“At a moment when the most feeble signs of self-actualization are seen as a resurgence of feminism, Whedon shows us the melancholy and troubling side of ‘girl power.'”
Joss Whedon’s television series Dollhouse proposes a new kind of female body. A doll is a body that remains limp and passive until it is animated by some particular force of conviction: kick-ass girl power, maternal instinct, or sex drive. The dolls reside in a spa-like underground retreat, where their sole responsibility is to maintain a regimen of exercise and perfect health. In return, they are subjected to “treatments”: they are imprinted with brain patterns sourced from the minds of real people, which fill them with a sense of agency. Once an imprint is installed, the doll is embedded into a mission, where she takes on the role of secret agent, girlfriend, assassin — anything the client wants. Most often this involves being a sex partner, although she might also be a caregiver, or a warm and loving friend. Within each mission, a doll acts with total purpose, summoning whatever feelings are needed — technical expertise, moral strength, compassion — without hesitation. At the end of every encounter, the doll’s memory is violently ripped out: visually shredded into pixels. Therefore each episode of Dollhouse can claim to be weightless: if removal is complete, then the doll’s mind should remain clean and untroubled. Yet one doll, Echo, is in a constant state of agitation, retaining splinters of information from her previous roles. It appears that this doll’s brain is partially resisting erasure, and that makes her unpredictable.
The dollhouse is run on an extraordinary premise. It is the idea that an organization that can manufacture convictions — no matter how small or seemingly trivial — might be the most powerful of institutions. What the house sells is motives and beliefs, at a premium. Clients can pay for a doll to be convinced that she is in love — or a person without boundaries, or a voice of moral reason. No expense is spared to sustain the logic of that one belief. The dollhouse operates on the faith that it is not enough for agents to be effective at what they do — they must be true believers, acting without consciousness of a veneer. It is the removal of self-awareness that makes a doll dangerous: the most powerful force in the world is an actor with unquestioned instincts. Everything — every area of politics, business, the domestic sphere — is open to one who seems convincing, not only to others, but to themselves. To run a dollhouse is to conceive of the world as a set of narratives, or genres, for actors to play in. The creators spend most of their time crafting the dolls’ motivations. When the resident scientist Topher (Fran Kranz) samples brain maps to create imprints, he’s looking for sets of beliefs that happen to be conveniently stitched together. Imprints constructed from human impulses are better than entirely artificial ones, since traits already exist in a kind of harmony. Personalities can be cannibalized for useful and interesting functions: ways of internalizing fear, anger, optimism. Thus people’s life stories are being scanned for drives, and narrative drivers are what this series runs on.
The invention of imprints allows Topher to play with all kinds of ingenious possibilities. There is the idea that the same imprint can be used on multiple dolls, with slightly varied consequences. Different facets of the one persona may be exaggerated. It is also possible to set an imprint to two different sets of parameters, so that one personality becomes two “characters.” Topher loves to experiment with temporal settings. One can arrange for a seven-year-old to meet herself as an adult — an encounter that might prove fruitful. Each episode explores one of these permutations, getting us excited about the infinite variations on character.
What all this creates is a vision of the world in which there is no discrete separation between bodies, only a blur of shared traits. It is a society where no one ever really dies — their characteristics are merely crammed into new personalities. Like characters on a daytime soap, people are consigned to the back burner before being resurrected as active players, or revived as altered versions of themselves. By re-using the imprints of people who have died, ghosts can be made to speak and tell tales.
This is Topher’s dream come true — but it is already a less than ideal system. Dolls may be easier to control than civilians, but they can also malfunction. Memory traces are the biggest problem. There is the danger of repeating an imprint too many times on the one doll, so that some deep ingraining takes place, on a hormonal and instinctual level. Even within the shadowy blur of a doll’s “self,” distinct profiles and edges can form. When the situation is hopeless, there is always an “attic” for discarded and broken bodies. As an aberrant doll, Echo (Eliza Dushku) is skating on thin ice, but her owners remain hopeful, because her mind appears to be a self-checking system. Although some of her actions remain unaccountable, during a mission she often acts to correct her own deviation, working from a backlog of “lived” instinct (her experience with different imprints.) It’s about as close to rebellious as a doll-girl can get.
