Violence in the Dollhouse

Oppositional Gaze Blog

Dollhouse is a series which revolves around main character Caroline/Echo, who is serving for five years at an organization called the Dollhouse. She spends her days as a brainwashed shell of a person, until a custom personality is “imprinted” into her brain. With these personalities she is hired out by the company for temporary engagements – from negotiating a hostage situation to serving as a custom prostitute. After each assignment she undergoes a painful process and has her memory removed.

This episode (S1E2) focuses on Echo’s mission gone wrong – a man named Richard buys her service to go on a romantic rock-climbing, rafting and camping trip, but lies about his motivations. Soon Echo is running from him as he hunts her with a bow through the woods, setting traps with the intention of killing her.

At the same time, via flashback, a story is told of a previous event at the Dollhouse: one of the dolls, Alpha, going on a homicidal rampage and killing everyone but Echo. Another subplot involves Ballard, an investigator trying to find out the truth behind the secret Dollhouse, using remnants of Echo’s past as clues.

Richard is by no means a sympathetic character, he is justly punished for his violence by Echo, who eventually hunts him in return.

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Notice how the camera focuses entirely on her, and not the gun? But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Dollhouse, coming from the prolific (and often considered feminist) writer Joss Whedon displays the struggle women must go through, forced into roles by a society in which they must often face violence, misogyny and oppression. Echo is special even in the face of overwhelming efforts to make her a shell of a person. As Boyd says near the end of the episode, “It all leads back to Echo.”

Some Problems…

Echo is treated a an object throughout this episode. She’s an object to be viewed, attacked,and abused. The camera pans slowly up and down her body, lingering on kisses while Echo flirts aggressively. For the beginning of the episode, Echo is not anything more than eye candy. Her personality is firey but submissive, at least until threatened, and has been engineered to be that way. She’s the “perfect girl.”

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The violence is voyeuristic and sexualized through the editing of the episode. An arrow shot at a deer cuts to Echo and Richard in a post-coital embrace, and then to Richard telling her to run, giving her a five minute head start before hunting her down. We view Echo from a voyeuristic position through Richard’s scope. Even Richard’s death at the end of the episode is weirdly sexual – it turns out his desire in renting Echo’s service was to have her either evade him, or kill him. His last words are “Wow, you really are special.”

Laura Mulvey describes the gendered nature of scopophilia as it is on display here on page four of her essay: “pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female.” Richard is the active and violent, while Echo is passive and helpless. Her safety depends on her Handler, Boyd Langton, and the scientist Topher, who are monitoring her vital signs from a safe distance, also active characters. The episode subverts this briefly as Echo takes up arms against Richard, but soon she is back in the arms of her caretakers, relegated again to the passive role.

What’s really interesting is the only violence which is sexualized is violence against Echo. Boyd, held hostage by Richard’s accomplice, shoots him point blank in the knees in a clear cut, wide angle shot, with none of the tender camera work and first-person, lingering gazes which display Echo for the viewer.

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Above: Echo takes off her shirt so you can see her breasts more clearly while she evades her killer.

In addition, jokes about marginalized identities pop up her and there in the dialogue. Topher makes a joke to Boyd, about his “deep man love,” prompting Brando to hang up the call, embarrassed and annoyed by the notion of homosexuality. Humor is also invoked when Ballard’s fawning, dowdy neighbor offers him a tray of lasagna. She’s played as desperate and overreaching, dressed poorly, pathetic, and overly enthusiastic.

Boyd also at one point refers to Echo in her blank state a “special needs,” and she is heavily infantalized in this state as well. Her impaired cognitive function is reason to believe she is less than human. Staff at the Dollhouse harass her and threaten to kill her – in her mental state she is unable to respond with anything more than a faint “echo” of remembrance of Richard’s violence, a hand gesture which references his attack on her. The parallel is thereby made in the last few seconds of the episode: Echo faces the same violence in both Richard and in the Dollhouse, and both forms of violence are manifesting due to her femininity.

Echo is every writer’s dream: a “strong female character” who can avoid death, love deeply, and kick ass. And this girl is still entirely at the mercy of all the funny and interesting male characters. She’s at the mercy of the Dollhouse, pushed by society into different feminine roles in a metaphor so opaque it makes a better door than a window.

For all Dollhouse pushes a feminist agenda – it really does nothing but recreate the tropes in media which harm women. Echo is not even treated as a human. She’s an empty shell of Caroline, and Caroline’s only purpose seems to be to lead Ballard to the Dollhouse. Spending forty minutes watching a woman serve the violent fantasies of her male employers, her body traded for money, and then being told she is “special,” does not make it alright.

The show acknowledges through its concept that it is objectifying Echo, and seemingly claims to be doing so to make a point. However watching this episode devoid of context would leave one under the impression they’d just watched an exploitation film.

Echo in her blank state is, as described by one of the main characters, “Not a girl, just an empty person.” And perhaps the viewer is meant to empathize with Echo, to see themselves in that empty shell. But why would you want to see yourself in that shell when it’s being shot at, abused, and exploited?

Is recreating real-world violence in a fantastical setting really doing anything for anyone? Dollhouse seems to ignore real-world misogyny in favor of elaborate constructions and metaphors. In this world, misogyny only matters if you encounter it as a beautiful, special, and capable woman. If you’re the unattractive neighbor lady with lasagna, the script points and laughs.

Not to mention, the richness Dollhouse could have if it addressed questions of ability. What does it mean that employees of the Dollhouse feel free to verbally harass Echo, just because to them, she can’t understand? Scenes where she is in her blank-slate mentality conjure up uncomfortable images of mentally disabled persons being abused – a frighteningly common occurrence in the real world. Dollhouse seems to skirt this issue entirely. Her caretakers only want the best for her, she’s an investment. She faces violence and hatred because she’s special, so extraordinary that people around her get caught in the crosshairs of her violent life. Not because she’s “special,” and treated as subhuman.

A gray morality seeps into Dollhouse. What the organization is doing is wrong, no doubt about it. Echo’s servitude is a wrongful action against her. It’s unclear whether we are supposed to root for the staff of the Dollhouse or not. Boyd and Topher are portrayed in a humanizing and sympathetic light, but their organization is not – are we to believe they are “just following orders?”

bell hooks writes a criticism of Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, suggesting that it is a “replication of mainstream patriarchal cinematic practices that explicitly represents woman … as the object of a phallocentric gaze” (126). I would argue a similar crticism could be made of this show. Alhough hooks was concerned with intersections of race in her writing, the concept is the same.

In an attempt to portray a woman character in a sympathetic light, Joss Whedon recreates violence and exploitation, points at the fact he is doing so, and then expects us to see this as progressive. “No, really, see I’m ADMITTING I’m making something misogynistic,” he seems to say.

The outright violence faced by Echo is so overblown and grandiose a metaphor I could not position myself within it. In attempting to call attention to violence, Dollhouse makes it unrelateable at all. Why make an elaborate plot about sexual violence involving rock climbing, bows and arrows, and poison canteens, when women face violence every day of a much simpler, and equally traumatic sort?

In short, I feel my oppositional gaze of this episode was entirely due to the fact that I was deconstructing it the whole time. Simply being able to say – “wait, that’s not right,” and articulating it’s problems allowed me to connect with the episode on a critical level.

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