Gender in the Dollhouse

16 02 2009

Joss Whedon’s new show Dollhouse premiered on Friday. I have to say that I didn’t really enjoy this episode. The New York Times review calls the Dollhouse universe “thin and bland,” and I did kind of agree with that. Thin, yes; bland, perhaps; malevolent, certainly. There are also certain gaping plot holes (why would this client pay for a doll for this situation? it makes no sense). But I hear that the next episode is better, and I am willing to give Joss Whedon another shot. However, I’m one of the ones who thinks that Penny’s fate in Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog was meant as satire (the headlines! Whedon couldn’t include those newspaper headlines and NOT be taking a shot at the woman-in-fridge trope!), so adjust your opinions of my opinion accordingly.

But before I move on, I have SEVERAL bones to pick with the NYT review.

Allow me to quote the first few paragraphs:

Women create life by giving birth. Men fantasize about creating life — preferably female, sexy and low-maintenance — out of scrap metal and computer chips.

The yen may be childish, but it’s deeply rooted. [NB I would call it anything BUT childish; it’s always ADULT MEN whom we see carrying this desire out, as the review will point out.] Pygmalion carved his ideal woman out of ivory, and Henry Higgins remade Eliza Doolittle in a social experiment, not a laboratory, but it’s the same kind of D.I.Y. wish fulfillment. Science fiction supplied the technology, and popular culture took care of the rest.

Movies like “The Stepford Wives” and “Blade Runner” took nonmortal makeovers seriously. In the mid-1960s television mostly played it for laughs, mining the comic appeal of men taming paranormal women on “Bewitched” and “I Dream of Jeannie,” sitcoms which for some reason popped up just after Betty Friedan published her 1963 call to arms, “The Feminine Mystique.”

There is a particular erotic charge to fembots of course. A man-made version of a witch or a genie is supposedly a surer thing; they still come with special powers, but Silicon Valley programming can remove tiresome reflexes like “no” and “we never talk anymore.”

In 1964 Bob Cummings began teaching a mechanical Julie Newmar feminine wiles in “My Living Doll.” On Friday, Fox is unveiling “Dollhouse,” by Joss Whedon, the creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly.” Mr. Whedon’s latest series refits the formula to suit an ethos in which the body is infinitely perfectible and the mind ever malleable: scientists take a real woman and brainwash her into thinking like a robot.

The “Buffy” alumna Eliza Dushku plays Echo, a troubled young woman who is pressured by a shadowy corporation to donate her body to fringe science: lab workers imprint Echo with a new personality. After she completes an assignment — and her tasks range from escort service to kidnapping negotiation — the scientists swipe her brain, removing the invented persona and erasing any memories of the experience. (That’s a whole other fantasy: the permanent, untraceable roofie.)

Okay. Now. Given that beginning, how can you continue to say this?

“Dollhouse” has an amusing premise

No. This premise is not “amusing” in any way. It is CREEPY and SINISTER. And although in the pilot episode some men are wandering around in the background and appear to be “dolls,” the fact that ALL THREE of the “dolls” we meet are women, and that the one in charge of their wiping and the science behind it is a man, means that, yes, in fact, this show IS about Pygmalion as violence against women on a very deep and unsettling level.

*** SPOILERS ***
Highlight to read.

I mean, we get a literal GIRL IN A FRIDGE (if you’re not familiar with the trope, click here): clearly Whedon is thinking about female character deaths and what they mean in genre fiction. Notably, this girl in a fridge does not die: Echo rescues her. I hope this is a commentary on the gender politics in the rest of the series.



The boss of the Dollhouse, as the company is known, is Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams), an attractive but icy taskmaster who promises her rich clients that their every need will be met with a crisp British dominatrix lilt.

ORLY? Because I think you meant to modify “promises” there. (Also: crisp British dominatrix lilt? Really?)




One response

22 02 2009
Dollhouse, 01×02, “The Target” « Prestidigitation Station

[…] 22, 2009 · No Comments The good things first: this episode was MUCH better than last week’s. The tension felt more real, and so did the basic premise (for a world in which people’s […]

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