From animal liberator to animal hunter: Life and death in the Dollhouse.

April 10th, 2009 by

Crossposted from V for Vegan.


Caution: Spoilers ahead! (More specifically, after the blockquote.)

Firstly, I’m extremely happy to report that, as promised by Ms. Dushku, Dollhouse has improved by leaps and bounds since last I blogged about it. Not only have we gotten to know Echo – our hero – a bit better, but more importantly, the show has addressed “the consent issue” head-on.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. For those who haven’t seen the show, here’s a brief summary via Wiki:

Eliza Dushku plays a young woman called Echo, a member of a group of people known as “Actives” or “Dolls”. The Dolls have had their personalities wiped clean so they can be imprinted with any number of new personas, including memory, muscle memory, skills, and language, for different assignments (referred to as engagements). The new persona is not an original creation, however, but an amalgam of different, existing personalities. The end result incorporates some of the flaws, not just the strengths, of the people used as templates. The Actives are then hired out for particular jobs – crimes, fantasies, and the occasional good deed. On engagements, Actives are monitored internally (and remotely) by Handlers. In between tasks, they are mind-wiped into a child-like state and live in a futuristic dormitory/laboratory, a hidden facility nicknamed “The Dollhouse”. The story follows Echo, who begins, in her mind-wiped state, to become self-aware.

As I noted before, the Dolls’ lack of agency in both their “wiped” and “programmed” states makes it impossible for them to give meaningful consent – for any of their actions, including sexual relations. When a doll “has sex,” she (or he) is actually being raped. Usually the rapist knows full well that he (or she) is “having sex” with a programmable “doll” – so it’s rape with intent. Occasionally, however, the “doll” is sent on a covert/undercover mission – for example, to seduce a certain FBI agent – and sex becomes a tool she (or he) uses to that end. Such cases still constitute rape, but…well, it’s hard to say who the rapist is when the “doll’s” partner believes that the encounter is consensual. The Rossum Corporation, perhaps?

Dollhouse begins to tackle this issue in later episodes, most interestingly through a series of “(wo)man on the street” interview clips aired on an Los Angeles tv station (Season 1, Episode 6 – “Man on the Street”). A local journalist, reporting on the Dollhouse “urban legend,” asks passerby whether they believe that the Dollhouse is real, what they think of “programmable humans,” etc. The responses, I think, are both humorous and quite realistic: you’ve got your skeptics and conspiracy nuts, outraged social justice advocates and potential johns, and so on. Oftentimes, one extreme response is juxtaposed with another.

My favorite pairing is the conflicting answers offered by a teenage-ish, bubble-gum snapping, seemingly bored and indifferent white woman and a slightly older African American woman when asked if they would “volunteer” as “dolls.” The white woman jumped at the chance to live a new, supposedly exciting and glamorous life, while the black woman properly identified the Dollhouse for what it is: a system of slavery. When pressed, she elaborated: even the most beautifully gilded cage is still just that – a cage.

Being a silly Joss Whedon fangirl, I’m ecstatic that the show – which might have gone either way – takes a feminist bent, clearly identifying the “dolls” as trafficked humans and victims of rape. This theme carries on to the next two episodes (Season 1, Episode 7, “Echoes” and Season 1, Episode 8, “Needs”), during which we learn the back stories of the “dolls,” including how they came to the Dollhouse.

Sierra’s story – in which a spurned admirer “pulls some strings” to have her “admitted” to the Dollhouse against her will, so that he could program, purchase and rape her at will – is the most stunning example of how the “dolls,” who the Rossum Corporation insists are volunteers, are actually recruited against their will. With even this most basic, initial crumb of “consent” set aside, it’s clear that the “dolls” are all victims. (Though, again, they’d still be victims even if they did willingly enter the program; their initial consent is meaningless if they’re never able to revoke it.)

We also learn how Echo – Caroline – was “recruited.”

