Monday, February 23, 2009

Is "Dollhouse" Sexist? OR "Joss Gets Burned By Fox"

I came across this NPR article where female writers were asked to give their viewpoints as to whether or not the new TV "Dollhouse" from Joss Whedon is "sexist":

"...a welter of evidence suggests that Whedon is guilty here of the intellectual misdemeanor of wanting it both ways. Having indulged his desire to turn out a titillating, taboo-tweaking, publicity-gathering Fox-style escapism, he now finds this to be at odds with his reputation as a purveyor of positive feminist imagery in media and a supporter of human rights."
--Elizabeth Nelson

"I hate using the word "sexist" because it's overused and shrill, and, actually, it's not so much that I think Dollhouse sounds offensive to women; it's just that I'm sick to death of Whedon's "damaged female" shtick. He's done it and done it to death. It's become boring and unoriginal. Furthermore, he's gone back into his own damaged-female pond and cast Eliza Dushku (who played Faith, the ultimate damaged female, in Buffy) in the starring role! In essence, I'm not so much creeped out as I am totally bored, which is exactly why I deleted it from my TiVo wish list without watching a single episode."
--Stephanie Lucianovic

I think you can do a narrative about the exploitation of women and have it not be sexist. But when I watched the 2nd episode of "Dollhouse," which I enjoyed, this is the "Cliff Notes" version of the show that stuck with me:

"Women are rented out for sex. They have "no minds" except for the ones that are given to them. One woman is rented out for sex. After she has sex, the guy goes crazy and hunts her down for sport. We flash back to another time this mindless woman had her mind imprinted with unwavering trust for another guy. Then there is this girl with big cuts all over her face. We go back to the first girl, who has killed her pursuer and then clings to that other guy she was imprinted to trust. She has a childlike, blank expression on her face. I think she sticks her thumb in her mouth, but that was just a trick of the light."

I enjoyed the episode, but I enjoyed it the way I enjoy the movie "Grindhouse." You know, "Grindhouse" -- both movies -- is all about female empowerment. It is also about strippers and lap dancers. It's both. This may be an uncomfortable dichotomy for some. And for some, this dichotomy may fail miserably.

I think there is definitely an element of female exploitation in "Dollhouse" -- not just the one that Joss Whedon addresses because he is fighting against female exploitation. And I don't think that's so much Whedon's fault as it is a mix of the demands to make this sort of narrative "marketable."

Programmable sex dolls is a marketable concept for Hollywood. I'm sorry. It is. Eliza Dushku is a hot actress. When she wears layers, you know she is wearing layers because she's going to strip down at some point during the TV show. Which she did during this episode of "Dollhouse" -- I called it right at the beginning!

Echo sensuously strips down to the red tank top
under her shirt -- I called it!

If I had to guess, I would think Joss Whedon's not entirely happy about the way "Dollhouse" turned out, and/or how it was marketed by Fox. In a recent Rolling Stone article he pretty much said his experience on "Dollhouse" convinced him to quit TV and turn to producing independent videos for the Web. I think "Dollhouse" was, ultimately, a miserable and disillusioning experience for him. You don't announce in month your new TV show airs that you are "quitting" TV because of said TV show. It doesn't bode well.

That said, I still enjoyed that second episode of "Dollhouse." I don't give a crap either way whether it's sexist or not. But I probably didn't get out of it what Joss Whedon intended. And if he heard me pair this show with "Grindhouse" I think he would be physically sick. But hell -- Fox marketing did the same thing.


  1. Stephanie Lucianovic should do her homework before throwing Whedon to the wolves. The concept was as much Dushku's as his. He didn't "cast" her in the role. She lured him back to television for this show because she had a development deal. Her "review" reads like she came in with a bone to pick with Whedon.

    That said, I really didn't care for the pilot, but I thought the second episode was pretty good. I think it had more Whedon-y moments than the first episode did. I'm interested to see where the show goes, if it lasts long enough to get there.

  2. Anonymous12:22 PM

    Well put.

    I love how Stephanie Lucianovic decided that the show is a rehash and isn't good without watching a single episode. Well done Stephanie!

  3. I heard this Howard Stern interview with Eliza Dushku. Turns out she's the executive producer on this show and brought Joss in to write. So it seems it's not entirely his baby to begin with.

    I've been meaning to catch up and watch the first two episodes on the Hulus. Sounds like it could be fun. But if Joss's experience on the show was that poor, it doesn't bode well for its future.

  4. "The concept was as much Dushku's as his. He didn't "cast" her in the role. She lured him back to television for this show because she had a development deal"

    I didn't realize that. Unfortunately, there is an assumption out there that "Dollhouse" is a solely Whedon-driven show. Whereas, if there's criticism out there about the show, I think it should be more evenly distributed.

