"Would you like a treatment?": Dollhouse, pain, and memory

Curator's Note

The central premise of Dollhouse is that the human brain can be “wiped” of its original consciousness and a new consciousness “imprinted” on it. The Dollhouse is effectively a high-end brothel that rents out its “actives” for any number of “engagements” from dream date to mother to assassin. After an “engagement” the “active” returns to a docile state ready for the next consciousness to be “imprinted” on them.

In the clip we get a sense that Madeline (a former doll), though she has attained a certain level of freedom, has lost something essential about her self. The pain she felt after the death of her child is lost to her. Her final “treatment” which restored her to her original self has been slightly altered so that she retains the memories of her pre-doll life, but the memories have been cleansed of the pain. Ballard, who had an intimate relationship with her while she was a doll, remembers the pain she felt and how real those experiences were for her. So he asserts, “it wasn’t real,” to ease Madeline’s sense that the pain and despair she witnessed was something that could not have happened to her, but also to reassure himself that the “dolls” are just actors in some kind of elaborate TV show (meta – holla). Cleansed of her pain, her declaration that she is “not unhappy” is disturbing and creepy, and her demeanor is doll-like and vacant.

In an inverse of the first scene, Echo explains to Ballard that while she cannot remember the details of her engagements, she remembers her affective experiences of them. “They make it so real.” She, unlike Madeline, wishes to hold on to those affective memories. Is Dollhouse suggesting that because she remembers and continues to feel love, happiness, desire, despair, rage, and most importantly the pain of their loss, that Echo retains of her humanity than Madeline does? What good are our memories if we cannot remember how they made us feel, even if that feeling is the despair and hopelessness of losing a child? Madeline’s memory of her daughter is now just as technologically mediated as Echo’s, no more or less real. Madeline’s final treatment—something given to alleviate pain and suffering—is maybe too effective, suggesting that the experience of pain is an essential, maybe even the essential, component of our humanity. Dollhouse is skeptical about our posthuman future, asserting instead there is something beyond “instinct” (the episode’s title and yet another kind of programming), or at the very least, asking, is a programmed response any less real if one feels and remembers it? And what might this be able to tell us about our own technologically mediated experiences and memories?


Thanks for posting on Dollhouse, Erika, a show I've yet to delve into but look forward to. Your analysis is engaging and I think the binary of feeling/remembering is a fruitful one in looking at the scene you've chosen. Another binary that seems to be at play here - and this is probably related to the other - is being awake versus being asleep. According to Echo, being awake, and therefore subject to the vicissitudes of mediated memory/affect, is preferably to being asleep and spared all that conflictual stimuli. I wonder to what degree this discourse relates to cultural memory. Is Echo/Whedon making a case for engaging with dissonant or difficult collective memories as a mode of emancipation? Is choosing not to feel pain (to be a Doll...such a rich metaphor) tantamount to ignoring those aspects of our (collective) past and present which make us uncomfortable or highlight our shortcomings?


Erika, this is a fascinating post.  In some ways, Dollhouse does address universal themes of what it means to be human.  The famous line, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” by the 19th century English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, seems appropriate here. Echo would seem to agree, although what do we make of this quote in light of—as you put it very well—technologically-mediated experiences and memories?   Robert also makes an interesting point about collective memories.  If we synthesize Robert’s idea with your impressions—including your excellent, reflexive reading of Ballard reassuring himself that dolls are just actors in some kind of elaborate TV show—what would we say about Dollhouse’s representations of gendered collective memories?  In other words, in addition to the universal or collective human experiences, what does Dollhouse say about contemporary or projected experiences of specific identities?  Following the metaphor, could we say that  Dollhouse is about females as toys who, like posthuman Pinocchios, just want to be real girls, or, better said, respected and valued women?  Maybe we could also think about intertextual readings in relation to both universally human and identity-specific themes.  For example, with its representations of blurred lines between androids and humans who both struggle to find their humanity and with the intersections of Asian and Western cultures, gender, and capitalist exploitation, Bladerunner comes to mind.


Robert: I like your suggestion about the question of collective memories. I'm not sure how Dollhouse might speak to that since it seems to be fairly preoccupied with the loss of autonomy/self/individuality, which then I suppose leads to a communal loss of something like humanity writ large. It's definitely worth thinking about. The series also has taken time to assert that these people, as you said, choose to take the pain away - no one is coerced into being a Doll, but it raises interesting questions about whether someone can choose to become a slave.


Chad: There are nods towards Bladerunner, but I would argue that they're filtered through recent engagements with the posthuman/andriod/AI in a series like Battlestar Galactica. There are a lot of echoes (ha) of Cylon downloading in the Dollhouse process of imprinting. The issue of gender is interesting. The Dollhouse has male dolls, though it tends to focus on female dolls. It attempts to play with the notion of gender as performance. This past episode actually had Victor accidentally imprinted with personality called "Kiki" who was designed to fulfill a professor's wish to seduce a student. He dances around, flirts with some fraternity boys, and looks absolultely ridiculous performing an over the top video girl feminity. You can see it here in this remixed video - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v1h0hYS7e7g




After watching the most recent episode "Belongings" I am compelled to chime in here about Dollhouse, pain, memory and choice. And perhaps also to voice my despair at this latest Whedon project. In "Belongings" we learn a bit more about active Sierra's entry into the Dollhouse and discover that she definitely did NOT sign up to be a doll by choice. This disrupts the extremely thin line the show has drawn between high-end call girl and sexual slave. As Sierra's past is uncovered by uber-genius and "wiper" technician/programmer Topher Brink, we finally hear the Dollhouse madam Adelle DeWitt call a spade a spade when she refers to the abuse of Sierra as rape. (Spoiler Alert:) In order to fix this horrific mistake and assuage feelings of guilt, Topher restores Sierra to her pre-doll self (Priya) and gives her all the memories of her abuse at the hands of the wealthy and sadistic john, Nolan. Empowered (?) by her memory, she enacts revenge, but not before suffering additional brutal domestic assault.


So where does Sierra/Priya go from here? How does she live with the knowledge of her drug-induced psychosis, subsequent enslavement and now murderous vengeance? She doesn’t. She returns to the Dollhouse, this time by choice, in order to enjoy the benefits of forgetting.


The weight of these choices falls most heavily on Topher, who is usually void of any apparent moral conflict as he sarcastically laughs away “silly” things like human rights, agency and ethics. Priya begs Topher that should he ever restore her again, to skip over the last 24 hours. While he admits it may be difficult for him to live with, he promises to keep Priya’s secret as he presses the magic button and wipes her of all those nasty memories.


In this Dollhouse, Topher (Whedon’s Dr. Frankenstein) holds all the pain and memories of his monsters on stacks and stacks of digital tape and in his big brain, which may finally be showing some cracks. As he frees Priya of her nightmare, his expression reveals that Topher wishes he could do the same to himself.


As the show goes on hiatus during November sweeps (uh-oh) and the future of the Dollhouse looks bleak, I couldn’t help but wonder if self-proclaimed feminist Whedon, like Topher, wishes he could wipe his memory of the monster he has created. I’m trying to see the “complexity” of the show’s treatment of “power, desire, identity and sexuality” (the main concepts Whedon has said the show is meant to address). At least in “Belongings” I just saw a clichéd treatment of these issues typical of "dark melodramas" where desire and sexuality is forced upon women’s bodies, power for women is denied until manifest in violence, and identity is conveniently restored and then wiped in order to side-step the deep moral dilemmas the show could otherwise tackle.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.