The Rossum Corporation – the evil megacorp behind the Dollhouse (or rather Dollhouses, plural, as there are multiple such branches located across the globe) – has a research laboratory located at Freemont College…which is the same college Caroline attended. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Caroline was a bit of a social justice activist in her pre-Dollhouse days. She suspected that the scientists camped out in the heavily-guarded and highly secretive Rossum Building were up to no good – and was outraged at the idea that they might be engaged in vivisection. After weeks (months?) of research and recon, Caroline finds a way into the building via an underground duct and, with the help of her reluctant boyfriend Matt, the two sneak into the lab late one night in order to shoot some undercover video.

Rossum’s research is more horrific than they expected. In the lab, they discover caged animals – dogs, primates, etc. – but also pickled fetuses and images of human brain scans displayed on the desktop PCs. Before they’re able to complete their mission, however, the two are discovered by a security guard. A chase ensues, during which Matt is fatally shot. Caroline winds up in the hospital, but escapes when she realizes that Rossum has her under surveillance. We’re left to fill in the rest of the blanks; eventually, Rossum captures Caroline a strikes a “deal” of sorts. Caroline “gives” them five years of her life as a “doll,” and Rossum “gives” her the rest of her life “back.” In other words, volunteer as a doll, allow us to wipe all memory of the Rossum Corp. from your memory, and then go on your way…or we’ll kill you. Some “deal.”

The flashbacks of Caroline’s flirtation with “animal rights terrorism” are fairly predictable, similar to what you might see on a cop drama like Law & Order. (All the cop shows seem obligated to include at least one eco- or animal rights- “terrorism” plotline post-2000, am I right?) The lab is predictably industrial and sterile, the kids are predictably idealistic, the dialogue is predictably cheesy, etc. But.

Dollhouse’s storyline differs in one important regard: the animal rights terra-ist isn’t just some stupid but well-meaning college kid, or an evil, science-hating criminal. The animal rights terra-ist is the series’ hero. (Or one of them, anyway.) And her good intentions vis-à-vis non-human animals are the reason why she’s stuck in the Dollhouse to begin with.*

Additionally, Caroline’s animal rights (welfare?) sensibilities are presented as one part of her overall sense of morality and justice. Caroline rescues non-human animals; when given the chance, Echo rescues humans.

In the next episode, “Needs,” Echo’s handlers program her and some of her fellow “problem dolls” to “suddenly” develop a sense of awareness and of their former selves – to remember. The “dolls” (and the audience) don’t know it at the time, of course, but this self-awareness is part of a plan to help the “dolls'” subconscious minds fulfill pressing “needs,” needs which are threatening to break through to their conscious awareness (and “ruin” them as “dolls”). Once the needs are met, a sedative planted within their brains will be triggered (by hormones?) and knock the “dolls” out, so that they may be safely retrieved by Rossum.

Echo’s need isn’t to find love, exact revenge, or grieve her lost love – no. In fact, Echo’s need isn’t selfish or self-centered at all. When given an opportunity to “escape,” Echo chooses to go back to the Dollhouse.

Echo’s greatest need, you see, is to save the other “dolls.”
Additional Resources

If you’d like to learn more about the show, check out…

The official Fox site, where you can view full episodes

The Dollhouse Wiki site, which appears (for the time being) to be plugged into Fox’s site

Dollhouse‘s Wiki page

Dollhouse episode summaries

Finally, for a discussion of race and racism in Whedon’s work, see joss whedon and the blurry line between homage and appropriation at Racialicious. While Wedon does an excellent job of addressing (most) gender issues, I agree that he doesn’t appear to devote the same attention to racial politics and representation. Re: Dollhouse, most of the “dolls” are white (with the exception of Victor, who’s Russian), and, while the Dollhouse is decorated in a “midcentury modern motif with a Japanese aesthetic,” East Asian characters have indeed remained “firmly in the background,” as predicted by Thea Lim.

* Updated to add: Actually, allow me to rephrase that: “her good intentions vis-à-vis non-human animals are the reason why Rossum discovers Echo and imprisons her in the Dollhouse to begin with.”

Due to sloppy/lazy word choice, I inadvertently blamed the victim in the original sentence. I apologize.

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