Nobody Would Want To Be a Doll

One thing that has occurred to me while watching Dollhouse – and I’ve seen others mention this — is that apart from the show’s confusion about what it wants to be (last Friday’s two episodes mostly fell into the “conspiracy thriller” camp, which I’m not that wild about, though they were good episodes) there’s a serious built-in conceptual problem that the show could never overcome.

The foundational premise of the show is that women (and sometimes men too) have their personalities erased and are programmed to be other people. The heroine becomes a different person every week. The conceptual problem is this: the way they’ve set it up, there is absolutely nothing fun about being a Doll. The Dolls exist to work for others; they personally don’t get pleasure out of being other people, since they’re programmed to forget the whole thing. The overwhelming impression is that it’s really awful to live like this; there is no upside to it.

But without an upside, there is no temptation for us to get drawn into wanting that kind of life for ourselves. We can relate to it in a sort of intellectual way, asking ourselves whether we really know if we are who we think we are, or whether our personalities and memories are in some sense constructed by others. But emotionally, we never think: “gee, that might be cool.” When a story presents a lifestyle that is evil or wrong, it works best by letting us envy it a little; there’s a part of us that wants to be free of conscience like the villain, and we know God should beat the Devil but the Devil needs to be given a chance to make his case. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and many other vampire stories have done exactly this; we don’t want the vampires to win, but we can see what’s tempting about living without responsibility or guilt.

Dollhouse can’t do this, because the premise of the show suggests that whoever is having these experiences, it’s not really Caroline, and she’s not getting much of anything except a lot of headaches out of being all these other people. (Buffy had something vaguely similar baked into the premise; you’ll remember it was established early on that a vampire isn’t really the person he used to be, just a demon inhabiting a dead body. This idea was basically abandoned because it was so much more interesting that a person might want to be a vampire, and enjoy some things about becoming one. But who would want to be a Doll?) That means that the only real temptations and ethical dilemmas are given to people who aren’t Dolls (or think they aren’t).

(Update: I should clarify that when I say “who would want to be a Doll?” I’m not questioning the motivations of the characters within the show, who are given a plausible reason to take this deal. I’m saying that the way they’ve set it up, nobody could enjoy being a Doll.)

Not only does this limit our potential emotional involvement with the show, but it limits the real-world relevance the show can have. Fantasy shows work best when the situations can be related to something that is common in the real world: the idea of a guy hiring Echo in her guise as an expert hostage negotiator, absurd as it is, parallels the way we (in real life) trust “experts” about whom we know nothing except their titles. But the Doll situation has very little relevance to its equivalent situations in the real world, because in the real world, it’s sometimes fun to be other people. We’re all forced into certain roles in life, but sometimes it can be a relief — because we can fall back on pre-set roles instead of trying to find out exactly who we are. And if you compare being a Doll to being an actor, an analogy the show has encouraged, it’s pretty obvious that the parallel doesn’t work at all (actors become other people because they like it). Every real-world counterpart of the show’s premise includes some element of free will, some potential for enjoyment of being other people. So real life is basically more interesting than the show is. That’s not a good thing.

I don’t know how Dollhouse could have solved this problem, short of re-jiggering its premise entirely, and I tend to stay away from suggesting such things (I’m sure I’ve done it on occasion, but I just don’t care for “this show would be better if it were some other show” posts). The problem may just be inherent in the premise of erasing people’s memories; if they can’t remember, they can’t enjoy it, and the show wouldn’t have made any sense if they could remember. But it really is a problem. If evil is never tempting, then we’re free to sit back and disapprove without ever getting involved or questioning our own reactions.




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Nobody Would Want To Be a Doll

  1. It seems to me that the obvious 'fix' would be to write each episode more from the client's perspective than from the dolls. Presumably we can all relate to (some) of the clients desires. For example, that one guy who's wife died on the way to their dream home paying to have her brought back one day every year. That particular story was told as kind of a surprise ending style, but could have been told pretty effectively as a tear jerker by having the opening scene being of the guy waiting for his wife the first time. Although, I can't recall any show which asks it's audience to get emotionally attached to a new protagonist each week, unless we count the A-Team. :)

  2. You make a lot of good points, the show's premise has an ill thought out premise and it's bloody hard to watch people being in essence abused by the wealthy and powerful.

  3. But this is precisely why the focus mid-way through the first season shifted more to the supporting cast. And why the character of mind-wiped Echo became prominent in the second season. Those fixes worked enough for me to really enjoy the show.

    And I would disagree with the argument that Buffy abandoned the notion that vampires are not the same as they were when they were human. Aside from Angel, and later Spike who also got a soul, the show was consistent with that view… (which was in fact why Buffy could never love Spike before he got a soul).

