sperrywink: (Dollhouse Echo by winter_skyline)
[personal profile] sperrywink posting in [community profile] big_damn_fest
So I have been thinking about Dollhouse lately and how I interpreted it and what it meant to me. I wanted to write a meta essay about it, and this Jossverse challenge came along and seemed like the perfect way, even if I had to center my thoughts on an episode or two as per the requirements. I know a lot of people were disturbed or disgusted with it and while I understand that reaction, I sort of feel like they missed the broader implications, which saddens me because Dollhouse remains my favorite of Joss's shows.

Anyway, back to the challenge. I first picked The Hollow Men, the penultimate episode, but then felt that I couldn't adequately talk about the first season just talking about that. So I added Ghost, figuring the beginning was a great place to start. As always your mileage may vary, and you may not agree with my thoughts on the series. Feel free to bring your thoughts to the discussion! All ideas are respectfully welcome.

One final note. I don’t ignore the use/misuse of sex and sexuality or the issue of consent, but they are part of the whole for me, not the center of the series. So if you are waiting for an analysis of solely that, you will be disappointed. Hopefully someone else writes that for you! (And point me towards it when they do!)


To set the initial scene, let me talk about what Dollhouse meant to me. I feel it is/was a brilliant study of how corporate culture and corporations in general are designed to co-opt your identity and sexuality. They don't want you thinking for yourself, they want you to succumb to their advertising and buy crap you don't need so they can have ever increasing profits. They want you to be a consumer, not a person or a citizen or a patient. Their chief tools in doing this are fear and sex. Getting you to think with your hindbrain is a surefire way of making you fall prey to their messages.

I fully admit that my own distrustful beliefs about corporations primed me to see more into Dollhouse than other people. Most people aren't as paranoid as I am. (But then I have worked in the private sector for corporations of various sizes for going on 20 years now. I feel my paranoia is well-founded. *g*) So, in reality, I didn't ignore the disturbing parts of Dollhouse, but instead interpreted them within this broader picture I was seeing. I might have even found them more disturbing because of the layering of messages not just about personal concepts of sex/abuse/consent, but also about those concepts as a cultural norm and a corporate necessity.

I think the first episode sets up the series pretty well and the elements that comprise Season One. There are the overarching corporate use and misuse of individuals, both as "consumers" and as cogs in their machine, consent issues, corporate and personal abuse of sex and sexuality, the ability of the government to curtail corporate excesses (or lack thereof), worldbuilding, and flashbang elements for distraction and misdirection, as well as for the growth of Echo’s imprints. I’m only going to touch on a couple of the key elements for me.

So back to the first episode, titled "Ghost." I remembered parts of it fairly well, at least as far as the scenes and general content went. So I knew we would start with Adele and Caroline at a round table talking over tea. You cannot imagine my excitement and flailing when the first line is Adele saying, "Nothing is what it appears to be."

I practically fell out of my chair! Oh my god, this sums up the show so well but also really encapsulates the problems with the show, both the ones that turned audiences off and the ones that Joss seems to fall into time and again. But this is one of the reasons I love Joss. He is always planning ahead! I'm sure this was as deliberate as everything Joss writes is, and it was a warning, not just to Caroline, but to us as well. The scene continues:

Adele: Nothing is what it appears to be.
Caroline: It seems pretty clear to me.
Adele: Because you are only seeing part of it. I'm talking about a clean slate.
Caroline: You ever try and clean an actual slate? You always see what was on it before.
Adele: Are you volunteering-?
Caroline: I don't have a choice, do I? How did it get this far?
Adele: Caroline, actions have consequences.

There is a lot going on in this simple scene and each line has multiple meanings for me. First there is the Corporate Speak To Convince The Consumer. When Adele talks about clean slates and consequences, it is her towing the corporate line. As Caroline rightly points out, a slate is never clean, and this is a total nod to when she becomes Echo and retains her imprints, besides being a counter to the simple worldview that you can leave the past behind. And then we have Caroline’s words as the bewildered Consumer wondering how it had gotten so far that she has no choices left.

So among other things, Dollhouse tried to explore the inherent contradiction of consent between a corporation and an individual. We all are all asked constantly for our consent from corporations- in privacy agreements, mediation agreements, software licenses, releases of liability, and it is all a crock of shit. There is no choice but to accept them, and they are designed to give all the power to a corporation, and none to the individual, even for necessary services like healthcare, transportation, and education. This is just like Caroline giving over all of her power (and identity) to Rossum by signing that document in the first scene. But Adele knows her part of the corporation is illegal. A legally binding agreement to illegal acts is not valid, Caroline just thinks it is. Corporations know individuals don't have the resources to take them to court or to "lawyer up", so they get away with false "cease and desist" letters and other intimidation tactics.

Although I think this was one of the clearer and direct messages of the show, this is also where the show failed the most, I fear, for most people. They saw the lack of consent and the misuse of sex and sexuality, but felt it was either too much or didn’t see how it was important to the message about consent. It was titillating and over the top, but if you have ever spent time with marketing professionals, I don’t think it overstated the ways in which corporations try to use your sexuality against you. If they could pimp you out for profit, they would.

