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Eliza Dushku as Echo in Dollhouse (2009)
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Joss Whedon’s TV series Dollhouse is hard to watch in all the right ways. Dollhouse features many conventional dystopian transgressions that reward viewers by providing fodder for tut-tutting and finger-wagging—an all-powerful “system”, morally ambivalent characters, a scrappy lead fighting against insurmountable odds. And yet this dystopia functions dramatically in some pretty uncomfortable ways.


Dollhouse is about a corporation where people voluntarily enlist to have their memories wiped for five years, during which time other personalities are periodically uploaded into their brains, enabling them to provide unique services for an upscale clientele. Some of these services amount to little more than high-class prostitution, others are elaborate missions of espionage. If the operatives, or “Actives”, survive the ordeal, they are to be richly rewarded after their five years are up, and they get to walk away with their memories and original personalities restored, minus those memories collected during their five years in the Dollhouse, of course.


The show’s main character is Echo, an Active who, previous to her enlistment, was a student activist trying bring the Dollhouse corporation down. Echo gradually becomes aware of her real personality and memories, and she again begins to try and take down the business from the inside. It’s a show that aims high, addressing a wide spectrum of moral problems, the most interesting and pervasive involving questions of what it means to willingly overhaul one’s own identity, or to allow particular unsavory aspects of it to hold sway for an overarching benefit.


Dollhouse as adventure story has an intentionally unsettling effect. The show encourages its viewer to root for the success of Actives’ engagements, yet never strays from the fact that these missions happen at the behest of an undoubtedly evil corporation. Episodic adventure stories usually create a dramatic space where an audience can root for the survival of heroes, so said heroes may live to fight (and entertain) another day. But here, as much as the audience roots for the Actives to win, it’s equally aware that such “winning” entails the Actives being controlled by an exploitative system, as well as that the viewer him- or herself is taking aesthetic pleasure in that exploitation.


One thinks of Roman gladiators. The question of whether the gladitorial fight should be happening at all is indelibly wrapped up in the drama of the fight itself; viewing, one is equally involved in taking sides as in wondering, what is the point of this?


Thankfully, such complications concerning the viewers’ involvement in on-screen drama are not all sub-textual. The show is not really like watching an ancient bloodsport as viewed through the lens of modern sensibilities. Dollhouse has several characters that concretely embody the perspective of the morally conflicted viewer, characters that are aware of the flaws in the Dollhouse system, and some which even actively fight against it. These characters act as proxy for the necessary, conscience-addled hemming and hawing on the viewer’s part, which would otherwise undermine the show’s drama. For all its moral pontificating, Dollhouse seems to know the difference between a “complicated” and an “undermined” dramatic world, and peoples its dystopia with representatives from a more civilized viewpoint.


The character of Boyd Langdon, who serves as Echo’s caretaker or “handler”, probably serves best in this capacity. He’s driven by a desire to minimize harm, though at the very outset of his character arc, his moral center is thrown into question by hints at dark dealings in his past. He often pulls disapproving faces, which play into the viewer’s feeling that this is all very wrong, but he also participates in that system, just as the viewer does in watching.


The Dollhouse’s operator of mind-wiping technology, Topher, also offers some relief to the viewer from the discomforts of the show’s dystopian themes. Topher mirrors the viewer’s own passive, vicarious pleasure in watching the Actives; he projects his own psychological detachment onto his Actives by wiping their minds, then instills them with the conflict resolution skills that he lacks. Boyd and Topher thus represent opposite halves of the viewer’s dramatic involvement in the Actives—one side morally questioning, the other eager to see them “actively” right wrongs.


Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) undergoing transitioning (My Fair Lady, 1964)

Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) undergoing transitioning
(My Fair Lady, 1964)


George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion is another tale of “mind-wiping”, the story of Eliza Doolittle, an impoverished flower-girl living on the streets of London just prior to WWI. By chance she meets a renowned professor of phonetics, Henry Higgins, who on a whim suggests that he could improve her thick cockney accent into one indicative of a higher social standing. The exercise is proposed to one of Higgins’s colleagues, Colonel Pickering, who eventually makes a bet about whether Higgins can educate Eliza over the course of six months and finally pass her off as a duchess. The play’s title references the Greek myth of a man who creates a statue of a woman so beautiful that he falls in love with it and subsequently tries to bring it to life.


Like Topher in Dollhouse, Henry Higgins is academic to a fault. In a very telling scene, where Higgins is trying to persuade Pickering that his “intentions are honorable” toward Eliza (meaning he has no interest in taking advantage of her sexually), he says, “I’ve taught scores of American millionairesses how to speak English: the best-looking women in the world… They might as well be blocks of wood. I might as well be a block of wood.” The academic abstraction of “woman” to “patient” requires of Higgins a similar abstraction of self.