  4. I disagree with the notion that nobody would want to be a doll. In fact, the show has laid out a perfectly valid rationale for why somebody would choose to be a doll: to avoid dealing with some sort of unpleasant situation. Also: to come out a member of the idle rich on the other side.

    You're right about the actual life of a doll not looking any fun, so I think your larger point stands–there's no real escapism here. But, you know, I've always viewed that as part of the point. The show has always seemed designed to be intentionally unsatisfying, to question the very notion of escapism. The dolls are basically expensive hookers, and you see that sort of thing romanticized all the time in television and movies, but the actual experience would probably not actually fit the fantasy; in real life, it would actually be better to prostitute yourself out for five years and come out on the other side not remembering any of it, five years older, but a lot richer. In the real world, you can't escape your life without paying a price. Mad Men plays with a similar theme more effectively. They're both, in different ways, fantasies that undermine their fantasy tropes.

    Of course, that sort of thing doesn't seem very conducive to making a hit network television show. And, well, here we are. It's a financial problem, but I don't really think it's an artistic problem.

    • The show has always seemed designed to be intentionally unsatisfying, to question the very notion of escapism.

      Right, but if they don't have any scenarios under which this could be a fun/escapist experience, it makes it harder to get underneath the surface and question the premise. With Mad Men you do understand how this could be considered a cool era to live in, even though you also understand why the reality is different. By presenting an experience with no redeeming qualities to it, Dollhouse's message is that things that look really bad are, in fact, really bad.

  5. the show has shown many different reasons why people would want to be a doll –
    and almost all hinge on the temptation/ need to escape from or erase some part of their life or self.

    we have yet to see a SINGLE doll that's in it for the fun.

    what show are you watching???

    • The characters' motivations for becoming dolls doesn't really concern me here; it's whether the experience has real-world resonance. I feel like when I see an experience that involves complete erasure of one's own self and has no attractive qualities, even deceptively attractive ones, there's not much that the viewer can do beyond disapproving in a detatched sort of way.

      It's not whether they want to be dolls, any more than it's whether vampires wanted to become vampires. It's whether the "bad" life has some aspect that would seem attractive to us on some level. If it's just about becoming a zombie for five years, it's about as remote from our own experience as, well, being a zombie; and there's a reason why zombes don't usually figure as important characters in their own movies.

      • That's valid as far as it goes, it doesn't concern the premise of the show, and i appreciate the clarification –
        it's certainly interesting.

        But the better question surely is, Given the opportunity, which if us would become clients??

  6. There was never any suggestion that being a doll was supposed to be good! It was made very clear that people, when they actually volunteered for it, were doing so to escape current problems and because they were willing to lose 5 years of their life for future great wealth.

    It was also never intended that the evil done 'by' the dolls was supposed seem tempting. The temptation was for the actions of the clients, and for the Dollhouse itself. The dolls are the victims anyway not bad-guys.

  7. Are you kidding? I would have LOVED to be a doll! Sure, I won't remember, but while I'm there I will mostly spend my days painting, or doing yoga, or other fun and relaxing things. I will get to have every need taken care of by others, and get wonderful massages and treatments! Not that I'll remember, but still.

    Five years away from drudgery and worry, to emerge in fantastic health and rich. Yes, I would have taken that deal.

    Just curious, am I the only woman that's responded? I worry about what that says.

  8. [QUOTE=]Buffy had something vaguely similar baked into the premise; you’ll remember it was established early on that a vampire isn’t really the person he used to be, just a demon inhabiting a dead body. This idea was basically abandoned[/QUOTE]

    Not really – Pretty much every vampire on the show, right form the start (including Jessie) clearly WAS the same as the person they used to be. The Watcher’s Council line about the demon taking over your body and just having the memories was obviously a lie that they fed slayers to avoid questions of morality of pangs of conscience. Sure, the characters said things, but who are you going to believe – the Watcher’s Council propaganda or your own lying eyes?

    I’m not sure a show that portrayed BEING a doll as entertaining would be half as useful as a show which questioned whether HIRING a doll can be a socially moral act (just look how often the Dollhouse sends out actives themselves, without an outside client!). Even without the fictional element, people in real life agree to hire themselves out as soldiers and prostitutes (and actors!) , without foreknowledge of just what they’ll be asked to do, and quite likely fully aware that they’ll be asked to do things they know in advance they DON’T want to do, and which might well have permanent consequences.

  9. They didn't sign up to be Dolls for enjoyment. We're given to understand that they signed up because something was happening in their life that was so horrible that they couldn't deal with it. The Dollhouse came to them and said "We can make your current life disappear so you won't have to deal with it. We'll take care of you for 5 years. At the end of the 5 years, we'll set you free and give you an enormous sum of money." I bet there are plenty of people who think their life sucks enough that they'd give up 5 years to be free of it and come back very wealthy.