Which brings us to the fact that the dollhouse is full of women. The house is designed as a kind of pan-Asian retreat, where “getting a treatment” is regarded as casually as selecting from a spa menu. The atmosphere of calmness allows the dolls to recover from the violation of an imprint. If Whedon intended to subvert the notion of female passivity, this is one of the most successful gender-based satires I’ve seen. Like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, this dystopia is a red-coded female world, in which women are either maidservants or cool priestesses — like the classy and beautiful Adelle (Olivia Williams), head of the L.A. dollhouse. Much of the house’s activity is explicitly coded as feminine — it’s interesting how many of Echo’s missions are domestic thrillers, including one in which she ends up as a terrorizing mother in her own house.
The residence has a kind of Charlie’s Angels dynamic, where agents commit unspeakable acts but also share a warm familial bond. A couple of dolls are designated as “top girls” — similar to the hierarchy of an elite boarding school or a brothel. One staff member suggests that this is a home for “wounded flowers.” That the dollhouse is touted as a place of healing is not an entirely cynical proposition. We learn that one woman willingly entered the facility to “remove the experience” of rape — as if producing a surrogate body to take the blow of the trauma. In a twist of black humor, the girls have names like Echo, Sierra, and Whisky, as in the codes used to identify letters over the phone — does a doll literally have the personality of a dial tone? These dolls function as broadcast signals — ones with uncanny abilities to jump. The character of Sierra is fascinating, and not just because of Dichen Lachman’s fine performance. In conventional movie terms, she has a “futuristic” face — symmetrical and Eurasian — that enables her to switch types and ethnicities easily. In an instant, she changes from Australian to British, American, or Japanese.
The doll race is largely female, although there are a couple of pliant male specimens who can be activated into the role of hunk or scientist. Girl dolls are more likely to be used in tough and/or sexual capacities: as killer agents who are also aggressively carnal. Their moments of fierceness are cathartic but short-lived. During a mission, no matter how heroic or hard-boiled a woman appears to be, her actions spring from the most generic of convictions. On a mission, Sierra is no more threatening than the kind of “bad-ass” babe seen in Charlie’s Angels (2000). Here, a cultural meme is literally a brain implant — one that is transferrable, and can be erased in a blip. When Echo sinks back into passivity after a convincing display of noir toughness, Whedon exposes the fatuous ideal of a woman “being strong.” For the dolls, empowerment is an attribute that ranks on the same level as cooking or martial arts: an accomplishment designed to attract a client. Being strong — like being kind, interesting, or authentic — is an enjoyable pastime, but these desirable qualities are triggered only by the gaze of the voyeur. The dolls are alternately lifeless and inflated — given a sudden burst of lusty womanliness, before falling back into an expressionless lull.
That Echo voices provocative opinions before lying down placidly to be erased may be a comment on the ephemerality of female cultural models. As Carina Chocano has speculated, the cultural interest in “strong women,” which waxes and wanes, may be “nothing more than a lagging market indicator”1 — for instance, the Riot Grrrl movement (emphasising political consciousness and body confidence) was killed off by the market boom of the late ’90s. The dollhouse offers a “girlfriend experience” comparable to none, since it packages traits that are currently in demand with diabolical efficiency. A satire like this has never been more necessary: at a moment when the most feeble signs of self-actualization are seen as a resurgence of feminism, Whedon shows us the melancholy and troubling side of “girl power.” Many scenes take place in the imprinting room post-mission, where we see Echo lose every scrap of her humor, courage, and spontaneity in an instant.
