Dollhouse Episode 6, “Man on the Street” Part III: Good Villains Make Good Movies, But Not Good People
***(Made of spoilers for this episode and a little one for episode seven, “Echoes.”)***
Q: It’s like you were watching an entirely different show. The climax of “Man on the Street” felt absolutely awesome. Why not leave it at that?
A: Because I read Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women and Chainsaws.
Q: Wouldn’t be a Dollhouse post without that book. Or Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment.
A: It all comes back to Little Red Riding Hood. Kids love it for a reason. They want to be good, to do what they’re supposed to, to do what they know is right. So they identify with innocent Little Red bearing gifts to grandmother.
But they they also identify with the Big Bad Wolf, who tells them what their own natures tell them — that it’s more fun to play with flowers than to dutifully trod down the Path of Should.
But children also know that straying from the path is a problem, one that can lead to bad stuff, so they get angry at the aspect of themselves that draws them away from doing what they’re supposed to. And children’s anger is powerful. It feels violent. So they identify with the Woodsman who cuts the Big Bad Wolf open and frees innocent Little Red. The hero. The savior of the day.
It’s a great little story that helps little children feel better about themselves. They’re innocent Little Red, the victim of an insidious Big Bad whose seductive words lure her off the path of righteousness. They can eliminate the Bad in themselves (symbolically) by identifying with the grown up who arrives on the scene in the nick of time to kill the beast.
No wonder story time is so enchanting. Children get to wrap up all their problems into colorful demon packages and Kill Them All. Without harming a fly. They cheer the death of the Big Bad Wolf, and understand that there is no such thing, not really. They’re relieved of their guilt, their fear, their uncertainty. By identifying with the innocent victim and the rescuing hero (and thereby denying their identification with the Big Bad nemesis of Little Red and the Woodsman), they reassure themselves that they’re basically good.
If you want to understand how people can buy into ideas like “cleansing violence” or “regeneration through violence,” read Little Red Riding Hood. Killing evil incarnate feels good in more than one sense of the word. It feels not only fun, but righteous.
Q: You are way too comfortable with violent fantasies. [ETA: Link to article on study asking whether "Cartoons Cause Violence?" and answering, um, yeah.] Do you think children should be entertained with tales of the violent deaths of scapegoats?
A: In fairy tale form, so they know that the story is not real. Bettelheim is emphatic on this point: Children know that fairy tales are not about how the real world operates. And I think adults should revisit the stories and gain some perspective. Once you understand how Little Red Riding Hood works on you emotionally, you understand how people can buy into false “true stories” about how (Insert Scapegoat of Choice Here) lured innocents to their doom until the good guys responded with violence. You see how people can believe that their violence makes them good guys — by telling themselves that they’re killing evil incarnate. And you see how strong an emotional incentive people have to designate someone as evil incarnate. Someone who talks and acts like a human but is, in their eyes, a subhuman animal. However bad you are, if you kill evil incarnate, you’re some kind of hero, if only in your own mind.
Q: This is about Adelle DeWitt isn’t it? Is her name supposed to sound like Cruella DeVil’s?
A: That was inappropriate.
Q: Sorry, I thought you were about to launch into A Brief History of Hate.
A: Do you want to learn how fairy tales masquerading as fact have played a role in some of history’s darkest chapters or do you want me to ramble on about sci fi?
Q: Sci fi. Definitely sci fi.
“. . . just as attacker and attacked are expressions of the same self in nightmares, so they are expressions of the same viewer in horror film. We are both Red Riding Hood and the Wolf; the force of the experience, in horror, comes from ‘knowing’ both sides of the story.”
From Men, Women and Chainsaws
We’re all the Woodsman, too. I’m gonna call the character The Hunter because (1) he’s sometimes called the Huntsman in fairy tales and (2) in horror movies he’s sometimes a she. Just as every child can relate to both Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, every viewer of horror movies can relate to both the victims and the monsters. And, most of all, to the monster slayer.
