Is Joss Whedon trying to creep me out?

After watching the first two episodes of Joss Whedon’s new show, “Dollhouse,” starring Eliza Duskhu, I was feeling thoroughly squicked out.

I loooved Dushku’s character in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” as Faith “the dark slayer.” My good friend Chanelle used to complain that Buffy was too femme, that she didn’t look tough. And Chanelle never bought the slayer superpowers business. I can see both sides, as one hand, tough, well-muscled, un-dainty and un-pretty girls are hardly ever in the spotlight. On the other, I am a small woman who often is underestimated, so it thrilling to watch someone so little and cute kick butt. But Dushku could never be doubted. She exudes toughness. Even in the cheerleader epic “Bring It On,” you knew Dushku could rough all those girls (and boys) up.

So it is more than upsetting to watch “Dollhouse,” a show in which Dushku is stripped of all her power. Here is the premise: Women (and men) are sold or sell themselves into slavery (it’s not clear how much is voluntary and how much is done through blackmail or straight-up slavery) with a secret organization called Dollhouse, which then strips each slave of all his or her memories and personalities. She or he is then rented out to a millionaire for an exorbitant fees and programmed to have whatever personality and skills said millionaire requests.


In the first few episodes, Dushku, who is one of the Dolls, is rented out as a “dream date” to a couple guys, and of course, this is involves sex. Making her, as Television Without Pity pointed out, a high-tech prostitute. One on hand, it is sort of a hysterical commentary on the idea of a “dream date” and all the guys on Nerve who feel so entitled to demand specifics like, “I want a woman who can quote German existentialists and who also weighs less than 100 pounds.” Or, my favorite, “I want a woman who is as comfortable in jeans as she is high heels.” Dushku can race motorcycles! She can tie bondage ropes! And she’ll still melt when a millionaire hands her a cheap looking trinket! For the next guy: She can climb cliffs! Camp in the wilderness! Shoot deer with an arrow! Be awesome in bed!

But she’s not always a call girl. One man hires a Doll as the “perfect hostage negotiator” to recover his kidnapped little girl, and so Dushku is given the memories of a woman who was kidnapped and raped as child. (Shudder!)

Frankly, even though I do enjoy this show on a sci-fi level, it’s horrifying to see a woman we all know and love as a superhero or super-villain be put in one terrible situation after another (or a least to watch her fall in love with a chain of douchebags), and then have her memory of these events erased. And then to see Dushku wander around all doe-eyed and empty-looking in her “tabula rasa” (blank slate) state. Even as we’re rooting for her to overcome her present circumstances, her heroics are a part of the fake personality — right? Even though there are supposedly male Dolls, the only ones we see are women, and the main storyline, of course, is our pal Dushku.

I have to stop here to say Whedon, creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” and “Firefly,” is one of my favorite male feminists in the public eye. I have been sold on him after this speech he made in May 2006, when Equality Now gave him a Men on the Front Lines honor.

You can also read the full text here

“But, these strong women characters…”

Why are you even asking me this?! This is like interview number 50 in a row. How is it possible that this is even a question? Honestly, seriously, why are you — why did you write that down? Why do you — Why aren’t you asking a hundred other guys why they don’t write strong women characters? I believe that what I am doing should not be remarked upon, let alone honored and there are other people doing it. But, seriously, this question is ridiculous and you just gotta stop.

“So, why do you write these strong women characters?”

Because equality is not a concept. It’s not something we should be striving for. It’s a necessity. Equality is like gravity, we need it to stand on this earth as men and women, and the misogyny that is in every culture is not a true part of the human condition. It is life out of balance and that imbalance is sucking something out of the soul of every man and women who’s confronted with it. We need equality, kinda now.

“So, why do you write these strong female characters?”

Because you’re still asking me that question.

“Dollhouse” is intriguing because Whedon has always been fairly sex-positive, and in “Firefly,” he presents the Inara Serra character as a positive spin on prostitution. As a “Companion,” Inara was something like an intergalactic courtesan, a woman of high social standing, who got to carefully chose and select her customers. She always carried herself as a strong, willful and intelligent woman of integrity. In the last episode of “Firefly,” the crew even rescues a whorehouse named Heart of Gold. In “Dollhouse,” though, Whedon seems to be making a distinction between sex workers who make their own choices, and those forced into prostitution against their own will, for whatever reason, as “human trafficking” is brought up often by the cop hunting Dollhouse down.

