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Archive for February, 2009

Dollhouse – The Target

Posted by pocochina on February 22, 2009

  • I like that they’re going with the “previously, on Dollhouse‘ rather than trying to contain the whole world in a short synopsis at the beginning, simply because we don’t have that kind of mission statement (yet?); that said, it’s too long, there’s a lot we don’t need in there.
  • JESUS CHRIST!  Oh, it’s a flashback.  Three months, that’s not long at all.  Turns out Alpha’s a composite who malfunctioned.  Though it doesn’t confirm my “prototype”  theory.  It’s hard seeing the dolls scared.  Like sad puppies.  And “they won’t wake up.”  Jesus Christ alive, Eliza D is thin, remember when she was hot because she looked so strong and healthy?  The nudity in that shot is gratuitous – she’s vulnerable, dude, we get it, but the blood and those huge trusting eyes convey that just fine.  Odd that among ll the bodies I was still thinking ALPHA SLICED UP DR. FRED!  You suck, Alpha, I hate you!  In seriousness, I really thought that was going to be a mystery for a while. But, if they want to make Alpha really unsympathetic, IT WORKED.
  • “Guns.  Can I have one.”  Heh.  I still don’t like you, Topher, but heh.  He’s an amoral nerd, but not a wimpy or panicky one.
  • This episode feels more pilot-y, except for the total lack of Sierra, who I kind of like.  And it’s kind of heavy-handed, but I like the repetition of the ‘did I fall asleep’ convo.  Well, i did the first time, now enough’s enough, and it’s t the point where it’s goging to be weird if she stops saying it, and annoying if she keeps saying it.  Maybe we’ll stop needing to see every programming and wipe soon.
  • “What we offer is truth.”  Interesting.  I mean, I suppose they are, but by stripping away complexity, rather than through honesty.  Also kind of heavy-handed.  This show is starting to feel like a big experiment into “how much philosphy can we pound into their heads in 45 minutes?”
  • the idea of a security deposit sounds creepy, like htey’re just putting a price on safety – which in a sense they are – but it also seems like the best and only way to control their clientele, too; it’s not like they could sue or report  the person.
  • Are we always going to start out with sex work or sex work parallels?  See, the first time it makes sense.  The second time, it’s, again,  gratuitous, and it feels a little like they’re out of ideas already, which I surely HOPE AND BELIEVE is not the case.
  • “My brother’s gonna kill you!”  Confident and trusting.  The rented-for-sex personalities aren’t that different from the mind-wiped Dolls.  They’re the dolls with added skills.
  • Hi, Helo!  I mean, Robert.  Hey, why don’t we menacingly threaten each other in gravelly voices?  Oh, and they’re at last week’s crime scene.  Nifty use of the first ep, and it really gives us the sense that he’s right behind them with no clues, and it’s been like this for a while.  How would they have a profile on Dollhouse clients?  Oh, and they’re assuming it’s just a service for johns.  And who the hell is the Russian guy?  I was thinking he would’ve been an Active, who of course woudln’t know anything when questioned, but why would a Doll have a cell phone?
  • I keep saying “sex work” but I should really be saying sommething  lot harsher.  “Rape” doesn’t feel right since it is hat the personality wants, but at the sme time, it’s not te personlity, it’s Echo, who will be having the non-consensual sex.  I wonder if there are mandatory blood tests for their clients, or do they just keep the Actives on antibiotics and ARVs?
  • “pretty lady” prints – hey, there’s a thought, have they wiped out the Doll’s prints?  Then there’s  permanent change, which could be an interesting contrast with Madam DeWitt’s contention that actions don’t have consequences for the Actives.
  • OHMIGOD he’s hunting her.  so he really did just buy her life.  I wonder if he let the madam in on that?  And he’s a serial killer – he’s brought other girls out there.
  • Oh, and Langdon was hired because of Alpha.  Was he a forensic expert at some point?  Because his analysis is pretty good, and really fast.  I know they’re trying to get stuff out there quickly, but Dr. Fred is on hand for that.  And was he imprinted with some Navy Seal shit?  Because he’s pretty hardcore in the van there.
  • Why didn’t he kill Echo?  Good question, yo.  Maybe he recognized her from before?  Couldn’t kill a fellow Doll?  Come to think of it, why didn’t he kill Dr. Fred?  Maybe he has special plans for her like he does for Echo? He’s weirdly more hostile towards innocents than people responsible – he slaughtered Actives and protectors, but he left the doctor, programmer (who actually is resopnsible for him), and the one with flashes of consciousness.  Was he trying to keep them alive to toy with them more?  He’s not just a fighter, he’s a total sadist.
  • ‘Echo will always trust you.’  Wow.  So we’re into what is identity, what is truth, and what is trust.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen something so explicit about what it’s asking us to consider.  I don’t know that we even needed the trust scenes, even when we see it break later.
  • She hallucinates herself, that’s a nice touch.  Overall, this is a decent format for the show.  We get a clientof the week and the story is about establishing the overarching plot in the dollhouse.  Echo is almost the least important person here for the first forty minutes.
  • Boyd is good at dealing with a confused doll, unlike the staff that have been around longer (Dr. Fred and Topher).  “We met a while back.”  It’s a good answer.  He’s used to real people, so he’s better, or he’s just different and more caring.  He does make the same conflation between deservingness and morality (“he was a good man”/”not good enough”) that Connell does, which is really disquieting.
  • Good thing she happened to get perfect markswomanship!  Though, that is a skill that would go well with the other skills, it’s not totally nonsensical.
  • I don’t like when people hesitate when they should shoot.  You should kill him nowish.  I would rather have four more minutes of character-building than Dramatic Tension.  If the story’s exciting enough – and overall, this was – it’s not necessary.
  • This asshole is the creepiest villain they’ve ever come up with.  Holy shit.  And of course his motivation is….dun dun DUHN….DADDY ISSUES!
  • It’s kind of a relief their background checks failed – they didn’t just send her out all que sera, sera – but at the same time, it means we can never trust their screening process.  Would it’ve been more fun for that revelation to wait?
  • CONNELL WAS ALPHA?!  No, an Alpha henchman.  I thought about it, and then I said, no, that’s too farfetched and they would recognize him!  No, that’d be too easy, as he’s dead.  the fixation just doesn’t make sense, though.
  • Who is Blondie?  Last episode he was some boardroom type and now he’s a bloodthirsty (he hints at wanting two specific kill orders within twenty minutes) badass with command of a bunch of guys with assault weapons?  Speaking of.  Are they all Dolls, too?  Seems weird that people unscrupulous enough to kill for an immoral corporate venture are suddenly the types to be trusted with big, juicy secrets like said corporate ventures – makes more sense they’re all wiped and prorammed to follow instructions.  Then, though, we get two classes of Dolls – the cannnon fodder, who live somewhere else, and the pretty ones, who get to sleep in the shiny bed-holes.

