The Expired Feminism of Joss Whedon

The Expired Feminism of Joss Whedon

Dollhouse is just an old-fashioned show about a mind control doomsday.

Joss Whedon is a feminist! His shows feature complicated female characters as the protagonists!

No, Joss Whedon is a misogynist! He revels in torturing and degrading women!

Feminist! By giving female characters the opportunity to suffer like male characters, he makes the audience identify with women!

Misogynist! His female characters are hyper-sexualized objects of the male viewer’s gaze!

Whedon is sex-positive and allows his female characters to express sexual desire without punishing them!

Whedon blah blah blah…

This could go on for a while. Googling “Joss Whedon feminist” brings up more than 50,000 results. The Geek Feminism Wiki lists several articles debating the issue, including interviews with Whedon in which he explicitly self-identifies as a feminist, and even that listing is grossly incomplete. By far, feminism is the principal discourse in the global overthinking of Whedon’s TV shows, and Whedon is the major contemporary pop cultural focus for the debate on feminism in narrative television. This makes sense, as his series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dollhouse (and to a much lesser degree, Firefly) address feminism in their basic premises in a way that no other show on television has.

Strange, then, that the most persistent issue in regards to Whedon’s feminism is its authenticity. When Spike Lee addresses race in film after film, the debate is not generally “does Spike Lee hate black people?” We assume that we understand Lee’s point of view regarding race, and examine his films in political terms that we believe to be a priori to the films themselves. If there is discussion about Get on the Bus, it’s a discussion of the merits of Lee’s point of view, not the nature of his perspective. In general, the more prominent a particular political discourse is within the bounds of a work, the less open the work is to political interpretation. Incorporating politics necessitates incorporating ideology.

The guitar instills confidence.

It’s not because we’re talking about feminism, either. I’ve been to plenty of parties that were blasting Team Dresch, which is pretty much slogans with guitar (like a lot of American punk), and never once had a conversation with a girl in a sleeveless denim jacket about whether Kaia Wilson “meant it.” It doesn’t make sense to pick a fight over sincerity in feminism because there’s no good reason to try to fake it. Why would someone pretend to be a feminist, when it isolates you from the mainstream and reduces your market opportunities? For the “cred?” That might make sense if you’re an college student trying to get laid at a party, but there’s not a huge overlap between the demographics for network television and the demographics for The Keeper.

As an ideology, feminism has a long tradition of being critical of exactly the kind of commerce-driven audience manipulation that is the heart of the television business model. You can sell things to women without having to appeal to feminism, so what sense does it make to alienate people by making a television show about institutional misogyny, the struggle for female subjecthood or any other feminist issue? You could even argue that Whedon’s unconventional and troubling philosophical issues in Dollhouse contributed to the show’s marginalization, as Fox isn’t really the best network for marketing complex material.

If the issue isn’t Whedon’s intentions, it must be his results. There has to be disagreement as to whether feminism is occurring in his shows, regardless of whether Whedon loves or hates women. In fact, this is where most of the disagreement is. When people talk about whether Whedon is a feminist, what they’re talking about is whether Buffy or Dollhouse is feminist. That’s a lot more complicated. How can a TV show even be feminist? What does that even mean?

Take that, society!

Now, a brief survey of the history of American feminism in theatre, film and TV. First-wave feminism, from the beginning of the twentieth century, had simple, measurable goals of securing basic human rights for women: the vote, property ownership, self-defense, etc. Nearly any work that depicted women as functioning adults instead of maniacs, children or idiots was (by the standard of the time) feminist.

Second-wave feminism came out of the activism of the late fifties and early sixties, and sought to correct the injustices of the systems of power that kept women second-class citizens. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex identifies the ways in which “woman” is a category defined by a patriarchal society, and narratives that similarly depicted women taking control of their own lives through employment, sexual agency or political action constituted that period’s “feminist” works.

Contemporary feminism (“third wave”) has a much more complicated relationship with narrative. Post-structuralist critiques of language and art point a finger at the structure of narrative itself as being misogynist (among other problems). A story works in at least two ways: as vicarious experience, and as fantasy. When we watch a story, we relate emotionally to the goals and obstacles of the main character. We temporarily give up our own subjecthoods to live the story through the point of view of the protagonist, who we relate to. Conversely, we also take pleasure in seeing particular circumstances played out, separate from ourselves (“fantasy”). In TV and film, women are traditionally not the protagonist (the subject of narrative), but the object of the protagonist’s desire (the subject of fantasy). In terms of psychoanalytic critical theory, this relationship makes it difficult for women to claim the subject position in their own lives, as we learn how to desire and how to construct identities from the world around us, which has become entirely constituted by the world of images generated by media. If TV is always defining a woman in terms of the man in her life, that’s how little girls will learn to define themselves.

