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dollhouse body issues

Posted by pocochina on August 17, 2010

Not that it takes a lot of stimulus for me to be thinking about Dollhouse, but Nick’s recent poll and post about body issues in the Jossverse got me thinking about one of the reasons that I really love the show. And that – despite the eventual fail that Nick points out in his incisive post, with which I do vehemently agree – is that one of the ways Dollhouse is subversive is that it is, quietly but consistently, anti-diet.

Say what? I hear you asking. Summer! Eliza! Amy! Dichen! They thought Miracle was “heavy,” for fuck’s sake! And that’s true, but it’s not all there is to it. Both in-universe dialogue and authorial intent point firmly towards not just discontent with but outright derision of the narrow range of acceptable bodies in popular American culture, and extreme skepticism about the lies that we tell ourselves in order to choke back the poison more easily.

(cut for discussions of disordered eating, please read with self-care in mind)

The most obvious thing is the Mellie/Paul relationship. It’s true that Miracle Laurie’s presence on television, sadly, challenges what is an acceptable size for a female body to be, even if she is at most average-sized. (We don’t really guess at numbers around these parts, but seriously, she is not “heavy” or “plus-sized” by any rational definition of the terms. It’s just that, as the show knows, we’re not really working in rationality.) But there’s way, way more to it than that. Mellie is sent to Paul as a spy, who’s supposed to get close to him. She’s a femme fatale. She is purposely built to be Paul’s dream girl. What does that mean? It means a Tahmoh Penikett-lookin’ motherfucker, who undoubtedly displays all the alpha male characteristics which are supposed to cause him to want only the “hottest” – that is, most status-worthy, which in our society means thinnest – lady. But while building Paul’s dream girl from scratch, the Dollhouse thought to send November specifically, with all the more gender-conforming female Dolls around. This means that either (a) Paul has a distinguishable “type” he finds hot and consistently dates women who look like November, or (b), the Dollhouse was so confident in November’s beauty that they didn’t bother to worry that she doesn’t fit what passes for a beauty standard in LA. Either of those possibilities contains a surprisingly body-positive message.

It’s worth pointing out here that the show’s original plan for November was that she would be a Doll more often sent out on romantic engagements (rather than just the one long-term romantic engagement she ended up sent on), freeing Echo up to be action-girl. This storyline was dropped somewhere along the way, but it’s a sadly missed opportunity for an exploration of the differences between sexual attraction for its own sake, and sexualized desire based on social status. More than once, we see Echo used as a trophy date, intriguing for her sexual skills but crucial for her ability to impress bros. Women who are average-sized and of a particular shape, not unlike November (though again, to keep some semblance of reality in this conversation, she is still smaller than average, which is completely okay but important to keep in mind), are an object of bizarre fascination – reviled for not being Morally Pure, By Which We Mean Thin, but also apparently too fucking sexy to show in prime time. This only makes sense if you consider the vast discomfort we feel at a lack of sexual conformity – the idea that people should get to enjoy consensual sexual pleasure for its own sake, not to show off heterosexuality and wealth, and that therefore different folks will find a wide variety of bodies to be sexually attractive. Given that the interplay of attraction, wealth, gender, and power underpins the entire Dollhouse enterprise, this would have been an interesting comparison, and I’m sorry we didn’t get the chance to see it.

However, what we ended up with was Mellie/Paul relationship, which did its own work to paint a harsh and realistic picture of the way women are expected to relate to food. A lot of viewers groaned when Mellie was always turning up with full pans of baked treats for Paul. But compare the food Mellie makes to the food Mellie actually eats. When Mellie bakes for Paul, she shows up with food she hasn’t eaten at all. It’s strictly about him, and about trying to convince him to be attracted to her. If she doesn’t do her job of being attractive to the right dude, then as far as we can tell, she doesn’t get any food. But when she’s doing it right, with Paul, she gets take-out: that is, food someone else makes, that she and Paul enjoy together. Even when she’s lying in his bed, wondering if he’ll still love her tomorrow, she languidly commands that he “fetch [her] spring rolls.” Which Paul does that night, and then cheerfully tries (fails, but tries) to make her breakfast the next morning, as a sign of care. Good, gender-conforming, accomplished women get to eat. Unsuccessful women get to cook for others. The Dollhouse, during their exploitation of November, wires her to believe that food isn’t something she gets on her own as fuel, but as a reward for a sexual job well done.

