Thursday, August 13, 2009

S&M Barbie (Dollhouse)

Dollhouse has an odd relationship with elements of BDSM. The general premise seems to involve elements of such nature, specifically a structure characteristic of the Dominant/submissive model. The show has included scenes of bondage as well as a dominatrix character that briefly goes over the philosophies of BDSM about trust. While I’m glad for the inclusion of a sadomasochistic character, which makes the subject just a little bit more mainstream, I do have some issues with how the character is portrayed.

First of all, I do want to point out just how much the whole Dollhouse reminds me of some BDSM fantasy. It’s a place where people sign on, more or less willingly, to essentially be sex slaves officially called Actives but more often than not called Dolls. Each of the Dolls is artificially made docile in a creepy chair and is assigned a handler who manages them with a strong edge of authority. The Dollhouse employees have their own hierarchy and are administrated by Adelle DeWitt, a powerful authoritative woman who really comes off as a domme in my opinion.
Now, Dollhouse isn’t a BDSM fantasy, I know. It’s a serious drama and pretty much everything depicted is horrible. Still, though, my kink meter has been beeping ever since I started watching this show.
I’ve read speculation that Joss Whedon is either into BDSM in some form or fashion, or that he knows someone into BDSM. It is true that there is a lot of it that crops up in Buffy and Angel. For a few examples, Willow’s evil vampire self is a dominatrix, Darla’s a masochist, and Faith’s always a top and likes to play without safewords when she’s evil. I can’t think of any examples of it turning up in Firefly or Dr. Horrible, so maybe it has more to do with the genre he goes for or something. As Buffy and Angel are in the dark semi-Gothic vampire genre, it makes sense to have some themes along those lines.
Anyway, in the Dollhouse episode “A Spy in the House of Love”, Echo is imprinted with the persona of a professional dominatrix. We first see her in the van with Boyd while on the way back to the Dollhouse. She is in the midst of describing to him the nature of BDSM. Her voice is very passionate, speaking in all italics, if you know what I mean. Boyd is incredibly uncomfortable.
Echo: “…Everyone thinks it’s about the pain. It’s not about the pain. It’s about trust. Handing yourself over totally and completely and letting another take control. There’s nothing more beautiful than that.”
Boyd: “In my experience, that kind of trust always leads to pain.”
Echo: “Then maybe you need a session in my dungeon so I can show you otherwise.”
Boyd: “Thanks. I’ll pass.”
Echo: “Don’t be so vanilla. You can trust me. I’ve already shown that I trust you. I got in the van, didn’t I?”
Boyd: “Sure that was a wise decision?”
Echo: “I’ve got a good feeling about you. And I’ve got the whip.” (holds up whip)
Where there’s a whip, there’s a way. Yeah, it’s nice that they include a bit about the appeal of submission. There are obvious parallels with the Dollhouse, and Boyd clearly seems to feel guilty about deceiving her. Echo’s description of submission as beautiful specifically reminds me of the quote from the earlier episode “Man on the Street”:
“If you could have somebody be the perfect person, the moment you wish for that you know you’re never going to get, and someone signed on to do that, to help you… I think that could be okay. I think that could be maybe beautiful.” –Interviewed blonde woman
And then there’s Echo’s “Don’t be so vanilla.” I snerked when I heard that. Maybe it’s Eliza Dushku’s delivery, but it just seems like the writer threw that in to add to the exoticism of the whole BDSM portrayal. It’s like he thought, “Hey, let’s throw in some S&M words to really show how different that subculture is!” Now, I don’t think he meant ill by it, just that he didn’t bother to integrate “vanilla” into the script properly, probably because he didn’t do very much research.
So, they pull into the Dollhouse front parking area and approach the entrance. Victor and his handler Selena Ramirez come out of the Dollhouse at the same time, and Boyd stops to chat with the other handler. The chat turns into banter between Selena and Victor after she insults his alleged client.
Victor: “Ramirez pretends to be jaded. But she’s got a secret stash of bodice rippers in the van. I’ve seen it.”
Selena: “Not true.”
Victor: “She wants to be kidnapped by a pirate.”
Echo: “I know a guy...”
Victor: “Well, if I weren’t madly in love with Katherine, I’d shanghai you myself.”
Selena: “I’d take S&M Barbie over him any day. Come on. Your geriatric princess awaits.”
(They head out; Echo snaps the whip into her leg)
Selena: “Ow!”
Echo: “It’s love. Show some respect.”
(They leave; Echo continues for the Dollhouse; Boyd stops her and takes her whip away)
Echo: “Sometimes, it is about the pain.”