  10. Or better yet, think of yourself as a client. There's some real escapism that can indulge your evil side for you. Dollhouse has many layers, and many ways for escapism. Look harder.

  11. I, too, have scratched my head trying to decide why this show isn't working. I have to disagree, though, that there is nothing appealing about being a doll. The part in between assisgnments, where they essentially live in a spa seems pretty sweet. Supposing you had done or experienced something terrible and wanted to put it all behind you, this wouldn't be a bad way to live. Presumably, the dolls do string together these "down time" experiences into a continuous existence. For example, Sierra and Victor have formed a relationship.

    I think the problem lies more in the inability for the viewer to get to know the dolls. Since their personalities are always changing, they are hard to root for. Thanks for initiating an interesting disucssion!

  12. Um…

    Obviously no one would "enjoy" being a doll, and that's why the show is portraying it the way you're complaining about…it's because the audience isn't supposed to think, "Wow, I would LOVE to do that!" The show is supposed to scare the audience, to think about the implications of human trafficking, to make them disgusted with the notion of the dollhouse.

    I watch the show because I wanna see how the dollhouse technology ultimately destroys the world, like we see in Epitaph One. I don't watch because I envy the lives of the dolls.

    Maybe that's what separates me from viewers of retarded un-reality shows and boring crime procedurals.

  13. The show is supposed to scare the audience, to think about the implications of human trafficking, to make them disgusted with the notion of the dollhouse.

    So the show is supposed to make us feel morally superior? In moral superiority, it goes without saying, there is a certain amount of escapism.

    • The idea behind the show seemed to be "We can tell an entirely new, fun story every week, then reset. People will like that, won't they?" One problem with this is the assumption that people would want an entirely different type of show each week, when the most popular shows are based on repetition (The Office is the most diverse show I can think of on network television, in that they can do a wacky episode like "Mafia", or something emotionally darker like "Double Date") The other problem is that the prostitution and slavery implications make it impossible for this to be a "fun" show, and the lack of memory of the dolls makes it hard to emphasize with them. Then there's the members of the dollhouse, who are evil or at least morally conflicted. Ballard was the only "good" character, and he's now working for the Dollhouse.

      None of this really bothers me, as I love what the show has become. It's very far from escapism, though. I'm fascinated how people could get sucked in to something like this (just look at what people have done to each other in the past) and love to ponder the kind of philosophical questions the show asks. I don't see any way the basic "doll" concept could have been a big or even modest hit, however.

      • "The idea behind the show seemed to be "We can tell an entirely new, fun story every week, then reset. People will like that, won't they?""

        But…that wasn't the point at all. The point is not to make a fun show. I don't want a fun show. I want a show that makes me upset at humanity.

  14. I don't see why you have to envy the Dolls to enjoy the show. I sympathise with Echo, struggling to find her identity as a separate person from Caroline and an amalgam of all the identities that have stuck in her brain. i sympathise with Paul, trying to do the right thing in a world of grey areas, and DeWitt, living by her own peculiar code of "right". And Topher makes me laugh. Plus some of the acting is outstanding, the writing is good, the idea is original and it's not the same as all the other shows out there. And there's not likely to be a "Dollhouse: Miami". I think I missed the point of your post. Hang on, I'll read it again….Nope. Of course no one watching wants to be a Doll, but that doesn't mean they don't enjoy the programme. I don't think that counts as a "Built in conceptual problem" that would "limit our emotional involvement in the show". I'm sorry I can't stick around for your reply, I have to go collect the kids.

  15. I think you missed the entire concept of the show: some Sci Fi and Fantasy is meant to entertain and be light (ie: Galaxy Quest) while other material focuses on a broader spectrum with access to multiple real-life issues (ie: Battlestar Galactica). JW obbiously chose in this instance to focus his vision on one concept: human trafficking. Through the show though, we've seen that no issue is black or white – not even this one – and THAT's where the fiction/entertainment value originate. You have Dolls – the lost souls who couldn't bear to live as themselves any longer for whatever reason, so they (usually) voluntarily enter this world. You have those at the top – the Rossum corporation – who see through green financial tinted lenses. And then you have those in the middle, who've found themselves caught up in the folly through whatever means they fell into it, and are trying to deal with their own feelings about human trafficking while working at rationalizations, subterfuge, and social relationships with people who (for all intents and purposes) don't exist. (cont…)

    • I understand that; my problem is precisely that I think it does portray it as a black-and-white issue, giving us an easy out. My complaint, which may be misguided, is that it's too escapist, not that it isn't escapist enough.

  16. (cont…) As an aside, I don't believe Dollhouse has every been "off-kilter" in relation to what it wants to be. Whedon is famous for penning different kinds of episodes all within one series. I personally think it's a breath of fresh air among other formulaic series that depend on the same plot devices and resolutions nearly every episode (Ghost Whisperer, CSI, etc.).

