'Buffy' and 'Dollhouse': Visions of Female Empowerment and Disempowerment

For a series of companion pieces to this story, check out PopMatters' Joss Whedon spotlight.

On the one hand, she can both throw a punch and take one. She rides motorcycles and dances in skimpy outfits. She can get married and pull off elaborate heists of priceless art pieces. She solves mysteries and delivers babies. On the other hand, she wears a completely blank expression and speaks only in canned phrases; she hardly knows her own name. I’m talking, of course, about Echo, the heroine of the recent TV show Dollhouse, which ran for a tragically short two seasons. As exciting as her adventures may have been and as much storytelling promise the show might have had, Dollhouse was not without its fair share of critics. Joss Whedon, the creator of Dollhouse, is one of TV’s most famously feminist writers, responsible for the creation of Buffy, a powerful young woman who battled evils (both metaphorical and literal) for seven seasons. In contrast, there is Echo, whom some have called the “anti-Buffy”—while Buffy is confident, witty, and empowered, Echo is frequently helpless, confused, and ultimately disempowered.

Many viewers have expressed frustration that the supposedly feminist Joss Whedon would create a story about a glorified, high-tech form of prostitution. However, I argue here that in his feminist repertoire, Dollhouse gives us just as much fodder for thinking about gender, feminism, and power as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which drew its appeal by resisting the very forms of systemic oppression, both male and female disempowerment, that Dollhouse sought to make explicit.

First, let’s consider Buffy and Echo, the heroines of our stories. Buffy, as we know, was all about “female empowerment.” Joss’s entire premise for the show is roughly explained as, “Blonde girl goes into alley, meets a monster, and destroys it.” He went to great lengths to avoid making Buffy the perpetual “final girl,” who usually only beats the monster out of a combination of luck and virginal purity (horror movies are notorious for killing off women who have sex). From the moment we meet her, she is imbued with supernatural strength, and already possesses some expertise in slaying vampires and demons. Her status as an empowered individual is very rarely called into question (with the possible exceptions of episodes such as “Helpless” 3.12). Yet the true story of how she, and all other Slayers, came to be empowered is particularly disturbing.

We discover in the seventh season that the Slayer line, a perfect example of structural and systemic female oppression, was created as an act of spiritual, psychological, and demonic rape by the Shadow Men. Only young women were targeted to become Slayers, presumably because they are easier to control (until Buffy and Faith prove the Watcher’s Council wrong, anyways). They are also slated to disproportionately bear the cost of fighting evil (“You’re waging a war. She’s fighting it,” Giles admonishes Travers in “Helpless”) as most Slayers are killed in the line of duty before their 18th birthday. Buffy, it is implied, is the latest in a line of literally thousands of Slayers, and in return for preventing apocalypses, the best she can expect is a dramatically shortened life expectancy. Yet this disturbing history is ultimately overshadowed by the message of female empowerment that Whedon chooses to portray—the empowerment of all potential Slayers (by a Goddess figure, no less), and more importantly, the choice on whether or not to fight. An inspiring message, to say the least.

Dollhouse, on the other hand, is not about “girl power”, though the images of a scantily clad Echo beating up the bad guys would have you believe otherwise. Echo, when we first meet her, begins as fundamentally disempowered. Robbed of her memories, identity, even her name, bound by an involuntary servitude, the doll Echo is only able to do what she is programmed to do. As Echo matures into a more complete, wholesome being, with her own true identity and memories, it is obvious that Echo is not fighting for female triumph. Rather, she is fighting for basic human dignity, as she strives for the right to define her own role and identity, a right that is consistently denied in the memory wiping process. In the early episodes of Season One, we watch as Echo struggles to retain just a few memories and words (“Caroline,” she whispers to herself in her Doll state at the end of the unaired pilot) to clue her into whom she really is.