Likewise, Pygmalion‘s Colonel Pickering and Mrs. Pearce parallel Dollhouse’s Boyd in their facility to good-naturedly check Higgins’s abrasive detachment, while they themselves still participate in Eliza’s treatment. However, Mrs. Pearce plays a very different role in educating Eliza in the more womanly aspects of her upward social mobilization. Mrs. Pearce is even more of a Higgins than Higgins, where Eliza’s gender identity is concerned, at one point speaking a line that is equally funny and sad: “You know you can’t be a nice girl inside if you’re a dirty slut outside!”


Eliza seems much more aware than Echo of the loss of identity that her treatment requires. In the opening act of Pygmalion, Eliza first encounters Higgins, as he predicts the birthplaces of random passers-by in the street, as based on their accents. Whereas everyone else in the scene is either impressed by Higgins’s accuracy in his predictions or worried that he got his information by having spied on them, Eliza immediately understands what Higgin’s powers of observation means to her personal identity. She speaks a line that cuts to the heart of the matter: “He’s no right to take away my character. My character is the same as any lady.” Her use of the word, “character”, and her anxiety that Higgins would take it away just by predicting her birthplace, speaks to her recognition that reducing her accent to its phonemes also reduces the process by which she attained said accent to a series of events, reflecting little of who she really is. Under the scrutiny of Higgins’s scientific observation, she is reduced to a dossier of facts.


And yet Eliza still submits herself to Higgins’s tutelage. She understands very well that his regimen requires loss of “character”, or identity, on her part, but she also understands she’ll be gaining a different, better identity. She’ll transform from the Eliza who sells flowers on the street corner to the one who sells them in a shop; she wants to upgrade her self, trade in one for another. The key to Eliza’s line about “character” is that it shows in submitting to Higgins’s treatment, she is using him just as much as he is using her. Except while Eliza understands what she is doing, she is confused about why; she is mistaken on the ultimate value of her trade-in, a confusion on opposing ideas of “gentility”, one having to do with honorable behavior, the other to do with social caste.


Everywhere in the play’s first act, Eliza uses the word “good” in two different ways, though she doesn’t actually seem to really understand the distinction. She says repeatedly in the first act, “I’m a good girl!” Yet when Mrs. Pearce shows her the bedroom where she’ll be sleeping while under Higgins’s care, she responds by saying, “It’s too good for me…” Eliza believes that she is “good” on the inside, but that the circumstances of her poverty have represented her as something she is not. She wants to trade in that outward, flower-girl identity for something that matches the “goodness” of her inner self. She wants to reconcile her inner “goodness” with a “goodness” as in relation to her world. In submitting to Higgins, she hopes to validate, as much to herself as anyone else, that she is a “good girl”.


And this Eliza interestingly contrasts to the Eliza who appears in the musical version of the play, My Fair Lady. Much has been made of the musical’s revision of Pygmalion to add a more conventionally romantic ending. However, only slightly less striking a divergence is Eliza’s initial endgame in her dealings with Higgins, as represented in the lyrics of the song, “Wouldn’t It Be Lover-ly”. In My Fair Lady, Eliza sings, “All I want is a room somewhere / Far away from the cold night air / With one enormous chair / Oh, wouldn’t it be lover-ly…” Eliza participates in the exercise to attain a negative space that is basically the opposite of Eliza’s current impoverished circumstances, rather than the other Eliza, who wants to work in a flower shop. This version of Eliza wants a reprieve from the caste system that has marginalized her, rather than an upward mobility within it.


Echo, on the other hand, doesn’t have any illusions about reconciling her inner “goodness” with an outer one. Echo rightly views her own mind-wiping procedure as a nasty business to be endured, one that does not reconcile her inner identity with much of anything. The motivations behind Echo’s complicity in her procedure are much less personal, though they cost her no less of herself.


And yet one can’t help but notice that the life Eliza describes in “Wouldn’t It Be Lover-ly” very much resembles the lives of the Actives in their blank state within the Dollhouse, itself another negative space, safe from immediate pain of social stratification. Whatever else may happen to the Actives, they certainly do have “a room somewhere, far a way from the cold night air,” and enough “enormous chairs” as they want. Yes, there is profound psychic pain in the Dollhouse, as well as in the treatment of Henry Higgins, and quiet rooms and comfy chairs would seem small consolation in exchange for loss of “character” in Eliza’s sense. But for someone as harried by social ills as Eliza and Exho, one can at least sympathize with the temptation to submit to such a loss of “character,” if certain tokens are thrown in for the bargain.

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