Whedon’s Dollhouse: My Theory Is That It’s All Real

Antisocial personality disorder is characterized by at least 3 of the following:
Callous unconcern for the feelings of others and lack of the capacity for empathy.
Gross and persistent attitude of irresponsibility and disregard for social norms, rules, and obligations.
Incapacity to maintain enduring relationships.
Very low tolerance to frustration and a low threshold for discharge of aggression, including violence.
Incapacity to experience guilt and to profit from experience, particularly punishment.
Markedly prone to blame others or to offer plausible rationalizations for the behavior bringing the subject into conflict.
Persistent irritability.


Well, Dollhouse came and went. If you ask me, it probably should have run for three seasons instead of two, because the second season felt extremely rushed. There were some interesting ideas, such as the “Whiskey” character, that didn’t get fully explored, and the apocalyptic futurescape turned into more sketch than setting.

That said, even in the best of all possible worlds, Dollhouse couldn’t have lasted too long. (Well, actually, in the best of all possible worlds, the show wouldn’t exist at all, but that’s another story.) Its premise simply went nuclear too quickly — by the end of the first season, it was clear that Whedon was going as fast as possible from a story about a brothel of the brainwashed to a story about cyberpunks saving humanity. For many fans, this was the meaning of the series and the heart of the story. A lot of the stuff at the beginning, goes the now-familiar narrative, was merely put there by FOX to attract non-Whedon-obsessed viewers.

In addition, much of the casual conversations on the Web and elsewhere about Dollhouse emphasized basically practical questions about the technology in the show. For example, an Amazon reviewer named Phoenix Child (and, seriously, let’s all hope that’s his or her real name) wrote:

At once a dark and disturbing show, “Dollhouse” was a difficult television show to watch because it challenged its viewers, it questioned its viewers: is it possible to erase someone’s soul? Is it morally right to have such technology? Is it human nature to abuse this technology? If the dolls are all ostensibly volunteers, is there such a thing as voluntary servitude or are the engagements prostitution of a most profoundly perverted nature?

None of these are actually difficult questions, though Phoenix Child presents them that way. Is it possible to erase someone’s soul? No, although accidental or deliberate brain damage (i.e. lobotomies) can also damage personhood. Is it morally right to have such technology? No. If this technology existed, would it be abused? Yes. If the dolls are all ostensibly volunteers, does that make what’s happening OK? No.

In other words, as with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the meaning of Dollhouse becomes profoundly shallow if it is reduced to practical questions about which technologies do or do not already exist. Huxley wasn’t warning us about a possible future state of the world — he was critiquing the world in which he lived. Likewise, in order to understand Whedon’s show, we have to see all the events as relating metaphorically to our present state of being.

Considered from this perspective, the show is actually about how much of our sense of identity is derived from our work. It suggests that the fundamental desire of our employers, qua employers, is to colonize our entire identity. This is more than a matter of working long hours. As Barbara Ehrenreich noted in Nickel and Dimed, employment questionnaires for big box stores like Wal-Mart ask potential employees questions about their mood, including questions based on psychiatric indicators of depression. Many — perhaps most — hiring policies revolve as much around intangibles of character as they do around required skills: “We’re looking for energetic, smiling people to become part of the team!”

I am not suggesting here that we should automatically resent all such overlaps of the personal and the professional. Would I really want Barack Obama to think of his presidency as entirely separate from his personhood? Of course not; being President takes character. Dollhouse isn’t saying this either. Rather, it’s a literalization of the idea that as we perform an increasing number of diverse roles, it is harder and harder to reconcile the various potential selves that become actual through those roles. An exhausting cognitive dissonance sets in, made worse by the fact that very often, we both like who we are and who we used to be. Everyone was a little different in college or high school, but it’s disorienting to change habits, lifestyles, and crowds every few years. Echo becomes a superhero in the Whedonverse because she can survive consciously containing multitudes without turning into a sociopath.

From here, it’s easy to see why Whedon wanted to include “remote imprinting.” He’s making a point about identity, and he doesn’t want to leave out the fact that our identities are affected by media (the ever-popular deadly cellphone “wipe,” a metaphor for the little revolutions cellphones have initiated) and culture (naturally, boom boxes can broadcast soul-killing frequencies, Whedon’s way of commenting on Top 40 radio). He cleverly uses the biological term, “imprinting,” to suggest that we go about our lives in a somewhat infantile state, imitating a constantly changing set of stereotyped models for how we should think and act. When, at the end of the show, Topher annihilates the imprinting technology, everyone except the superheroes is left in a daze, no longer slaves, but not really anything else either.

Still, this doesn’t solve the problem of Echo. One could easily argue that she never becomes sociopathic because, in a world where people are being destroyed by a single evil technology, the moral imperatives are so clear that one’s place is always easy to determine. The world becomes simple. It is easy to see that, for example, switching bodies by overwriting other personalities is wrong. It’s not so easy to guess what is correct when it comes to overwriting ourselves: have you ever seen a yoga teacher who didn’t look and dress like a yoga teacher? Or an academic who didn’t strike you as an academic? One makes jokes about academics wearing elbow patches precisely to be reassured that if you don’t have them on your elbows, you aren’t already wearing a uniform.

If you replace the heavy emphasis on violent aggression with its lesser cousins, irritability and frustration, it is easy to see how troubling the definition of sociopathy becomes. “Incapacity to experience guilt and to profit from experience, particularly punishment” — well, if your situation is in a constant state of flux, it can be hard to apply the lessons of experience, and holding onto guilt is ridiculous. “Incapacity to maintain enduring relationships” — or, We Really Need Facebook Very Badly. “Markedly prone to blame others or to offer plausible rationalizations for the behavior bringing the subject into conflict” — the key being plausibility, which, given the rich technologies we now possess for writing our own narratives, is a commodity everyone can afford, and a screen that not much penetrates. Much of the definition of sociopathy relies, implicitly, on a continuity of community that no longer exists. More troubling still, understanding based on recognizing another person’s models does not bring empathy along with it. If I know a certain hipster is trying to be Julian Casablancas, I feel icily aware of what he is doing, instead of being warmed by his earnest love for all that the Strokes represent. The more I flatter his sensibility by talking about the (real) virtues of garage rock, the more I feel as though I’m watching the conversation from behind a one-way mirror. That is why it becomes so important for Whedon’s dolls, and for most of the people around them, not to know or to forget that imprinting is taking place.

At the end of the show, Echo is alive, but her lover Paul Ballard is not. Fortunately, she has uploaded his personality to disk, and she downloads him into her own brain so that their affair can continue. If he were alive, and prone to the shattering accidents of a separate and real existence, could they ever be so wonderfully together, so thrillingly united? Echo is smiling. But her eyes are closed.