Monday, February 16, 2009

Dollhouse, some answers and more questions


Earlier today, Jacyln over at Bitch Ph.D., posted a compelling series of questions about Whedon's Dollhouse. And I just responded to her post with an absurdly long comment, so I thought I would replicate it here, bringing my answers to her questions (and I few questions of my own) to Fourth Wave readers. The questions in italics are Jacyln's questions from her post. My responses and questions (at the bottom) are in normal type.

1) Did you watch? What did you think?
Yes, I saw it. As a fan of Buffy and Firefly, but not an obsessive fan of Whedon in general, I liked it with some serious caveats. The premise still disturbs me and the pilot did little to mitigate that feeling. I'm uncomfortable not only with Echo's tabula rasa imprintability, but also with the way viewers are (at least in the pilot) encouraged to like her handler and the geeky guy operating the imprinting machine (these people have names, which I don't remember, and I'm sure the machine has a name, too -- anyone care to enlighten me?). They're complicit in Echo's imprisonment and exploitation, and I'm uncomfortable with the fact that I already sort of like them even though they haven't (yet?) shown any signs of remorse.

2) Were you as psyched as I was to see that Mutant Enemy tag at the end?
Yeah, kinda, in spite of myself.

3) How did you feel about Eliza D as Faith in Buffy? How have you felt about everything she's done since Buffy? What did you think about her performance as Echo?
I loved Faith. I haven't really seen much of what she's done since Buffy. I actually thought she was a little flat as Echo, and not just in the moments when she's supposed to be flat because she's a shell. I'm willing to give her a little more time, though. In general, acting in pilots has a tendency to be a bit wonky.

4) Why the hell did Joss agree to work with Fox again? Or ever?
I have no idea. I certainly hope it wasn't so Fox could pair Cameron (Summer Glau) from Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Echo together for sexy dual promos during the commercial breaks. That was really beyond the pale and made my head swim. (I could only find the outtakes from the Glau/Dushku promos on youtube, but you get the gist; also, in the second video, check out the lovely grindhouse-style joint trailer for TSCC and Dollhouse put out by Fox last week.)





Urgh... Fox... WHY???!!! Oh. Never mind. Because you're Fox.

5) Um... are there still no people of color who want good roles in Hollywood? It's a real problem, isn't it? How on earth can we fix it, so that all the producers and directors aren't forced to only cast white people all the time? (Yes, there's Harry Lennix as Echo's handler, but a) that just makes him the token and b) Driving Miss Daisy, anyone?)
I have no words. It's so infuriating and endemic of television in general that I don't even know how to address this question.

6) Ditto fat people, people with physical disabilities, people who aren't freakishly pretty, etc.?
Ditto my answer to #5. I do feel like certain shows, especially non-action ensemble dramas (e.g. medical shows like ER and Grey's Anatomy, among others) are more likely to cast people of diverse ethnic/racial backgrounds who are less freakishly skinny. However, everyone's still gorgeous, even if there's an occasional woman who wears over a size 10. I don't know. It is television...the "everyone has to be pretty" conundrum is one of those problems where I have the tendency to throw up my hands.

7) Did they really have to start with the girl-is-broken-due-to-sex-abuse-and-requires-the-intervention-of-a-kind-man-to-seek-redemption plotline? Why is that never the secret weak spot for male action stars, huh?
Yes, they did. Because they're idiots. And men never have secret weak spots that stem from sexual abuse, didn't you know? (Except for Derek Morgan in Criminal Minds, which is one of the reasons I love that show.)

8) If Person A is desperate and out of options, and is coerced into fully giving up her agency and identity, and if, after making that one decision, Person A no longer has any meaningful ability to consent to anything, nor does she have the ability to withdraw her consent from the original agreement -- under those circumstances, if Person C pays Person B money to have sex with Person A, is that really prostitution, as Joss and Eliza have said it is? Or is that sexual slavery?
I love this question. It's (sexual) slavery. If Person A lacks consent because her personality has been wiped and there is no way to establish her consent for every various task she is asked to perform, then it's not just prostitution. Consent can't be given as a blanket endorsement of any and all activities of the body from now until eternity.

9) Can someone tell me that Joss is going somewhere good with this? I want to believe...
I would love to, but I'm concerned as well. Petpluto over at Art of the Auction says the show could offer a compelling discourse about identity, authenticity and identify formation, but I'm withholding judgment until I've seen a few more episodes.

Now, I have a few more questions of my own:

a) Can a disturbing premise be mitigated by the subjugated character developing agency and control over her oppressors? If so, to what degree? Does she need to escape? Seek retribution? Take over?

b) How long can a show like Dollhouse continue on with this same "she can be anything you want her to be" shtick before something has to give?

c) Is it possible to maintain narrative interest if Echo escapes or if Dollhouse (the place, not the show) is shut down? If so, how? If not, then 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?