Other thoughts:

  • Of course what makes First Date guy unappealing is that he’s a FATTIE!
  • What makes Echo so much more frequently requested?  Because she’s pretty?  Because theoretically, it shouldn’t matter.  There’s an actual spark of personality there?
  • Kinda problematic that they program male assassins and female prostitutes.

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She’s in Trouble: Pregnancy on Angel

Posted by pocochina on February 15, 2009

It’s SF week here at Pocochina’s House of Fun!  For pixxelpuss – she knows why.  Contains spoliers for Buffy and Angel, Buffy s 2 and Angel s 5 (though I’m pretty sure I was the last person in the world to need that warning).

This essay will explore what’s probably the one thing that keeps me from entirely loving the Angel series on a par with my other favorite TV shows – its use of pregnancy.  Out of our major female characters (as in, women who appear in more than a handful of episodes – so this excludes Gwen, Dru, and Nina, but includes recurring characters like Lilah and Darla) three out of seven* die from pregnancies; a fourth dies at the hand of a Crazy Pregnant Lady.  Moreover, pregnancy is frequently portrayed as an undesirable consequence of independent behavior by women.  As shown in Angel’s treatment of the pregnant Darla, pregnancy

Cordelia

Cordelia holds a Buffy/Angel – if not an all television ever – record of three metaphorical or actual pregnancies in the run of the show.  (For those doing the math, she was on Angel for four seasons; that’s once a season).  None of these pregnancies are her choice, and the last one eventually kills her.

The first two – in Expecting (s 1) and Epiphany (s 2) – are remarkably similar.  Cordelia gets implanted with Demon Seed, is scared and miserable, and is saved within one episode through the combined efforts of herself and the team.  Both are pre-Fred, so all external saveage comes from the male protagonists.  The two episodes aren’t shown to have made her any different – in fact, for someone not at all inclined to suffer past indignities in silence, Cordelia’s remarkably tight-lipped about these experiences, as if she’s ashamed of them.  One of the only times, if not the only time, Cordelia mentions either pregnancy post-episode is in the course of an unbelievably stupid moment of Feminine Bonding, where she sits down alone and unguarded next to an extremely powerful Darla, who Cordelia associates with harmlessness because Darla’s pregnancy makes her look “like a mother.”

