Joss Whedon and the Real Girl

The creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly has shown an uncanny understanding of female psychology. But in his new TV show, Dollhouse, the characters so far feel plastic.

In the second episode of Joss Whedon’s new Fox series Dollhouse, an FBI agent who has been obsessively pursuing a human trafficking operation gets a tip from a co-worker.

“We got a call,” his colleague says. “Couple of kids found a house in the woods all made of candy and gingerbread. Thought that might be up your alley.”

There’s real nastiness in this joke: though its target, Agent Paul Ballard, is working a case his skeptical coworker regards as a fairytale, the operation he’s chasing actually exists. The Dollhouse is a luxe dormitory stocked with pretty young things who have their memories repeatedly erased by a boy-genius scientist and replaced with designer personalities tailored to the needs of wealthy clients. After their engagements—as the perfect girlfriend, a hostage negotiator, a backup singer, or a thief—the Dolls’ memories are erased again, and they return to a blank and blissed-out state. The series follows Echo, Ballard’s most concrete lead on the case, as she moves in and out of assignments and identities, and begins to show signs of a renewed awareness and humanity.

Whedon built his reputation as a genre artist, and Dollhouse, with its souped-up science and conspiracies, is no departure from that trend. But even if you’re not interested in his themes—teenage girls killing vampires in Southern California, a science-fiction spin on the Wild West, or cops investigating illegal uses of futuristic technology—his work matters because he uses those genres to explore the same question as realist directors: what it means to be human. Unlike his best work, Dollhouse hasn’t yet escaped the constraints of its genre. But if Whedon manages to use its risky combination of human trafficking, memory loss, and science to move into head-on explorations of consent and identity, Dollhouse could succeed as his most ambitious attempt to tackle the problem of what makes us who we are.

Echo is not Whedon’s first girl gone wrong. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon’s masterpiece, he followed the adventures of a group of teenagers in Sunnydale, California, who fight vampires, demons, and assorted other Big Bads, as the show calls its super-villains. This ludicrous-sounding concept, first developed in a 1992 movie, gained heft and resonance on the small screen because Whedon captured the dramas and heartbreaks of high school with an accuracy that puts more realistic high school movies like John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club to shame. Because of his perceptive portrayal of teenagers, Buffy’s central joke, that high school actually is Hell, seemed witty rather than overwrought.

Whedon brought that accurate portrayal to Buffy’s younger sister, Dawn Summers, who is introduced in season five a convincingly archetypal teenager—jealous of her super-powered older sibling, eager for independence but a little afraid of it, and tentatively interested in boys, even though sometimes they turn out to be vampires. But midway through the season, the viewers, and eventually Dawn, learn that while she looks, feels, and has the same bad taste in guys as a real teenaged girl, she is actually a powerful energy source known as the Key, and her family’s memories of her life are the creation of a group of monks desperate to hide her from a demonic goddess.

Dawn’s agony at discovering that she is not human and that the life she remembers in vivid detail is not real resonates because Whedon succeeded in channeling a teenage girl’s voice so well. From the very whine of “Moooom!” that signals Dawn’s entrance into the series, there is no reason to think of her as anything less than a whole person. Even when she is complaining about how Buffy conducts her war against the supernatural in an extremely funny voice-over excerpt of her diary, Dawn is an immediately credible teenager. “I could so save the world if somebody handed me superpowers!” Dawn complains. “But I—I’d think of a cool name and wear a mask to protect my loved ones. Which Buffy doesn’t even!” And when Dawn collapses in front of her friends at school upon learning her mother’s death, she becomes undeniably human in her grief, even if she’s mourning for a woman who didn’t actually give birth to her.

In contrast with Buffy, whose characters are immersed in high school and small-town politics, Whedon’s sci-fi series Firefly lacks a central conceit that ties it to contemporary American problems, though Whedon has said that the show was inspired in part by Michael Shaara’s Civil War novel, The Killer Angels. Firefly, and its big-screen sequel Serenity, center on the crew of a spaceship captained by a renegade named Malcolm Reynolds, who fought and lost a war against a centralized government called the Alliance. Reynolds and his crew already operate in a grey area between legitimate shipping work and smuggling, but their lives become vastly more complicated when they take on two passengers on the run from the government. Simon Tam is trying to protect his sister, River, from the Alliance agents who lobotomized her in an attempt to turn her into the perfect assassin.

River is definitely human, but the damage that’s been done to her brain leaves her struggling to hold on to the remaining fragments of her identity and to her sense of herself as a person at all. And the details of River’s attempt to hold on to herself make her a much more complete and engaging character than the saner members of the crew. In one of the funniest scenes of the series, an onboard minister called Shepherd Book finds River marking up his Bible and rearranging the pages in an attempt to make literal sense of the stories in it. “So we’ll integrate non-progressional evolution theory with God’s creation of Eden,” River says, dead serious. “We’ll have to call it ‘early quantum state phenomenon.’ Only way to fit 5,000 species of mammals on the same boat.”

