Dollhouse, Mary Sue, And Trying To Figure Out Just What Is Wrong With Whedon

Dollhouse, Mary Sue, And Trying To Figure Out Just What Is Wrong With Whedon

I’ve had this swirling around in my head since the last Dollhouse episode aired but haven’t had a chance to make it solid, so I want to discuss. I’ve been thinking about the whole concept of Echo being “special” and how this keeps being repeated over and over and hammered in, but we’re never really given a reason why. The show upped the ante with the recent revelation that Caroline (the pre-Echo) did something horrible to this Bennett individual which caused her to lose functionality in her arm and also to hold a very deep grudge. Bennett said something about how Caroline always charmed people and such, and that inate awesomeness apparently still comes through even though she’s Echo.

Thing is, I really just don’t buy this.

Not even just because Eliza Dushku’s acting doesn’t convey all this awesomeness terribly well. Beyond that, this whole concept feels really contrived and pushed on us by the writers instead of something the audience actually experiences. It’s very much like a Mary Sue plot, but whose Mary Sue is Echo?

You could say she’s Eliza’s since she is an Executive Producer and must have some say over plot elements. I don’t get that feeling, though. I feel like this is all coming from Whedon. That doesn’t disqualify this trope from being Mary Sue-ish (after all, Stephen Moffett just loves his female Mary Sues), but I wonder if something else is going on. Like, this is some weird male-centric fantasy that has the Mary Sue flavor but behind it is not some fantasy about being awesome and loved but a fantasy deeply centered in the male gaze and psyche.

Am I making sense? Are you seeing this, too? WTF is this all about? I am sure I’ve encountered all of this before but damned if I can remember a specific show, movie, or book.

16 thoughts on “Dollhouse, Mary Sue, And Trying To Figure Out Just What Is Wrong With Whedon

  1. I’m plowing my way through Angel right now, and frankly, I’m getting sick of Whedon. With Buffy, he was championed for having a strong female lead character, but since then it’s become clear that no matter how many kick-butt women he includes in his shows, he’s still in love with the whole chivalric ideal, where the prince comes in on the white horse and saves the princess. I can’t count how many episodes of Angel opened with a Scared White Woman running down a dark alleyway away from Threatening Male Figures.

    Also, despite Whedon’s love for the Amazon Chick, note that his shows also always include the Lovable Crazy Chick, whose brokenness is often made appealing to the (presumably male) audience. I’m watching Fred do her schtick, and I’m thinking: Put her in a Victorian dress and make her slightly sinister, and she’s Drusilla. Give her ballet slippers and an axe, she’s River. Add 30-40 pounds and give her a wrench, she’s Kaylee. Dye the hair and make her bisexual, it’s Willow. Take away all semblance of personality, and it’s every character in Dollhouse. He’s infatuated with these women who may have some kind of inner strength (Willow’s magic, Fred’s all-purpose genius, Kaylee’s mechanical skills), but who most of the time need to be protected, nurtured, and kept away from the Real World and Safe At Home.

    1. I know what you mean, Ted. Angel is fairly regressive in terms of gender roles, and it made me a little sick on multiple occasions. However, I think it was that way largely because Whedon was NOT very involved in its production compared to his other shows. He was an executive producer and wrote some episodes, but David Greenwalt was the actual show runner.

      You’re right about the Lovable Crazy Chick being one of Whedon’s recurring character types. However, I don’t think his shows advocate for them to stay at home being protected by men. Drusilla, Fred, and River are the way they are BECAUSE they were imprisoned and/or mentally tortured by male-aligned powers, something that is clearly shown to be a bad thing. (And I don’t think Kaylee counts in this category at all, because she is not in any way crazy.)

      It does bother me that there don’t seem to be many Lovable Crazy Men running around. Alpha might count as crazy, but he’s not very lovable. Maybe Spike? Kinda lovable, but more counter-cultural than crazy. And both of them are emphatically free agents who don’t want people interfering in their business. So there is definitely something infantilizing going on with female characters that doesn’t happen with the men.

      But at least there are a good number of adult, strong women as well. And not all of them are Amazons, so there is some variety. How many genre shows can say that? This is a serious question, if that isn’t clear. I would love to have examples of other shows that get these things right.

      1. I didn’t know that Whedon wasn’t as involved in Angel–where did you read that? I’m not questioning the fact; I’m just looking for more information about the series and its creation.

        (In fact, not to go too deep into self-advertisement here, but I’m planning to do a post on my own blog about Joss Whedon and his claims to feminism, looking specifically at Angel, some time in the next few days. Come by and take a look!)

        But even if Whedon wasn’t the major drive on the show, he’s not completely in the clear–he did write and direct the episode “A Hole in the World”, which I just watched for the first time. Fred gets ahold of some mystical artifact, opens it up, and gets infected with some kind of magical disease. Over the next few days she gets sicker and sicker, and all the other characters come together and mourn her and try to save her, and Wesley reads A Little Princess to her as she wastes away in bed and eventually I realized that I was basically watching one of those Victorian novels where the female main character gets consumption and dies beautifully and gracefully and everyone gets to weep over her. It made me throw up a little.