Even the opening sequence is a hymn to passivity, with its theme tune weakly hummed by a distracted voice. The sighing and hesitating vocals are those of a person struggling beneath a layer of numbness; we hear the voice strain just as a glass sheet is pulled over Echo’s body. As with her classical namesake, the voice of Echo is reduced to a single reverberation, a sound in mourning. The song itself has a kind of plodding glumness, as if to say “more of the same” — but this is not, I suspect, because of a melodic failure on the composers’ part. Whedon, who’s come up with some of the best credit sequences of all time, including the great, high-powered one for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, goes low-key with this one. The opening for Dollhouse is potentially punchy and exciting, with Echo acting out every kind of heroine fantasy — violence, discipline, seduction — but the visual energy of these scenes is sucked out by the soundtrack, which conveys an anaesthetized feeling, a greyed-out depression. This much-criticized sequence, which initially seems undramatic compared with the one for Buffy, turns out to precisely reflect the show’s sensibility. It is immensely suggestive: images of optimistic glamour turn to inertia and resignation as Echo is neutralized into a doll-state. Even Echo’s sadness is a kind of wallowing fantasy, again resembling The Handmaid’s Tale in the romanticizing of passivity, a soft and muted feminine world. As in Firefly (where the opening credits alone convey the dejection of The Searchers, 1956, with its stake in a failed mission2, Whedon is unafraid to cast entire episodes in fatigue and disappointment, moods unusual for network television.
A degree of resistance to dominant memes is represented by Echo — she has a “romantic” mind that clings to ideas beyond their cultural expiration. She is remarkable for retaining imprints more intensely than other dolls — the strength with which she holds onto the trace. For instance, after a mission in which she is imprinted as a mother, her body refuses to release its instincts as a caregiver. She retains an abstract sense of loss and longing, even as the actual details of the imprint are forgotten. In attempting to create a programmed race, the dollhouse’s greatest concern is over specialisation. Why is it that the male doll, Victor, is consistently aroused by a particular stimulus, even though nothing in his imprint suggests it? There is the fear that one little nip of arousal could bring down a mission. The house’s chief of security is consistently wary of Echo — but how can one dislike a doll? Is it that he distrusts her way of inhabiting imprints? A doll is a perfected model of behavior, but in Echo’s case, there is a crack in the veneer. No matter how many times she is erased, something shows through the grain, like a dye or stain: “character” is a flaw that sullies the integrity of the imprint.
Dolls can be more idiosyncratic than people — less predictable and repetitive. Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett), a moralizing FBI agent, is less distinctive than any doll: with his strong-jawed, gauche manner, he’s more of a cliché than the mercurial Echo or Sierra. When Ballard becomes fixated with tracking down Echo, how much of his interest is in the sexual aspect of the dollhouse, as if it were a famed whorehouse? His obsession with her is a little generic — what emotion isn’t on this show? Even Echo’s attraction to both Ballard and her handler Boyd (Harry Lennix) can be seen as a fantasy of protective warmth within a sterile world. Other people who seem to be playing a role include the wounded lady doctor Claire (Amy Acker) and the sensual and quasi-heroic Boyd.3 These characters, though engaging and varied, do seem to be faint imprints of familiar types.
The one aspect of Ballard that doesn’t follow the script is his Vertigo-esque relationship with an insecure young woman named Madeleine (Miracle Laurie). She is plain-speaking, without the blind charisma of an Echo. Ballard can’t commit to her; he pines after the hologram of Echo, only to find out that Madeleine herself is a doll, and is just as mysterious and haunted as the cypher he’s pursuing. When Ballard discovers this, he treats her roughly and rejects her — he doesn’t believe her feelings as a doll can be real. In a riff on Vertigo (1958), this girl is actually Midge and Madeleine in one: outwardly solid and straightforward, but also a yearning ghost who can only speak to him in terms of coded allusions. She resembles one of the unwitting clones in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go, forced to argue for her own humanity and reality. When Madeleine longs for suicide, her suffering is “real,” even if her internal programmed core remains cool. Topher constructs the inner drives of dolls all too well; Madeleine “believes with all her heart” in Ballard, to the extent that the breakup is “killing” her. Unfortunately for her, even as an imprint, Madeleine lacks mystique, and is a doll built only to cry. Her despair is a trace that is indestructible.
