Master storyteller Joss Whedon has become known for his strong female characters and throughout the courses of his shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly overall themes of feminism and overcoming male oppression become clear. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, an internet experiment carried out during the writers’ strike, was a bit of a departure from his usual political message but still depicted a female character as the only one actually accomplishing anything for the good of society. His latest show Dollhouse is in some ways the most blatant criticism of a sexist culture, but this has been curbed by the ad campaign relying heavily on sexual objectification.
The standard format of the earlier episodes has Echo being imprinted with some identity that leads her into a situation in which she is oppressed by a dominant male force of some sort. Despite her brainwashing, Echo manages to overcome the imprinted submissiveness and makes herself become strong, defying the restrictions put in place by the Dollhouse. She is subsequently wiped of her identity including her experience of being strong, but some little piece of her experience always survives. The Dollhouse itself is portrayed as an evil organization whose members are either simply corrupt or believe their work is humanitarian for giving clients the perfect experience, making a commentary on human trafficking and prostitution.
The show has an obvious feminist message, one which stands in contrast to the Dollhouse ad campaign. The advertisement for the show is ironically heavily sexually exploitive, featuring actress Eliza Dushku in various sexually alluring poses. The ads, with the exception of the Dollhouse-themed Hulu ad, do not really convey the nature of the show, instead advertizing the hotness of the lead female. This is blatant sexual objectification, sexist and in total conflict with Joss Whedon’s feminist message.
Overcoming the sexual objectification perpetuated by the Dollhouse is really what the show is all about. This is most blatant in the earlier episodic storylines, where there were only a few basic themes and elements present. In the later episodes, where the stories are more complex, the feminist theme is not as ubiquitous but it still remains a fundamental attribute of the show.
Although Dollhouse has now been (somewhat miraculously) renewed for another season, the amount of people watching the show got pretty low for a while. I have to wonder if at least some of the reason why the show didn’t perform that well is because of the inconsistency between the content of the ads and the content of the show. The average ad talks about the Dollhouse’s business, shows some action, some shots of Agent Ballard talking about rescuing the Dolls, and concludes with an alluring shot of Eliza. Seems more like the typical ‘guy’ action show than what Joss tries to deliver. I can imagine the average male viewer coming in expecting a lot of sexy female Dolls performing various male fantasies for clients, the Dollhouse accepted as morally wrong but a useful plot device for all that hot Doll action, while Ballard comes in at the end as a knight in shining armor who boldly saves the damsels in distress – obviously not Joss’s kind of show. So, most of the average guys drop the show and leave it for the geeks and feminists and such.
In conclusion, I find the ad campaign supporting Dollhouse to be inconsistent with the progressive content of the show. This inconsistency may well subvert the goal to bring regular viewers through the ads, thus being a cause of the show’s lack of viewers. On the other hand, advertising to a rather sexist market could have the benefit of sneaking in feminist morals to a crowd that would otherwise avoid it. Though it may not contribute to great numbers, the folks from the sexist market who stick around could become more open to opposing viewpoints. I do hope this to be the case, but I hope more that next season’s ads will be less sexually objectifying and more true to the proper nature of the show.