, and even the Dollhouse's existence itself, for subtle OR outrigh critique.


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