Yet there is nothing overtly cruel or clinical about the dollhouse; it looks as cozy as a sorority. Adelle handles her charges with care, up to a point; she is like the headmistress of a rambling institution, a gatekeeper against virulent personalities. We can identify with her efforts to keep a grumbling, yawning system on track; Adelle is a semi-altruistic figure (similar to the advocate for clones in Never Let Me Go), making the best of an era of social engineering. Another character who exhibits both sympathetic and malign tendencies is Topher. Nerds in previous Whedon shows have tended to be unsexed, harmless personalities, riotous in their constant babbling. So it’s a credit to Whedon that he’s been able to rethink this figure, since Topher represents a major subversion of the adolescent geek type. Nerds may be disarmingly gawky, but their compulsive ways of thinking and the world scenarios they dream up — in this case, an underground system that deals in human trafficking — are virtually guaranteed to put an end to human rights. Topher gets excited over impersonal scenarios, cackling with pride over some ingenious formulation that renders minds anti-human, like “atoms in a continuous spectrum.” He boasts of creating “changes on a glandular level,” and reducing individuals to functional and interchangeable personae. He also has an unusual lust for female geniuses: of all the personalities he can conjure, he desires not a sex partner but a dweeby girl counterpart. As an annual treat for Topher, Sierra — who is often imprinted as a sexpot — is programmed as his geeky companion, in a setup that is both “sweet” and disturbing.
There are many suspect nerds in Dollhouse. Clyde (Adam Godley) is a premium geek out of a Wes Anderson film whose charming self-deprecation hides the possibilities for dictatorial control. The serial killer Alpha (Alan Rudyk) is another nerd gone wrong — and like Topher, he is hilarious, perhaps one of the funniest characters ever committed to TV. In Dollhouse, humor of the geeky kind is dangerous — and in this, Whedon is assisted by the queen of visionary sci-fi writing, comic scribe Jane Espenson. Espenson, who also contributed to Buffy, is a master of the kind of fast and glib humor perpetuated by nerds: she’s at her best when creativity and fun meet manic disorder. As in Buffy, characters in Dollhouse gesture toward a shared system of obscure references; even comments that are not explicitly funny pique and arrest us. Espenson is a believer in characters as composites of types: she searches for real-life clichés not yet pinned down by pop culture (for instance, she cites the aging Brit rock star and the cougar as too ubiquitous to touch). In her hands, humor has the potential to become an index of concepts: to discover which combinations of traits have been exhausted in the currency of ideas. As someone constantly on the lookout for fresh mental and emotional types, what writer could be more appropriate for Dollhouse?
Rather like a scriptwriter, Topher takes on the construction of personality as a provocative intellectual challenge: for instance, designing one doll’s imprint as a “series of excuses.” Although he is an endearing character, his convoluted ingenuity is responsible for the success of the dollhouse regime. All of Topher’s dialogue reveals the potential for new systems to grow. When he uses terms such as “self shelf” (a compiling of original personalities for later use), the natty wording disguises the frightening nature of his project: inflating the bodies of girls with his own characteristics.
Why does Topher have such contempt for the female dolls? It appears to be a reversal of the values of the outside world, in which beauty looks dismissively on the male geek. But are the dolls really so different from the general population? Even before Ballard discovers that the dollhouse exists, the notion of imprinted personalities has become an urban myth. The mere concept of erased or duplicated characters is enough to unsettle people. However, such a myth could only spread in a society that has already lost faith in the uniqueness of personality. Thanks to the dollhouse, Los Angeles is full of pliant yet sexually voracious young women. Or were they already there? Are most of these girls dolls or deliberate actors — who’s to say? In a world of increasingly generic characterization, it’s natural that suspicions of doll-making would arise. Ever wonder how a set of gestures and expressions can take over a whole sector of the population? When a society gives rise to scores of apparent replicants — through entertainment culture and media — it’s hard to distinguish the doll from the cunning and conscious actor.
In contrast to the women, a couple of the male dolls, Victor (Enver Gjokaj) and Daniel (Alexis Denisof), are interestingly benumbed male figures, unusual characters on the film and TV landscape. Both are passive men with female minders; the former is a doll who can be transformed into an expert and sly lover, and is occasionally taken home by Adelle for a romp. (Her final scene with him is rather Graham Greene-ish, as a rumpled and drunken Adelle decides to “get one more in” with Victor before retiring him for good.) Victor is a grown, full-bodied man who cries out with fear like a child. Rarely do we see men infantilized onscreen without being asked to cringe, but this show displays a unique attitude to male traits and vulnerabilities. The audience is encouraged to rejoice when male villains are consigned by Adelle to the attic — especially when she dismisses them as too unattractive to play the role of a gigolo like Victor.
