This extremely long piece which got out of hand as I wrote it was originally for Noah Berlatsky’s Joss Whedon roundtable on The Hooded Utilitarian.
I am very angry that I didn’t discover this scholarly paper by Eve Bennett for Slayage until I was almost done writing this piece, since she makes many of the same points I do in a much more scholarly way. You should read it. If you like it more than my thing I won’t be offended.
But anyway, here’s my take on Joss Whedon, problematic feminist allyship in the entertainment industry, and Dollhouse.
So the Almighty Joss Whedon’s feminist cred has been the subject of some Internet controversy of late, thanks to the kerfuffle over Age of Ultron’s portrayal of Strong Female Character Black Widow and the subsequent meta-kerfuffle over why exactly he quit Twitter and whether his deactivation of his Twitter account somehow constituted yet more evidence of Feminism Gone Too Far.
(For what it’s worth, I read a lot of the tweets laying into him, and while some of them can be made to fit that narrative I don’t really see the Feminist Outrage in freaking out about the death of Quicksilver, a male character, or snarking about the movie being kind of overstuffed and disappointing. But what do I know.)
But yes, definitely, I acknowledge that Joss Whedon, despite being one of my faves, is problematic and that in general yes Your Fave is Problematic. I’d even say that the particular idiosyncratic tics and hypocrisies and contradictions in Joss Whedon’s brand of feminism bear examination, that if we can be mean enough to make a Hollywood in-joke out of parodying the characteristic style of Michael Bay and James Cameron someone by now should’ve done it to Joss Whedon.
Someone did. It was Joss Whedon.
The first big rumbling of discontent I remember about Joss Whedon’s feminist cred was Dollhouse. (Which is unfair, because it really should’ve been the terrible, awful, no good very bad circumstances of Charisma Carpenter’s departure from Angel, but alas we didn’t have Twitter then.)
A ton of people disliked Dollhouse from the get-go — Dollhouse fans, such as we were, were holding our breath for the series’ cancellation pretty much continuously through its run. There were tons of criticisms from all directions, most of them valid — that the very nature of the premise required casting a chameleon-like character actress as the lead and Eliza Dushku was in way over her head in the role, especially infuriating because her co-star Enver Gjokaj was in fact an amazing chameleon and Dollhouse by rights should’ve been his breakout. That the formulaic procedural format was a huge mistake for a show that could only possibly be interesting if we dived into the worldbuilding and philosophical implications and whatnot — which didn’t happen until six episodes into Season One, and infuriatingly continued to be stalled by random “Engagement-of-the-Week” plots.
But the main one was the one from Whedon’s longtime fans, who felt betrayed that Hollywood’s most feted “feminist” director was making a show that was pretty much all rape fantasy from beginning to end — and they said that any degree to which the show was ironic, self-aware or self-criticizing about the rapey concept didn’t make up for how inherently skeevy that concept was.
And that’s a valid opinion. But one reason I tend to disagree with it is I think people underestimate the degree of irony, self-awareness, self-criticism, etc. that Dollhouse was doing from the beginning.
The character of Topher Brink on Dollhouse is Joss Whedon.
Topher is Joss. The Dollhouse is the entertainment industry. Echo’s weirdly “special” relationship with Topher is Eliza Dushku’s weirdly “special” relationship with Joss Whedon. Everything that’s likable and unlikable about Topher is everything that’s likable and unlikable about Whedon himself — and the show’s ultimate indictment of Topher’s character is Whedon’s indictment of himself.
Few people have pointed this out — Sady Doyle did in the piece I linked above, Noah Berlatsky gestures at it in a piece for his recent roundtable, but I haven’t really seen anyone delve in depth into the central metaphor of Dollhouse, that Dollhouse is above all a show about itself, a show about TV shows, a show about the artifice of show business and what it does to the people who work in it.
Let’s start with the obvious: The “Actives” are actors. Even the name — which doesn’t make much sense within the setting (why are they “active”? No one is named “inactive” or “passive”) — is an obvious reference to the word “actor.”
