The Crux of Dollhouse: Redux

I was thinking a bit about the Dollhouse, and the post I linked to earlier by giandujakiss, and the angry black women’s analysis at Alas. The point of giandujakiss’ movie is, at the very least, commenting that the foundation of the show can be read as rape. Not to disuade any other interpretations, but it definately is a valid one. And it got me thinking about the show.

It seems like every character with a speaking role is complicit in the Dollhouse somehow. We can think of a few exceptions, like Agent Ballard. Now, it makes me think about the theme of the show and imagine if it is perhaps that everyone is complicit in these broad structural systemic regimes, like rape culture, misogyny etc. And so, perhaps the Dollhouse is a partial allegory of the Hierarchical Structures of our lives. Indeed, everyone who works at, and buys from the dollhouse, plus the dolls, is complicit in this edifice of rape.

Now, I know whether this is rape has been pondered to death, but I think an analogy holds. While these people are not presently concious, their bodies are beign used sexually (among other ways); how is this not like getting spiked with a date-rape drug? The only possible ethical way this could not be rape, is if the person being spiked has explicitly asked a partner to do it. And even then we could argue it is bad faith rape. So, by analogy, did the dolls consent given they signed waivers to become dolls? Well, this, of course, depends on what we mean by consent. 1) Did they have forknowledge of all the ways they’d be used, and 2) Is it consent when the alternative is… something not good from the two examples of interviews we’ve seen? 3) What kinds of structural cultures need to exist in order for the issue of consent/rape to come up, in this context, in the way they do? Regardless, the very framing of the Dollhouse can be read as AT LEAST referencing rape culture. I would argue also that it is referencing the structural forces that create a culture of rape.

But I would also then argue that this stands in for all systemic regimes of oppression. One of the important questions, I think, of contemporary understanding is: how do we deal with structural forms of power that implicate everyone? The Dollhouse is like a microcosm for all of these structures, at least read at a structural level. For example, there was one episode where the ‘good, empathetic’ doctor, who is obviously portrayed at being sympathetic to the dolls and wary of the dollhouse, ended up playing into the dollhouse’s control structures in order to empathetically try and reduce the suffering  of the dolls (a very positive read of this, I admit). But, I think it shows how often the more enlightened understandings become co-opted to structural regimes. Take for example sub-cultures. They profess to critique the system, but all of them are co-opted or domesticated somehow, into playing into the system. Now of course a nuanced analysis shows how flimsy, yet regenerative, these systems are (see Homi Bhabha’s analysis of colonialism for an analysis that shows the contradictions inherent colonialism, for example).

This is one way I think the Dollhouse can be read. The systematic rape can stand in for a whole list of structures:  Patriarchy, Racism, Classism, Capitalism, Orientalism, Homophobia, Disablism. What we might glean is how the Dollhouse attempts to answer the question: What do we do about all this? How do these structures play out on an individual level, on an institutional level, at a discursive level? How do we combat these structures? How are we complicit in them? For this last question, I think it might be interesting to take a close reading of Agent Ballard. And why this White, able-bodied, straight dude? And even the resistance from those who are not within the Dollhouse towards his attempts to ‘know’ or ‘fight’ the dollhouse show how they too are complicit in it–by keeping it silent.

Now, I think this opens up a whole range of analysis and critical examination of the Dollhouse. Are Whedon’s answers interesting? Does he represent the structures well? How could we imagine the Dollhouse another way that might represent these structures more accurately (or the converse)? I don’t want to really get into that here, I just want to open up this perspective to bring to the Dollhouse. I think it has the potential to lead to interesting analyses. Not that I’ve explored that yet. Next episode perhaps.

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3 Responses to “The Crux of Dollhouse: Redux”

  1. meloukhia Says:

    Here from Feministe; I love this read on the Dollhouse.

    I would add to your exploration of consent that consent is a constantly evolving thing, and that the Actives/Dolls are stripped up the ability to revoke and renegotiate consent by their circumstances. Just as we say that rape can occur within the context of a marriage because entering into the contract of a marriage doesn’t imply consent until the end of time, rape is happening in the Dollhouse because the Actives are powerless.

  2. fuzzytheory Says:

    Good point, Meloukhia. I do think your point is the crux of Dollhouse as rape. Also, I think it shows how contractual metaphors used for sex and consent already assume an unrealistic and unethical view of sex. Indeed, I’ve always been uncomfortable with those (supposedly humorous) “jokes” about a guy or girl having to bring a contract of consent to a liason to be “in the clear.” It is not like every act of sex can be spelled out beforehand. People’s desires change during and their understanding can change during and after. One way I think it can be looked at is that sex is the performance of desire. Now, what I wonder is how this point affects my broader argument? If rape in Dollhouse can be read as one structure among many, perhaps the dolls stand in for how all systemic oppressive regimes play out this way. I mean, if sex is the performance of desire, then why do so many men perform rape? Why do so many performances of life privilege Patriarchy, Class, etc.? It adds a psychological factor to systemic analysis. I’ll have to think about that.

  3. LSG Says:

    I wandered over from Feministe too, and I’m very interested in your reading. I’d especially like to see you do a close-reading of Agent Ballard, especially after the last couple of episodes. In one of the most recent ones, he “has sex with” November, knowing she’s a doll, and then is deeply ashamed of himself (you KNOW he’s ashamed because he’s standing in the shower all depressed-like) because he’s become a “client of the Dollhouse.” That made me a little queasy, because I felt like they were a hair’s breath away from discussing the rape and complicity questions, then just went with the “But he’s a good guy so he’s ashamed! Just keep liking him!” route.

    Last week’s episode “Briar Rose” did start actively pointing out the fundamental victimhood of the dolls and their inability to consent, I thought, and also started questioning the role of straight, able-bodied, mostly white (her black “Handler” was also part of this) male “rescuers.” This seems more promising than the doll-glamorizing storylines, I just hope they go for some real complexity and/or subversive questioning of the standard storyline instead of just doing a basic “Look! Our hero is Morally Ambiguous!” cop-out.

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