        As for the Lovable Crazy Chick, when I said that she had to stay at home, I wasn’t really meaning that literally–I just meant that since she had been broken by the Real World, she’s less able to participate in it. And yeah, Kaylee isn’t really crazy, but I think there’s a spectrum, and she’s more towards one end than the other.

        Frankly, though, I see the fact that these women have all been destroyed in some way by the Patriarchy as actually somewhat regressive as well. Sure, Whedon gets to do some masculine self-loathing–“All men everywhere are terrible! Penis equals evil!”–but it also sends a weird reverse-chauvinist message, where women are so perfect and special that only an evil, evil man could break them, and thus we need to protect these beautiful, delicate creatures. He kind of skirts the “put them on a pedestal” mindset with these characters, where their fragility is seen as a virtue, something to be desired.

        As for strong women in genre shows, you’re right, I’m not coming up with very many. Do you know Avatar: the Last Airbender? It’s a kids show, sure, but it’s smart and well-done, and it also has strong people of color–a two-fer!

  2. Does there have to be a deeper reason for Echo’s specialness beyond her brain being weird? In a world heading for the apocalyptic universal mindwipe of “Epitaph One”, she’s the only character we’ve seen who might be immune to that technology. It makes sense that she would be a rallying point for the others who fear that that future is coming.

    Approaching your question from a different direction, how is this different from Buffy? There was no larger reason for her to be special either; it seemed pretty random who was a “potential” and who got activated as a slayer. But once it happened, she was stuck with a responsibility she really didn’t want and had to cope with that.

    Caroline’s specialness seems to go back further in time, but to me it seems pretty similar to Buffy’s specialness: an unusual trait that makes her valuable to some and a target to others.

    If this is all the result of some Mary Sue projection, I would say it has to be Whedon himself projecting. He has said before that he identified the most with Buffy out of all the characters on that show. Not sure if he would say the same about Echo/Caroline, but he clearly has a thing for “special” females. I don’t really see how that’s a bad thing. It’s certainly a welcome change from all the grown up frat boys on other genre shows.

  3. I agree with Livia on the character development, or lack there of. Plus, to me they are all ‘Flat’ characters with no real ‘character.’ I personally think its Weadon’s weakest work. As if its just a vehicle to put cheesecake on the screen and fantasies in the minds of lonely boys.
    As to the ‘special’ and precious fluff. Two things here. Isn’t that what we are taught we should say to LITTLE girls, especially from their ‘daddies.’ Implying perhaps ( and I’ll be *&^()*& if this is what it is) that this is all a fantasy to deal with emotional trauma of hers ( Ie a mental regression to the ‘happy’and secure ego petting of childhood, while facing the harshness of adulthood and being unable to control some factors of your life.
    OR… 2. Whedon has NO CLUE where he is going with this and is stalling with this ploy till he comes up with a way to pull this plot out of the garbage disposal its caught in.
    Anyway, just my humble opinion. and reason I no longer watch the show. If the motors running but the bus isn’t going anywhere, I can’t see the point in sitting in it.
    As Wheedon can and has done better. I feel he doesn’t like this show and its only to show off sweeties ( male and female)who can be tough for the fantasy minded watchers and fill some contractual obligation for himself.

  4. You’ll find a *lot* of these in video games, especially on consoles. Lara Croft being the archetype.

    A lot of female superheros fall into this category for the same reason.

  5. I haven’t seen all of the episodes (primarily because they make me want to throw my TV out the window…), but my take on the few that I’ve seen, which are mostly in the second season, is that of a young and very directionless woman who is constantly being told over and over again, by all the men who control her, how special and precious she is and how she’s going to change everything and save everyone and transform the world, blah blah. But: Echo is only being TOLD this, and NOTHING ELSE. She is not investigating or actively seeking out any new information, she is not making any attempt to subvert the system she’s currently held under, she’s not looking for people who might help her discover who she is, she’s not actively seeking mentors or teachers. In short, she’s not proactively doing anything to bring about change within herself, the changes that would transform her into any kind of true, fully dimensional hero. Furthermore, she has absolutely no sense of urgency – she safe, well-fed, isn’t threatened, has a “job”, and apparently has all the time in the world to wait for the special things to happen. Therefore, she doesn’t need to be active or aggressive or forward-thinking. She truly IS only an Echo – a passive creature who repeats what others tell her about herself, only to allow herself to be placed back into doll-mode, or whatever they call it. In short, she’s not a real character. She’s nothing. To be crude: she’s a Kleenex.

