On Dollhouse

"We're Not Men"

By Lillian DeRitter
Topher: I guess we have our own little conspiracy,

Boyd: Don’t call me that.

Topher: We’re not friends?

Boyd: We’re not men.

—“Echo” (unaired pilot)

When Boyd and Topher argued about the ethics of Rossum
in Dollhouse’s unaired pilot, “Echo,” Boyd ended the argument
with, “We’re not men.” In context, this line could mean
several things, from “We aren’t brave enough to stand up to
what we’ve created” (Boyd’s apparent implication) to “The
power we’ve gained makes us gods” (Topher’s possible understanding
and, in light of Boyd’s position as the true Big Bad, his
likely meaning). Yet this conversation stands in for a broader
line of discourse than an argument about the ethics of brainwashing.
In fact, “We’re not men” suggests the very quandary
faced by many male characters in the universes Joss Whedon
has created.

While examining gender roles, the writers of Dollhouse could
rely not only on conventional cultural expectations regarding
those roles, but also on the expectations of Whedon fans, who
have plenty of character archetypes they have come to expect.
The most obvious of these archetypes is the Supergirl, typified
by Buffy Summers, River Tam, and now Echo in Dollhouse, but
we also see some of the same male archetypes surfacing in each
new world. There’s the lovable, often emasculated, and strangely
technically competent friend who’s constantly putting his foot
in his mouth (Xander, Wash, Topher), the schizophrenic love
interest who gives the standard Prince Charming model an
ominous twist (Angel, Alpha), and the protective and usually
reliable father figure (Giles, Reverend Book, Boyd).

Whedon is a self-identified feminist writer, and he has
examined what it means to be both a strong woman and a “girly
girl” with characters like Buffy, Willow, and Faith in Buffy the
Vampire Slayer
; Zoë, Saffron, Inara, and River in Firefly; and
Sierra and Echo in Dollhouse, to name only a few. Whedon’s
highly competent women maintain a flexibility in their toughness.
They cry. They fall in love. They go crazy. They kick ass.
These are all natural elements of their personas. They can be
strong and weak at the same time. But the men in their lives live
by an entirely different set of rules, precisely because they live
in worlds filled with Supergirls.

In the Whedonverse, masculine power is always on the
verge of collapse. Men may have patriarchy on their side, but
women have superpowers: advanced fighting and seduction
skills, knowledge of complex mechanics, etc. This tends to lead
to a crisis of masculinity, because both conventional cultural
customs and the systems of oppression highlighted by feminism
suggest that men’s power is at least partially dependent on physical
force, intimidation, and a perception of superior personal
value. So what is masculinity in a world where brute force and
other conventionally “masculine” responses to real or imagined
threats are ineffective in both the gender war and the battle to
prevent the apocalypse?

Masculinity Is . . .

Whedon loves to build up men’s belief in their own masculinity
and power, and then trap them in it when they are outclassed
by the (usually much more powerful) women in his narratives.
Hilarity frequently ensues. This was a major theme for his first
male hero, Xander, who spent a lot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
trying to be taken seriously while surrounded by superpowered
women. (Willow, Faith, and Buffy could all have killed him
without breaking a nail.) When Spike, Buffy’s Sid Vicious–like
anti-hero, got a chip in his head that prevented him from hurting
humans, he found out the chip’s effect when he attempted
to maul Willow and failed, leading to a comic scene that was
the funniest treatment of male impotence you could get away
with in late nineties prime time. Malcolm Reynolds, in Firefly,
relied heavily on Zoë and the slow but steady Jayne to back up
his Wild West threats of violence, and we all know who would
win in a fight between him and Zoë. And Angel . . . well, Angel
wanted to be Batman, but he was really just a big, fluffy puppy
that Buffy would kill if he didn’t behave.

