Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Dollhouse Is Feminist (Part 4: 1x01 "Ghost")

(see the video here)

So, the first Dollhouse episode “Ghost” is the intro to the series and as such serves primarily to introduce the basic elements that make up the show. The Dollhouse is particularly gross with its sexualizing the Actives, but I feel that is a way to show what it is in the most overt way. Even though this sexualizing takes place, there are many cues that show that the Dollhouse is villainous. This includes Boyd implying that it isn’t good and later arguing with Topher about how they’re not humanitarians. Then there’s the work done on Sierra, which is depicted in a horrific manner. Our protagonist Echo sees that “she hurts” even in her tabula rasa state, so already she’s picking up that things aren’t as they should be. Then there’s our faux white knight Ballard, who gives us the low-down on why the Dollhouse is no good, that it’s exploiting girls in trafficking and such, that it deals in sexual slavery. Echo is trapped in the Dollhouse and she continues to be trapped, giving us the basis for the whole series, excepting the Epitaph episodes.


The main plot of the episode involves this millionaire’s daughter being kidnapped and him hiring the Dollhouse for assistance. The Dollhouse imprints Echo with Eleanor Penn, sexy hostage negotiator, to help facilitate the ransom transaction. When Echo does some weird power play thing with the kidnappers, the guy starts to question her ability. He interrogates her about what makes her qualified, and she reveals that she was kidnapped and raped as a young girl—or at least fully believes she was, and that makes her more motivated than anyone to get the girl back safely. The thing is that Topher doesn’t create memories from scratch and instead copies them from real people, so Echo has real memories of someone’s rape. As it turns out, the rapist is one of the kidnappers.

The deal goes south, and the Dollhouse starts to pull out, but Boyd convinces them to have Echo continue on to rescue the girl. Despite being completely terrified, Echo challenges the kidnappers including the rapist. The rapist threatens to rape her, which is a disturbing moment. This part upsets a lot of feminists, who associate the guy’s misogyny with the show, as though the part is in there to make entertainment off of violence against women. I disagree. While the show is inherently entertainment, being a work of fiction, it does not depict the rape threat in a sexualized way; we’re not meant to find it hot. I believe it’s supposed to come across as sickening as most feminists find it, specifically so that the rapist looks bad. He is an antagonist, the foe of the protagonist, and the part makes us feel for her and appreciate the struggle she’s going through to confront the monster of her past. And she doesn’t fold under pressure. She’s terrified, but she makes a witty retort—not one we’re expected to laugh at, but just to appreciate how she can overcome her fear.

She takes control of the situation, exposing that she knows the guy’s MO. She gets the other, more honorable kidnappers to turn on the guy, and she rescues the girl. While Ballard and Boyd, the traditional male heroes, are doing things off-screen, she is the one who actually is the show’s hero. She faces her fears, stands up to her rapist, actually defeats said rapist, and rescues the girl. Super-Sierra arrives way too late to provide back-up, but again we have a strong female character. Even if she isn’t really necessary, it’s because another strong female character already did the job.

And then Echo’s wiped. Her story isn’t wrapped up, and she still needs to be rescued, but it won’t happen in this episode. While things are set up so that it looks like Ballard will be the hero who saves her, the actual story won’t be so simplistic. So, that’s the first episode, laying the basis for Dollhouse as a series. There’s the overarching story and the individual episode plot about Echo fighting this rapist character. While there are misogynistic situations going on, the main part is about Echo fighting oppression.

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