“No rape this week, but you can mark it on your timesheet anyway.”

Consider Dollhouse. Echo is, as some have pointed out, perpetually raped. Making a show in which the main character is a woman who’s raped every week, but doesn’t mind, might seem a tad regressive. From a first-wave feminist perspective, the (predominantly female) dolls on Dollhouse are representations of a misogynist idea of femininity: women live to serve men, and have no identities or minds of their own. The premise of the show, however, is that this model is, at best, morally questionable and, at worst, the clock that chimes the apocalypse. A second-wave feminist analysis of the show would defend Dollhouse as an attack on the forces of society that turn people into mindless servants of capitalism, the patriarchy, what-have-you.

But the third-wave feminist comes to a conflicted verdict. On the one hand, the show propagates an inherently misogynist and heteronormative system of representation that serves up images of sexually available women to the male viewer, couching the fantasy in a morality that allows the viewer to enjoy himself without feeling the guilt of sadistic voyeurism. On the other hand, as Whedon explicitly told NPR, the point of the show is to deconstruct the mechanisms behind identity, subjecthood and personal agency. How can rape have meaning if the body is really divorced from the self? How can sex have meaning? What is sexual difference if identity can exist outside of a human body? Is Dollhouse‘s apocalypse really just a post-modern annihilation of identity construction?

You poor bastards.

Here we get to what is, for me, the biggest problem with a feminist interpretation of Dollhouse: this apocalypse can read as a kind of post-identity paradise, but not a post-sexual one. In the episode “Epitaph One,” which takes place in the proposed post-apocalyptic Hell brought on by the Dollhouse technology, we get no hint of what sexual desire might look like in a world where “man” and “woman” become meaningless, temporary place-holders unrelated to identity. The members of the sexually and racially diverse “final girl” group still relate to each other the way all Whedon characters do; they banter with each other, subtly referencing the sexual tension beneath comic intent. They flirt. In the face of death, but more importantly, in the face of the inescapable meaninglessness of sexual difference, they flirt. Surrounded on all sides by the evidence that the dominant cultural narrative of Whedon’s world, the romantic sexual relationship, is a dark, ugly joke, they flirt like Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in His Girl Friday.

From a post-structuralist perspective, Dollhouse isn’t feminist because it presents a world in which sex will never, ever change. The structure we’ve got now is all we’ll ever have, and not even the end of the world will do a lick of good to fix it. That doesn’t mean Whedon’s a misogynist, or a bad feminist. It just means he’s a bad post-structuralist. His feminism is old-fashioned. And if that’s really the world thing you can say about him, he’d probably take it.

26 Comments on “The Expired Feminism of Joss Whedon”

  1. ben #

    I realize that the article is written to analyze the show through feminism, but I’m constantly frustrated by the fact that no one seems to mention that there are males Dolls who are in the exact same position as the female dolls in this show. The mere fact that Victor has a penis does not make it any less rape when he gets sent off an encounter with Ms. Lonley Hearts.


  2. callot #

    Victor is a male, but he’s not on the show as the “rule” of what a Doll is. He’s there as a vaccine against charges of misogyny. The point of the rape critique isn’t that a show with women getting raped is misogynist, but that the premise participates in a logic of rape that puts dolls in a specifically female object position. You aren’t undoing institutional misogyny by having the occasional man get raped. “See, we switch the men and the women so it’s ok!” doesn’t work if the problem is with the nature of these systems of order.

    This misunderstanding happens a lot with post-structuralist criticism.


  3. Gab #

    I’d say a lot of the “feminist” arguments for _Dollhouse_ and Whedon in general come from a thinner (and I’d argue more superficial) understanding of contemporary feminism than yours, Callot. In looking at some of the myriad pieces that pop up about the subject in relation to Whedon, one sees a lot of hollow arguments that boil down to the presence or lack thereof of women and the types of roles they have, not that *and* the world(s) in which they operate and how they respond to said worlds. The pros say it/he is feminist simply because women are there- which is hogwash (imo); but the cons say it/he is NOT because those women are not in control- which is also hogwash (again, imo). It’s much, much more complex than that today, but even first-wave feminism is a difficult lens to use because of modern constructions of identity, liberty, and empathy, among other things. Anyway, I’m not disagreeing with you at all- I’m glad you wrote this.