The way that Whedon women become superpowered
ranges from mystical destiny to military brainwashing, but in
Dollhouse, a new possibility was raised: flexible, alterable cognitive
programming. Identity became truly fluid: additive, erasable,
even removable. As Ballard said to Alpha in “Briar Rose”
(1-11): “That’s the future? We’re all functional, interchangeable?”
But this begged another question about gender in a created
universe: if all biological bodies (and brains) were empty vessels,
and Topher (and Bennett) were capable of altering hormone
levels, muscle memory, and brain activity, then it should
have followed that gender, too, was completely constructed. If
Topher could make Echo think she was the mother of a child,
he should have been able to make her think she was a man. But
he didn’t. The only time the Dolls got swapped gender imprints
was a mistake, when Topher attempted a remote wipe in “Belle
Chose” (2-3). Is that because gender is partly innate, a part of
“the soul” that Ballard contended still remained when a wipe
occurred? Why, when Victor became Kiki, did ”Kiki” not panic
when s/he saw her/his body, instead assuming s/he was drunk?
Echo/Terry, a misogynistic serial killer, acknowledged the
change but accepted it very quickly, assuming her/his victims
had done it to her/him. It seemed like a certain gender flexibility
was inherent to the imprints, as though Topher could flip a
switch and the whole personality would readjust (e.g., Dr. Saunders
into Whiskey). As Topher explained, the human brain is a
truly powerful instrument. It can sort itself out pretty quickly.
That would mean that femininity and masculinity remain constructed
and easily applied, like cans of paint that could be
mixed at the cognitive programmer’s liberty. The question then
becomes: What can we define as singularly masculine in the
world of Dollhouse?

In the Whedonverse, it often seems as though masculinity is
defined by decisiveness to the point of stupidity. The emphasis
doesn’t lie in being correct so much as in making a decision and
sticking to it even when it is revealed to be the wrong choice.
Repeatedly. We saw this in Angel’s constant ultimatums that
Buffy blatantly ignored, Mal’s habit of ending crew meetings
with pronouncements that made the whole crew roll their eyes,
Topher’s refusal to believe that Echo could supersede his wipes,
Alpha’s certainty of his position as an übermensch, Ballard’s idolization
of Caroline, and Dominic’s demonization of her.

Why does this ignorant stubbornness as masculinity, this
male rigidity of thought, hold true for Dollhouse, a world that is
built on cognitive fluidity? It may be because the men of Dollhouse
still mostly fall into the archetypes fans have grown to
expect in the Whedonverse. The Emasculated Mad Scientist,
the Sinister Prince, and the Father Figure all made appearances
in Dollhouse, and they all wound up dead or damaged because
of their own arrogance, needing to be rescued and restored by
the Supergirl.

The Emasculated Mad Scientist: Topher vs. Alpha

Topher’s transformation from genius little boy playing with his
toys to tortured philosopher-scientist was one of the most powerful
journeys in Dollhouse. In season one, Topher’s excited and
bemused reactions to the various crises at the Dollhouse caused
Adelle to accuse him of having no morality, but Topher did have
a kind of moral certainty, a certainty that science should not
be held back by people who don’t understand it. This is a great
example of masculine decisiveness to a fault. When Topher’s
world became less sure, he collapsed under it. When Whiskey/
Dr. Saunders killed Bennett, Topher found it impossible
to reason within his former framework of everyone being programmed,
even though it partially made sense that she would
destroy Bennett within Topher’s programming because she
wanted Topher to suffer (a part of the imprint that Topher himself
put there). Reality refused to compute: either Topher was a
god, his programming flawless, which meant Bennett’s death
was his fault; or he wasn’t man enough to stop Claire, which
meant it was still his fault, and he was emasculated to boot.
Either way, he could not operate knowing that his actions had
direct consequences that he had not intended or foreseen.

Topher’s crisis of guilt was ratcheted up when he sent Priya
to see Nolan, and then again when he realized that it was his
technology that would cause the apocalypse. He didn’t develop
morality per se, but instead came to a new understanding of
cause and effect: if everyone is programmed, and you are the
programmer, you’re responsible for what they do. It should
be noted that though Topher came to this conclusion, by the
events of “Epitaph One” (1-13), he had lost all certainty while
trying to reason his way out of culpability. He constantly muttered
questions to himself (“If I think I can figure things out, is
that curiosity or arrogance?”) and tried to reassure himself with
“I know what I know.” Topher had lost his decisiveness, the
kind of decisiveness and trust in the innate goodness of science
that allowed Victor Frankenstein to believe he had the right and
duty to conquer death.

