Joss Whedon’s The Dollhouse: some thoughts

I just finished watching the two-season television series The Dollhouse, which has left me with a lot of thoughts.

The basic premise of the show is that a technology is developed that can scan your brain, take up all of its experience and put it on a kind of hard-disk that can then be “downloaded” into someone else’s body. Moreover, a “hard-disk brain” can be manually assembled from any number of other experience sets, and you can pick and choose which aspects of a given experience set you want to pull out and recombine. The result is that  you can assemble a functional human brain with the experience you gave it (and hence the attributes, qualities, and abilities you want to give it).

The basic plot is that the technology was developed illicitly by a biotech company (think of current patenting of supergenes and constructing of genome sequences), that (depending on which episodes we’ve seen) desire either to make a huge profit off of it; or to develop and monopolize such a powerful technology for the use of “good” before “bad” guys get a hold of it; or to instrumentalize it themselves to control the government and society generally.

The technology is used on people who themselves desire to erase painful or traumatic memories, and who sign a deal to lend their bodies to profit-bearing use, during which time they will be “imprinted” with alternate experience sets and sent out on various missions for whomever hires them (and for whatever purpose) After the period of the contract (usually 5 years), they will have their memories restored to them minus the traumatic part. So the quid pro quo is, we wipe away your pain and help you become a functioning individual again (a kind of expensive therapy treatment, digital style), and in return you lend us your body so we can (for a large profit) make you into somebody’s hitman, bodyguard, or lover.

Here are some clips forming a 10 min. summary of Season One (warning: this gives away most of the plot):

And a teaser for Season Two (does not give the plot away):


So far, there’s not much new. This is a variation of the well-walked terrain of ideas of mind, science, self, technology, and power already well worked over by the likes of Total Recall , The Matrix (1999), The Thirteenth Floor (1999), Dark City (1998), Suture (1993), Momento (2000), Minority Report (2002), and, rather awfully, Inception (2010), to name only a few. And that batch of artistic production was only an updated installment on themes and ideas worked out in much earlier fiction, including Philip Dick, Hitchcock, The Twilight Zone, and others. And these of course are merely the popular culture variants (and spaces of exploration and vulgarization) of ideas philosophy has been mulling over for at least a three centuries, in a list including Descartes, Kant, Bergson and Freud.

So we are walking on well-tread territory here, and there is little fresh thinking at the level of new themes or ideas. But there is still plenty of interesting things going on. Popular culture offers a space for expressing, exploring, and telling stories: when we look at it ethnographically (and sociologically) we see what society is thinking about and how it perceives itself; when we look at it artistically, we can see it as a kind of “thinking aloud” occurring within the (perhaps narrow) institutional space offered by, in this case, a popular TV show; and when we try to discern its “deep thought”, underneath all the karate chopping and sex flaunting, we can see it is trying to say something deeper to its audience.


The series begins rather banal and predictable, but stimulating and fun enough to have kept me watching. It rehashes all the well-worn terrain of identity, self, memory evoked above (are you what you feel, or what you think you are, or what others perceive you as; would you be yourself if your memories were unreliable; if they all evaporated would you still have a coherent self or would you have to start all over again; can you escape past experiences and reinvent yourself or are you determined by them; are individuals autonomous enough to overcome the social conventions, institutions, ideologies, and political formations that normally determine or heavily influence them; etc. …).

Much of the early episodes are unfulfilled potential, a failed attempt at being deep, while always just nearly thinking interesting thoughts. For example, one of the themes that caught me was the (mostly failed) attempt to think feminist thoughts. The protagonist, Echo (her actual name is Caroline, but her “Active” name is Echo), is the most popular Active and gets hired a lot, mostly for sexual adventures. She is a character constructed in each episode by whatever rich guy paid to use her for a day or a weekend. We thus get to see how a rich guy supposedly would want to construct the perfect lover/object of desire. There is something of an attempt to critique tropes of the feminine. In various episodes, the lovers have her constructed as a dumb blond, a dominatrix, or a tough Lara Croft or Agent Salt sort of character. It would seem that the condition of being powerful as a woman is that you meet the prerequisite of being constructed as a sexualized object. So if you look and act like a supermodel and an exotic dancer, you are allowed to beat up men and assert yourself as an intelligent, independent woman. This is obviously a self-defeating sort of feminism, of the sort we encounter every day on in pop culture when we learn that Beyonce offers a new brand of feminism. Women are allowed to play act at domination and to fantasize about being in control, as long as they are doing it from within sexualized bodies exposed for erotic appreciation. They apparently do not have the right to be ugly, or unadorned, or to cover their bodies (or to genuinely uninterested in heteroerotic relations) while they belt out lyrics about girl power. (I am aware that there is likely an argument to be made that these vedettes (of the Beyonce sort) are using in progressive ways the *extremely* limited space afforded to them, but I fail to see much to it. Perhaps more convincing is the notion that this sort of girl power feminism attempts at its best to seize, hyperbolize, and ultimately somehow explode it, thru overdoing it, pushing its logic to its limits and then further so that it doesn’t work any more and sits there, exposed). In any case they are, without doubt, better than the terrible misogyny at the heart of predecessors/alternatives like Snoop Dog, Ludicris, or CamRon.)

