Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Sex and Rape With Dolls

* Some spoilers ahead *

As Joss Whedon's new Fox drama Dollhouse finally hits its stride at episode six, some of the deeper philosophical questions posed by the show need a bit more play. I want to focus on of the more apparent ones: is what is happening to the Dolls rape? I don't mean the institutionalized rape of Sierra in Episode Six -- that's a clear cut case. I mean, when the dolls have sexual intercourse on an engagement, is that per se rape because they can't consent?

The revelation in episode six that Mellie is a doll really sharpens this point, because it puts a new frame on the sexual activities of the dolls. When the other dolls (namely, Echo) have sex, we're primed to see it as part of an engagement: we see the programming, we know that the personality isn't "real", and we see it all wiped away at the end. Meanwhile, her "partner" also knows what he is purchasing -- he is aware that he's getting a doll, and thus knows all about the consent issue.

With Mellie, by contrast, we were not told she was a doll in advance, and thus rooted for her as a person to land Ballard. So when she finally does get him in bed, it is a great triumph, and we all cheer. Until it is revealed she is a doll -- now, all the issues of consent come crashing back down on us. It's quite the clever inversion. Ballard, of course, does not know Mellie is a doll and that distinguishes him from the Dollhouse clientele insofar as rape seems to require actual knowledge of lack of consent.

But I want to explore what we mean when we talk of "consent" in the dolls. I will concede flat out that the dolls did not truly "volunteer" for their position in any meaningful sense. We saw that in the pilot episode, and I'm not sure if it's possible to consent to a complete erasure and recreation of your personality anyway. In any event, as one of the woman on the street put it, "The only reason someone would volunteer to be a slave is that they is one already."

The problem is, I'm not sure where that gets us. Well, that's not entirely true: It establishes that the Dollhouse are engaged in human trafficking, because they are committing a crime of violence against the original personality. But I don't think it establishes the capabilities or rights possessed by the dolls. The argument from lack of consent seems predicated on the fact that the "true" personality of Echo (Caroline) or the other dolls isn't consenting to actions in question -- only the construction is. This itself seems based on a notion of the unencumbered, unitary and individually determined self -- an image that I don't buy. Echo's personally as an active is imposed from without. But guess what: All of our personalities are, to varying degrees, impressed upon us via external forces. We have, it is true, at least a little more say in rounding off the edges, but it is a fact of human existence that all of us are living lives that are not entirely of our own creation. I don't think in of itself can negate consent.

Consider this hypothetical. Say a person was kidnapped off the street, and he had his personality permanently erased (it can't be recovered) and was imprinted with a new one. Then he was released back into the world (so this differs from Dollhouse in that the persons who reprogrammed him are exerting no control on him after he is released from the facility -- they ignore him ever after). Would we be comfortable saying this person, in their new personality, can never consent to anything? They can never sign a contract, they can never have sex, they can't even live independently? I don't think we are. True, his new person is completely severed from the old (that's tautological). But is it less "real"? How? Released into the world, the Active would behave essentially identically to any other person, including believing they are who they think they are and believing they are independent and autonomous. It would seem to compound, not mitigate, the violence impressed upon their body to say they've been permanently stripped of their capacity to act, when that isn't how they are experiencing their own life.

The second line of argument one could make regarding consent would have to do with how tightly the dolls' reactions are scripted by their imprint. There is a big difference between imprinting a personality that is designed to be attracted to a specific person, and an imprint which would actually override one's rational choice capabilities and force them into sex with someone, whether they like it or not. Real personalities are adaptable -- we have proclivities, but they are modifiable by actual lived experiences. And actives aren't robots -- like all of us their decisions are conditioned off their personality, but within those strictures they make independent judgments and engage in rational deliberation and critical thought. In episodes two and five, we are given hints that Echo's imprints are not tight scripts. If she was simply robotically programmed to be the perfect date for Richard, then when he stepped completely outside his expected parameters and become a sociopathic killer, she would have been left unable to function. But that's not what happened -- she instead responded roughly akin to how we'd imagine a "real" person would who was attracted to Richard prior to discovering his true self. Likewise episode five -- Echo's observations and experiences (including regaining her sight) seemed to pretty clearly affect the nature of her "true belief" in the cult leader.

This isn't to say that what Dollhouse is doing is morally okay. It's not -- writing and erasing someone's personality is a crime of violence in of itself. But the narrower question of whether actives can consent while on engagements seems tied up in a notion of the unified self, which I think the show is actually rather effectively deconstructing. The actives reason and make choices within roughly the same set of constraints as any other person. That the particular nature of those constraints comes from specific corporate necessities, rather than generalized social pressures, doesn't seem like a major distinction.

5 comments:

Dr Pretorius said...

It is interesting how massively the entire tone and pace of the show changed in episode six. I think that there's at least some argument to be made that the actives (at least as the show specific ones go, that is, not the hypothetical case you suggest in addition) are substantially constrained. After all, they do have more than personality imprints - there's the enforced trust in their handlers, for example, or the, I suppose, activation code for Mellie. (Possibly also the imprint-of-dead-wife that Echo has, though I was never clear exactly what sort of imprint that actually was.) And the presence of that sort of conditioning makes it more ambiguous exactly what sort of constraints are involved in the personality imprints.

David Schraub said...

Right. The times when their personal choices are directly overridden (the activation codes or the cue language with the handlers) is pretty clearly coercive.

Thomas said...

I'd be interested to hear your impressions on how this situation differs from abuse of a more typical professional relationship, or even slavery - are those constraints analogous to the ones imposed by the artificial personalities?

I had Mellie pegged as an active ever since she shared that hotdish in the first (or second?) episode.

Joe said...

"We saw that in the pilot episode, and I'm not sure if it's possible to consent to a complete erasure and recreation of your personality anyway."

Why isn't such consent possible? It doesn't sound much different from physician-assisted suicide to me. A hot-button issue to be sure, but a great many people would say that's a personal choice of the patient and no business of people who blanch simply because they personally would never make that choice.

And I could be misremembering the first episode, but it seemed to me that Caroline did agree to become a doll in exchange for some unknown favor.

What I find really troubling about the dollhouse is the erasure of the imprinted personalities once the engagement is completed. Unlike Caroline, they never agreed to be wiped out like that (and they're probably never coming back, whereas Caroline was told she'd be re-imprinted). Of course, it might be possible to program an imprint that will agree to be wiped, fully knowing what that means, but the Dollhouse hasn't been doing that.

Joe said...

Thomas comment on slavery makes me think. It seems like becoming a Doll is more akin to indentured servitude.