At the end of Season One, she does become a “superwoman” like Buffy, imbued with a “composite personality” incorporating the skills of at least 40 people. Yet the scene in which she receives these powers is strangely reminiscent of the Shadow Men creating the Slayer Line—Alpha, with the air of a mad scientist, forcibly inserts those personalities into a helpless and frightened Echo through wires attached to her head. Even as Echo receives these superpowers, it is clear that this, too, is morally problematic. As we see later, Echo pays dearly for her having received these powers; in “A Love Supreme” (2.8), she writhes in physical pain from the side effects of her composite personality, and eventually she is sent to the Attic for being “broken.” Echo’s empowerment, then, is similar to the Slayers’ in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which also was predicated in female oppression; however, in Dollhouse the origins of the heroine’s empowerment in oppression are delineated more clearly.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dollhouse also differ importantly in their treatment of interpersonal relationships. Buffy, on the one hand, largely assumes equal relationships between its characters; idealized relationships, as supported by feminism, are generally the norm. Despite the fact that many of the relationships might entail inequity (Giles and Buffy’s Watcher/Slayer relationship, for example), typically the characters in these relationships treat each other as equals with plenty of mutual respect and trust. When the expected equity of relationships is violated, it is highlighted as extremely problematic, and genuinely unacceptable. Consider Willow and Tara—though Willow quickly surpassed Tara in witchcraft, they were generally on equal terms until Willow began abusing magic and eventually erased part of Tara’s memories. “I know you used that spell on me,” Tara says angrily upon discovering Willow’s actions. “Violate my mind like that?... You don’t get to decide what’s better for us, Will. We’re in a relationship. We’re supposed to decide together… You’re fixing things to your liking now. Including me.” Tara eventually ends their relationships because of this power imbalance. Similarly, Buffy is furious when she discovers that Giles violated her trust in the episode “Helpless” by temporarily removing her Slayer powers without her knowledge.

In Dollhouse, however, unequal power relationships are the norm—Adele DeWitt and her subordinates, Topher and the dolls, handlers and their charges, the Rossum executives and the Dollhouse executives, the clients and their Actives, to name just a few. Abuses of power are also incredibly common. Adele, for instance, assuages her loneliness by turning a Doll into her lover; Topher programs himself a friend; the paternal Boyd betrays Echo’s trust when he is revealed to be the head of Rossum; Paul Ballard knowingly has sex with an Active, his submissive neighbor Mellie. Sierra’s handler Hearn characterizes the state of relationships best when he is discovered to have raped her while she is in her Doll state and unable to resist: “We’re in a business of using people!... You don’t get how it actually works down there. You put a bunch of stone foxes with no willpower and no memory running around naked? Did you think this wouldn’t ever happen?”

But of course, these abuses of power happen all the time in the real world, even outside of the fantasy institution of the Dollhouse. The abusive relationships in Dollhouse merely replicate existing, real-life relationships (between parents and children, employers and employees, romantic partners, producers and consumers, rapists and victims, doctors and patients). In fact, genuinely equitable relationships like the ones envisioned in Buffy are the exception (think Echo, Sierra, and Priya, or Caroline and Bennett Halverson). This doesn’t, however, make Dollhouse any less feminist—the recognition and challenging of traditional power relationships is fertile ground for future feminist analysis.

Perhaps the most striking difference between Buffy and Dollhouse is the role of institutions. The Scooby Gang, during their seven seasons, typically fight against imaginary patriarchies, of which they are not a part. Whether the enemy is the Order of Aurelius, Glory and her minions, or the dubiously ethical Watchers’ Council, fighting against them is generally uncomplicated and free of moral conflicts, since the Scooby Gang is not a part of these institutions. Even the institutions that mimic real world institutions, such as the Initiative and the Mayor’s local government, are framed as “supernatural,” and separate from the Scooby Gang’s comfort zone of “normal life.” Furthermore, the “real world” institutions that are portrayed in Buffy are typically benign and unproblematic. In fact, Buffy fights very hard to defend “human” laws and “human” forms of justice when Dark Willow tries to take the life of Tara’s killer.