A metaphor for the doll-state can be seen in an episode where Echo is imprinted with the mind of a blind woman and dispatched to a religious cult. Believing herself disabled, she cannot see, but everyone at the dollhouse is able to look through her eyes, as if into a hidden camera. Her own visual/mental connection is blocked, so that she can be used as a channel for others to perceive more clearly. Focused on her immediate, literal surroundings, she is unaware of the generic scene she is acting out — her reactions feel fresh and spontaneous to her. As the cult turns violent, she seems all but defenseless. But as a doll, she has one significant power: she is able to produce reactions in other people without becoming permanently affected herself. Her ability to induce emotions in others ends up saving the mission.
The merging of personalities here is more complex than in, say, a Michael Mann film, where the motor of the plot tends to be the premise of the killer and cop reproducing each other’s mind-sets. In Dollhouse, there is a constant switch between doll and non-doll roles. The connection between Echo and Boyd is spiritual yet replaceable. She has been imprinted to trust him with her life, time after time, in any narrative she moves through. Her unquestioning faith is both “touching” and generic. However, when she’s re-programmed to trust a new mentor, it’s his feelings that linger without end. Clearly, dolls have the ability to imprint others with attachments. There may be some doubt over the emotions that dolls feel — but what about the ones they elicit? Echo invites others to recall their shared history, moving them almost to tears — and then leaves them feeling empty once she’s erased. So much to believe in, not enough faith.
There is constantly the fear that a trace, some lurking imprint not confined to a particular body, may threaten the house’s existence. The dollhouse is an eternal nighttime; as the dolls lie in their glass chambers, we hear floating musical cues that suggest a gently revolving planet or ecosystem. The dolls dream together — not of electric sheep, but of futures that may be realized. What passes or ripples over a doll’s imagination is shown to have powerful and unpredictable consequences. In a brilliantly structured episode, “Briar Rose,” Echo talks of dreaming for an intruder/rescuer to come who materializes in the form of Alpha, so that the doll’s interior consciousness ends up shaping an outer story.
It’s no wonder that borders between inside and outside are confused, given Topher’s reckless use of personalities as material for mixing and sampling. The entire world is awash with faces and races (Whedon often casts actors of ambiguous ethnicity) and the uncanny doubling of personae. After all, what are the real owners of personalities doing? Do they continue to exist as less perfect “echoes” of themselves? Are their bodies long gone while their identities float as imprints, adrift in the world? Initially, the house defines a doll as a person with “active architecture” in their brain, but when Topher invents a device for controlling non-dolls, that distinction becomes unclear. With so many hybrid and symbiotic personalities around, the focus is on traits that exist not within but between people. As Topher says of Alpha, who is a composite of different imprints: “He’s not a person, he’s like Soylent Green. He’s people.”
It’s hard to think of a fictional work that compares with the radical view of personality in this series. Whedon’s concept of a multi-character identity reveals a much more sophisticated understanding of replication than in Blade Runner (1982). The show’s mood of melancholy, sexualized sci-fi has no precedent, although it comes close to the woozy feel of The Manchurian Candiate (1962), with its brainwashed drones who are imprinted with agendas that don’t quite take. There are also hints of Buñuel in the fact that Echo, sometimes knowingly undercover, tries out different social roles — friend, mother, whore — in hopes of patching together her elusive identity, only to experience leaks between her compartmentalized personalities.