Most frustratingly, though, are that Cordelia’s pregnancies are consequences of her own “bad” behavior.  In Expecting, Cordelia leaves the company of her trustworthy male (and, conveniently, desexualized by her friend’s assumption that they’re gay) co-workers to go out in the company of Known Fornicators.  She sleeps with a man we are led to assume she has met, at most, once or twice (and it’s implied from her babbles to Wes and Angel that she considers the event to be the loss of her virginity, which has been known to carry some weight for the women in Angel’s life) and wakes up terrifyingly pregnant.  Though Cordelia hasn’t done anything morally wrong  – and to the credit of the character and the episode, Wesley’s concerned, deeply genuine “you are not being punished” makes this clear – she and her friends still become pregnant and nearly die of casual sex.

Likewise, Cordelia’s downfall in Epiphany isn’t that she falls into the hands of evil demons, it’s that she went to a stranger’s house alone at night, without a male chaperone, which of course women in particular are told not to do.   It’s not unlikely for Angel characters to find themselves in life-threatening situations because they have acted foolishly; however, such actions usually lead to direct physical combat.  When Gunn or Angel do something like this, they end up in a physical altercation; when Cordelia does so, she’s held down and forcibly implanted with demon seed.  The flaw is the same, but the fallout is explicitly gendered.

Once, twice, three times a fecund little Seer, Cordelia’s third pregnancy is her last.  Carrying Jasmine wildly alters Cordelia’s personality – subsumes her soul, in Angelverse terms – and changes her from good to viciously evil.  It’ s unclear (to me, at least) how much of Cordelia’s behavior before the pregnancy is possession by Jasmine, or when the switch from Cordelia to Jasmine occurs, but it’s undeniable that by the time we know she’s pregnant, she’s acting wholly on Jasmine’s behalf.  Cordelia’s pregnancy is disasterous for all of L.A., but it’s shown as particularly dangerous for other women, particularly non-fertile women – IIRC, the only characters we see pregnant Cordelia kill are the virgin (which of course means “girl virgin”) sacrifice and Lilah – the consummate high-powerd career woman who ends up being one of our very few nulligravous woman characters, and it’ s only by sheer dumb luck that she doesn’t succeed in killing out lesbian Willow.  Whether purposeful or not, Cordelia/Jasmine comes across as having something against non-procreating women – are women more dangerous to each other?  to Jasmine’s planned New World?  It’s tough to tell.  Of all the mystical pregnancies Angel depicts, I think that this is perhaps the least problematic.  Though the storyline is dark, and changes the charcter of Cordelia irrevocably, it adequately shows that the pregnancy was not her choice, connects that lack of free will to Jasmine’s overall controlling manner, and explicitly explains the changes in Cordelia’s character within the plot.

Darla

I do not in any way pretend to be objective about Darla’s pregnancy and death – she is hands down my favorite Angel character, and many of the reasons I like her are characteristics which make pregnancy and motherhood undesirable for her, souled or unsouled.  In theory, I don’t have a problem with the idea of a dramatic vampire pregnancy and birth, and if it should be anyone, it should be Darla, Angel’s only mother figure.  However, as played out, the storyline of Darla’s pregnancy and death uncritically builds upon several sexist cultural tropes about pregnancy and motherhood – that “it’s different when it’s yours” and “having a baby changes you”; that a fetus is a human child; that treatment of a pregnant woman should depend upon male evaluation of her moral character and behavior; and that everyone involved (which should be a number of people beyond the pregnant woman herself) should uncritically accept that the fetus is more important than the woman carrying it.

Discussion of the sexual encounter which resulted in Darla’s pregnancy shows a remarkable paradigm shift from the actual sexual encounter.  During the sex scene and immediately after, Darla and Angel act in what the audience assumes is an old pattern for them, with equal sexual aggressiveness, a mutual desire for gratification, and dual agendas.  This makes sense for them because as far as we know, there aren’t negative consequences for sex between vampires, it’s simply one of the fun ways to pass eternal life, and in the specific context, they both want the same goal – for Angel to lose his soul.  However, once Darla shows up pregnant, it’s shifted to a familiar, loathsome construct of sexual behaviors, where the woman is a passive victim and the man is a sexually voracious user of women, as if the fact of pregnancy renders women unable to desire and enjoy sex.  This is inconsistent with the character of Darla, who loves all pleasures rough and sensual, and with the overall world, where women good and evil alike enjoy relationships and sex.  In Angel’s world, pregnancy changes all that.