    FYI, I don’t blame the actress for this. The writers have set up a situation in which a young woman is so thoroughly physically and mentally trapped by the medical and scientific “rules” of the world building, that it’s impossible for her to break the cycle and begin her journey of discovery and transformation. Every time it seems she’s ready to discover some bit of information, Echo’s plopped back into the machine and smothered with some appallingly sexist, made-to-order fantasy personality that keeps her from even leaving the starting gate. They’ve given Echo absolutely no way of breaking her chains – even giving her a Morpheus-like mentor (with some scientific key to subverting the process) seems to be out of the question, which makes me seriously question why this show was ever made. Week after week of a woman being trapped and imprisoned by other personalities, ones which constantly make her a victim of sexual, physical, mental and emotional assault while thoroughly repressing her own voice and choices? It’s disgusting and immoral. And it breaks my heart when I compare Echo’s watery, thin existence to the full range and depth of Buffy’s journey, and all the choices and actions (both right and wrong) she was able to make. But, I get the impression that this is not a show for “me”, for women – it’s a show for men, where the men are the heroes and special people, at least in as far as they can see that Echo is special and tell her so, because she is incapable of doing so on her own.

    So, yes, Dollhouse is the story of the male gaze. It’s the age-old story of the knight on the white horse, riding to the castle where the helpless princess sits in the tower: the story is about the awesome knight’s journey, because the knight is out in the world, riding and doing and being, and the princess (who often has no voice or name) has been placed in the tower by the storyteller to sit and wait. Echo is a Mary Sue because men hold the key to rescuing her, and they will do so only at their own time, only at their own pleasure, only when they are finished using her for all their other pleasures, and finished telling their own tales to each other and watching themselves as they tell their tales. And that’s why I don’t watch the show anymore. Life’s too short, and I have my own tales to tell.

  6. but I wonder if something else is going on. Like, this is some weird male-centric fantasy that has the Mary Sue flavor but behind it is not some fantasy about being awesome and loved but a fantasy deeply centered in the male gaze and psyche.

    I think yes, and I think that is why, so far, Buffy has not been retroactively tainted for me by post-Buffy shenanigans. Back then, Whedon thought of everything or convincingly faked thinking of everything from inside Buffy, not from outside her or even from a mirror he imagined her gazing into. The worst, nastiest parts of that show always happened when we jumped outside of Buffy to look at her from Xander’s or Spike’s or Riley’s eyes, because Whedon or his writers just couldn’t resist having a dude be the voice of the people. There is like an evil progression that goes from What would be cool to What would be cool for a girl to What would be cool for dudes to watch happening to a girl and he has about reached the end of the track on that one. I can’t watch Dollhouse very much because it’s always about watching tree-stump-Helo gaze dumbly at Echo before deciding what she should do. I don’t want to watch him watching her, and wouldn’t even if she was more interesting, not when the show thinks I am him to any extent.

    The other thing is that you can’t help feeling sometimes that Whedon thinks women just aren’t interesting on their own unless he makes them mystically specialer than the normal run of womanity. I have no problem with special slayer powers and chosen ones, I love that stuff, but the bottom line for me is he can write Mal for a dude. He won’t write a Mal for a lady without giving her a magic stoicism amulet or something, to special her up.

  7. I’m guessing that “special” will turn out to mean “a Rossum experiment of some kind”. Which doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no projection/wish-fulfillment going on, but it’s been *so* heavily flagged at this point that I have to assume they’re going somewhere with it.

    1. I wonder if the Felicia Day episode counts. It shows a future where no one fixed the system, but people continue to follow Caroline without much justification.

      You still never get to know if she actually helps anyone.

  8. And forgive the double post, but to link this back to Echo (as I meant to), I agree that she fits this Mary Sue type character but is more male fantasy than Mary Sue. I would agree it comes from Whedon and he shares in the creepy gushing about his female character and actress that happens in commentaries of Lost and Pirates of the Caribbean.

    Maybe we should call them Galateas.

  9. I’ve commented in some places before about this flavor of Mary Sue that is created not by women as a self-insert fantasy, but by men. They’re often also pushed as the kind of woman that we’re supposed to admire as the “strong female character.”

    Other characters who come to mind are Elizabeth from Pirates of the Caribbean and Kate Austin from Lost.

    I’m just going to copy what I wrote in my Dreamwidth journal and note that I think I hit on something when I included “unthreatening to the male [dominant] status quo”:

    They are annoying because they have a lot of the characteristics of a Sue: several men or the most important men in the story are inexplicably drawn to them; they are Exceptional Women – they are super cool because they aren’t like, you know, MOST women, who are just stereotypes or suck or are not nearly as alluring; they have a new talent or ability for every new situation just in time! and yet they suck at things when the plot calls for them to be victims to boost the male ego; they are written as an ideal woman (not flawless, but the flaws are endearing).

    These not-Sues feel like they are mostly written by men as what they think all girls and women want to be and they typically mix tomboy attributes with the ability to be feminine and unthreatening to the male status quo. A lot of women can’t stand these characters, and we are typically accused of jealousy or being overzealous slash fans who don’t want a girl getting in the way of boysnogs. But it is just annoying to be presented with the supposed “strong female character” who really is just another trope and just another projection of male fantasy.

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