Dollhouse is one of the lowest-rated US series ever to reach a second season. Why is this? It is not “boutique” television in the obvious sense — it seems bent on smashing and denying the reality of its most memorable scenes. The brooding and joyless opening is graphically unexceptional, unlike most of Whedon. There is no coasting on the design elements of a dystopia — the house’s functional spa look is luxurious but not particularly distinctive. It has a complex structure that refers largely to its own themes: each episode selectively extracts moments from the past in non-chronological order, mimicking the form of an imprint. As far as dramatic series go, Dollhouse has a flatter emotional affect than most, requiring its audience to look calmly without expectation of dazzle. But it is extraordinarily ambitious in its vision of the human spectrum, crowded with ghosts and re-animated characteristics. The interchanging of personalities makes continuity difficult, and this is one series that aims to frustrate identification, reducing people to permutations and shades of replication. Whedon’s topical commentary is oblique but piercing: for instance, he explores the idea of multinationals engaging in human trafficking via a sister dollhouse in Dubai. The political implications of being a doll change from episode to episode, from the concept of body-snatching — people being overtaken by unrecognizable convictions — to a critique of ubiquitous female types.
Whedon throws out multiple possible futures without exhausting them; most of the series stays on the tipping point of dystopia, gesturing toward the consequences of mind control. Like Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Dollhouse evokes the last, grinding days of a human experiment. In Ishiguro, clones are granted only semi-human status, and the few liberal humanists pleading for their rights are reduced to a bleeding-heart fringe movement. Dollhouse is the tale of a similar social phenomenon, tracking the fallout of a generation of dolls — a race said to be subhuman and not sufficiently differentiated. Unprotected dolls have a raw future ahead of them — witness the sadness of the released Victor, who lacks purpose and longs to be re-enclosed in a tight chamber. A ’90s Whedon show would have played on the fun and rough-housing of a dysfunctional clan of outsiders. But in this series, the disillusioned women who exit the dollhouse — Madeleine, Whisky, Sierra — after being put through a system that has addicted them to role-playing remain the dominant, haunting focus. One future scenario has a team sifting through the remains of the dollhouse and marveling at this subterranean facility where the tools of a regime were created. It is a world swimming with traces and traumas, and the vague outlines of a shattered society.
- Carina Chocano, “That’s ‘It?’,” Salon, Aug 21 2000. http://archive.salon.com/people/feature/2000/08/21/itgirl/ Accessed 29 January 2009. [↩]
- A Western set in outer space, Whedon’s Firefly compares the navigation of planets to the grinding, glamorless work of the early American pioneers. It is a newly quiet and reflective way of inhabiting space, with the possibilities for failure indicated by the opening credits. The chords of the theme tune convey irresolution and instability; a streamlined vessel shoots through the sky, but the soundtrack insists that the characters’ journey will be marked by doubt.
Whedon melds science fiction with the Western, but the show is not just a pastiche. We always have to make the mental leap of putting the two genres together, to work out how disparate elements fused into a hybrid yet cohesive society. Firefly is not the first sci-fi western, but it is unique in reading space travel as a late Western in terms of genre. The characters inhabit outer space as if it were a series of frontier towns: the sky is no longer limitless but an arid, threadbare space made bearable by a few comforts like friendship and the occasional exchange of witticisms.
As further evidence of “lateness,” the characters are a motley gang of outsiders, like the ones in Beat the Devil (1953): faded versions of archetypes, and potentially impostors. Zoë (Gina Torres) is a classic stoic woman, all inner rue and conflict; the captain, Mal (Nathan Fillion), is a square-jawed facsimile of a heroic type, similar to Ballard in Dollhouse. Unusually, Whedon reverses the cliché of female heroes with male names; here, the men with bravado have names which are feminized. Jayne (Adam Baldwin) has the stance and arrogance of a Western shooter, but what power does a gunfighter’s stride have beside a spaceship?
Firefly envisions a future in which certain ancient forms have been revived: the Arabian-style marketplace, the travelling shepherd, the courtly ballroom, and above all, the formalized rituals of prostitution. Cultural understanding has progressed so that courtesans are now seen as bringers of refinement to an unruly pioneer society. Inara (Morena Baccarin) is a provoking woman in every sense: a capable prostitute-businesswoman who enjoys teasing stodgy men (like a Western hero, Mal clings to the perception of her as tainted). Her comfort zone provides one of the few havens for accomplishment and the arts. [↩]
- My initial attraction to the series was the presence of actor Harry Lennix, who has given one of the finest Shakespearean performances on film as Aaron in Titus (1999). However, I can’t believe he’s actually American — with his powerfully directed voice, he sounds like a RADA actor doing a high-concept version of a New York accent. [↩]