The episode makes River seem crazy, but it also establishes her genius through an exploration of religion and science that resonates in our own world. Whedon also shows viewers that despite her intelligence and her insanity, River is a plausible girl, whether she’s making-believe with her brother in flashbacks, or playing jacks and giggling over gossip with another young woman. Without those details, River might merely be a damaged freak. But when she cries to her brother, “I function like I’m a girl. I hate it because I know it’ll go away!” we care, because we’ve seen the humor and idiosyncrasy that slip away when she descends into madness.

Unlike her predecessors Dawn and River, who fight against the loss of their selves, Dollhouse’s Echo has voluntarily given up her identity, though the pilot implies that she did so under to escape an even more terrible fate. That setup raises important questions about consent, but because repeated memory wipes have left her with no sense of original self, Echo can’t remember that she consented, much less consider how she felt about signing herself over. “I’m a bad guy?” she asks an accomplice during an assignment when her programming malfunctions, leaving her without a personality. “You are a talking cucumber,” he corrects her.

Despite the fantastical circumstances his women find themselves in, Whedon has been unusually successful in bringing them to life by grounding them in the common experience of women, and portraying that experience with a sympathy and verisimilitude extremely rare in male directors. “There is an amazing amount of unbelievable shit happening to women all over the world every single day,” Whedon said in an email from Canada, where he is shooting the horror movie The Cabin in the Woods. “A lot to cull from—and to fight against.”

But thus far, though it’s early in the show, Dollhouse has not managed to channel the common experience of women. Echo is quite literally a doll: beautiful, malleable, and detached. She communicates with the scientist who wipes her memory in call-and-response dialogues. “Did I fall asleep?” she asks every time he finishes erasing her brain. “For a little while,” he responds in a tone that’s laced with sickly sweetness. The only fragments that Agent Ballard has of her prior identity are a photograph and a college video yearbook.

The real risk and potential in Dollhouse lies in how Whedon decides to deal with his framing device: human trafficking. Trafficking is a genuine problem, unlike the imaginary government experiments in Firefly and Serenity, and it’s much more fraught than the perils of high school.

Whedon says that the show was never meant to be a realistic look at how human beings are bought and sold. But he adds that “later in the process, I woke up in the middle of the night and thought ‘this is trafficking.’ My response to that was to try and show both sides—the reality of trafficking and the fantasy of the Dollhouse, to show their differences and similarities. We didn’t get as far into that as we’d hoped—there’s been a lot of adjusting.”

Thus far, five episodes into the series, escapism has dominated the plotlines. In the premiere, Echo spent a hot weekend racing motorcycles, dancing, and having sex with a good-looking young man who treats her like a treasured girlfriend. In the second episode, she went rock-climbing and hunting with another hunk, who turned out to have a Most Dangerous Game fantasy. That’s a step closer to the risks of violence and coercion in human trafficking and sex work, but it’s not exactly realistic. And in the fourth episode, Echo pretended to be an abused prostitute to gain access to a vault full of valuable art she intends to steal. There’s something disturbing about using sympathy for victims of sexual violence to commit crimes, but the episode doesn’t explore whether we ought to be disgusted with someone—Echo’s client? Her handlers? Echo herself?—for designing and carrying out the con. There is no hint of the grubby realities of human trafficking, or of the intriguing alliance between feminism and evangelical Christianity that drives a great deal of anti-trafficking work in both the government and non-profit sectors.

Dollhouse could be a fascinating exploration of prostitution if Echo was able to consent, if she had a decision-making process we could assess and evaluate. And sex has been so large a part of Dollhouse that it threatens to drown out other facets of what once made Echo a person.

Tonight’s episode may be a turning point. Whedon wrote the pilot episode of the series, but has not written any of the episodes that aired sense until this one, the sixth. Dushku told A.V. Club that starting in the sixth episode, “the world unfolds in Joss’ way, with Joss’ speed, and it’s really remarkable.”

Whedon says there’s little chance he’ll do an extremely realistic episode like “The Body,” for Dollhouse, though he consulted the human rights organization Equality Now about how to shape Ballard’s character.

“The moral gray areas in the show are already lacking in white, and the show would become depressing beyond repair if it was all about the seamy side of life,” he says. “That’s what [Law & Order: Special Victims Unit] is for.”

But in the fairytale, the gingerbread house’s power comes not from its delectable exterior, but from the genuine fear inspired by the furnace inside, where children are baked into meat. Dollhouse doesn’t have to be realistic to succeed. But at some point, Echo, and what’s happening to her, must become real.

Dollhouse airs on Fox Friday nights at 9 p.m. EDT.