As you can see, I've been thinking about this a bit too much.

7 comments:

Brianna J said...

>As you can see, I've been thinking
>about this a bit too much.

You too? :) I wrote a big post, including answers to all of the questions at Constant Thoughts, but I thought I'd put the answers to your questions here.

a) Can a disturbing premise be mitigated by the subjugated character developing agency and control over her oppressors? If so, to what degree? Does she need to escape? Seek retribution? Take over?
It all depends on how it's handled. I'm not a big fan of 'vengeance stories' - I'd like to see something bigger happen. Taking over might qualify (a la Alice in Resident Evil). Or perhaps something else.

b) How long can a show like Dollhouse continue on with this same "she can be anything you want her to be" shtick before something has to give?

One episode. If they don't start making me fall in love with Echo herself in the next episode, I'm going to really dislike it. Characters make a story. They're all that matter.

c) Is it possible to maintain narrative interest if Echo escapes or if Dollhouse (the place, not the show) is shut down? If so, how? If not, then 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?

I think they could do anything they want to. One caveat: see my answer to b) - we have to care about the characters. If Echo develops a personality, falls in love with Sierra, and they blow the Dollhouse, move to Mars and open a coffee house for pilgrims from Pluto, I'll be happy - as long as I care about Echo! If I don't care, whatever happens in the Dollhouse doesn't interest me now.

petpluto said...

a) Can a disturbing premise be mitigated by the subjugated character developing agency and control over her oppressors? If so, to what degree? Does she need to escape? Seek retribution? Take over?

I think a disturbing premise can be mitigated if it means to be disturbing, and means to address that which makes it disturbing. By that I mean a misogynistic work is different than a work that examines misogyny in our culture. I think that Dollhouse is of the latter category rather than the former, especially since they were (heavy handedly) discussing 'regular' human trafficking as well as being an evil that needs to be stopped. I think the show already wants its viewers to equate the two.

That being said, I think one of the ways Dollhouse will explore that disturbing premise is by having Echo fight for and achieve agency, much in the way other characters of Whedon's have done. I don't know if she should gain control over her oppressors. Rather, I think that would just create a second inverted power system - and I think that may be where they're going with that creepy guy at the end, the one who was mailing a picture of Caroline to Paul Ballard. Taking over will still basically be working within the system. What I think needs to happen is for the system to be dismantled, and for those who were working toward the 'greater good' by violated the autonomy of those involved to be punished.

And I do think she needs to escape. She needs to not be rescued by Paul or a conscience-plagued Boyd. She needs to do it, herself, for herself. She needs to take back her own control.

b) How long can a show like Dollhouse continue on with this same "she can be anything you want her to be" shtick before something has to give?

I'm going to go with a while. Unlike Brianna, I don't need to fall in love with Echo; I can root for her without her developing a personality, because I believe that what happened to her was a violation and because I believe her lacking any distinctive personality does not mitigate the awfulness of what her situation is. Also, I think that as long as the other characters - good and evil and amoral - become more developed, Echo's development can be slower. If they give me something meaty with Boyd and Paul and Adelle and Topher and Claire, I should be okay. I especially think Boyd is important here, though, because his concern for Echo's welfare - even if it is only within the confines of the established Handler-Active relationship 'allowed' within The Dollhouse - allows the audience emotional access to a character that basically has none - until she begins to develop one.

c) Is it possible to maintain narrative interest if Echo escapes or if Dollhouse (the place, not the show) is shut down? If so, how? If not, then 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?

I think if Echo escapes, the narrative interest could remain in her trying to figure out who she was and if she can get back to that person - and if she even wants to. I doubt Dollhouse will truly be shut down until the ending season (whether or not Joss Whedon gets a full run is a toss up, and I'm going with a big "no"), but even if it does, I think Whedon can take the show in the direction of where the Actives can go, who they are, and exploring the Dollhouse from the perspective of its consequences on its Actives and what the void it left is filled with.

If The Dollhouse is not shut down until the end, then I think continued exploitation for the dolls on the inside will be necessary for maintaining its evilness - and I think the show has to exist on a razor's edge to maintain that feeling of "this isn't alright" and moving the recognition of that forward while utilizing the flexibility of the wiped for stories. I'm not a writer, so I don't know if that is truly possible. But then again, maybe there won't be on-screen exploitation. Maybe after a certain point, the emphasis will be on who Echo is outside The Dollhouse and her efforts to shut it down. This is the one that I honestly on which I waffle the most.

petpluto said...

"As you can see, I've been thinking about this a bit too much."

Oh, by the way, since I forgot to mention it in the first (huuuugely long) response:

No way! There is no too much!

Ahem. Sorry. Inner Whedonite making her way out.

chadmany2k said...

Awesome post! I love The Dollhouse so far. Fran Kranz (who also does amazing character videos on showbizzle.com) is so awesome! He's everywhere I guess! How do you SAY showbizzle?

