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…