But! There is more! Mellie, how I love you so, especially when you explicitly tell the audience that this standard for women’s bodies is the evil love child of male privilege and capitalism!

Mellie: Mm-hmm. He said he didn’t see me as “a long-term investment.” Said he wanted to, uh, “dump the stock before it went public.” He talks like that. He works at a doughnut shop.

Paul: What a rick.

Mellie: Yeah. Hey, I get that I’m not the gold standard in L.A.

Paul: Please, you’re gorgeous.

It’s funny, because the doughnut shop guy is a total rick! But it’s also a glimpse into the way the writer (and this is MotS, so it’s from Joss himself) views expectations of impossible thinness from women. Rick (it doesn’t matter if he’s real or if he’s a false memory planted by the Dollhouse) is a tool for not seeing Mellie’s hotness. He talks in terms of investment – Mellie isn’t valuable for herself as an emotional and sexual being, but for her monetary potential. (Not much of a stretch to wonder if this is a commentary on the numbers on actresses’ pay scales being related to the numbers on their, erm, scales.) He wants to get rid of her before he goes public, because it’s not about actual attraction or sexual chemistry, but about social status, about what it looks like to be a dude trying to make it in the world with a girlfriend (or cast member) whose body doesn’t quite conform to Anglo upper-class thinness.

Mellie herself takes this comparison and runs with it, but in a more positive direction. She says she’s “not the gold standard in LA.” She’s acknowledging that the scale on which we gauge female beauty is situational, and that she’s in a place (specifically, the place most closely associated with the entertainment industry) where female beauty is defined as striking thinness. And she does so by referring to the gold standard, an economic concept whose time is past, suggesting either observance of or hope for positive change.

Because please. She’s gorgeous.

On this level, this little exchange couldn’t be more clearly tied into the horror of the Dollhouse as a whole – a place where people’s internal lives and histories don’t matter, just how well their bodies sell, and what the stock value of those bodies is to the rich looking for playthings. The sexual exploitation of the Dollhouse can’t happen without it.

And that’s appropriate, because even the way the Dolls speak and are treated in the Dollhouse is a quiet but constant series of stabs at diet culture. The Dolls’ platitudes cover a multitude of heartbreaking thought patterns the Dollhouse wants to keep them chained to. The most prevalent of these, of course, is “I try to be my best.” The Dolls mostly use it when they are doing the two things the House wants them to do – go on engagements, and stay marketably hot.

But what the hell does that even mean? Echo asks Sierra, and doesn’t get any sort of answer.

Fortunately, we do.  In Omega, Victor asks Saunders how he can be his best now.  The only lasting harm to Victor, who has already forgotten the attack, is the set of scars on his face. And Claire looks away, and tells him that his best is behind him, because people will look at him with pity and fear instead of desire. Granted, Claire’s a bit harsh at this point because she’s just figured out her own Activehood, but her point stands. The language of “I try to be my best,” when it comes down to it, is just as empty as “I’m doing this for me,” or “I’m taking control,” or “I’m treating myself to this yogurt.”

It’s all about appearances, about the mindless pursuit of an impossible goal. The Dolls cannot actually be their best, because any potential they had to be their genuine self-actualized best has been ripped out of their brains, and replaced with a vague, unanswerable disconcertion that they are not quite yet their best. But maybe they can be. Tomorrow will be different. Tomorrow they’ll be their best. But tomorrow never comes.

And who is it, among the main characters, to openly express the opinion that what’s on the outside should matter? Only the unquestionable villains. Alpha, in the midst of a murder spree. Boyd, as he straps Echo down to suck out her spine. Clyde, as he fights to bring about Rossum’s apocalypse. Judging people based on their appearances – the way we so clearly do in American society, and particularly in the entertainment industry – is, in the Dollverse, one of the very few traits consistently associated with unambiguous evil.

The vapidness of “being one’s best” as a cover for physical and psychological control extends to the Dolls’ attitude about food in general, which is disturbingly similar to that of a huge number of people, far more likely to be women. The Actives chat about food without having control over it, and this isn’t just part of their exploitation, it’s an actual cover for it. This is in storytelling terms a surprisingly accurate picture of what it’s like to live in the grips of, if not a full-blown eating disorder, then disordered attitudes towards bodies and food, and it’s a powerful metaphor for body policing as a means of social control of women in our world.