  4. Matthew Wrather #

    This is great article, Andre — one of your best so far on OTI.

    Still. I’m not sure we ought to dismiss so quickly the male dolls and their implication for the larger message–your answer to Ben is overly glib. The issue isn’t “There’s a man too, so it’s OK” (When did anyone say it was OK?That wasn’t Ben’s point at all.), but rather that there’s something more complex going on. Whedon seems actually to be doing a lot of work to distance the moral question from gender, and make a broadly humanist point about coercion, will, and subjectivity.

    I also think the focus on the dolls as just sex slaves is misplaced. Sex slavery is represented as part of a lager system of slavery, in which the dolls are made to lie, steal, and kill — all against their will. Or, more precisely, without reference to what their will might be, since the show problematizes the area of consent. Again, the issue seems to be will and subjectivity, not really gender.

    Of course, you’re right on about peddling flesh (the opening titles: Dushku in dominatrix gear! Dushku rolling up thigh socks! Dushku as a sexy librarian with glasses!) while denouncing the flesh peddlers. I’ve been bringing this up on the site for some time now, though I tend to focus on SVU since it’s a show that people actually watch. (Dollhouse, alas, failed to find much of an audience.)


  5. mlawski OTI Staff #

    I have seen zero episodes of Dollhouse, so take this comment with a grain of salt. The premise of the show is quite interesting to me due to its inherent meta-ness. It’s a show about people who take bodies and fill them in with personalities–essentially what a writer of drama like Joss Whedon does for a living. Is Whedon using Dollhouse to comment upon his own failings as a writer?

    Take Buffy, for instance, who is kind of a ‘doll’ for Joss. After all, he’s mentioned in many interviews that he has a near-fetish for female superheroes, which is where he got the idea for Buffy in the first place. So he takes a sexy ‘doll’ named Sarah Michelle Gellar and implants the ‘badass superheroine’ personality chip. Of course, the question is, if a character like Buffy empowers female audiences but is also fetishized by male viewers (and writers), then is that character feminist or not?

    Personally, I’d like to thank Mr. Whedon for at least trying. I feel like he gets a lot of flak for this feminist stuff because he actually talks about gender in his work. We don’t give other writers and directors so much grief because we expect them to be sexist. At least Joss can feel happy that he’s held up to a higher standard, even if it means we feminists spend a lot of time ripping his (problematic) works to shreds.


  6. Gab #

    Interestingly, the “we put a male in, so we aren’t being sexist” thing is often used with reverses in the genders in the name of, again, very superficial feminism. “See? There’s a woman! We aren’t sexist, folks!!!” From a different angle, though, couldn’t a more modern (or maybe radical?) feminist critique say what happens to Victor, because of the structure of the Dollhouse itself, feminizes and thus marginalizes him? I don’t know, I’m just throwing stuff out there, now.

    I do agree with Matt about how Victor and the other dolls are good fodder for thinking of it on a human level, not a gender one. I have always felt this about the show. But, one thing I have noticed (and I’ve seen the whole series) is that the only time I recall Victor ever being chosen for a client that wanted to have sex with him, it was Mrs. Loney-Hearts, a key and recurring character- and it was meant to show HER depth, and the messed up nature of the Dollhouse itself takes a backseat to this. Every other persona he takes serves some other, non-sexual purpose- informant, scientist, etc. I may be wrong, but I honestly can’t remember any other client apart from Mrs. Lonely Hearts. Anyway, the point of all that is I think Callot’s point that Victor isn’t a “normal” doll is quite valid. Echo and Sierra only have a few non-sexual encounters, while Victor is the inverse, and this is worth at least noting (since postulating why could lead to a plethora of answers).


  7. tony-with-an-i #

    mlawski, actually the premise for the show came from Eliza Dushku who said to Whedon how it’s hard for an actress to be a different person every time, i.e. being a doll. Whedon also must have seen his own influence in creating these dolls.

    Few points:

    What would the show been like if instead of humans the actives were robots implanted with human memories ala Blade Runner?

    What if a female writer had created the exact same show? What would have the response been then?


