Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Joss Whedon's Dollhouse and Joss Whedon's Dollhouse

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Joss Whedon's Dollhouse and Joss Whedon's Dollhouse

Article excerpt

JOSS WHEDON'S ILL-FATED TELEVISION SERIES, DOLLHOUSE, FOCUSED ON A young woman named Caroline (Eliza Dushku) who allows a shadowy organization called the Dollhouse (which is in turn owned by the even more shadowy Rossum Corporation) to use its futuristic technology to remove her identity and "imprint" her with new ones. When she is unimprinted, she is supposedly without a sense of self and is simply called "Echo"; as an imprinted "active," she is whoever the Dollhouse's clients want her to be. Critics were generally unimpressed. Tom Shales of the Washington Post reduced Dollhouse to "bogus hocus-pocus about wiped memories and forgotten identities and running around after strange shadows in the dark." In USA Today, Robert Bianco described Dollhouse as an "empty-vessel premise that probably couldn't support a series even were it more adroitly cast." In the New Yorker, Nancy Franklin dismissed the show in large part because of its star, Eliza Dushku: "the problem with playing someone whose default setting is tabula rasa is pretty obvious, and the primary qualification that Dushku brings to the part is that she graduated with honors from the Royal Academy of Cleavage."

I contend that critics such as these missed the point of the show. While on the surface Dollhouse was a series about identity and self-creation, on a deeper level, it was a thorough metacritique of the entertainment industry. The series, I argue, mounts Whedon's complaint about the entertainment industry's tendency to produce media filled with sex, glamour, and beauty at the expense of the thoughtful, intellectually stimulating art that might otherwise be produced if artists were not forced to compromise their art by the very institutions they rely on for distribution. (1)

In this sense, it is helpful not to think about Dollhouse as a television series about identity, but rather as a television series about what it means for a writer, a director, and a studio to make a television series. This becomes clear when we consider that, at its most basic, Dollhouse is about an international corporation with the ability to create fictions and send them into the world. Mark Sumner, a blogger at the political Web site Daily Kos, described the show's argument more presciently than any professional critic:

  It's not about guys with a brain washing [sic] machine who can make
  some-one behave how they want. It's about what it means that guys
  with a brain washing [sic] machine use that device to satisfy
  shallow, mostly sexual, fantasies. And the commentary doesn't
  extend just to the device of the show. Whedon is reflecting on what
  it means to have a television show. The brain washing [sic] device
  is an analog for television that's as old as the medium. Give
  someone a chance to build a whole program full of new characters
  and what will they make? Mostly characters that are a reflection
  of their creators or which define some "dream girl / dream boy"
  who meets their needs and has no internal demands. Easy sex, eye
  candy, and no commitments. Tune in next week.

Sumner's comment did not go unnoticed. In one of the few published scholarly essays on Dollhouse as of this writing, "Exploitation of Bodies and Minds in Season One of Dollhouse," Catherine Coker remarks that Sumner's "reading of Whedon as a self-aware insertion is both plausible and inviting, possibly to the point of excluding all other readings. It makes sense on both the level of storytelling and on the level of critique--a critique that comes from 'inside'" (236). I want to expand this idea and argue that Dollhouse is actually a multivalent metacriticism of the entertainment industry as a whole and not just of television. Additionally, I will discuss what the metafiction signals about Whedon and his tenure on television.

Dollhouse is by no means unprecedented in its self-awareness. Series such as The Simpsons have long employed metafiction to make political or social comment--the show routinely pokes fun at its broadcasting network, FOX. …

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