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Whedon Week: Welcome to the Dollhouse: Dissecting the (Anti-)Misogyny of Joss Whedon’s Latest

Written by: Brett Williams, Special to CC2K

ImageAnyone familiar with Fox's new primetime sci-fi drama/actioner Dollhouse is familiar with controversy.  The show is the latest from geek wunderkind Joss Whedon (Buffy, Angel, Firefly) and his first attempt at television in five years.  Joss, a creator long heralded for his strong female characters, has run into some trouble with his newest creation.


The premise of Dollhouse is as follows: a group of people known as "Actives" are recruited into the super secret organization known as – you guessed it – the Dollhouse.  These actives volunteer for the Dollhouse and are completely wiped of any memory of their former lives, effectively turning them into human blank slates.  Very wealthy, high end clients then contract with the Dollhouse to have these blank slates imprinted with a new life.  The engagements can be for anything from assassin, to negotiator, to a date for the weekend.  Echo, played by Buffy and Angel alum Eliza Dushku, is the show's nominal protagonist.  The show revolves around Echo's adventures while imprinted and the attempts by FBI agent Paul Ballard (Battlestar's Tahmoh Penikett) to crack the secrets of the Dollhouse.  Got it?  Good.

The early buzz around Dollhouse has been mixed.  Human rights activists and critics alike have expressed concern that the premise of the show is nothing more than male fantasy writ large.  That is to say, this is just a man's way of utilizing his creativity to create the ultimate fantasy: the perfect woman.  It's entirely possible that in the hands of another creator, Dollhouse would be just that.  But this is Joss Whedon we're dealing with.  He didn't just go to bed one night and wake up a misogynist.  In fact, Joss was so worried that the show would be misconstrued that he took it first to Equality Now, a charity he's done significant work for.  Equality Now as a group deals largely with the problem of human trafficking.  Joss took the show to EN because he wanted to explain right off the bat to the people who could be his biggest detractors that his intention was not to glorify human trafficking or female inferiority, but to create a heroine who, despite the complete loss of her own memories, would be able to rise up against her oppressors and shake off the chains they'd wrapped around her life.  In effect, Joss is creating the ultimate feminist icon.  Echo is a woman stripped of all but her own emotions, her own femininity, who through the sheer force of her indomitable will finds the strength to fight oppression.

In the pilot episode which aired this past Friday on Fox, Echo is imprinted with the personality of a hostage negotiator.  Her job is to facilitate the safe return of the daughter of one of the Dollhouse's clients.  The daughter has been kidnapped by a group of armed men and the father has employed the Dollhouse to make sure the exchange for his daughter goes smoothly.  As is so often the case in the world of compelling television, things do not go smoothly.  There is a problem with Echo's imprint, a collection of memories, traits and emotions culled from various "donors."  One of the memories in the imprint leaves Echo unable to deal with the situation and everything goes wrong.  The head of the Dollhouse, played to cool perfection by Olivia Williams, has to make a decision that will affect the life of the kidnapped girl.  I'll stop there for fear of giving too much away, but the conclusion is surprisingly heroic given the overall tone of the show.  It's a nice glimpse of things to come.

So yeah, Dollhouse is dark.  In the pilot alone the show deals with human trafficking, kidnapping, and child molestation.  Not to mention the fact that the premise alone is just straight creepy.  But do we not see some of those same problems dealt with on many of television's most enduring shows?  How many times has child molestation, kidnapping, or human trafficking been the central focus of an episode of Law & Order, CSI, or Bones?  So to dismiss Dollhouse simply because it's frightening would be missing the point completely.  What Joss has always excelled at is making us face the worst parts of ourselves, at stripping away the happy and watching to see how people react when the world is falling apart.  To his credit he's never let us down.  At the end of all things, did Malcolm Reynolds buckle, did Buffy falter, did Angel retreat?  Of course not, and I don't expect Echo to do so either.  It's the least we could do for Joss to do the same.

So do yourselves a favor and watch the pilot episode.  When you're done with that, keep watching, because I believe Joss is going to blow our minds again if we give him half a chance.  And don't forget, if you have a Nielsen box, make sure to watch every Friday night at 9/8 ct.  Because ratings = seasons, and imagine what Whedon could do if he's actually given a chance flesh out his sci-fi.