  8. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @tony-with-an-i: Thanks for the info re: Dushku. Interesting stuff.

    As for the “what if a female writer had created the same show” question: I’m not sure that would have as much of an effect as you’d think. For example, basically the only movies out there in the mainstream that are written by female screenwriters are regressive rom-coms, and everyone still calls those out as sexist. Unfortunately, we females can sometimes hate on other women as much as certain men sometimes do.

    But, again, I’ve never seen an episode of Dollhouse. Ignore me.


  9. Tom P #

    Dollhouse is neither feminist or misogynistic. It is a study of identity, gender, religion, ethics, and whether or not the ends (immortality) justify the means (prostitution).

    Not everything written by a man involving female characters has to be either pro- or anti-woman. Sometimes a story can be about something else.


  10. callot #

    Tom, if you think I’m wrong, I’d love to know why.


  11. kittiquin #

    I’m too sleepy for any kind of coherent argument right now, but a few thoughts:

    – Maybe Victor isn’t used for sex very often because, realistically, he wouldn’t be. Male prostitutes can (usually) only get by if they work both men and women, and he’s only moderately attractive. While it has always bothered me that he’s never contracted by men (if a doll can’t stipulate in their contract “no killing”, then I doubt they have a “no gay sex” clause) but like I said, he isn’t especially attractive. Plus, Fox probably wouldn’t allow it.

    – Is the term “rape” even applicable to the dolls? They’re made to feel love, to feel attraction. The sex is consensual. Even Echo, who is self-aware, admits that she feels everything that is implanted into her.

    Is being forced to want to have sex the same thing as rape? The person who has sex consents. Their consent is the construction of somebody else, and the body they use is not theirs, but nothing is done against their will.

    The closest analogy to me is prostitution – maybe read Lisa Carver’s essay about being a prostitute (here: ). The way Carver talks about becoming somebody else for a client, being who they want you to be – it’s rather like the Dollhouse. The main difference is that she makes the choice to play this role, but, arguably, many of the dolls (when they sign up with Rossum) have as much choice as most prostitutes do.


  12. Jon Eric #

    Is being forced to want to have sex the same thing as rape? The person who has sex consents. Their consent is the construction of somebody else, and the body they use is not theirs, but nothing is done against their will.

    Yes, it is. The operative word there is “forced.” Even a prostitute has the option to back out if something goes wrong. The dolls don’t have this choice, because in their minds, they love the clients. Wrather phrased it as elegantly as I’ve yet seen it put:

    Or, more precisely, without reference to what their will might be, since the show problematizes the area of consent.

    Still, Whedon and Fox both dropped the ball on this show. It had enormous potential artistically, but the reasons it failed to find an audience are myriad. I’ve been watching since day one (and throughout most of season 1, rather enjoyed it), but it’s a hard show to defend; it’s a mess.

    Back on the topic of feminism, though, I think at the end of the day, I agree with Tom P:
    Dollhouse is neither feminist or misogynistic. It is a study of identity, gender, religion, ethics, and whether or not the ends (immortality) justify the means (prostitution).

    You just wouldn’t know it from watching the ads.


  13. callot #

    The point of the third-wave feminist critique is that it’s a critique of the structure of narrative. That makes feminism a legitimate philosophical approach, not just a political agenda. There’s no such thing as “neither feminist nor misogynist” in post-structuralist feminist analysis of narrative. The feminism and misogyny exist in the form itself. Television as a *medium* is misogynist and/or feminist.


  14. Tim #

    (longish post follows. tl;dr version: sex is a red herring. This is really about the subjugation of the will, and whether one can consent to having one’s personality wiped.)

    I’m going to put aside the discussion of whether any of the dolls is being raped, if their personality imprint is consenting to the sex at the time. At the core of the matter, the violation that is occurring is the general subjugation of the doll’s will. You know the scene at the end of 1984, where, after days of interrogation and brainwashing, Winston finally loves Big Brother? That is happening to these dolls every day of their lives, and not just in a single aspect of their personhood, but in everything about who they are.

    The obvious counterpoint here is that (with a few exceptions) all of the dolls are in there willingly. They sign a contract, turning over the peak five years of their lives to a giant corporation, and then at the end of that period they will never have to worry about money again. Is this personality wipe really something that one can consent to? I don’t think it is, any more than it is possible for a physically healthy man to consent to having someone kill him.