Compare, for example, the three following videos: the first are well-known examples of the girl power (pseudo)feminism attributed to Beyonce and Lady Gaga; the second is something I find far more convincing as a form of “MTV feminism,” by Peaches. For the first two videos, it is as if they are saying: if we have to be sexualized and sexy, at least let’s use our sexy in something like a self-conscious instrumentalization of it. The three offer a sequence, wherein, to my mind at least, Beyonce tries but never does really escape the tropes of the sexy girl-power feminine (and therefore never eludes the constraints of a straitjacketing heteroerotic self-production), whereas Lady Gaga seems far more willing to play with its edges, suggestively expose and dismantle it, or at least open up a space of satire, hyperbole (which implies critique), and shifting positions (which implies a limited agency and  resignifying that Beyonce’s work does not). Finally, the Peaches video displays something of an exploding of the tropes, a visceral exposing of them as they get blown up like an overfilled waterballoon, and then they ooze out of shape into new configurations.

The most generous reading of the first two videos (beyonce and gaga) is to write off the majority of the conventional stuff as enabling the rest, in the sense that perhaps if you put enough sexy dance moves and nonsense romance lyrics in a song to make it look normal enough (and get it on MTV and make a profit etc.), then you can squeeze into the margins something a little more subversive or progressive or unconventional. This reading parallels the logic of art under censorship, wherein you had to find a way to squeeze in the subversive stuff in the middle (or margins) of all the rest, which the  interesting stuff.

Okay, here are the videos:

For more of Peaches, see Billionaire and Diddle, among others.


There are two more points I want to talk about, and  both only came out for me in the second season. First is a sustained analogy through the second half of the second season with ideological brainwashing, socialist revolution, and institutional complicity (which I discuss in this order). The ideas here do not go deep, but they are there. The dolls are constantly trying to find themselves through all of the stuff “imprinted” onto them. That is, underneath all the nonsense put in their brains, there are things that make much more sense; there is a kind of truth of the self that can be retrieved, and it has something to do with getting in touch with your feelings and cultivating a sense of empathy and compassion.

The world is represented as a space of corruption, where terrible people mostly control everything that matters, and there is little room to resist. The way to resist is to shed the voices of authority, as well as the conventional thinking, the imprints, and to work together and struggle together for emancipation. The “men in power” are keen on destroying the world through their narcissistic attempts to control it; and one can either compromise one’s morals, be an unwitting pawn in their games, or struggle against them. Clearly, the heroic characters in the series promote the latter option.

To continue to wear blinders, to rationalize that “that’s just how the world is,” to produce work (whether research, or services, or manual labor) without paying attention to the larger formations one is complicit to, is to contribute to the enterprises of the powerful. The young scientist character Tofer is a basically decent guy; he is a nerd and loves the challenges of his work; he thinks highly of himself but would not wish harm upon anyone. And he doesn’t really pay attention to the context of his work; he prefers to keep his eyes on the challenges of daily tasks and ignores the greater consequences that seem out of sight. Out of sight, out of mind. Oppenheimer might have said the same (I don’t recall his having visited Japanese hospitals in August 1945). And yet he finds out by the end of the second season that he has been unwittingly contributing to the evil in the world; that his work, which he thought of as either benign, helpful, or ingenius, had a use, and that it was put to use by people with intentions different from his own, and which he completely disagrees with, but is helpless to stop. By ignoring the greater context of his participation in an institution, by ignoring his greater relationship to the social structure, he was unwittingly complicit in destroying the world, literally. What I learn from this is that it is imperative to attend to the larger consequences of our work, even when they are not obvious. (I will update this section tomorrow; for now I will just leave it hear.)

This entry was posted in Reviewing...(movies, books, music videos), Sexual politics, Social critique in culture, Struggle and Revolution! and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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