We Have to Rape this Village to Save It!

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Just one more episode of Dollhouse left, and the show is on the brink of possible cancellation.  I fervently, fervently hope the show will continue, which is a surprise, since the premise of the show was problematic and the first five episodes were not good. I am a big fan of Joss Whedon (although not a mindless follower– like I said, the first five eps. were problematic, and I didn’t like Firefly at all) so I stuck it out, and I’m very glad I did, because the show has really blossomed into something intriguing and rare.

This excellent and highly recommended post from Tiger Beatdown explains what makes the show a fucking fantastic and feminist heir to Buffy:

The answer to whether Joss Whedon and his showrunners know how rape-culturey the entire Dollhouse concept is would seem to be, at this point, a big huge Yes. The Dollhouse is a giant metaphor, not only for rape culture, but for patriarchy and oppression at large: even the boy dolls are girls, stripped of agency or access to power and cast in pre-defined roles to fulfill the fantasies of the folks who are actually in charge. When they have sex, they aren’t consenting – they’ve been made to think that they are consenting, by being made to think that they are the people who would consent to such things. They exist either in a state of infantilization and non-personhood (in which they are “cared for” by people who have a vested interest in continuing to use them) or implanted with false consciousness in which they are not aware of what’s being done to them. I mean, false consciousness: Whedon’s metaphors, they are rarely subtle. Their reactions to learning this, when they “wake up” (which Whedon has shown them doing, albeit briefly) are horror, disgust, and rage at how deeply they’ve been violated.

You can’t just stake the enemy or cast a spell at him or throw him into Hell this time. The enemy surrounds you and controls you and is much, much bigger than any one person. The enemy is in your head: it controls what you’re allowed to think, what you’re allowed to know, who you’re allowed to be. Resistance, this time, isn’t about throwing punches. It’s about getting your mind back. It’s about reclaiming your right to define who you are – your right to be a person.

Whedon is rather famous for having said that he wrote Buffy to flip around the common horror trope (where the supernatural is a metaphor for the rapist) that the little blonde girl is in the alley and a big scary attacker comes up, but, surprise, it’s the attacker who should be scared. When Buffy was in its final season, henchman Caleb showed up, and at the time I didn’t really like his character who was basically the spiteful obvious misogynist spewing “Bitches” and statements about the dirtiness of girls.  I felt that that kind of misogyny wasn’t the sort I was very worried about, since as least when it’s like that you know what it is.  I also felt that I did a good job at keeping that sort out of my life.  (Ah simpler, pre-primary times. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that alleged progressives would call a female senator a cunt or that the man who was elected president would mock her for having a period.)

The Dollhouse deals with the misogyny that isn’t that. This is the misogyny of the man who presumes to be protecting you, the person whose job it is to keep you weak for your own good. (Women just prefer to not have high paying jobs! A woman who is having an abortion must be lectured, because what she doesn’t know is that down the road she will suffer Horrible Psychological Damage if she has one.) This misogyny, this patriarchy is also your own programming. If you don’t understand that this is wrong, if you think this is somehow “morally ambigulous” then you aren’t watching The Dollhouse right.

But I’m positive there are people who watched Buffy less because they were interested in empowering women, and more because they were interested in watching Sarah Michelle Geller and Eliza Dushku sweat in very little clothing.

In the comments on this post, one of the commentors suggests that the Dollhouse is a morally ambiguous place, which seems, frankly, insane to me. The dollhouse is bad. The dolls are slaves who are raped by the wealthy. Patrons of the dollhouse are rapists. Do they have sob stories? Sure, but my sympathy for them ends when, instead of paying a therapist to work out their feelings about their dead wife, they pay a third party to rape a slave. The people to have sympathy for are the dolls themselves and their families, who can’t know that their loved ones are still alive (such as they are). If you watch the dollhouse and see moral ambiguity, then you’re watching it wrong.