Well, according to this article, Whedon IS trying to sketch me out:

Dollhouse’s Sexuality Is Creepy On Purpose

Are you creeped out by the raunchy marketing for the mind-slave-peddling show Dollhouse? Then creator Joss Whedon is very, very happy. Whedon explained his show’s take on the skin trade, in a call with reporters. …

Today, Whedon talked more about the idea that people’s identities are already becoming more customizeable, thanks to the Internet and “extraordinarily specific medications.” This is something that wasn’t really true even a decade ago, and it gives you new ways to talk about very old questions. “Who am I? What am I as I get older, and what’s really sticking? What’s the part I can point to and say, ‘This is me,’ and what’s just coming and going? And what has been imposed on me? Who the hell am i? Why aren’t I prettier?” But also, what do people expect from each other, and how do we use each other?

Now, that I’ve seen Episode 3, I suddenly get it. “Dollhouse” isn’t even a comment on prostitution. It’s a comment on sexism and how women are viewed as objects in our society. And it’s brilliant — even though I won’t dispute the obvious plot holes. In Episode 3, the comparison of the Dolls to the life of a super-sexy overly handled pop star is fairly heavy-handed, the diva’s too-obvious speech set off a chain reaction in my head. Dream dates, pop-star fantasies, acting, magazine covers, strip clubs, pageants, “The Bachelor,” make-up, Wonderbras, playing dumb, pretending to like something you don’t — it’s about EVERYTHING that requires artifice in women. And Dushku always turns out even more awesome than she is programmed to be. Plus, they finally let us in on the fact at least part of Dushku’s doe-eyed routine is faked (oh, how I was hoping for that!).

Turns out I just noticed Dushku is a producer for the show, too. Hooray for Joss and Eliza! I seriously was having my doubts, but now am I sold.

But that’s just my opinion. Are you creeped out by this show? Did it disturb you in the beginning?

We’ve Seen 3 Episodes Of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse!


5 thoughts on “Is Joss Whedon trying to creep me out?

  1. It absolutely did — I’ve been having trouble getting my mind around the sexsploitation aspect, and have been waiting to try to figure out what the hell is going on. Good commentary!

  2. Dollhouse has been creeping me out something FIERCE, and the only reason i’ve stuck with it so far is that i know it takes Joss’ shows a while to get untracked, historically. I haven’t watched all of episode 3 yet because Hulu’s streaming was giving me fits on Sunday, but damn, now i’m gonna have to make a point of catching it.

    But yeah, knowing Joss’ shows the way i do, i’ve been watching this and thinking, “ok, Joss HAS to be setting us up to hate this GROSS GROSS GROSS Dollhouse and root for Echo and Alpha as good guys.” Patience is a virtue i guess.

  3. I was worried this would be a bash Joss post, but I’m glad that you see that he’s winking at the viewer. I’ve been saddened by a lot of the criticism. This man is a proud feminist: I’ve given him the benefit of the doubt because I know there’s more to this show than what we’ve seen. This past episode definitely proves that. That’s not to say that the show isn’t creepy, but like you said, it’s one of the many points the man is making. I can’t wait to see how this show develops. Here’s hoping it lives long enough for viewers to spot its true potential.

  4. Yes the premise is creepy and essentially includes rape. I understand that it is intended to be about commodifying women and making a feminist point. I understand that the show is self aware. However I still have issues.

    One issue is that the filming style sexualises Echo and the female dolls and sexualises the acts of rape.

    Also there’s a point where… say you make racist jokes or homophobic jokes to make a point, to show how disgusting those jokes are. Still they are ultimately racist or homophobic and there’s a better way of making the same point that doesn’t require people to sit through those same jokes.

    Objectification happens enough through anti-feminist television. I am sad that we have to see it in feminist television.

    I still love Joss’ work but I think he has made an error in judgement here. But I am interested to see where it leads.

    I say watch Sarah Connor Chronicles instead. There women are the authors of their own fate.

  5. I haven’t seen it, and reading this, I’m unlikely to. I don’t need to see women abused, even if it’s *nudge*nudge*wink* “Just wait ’til next season when she breaks out in ways that tell the moral high ground story…” Even if _eventually_ this is some kind of teaching tool, to change how America views say sex trade slavery enough to take a determined effort to stop it, this isn’t stuff I want to see from the outset, in my head.
    If he were doing documentaries, I’d see them. But this, like horror movies w/ a Grimms fairy tale ending, I’ll skip.

    I see now why some story tellers give us the horrible stuff as flashback episodes.

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