Topher went from Frankenstein to Faust in terms of his
surrounding production design, from a lab filled with monitors
to a cocoon of books with scraps of writing on the walls.
In fact, Faust is an apt comparison, in that Topher made a
deal with the devil, believing he could foresee and control
any negative consequences that emerged. The Dolls shouldn’t
have had any feelings that Topher didn’t put there, but they
did. The Rossum executives should have allowed Topher to
decide what his technology would be used for, but they didn’t.
Topher’s own certainty, his inability to adapt to being wrong,
was what trapped him, eventually reducing him to a pathetic
shell of his former self. His certainty vanished when he
couldn’t bear the reality he was certain of—the point where
his certainty, his “curiosity or arrogance,” had cost the lives
and minds of millions of people, starting with the woman he
loved. As Topher told Boyd (quoting from Hamlet): “There is
nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” This
was where Topher and Alpha overlapped. They were both
creators of their own realities—their thinking, good or bad,
defined their limits, faults, and culpability—which is a very
heavy burden to bear.

If we look at Topher as the man of one mind who eventually
lost it bit by bit, what about Alpha? Asked to explain himself,
this was what he came up with: “There are many parts of
me that know that this is wrong, none that care, and six that
just find it funny” (“A Love Supreme,” 2-8). He was both Dr.
Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s monster, a cognitive amalgam
of different parts who believed he had the rights and powers of
a god. If man is of one mind, ruled by reason, Alpha was not a
man. He was ideologically at war with himself, but most of his
personalities were strong-willed, if the violence of his internal
arguments that were made external in dialogue are any indication.
Even though Alpha audibly second-guessed himself, he
was also one of the fastest decision-makers on Dollhouse. When
Echo refused to become Omega, Alpha immediately formed a
new plan. When the world went to hell because of Rossum, he
became a strange kind of good guy. When confronted with even
more disordered violence than he liked to create, he decided to
join the forces for order (if only for a little while). Alpha was the
ultimate experimenter. He was constantly being proven wrong,
and constantly adjusting. (This flexibility might be why Alpha
didn’t fold like Topher at the dawn of the apocalypse.)

Two Princes: Paul Ballard vs. Alpha

Alpha was one of the most confident characters on Dollhouse.
The other was Paul Ballard. These men played the roles of the
warring knight and the fairy-tale prince, respectively, and they
both performed their violence with a sense of vengeful entitlement.
It made sense that they would end up in conflict over
Echo because they both wanted to deify her (erroneously) in
different ways. To Alpha, Echo was his übermensch counterpart,
the possibility of a worthy companion in a world of peons. To
Ballard, Caroline, confined within Echo, was his Guinevere, the
ideal woman to save and protect, to love from afar. (It should be
noted that this line of thinking immediately reduces Echo to an

Ballard was the white knight in the group, especially
in comparison to Alpha. (As Echo told Alpha in “A Love
Supreme,” “He’s ten times the man you are, and you’re like
forty guys.”) When Ballard got close enough to “Caroline” to
meet Echo, a person in her own right who was actively in love
with him, his masculine decisiveness—his rigidity in believing
that she was still Caroline, and helpless; not Echo, and in
control—came back and prevented him from accepting that
love. He claimed that this was because Echo was “borrowing”
Caroline’s body, but deep down he was unable to confront the
fact that Caroline, his damsel in distress, was a figment of his
imagination, and Echo, the real person, was there now. Ballard
was, to quote Topher, the “tall, morally judgmental man
in [the] imprint room” (“Epitaph One”). He could not reconcile
the reality of cognitive imprinting with his fairy-tale scenario.
He could not understand that the Sleeping Beauty was awake
and thinking, feeling pain and solving problems, because he
was so sure of her being asleep. The only girl that Paul even
had a chance at rescuing was Caroline, or the idea of Caroline,
the wedge that he saved from breaking in “Omega” (1-12). (It
should be noted that late in season two he got better about
this, but by that point his love for Echo had been removed
from his brain.)