    As a final note – I don't think we're supposed to be rooting for Caroline. Joss has kind of made this point, especially in this past week's episode when Echo said she didn't want to lose her Doll memories if Caroline came back. I believe that's the direction they've been heading toward since day one…if you don't believe me, re-watch the episodes and watch the Alpha references. Watch how they portay Caroline – especially in the most recent episodes. We're rooting for Echo, not for Caroline.

  17. "My complaint, which may be misguided, is that it's too escapist, not that it isn't escapist enough."

    Perhaps that is true to the SPECIFIC point you are making, in terms of the enjoyment of being a doll and viewers connection with that. But wouldn't you agree the show was successful in bringing forward a whole host of other identity-related and moral-laden issues rooted sufficiently in reality to compensate for that fact? And further, that unlike that related to your specific complaint, that these issues weren't treated as black and white?

  18. Wow, comments explosion! I'm guessing you ended up linked on some Joss Whedon webpage Jaime. The Browncoats are coming! The Browncoats are coming! :P

  19. I think everyone here has missed the point. Was the point of "The Matrix" that people enjoyed having their bodies wasting away in suspended animation while their brains were being fed an alternate reality? NO

  20. Who are you, really? What's left when your job, social role, achievements, relationships, and memories have been taken from you? If there is anything left – a Doll – is this your essence? Maybe being a Doll would be a good thing, not for remembering the engagements, but for remembering Dollhood – even if only subconsciously.

  21. Being a doll isn't supposed to be fun… what's fun is watching the journey, watching Echo evolve, and become her own person. If you want to have a bit of "fun" as you seem to, think what it would be like if you were Topher. Or Adelle. Or Paul, the not-so-good good guy. Who wouldn't like to go against the rules so dramatically every once and a while? And the lifestyle of a doll while they're in the Dollhouse is enviable somewhat. Not so much the whole mind wiped zombie thing, but the 5 star food and accommodations are more than I'll probably ever get in my life time.

    You're expecting Dollhouse to be a different show than what it is. The Dollhouse isn't supposed to be fun, being a doll isn't supposed to be fun. It's modern day slavery, it's immoral and wrong. That's what makes it fun! And awful and disgusting and what have you, I'm not a terrible person or anything. ;)

  22. I believe Joss when he says FOX killed the show by making so many demands regarding the shape of the show. He never really was able to make it what he wanted.

    • Joss has been to show to lie enough in the past not to be trusted (Chrasima's sacking and Amber's S7 return for example).

      And to be honest, the network telling him to cut back on the sex? Look at the first reviews, what was the thing the reviewers felt most turned off by? The sex.

      Maybe the network did insist the show started with standalones. Did they ask that they sucked so badly?

      Etc, etc. Maybe Whedon should go back to making his trademark snide remarks about successful franchises like Terminator.

      $10,000 for that?

      Hey, I've got $ 100 for Fireflop.

  23. Looks like my last comment was truncated … the point is watching people break free from accepting what they are TOLD "reality" is, and rejecting being who they are TOLD to be. Problem is; the show can only "end" once, which works much better in the movies!

  24. Haha what? If you think that anyone is meant to enjoy being a Doll… I don't know what show you're watching….

  25. I don't think that we the viewer are meant to envy the dolls or want to be a doll at all. If you are saying that you feel there is no way to identify with the characters on the show, thus you cannot be engaged by the show I sort of understand what you mean – though I don't agree. There are characters other than the dolls, and we have seen 3 of the dolls start to show some personality traits.

    But if you think the viewer should to want to be a doll, I think you are missing the whole point of the show.

  26. Don't they get like a million dollars or something once their term is over?
    That sounds like some good motivation to me.

  27. Anybody who is permanently in precarious employment has "chosen" to become a doll: a most disposable, most qualified tool who answers every call and won't argue.

    That's who Echo fights back for.

  28. The draw for the viewer isn’t supposed to be, “Gee, I’d like to be a doll!”

    It’s supposed to be, “This is really horrible what they do to these people, and they do it to them for horrible reasons. Gee, I’d like to see them brought to justice!”

    Perhaps the problem is that today’s viewers have bought into the idea of “morality = bad” that our entertainment media has been preaching to us. It says more about our culture than it does about the show, when people can’t get into a story that, ultimately, is about seeing right prevail.

  29. “So the show is supposed to make us feel morally superior? In moral superiority, it goes without saying, there is a certain amount of escapism.”

    This is exactly what I’m talking about. You, ironically, seem to feel that it’s superior to NOT be morally superior. This kind of sneering attitude towards morality is what’s wrong with the entertainment world (and most of the cultural elites of today).

    It’s not bad to actually have superior morals; maybe we need to stop listening to the self-serving claims of those who want to pretend they’re above all that.

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