Mutilation Fantasies for Fun & Profit

A few quick thoughts on Dollhouse

I watched Dollhouse a couple weeks ago, and surprised myself by getting really into it. I generally have a lot of problems with Joss Whedon’s writing, mostly because I don’t think it does what most people attribute it to doing. For me anyway, the only things I really like to come out of the Whedon camp have been things like the Firefly episode “Out of Gas”,  which Tim Minear wrote the script on.

What I like about Dollhouse, at least until the last episode where all the bleak, James Cameron/JG Ballard/Masamune Shirow influenced tone of inevitability of death and dissolution that the show had built up over the course of the series gets upended so they could have a heroic payoff for these characters. The intractable downer tone of the thing gives way to an unsatisfying semi-happy ending, where the Dollhouse cast redeems itself and saves humanity. But until that point, it had won me over something serious. What I really loved about the show beyond it playing to what I love (the evil corporation is named after the play that invented the word “robot”), and the tone it set of no matter what these characters did, there was an axe hanging over their head that the technologies they are messing with will almost certainly destroy humanity in their lifetime, and their souls are damned the second they use it on an individual who signs up for it, let alone the masses. Beyond that – it seemed like a writer/showrunner who was very actively exploring what his crutches were, what his weirdness as a writer is. So the heavily referential fast-talking nerd is shown to be impossibly damaged, the hero who wants to save the damsel in distress is shown to be a guy who’d rather play hero than actually help her when he gets the chance. The “strong female characters” are generally just as fucked-up and compromised as the weak-ass male characters. Alan Tudyk and Amy Acker do some of their best work on the show, playing against the types they got saddled with by being on earlier Whedon shows.  There’s a lot of turning into the skid, which is always admirable coming from someone successful. You wish that more people in Whedon’s position had any sort of self-awareness to do something like that while on top. And then there’s how the show deals with how Whedon has portrayed women in his writing.

The entire show really feels like a guy who has been praised as a feminist writer diving into the misogynist tendencies in his writing and swimming. Which, and I’m not sure I’d feel this way if I were a woman, but I never have a problem with works of art that are exploring that rather than blindly being misogynistic. I love David Cronenberg and Dario Argento and (pre-photoshop) Masamune Shirow and a ton of comics guys who have no issue porn-ing up their stories, because it feels like an honest expression of how they are internally dealing with these issues. David Cronenberg is not a misogynist and he doesn’t make misogynist films, but the way he portrays women betrays his generation maybe more than he understands, he is very much of that kind of sexually liberated man who has more of a fucked-up relationship with women. What is amazing about David Cronenberg is that he refuses to censor that unconscious antipathy when making shit, it’s an exorcism to him. I think the same thing about Woody Allen a lot of the time, or the way that Scorsese and Schrader treat racism in Taxi Driver… Or, fuck it, everything Polanski ever did. It is so much more interesting to watch it being explored than shitty, real-life misogyny or racism, and you can tell the difference if you want to spend the time with the material. The ones that are the most troubling are probably the ones that are the most honest, but this is coming from a guy who just watched 83 slasher flicks and then Dollhouse, I probably have a very high tolerance for how messed up treatment of women in genre storytelling can be before it bugs me.

Back to Dollhouse – there’s a lot of prostitution (metaphorical/actual), mutilation fantasies, Claremont-ian psychic rape, damsel in distress/women in peril, rape/revenge, women-in-power being brought low, nerds treating women as objects – pretty much everything that one could run into trouble with exploring when your previous work is the kind of thing gender studies in media professors obsess over. What interests me the most is that the show feels like it was developed with a mind of exploring every one of those themes. The two best characters on the show are Dr Saunders and Bennett Halverson, both women who are driven into moral compromise and personal dysfunction by having their bodies cosmetically destroyed by the petty unthinking actions of others. They are two of Joss Whedon’s best characters, that’s not supposed to happen coming from this guy, and it’s shocking to me that he could spend the rest of his career trying play to that kind of media aware feminist audience (which, with lip service feminism in lazy garbage like Cabin in the Woods, he still clearly can and will play to) and instead spent two seasons writing mission of the week episodes to cover up an exploration of how he feels about portraying women in his work, and all the fucked up things that go with that. I never expected to admire anything by Joss Whedon.

– Sean Witzke June 2012

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