Both Ballard and Alpha used violent force in their attempts
to woo Caroline/Echo—Ballard by slaying dragons (handlers,
and he’d have slain Rossum itself if he could), and Alpha by
physically removing her competition to make her the fairest in
the land. Unlike Alpha, Ballard never lashed out at Echo, but
he did take out his violent frustration on those most directly in
his way. (See the ferocity of his attacks on Boyd when he finally
enters the Dollhouse in “Briar Rose.”) When Ballard and Echo
sparred after they went on the run, the violence became eroticized,
a way for Ballard to feel physically close to Echo without
breaking his code of chivalry and reversing his decision
to abstain from having sex with her. Alpha also used violence
to remove his competition—Ballard—and immediately told
Echo, “Boyfriend’s dead. Wanna snuggle?” (“A Love Supreme),
the ultimate example of misguided problem-solving through

While Paul chased after phantom damsels in distress, Alpha
was a hyper-masculine domestic abuser who thought he possessed
a sense of delicate romance. He killed his ex-girlfriend’s
(technically platonic) closest male friend and then quoted the
quintessential romantic, early twentieth-century composer Cole
Porter, to explain his motives. He was an unavoidable paradox.
The only thing we could predict about his actions was that they
would be violent, and that he would enjoy them. It was never
fully clear whether he truly believed that getting rid of Ballard
would make Echo love him, or whether he just liked creating
chaos and wanted to hurt her for hurting him. The one generalization
we could make about Alpha was that, like Ballard, he
believed that whatever he was doing was the right thing to do
(if only, in Alpha’s case, for the millisecond during which he
was doing it).

Father Figures: Dominic vs. Boyd

In Dominic and Boyd, we got the malevolent stepfather and the
benevolent godfather. Like the usual evil stepfather, Dominic—
the cynical, extremely competent head of security and undercover
NSA operative—tried to destroy Echo on at least two
occasions, but he apologized to her later, explaining that he’d
only been trying to protect the Dollhouse by any means possible—
another example of committing too much to an initial
decision, and refusing to bend to take into account new information
and situations (namely Echo). When we met Dominic
again in the Attic, we found a new hero, a survivor, and a new
protector for Echo when she was cut off from her traditional
protector, Boyd.

Boyd was ill at ease with the way the Dollhouse was run,
and he was very protective of Echo. At first, Boyd seemed to
be the only man who took an interest in Echo purely in order
to help her to succeed on her own terms, but eventually we
learned that he had a purpose for her too. But as Dominic developed
into a misunderstood hero in season two, Boyd was shown
to have betrayed Echo’s (and the audience’s) trust: Caroline’s
memories revealed him to be the co-founder of Rossum, the one
who imprisoned Clyde in the Attic and Caroline in the Dollhouse.
There was a certain inevitability to this switch. Dominic’s
hatred of Echo came because he couldn’t define her, and
that was where Boyd’s love for her seemed to originate as well.
But once we realized that Boyd had tapped Caroline because
he had a better idea of what she was than anyone else did, and
how he acted as a father toward Echo because he was preparing
to use her, Dominic’s fear of the unknown began to come off as
charming and old-fashioned.

Boyd had the audacity to claim the group as his family after
they learned he had betrayed them. Despite everything he’d
done, he still couldn’t stop playing Daddy. By making Boyd the
Big Bad, Dollhouse suggests that the man you most trust, your
father figure, is the man who will try to bend and shape you to
his purpose, and you won’t notice because you love and trust
him. Boyd’s confidence and sense of entitlement was the most
dangerous of all, especially when it was shrouded in the system
of trust Topher put in place for all handlers. We, the viewers,
honestly felt that everything was going to be all right now that
Boyd was there—and he believed it too, even while he was harvesting
Echo’s spinal fluid.

The Ghost in the Machine: Victor

When Joss Whedon first began talking about Dollhouse, he
described it as the story of a woman who was robbed of her identity
and dehumanized. The use of the word “Doll” to describe
actives immediately charged the universe he created in terms
of gender. Even ignoring the fact that most of us think “female”
when we hear “doll,” we also think of inanimate objects without
genitalia, the playthings of childhood. The Doll state created
persons who were simultaneously sexless (because they were
objects, if only in rhetoric) and feminine (because of their passivity).
It left the victim open, seemingly naïve, halfway between
a Stepford Wife and an infant. In one word: complacent. In
another word: feminized, at least in the most conventional
terms. The Doll state, in making the individual complacent,
innocent, and vulnerable, removed the “masculine” decisiveness
and violence that marked other Whedonverse men.