(Part of this is complicated by this being a show on Fox.  The sexifying  of rape is demonstrated in this very well done video. Additionally, a lot of people said that they thought it was obvious that “Koeppler” was really Alpha because of his sexy abs when he changed shirts, which seemed incongruous for a lazy stoner.  That made me laugh since they only people who exist on Fox are ripped, conventionally hot, mostly white people. Which does seem like a problem with the Dollhouse as it seems to be run.  What if you want to have one last day with your dead grandma or what if you just prefer older women or men? Guess you’re stuck with squinting at Dichen Lachman.)

I’m also very suspicious when people claim to have liked the show from before the 6th episode.  This episode is a watershed for the series, not just because it’s the first episodes executed by Joss Whedon, personally, but because this is the first time that someone in the employ of the Dollhouse names what is happening there– rape. Sierra’s handler rapes her in a very unambiguous way, and afterward asks (paraphrase here): “Do you think it makes it better, that you make them think they’re in love?”

Before this episode you are invited to think that, yes, that is better, but it’s not meaningful consent. Meaningful consent can be withdrawn, which is impossible for a doll. Joss Whedon says that when creating the first few episodes, he was unaware that his show was about rape and trafficking. To enjoy these early episodes in which the probing of rape culture is impossible because the show’s creator did not realize he was depicting rape, is deeply deeply troubling.

The penultimate episode of the regular tv season was the best episode yet. I don’t read spoilers, so I was shocked at the reveal of Alpha, although I had suspected earlier that Dr. “Whiskey” Saunders was a doll, and I am generally terrible at figuring that sort of thing out in advance, so yay for me (and the show for its telegraphing, doubtless). The fairy tale motif was a little labored, but I actually think the story of the little girl that Echo was helping is more important than other citizens of the internet do.

Echo’s Sarah is the grown up verson of the child Sarah, she’s supposed to be in a unique position to understand her and guide her into the best possible growing up scenario.  (I’m assuming this is pro bono Dollhouse work, otherwise the foster system has a LOT more money than I thought.)  What I think has been overlooked is that in order to imprint Echo, Topher would have needed a print of the child’s brain.

We know from the previous episode, Haunted, that the download process is excruciatingly painful.  So… in order to save this little girl, who was in the foster system because she was repeatedly raped by a parent or step parent, Sarah was basically violated again, in a way that was both physically painful and emotionally and philosophically troubling. What a violation of privacy, to have your personality duplicated like that.

The show didn’t rest too heavily on this point, but I think it’s a very good way to look at the Dollhouse. Yes, some of what dolls can do is therapeutic, but it depends on a very rotten system where the bodies of (mostly) women are the fuel that keep the machine running.

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11 Responses to “We Have to Rape this Village to Save It!”

  1. Aoede Says:

    1. I mostly agree with your post.
    2. Of course I can only speak for myself, but I think the “moral ambiguity” being talked about is more of the “not making the villain inhumanly villainous” kind. And possibly with a sprinkling of ex-Agent Ballard being bloody insane.

  2. gnatalby Says:

    @Aoede: That’s a good point, the villains of the piece are very three dimensional, and that is the hallmark of both really good writing and a good villain. If a villain is wholly bad, it lets you off the hook for investigating yourself and your own culture because, well, they’re just bad. But when you see why people believe the things they do and what lets them sleep at night, it’s easier to examine your own complicity without having to assume, from the start that you’re “bad.”

  3. ekswitaj Says:

    Why does the creator of the series not realizing exactly what he was depicting make it impossible for rape culture to be probed and explored?

  4. gnatalby Says:

    @ekswitaj: Rape Culture can be explored by the audience, sure, but if the show’s creator didn’t name what he was doing, then how is he providing any nuanced understanding of the thing? If all he thinks he’s showing is “sex” then of course it’s just going to result in the sexifying of rape.

    Dollhouse becomes good and acquires depth when the show explicitly acknowledges what the dollhouse provides.

  5. Aoede Says:

    (But something to keep in mind is that “sex” by itself is, like many things, neutral; that is, neither positive nor negative.)

  6. gnatalby Says:

    @Aoede: I’m actually not sure what you’re getting at here. “Sex” is not, I think, neutral, but good and healthy. Rape, I trust I don’t need to explain, is bad. When I talk about sexifying rape on Dollhouse, I mean that they make rape look like something hot, like something the viewer might like to participate in, and, to an extent, provide excuses to make the rape seem more like “sex.”

