Joss Whedon Opens a Dollhouse of Infinite Sexuality, with a Price

picture-17Everyone always calls the monster “Frankenstein,” but of course, the name belongs to the doctor, not the creature. That slip of mental conflation is at the heart of Dollhouse, the new anthology thriller from Buffy-creator Joss Whedon, premiering this Friday at 9/8 CT on Fox.

Eliza Dushku (who played baddie Slayer Faith on Buffy) is Echo, a young woman who willingly becomes a blank slate capable of being imprinted with any memories, skills or personality you want, provided you have the bank for such an exclusive service. Need the perfect lover? The perfect spy? An assassin? Echo can be whatever you want—and when you’re done, her mind is wiped of all memories. Or so the theory goes, but as a parade of mad doctors throughout history will attest, the quest to create a “perfect” human, usually leads to things blowing up in your face. Or, at the very least, a mob of angry villagers with pitchforks.

Whedon’s held a special place in the gay community’s heart ever since Buffy came along with its feminist underpinnings and lesbian-empowerment witches, but Dollhouse, with its metaphorical prostitution and human-trafficking, goes to the dark side of feminism. If Buffy was the ultimate empowered Valley girl, Echo is powerless, a childlike blank slate when not imprinted with someone else’s memories.

But as Dushku’s character opines in the pilot, “Have you ever really looked at a blank slate? It’s never really clean. You can always see what’s there before.”

Still, the “Buy a girl who will be anything you want” angle opens up some serious gay angles for the show. At Comic-Con last week, Whedon addressed the potential for “actives” to be turned into lesbians and told the audience that, while on Buffy, the writers had a policy of not allowing magic to change a person’s sexuality as a means of punishment:

“On this show [Dollhouse], people’s personalities are being completely overwritten. When someone hires an active, what they’re basically doing is hiring somebody for an experience that absolutely nobody in the world will ever know about including the person that you went through it with…If you don’t think that at least a third of the people who hire Actives are not bi-curious, you’re naive.”

Of course, all this sexuality mumbo-jumbo will take time to sell to skeptical Fox viewers, who prefer their hot chicks to blow things up more than explore the nature of free will and sexuality. Whedon has already gone to some length to appease Fox and create a show that won’t wind up a critical darling that’s canceled before its time, but with a Friday night slot, Dollhouse faces an uphill challenge.

The show has received comparisons to Quantum Leap, but if there’s one thing Dollhouse reminds us of, it’s Alfred Hitcock’s Vertigo. In one of the early episodes, FBI Agent Paul Ballard (BSG‘s Tahmoh Penikett) is tracking down the Dollhouse, where the actives are made, and meets Echo, only she’s been programmed to throw him off the case, which is exactly the same thing Kim Novak is sent to do to Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, only without the sci-fi flux capacitor thingamajigs.

Vertigo, of course, is famous for bringing Hitchcock’s own misogynistic desires to life and confronting them in a way that was both compelling and brutally honest. It remains to be seen if Whedon’s allegorical Dollhouse will allow him to reveal his own sexuality. Whedon has a thing for girls who have been empowered and abused by men (see: Buffy and the Watchers, River Tam and the men in blue gloves on Firefly) and Dollhouse looks to be the fullest expression of Whedon’s inner desire to be the nerd capable of making the perfect woman.

It’s a tricky tight-rope to walk. Can a show whose central premise from week-to-week is that a bunch of dudes wipe over a girl’s memory to make her think, feel and do as they please actually help deconstruct and tear-down the central misogyny of its premise, or does it merely perpetuate it? That is to say, will the king of enlightened sexuality TV wind up exposing the monster, or becoming one himself?

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  • rose

    i was at the Dollhouse panel at NYCC on Sunday and the preview of the show that we were shown made it look interesting enough for those of us who are already interested in Whedon’s work, but like you said, it might have to really work harder to win over Fox viewers. I’m always interested when an artist chooses to portray the very thing they are “against” in order to try to make others see the horror of it. Whedon even mentioned that it was as close as he could get to portraying human trafficking which is definitely one of the scariest things happening in this world today. He said the storyline itself scares him and is really unnerving, lets just hope it has the ability to be read the way Whedon wants it to be read by Fox viewers.

  • Hint

    You never mention that the show features male “actives” as well. So the potential for gayness and exploitation is not just of the female variety.

  • Dudous Migratorious

    I heard an interview with the creator of Dollhouse the other day on NPR. I kept thinking, as he seemed to be scrambling to defend the show, “nice try, asshole.” It may be good. I may check it out. BUT, it sounds like a straight guy making a straight-guy fantasy show.

  • kevin

    Great insight, Japhy! This is one of the best television reviews I’ve read in a long time…with the exception of your fabulous run-down of RuPaul’s Drag Race.

  • vernonvanderbilt

    Before I even begin…I’m biased. Joss Whedon is one of my main artistic influences, and generally one of my favourite humans. That being said, I’m looking forward to seeing this show, and have been since I first heard about it last year. Anything that will get Joss’ work back on television is great news for me, and bringing Eliza into the mix makes it that much better.

    Joss has always had a knack for exploring philosophical issues in entertaining ways, and I expect no different from his latest offering. Sure, there’s always the chance that the show will be a creative, critical, and poular failure…but if Joss Whedon’s at the helm, those chances are reduced significantly. I will definitely be tuning in tomorrow night.

  • Jonathan

    I suppose one could call this return of the Buffy-Bot; Joss’ treatment of the perverted male fantasies that led his adolescent evildoers to create a robot buffy for their own fantasies was one of the most uncomfortable moments of the entire Buffy series for me. I’m interested to see how deep Joss can delve into the ugly, ugly things at the heart of that impulse.

  • Eclipse

    @Dudous Migratorious:
    I get what you’re saying Dudous, but you need to know Joss Whedon. He’s one of the most vocal feminists (male or female) in the industry. This is certainly not a hetero fantasy- this is subversive discourse about hetero fantasy.

    I’m the first man-hating dyke to step in and call bullshit, but Whedon is a great ally to LGBTs and women.

  • dgz

    i’ve loved Eliza Dushku ever since “bring it on.” crap, i’m SUCH a stereotype.

    spirit fingers,

  • naprem

    Also, Tahmoh Penikett is one of the sexiest men every on TV.

  • PatrickD

    @naprem: Quite true! Personally,the show made me feel a bit dirty. The Promos sort of put up the idea that this was done for Good, yet immediately, you see it’s basically the Sex Trade dressed up. The Good? It’s like the neighborhood hooker helping someone with the door….public relations, nothing more.

  • radicaledward101

    I just watched episode 1 for the second time on Hulu ( I have to say I absolutely loved it. The psychological ideas here go hand in hand with my general (surface) understanding of some famous philosophical theories. It challenges the idea of humans being a blank slate (a.k.a. you can be born gay, you can be born to enjoy music etc.). It also reinforces Robert Nozick’s Experience Machine ideas.

    He’s not nearly as hot as David Boreanaz IMHO. I started watching Bones for him. Now I watch it for the interesting way Dr. Brennen’s brain works though.

    Is he really? I heard he got a lot of crap from some about his treatment of Willow and Tara. I personally thought it was a very well done, very human relationship, but that’s just me.

    I guess I should note, for the record, that I’m a straight male. That sort of makes me a guy “from the outside looking in” on this particular stance on the show. I trust Whedon more than any other tv writer/director of our times. If we give him the chance, and Fox doesn’t stifle his freedom, he will create something that is deep, entertaining, and positive.

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