The attribution of Darla’s sudden love of her parasite, along with her sudden remorse for her misdeeds and desire to do something good, with the existence of a soul in her body simply doesn’t hold because we’ve seen souled Darla before, once before the Master turns her for the first time, and again in early S 2 when she’s raised by W&H.  And both times, she chooses her own survival over everything else.  The first time she has no way of choosing her fate once the Master decides to make her, but the second time around – with all of her memories, knowing she will commit thousands more murders, with eyes wide open – Darla sets out to become a vampire again.  She will survive at all costs.  So her self-sacrifice isn’t in character with souled Darla.  It’s a direct outgrowth of the experience of being pregnant.  In Angel, expecting a baby – even one you can’t have and don’t want – makes you want to give up your identity and life.  As a Darla fan, I can mentally reconcile this with her character with the reasoned guess that Jasmine is actually pulling Darla’s strings same as everyone else’s – but nobody ever mentions the possibility, because that would distract from the Very Important Father-Son Issues going on!  (And Jasmine would have needed Darla dead – Angel might want to be fooled with world peace, but Darla wouldn’t be having it.  And it would’ve been easy enough for us to hear about – can’t you see Lilah in Home needling Angel with just how much he owes to Jasmine?  It would be killer, and so very Lilah, but it would destroy Angel’s romantic idea of Darla’s redemption, and we can’t have that.)

Angel’s treatment of Darla is, to me, the most horrifying part of the three-episode arc.  When she first appears, he accuses her of lying, then of hysteria – classic sexist ways to discredit women.  He denies having slept with her.  He smirks at the Furies’ lascivious attentions during Darla’s panicked encounter with Lorne.  It’s rare for us to see Angel so selfishly distracted from someone with a terrible problem – Darla, however, is evil and doesn’t count.  Once we move to the arcade, Darla’s feelings become clear.  Darla, the consummate hard-edged survivor, would rather die than carry the pregnancy, but Angel has realized (because the man knows more about the pregnancy than the woman carrying it!) that “our baby” (where before, when it was evil, it was “what Darla is carrying”) has a soul – therefore his attitude towards Darla changes completely.  He acts as if he is protecting her; we know he is protecting the fetus.

Instead, he takes her home and feeds her pig’s blood, with a concerned lecture on how she needs to keep herself nourished.  Except, he’s just handed her pig’s blood, knowing she’s craving some oven-fresh human.  Now, as anyone who knows anything about pregnancy is aware, pregnancy cravings are not women off their diets gone wild.  They are the body’s (rough, imperfect, yet well-known) way of telling the woman what nutrition she needs.  Darla’s revulsion towards Angel’s offer of pig’s blood is surely related to the offense to her vampire dignity, but it could just as easily be making her nauseous.  Angel is starving her, offering her insults and illness in place of nutrition, and forcing her to carry a pregnancy which makes her miserable.  She’s told him how much pain she’s in (“you might have the face, but you don’t know the hunger!  It pounds…”) but he completely ignores her misery in favor of his own desires.  He’s quite literally torturing her – and no one calls him on it.  Now, Angel would be well within his moral rights to kill her if he could – she’s deeply dangerous.  Likewise, he’d be within his rights to protect and actually care for her, because as strong and dangerous as she is, she needs help.  What Angel does is to decide what is going to happen to Darla’s body and unlife based on his wants, over her expressed wishes.  Keeping her undead but starved harms her, and strengthens her desire to escape and snack on some more kiddies.    Oh, he could go out and find some corpses, or some rejected blood from a blood bank, or hell, bust one of his own veins and feed her – but that would mean Darla wasn’t living by his moral code, and Angel simply can’t countenance that.

Quickening gives us some creepy plot points which are bizarrely reminiscent of anti-choice propaganda.  Darla’s first sign of relenting towards her “parasite” comes when Wesley shows her the ultrasound.  Compare with Cordelia in Expecting (her shift from eagerly taking risks which might kill the demon spawn to her plaintive “are they healthy?” comes during the ultrasound).  And now compare with this. The assumption in the series, unsettlingly similar to the assumption of anti-choice legislators, is that women can’t understand a pregnancy which has taken over their bodies until they see it, at which point, they’ll appreciate it as much as THE FATHER thinks they should.  Wesley, who is a rock of respect and nonjudgmental support towards pregnant women throughout the series, is played for laughs – he’s too weak to deal with those problem women! – while Angel, who acts on his desires regardless of what the women in question want, gets to be a swaggering hero, implying that men who are supportive of women’s desires are weak, while those who make decisions for women about their bodies are masculine and admirable.  Fred, the uber-rational and sex-positive scientist, actually utters the phrase “unborn child.”  We cut back and forth between Holtz, W&H, the vamp cult, and Our Heroes, giving us the impression that it’s the Motley Crew against all of these forces who want to control and take Darla’s unlife for their own purposes, but I don’t see any suggestion of the fact that Angel is doing the exact same thing, down to forbidding her (with her super-super-strength) from protecting herself from those forces.