The way the Actives dress in loose-but-attractive exercise clothes? The way they spend their days constantly exercising and grooming and eating gourmet low-calorie meals consisting mostly of “perfectly crisp lettuce”? The way they go through bizarre little Zen-like rituals to keep themselves in a calm state, repeating certain mantras before they go on assignment, and are constantly being herded by businesslike, sinister people in suits who view them with a mixture of affection and contempt — and how an alternate term for the Handler is “agents”?
Come on. It’s as on-the-nose an exaggerated parody of the stereotype of working actors in LA as you can get. (Members of Dollhouse’s cast made this observation as a joke multiple times — Olivia Williams said on the Dollhouse Season 1 DVD behind-the-scenes extras, “There are a lot of Dolls in LA, and they all go to the gym.”)
As an actor who’s taken my fair share of acting classes and noticed how acting classes sometimes kind of feel like therapy and sometimes kind of feel like being initiated into a cult, the parallel was pretty obvious to me. It extends pretty far, too — how the Actives were recruited by and large as people “running away from their past”, how the one time we see a “retired Active” she’s retired in wealth and comfort but is weirdly emotionally numb after her experiences — it’s all straight out of Access Hollywood.
And the running joke about the Actives’ instant transformation from helpless children into badass action heroes? Well, that’s also a joke about acting — the most essential skill of an actor is, after all, the ability to suddenly pretend to be intimately familiar with something you just learned existed last night from reading the script.
When actual NSA agent Laurence Dominic rolls his eyes at Victor, Imprinted as an NSA mastermind, barking out orders and mutters, “This morning you were telling me how much you liked pancakes,” he sounds remarkably like a consultant for a film watching a pampered movie star pretending to do his real-life job.
It’s a theme that runs through the entire run of the series. Notice how even though the show is set in “the Los Angeles Dollhouse” we never actually see clients who are, themselves, actors because that would make the whole metaphor a little too obvious — though we do have an episode about a pop singer (“Factory Girl”, season 1 episode 3) where the falseness of the singer’s persona is directly compared with the falseness generated by the Dollhouse. Notice the time we meet the Dollhouse’s “wardrobe department” and the guy in charge of dressing the Actives is more or less the stereotypical Flamboyant Costume Department Guy.
Okay, so Echo and her fellow Actives are actors. The Handlers are the talent agents, managers, personal assistants and assistant directors whose job it is at various times to wrangle actors and make the movie magic happen. Adele DeWitt and her tie-wearing superiors are, well, the Hollywood suits who pay for everything and bark orders in the name of profit.
And Topher Brink, the sweater-wearing nerd who sits atop everything (“like God looking down on his creation,” Echo sneers at him in one episode) and runs it all, is the writer/director/showrunner. The “creative.”
He’s quippy — the only regular character on the show to regularly engage in the “Whedonisms” that were Joss’ trademark from Buffy and Angel. He’s a massive fan of geek culture and can’t go two sentences without making some movie or TV reference. He’s adorably casual about his work habits, with his snacks and his mini-fridge and his video game consoles and his perennially tousled hair. He absolutely despises suits — especially the aforementioned Laurence Dominic — and finds petty concerns of profit and loss a distraction from the sheer creative joy of his work.
And he really does care about his work. He waxes lyrical in the first aired Dollhouse episode, “Ghost,” about how the Imprints he makes — i.e. the characters he writes — aren’t just flat stereotypes, boring collections of skills and talents meant to serve the needs of the Engagement (i.e. the plot) — and they certainly don’t take the lazy route of simply copying the persona of a real individual. No, every one of Topher’s artificial people is a masterpiece, made by carefully mixing and matching bits and pieces of real people’s lives into a coherent, organic whole that serves the needs of the assignment but is also alive in its own right.
He’s as much a stereotype of a writer as the Actives are of actors — kicking back in his room full of tchotchkes munching carbs and brainstorming while the Actives swim laps and do deep breathing.
But he’s very specifically a stereotype of the kind of person Joss Whedon portrays himself to be. (By the way, Whedon casts Fran Kranz, Topher’s actor, as another self-referential character in his even more meta Cabin in the Woods — Kranz’s character Marty plays the goofy comic relief whose fourth-wall awareness is the critical weakness that brings down the artifice of the dark conspiracy behind the movie, just as Whedon does with the horror genre.)
