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The limits of my world are the limits of my language February 19, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in fangirl, reviews.
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(SPOILER WARNING FOR BUFFY, ANGEL AND FIREFLY)

Last week, I was rather exasperated with Joss Whedon’s latest show, Dollhouse. The absence of Whedon’s trademark snappy dialogue worried me.

It’s the dialogue that sets Joss shows apart from their more mundane cousins. It’s Joss’s way with language that makes his shows the thing that other TV series can only aspire to be: shows with a heart.

I fall in love with Joss’s characters for their humanity, and it is through their words that this humanity shines through. Without memorable language, they’re nothing more than the mechanisms that drive a plot.

Almost as soon as I posted this, however, I realised I was fundamentally missing the point. This was because I had misinterpreted the central theme of the show. I had viewed the concept of the Dollhouse (where people with wiped personalities had new personalities implanted in order to fulfill the fantasies of wealthy clients) as a metaphor for the actor-director/writer relationship. But it’s not. It’s more ambitious, and chilling, than that. I got one half of the equation right: the Dolls (or Actives) stand in for actors. But it’s not about actors and writers/directors. It’s about actors and their viewers.

Joss has never been one to shy away from confrontational subject matter. And he’s always handled it incredibly responsibly. However, in the past, he has used various mechanisms to make things easier for us, mechanisms with which to soften the blunt and sometimes disturbing matters he explores. (Joss himself has recognised this. This was why, The Body, one of the most emotionally difficult Buffy episodes to watch, has no musical score. Joss felt that music would soften the blow of that episode’s subject matter.) His characters’ witty dialogue is another such crutch. Just as his characters use language as a weapon to fight the often ghastly situations in which they find themselves, we use their clever dialogue as a way to enjoy their suffering. This language is not distracting – we still know exactly what is going on – but it does help to stop the shows from being unremittingly grim. (We see this in its most perfect conception in ‘Once More With Feeling’, Season 6’s well-known musical episode. The silliness of the sight of Buffy dancing around, punctuating her song with demon-stakings, makes us forget, for a moment, that the words she is singing are heart-wrenchingly bleak.)

But in Dollhouse, Joss has done away with such props and crutches. He is not making things easy for us any more.

A thought struck me: much as he appreciates his passionate, rabid fans, Joss is uncomfortable with fandom. He is uneasy with exactly what it is that makes us appreciate his work, which is, for the most part, bleak. Although his shows are ultimately hopeful, they are packed with pain and suffering. By the time she is 22, Buffy has been fighting demons for eight years. She went to school on the mouth of Hell. Her boyfriend turned evil when she slept with him. She killed him. She died twice. Family members, friends and countless innocent bystanders were killed, by the forces of evil, or just by the sheer bad luck of ordinary life. Angel comes to realise that doing the right thing is not a grand quest for redemption (with a shiny reward at the end), but just a daily, unglamorous, ultimately futile struggle. In Firefly, Mal Reynolds sees the utter destruction of everything he believes in, and copes with this by becoming emotionally deadened.

And yet, pain, suffering and all, fans adore these characters’ stories. Joss is using the metaphor of the Dollhouse to explore his viewers’ voyeurism.

He’s always attempted to hold a mirror up to society, and this time he’s doing so without the flattering lighting. As Buffy would say, ‘everything here is hard, and bright, and violent’. He’s creating a story about the darker side of fandom, the unwelcome truths we’d rather not confront. What he’s trying to do is explore the unhealthy nexus between the fantasies of fans, and their conflation of actors with the people they play.

I’m reminded, at this point, of a panel interview of the cast of Heroes at a convention. They were answering questions from the fans. I noticed that almost every person who asked questions of Zachary Quinto addressed him as ‘Sylar’ (the name of his character on Heroes), and that this was making Quinto incredibly uncomfortable.

And that, in essence, is what Dollhouse is about: Whedon’s unease with Quinto’s unease at being equated with the character he played. The Dolls have no personality but that which they are given for the enjoyment (or purposes) of those who hire them. For the fans asking questions at that convention, Zachary Quinto had no personality but that of the psychopathic serial killer he plays, for their enjoyment, on Heroes.

Our reactions are so ambivalent because we are being confronted with an ugly truth about fandom we’d rather not face: if watching the exploitation of others gives our lives meaning, what kind of lives are these?

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