Reason "Dollhouse" Is Misogynist Bullshit #1: The Names


A few weeks ago, Khatani left a comment asking me what I thought of Dollhouse, Joss Whedon's new show. Like President Obama waiting to issue a statement until he actually knew what he was talking about, I waited until I'd seen every episode available (2 through 8, and I read detailed synposes of #1) and read quite a few reviews before I issued my statement.

And here it is: I fucking HATE this show. Watching it leaves me shaken and nauseated, not in some "Oh, Joss is so edgy and provocative" way, but in an "this is violent, aggressive misogynist bullshit" way.

Now, I assume that if any fans of the show (including Khatani) read my blog, they'll want reasons. So here's the first one, something small (we'll build to bigger reasons later):

the difference in the names given to male and female "dolls."

Male dolls have names like "Victor" and "Mike."

Female dolls have names like "Echo" and "Sierra" and "November" and "Tango."

Couldn't the writers either give male dolls names like "Narcissus" or "Carson City" or "Arctic" or "Saturday," as goofy and new-agey and contrived as the names the female dolls have, something that shows their contrived status? Or else give the female dolls unexceptional, familiar names like "Debbie" and "Patricia" and "Lois," so that everything seems even more like a 1950s kindergarten class on qualudes, except with yoga and co-ed showers?

Consistency, people! Gender parity! Gestures that show you've thought really carefully about the issues you claim to be exploring! Not just lazy, easy repetition of all the worst ways women are exploited in our society, with the claim that doing so is some edgy, hip exploration of identity!

There will be additional installments of "Reasons 'Dollhouse' Is Misogynist Bullshit," both because there are many, MANY reasons to cite, and because sometimes I'm committed to showing the flaws in something I've invested strongly in, like the Mormon church or the feminist ideology of Joss Whedon.

As Joss himself acknowledges in this interview, "depending on how it is handled, the show could end up either being 'A fight for her identity or just a misogynist fantasy.'"

I want to demonstrate why this show is not "JUST a misogynist fantasy," but a really creepy, horrible, damaging one, unworthy of the creator of Buffy. I hope it gets canceled, ASAP.



So, does this mean I'm better off sticking with reruns of "Firefly?" ;-)

infinitely better off. I wasn't the hugest Firefly fan, but it has admirable qualities "Dollhouse" can't even dream of--truly sympathetic characters and humor that actually works being high on the list.

Maybe I'm missing something, but I think perhaps you aren't familiar with the standard way of spelling out something over the radio:
A=Able, B=Baker, C=Charlie, etc.
The character names simply follow that ABC listing - E=Echo, M=Mike, N=November, T=Tango, S=Sierra, V=Victor. Sounds like they just decided to number the characters less obviously than using Number 1, Number 2. Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot, eh?

The names are all military code for the alphabet - Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, and so on down, including Mike, November, Sierra, and Victor.

Not saying I disagree (maybe I don't feel as strongly as you do, but I'm not loving the show at all), just saying.

Hey there! I found this post by googling "Dollhouse" and "Pandagon," seeing if they weighed in on this show, which I have enjoyed watching thus far but have the nagging feeling might be problematic. So, I'm interested in what people have to say about this.

I'd point out, though, that the names are, in fact, consistent -- they're all out of the NATO phonetic alphabet, the same species of thing (although I'm not sure if it's exactly the same thing) that gives us Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

You could perhaps analyze their choices of who gets what names out of the ones available(they gave out the normal-sounding "Victor" and "Mike" early, but have yet to give "Juliet" or "Charlie" on the girls side; Echo), but they're treating all the dolls more or less the same in this respect. Which is to say, reducing them to a slightly prettier form of "subject A" and "subject B," which is creepy and dehumanizing as advertised.

Well, OK, it's military code, but still, notice that the girls have the names like Echo, Sierra, November and Tango, and guys have the names like Victor and Mike. It's still the writers' decision. As Thomas points out, it's clear that names haven't been dispensed in alphabetical order--Victor is already an active while Sierra is just being deprived of her original identity, and last time I checked, S comes before V. The system is really only useful if it's used in alphabetical order, so that whoever is named Alpha is the first doll, and whoever is named Echo is the fifth doll, and whoever is named Zulu is the 26th.

Plus, writers could have created male characters with names like Echo and Sierra, and female characters with names like Papa, Oscar and Zulu. Instead, they switch things around to give guys the guy names, and girls the girly names. And what do they do when they have more than 26 dolls--which, from appearances as to how many dolls hang out at yoga class or the dozens of dolls leaving the building after Caroline/Echo set them free at the end of "Needs," seems to have happened? Do we get Alpha 2, Mike 2, X-Ray 2? Or maybe Dot-Dash, Dash-Dot-Dot-Dot, Dash-Dot-Dash-Dot? Do all the "over 20 dollhouses in cities around the world" use the same names?