    Whether it is possible to consent to a personality wipe seems like the point most open to scrutiny. People in BDSM relationships consent to plenty of things that, without consent, would put someone in jail, and there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with this. People trying to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War would sometimes consent to having their legs broken, and there is something about this that feels wrong, but I’m not entirely sure if it is just that the person is going to such extreme lengths to avoid serving in the military.

    The best line I can draw is in consenting to something that will cause death, or is likely to cause death. This may seem like it is not possible for one to consent to joining the military, but when you look at the number of active service members, versus the number of service members killed in action each year, you are looking at a profession that is simply more dangerous than most others, rather than being likely to cause your death.

    I still don’t know where this leaves the dolls, though. I’m just shooting from the hip right now, and I feel like I would have to turn to my philosophy books to come up with an answer that was based in ethical theory.


  15. Gab #

    Tim, I like where you’re going. I’d add to it, or rather complicate it more, by pointing out how when the people signing their contracts make the decision, they are all under duress in some way- or so we are led to believe, at least. Therefore, whether they even have much of a choice in the matter at all is up for debate. On one hand, sure, of course they do- they could always just say no and take whatever consequences of NOT signing they’d face, right? But on the other, no, they don’t, for the consequences of turning the contract down would be far greater than accepting. They’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, in other words. So in terms of ethics, is it ethical for the company to step in and “take advantage,” so to speak, of the weak position(s) of its potential contractors? Is it ethical for the person to knowingly agree to it? Are they even really, truly doing it knowingly in the first place? Etc.


  16. AsWicked #

    I (over)think there may be more to the rape analysis than simply considering the roles of duress and consent. The core issue that is being explored in the show is that of identity. To call the acts of consensual sex engaged in by the dolls rape is to ignore a very basic question: to what extent does the original person, who signed the contract, even still have relevance? It seems weird to consider the situation in terms of property rights, but I (mediocre)think it might be apt. Does the original person retain ownership rights over the body, such that doing things without that person’s permission constitute rape? Why does that original person still have control over what happens to the body at all? Keep in mind, the show’s premise goes much further than traditional notions of incapacity or inability to consent–the dolls aren’t drunks at a sorority party, but are made into different people by the technology of the dollhouse.

    To use a lame medical analogy from our own experience: does a person suffering severe, permanent or indeterminate retrograde amnesia lose the ability to consent to sexual activity for the duration of their condition? For the rest of their life? Is the ostensibly consensual physical consummation of a relationship automatically considered rape?

    Who, exactly, is getting raped?

    I really hope this many mentions of the word rape doesn’t materially alter the character of banner ads that google places on the website. That would be unfortunate.


  17. AsWicked #

    To flesh out the analogy:

    Our moral intuitions tell us, perhaps, that to contrive to have sex with an amnesiac under conditions that the pre-amnesia person wouldn’t consent to is to commit a wrongful act. On the other hand, that completely changes the characterization of the sex from a matter of the amnesiac’s consent to that of the other person’s intent. That should very obviously raise problems–if you don’t mean to do it, is it no longer rape? Can a morally stunted college freshman sidestep the issue by claiming ignorance or chemically diminished capacity? And doesn’t that absolve any of the dolls’ clients from responsibility because they cannot have knowledge of the original person’s character, intent, or preference?

    How much reference should be made to an ‘original’ person’s choices? A person can act as they otherwise wouldn’t for a variety of reasons: they’re drunk, they’re off their anti-depressants, they just got out of a bad relationship, or they contractually relinquished their volition to a futuristic sociopathic corporation. If that’s a spectrum, how do we make a dispositive distinction between actual consent and artificial consent?


  18. Johann #

    I am going to play devil’s advocate here a little bit:
    As far as I understand the Dollhouse technology (I stopped watching after the first season), they wipe out every trace of the original personality from the doll, store it on a hard disk, and then intent to put it back after five years. So these people are essentially giving away their *body*, not their spirit/soul/mind/personality, and thereby not their will. Dollhouse technology makes it possible to separate body and mind perfectly – therefore there is no moral dilemma. The people who sign up know what their body can be used for, and they willingly give their body away.
    To make an analogy: If I give away my kidney, my hand, or my whole body to someone else, I am then not responsible for, nor in control of the things that person does with my kidney/hand/body.
    The fact that some of the dolls become “self-aware” is another thing, but as far as I have watched it, there is no “awakening” of the original person.