    I heard that the first episode wasn't that good, but that the second was more true to Joss.

  5. And to be fair to Lucianovic, after hearing the premise of this show I had no big desire to watch it, either. The one episode surpassed my expectations, but my fear here is that the show won't be on long enough to fully deal with the labyrinthine plots and mythos that Whedon seems to be setting up with these first episodes. If he doesn't get a chance to do that, these episodes, out of context, might seem slightly cheesy.

  6. I sometimes feel that Whedon is very much aping Chris Claremont (I mean, he admits Kitty Pryde was the proto-Buffy), and Claremont was the master of damaged, complex women who kick butt.

    I guess my issue is, it's gotten boring for me, and unlike Stephanie, I've actually watched all of his shows. I can't get too attached to his quirky female characters, because they'll likely end up dead by the end of the series.

    Although he's rough on his guys, just stands out more because his women are front and center. It's not so much a women in refrigerators thing as a girl inside a missile thing.

  7. What I really miss from Dollhouse is Whedon's great sense of humor. The show has been entertaining but completely missing his snarky back-and-forth between characters and it's too bad. It seems like he is going through the motions with this one and it's missing a soul, kind of like the main character, Echo.

  8. I'm giving it a chance. I liked the second episode better than the first as well. I hope that Dushku interview is stillavailable at Stern on Demand. I want to watch it as I did not know this was her deal as well.


    The second episode you enjoyed was supposed to be the first.

    I'd have to relisten to be sure I get the quote right, but on his NPR Fresh Air interview Joss says he wanted to address the issue of prostitution in the the first episode. It was FOX that wanted to push it back a bit.

    Joss wanted to sex it up. FOX is uncomfortable with the exploitation.

    I find this surprising, as Joss is not a heterosexual man. Or as he put it at the SDCC a few years ago, he's "a little gay." Still, he's not a woman, so he views the experience of women from the outside just like any other man.

  10. Wow, I really wish I didn't just read that Joss Whedon interview Gene linked to.

    Oh, what can of worms.

    From the interview:

    "In the second episode, Echo is programmed to have sex with a man who then attempts to kill her with a bow and arrow. Lyden says it has a "snuff-film motif" and asks Whedon why he chose to present this type of main female character.

    Whedon: "Obviously, the point is you have to take control away from her so that she can get it back. Obviously, the man does not kill her," he says. "

    see -- just like "Grindhouse!"

    And "Ms.45"

    And "I Spit On Your Grave"

    And every "rape revenge" movie ever made.

    My point is -- some of these stories are presented in such a way as to titillate as well as tell the story of a woman who gets her power back. Which is fine. But I'm just saying, this is very much the impression I get from "Dollhouse," regardless of whether I like that one episode.

    Also, regarding Fox:

    "Whedon says the Fox network wasn't particularly comfortable with these themes either. The original pilot episode of the series, which included discussion of the actives performing more altruistic deeds, was scrapped in favor of one that amped up the action and conspiracy.

    Whedon says Fox also asked him to turn down the volume on some of the sexual themes."

    Whatever the case, it's clear to me that Whedon and Fox didn't see completely eye-to-eye as to how to make or promote this show.

  11. The Dr. with the cut up face is Fred from Angel! Also... The stalker most dangerous game guy from episode 2 is Sexy Bossman... er The Middleman!

    I liked this show ok... I liked the first episode just fine, and enjoyed the second one a bit more.

    I don't think THE SHOW is particularly any more or less sexist than anything else. There are male 'actives' as well, or at least there were, and I am pretty sure it wasn't just women in the beds in the floor. We are focusing on Echo as she is the main character. I wonder if this is going to go for a few issues where she is with the Dollhouse, and then perhaps she gets to a point where she retains all the various skill sets and joins the FBI in taking on the Dollhouse... or something like that.

    As we get more sympathetic to the character I imagine it will get a lot harder to accept that she is being brain-wiped and sold out for sex or whatever. In all fairness, it has not yet been portrayed as JUST being sold out for sex. There is always a bigger adventure theme component to it, and in the first episode she was a kidnapping specialist/negotiator or whatever. I don't know that I will love this in the long run, but it is potentially interesting, and yes... I am watching it with my daughters.

    My oldest pointed out how stupid it was that she shed her outer shirt while on the run.

  12. Hasn't really hooked me.

    I watched the first ep, and it didn't seem great. Might watch the 2nd based on what people are saying here.