Dollhouse, however, is more concerned with real-life institutions and their complicities in disempowerment.  There is no clear-cut divide between “normal” institutions and “supernatural” institutions from which our characters can divorce themselves. The reason why the Rossum Corporation, though imaginary, is so frightening is because its powers draw from existing institutions and power structures, making it more plausible to have such an institution in real life. Part of its influence stems from the medical industry and academia, but it clearly has hopes for political power as well (installing Senator Daniel Perrin in Congress). No viewer can safely say they’ve distanced themselves from these institutions; ultimately, we are all complicit in the forms of disempowerment that participating in this power structure creates. Buffy and her friends tend to fight a single “Big Bad” who epitomized everything that is wrong. Echo’s enemy, however, more closely resembles the patriarchy/kyriarchy that feminists seek to resist; she fights against a system and a set of power structures that create inequality. The case of Sierra/Priya, for example, is heart wrenchingly told in the episode “Belonging.”

While one could simply dismiss her backstory as a case of a man abusing a woman, more importantly, the show demonstrates that there are institutions that permit it to happen. Behind Nolan Kinnard’s power is also the support of the medical institution and an incredibly rich and powerful corporation, not to mention the inequities inherent in Nolan’s status as a wealthy, educated, American psychiatrist art patron and Priya’s status as a poor, struggling artist and undocumented worker from Australia hawking her goods in California. Dollhouse, then, is more critical of the idealized form of resistance portrayed in Buffy, where a small group of civilian insurgents fight against evil—Echo and Bennett Halverson working together lead to disastrous results, while the efforts of the team at the end of “The Hollow Men” (2.12) (Echo, Victor/Anthony, Priya/Sierra, Adele, Topher, and Ballard) are ultimately futile. In resisting this kind of patriarchy/kyriarchy, we must recognize our own complicities in these institutions—much like Paul Ballard does at the end of “Omega” (1.12), eventually joining the Dollhouse as an employee in order to hurt it (his efforts are not dissimilar to Angel’s rise to power in Wolfram & Hart, the very corporation he sought to destroy).

The kind of disempowerment that Dollhouse articulates, ultimately, is the inability to create one’s own identity and make one’s own choices. This extends beyond just the most obvious one in the show (the Dollhouse). It also examines how patriarchal families are problematic, like Boyd’s dubious ethics even though he is the “father”—“You guys are my family!” he exclaims when his betrayal is revealed. Many romantic relationships are suspect too—Paul Ballard’s obsession with “saving” Caroline, his sleeping beauty, is also cast in a negative light because it, too, robs Echo of her capacity to define herself, even if Paul’s intentions are nothing but benevolent. An unnamed “Angelino” in “Man on the Street” says it best: “You think it’s not happening? You think they’re not controlling you? Don’t worry about it. Just sit back and wait for them to tell you what to buy.” Though he is speaking about corporations (another institution that Whedon overtly criticizes in more than one show), he really could be referring to just about anyone or anything—relationships between romantic partners, employers and employees, rapists and victims. The programming of the Dollhouse is not dissimilar to the socialization that every one of us goes through, highlighting the links between the fantasy of the Rossum corporation and Whedon’s message on inequality created in the real world. Topher, in the unaired pilot, delivers a particularly pertinent monologue to Boyd:

“Does that tie keep you warm?... It’s just what grown-up men do in our culture. They put a piece of cloth around their necks so they can assert their status and recognize each other as nonthreatening kindred…You wear the tie because it never occurred to you not to. You eat eggs in the morning but never at night. You feel excitement and companionship when rich men you’ve never met put a ball through a net. You feel guilty, maybe a little suspicious when you see that Salvation Army Santa. You look down for at least half a second if a woman leans forward. And your stomach rumbles you drive by a big golden arch… Everybody’s programmed, Boyd…Morality is programmed too.” And that is what makes the Dollhouse technology so terrifying—it highlights that the ability to program people and use them already exists.

Taken from this standpoint, Dollhouse is a great starting point for feminist analysis. These instances of disempowerment often deal much with the intersections between gender, class, and power (although very rarely about race—a major shortcoming of Whedon that many have pointed out before). To borrow a quote from the show, the Dollhouse “deals in fantasy, but that is not their purpose.” Ultimately, the Dollhouse is an extraordinary exposé on structural, systemic oppression and its implications for feminism. It is just as important to discuss the troubling implications and reality of robbed identities and sexual assault and other forms of disempowerment as it is to think about female empowerment. Giving people “the wiggins” about the dubious morals in the show is exactly what it’s all about.


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