Actually, now that I know they're using a system that allows for only 26 names within that system, I think the writers are even stupider.

I really like the idea of girl dolls named Papa, Oscar, and Zulu. Insofar as I like the idea of dolls at all, which I DID until I saw the show.

You know what? You're totally right. Back then when I read the Joss interviews and the articles about Dollhouse, I really do love how it sounds because it seems like Joss had just about everything figured out, and that this show was really going to rock, but the more I think about it (and realizing what you've said as well), the show is becoming increasingly dull and the more I find this show pointless now. In the interviews, both Joss and Eliza stated that the first six episodes would be more self-contained in order to introduce everything in and about the Dollhouse to the viewers so that we'd understand what the Dollhouse deals in. Okay, I thought to myself that I could manage that, and hopefully my faith in Joss is enough for me to have high hopes that things will get better but I've given up hope. At first, I thought I understood what Joss was trying to do but I'm just not following it anymore. My thoughts on it have fallen from fantastic show to wrong and pointless show, and I'm even more convinced of this after I read the entry you posted titled "Free Speech, Bad Arguments, and Violence Against Women" which has sealed the deal for me. Everything you wrote in that entry was the opposite of my train of thinking in order to try to justify what Joss Whedon was doing with this show (since I kept on thinking that he had to be right, he must be right, this show will get better, this show is marvelous, because he is the genius who created Buffy after all, so it's going to be fine and dandy, but now I feel foolish for ever thinking like that), even though in the back of my mind, I was questioning the same exact thing you wrote about in that particular entry of yours. And I completely agree with all of the things you wrote. It makes so much sense, more than what Joss is doing with Dollhouse, and I feel a lot better now that I'm able to let go of holding onto something that I haven't been feeling all right about. I became very interested in this show because it reflected reality, and in real life, people do make businesses out of human trafficking, where the people who hold all the power do abuse it, and society/governments/organizations do try their best to manipulate and brainwash people into doing and believing whatever they say, but out of all that, I was missing the big picture. So, I really apologize that I ever said the show was fantastic. I am very grateful that you've posted your thoughts on Dollhouse, because it was what had sealed the deal for me. You made me realize some things I hadn't before, and I truly thank you for that. The reason why I love reading your blog is because you're so open-minded and intelligent (and I'm not trying to kiss ass here). Also, I've never liked the writers who write for Dollhouse. They lack almost all of the brilliance, wittiness, and insight that most of the BtVS writers possessed. I think Joss could have made this show better if he knew how to handle and go about it differently but with the way it is, I don't think it works. The mass audience who aren't fans of his will most likely just dismiss Dollhouse as a show that glorifies prostitution and human trafficking, while at the same time, Dollhouse will just reinforce the idea of the patriarchy.

I won't dispute your right to hate the show, but I feel that I have to defend the writers a little bit here. The idea of using the audible alphabet isn't a terrible one, and actually reminds me a bit of the use of numbers in "the village" in the classic series "The Prisoner". To your original point, there are some names in this system that sound like standard male names, but there really aren't any that sound like traditional female names. The writers weren't deliberately picking weird names for the women, they were just picking names they liked. And, of course, there are important thematic reasons for the main character being "Echo".
Also, there is no reason to think that it is a numbering system. We know that the names are recycled because they have mentioned a previous Sierra, so they probably just give an available name to any new Active regardless of when they arrive. In fact, I think it's a safe bet that they target their recruitment so that they always have a certain balance of genders. Dividing up the names so that they can denote gender makes sense. Remember that the Dollhouse is a business, and I'm sure that the names are a part of the marketing materials for clients. If you were going to hire someone for a discrete sexual encounter, you may not want the petite blonde named Victor (or the butch bodybuilder named Sierra, for that matter). For that matter, the average TV viewer would probably feel much the same way.

Honestly, the show is about an evil corporation. Is it not possible that the writers are doing an excellent job of portraying the badness of these guys rather than being misogynist themselves? I just find it hard to believe that a man who has always been so active in fighting for women's issues would not truly care about these issues. So, given that, I cannot believe that anything he writes would be truly misogynistic. Certainly he has many characters who can be described as misogynists, but I just don't think it's fair to label the entire work that way.

but there really aren't any that sound like traditional female names.

Juliet? Seriously? You don't think Juliet is a traditional female name?