Aviva said...

I think I'm with Brianna regarding her point about needing to love Echo. I can only really watch shows in which I have a sincere affection for one or more of the characters. If I don't care, I won't care to watch.

But I think I'm with you, petpluto, about Echo escaping (rather than being rescued); I'm just not sure that's the direction they're going though. Echo, as she is now, does not seem capable of masterminding her own escape. Perhaps if she starts regaining her own consciousness--whatever that may be--then maybe...

I have another question for you all, and anyone else who cares to answers, with which I mean absolutely no offense whatsoever. I loved Buffy and I love Firefly, and while I think Joss Whedon has created some incredibly interesting characters, shows, etc., I don't really have any feelings about him one way or another. What is it about Whedon that inspires such devotion from fans (I'm not saying it's not deserved, only that I don't get it)? In other words, why is it that fans of any particular one (or more) of Whedon's shows often become fans of the creator in this instance...? For example, there are a lot of Xena fans, but I'm not sure there are many Rob Tapert fans. Anyone have any idea why that is?

Brianna J said...

Re: The Whedon Obsession...

Well - it's complicated. I think that there's two types of Whedon fans. I (and these people) see Buffy as being far more 'literary' than the average TV show. In literary criticism, of course, the author is alway given the credit or blame for it's content. So there's that.

As far as the rabid fangirls/boys, I think they just act that way naturally. With, say, Xena, though, their attentions are focused on the star. That's why there are so many Lawless fans. On Buffy, though, Sarah Michelle Gellar isn't very... fan-worthy. (Don't kill me, SMG fans!) She's not done anything else interesting, she's indifferent to the attention, she doesn't work the crowd at conventions, she doesn't sing, and it's rumored she didn't really like Buffy, especially at the end. So, the fan attention goes to the next person in line - Whedon, in this case. Is there such a thing as a rabid Whedon fan who only likes Firefly? I'd like to know what one of them thinks!

Plus, people are pissed at Rob Tapert for how Xena ended...

petpluto said...

Re: The Whedon Question

I can really only answer for me, but I think that one of the reasons Whedon is so highly regarded is simply because his stuff resonates on a deeply emotional level with his fans. The guy is the master of the penstroke, and I definitely think that helps. For a lot of people, these shows aren't simple entertainment (and I do include myself in that). And along with that, there's the fact that Whedon gets and appreciates the fandom. He goes on the message boards (less than he used to, but he still pops up from time to time); he's there at the conventions; he'll have conversations with fans about the workings of BtVS or Firefly; and he encourages fan involvement. Those are all incredibly powerful things, because even though I don't do the Joss Whedon message board thing and I don't go to conventions and my fan involvement begins and ends with watching and dissecting, there's still this feeling that he gets it. And there's this feeling of not only is there this guy who's willing to take time out of his day to talk to the fans, but he's really one himself.

For my part, my love of Whedon comes partially from the above. But it also comes from the fact that BtVS premiered when I was 10, and had moved to a town that I didn't particularly get and that didn't particularly get me. High school and middle school weren't hell, but I was still the crazy outcast. And that - along with the myriad of references from things like Willy Loman - made me connect to BtVS in a visceral way. Plus, it was the only show on at the time that I remember that actually had teenagers I could relate to. Dawson's Creek was on, but that wasn't getting it done. And so I developed a great fondness for the guy who wrote those characters I connected to so deeply.

I also loved Whedon for doing things with genre I'd never thought possible. I hate Westerns and Sci-Fi, but I absolutely love Firefly; I've never been the world's biggest fan of horror, but I love BtVS. And I love these things because there's something else there, and the genres themselves have been twisted and changed, and I am kind of in awe of a guy who thinks, "You know what would make this horror motif better? Some romantic-comedy. Oh, and if we rework the whole basis of the horror motif".

And then there was this: one of the reasons I was an outcast was because I was (and am) an atheist. Not militantly, but still an atheist in a town where the cool thing to do on Sunday was go to church. And here was this guy who not only made the cool shows that said stuff beyond what was just written on the page who was (and is) also an atheist. And that - for me - was incredible. Before that, all I really had was Douglas Adams, and he was British and didn't write women very well. And there was something incredibly powerful for me in that I wasn't so alone. There was this guy out there who was unapologetically like me, and wrote people I could (superpowers not withstanding) possibly know.

I also agree with much of what Brianna said (wrote?).The one thing I would disagree with Bianna on would be why the fanship found itself glued to Whedon. I think it is partially because of SMG herself, but also partially because Whedon was always front and center with the thing. From the first moments of BtVS, it was Whedon's baby, and not an SMG vehicle.

But really, I think it may just be that he seems incredibly available, and not just at cons but also just in his writing. Fans feel like they know him. The rest of the stuff may just be window dressing.