  19. Tim #

    Aww, callot, I would totally like to talk about post-structuralism… if I knew anything about it. But aren’t you the one who said on the podcast that it’s one of the most frequently misused schools of thought? And, in my defense, I studied philosophy in college–primarily the philosophy of language, and ethics. Media studies and literary analysis are things I enjoy doing, but I’m not exactly “trained” in them.


  20. Caroline #

    This post involves SPOILERS for both Buffy and Dollhouse. Just so’s you know.

    Yeah, after hearing self-identifying poststructuralists given a pretty hearty verbal flogging on the podcast (with feminists cited as a group that frequently offend), I’m a little wary.

    As far as analyzing Joss Whedon from a third-wave feminist perspective goes, I think Buffy the Vampire Slayer may have more food for thought than Dollhouse, if only because the longer run of the show allowed for more character and mythology development. I think there are definitely interesting questions in the show for a feminist critique to explore (e.g. Is Buffy’s power as a feminist hero diminished by the fact that she needs her male mentor to train her and tell her what to do? Are the lesbian characters fetishized or humanized? Do the supernatural origins of all powerful female characters add to their power, or serve to explain why these powerful women are the exception?)

    As far as Dollhouse goes, although the female (and to some degree the male) dolls are raped, fetishized, dehumanized, and enslaved, as a viewer I never felt that Joss Whedon includes those themes in the show because he approves of them. Personally, I always took the overtly stereotypical personalities the dolls are sometime imprinted with as more of a commentary on how society pigeonholes people based on gender and identity than an insight into Joss Whedon’s feminism.

    Although it hasn’t come up yet, I think the most solidly feminist moment in Dollhouse comes at the end of the first season, when Alpha imprints Echo with all of her personalities. Because in that moment she not only rejects the role that Alpha assigned her in “creating” that personality and physically confronts him, but she also confronts her original personality (Caroline), and reproaches her for choosing to enter the Dollhouse.

    In that scene (which was, granted, not as powerful as it could have been), the exploited woman confronts the part of herself that has given into the Dollhouse (society). And it is that personality (or combination of personalities) that become dominant, and define Echo from that point forward in the series. For me, Dollhouse is less about sex, and more about the roles culture assigns based on race and gender.

    It may be a coincidence, but I feel like that view is reinforced by the fact that the show’s title is very similar to that of Henrik Ibsen’s play “A Doll’s House,” in which a woman ultimately rejects the characteristics and role assigned to her by society and her husband.

    That was long, and not really in the same vein as the conversation up until this point. But I did want to give my contribution.


  21. Genevieve #

    In re: rape – I like AsWicked’s point about the separation of the body from the will/identity, especially the comment about giving away other body parts. If I give someone a lung, I definitely see a moral dilemma, in my opinion, if they were to start smoking cigarettes… but I’m pretty sure it’s not an ethical dilemma. Once something is given, I no longer have any ethical claims as to how it is used. Now, of course, if I were simply *loaning* my lung, it would be unethical for the person using it to put it through the undue wear and tear of smoking… but in discussing rape, we’re not talking about the physical abuse of the body. We’re talking about the *ethics* of doing something to the body that its “owner” might not want done.

    If I loan someone my car, it is unethical for them to do anything to it that could negatively impact my life once it’s returned. They shouldn’t, say, smoke in it, because that would seep into the upholstery. They shouldn’t use it to smuggle drugs, because I could be held liable. However, it is NOT unethical (though perhaps rude, or even immoral) for them to do something I wouldn’t WANT done, but that has no lasting physical impact – say, having sex in the back seat.

    Basically, the essence of rape is the mental and emotional “scars” that are left behind on the survivor after the act. If the “owners” have their bodies returned to them without those “scars,” then any sex involved was not an unethical use of the bodies. I would definitely hesitate to call it rape, without those scars. I think it’s fundamentally wrong in this case to say that the lack of explicit consent equates to refusal. The will is removed, not just ignored or subverted. You can’t say something is “against [her] will” if there is not will for it to be against.


    As to the notion of post-structuralism, which I know next-to-nothing about, I would have to say that it’s hard to judge the show for “peddling flesh” when that is the explicit nature of the medium of television to begin with. The show is subtly mocking its medium specifically by coming up with an almost farcical premise that excuses its use of exclusively “beautiful people.” It’s like, a self-aware Models, Inc.