Joss Whedon, who downplays his tendency to work with attractive actresses half his age by making himself out to be sexually nonthreatening, in his words a “male lesbian” — Topher Brink, who comes off as asexual for most of the show (before the introduction of a love interest in Summer Glau’s character near the end of the series) despite being surrounded by “stone cold foxes in their PJs,” who desperately avoids any hint of “casting couch” shenanigans by programming Whiskey (and presumably other female Actives) to be sexually repelled by him.
Joss Whedon, who tries his best to ignore the business side of Hollywood and treat his clique of famous actors he’s worked with as buddies — who holds game nights and Shakespeare readings at his house with Nathan Fillion and Amy Acker and Clark Gregg. Topher Brink, who “borrows” the beautiful Active Sierra for his birthday and rather than enacting some torrid sexual fantasy, simply turns her into a friend with whom he can talk science fiction and play video games and get harmlessly drunk.
Topher Brink, who has a diminutive Asian apprentice, Ivy (played by Liza Lapira). Joss Whedon, whose diminutive Asian sister-in-law Maurissa Tancharoen worked with him on Dollhouse and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog before becoming a showrunner herself on Agents of SHIELD. Topher gets a reputation in the Dollhouse as a boy genius because he greatly accelerates the process of Imprinting an Active with a new mind — rather than “processing the memories sequentially” he “dumps them all at once” and “let[s] them sort it out.” Whedon’s cred as a skilled writer/director comes from his skill at jumping into stories in medias res, doing his worldbuilding on the fly without resorting to expository infodumps (see everyone who cited the “efficiency” of The Avengers as a key to its success).
Topher Brink, who, like eventually all of the other characters on the show, becomes obsessed with Echo being more than just another Active, with Echo’s ability to truly inhabit the personas Imprinted on her and make them “real.” Joss Whedon, who wrote the series Dollhouse after having lunch with Eliza Dushku and gushing over her amazing versatility and range and raw talent as an actress. (Which… he appears to have been wrong about, but that’s neither here nor there.)
Topher Brink, who describes a truly altruistic Engagement he crafts in Season 2 — programming Echo into a version of an abused young girl who’s survived the abuse and grown up a strong, healthy person, showing the girl that moving past her abuse is possible and giving her a role model to strive for. “This feeling, it is not unlike pride.” Joss Whedon’s cred for creating Strong Female Characters, for Buffy being the little blonde girl who fights back, for the symbolism of the Slayer and how much it’s meant to his legions of young female fans.
Topher Brink, who’s still ultimately cashing checks from his evil corporate overlords and furthering their nefarious plans in return for being allowed to play with his toys. Topher Brink, who is literally pimping out men and women to the highest bidder and makes crass jokes about it (note that in the unaired pilot, “Echo,” he describes Echo’s virginity “returning with the new moon” after an assignment, a reference to Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real — notably, a theatre reference). Joss Whedon, whose shows have always been advertised and marketed with the promise of seeing Hollywood-hot actresses in various states of undress, including Dollhouse itself being marketed with a nude Eliza Dushku.
Topher Brink, with his disturbingly cavalier attitude toward putting his Dolls through horrific traumas because it’s all make-believe. Joss Whedon, whose “empowering” stories nonetheless keep coming back to women being put in danger, being beaten, raped, killed. Topher Brink, who “empowers” the Doll November to kill her attempted rapist by violating her in another way, altering her brain to make her an unnaturally perfect killer. Joss Whedon, who “empowered” a tiny blonde girl to become a vampire slayer by putting her in tight clothes and giving her magic powers, powers that in the context of the show were forced on her against her will.
Topher Brink, who for all his affability and his surface-level empathy, sees his Dolls as a means to an end and the effect his “treatments” have on them as acceptable collateral damage. For those of you who just recently learned the story about Charisma Carpenter’s pregnancy getting her fired from Angel, think about that and rewatch the Season 2 episode “Instinct,” where Topher induces a psychosomatic pregnancy in Echo and then, once it’s no longer needed, takes her baby away.
Joss Whedon, who’s an outspoken critic of war and violence in the real world but keeps writing stories that revolve around violent death as a way to give a story power. Topher Brink, who, after a whole career of turning Actives into kick-butt assassins, arranges for Sierra to kill her rapist in Season 2’s “Belonging” but this time is forced to watch, forced to participate, forced to clean up after the bloody deed and spends the whole time trembling and retching.
Most tellingly, Joss Whedon is a film studies major from Wesleyan with a focus in women’s studies. He’s talked before about concepts like the patriarchy and internalized misogyny. He understands that capitalism and Western culture and the hierarchies of race, class and gender all add up to make one giant system of control and brainwashing. “We’re all programmed,” says Topher in the unaired pilot.
And Topher, that lovable wunderkind, who’s constantly obsessing over the authenticity and integrity of the work he does for the evil Rossum Corporation, who gets a feeling “not unlike pride” from how the little stories he puts together helps women — he’s helping usher in the apocalypse. Topher finally “breaks” in Dollhouse after learning that the Rossum Corporation is using his technology, intended to help realize people’s fantasies, entertain them, “give them what they need,” is being used to change what people need.
The Dollhouse doesn’t just make action heroes and sex dolls anymore than the media-industrial complex only makes TV and movies. The Rossum Corporation has a paramilitary wing that takes disaffected young men without a sense of purpose and uses the Dollhouse technology to turn them into an obedient hivemind. (Anyone remember that award-winning Marine Corps recruiting ad?) The Rossum Corporation has a pet politician, a ne’er-do-well scion of a wealthy family who’s had his whole personality reshaped by the Dollhouse to become a perfect leader, whose thoughts and actions are being manipulated behind the scenes without even his own knowledge. (Do I need to connect the dots and point out how any political candidate successful enough for you to have heard of them is the creation of a marketing and PR team?)
The apocalyptic future where the mass spread of Dollhouse technology has ripped apart society by turning most of the population into a perpetually angry mob is, yes, an exaggeration, though perhaps not as much of one as we’d like to think. (It is telling that Whedon once again falls back on language from theatre and performance for his futuristic slang, though — in the post-Dollhouse world people whose memories have been wiped are “dumbshows,” people whose memories have been overwritten by multiple others are “freakshows,” etc.)
But Dollhouse at its most perceptive delivered musings on how, even before the “thoughtpocalypse” occurs, our sense of identity is mutable and fragmented and only becoming more so as time goes by — a college professor gives a speech to this effect in “Man on the Street” and it’s reiterated by a Dollhouse client in “Belle Chose” — and we’re only getting more vulnerable to being manipulated, lied to, controlled. And by making the Dollhouse better — by telling better stories, perfecting the craft of creating a compelling lie — Topher is helping his bosses control people better.
Topher’s growing inability to live with this forms his character arc in Season 2. By the time of the post-apocalyptic epilogue “Epitaph 2” he comes to the conclusion that he can only redeem himself by killing himself in order to undo the effects of the Dollhouse on humanity.
Clearly Joss Whedon, who’s still making Hollywood movies and lining the pockets of media executives for a living, hasn’t gotten to that point yet. But he’s clearly thought about it.
And another point that Dollhouse repeatedly brings up is equally true of the media in the real world — the genie can’t be put back in the bottle, no one person is responsible for what’s happening, if Joss Whedon or Topher Brink were to quit his job, someone else would take it, so he might as well try to do as much good in his position as he can.
But I can’t help but read Topher’s extreme discomfort with seeing his own mind reproduced in Victor’s body in “The Left Hand” as a little bit of Whedon’s own discomfort with facing an indictment of himself as enabler and perpetuator and profiteer of a system he claims to struggle against. It’s, in the end, as compelling a portrayal of the cultural critic as complicit in the culture he decries as Charlie Brooker’s “Fifteen Million Merits” on Black Mirror (which I strongly recommend watching as a companion piece to “Epitaph Two”).
Complicity is the running theme of Dollhouse from beginning to end. The “hero,” Paul Ballard, trying to save Echo from her masters, is called out by Patton Oswalt’s Dollhouse client Joel Mynor in “Man on the Street” as just having his own fantasy about Echo becoming his grateful girlfriend after she escapes — shades of the stalkerish fan convinced that they “really know” their favorite actor or actress, not like those others. The Big Reveal at the end of Dollhouse is that Echo’s entire struggle against her brainwashing by the Dollhouse was itself a massive ruse orchestrated by the Dollhouse itself, to mold her into a literal Hero With a Thousand Faces by systematically putting her through the Hero’s Journey — reaching a level of full meta about how “escaping the narrative” narratives are themselves narratives that I haven’t seen anyone else pull off except The Stanley Parable.
I’m not trying to oversell the show, though I am a diehard fan of it. The series as a whole is deeply flawed, and Whedon doesn’t quite succeed in tying up his meta message about complicity and guilt as part of the media machine with a neat bow.
But I think he’s much more aware of how he’s Part of the Problem than his detractors give him credit for — just as the same guy who didn’t cast any Asian lead actors in Firefly was the guy who wrote the song “Nobody’s Asian in the Movies” for the commentary track of Dr. Horrible.
Being aware of a problem isn’t the same as fixing it, of course. And the one image that sticks with me is the reveal in the penultimate episode of Dollhouse, “The Attic,” which, for my money, is possibly one of the best hours of TV ever recorded — and definitely the best transmitted on a broadcast network.
We meet Topher’s predecessor, Clyde, the tech wizard who created the Dollhouse and the Rossum Corporation and who was the first to see that the Dollhouse’s existence would eventually lead to the fall of humanity.
He’s trapped in the Attic, a horrific virtual prison where “broken” Dolls and disobedient Dollhouse employees are sent, described by Topher as a “mental suck” — a place where “you’re always struggling to find the next thought on the tip of your tongue that you never think.” (What does that sound like? To me it sounds like what it feels like to have writer’s block.)
Clyde expands on this — the Attic preys on the “open loop” in your mind, a problem you can’t solve or a trauma you can’t process, forcing you to relive it again and again without ever finding resolution. When Victor is imprisoned in the Attic he’s forced to repeatedly re-fight the war in Iraq that he fled to the Dollhouse from; Sierra is forced to repeatedly re-confront her rapist.
And Clyde himself? He’s forced to repeatedly watch the world collapse because of the Pandora’s Box his magical mind-altering technology opened up, because of the merciless logic that if a technology to control how people think exists, it will be found and exploited by the worst people in the world.
His “loop” consists of constantly racking his brain, trying to figure out how the catastrophe might be prevented, how the technology might be redirected to positive ends, the apocalypse stopped in its tracks.
And the kicker? By thinking about it, he is powering the Dollhouse. The Dollhouse’s computer is the Attic — the technology that makes the Dollhouse possible is a supercomputer made of the brains of everyone in the Attic, siphoning off the excess mental energy created by their internal struggle to perform the magic that makes it possible to alter thoughts.
By trying to fix the apocalypse, Clyde is hastening the apocalypse. The very act of mentally struggling against the System is what powers the System. The corporation exploits his creativity to fuel itself even as he tries to direct his thoughts against it.
Joss Whedon wants to be a feminist. I believe him when I read him explode with rage and grief in 2007 after witnessing a video of an honor killing. I think I know what Whedon’s “open loop” is — it’s that “the act of being a free, attractive, self-assertive woman is punishable by torture and death.”
And I think he hopes for his work — making movies, making TV, being a “feminist creator” — to fix that.
But along the way, Riff Regan got cut from the role of Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and replaced with Alyson Hannigan because Regan was too fat for TV. Along the way, the same guy who blamed the patriarchy on “womb envy” fired Charisma Carpenter from his show and did serious damage to her career because she got pregnant at the wrong time. Along the way, we mysteriously got “groundbreaking” portrayals of same-sex love that were always of hot lipstick lesbians making out and inspiring straight guys to scurry to their bunks.
Along the way, actresses kept getting chewed up and spit out by an industry notoriously unkind to the women it finds useful — Buffy, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse did nothing to change that in TV and The Avengers appears to have done nothing to change that at Sony.
In the recesses of his artistic imagination — which “The Attic” is a metaphor for, besides being a place you throw your broken dolls — I don’t doubt that Whedon struggles against the patriarchy all the time.
But out here in the real world? He’s keeping the Dollhouse running just fine.