Sunday, July 24, 2011

Dollhouse Is Feminist (Part 6: 1x04)

(See the video version here)

The fourth Dollhouse episode, “Grey Hour”, starts with Echo in the mountains as a midwife. Even though we never return to these mountains, they are memorable enough for Echo to remember them past several mind-wipes, but more on that later. Echo is imprinted with the identity of a woman called Taffy. It’s highly implied she’s a prostitute.

But things go south when it appears that some of the men try to rape her. She’s rescued by the hotel manager, who tries to pay her off to make sure she doesn’t sue them. I think this is a feminist moment in a way because it raises attention to this kind of injustice. It makes you think about the incidents of rape that don’t get reported for one reason or another. The hotel isn’t so different from the Dollhouse itself.

Okay, feminists often criticize the next part, and I have to admit it’s a valid point. Taffy knocks the guy out and it turns out it was all a trick to get into a secure area. She’s a thief trying to get something from the vault. Yeah, that’s not so good from a feminist viewpoint. The idea of a woman faking rape to trick men is popular among anti-feminists and it’s often used to justify not taking rape victims seriously. In this case, I’ll admit it’s a feminist fail.

Anyway, Taffy leads her team into the vault to steal a valuable piece of art. Taffy is clearly a master thief, way more capable than her male associates. One such associate turns traitor, stabs a guy, steals the artwork and runs, locking them in. It’s no problem Taffy can’t solve. Except, then Alpha performs a remote wipe and sends Echo back to the tabula rasa state.

Actives in the tabula rasa state are extremely innocent and simplistic. They’re like little children, except little children have episodic memory. Actives are even less capable than the citizens of Pleasantville, because at least they have some skills, if no ability to improvise.

The thieves try to snap Taffy out of her amnesia, the one jerk guy going as far as to slap her. Because this isn’t The Three Stooges, it’s portrayed as harsh. The not-jerk guy talks to her to be polite. She says a Picasso piece is broken. He explains that it’s more than the literal truth. This isn’t just about art. It’s Echo recognizing her tabula rasa state isn’t fully her. She feels like the Dollhouse broke her. A bit later, she sees a painting of mountains and says that her name is something other than Taffy when she’s there.

This is Echo in the tabula rasa state remembering something two imprints ago. The mind-wiping isn’t nearly as effective as Topher thinks it is. She has a vague understanding of what’s going on and she’s remembering more and more over time. She is not just a victim. This is leading up to something.

So, Taffy in Sierra tries to talk Echo through opening the door, but it’s too late. The alarms come on and the guards come in. The not-jerk tells Echo how to surrender, but the jerk sets up to go out in a storm of bullets. He gives her vague instructions on how to shoot, threatening to kill her if she doesn’t. Echo rejects that proposal. She stabs the jerk thief in the neck. The other guy tells her how to run away, but Echo insists on rescuing him too. Boyd meets them on the way out.

Echo: “I’m not broken.”

Then Echo is wiped. She goes about her daily routine. And she draws the Picasso piece in the steamed-up mirror. She remembers the conversation in a vague way. The symbolism is also clear. She feels broken and wants to be whole. And that’s on the way; it’s not just Echo’s victimization that’s on display here.

So, that’s “Grey Hour”. It’s not perfect, but it’s got some cool feminist stuff in addition to the feminist fail. Echo’s development is highlighted here. In her most victimized state she gains the ability to fight off a male oppressor. When given the chance to escape, she chooses to rescue the guy who was nice to her.
That’s Caroline’s soul showing through. While Ballard is still running around trying to play hero, the character with the real makings of a hero is Echo. She’s the one we care about.

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