Dollhouse and Echo(e)s of Future Queerness

Curator's Note

When one thinks “queer TV,” Joss Whedon’s short-lived series Dollhouse (Fox, 2009-2010) is unlikely to come to mind, as it is perhaps most well-known for the feminist lampooning it received for seemingly romanticizing the non-consensual sex work of its programmed human “dolls”or "actives." Furthermore, gay and lesbian characters appear only in casual asides or brief suggestive flashbacks. In the second season’s seventh episode, “Meet Jane Doe,” Echo (Eliza Dushku), who has begun purposefully slipping into the personas of her past imprints and putting their varied knowledges to use, tells an accomplice that the Dollhouse made her, among other things, “at least seven times gay.” And yet, despite seven out of thirty odd engagements being a surprisingly high ratio, we are never privy to any substantial narrativization of Echo’s lesbian experiences. Instead, I locate Echo and the series’ queerness in the hopeful glimpses she provides into another way of living both with and against the technology at hand and the potentiality felt therein. In doing so, I take inspiration from José Muñoz, who claims that “[q]ueerness is not yet here” precisely because it is that “thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough."

Later in the same episode, Echo uses the collective intelligence of her many personas to break Galena, an abused undocumented Latina immigrant, out of prison. In order that we might feel how Echo practices her resistance, Dollhouse simply but ingeniously refashions the graphics and sounds that it has been using all along to demonstrate its imprinting and erasing technologies. The fragments of memories that we are accustomed to seeing rush back from the screen as they are pulled from a doll’s head, instead rush forward, images of Echo as her past personas blending with that of her in the present, bits of her sonic memories mixing with one another simultaneously. While she shifts between these personas, it is clear that she does not become any one of them. Upon arriving at the criminal, Crystal, that we know to be in her mind, Echo iterates Crystal’s catchphrase, “blue skies,” under her breath before proceeding to instruct Galena as to how they are going to break out, not in the persona’s recognizably southern accent but in Echo’s more neutral voice. Thus, through fairly basic means, the series accomplishes the substantial task of relating an alternative form of subjectivity while also advocating for coalition across causes.



Thanks for the post, Roxanne! I love the scene that you've chosen, as I think it is the perfect crystallization of Echo's rhizomatic posthuman identity. I wanted to chime in to say that I find the last scene of the series, in which Echo downloads Paul's consciousness into her cluttered brain, to be a really interesting queer moment. Even as the object of desire remains heterosexual, the idea that Echo and Paul are going to carry out a virtual relationship offers up a nonnormative form of sexuality. The placement of her hands on her chest and stomach as she gets cozy in the pod suggests masturbation---so she will take care of the physical part of their sexual relationship as the rest plays out in the virtual space of her mind. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this telos of the Echo/Paul relationship and whether or not you agree that we do end up in a sort of queer space.

Casey, I'm so glad you brought up the ending. I think it's a fascinating that, rather than concluding with a kiss, a wedding or some other heteronormative success story, the finale's optimism is figured through a scene of implicit autoeroticism. As you probably recall, an important episode in the first season for the Paul/Echo relationship was titled "Briar Rose" and revolved around a failed attempt at his part to play the knight in shining armor/prince and "save" her from the Dollhouse. This final moment echoes that, as she appears from above, hands clasped to her chest, very much like the fairytale princess. Unlike Briar Rose, however, Echo is again not waiting for her prince to rescue her. Now she already is him (and another thirty odd people as well). I also liked how they crosscut her walk from the chair to the pod with shots of Priya and Anthony's family as well as Mag and Kilo's budding lesbian relationship so as to say what is going on in Echo's head is similar to but also different from these more recognizable romances. The possibilities for Echo, as she gets to know her many selves, as well as the world at large, as it remakes itself in the wake of the apocalypse, are endless, and I find that truly exciting (and pretty queer).

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