The first episode of Joss Whedon’s new show “Dollhouse” aired this Friday and I went into it both excited and determined to be critical. I had read his pre show interviews where he talked about going to Equality Now and pitching the idea to mixed reactions, where he has expressed his belief that there is nothing inherently wrong with the concept of prostitution but in the way it’s often acted out in our society and also that they wanted to deal with sexual issues in this show and that both him and Eliza Dushku were on board with this decision.
As far as the technical critique goes: I thought that Eliza’s acting definitely can be improved upon but that it’s also her first episode, in a pilot, and hello, look at David Boreaneaz. If he can get better, anyone can. The beginning was relatively slow but quickly picked up the pace, I was emotionally invested by the end and felt that none of the characters were cardboard cut-outs.
The real meat is trying to figure out what this show is really supposed to be about and whether it’s a good or bad premise. Also, whether or not Whedon can get across his usual themes without them getting convoluted within the story.
The Dollhouse itself is the real story and the real character of this show in my mind. Echo may be the main character but I see it more as seeing her interact within the Dollhouse, and any way in which she challenges the status quo is more about the way the Dollhouse reacts. The concept of the Dollhouse is identity and reality and how those two are in many ways interconnected. I would argue that the Dollhouse is evil and is meant to be seen as evil but that they do good as well as bad. Others have stated that one of Whedon’s many themes is that the ends do not always justify the means and that the governing body is not always good, even if they try or think they are doing good.
The first episode deals with these issues head on: Echo’s personality as a hostage negotiator is created from the personality of a woman who was abducted as a child. Through Echo she has the opportunity to come face to face with her rapist and emerge victorious, something she was unable to do in real life due to committing suicide. Echo’s reference to herself as a “ghost” in the end of the episode shows that on some level she understands that who she is, is not truly real. She was able to confront this man partially because the emotions and drive were there and also because some part of her recognized that she was doing it for someone else. I expect we’ll hear other lines like this that suggest that Echo has some awareness of her personality and it will get stronger as the season progresses (If Fox lets it).
Echo has multiple people “looking out” for her. Her handler who has developed some type of attachment to her, though whether its for her as an individual or for the helpless child he views her as, remains to be seen. The workers of the Dollhouse are looking out for her, mainly as you would any expense piece of equipment but, with the exception of Claire, do not seem to view her as anything truly human. She is an Active involved in engagements or a tool used to help society. Finally, the FBI agent that is trying to shut down the Dollhouse has no true concern with her and who she is, but is more obsessed with shutting down the Dollhouse than rescuing the actives, although he would probably claim they’re one and the same.
Do I feel this is a feminist show? Not at the current time, what I do feel though is that it’s a complicated show designed to make us uncomfortable with the way it blatantly ignores consent or basic human dignity. This is a show about sex trafficking on the surface, but most people would agree that this is wrong, so it has to be about more. It has to be about bodies and how much control do other people have over ours. How much free will do we really have when we agree to operate in a system that doesn’t respect our choices and has the ability to change the rules on us without our permission?