Thursday, October 1, 2009

Man-Reaction Does Not Equal Consent (Dollhouse)


So, Dollhouse recently started its second season with the episode “Vows”. It was enjoyable, and it seems reasonable to expect a good season ahead. One thing I found a little disturbing with the plot (more than usual, I mean) was a scene where Dr. Saunders attempts to force herself on Topher. It seems like a clear case of sexual assault to me, but the show doesn’t present it as such. I’m guessing it falls into the same category of the Wedding Crashers rape scene with shades of the Elle disrespect, where the female character is not seen as threatening because of sexist gender role concepts.
The scene starts with Topher asleep on the floor of a computer room. Dr. Saunders, wearing a skimpy outfit, lies down next to him. She starts kissing him and fondles him below the waist, which he seems into… Then he wakes up and freaks out. He pushes her away, saying he doesn’t want to have sex with her. She points out his physical arousal as supposed proof that he really wants it. He says that the genital area is sensitive and would react the same way if he was fondled by someone as unsexy as Fozzie Bear. She doesn’t listen, and chases him around the room. At one point, she kind of pins him. He finally gets her to stop by opening up about her imprinting and his thoughts on it, and then they talk and bond.
This is sexual assault, plain and simple. The website www.womenshealth.gov defines sexual assault as “any type of sexual activity that you do not agree to”, and it also acknowledges men can be victims. Does Dollhouse recognize it as sexual assault? I… don’t think so.
Dollhouse in general frequently depicts sexual assault of the Actives without much explicit tension because of its odd science-fiction characteristic and blurred line of consent. Topher’s situation is not really the same because he’s not an Active fooled to consent, so I think Hearn’s rape of Sierra in “Man on the Street” is a better comparison. Now, that is one emotional episode. It instructs us to fear for Sierra, to hate Hearn, and to cheer Boyd and November for beating Hearn up. Rape is evil, and “Man on the Street” is one of Joss’s more obviously feminist influenced episodes. Topher’s experience, on the other hand, is just a humorous (Fozzie Bear) and bittersweet encounter with a ticked off Dr. Saunders trying to mess with him.
I heart Joss. He’s a magnificent storyteller. I do think he pretty much screwed up with this scene, though. Hey, Joss, remember when Faith forcing herself on Xander meant she was going evil? It was a tense moment, and Angel came to the rescue… much like Boyd rescuing Sierra. What the heck, Joss?
On a more uplifting note, I went a-googling for other blog posts on this subject and found an episode review at this ain’t livin’ that simply referred to the encounter as Saunders’ sexual assault. I like that it is simply recognized as such, and how the author mentions it in passing on the way to discuss some interesting tidbit about Topher. I’m glad I’m not the only one on the net who sees it as sexual assault, but in my house I am, and I do think Dollhouse as a show didn’t consider it sexual assault, so I feel it’s worth something to blog about it.
Anyway, in conclusion, I’m disappointed with this depiction of what should be a serious subject. As Jossy as it is, I think this episode was negatively affected by pervasive sexism. Were the roles reversed and a manly Saunders doing the same thing to a girly Topher, it would be a clear violation and Boyd would probably burst through a sheet of glass to save her. Watch some old Buffy episodes, Joss.

1 comment:

autumn-vienna said...

I think Joss didn't focus on Saunders' attempted sexual assault on Topher because the main point of the scene is Saunders' devalument and assault of herself; she even points it out later, saying that she couldn't bring herself to stand the smell of Topher.
It was retaliation for the way she felt Topher assaulted her sense of self - he uses the original Dr Saunders' memory to craft a new personality and shoves it into Whiskey's body and puts Clair in a dead-end situation and furthermore refuses to get why she wouldn't want Whiskey to get her life back. It's like he gave her a terminal disease and doesn't see what's wrong with it, and she a) wants to hurt him and b) no longer respects herself. Sexual assault is about domination and control, and maybe Clair did want that over Topher, but my interpretation was that she'd lost respect for herself and it was more personal devaluation than assaulting Topher.