This leads me to the next point. I think the misconception that the characters were supposed to be good guys is there. That's the way a show normally works. You get invested in the good guys and root for them. Echo/Caroline is stunning as the wronged party, Topher is an adorable geek, and Boyd is reassuringly caring, for example. However at this stage, nobody was a good guy on Dollhouse and the quicker you conned onto that, I think, the quicker the show started making sense in a meta-fashion for you.

Some of the characters were likable people or people who thought they were good guys, but they were all trapped (either by choice or by their own reactions) into doing evil things or perpetuating evil. That was one of the brilliantly creepy aspects of the show for me. It was a cinematic representation of the old adage, "I was just doing my job." Everyone was a cog in the larger corporate machine; independently they might not have been doing anything wrong, but as a whole they were perpetuating and creating an overarching evil system.

To illustrate this point, we have the scene between Topher and Boyd about wiping Echo’s memory of the imprint from the night before:

Boyd: Everything go all right with the wipe?
Topher: Why don't you just ask Echo? Oh that's right because she can't remember. Of course it went all right. The imprint is gone, the new moon has made her virgin again. Is there some reason it shouldn't have? Something happen during the engagement?
Boyd: I think she finally met the right guy.
Topher: You're so jaded. At such a middle age. She had fun, right?
Boyd: She thought so.
Topher: There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so, Manfriend. We gave two people the perfect weekend together. We're great humanitarians.
Boyd: Who will spend their lives in jail if anyone ever found this place.
Topher: We are also misunderstood. Which great humanitarians often are. Look at Echo. Not a care in the world. She is living the dream.
Boyd: Who's dream?
Topher: Who's next?

Topher calls them “great humanitarians.” It’s a little tongue-in-cheek, but there is very little doubt that Topher can’t see the problem with the technology and the misuse of it. As his involvement with the development of the imprinting technology develops over the series, it pays to remember this cavalier attitude contrasting to where he ends up. Adele is another one who has drunk the Kool-Aid at this point in the series. When Boyd confronts her about the botched “engagement” Echo has as the kidnapping expert and how they can make it better, this conversation happens:

Adele: We do not have a client.

Boyd: We have a mission!

Adele: We prefer to call them engagements. You have not been here as long as some of the others, so I will overlook the error.

Boyd: I’ve been here long enough to know that you like to think you like to tell yourself that what we do helps people.

Adele and Topher, the face of the corporation and the face of the technology, both delude themselves about what they are doing. Drafting everything into positive terms so that they can sleep at night. I think Echo’s main engagement is set up to highlight the ease of this delusion. She, and thus they, facilitate the rescue of a little girl from the hands of kidnappers and a child molester. And, hey, they get paid millions and even get the ransom money as a boon. Boyd seems to be the only one with a conscious, and if you have watched the whole series, the irony should not be lost on you.

So the next question is, “Where is the government in all of this?” In comes Paul Ballard, FBI agent extraordinaire, investigating what he calls Dollhouse. How effective is he? Well, let’s go to the beginning of his scene:

Supervisor: Agent Ballard, you were assigned to case designate Dollhouse over 14 months ago. How would you describe your progress to date?
Ballard: Slow.
Supervisor: I'm actually very impressed by what I see here. You've physically threatened a senator, disrupted a 7 year human trafficking investigation, been arrested for trespassing on Prince Amubi's yacht. The only legal action you have successfully followed through on is your divorce.

Did you notice that most of his actions were against the government- a senator and a prince? So Paul is not only fighting an uphill battle to uncover The Dollhouse, he is fighting his own side. Basically, the government is in bed with the corporations. Like goes with like or power goes with power, and Paul has virtually none.

When Echo’s primary engagement of the episode goes wrong, she says, “You can’t fight a ghost.” She is talking about the child molester in her memories, but this applies to Paul Ballard and his investigation too, as well as the Dollhouse actives. They are ghosts of who they used to be, shadows only. Stripped down into the rawest form, able to be molded into whoever the corporation wants them to be. At this stage they are even more basic to corporations than consumers. They are the corporation’s raw material.

Just like the episode, I’d like to leave you with Caroline’s words because they encapsulate the message of the whole series for me, even though it didn’t make it through to a lot of people:

I’d like to take my place in the world. Like Mrs. Dundy taught us. Global Recovery, Doctors Without Borders. The world is in need of serious saving.

* Yes, I a quoting the movie Josie and the Pussycats. It's iconic!
** Yes, I am quoting the movie Fight Club, it is also iconic and totally related to my essay. *g*

Date: 2013-03-21 12:09 pm (UTC)
thraceadams: (BSG Helo The Truth Hurts)
From: [personal profile] thraceadams
This was really interesting. Thank you :D

Date: 2013-03-21 12:31 pm (UTC)
executrix: (new souls)
From: [personal profile] executrix
Thanks, this is a great essay! So many people couldn't get past "but this is prostitution! So the show is misogynist and hates women!"--which is probably why it got a bit anvilicious toward the end, you could hear the Writer's Room yelling "We don't think it's GOOD to mess around with people's heads! In fact it practically caused the Apocalypse that Buffy kept stopping!"

Date: 2013-03-22 01:05 am (UTC)
scheherezhad: Nightwing giving thumbs-up, "Dick Approves" (approval)
From: [personal profile] scheherezhad
I would like to leave a long response, but I have run out of time. The TL;DW version is lots of nodding and yeses. Excellent analysis!


Big Damn Love Fest

April 2013

78 910111213

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Sep. 25th, 2017 04:56 pm
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios