But this is ridiculous. If he were such a patriotic American, why didn’t he just report us to the authorities?
He decided to put his information to good use and make a little money out of it. What could be more American than that?
– Clue, 1985
Joss Whedon is a compelling film and TV creator because of his rich imagination and the fact that he doesn’t step down from his ideologies and opinions that he works into his shows and movies. He poses questions about the status quo to his audience, and that honesty and his arguments have created one of the most dedicated, intelligent, and fanatical fan bases.
One of his lesser-known projects is Dollhouse, the two-season series that deals with the power of corporations. Despite the intriguing premise and excellent cast, the show ran into a number of problems that resulted in its cancellation in Dec. 2009. Like Firefly, the original pilot was not aired and there was tension between Fox and Whedon as a result of the doomed space Western. The Writers’ Strike began in Nov. 2007 and disrupted production shortly after the show was announced. During the strike Whedon criticized the corporations behind media companies on the possible future effects on artists like the writers.
The Dollhouse is a business kept secret from everyone except the wealthy that can afford to rent a Doll – a man or woman whose mind has been wiped, kept in a blank slate state until they are imprinted with whatever personality the buyer desires. The show focuses on Echo, formerly Caroline, a young woman in the Dollhouse put under contract after she was caught getting information on the experiments on humans done by the corporation that owns the Dollhouses. In her Doll state Echo becomes self-aware, causing some major disturbances throughout the company. She manages to create a small but efficient team of two other Dolls, a former FBI agent, and three members of the company to take down the corporation Rossum.
The storytelling and structure of the show are compelling. Each season ends with a flash-forward episode, showing what happens when the mind-wiping and imprinting technology spins out of control. Because the show was cancelled during its second season, the pace of the story was sped up, pushing to get to the destruction of the corporation. Overall, it’s a visceral look at what money and power can obtain without any thought to the consequences.
I visited NYC a few weeks ago to see The Scottish Play and meet up with some friends. If I ever have to explain the essence of America to someone, I may just point them to Time Square. It is literally billboards on top of billboards, scrolling marquees, posters – you name a way to advertise, it’s in Time Square. It’s indicative of the society that we live in. We’re constantly barraged by things that we don’t really need for survival. Don’t get me wrong, I love stuff as much as the next person, but it gets to a point where the desire for things overcomes the ability to care about humanity as a whole. This is not just an American issue, but as an American it is something that concerns me when I walk through an area of a city full of multi-million dollar ad spots where other areas of the same city struggle to survive day by day.
What this means to Dollhouse is that there are people who can afford to have their every fantasy fulfilled in one of the sickest ways possible. Consumerism and the commoditization of people intersect in the show: people are treated as objects, the mind is ignored – literally taken out of the bodies of men and women in the House – and the brain is uploaded with skills and memories that the buyer wants.
One of the big plot arcs of the show is that Echo is becoming self-aware as a Doll, not as Caroline. This raises the question of what is attached to the body. To borrow from Supernatural, is the body just a meatsuit in which the soul can be shoved into a box in the brain while something else takes over? Or is the soul something you can actually take out? Or is it possible that the soul is something unconnected to the personality?
In each episode an active is sent out on an engagement, though the show mostly focuses on Echo. Each job is a different imprint, meaning that each Doll is given a different set of skills and memories to utilize while on the job. Though Romantic engagements are the most popular, Dolls are also used in various situations, including the first episode aired in which Echo is sent out as a profiler to find a little girl that was kidnapped.
Because it’s Joss Whedon, the show presents the problems facing women in America. The show is fully aware of the subverted and outright treatment of women as objects, and as such developed storylines to deal with those issues. Despite the presence of male Dolls, special attention is brought to the treatment of women because of the role of Echo as the protagonist. It emphasizes that sex can be bought and sold, marketed as making people’s dreams come true. Sex slavery is very real in much less cushy surroundings than the Dollhouse, but the show lays out the secrecy and the profit-driven aspects through the removal of the men and women’s one source of power – their minds.
Dollhouse is about a series of power struggles between different groups of people. In the end, the people with the most money seem to be the ones that can throw the world into chaos so that they can have whatever they want.
And what could be more American than that?
Christina Casano is a TV & Film Writer at Girls in Capes and studies Theatre and Mass Communication at Miami University in Ohio. She is the resident expert on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.