Okay, this whole scene seems to be for comic relief. That gives a bit of allowance for unusual behavior. However, Echo whipped someone without previously obtaining consent. That is really bad.
Seriously, she just broke one of the main tenets of BDSM, if there is such a thing. You always get consent, always! Otherwise, it’s just assault, whatever name you give it.
Yes, sometimes it’s about the pain. But it is conscious choice for the bottom to enter into that kind of relationship. There is negotiation beforehand in which the bottom gives consent.
Domme!Echo just whips a perfect stranger in response to a conversation for which she has no way of understanding the proper context. It just makes her, and by extension all dominants, come off as thuggish. I’m sorry, but I cannot forgive this portrayal in the slightest. Even CSI’s better than this.
Bodice rippers, though. That’s sort of BDSM-ish. They’re essentially mainstream rape fantasies. Is she supposed to broadcast as submissive so Domme!Echo can dominate her? It doesn’t matter if she is or she isn’t, though, because she still doesn’t consent to anything!
Later on in the episode, after Echo returns to the tabula rasa state, Boyd intrudes on Dr. Saunders’ examination of her to make sure she wasn’t permanently injured by the engagement:
Boyd: “Her last engagement seemed unnecessarily rough.”
Dr. Saunders: “She was a dominatrix. I think that’s the point.”
Boyd: “I prefer engagements that aren’t about some…”
Dr. Saunders: “…Deep dark sexual need?”
Boyd: “You really think it has anything to do with need?”
Dr. Saunders: “Sometimes, yes. Having a desire you’re afraid or ashamed of expressing can be terribly debilitating. Look how many same-sex engagements we’re called for, even today. And sadomasochism isn’t anything like…”
Boyd: “I know. It’s all about trust. But what if the client has the whip?”
Dr. Saunders: “Mmm, you don’t send the Actives to be submissives.”
Okay, this scene is largely in place for thematic reasons to set the stage for the episode. Trust and pain and deep dark sexual needs are themes of this episode. Dr. Saunders and Boyd aren’t on the same wavelength exactly, with him directly criticizing the Dollhouse while she talks about business.
There is discussion of BDSM, though. I like Dr. Saunders’ nonjudgmental way of presenting the subject. Ignoring for a moment the rape involved (as always when considering clients), her discussion of sexual need seems pretty open-minded and unprejudiced, which is important in portrayal of such subcultures.
It does seem kind of strange that Actives aren’t imprinted to be subs, though. It can be argued that most of their imprints are submissive in personality. I get that there’s a difference between being submissive and being a submissive, and that bottoming in BDSM scenes opens them up to greater possibilities of injury, but it doesn’t seem that different from the normal goings-on at the Dollhouse. Though the actives are mostly sex slaves, occasionally they’re used as assassins and master thieves. It seems to me that the Dollhouse would accept any engagement as long as the price is right.
Adelle: “Your engagement has been flagged as… a moderate risk to our Active. Nothing serious. Our company policy requires a small additional fee against any unforeseen complications.”
(Adelle hands Connell a piece of paper)
Connell: (laughs) “Small, huh?”
Adelle: “To my employers, very.”
Connell: “Well… if this girl’s everything you promise, it will be worth it.”
Adelle: “Just make sure you return her safe and sound. Otherwise there will be additional costs.”
Connell: (chuckles) “I’ll keep it low-key.”
(Cut to scenes of Echo and Connell whitewater rafting, scaling a cliff, and bow hunting)
–Episode “The Target”
I don’t know… the Dollhouse is already creepy as heck. I can imagine them sending Actives out as submissives and charging exuberant fees. Should the Actives be permanently harmed, the clients could cover the costs of the damages, perhaps by becoming Actives themselves. My point is, the Dollhouse is an evil company out to make lots of money through human trafficking. It strikes me as unusual that they wouldn’t ever send Actives out to be submissives.
I’m wondering if Joss specifically doesn’t want them to be submissives for some reason. Maybe he thinks he can’t get Echo all subversive if she’s a submissive or something. Maybe Eliza doesn’t want to play one ever. It just strikes me as odd, given everything, and I suspect it was tossed in there for reasons other than Dollhouse logic. And if it was, it’s imperfect Dollhouse logic.
In conclusion, I’m fairly disappointed with Dollhouse’s portrayal of BDSM, but I am glad that it got an even halfway-decent portrayal. Too often are such characters demonized or included only for fanservice or comic relief. Well, there was a bit of all three, but BDSM was discussed as a serious topic in the van and with Dr. Saunders. On the whole it came off as just okay, which is reasonable but I would have expected more from a Joss Whedon show.

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