    As far as being empowering: can't speak to that from the first ep. Didn't seem particularly empowering. I mean, the head of the Dollhouse is a woman, and Echo isn't seen directly as a prostitute, but both Echo and the only other "active" that is part of the story are definitely victims. Actually, aside from the boss, I don't think there is a woman in this that isn't a victim. If there was, she didn't really make an impact.

    Most of the people running this thing seem to be men. And those men don't really act like victims.

    Anyway, I get squirrelly when people talk about some "empowering" pieces. After all, the Pussycat Dolls say that they're empowering. It's one thing to portray healthy sexuality and empowerment. Another to show a painfully skinny woman in lingerie (or a clingy tank top) and call it empowerment.

  13. Also, why in the hell would Whedon work with Fox after what happened with Firefly?

  14. While I realize that Joss Whedon isn't God's gift to the feminist movement, and I certainly have my issues with some of what he's done on his shows, I'm getting a little sick of people attacking him because he's not feminist enough, by their standards. Because they take his characters at face value rather than looking at how the world around them is portrayed.

    I just read an article by a sex worker that was deeply critical of Inara and the whole concept of the Companion: the Guild's heavy regulation, the role of the Alliance in restricting the activities of the women involved, the classism inherent in both canon and fanon descriptions of a Companion's qualifications, and much, much more. And I agree with many of the points raised in the article about the portrayal of sex work in the media. What I don't agree with, though, is the assumption that the Alliance's regulations, or even the Companion's Guild, are meant to be viewed as entirely positive things. I don't think anyone would argue that the Alliance is a healthy government, considering all we learn about it during the series and the movie; and even the Guild is implied or outright shown to be extremely restrictive. Some Companions drop out. Others, like Inara, strain against those restrictions. And if the series had gone on, I think we would have seen more of that. Nothing in Firefly's setting was meant to be utopian, and the Guild is no exception.

    Similarly: you can't look at the patriarchal structure and ramifications of the Watchers in Buffy without recognizing how that patriarchy is shown to be deeply flawed and fundamentally dysfunctional, or the ways in which Buffy and her friends attempt to reclaim power from that patriarchy. And you can't look at Dollhouse, at the role of the Actives, without also looking at the fact that this is exploitation. An FBI agent who specializes in human trafficking is trying to find them and shut them down. The process used to reprogram the Actives has not been shown to be safe. And whatever happened to drive Echo/Caroline to the Dollhouse -- we don't know what happened, really. We don't know how the Dollhouse might have set her up to fall (and I wouldn't put it past them to do so), we don't know that they'll keep their word and return her to her life when her term is up.

    The plots of the episodes so far are kind of like Grindhouse, yeah. And I don't think the show will be able to move much beyond that, as I suspect Fox is going to dump Dollhouse by season's end. But I kind of suspect that this is another part of the theme of exploitation.

    Whedon does show us misogynistic characters and groups. He shows us condescending patriarchies, he shows us totalitarian authorities. He shows us exploitation. These are not meant to be good things. Is Joss Whedon the strongest feminist working in television today? No, I don't think so. But I think he does a lot more than a lot of men in his position, and I think it's terrifically unfair to look at the premise of this show, or to look at only the surface of it, and write it off as 'Joss Whedon the fake feminist writes another exploitative, misogynistic show'.

    Not that this is what you're doing, of course, Val, and I recognize that. But those other writers...judging a show you haven't even seen? Seriously? Not even bothering to watch one episode? Please. At the very least, give it a shot and judge it on its merits, not on the press kit.

  15. This sounds like a rip-off of that french comic Sky Doll that Marvel released here last year, except the women aren't robotic.

  16. Anonymous1:41 AM

    Dollhouse has a lot of problems that, if you look closely, are not due to Fox at all.

    "Also, why in the hell would Whedon work with Fox after what happened with Firefly?"

    If Michael Bay offered me the role of his personal PA, you bet your ass I'd take it.

  17. I have only seen two episodes of dollhouse but i thought there were guy dolls too, i thought i saw one or two and one freaked out and killed some people in episode two. but since the show is a Eliza Dushku vehicle they focus mainly on her. I don't know how far the concept can go I see calling dollhouse in the second episode for a different type of date but calling them for a hostage negotiator? whats next the government calls them for a sniper or a spy?

  18. The analogy isn't quite right.

    Whedon got screwed over by Fox. They didn't promote his show, they moved it around on the schedule, and they aired it out of sequence, which didn't make it easy to follow. That he's working with them at all says he either made his peace with them or Eliza is a very convincing young lady.

    Despite the entire internet hating him, Michael Bay makes good popcorn/bubblegum movies with no substance. It's cotton candy for the mind, but it works. I certainly wouldn't blame anyone for working with him if he offered them a job. But unless he's screwed you over personally...