Food is, in more than one way, a means of controlling the dolls. They talk about food to fill the human hunger for connection, to create the lie for themselves (and their keepers) that they’re friends who are nice to each other. If you’ve ever worked in an environment with a lot of women who otherwise have little in common, you’re probably familiar with the body-bashing cant that fills the time in place of female bonding. I’d imagine there’s a similar masculine counterpart concerning weights and protein shakes, even if it’s les explicitly self-hating.

And because it’s such an important part of their day – the only constant they legitimately remember, the only thing they can look to in their pasts and futures, more assured than even a treatment – Dolls, compared to other subjects, know quite a bit about food. Crucially, however, they have no control over it. They could be deprived of food and not even remember it. Even the lush healthfulness of the Actives’ meals is, as we see in the DC Dollhouse, a mere side benefit of Adelle’s guilty conscience. They do not choose their mealtimes, or what they will eat. They do not get to have preferences, just placid liking for pancakes (which by amusing accident is what tips off a newly awakened Tony that “we’re all gonna die” in Needs) and salad. But they think about food. It’s what their Stepford smiling day care providers tell them every morning, and what they talk to each other about, and one of the few activities during which they can talk to each other. Food is desperately important to life in the House, but it’s a symbol of their exploitation and vulnerability.

That is a surprisingly accurate portrayal of what it’s like to live inside a head that’s disordered about food. Note, I’m not talking about someone who eats exactly what the Dolls eat, enjoys it, and then merrily rolls along to their self-actualized day, but about what it’s like to have a brain that’s just wrong about food. It’s all you can think about, even if you can’t bring yourself to eat a bite without some arbitrary “permission,” or at all. It’s not in your control. The meals you’re going to have to attend, even if they mean nothing to you, become the benchmarks of your day. And from the outside, this might look okay. People do walk into the Dollhouse and, seeing the spa-like atmosphere the Actives inhabit, and interpret it as a place of well-being and contentment. The Actives do have access to safe and varied exercise, and a healthy variety of foods, and the show doesn’t suggest that there’s anything wrong about those things – but there is something deeply sinister about a life in a world where you can’t imagine another choice.

This stuff fits the darkness of the show, but it’s heartbreakingly relevant. Disordered eating, whether it’s clinically diagnosed or thinly masked by the newest Cosmo diet, is terrible enough on its own because of the amount of suffering it causes, but the vast and unchecked scale of it makes it also a very real impediment to women’s social, political, and economic equality. “Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is an easily tractable one,” Naomi Wolf said fifteen years ago in The Beauty Myth, and she remains perhaps more right than ever to this day. The social function of dieting is to make real, live women into Actives, not physically, but mentally. We’re meant to be pliant and overly trusting, even in the face of inequality, exploitation, and abuse. We’re convinced to give up our personal agency into the hands of someone who claims to know better, even if they can’t possibly have our best interests at heart. Because, after all, we try to be our best.

Notes:

[1] Language check!  I do not mean “diet” as in considerations an individual must take into when making decisions about hir general food intake, such as “I eat a well-balanced diet” or “I watch my diet because I don’t want to exacerbate an unpleasant medical condition” or “I choose a vegetarian diet because it is best for the planet.”  This essay could not be less about those things, so please don’t derail.  What this is about is the broad-based body hatred fostered by the multi-million dollar weight loss industry under the banner of “dieting.”

[2] It’s not really relevant to the discussion of the story as it happened, but Joss has stated that he wanted to have diverse bodies in the Dollhouse, because people do after all have different fantasies, but this idea was shot down by the network.  Without sounding like a “trust Joss”-bot, this is probably a fairly reliable statement, given that FOX is not really a beacon of body-positivity on any level.

[3] Perhaps most heartwarmingly, because after all she’s the one at the center of this, is the activism of Miracle Laurie herself.  I would not blame her for all the world if she told every reporter who asked her a question about her body to fuck off – my thoughts here are quite similar to Sady Doyle’s discussion of everyone’s fascination with Christina Hendricks’ knockers – but to her great credit, Miracle has taken the opportunity granted by November’s sex symbol status to engage with body positivity as a personal cause.  While that’s not exactly my style of HAES or size acceptance, particularly given the ableism of some of her statements, it’s a laudable thing for anyone, and especially for an actress, whose career basically depends on her being hot and not calling anyone in the industry out on anything.

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