    As the viewer, I think you understand that Matt (the guy who engages Echo in the first episode and at the beginning of the University episode) is sleazy and taking advantage, despite the fact that it looks like Echo’s imprint is having fun, and is goodlooking. On the other hand, when the internet guy tells his sob story about his wife, or when Adelle tells us about her dead lover we’re invited to think *more* about the rapist’s pain than the rape victim’s.

    Like I said, I have sympathy for these characters up to the point that they deal with their problems by victimizing someone else.

  7. Davey Says:

    I think the show is still problematic, though it’s closer to problematic in the way that great films like The Searchers are, in that they are explorations prejudice while still reveling in it. There’s no getting around the fact that Eliza Dushku and co. still parade around in skimpy outfits and have what looks at first glance like consensual sex with good looking guys (no sex scene with Patton Oswalt, or the old guy mentioned briefly.) I don’t know if Whedon’s comments indicate he didn’t intend to step into this morass when he started the show—according to him, the concept came to Dushku and him when they were discussing the different roles an actress felt shoved into, and that’s definitely what the show is not about.

    And I think it’s supposed to be morally queasy. Someone said that she didn’t know precisely what moral art should be, but that it shouldn’t make the audience feel self-righteous, but rather implicated, and Dollhouse does. If there’s a sympathetic character on the show, it’s Harry Lennix’s Boyd, who admits that he is her “pimp,” but feels responsible for Echo in a deep way and puts his own life on the line to protect her. Paul Ballard, by contrast, is the rescuer, but is deliberately and incredibly cruel to Mellie, in a way that’s not justified by his knowledge that she’s a doll and an assassin. He’s also obsessed with “Caroline” in an unhealthy, HItchcockian way.

    And there’s still more to be revealed. Somehow, Adelle DeWitt feels like her actions are morally justified in some way, but still feels guilty enough to construct a fantasy relationship with a personality that accepts her. And Olivia Williams is a good enough actress (God, she’s been gone from the screen for far too long), to convey that conflict and wonder what it is that keeps her there.

    On the other hand, the show simply can’t work as a procedural. I don’t care if the dolls are performing non-sexual roles, like investigating murders or pulling off heists, they still are being exploited, and on a story level, it’s impossible to get involved with a personality that’s going to be erased at the end of the episode anyway. The Dollhouse is only interesting when it’s under attack, and I just don’t see that as sustainable for a television series.

  8. gnatalby Says:

    Paul Ballard, by contrast, is the rescuer, but is deliberately and incredibly cruel to Mellie, in a way that’s not justified by his knowledge that she’s a doll and an assassin. He’s also obsessed with “Caroline” in an unhealthy, HItchcockian way.

    Not only is he cruel to “Mellie,” he also knowingly rapes November. On the Time piece that I linked to, the poster writes that you don’t know who to root for in the Boyd vs. Ballard fight– I did, I rooted for the only person on the show who has never knowingly raped a doll.

    I agree with you, that the show is at its best when it’s investigating what the Dollhouse does rather than just doing what the Dollhouse does. I like a little moral queasiness, and the Doll of the Week episodes just felt like cheesy attempts to push those questions under the rug for some pretty mundane plots.

  9. mr_subjunctive Says:

    I’m not sure whether it’s canon or not, but my understanding is that what we saw happening to Sierra in “Ghost” is something other than her brain being scanned. Since you said you don’t read spoilers, and since I’m not sure what I saw is official, I won’t tell you (unless you ask), but I do not think it is true in the world of the show that Sarah would have been traumatized in the course of getting her brain scanned.

  10. gnatalby Says:

    Hmm interesting. I prefer to remain unspoiled, but I am really looking forward to finding out more in the second season.

  11. Finally Letting You In « Booze. TV. Food. How Do *You* Spend Friday Nights? Says:

    […] Dollhouse finally aired last night, Epitaph 2 (son of Epitaph). This show really grew on me after a very shaky beginning. There was only one episode in the second season that I found irredeemable (“Instinct,” […]

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