Throwing Stones at a Dollhouse
How do we respond when bad people like Joss Whedon create good art?
In light of the recent flood of cast members bravely coming forward to speak out against Joss Whedon’s abusive and sexist behavior, there has once again been a wealth of think-pieces and tweets devoted to going through the pantheon of the Whedonverse and trying to demonstrate that It Was All Right There The Whole Time, His Work Is All Sexist Trash, It’s Okay That You Liked It Once But We Know Better Now.
I find these types of attitudes very understandable and predictable, but not very helpful, especially when they mostly reduce complex art to Just One Thing and often shame people for continuing to like that thing when they Should Know Better. So I decided to write yet another think-piece.
First, Dollhouse in particular
I was inspired mainly by this piece, entitled Joss Whedon Showed Us Exactly What He Thought of Women With Dollhouse. Dollhouse, for those unfamiliar, was a short-lived show about a shady organization that loans out programmable people, "dolls," for all sorts of sordid engagements, and how one of the dolls — a woman named Echo — upends their designs. A few salient quotes from the article:
“…the series gave us an extremely good and deeply troubling idea of what Joss Whedon thought of women, their bodies, and their agency…”
“Since most of the rape is shown as non-violent, rather as sex without consent since the Dolls cannot consent, the creators of the show don’t seem to see it as a problem.”
“…shows us what Joss Whedon, who built his reputation as a consummate feminist and champion of “kickass” women, really seems to think of women: as objects who are only as powerful as their ability to be violent.”
“We understand things better now. But we maybe should have known then that maybe Joss Whedon was telling us who he was all along: a man who seemed to view women on and off-screen as dolls for him to play with.”
Dollhouse is an intensely complex show, moreso than any other show Whedon has done in my opinion, and this is certainly one valid way of reading it.
It also happens to be some of my favorite stuff Whedon has done, and I see it more as a slow burn of a woman slowly gaining agency and gathering her skills and building a new identity despite horrible circumstances, and the people around her who were so cavalier about her abuse being forced to reckon with the consequences of their actions. In that sense, it’s more of a slow-building revenge fantasy than it’s a male rape fantasy. (Aside: I can’t wait to see Promising Young Woman.) Plus, there’s Enver Gjokaj. That man can ACT and is worth every minute.
And sure, the women are badass and capable of violence, but their success is far more often about their strategizing and ingenuity than it is about their use of violence.
So while there are absolutely many problematic elements in Dollhouse, and it can be a deeply disturbing watch that I certainly don’t recommend to people who would find the constant undercurrent of rape and lack of consent triggering, I still think this article is overly simplistic about its characters and the overall lens of the show.
I get the temptation to go back through a creator's work and read in motive and try to illustrate that their wacked-out values were fully present in every aspect of their work, and yes, Whedon had this weird obsession with young beautiful action hero women who were often objectified and assaulted and there is what to discuss about that, though a lot of it winds up sounding very armchair-pop-psychologist. Did he love playing out power fantasies through torturing these beautiful women? Maybe. Did he write shows centering on women because he wanted to be surrounded by beautiful young actresses? Also maybe. And yes, this show didn’t discuss the moral implications of the rape element as explicitly as it did some of the other moral issues, and I understand that people can be frustrated with that.
But art is very rarely Just One Thing, and there were a lot of things going on in Dollhouse and its portrayal of its Dolls (some of whom were male and definitely got loaned out to be raped just like the women), so I think it boiling it down to “Joss just sees women as his playthings” like this is a bit lazy.
Side note about writing in general
As fiction writers, to be honest, we tend to see all characters as our playthings to some degree, and get a kind of perverse enjoyment from placing them in the worst possible situations and watching them fight their way out of it, either physically or psychologically or both. Or just suffer valiantly, let’s be real. It’s what makes a story interesting and compelling and/or triumphant and emotionally resonant. There's an entire extraordinarily popular franchise devoted to torturing its female protagonist, and you may have heard of it — it's called The Hunger Games.
There are better and worse ways of doing it, of course, and those can be debated ad nauseam, like whether rape should be used as a storytelling tool at all or is, at best, just a lazy writer’s way of creating drama, or at worst, a misogynistic writer’s way of playing out his fantasies. (And of course, you’re allowed to just plain Not Like when it’s used, even if you don’t have any particular analysis of the author’s motives.)
It’s fairly rare for writers address that somewhat sociopathic aspect of writing — I appreciated John Scalzi touching on it in his novel Redshirts, when a writer is confronted with the characters he has traumatized by needlessly killing their friends. I have often told my friends that if I weren’t a writer, I’d be an ax murderer. I don’t really know why torturing my characters brings me joy, but if there’s a writer out there who says it doesn’t, they are probably lying. WHAT IS WRONG WITH US, I DON’T KNOW.
Just saying. Yes, we all need therapy, but I don’t personally feel like this is a helpful moral standard by which to judge writers.
Lastly, remember that art isn’t pure
I think it's important to accept the reality that people can be awful humans and still create meaningful and worthwhile art. Art doesn't come from some incorruptible pure source. Joss is a creative genius (Once More With Feeling is one of the best things television has ever produced, don't @ me, and The Body is a masterpiece) and much of his work is phenomenal and was meaningful then and can still have meaning now — as Sarah Michelle Gellar said, she doesn't want to be associated with Joss, but is still proud to be associated with Buffy.
Being a creative genius doesn't magically make someone a good person. But likewise, being a bad person doesn't make someone's work automatically suck. You're allowed to appreciate good art even if it comes from bad sources — you're not wrong or bad for liking it. Though of course it's perfectly valid if that knowledge colors the way you interpret the work or leeches the joy out of it. But if it doesn't do that for you, and you still enjoy it, that doesn't mean you're not being sensitive enough. Just don’t go around calling those who are sensitive to it “snowflakes” or “SJWs.” They’re not hallucinating the problems in the art, just as you’re not hallucinating the merits.
Regarding supporting someone like Joss financially, that's another story, and everyone’s personal calculus is different there too. But TV and film are such a collaborative art that it's complicated to say that you shouldn't financially support anything he touched, because he's certainly not getting most of the money. And seriously, do not shame anyone for their buying choices — do not put the onus for this on the fans; put it on the creator, where it belongs. Focus your anger there. Hold Joss accountable, not your fellow fans.
Thank you for reading this edition of SM’s Movie Cramming Project, where I, SM, mostly watch movies so that you don’t have to, but lately also give the internet a stern talking-to and encourage it to think about what it’s done.