“No one who has read ‘Red Riding Hood’ to a small boy or attended a viewing of, say, Deliverance (an all-male story that women find as gripping as men do)–or, more recently, Alien and Aliens, with whose space-age female Rambo, herself a Final Girl, male viewers seem to engage with ease–can doubt the phenomenon of cross-gender identification.”
From Men, Women and Chainsaws
One kind of horror movie can join Little Red (the innocent victim) and The Hunter (killer of the Big Bad) into one character. Clover calls the sub-genre Rape-Revenge. The name gives away the basic plot: rapists attack a woman, the woman attacks the rapists. I Spit on Your Grave, a 1978 movie starring Camille Keaton (the grand niece of silent film’s Great Stoneface, Buster Keaton) reduces the genre to its essentials. I rented it after reading Clover’s book, and I dare you to sit through it without mentally urging Jennifer, the victim-hero, to Kill Them All. I bought my own copy, because I think it’s worthwhile to remember that there’s something that can put me in a Kill Them All mood. [ETA: Watched Gillian Anderson's 2007 take on the genre, Closure, in which her performance is great, and revenge does not work itself out in fairy tale fashion as the basis of a happy ending.] Haven’t unwrapped my personal copy of Spit (alternate title: Day of the Woman) yet, but it’s there on my shelf, next to seven seasons of Buffy. As Clover puts it, “its brutal simplicity exposes a mainspring of popular culture.”
It’s also a mainspring of political culture–the worst kind of political culture. The murderous mood that the crime of rape puts people in has been used by those seeking political power for centuries. Pope Urban II launched the Crusades with a sermon charging that Christians had been victims of Muslim rapist/murderers. European colonists told themselves stories about how they were the victims of native American rapist/murderers. Colonizers, like Crusaders, preferred to think that they were fighting evil when they were doing evil — seizing other people’s land by force of arms. Hitler’s Germany told itself stories about wealthy Jews who coerced their Aryan maids into sex.
The most familiar example for Americans — and the most relevant one for “Man on the Street” — is the way that the Confederate and Jim Crow South justified its oppression of African Americans with stories of black rapists. Slave-owning societies found a way to blind themselves to the sexual coercion and violent domination they perpetrated against their slaves by telling themselves that without slavery, the owners themselves would become the victims of rape and murder. Segregationists frightened themselves with stories of black rapist/murderers. Lynch mobs steeled themselves to commit crimes by telling themselves they were avenging crimes.
All these politically powerful hate stories are fairy tales. They’re all variants of Little Red Riding Hood. The innocent victims (Little Red) are threatened by (Fill in the) Bad until a hero (The Hunter) rescues them by killing the Big Bad. Crusaders, colonizers, Nazis and segregationists all employed fairy tale logic — by killing the designated Big Bad, they designated themselves as fairy tale heroes. The stories they told to convince themselves they were fighting evil were part of what made them evil.
Q: And that, ladies and gentlemen, concludes A Brief History of Hate.
A: It actually doesn’t.
Q: It actually does. So, obviously, this was sslllooowwwwly building up to Hearn.
A: Hearn had to die. Since Sierra is an adult woman programmed to have the personality of a child, his character functioned in the story as both a child molester and a rapist, evil incarnate-squared. The only question was who would become the designated hero by killing him.
Q: Wait a minute. You said we all relate to the Big Bad. We all relate to Hearn?
A: Before he dies, Hearn gives voice to the thing that makes every viewer uncomfortable with the Dollhouse and with Dollhouse: “We’re in the business of using people.” It’s a show about how people use other people to fulfill their fantasies — to tell themselves pleasant lies and hide from themselves unpleasant realities. Almost everybody in the show is involved in human trafficking, as trafficker or customer. Even the FBI agent uses people (November/Mellie and, more abstractly, Caroline) to tell himself a pleasant lie and conceal from himself an unpleasant reality.