Darla’s death plays upon the concept of pregnancy-as-punishment.  When Darla attempts to eat Cordelia, Angel’s first thought is of Cordelia – which is reasonable, as Cordelia’s clearly the weaker of the two – but he doesn’t put the pregnancy together with the starvation and unreasonable behavior to find the most rational explanation of the event, but simply swears vengeance and sets off to murder Darla.  Though souled non-pregnant Darla has recognized she’s done bad things, it’s pregnant-and-suicidal Darla who expresses regret for her vampirish ways.  And Darla doesn’t deserve female companionship and sympathy – only Wesley’s professional politeness and Angel’s judgmental overriding of her decisions – until after she experiences that regret.  Cordelia hates her and even punches her; Fred is terrified and happy to stay away, but once she’s sorry, she’s allowed to be around other women.  (This is the SOP of pregnancies on Angel – during Cordelia’s first two experiences carrying demon spawn, and later when Fred gives way to Illyria, all other major cast members are male.)  She’s carrying a pregnancy because of sex with Angel, and suddenly she’s feeling Angel’s guilt and pain – she’s more important to his life than ever before, so she has to bend and become more like him than ever before.

The show is Angel’s, and it makes sense that the most important aspect of the story of Darla’s pregnancy is about its impact on Angel.  However, it is the impact of the pregnancy on Darla, and what it reveals about Angel and the other characters, which is deeply problematic, and out of joint with our previous experience of the show.

Fred

Unlike all other metaphorical/mystery pregnancies on the show, Fred’s pregnancy and death is human murder by mystical means.  The only moral responsibility for Fred’s death lies with Knox, who chose to infect her with Illyria knowing the consequences and without Fred’s consent (without Illyria’s consent either, but I think we can safely assume Illyria neither would nor did complain on moral grounds).  Fred’s situation bears an uncomfortable likeness to some all-too-familiar real world ones:  she’s expecting and ill, and on a very serious timeline, due to someone else’s imposition on her body.  That someone else claims to be honoring her feminine wonderfulness, but in fact is killing her from a distance.  Now, how could that possibly have been topical at time of production?  But the characters don’t seem to draw that connection – once Wes kills Knox, he’s the only one to point out that Illyria didn’t kill Fred, Knox did, and at this point Wesley is drunk and clinging to his sanity, therefore not to be taken seriously by the other characters.

In comparison to the other mystical pregnancies, and comparing Fred to Darla and Cordelia, there are other disquieting implications.  Unlike two of Cordelia’s pregnancies – and arguably, all three – along with Darla’s, there is no sexual aspect to Fred’s metaphorical conception of Illyria.  This could relate to any of a small handful of distinguishing characteristics of Fred’s story.  The first is her victimhood – Knox’s acknowledged guilt works to absolve Fred.  This could associate sin and sex in an undesirable fashion.  The second relates to the infantilization of Fred during her death scene – while Cordelia/Jasmine and Darla die quietly, Fred dies slowly, with Wesley reading her bedtime stories, further connecting the lack of a sexual component to innocence.  Fred isn’t any less of a sexual creature than the other female characters – we’ve known her to have at least three boyfriends.  Perhaps Fred is different because she’s always, unlike Cordelia or Darla, been sympathetic; perhaps it’s because of the youth we’re supposed to attribute to her (though she’s certainly older than Cordelia), but either way, her goodness insulates her from sexualized fault for her fate – good girls might, but they won’t be punished for it.

Like Cordelia’s pregnancy with Jasmine, this is a story that, with some tweaking and by itself, I could have enjoyed; however, at this point, we’ve lost a beloved female character two seasons in a row to forced pregnancy.  Three times is indeed Enemy Action, and it simply feels like too many.

Conclusion

Pregnancy on Angel is a difficult and frequently mishandled topic.  Though one or two of the above metaphorical/mystical pregnancies could have co-existed on one series unproblematically, the use of one every single season without examination of the gendered assumptions underlying such a storyline harms the series, which is otherwise conscious of its powerful use of metaphor and inversion of cultural expectations.  It is disappointing because Angel, not much less than its famous parent show, otherwise portrays strong, interesting, and multi-dimensional female characters – it is difficult to watch them almost inevitably doomed to an overplayed and explicitly feminine fate.

*Cordelia, Fred, Lilah, Darla, Illyria, Jasmine, and Harmony.  This is a generous standard, as Illyria and Jasmine are non-human entities whose female forms are probably chosen for convenience  and infertile, and who only appear in less than half a season each.

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