If you were going to hire someone for a discrete sexual encounter, you may not want the petite blonde named Victor (or the butch bodybuilder named Sierra, for that matter). For that matter, the average TV viewer would probably feel much the same way.

So you acknowledge that the shows panders to conventional gender expectations, and you care a lot about the psychological comfort of people who "hire someone [who is essentially a sex slave] for a discrete [or do you mean discreet?] sexual encounter." Nice.

Do the clients even need to know the names of the dolls they hire? Keep in mind, clients know the dolls by the names they're assigned for their roles as actives.

Honestly, the show is about an evil corporation. Is it not possible that the writers are doing an excellent job of portraying the badness of these guys rather than being misogynist themselves?

See this entry: Free Speech, Bad Arguments, and Violence Against Women.

Hi Khatani--

I'm really glad you agree with my general assessment. I thought about emailing you to let you know that I'd begun writing about the show, but it seemed churlish to say, "Hey! I'm trashing the show you recommended!"

No need to apologize for suggesting that I watch it, though--I'm glad to know about it myself.

To me, the problem isn't that the show is dull; it's that most of the "entertainment" in it involves women in pain and/or danger, in ways that exploit their pain and danger.

IT'S VILE, and I have so much to say about this. I almost posted something else about it today but decided to take a break and instead post two very weird musical commercials about the joys of shaving your pubic hair.

You wrote that while watching the show, you questioned the same things I mentioned, but kept telling yourself (forgive me for paraphrasing), "Hey, this is Joss! He's a genius feminist! It has to be OK!"

I bet Joss has been experiencing something similar. He has acknowledged repeatedly that he realizes the show can fail spectacularly, that it can be, as I already mentioned, a "misogynist fantasy." I think he should have paid far more attention than he did to these doubts he mentions.

Thanks for reading and discussing things with me here.

I'll definitely be waiting to read all your other reasons. I also want to ask you if you would recommend me some really enlightening books about feminism or philosophy/ethics (I feel like I need to educate myself more). I figured if I were to ask anyone for what they think are great and insightful reads, it'd be you.

hi Khatani--

thanks for the vote of confidence. I'll do some thinking about books, and get back to you with suggestions.

So. . you're upset that girls on the show have female sounding names, and the males on the show have male sounding names?

wow, I've never read something so incredibly stupid before.

What?! A male named Mike?!!? FUCK This show is misogynist. . BURN IT!

Or, hey, better idea, lets just burn you for being a dumbass.

And the fact that you've been given a reason as to why they are named that way, you cant help but try and prove that you're "right" by saying "So! They should have named Dushku's character Victor!"

You're arguments are tired and childish. .

I see you go by the name "Holly" Ultimate hypocrisy right there. . I demand that you change your name to Butch, maybe then your argument might seem less whiny.

you're upset that girls on the show have female sounding names, and the males on the show have male sounding names?

No. I'm annoyed that there are three male dolls, which have the names Mike and Victor, both of which are traditional male names, plus Alpha, which is a word often associated with the word "male," while women have silly, new-age sounding names that aren't traditional names, like Whiskey, Tango and Sierra, which heighten their unreality and lack of real identity.

But I wouldn't expect a loser like you to recognize a fine distinction like that, or to appreciate it when confronted with it.

Wow, Lex, what an asshole! Read much? Because you obviously didn't get the point of these posts about Dollhouse.

Holly, at least Lex did you the favor of illustrating how casually people can slip into violent misogyny as a default:

Or, hey, better idea, lets just burn you for being a dumbass.

Takes my breath away; kinda makes your point about how the show slips into the very same default.

Slightly more interestingly, Dollhouse has now started airing here in the UK but I don't subscribe to the channel that's airing it, so I still haven't seen an episode. I'll just wait for the DVDs. But if anyone would like to follow the discussion of the show on an episode-by-episode basis, Anna Pickard of The Guardian has started a blog on their website. Episode 1 is discussed here.

Hi Spike--

thanks for the link. I understand why you're waiting for the dvds, but I'm anxious to know what you think of the show. Given your interest in the intersection of international political economy and pop culture, I'm sure "Dollhouse" will be very fertile ground for you. It's entirely removed from daily life, which is one reason I find it emotionally sterile.

Thanks, Holly, I am looking forward to watching it, despite the bad reviews. Speaking of which, Charlie Brooker watched the first two episodes. I don't agree with his take on Buffy, mind you. The pay off for watching the whole series is just too good, just like reading both volumes of Don Quixote or any other long, difficult but rewarding novel.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on April 4, 2009 11:03 AM.

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