Q: So there’s no difference between Hearn and DeWitt?
A: There’s one big difference. Hearn uses Sierra without providing her with the pleasant lie, and that traumatizes her. He makes her cry. The “fat emir” who hires her pays a premium so she will think she’s in love with him. There’s no altruism involved — if Sierra believes the lie, it makes things much more pleasant for the emir. As a side-effect, it makes things more pleasant for Sierra. (And it’s only a temporary side effect, if the technology glitches.) The Dollhouse and its clients show some regard for people’s feelings — for business reasons, not for ethical reasons — but regard for human feelings remains, all else held equal, better than disregard for human feelings.
Hearn’s the perfect scapegoat for the Dollhouse. He’s enough like the rest of them for them to identify with him, and enough unlike them for them to deny that they are like him.
Q: That was inelegantly phrased.
A: A good scapegoat is a parody, an exaggeration, of the evil in the scapegoater. That’s what enables the scapegoater to deny the parallel. “I may wish to play with the flowers in the field rather than do what I’m told, but I have never once tried to eat grandmother alive. Or anyone else. I draw the line.” Little Red does abuse her grandmother’s trust. But not nearly as much as the Big Bad Wolf does. I’m guessing that most people who work at the Dollhouse can honestly say that they wouldn’t do what Hearn did. That’s how they conceal from themselves that they’re doing something very much like what Hearn did.
Q: That explains what killing Hearn did for DeWitt & Co., but why did I love it so much?
A: Same reason you love seeing the Big Bad Wolf killed.
Q: The symbolic killing of evil incarnate?
A: Yes. V. satisfying. You even get to see a girl appear to transform from victim into avenging hero.
Q: “Appear to?”
A: She’s still a victim of zombie slavery. Well, technically, zombie servitude, maybe. If I may digress–
Q: All you do is digress! Wake me up when we get to the point, O Ironically Screennamed One! Didn’t Hearn have to die?
A: For us to get the full fairy tale, yes. But couldn’t they have just wiped his personality and replaced it with one that was not a rapist?
Q: I’ll ask the questions. Shouldn’t they have just wiped his identity and replaced it with a good one?
A: Nah, I wanted him dead. I wanted the full fairy tale, complete with violent, happy ending.
Q: What’s wrong with that?
A: As long as people remember they’re watching a fairy tale, nothing. But killing Hearn made DeWitt the fairy tale hero, so people interpret her actions from that moment in the episode on as heroic. They enjoy identifying with her, which encourages two mistakes. One mistake is thinking that she’s like you–that she actually cares whether Echo is fulfilled by her engagements, whether they satisfy her desire to ease other people’s suffering. The other mistake is thinking that you’re like her–masterful, seeing all threats and all opportunities, equal to any challenge. “I played a very bad hand very well.”
Q: Which she says after Dominic says, “You played a good hand, ma’am.” Dominic seemed like less of a jerk in this episode.
A: Dominic solves problems by killing them. He was pleased with DeWitt because she solved the Hearn problem by killing him. We’re programmed — definitely by nurture, but perhaps even by nature (I don’t know how to test the hypothesis) — to want to solve the rape problem by killing the rapists. Whenever killing someone becomes an attractive option, people like Dominic start looking good. He seemed like less of a jerk, but he didn’t change. You did.
Q: I hate you so much right now .
A: Dollhouse is a fairy tale for grown ups. It’s all right — even necessary, if Bettelheim is right — for children to reassure themselves with fantasies of killing the Big Bad. But adults must put the pleasures of such fantasies to the test of reason.
Q: It’s all Joss Whedon‘s fault! He totally stacked the deck against me! Pushed all my buttons! Adelle looks all noble, telling Dominic to make sure the other Dollhouses know what happened, even though, as he says, “It won’t look good for you.”
A: Even though she has never looked better in his eyes — or in your eyes.