    Television itself, *media* itself, “propagates an inherently misogynist and heteronormative system of representation that serves up images of sexually available women to the male viewer.” Dollhouse, at least, tells you it’s wrong for doing so. Those running the Dollhouse are unambiguously immoral. We sympathize with them at our own peril. The show’s morality is not exactly a well-kept secret. I think that working within the system is the best, if not only, way to lampoon and dismantle it.


  22. callot #

    I don’t listen to the podcast. If I wanted to hear this flogging, which episode would I listen to?


  23. Matthew Wrather #

    Pretty much any. I’m remarkably consistent. :)

    (And, FWIW, I like to think that the point I was making was slightly more nuanced than that.)


  24. Tom P #

    callot: Not sure if you’ll read this or not because this post is now 20 years old in Internet time and also it probably won’t come out exactly the way I intend but:

    Your point that television (and really entertainment) as a medium is misogynistic is not wrong and for me to argue against it would be stupid because you could lay countless examples at my feet as to why it is. The problem is that going back to your diatribe on Hamlet (or MacBeth?) in the comments of a previous post that your definition of misogyny is very far away from what I believe. If you (or the previous commenter) can read misogyny in to Buffy the Vampire Slayer because of the casting decision to make the middle-aged, British, brainy librarian foil male vs. Buffy’s brawn, then you, I, and the aforementioned commenter will never come to an agreement. If that is the case then a story, by definition, has to be misogynistic unless every good guy is a woman and every bad guy is a man.

    For me, the philosophical implications of Dollhouse go far beyond anything as simple as male vs. female. As I mentioned in my first comment… it raises much more questions about the question of identity and self. The question of whether Ballard is still Ballard after being rendered brain-dead and having his self re-installed from a back-up or what, exactly, Echo is.

    As for the post-structuralist argument… you could absolutely argue circles around me as to good post-structuralism vs. bad. As a philosophical examination of the concept of “self” I think it’s probably unmatched as a television show.


  25. callot #

    I think that I may have been unclear in my use of the “misogyny” distinction. When I talk about misogyny in television, I’m not talking about women being depicted in a certain light in contrast to men. I don’t care if women are depicted as physically strong or not, or if they’re morally admirable, or if they’re attractive. It doesn’t matter if female characters are intelligent, or if they’re brave, or if they’re interested in men. None of that matters to me as far as formal misogyny.

    What I’m talking about in this article is the way narrative is constructed in terms of gender, and where that construction places women within the system of order. How is a woman’s identity constructed? How does she formulate her narrative desire? How is that desire manifest within the visual language of the show?

    Serial television privileges certain narrative modes which are tied strongly to a larger system of symbolic order. Gender is constructed in terms of difference, outward from the subject. The idea of a “self” is predicated on the capacity to occupy this subject position, which is difficult if you don’t identify with the dominant narratives used to give meaning to the idea of a subject.

    When you say “as simple as male vs female” you misrepresent my point of view. Male and female are distinctions at the heart of the structuralist (phallogocentric) understanding of existence. For Derrida and Lacan, the post-structuralist question of gender construction is tied up in the central problem of existence, which is “what does it mean to say ‘I’?” The idea of governmental, religious, academic or economic hegemony relies on a concept of power as it relates to the individual. Our modern idea of “self” is the result of thousands of years of rule by a variety of dominant forces, all of which rely on the subject-object distinction to exert influence over individual action. Gender is possibly the most fundamental battleground for that power struggle, as gender construction generates power relationships regardless of any other cultural distinction.

    When we consider the “self,” we do not declare positively any of the things that place us within the symbolic order. Rather, we declare negatively that we lack the things that deny us the possibility of selfhood. Race, gender, class, religion, sexual desire: these things all disappear in the construction of self. The classical self is therefore the hetero, white, wealthy Western man, and narrative is a direct result of that. The self wants what Lacan called “l’objet petit a” and that “wanting” is one of the chief ways the self is constituted. It’s also the primary theme of narrative: a character wants something, therefore we have a story.

    The primary “objet petit a” is, of course, the woman. Not only is gender tied up with the idea of “otherness” as it determines self, it’s also tied up with desire as it determines the subject position. The whole nature of the construction of gender in terms of narrative (who a character is, what the character wants) puts women in a place where they aren’t allowed to “be” except when they can exist outside of their own gender identity.

    Some great writers on this subject include Luce Irigaray, Elin Diamond, Teresa de Lauretis and Jackie Stacey. They do a better job of being clear than I do.


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