Q: DeWitt did kind of rock this ep. And then he shows us all the happy couples. Sierra, no longer frightened by Victor, invites him to sit and look at her book. And we know that Victor does actually care about Sierra. Don’t we?
A: We do. I think. I hope. It is extraordinarily sweet and hopeful, that scene. And it is a wish-fulfillment scene — the wish being that the victim of sexual assault could somehow just get over it, as if it never happened.
Q: Yeah. That fantasy lasts for, oh, most of the next episode. But we don’t know that yet. And then we cut to Boyd and Saunders looking on. We know that people who care about the Actives are looking out for them.
A: In a real, but limited way. They both care about the well-being of the Actives, but not more (apparently) than they care about their jobs. And there’s a clear hint, even as the music swells and the good couples form as they will at the end of a Shakespearean comedy, (Boyd and Saunders looking like good father and mother figures, Victor and Sierra looking like a sweet pair of ingenues) that exploitation persists. We see Topher put his arm around Ivy, who has already called him on his abuse of privilege. She’s clearly not enjoying his familiarity, and it’s just as clearly characteristic of their Dollhouse relationship. AFAICT, Sierra and Victor’s relationship is based on genuine caring, Boyd and Saunders’ relationship is based on genuine caring (for the Actives mainly) and Topher and Ivy’s relationship is based on Topher’s privilege born of expertise.
Q: But Ivy’s hair is done up in a funny way. That makes the scene funny. And, as you note, Whedon is employing tropes from classical comedy, which, as we all know, make critical thought impossible.
A: Actually, the tropes of classical comedy are so formalized that they draw attention to the ritualistic nature of the climax.
Q: What does that mean? You just made that up, that “ritualistic nature of the climax!”
A: Classical comedy often ends with a wedding or multiple weddings. Weddings in drama are rituals within a ritual.
Q: There are no weddings here! Boyd and Saunders aren’t even dating!
A: No, but the possibility of a relationship was introduced by Topher’s snarky comment about the two of them getting married and having scowly children. Victor likes to pretend he and Sierra are married. Echo draws a man and woman in front of a house, which looks like she’s thinking of a married couple, or at least a couple committed enough to live together in a house. The marriage trope is invoked. Especially in the climax of the climax.
Q: The climax of the climax. That’s not confusing at all.
A: We see another wish fulfillment, a vision of a widower being happily reunited with his late wife. The dream of being reunited with loved ones after death has been part of us longer than history.
Q: That’s beautiful. Are you sure this isn’t a happy ending?
A: It feels happy. Like Actives feel on zombie hooker engagements. But it fails when subjected to hypothesis testing.
Q: Hypothesis testing? What does hypothesis testing have to do with science fiction? Apart from being the basis of science. Pedant!
A: We see one character engage in hypothesis testing: Boyd. Of all the characters, he is the least afraid of identifying with the Big Bad. To figure out how Sierra was molested/raped, he approaches the problem like a molester/rapist, determining how he could get away with committing the crime. We see him walk through the Dollhouse looking for the best place to commit rape. He finds it, but doesn’t consider the case closed then. He puts his hypothesis to the test. In other words, he insists on verifying his theory through firsthand observation. He makes sure that he’s not just playing The Great Detective, pulling a brilliant deduction out of the air. He checks to make sure that what he thinks he sees is actually there.
Topher asks him how he figured out it was Hearn, “Is it a cop thing, ‘reading people?’” Boyd replies, “You do the work.” Boyd did have a good read on Hearn right away, but he put it to the test. Asked the right questions, made sure he got accurate answers. He was proved right because he was open to the possibility that he was wrong.
Q: What if you’re wrong? What if Joss Whedon intended the ending as straight-up wish fulfillment? What if this was his gift to middle-aged widowers like you, but you just had to go all seamy underbelly up on it?
A: Then I’m so sorry. It was an awesome episode! Thank you! I just have my own interpretation.