The Doll state theoretically allowed both men and women
to be equally fluid in terms of gender and personality. But if this
was true, then why did the male Dolls seem to be more flexible
in terms of gender? When Echo had the remote wipe and ended
up with Terry in her head, she was able to literally separate from
him, talking about him in the third person. When identity is
fluid, gender should be, but instead, Echo was hyperaware of
her otherness in relation to Terry, whereas Victor was unapologetic
as Kiki, even though neither he nor Tony was anything
like Kiki physically or psychologically. Was this because Terry
was a real person, whereas Kiki was a created imprint? Or, as
the episode suggested, because of Echo’s unique brain chemistry,
her Supergirl status? When Whiskey was imprinted with
Clyde 2.0, she didn’t seem to experience any gender dissonance
either—but then, Clyde was aware that he was an imprint, separate
from the female body he inhabited. Like Echo, he knew
that he was interchangeable. Topher, we might assume from his comments on how imprints are created, built gender into his
imprints to make them more whole, more complete. Though the
skill sets were just skills, all the memories were still gendered.

Victor was the main male Doll we got to spend time with,
the Doll version of Anthony, a veteran of the Afghan War with
severe PT SD. As played by Enver Gjokaj, he was a man of many
voices and skills, but he wasn’t often called on for hostage negations
or bounty hunting. That work was left up to Echo and
Sierra, who were often seen struggling with men twice their
size, firing weapons, and doing Buffy-style detective work. Victor
sometimes appeared as an accessory imprint to Sierra: assistant
to her scientist, partner to her punchy detective. This is
not to say that Victor’s imprints never did these things, but we
rarely, if ever, got to see him do them. So even in his imprints,
Victor lacked the traditional markers of masculinity.

It could be argued that Victor’s love for and protectiveness
toward Sierra was a reflection of masculine rigidity. It remained
intact from wipe to wipe, the ghost in the machine that even
Topher couldn’t destroy. Victor took the black paint from the art
room because it made Sierra sad, and he patiently waited for her
when she got sent to Nolan for the last time. However, though
Victor was patient, he was not particularly decisive. In fact, he
needed urging from Echo to actually get rid of the paint.
Tony, similarly, was defined by his lack of decisiveness—the
indicator that he was psychologically damaged.

Tony became
Victor in the first place because he was freezing up when forced
to make decisions, due to his PTSD. In the Attic, he was literally
battling himself in a combat zone. Tony was not at peace with
his position as a soldier or as a Doll. (In many ways, they were
two sides of the same coin; combat training was compared to
programming long before we met Rossum’s elite military squad.)
Once he was freed from the Dollhouse, able to once again, and
permanently, make decisions for himself, they were polarizing
ones for his relationship with Priya, and eventually resulted in
him running his gang while Priya and their son stayed in Safe
Haven. It was an arrangement he believed to be the best choice,
despite Priya’s resistance and the risk of his son’s alienation, and
it took his tech gang’s own refusal to change at the risk of violence
to make him see his mistake and return to his family.

“If You Really Think You Have a Choice . . . ”

Here we have six men trapped by their masculinity in vastly
different ways, yet they all carried the characteristic of decisiveness
to the point of stupidity. Why? Why is masculinity such a
hard shell to get into and out of, particularly in a show that was
all about getting in and out of shells?

As Caroline explained in “Getting Closer” (2-11), once you
settle on one thing, you’ve excluded everything else. What
trapped the men of Dollhouse was their rigid polarity in a world
that was built on cognitive and behavioral fluidity. Look at
Adelle, whom we could assume was not a Doll, changing from
good guy to bad guy every other week. While Adelle could adapt
(albeit with the help of alcohol), the men of Dollhouse avoided
gray areas at all costs. Topher was a morally absent scientist or
a basket case, Alpha was a serial killer or a hero, Ballard was a
white knight or comatose, Victor was a self-hating soldier or a
complacent Doll, Dominic was trying to kill Echo or trying to
save the world. Unless you count the mind-wipe, Boyd didn’t
change at all, except in our eyes: from father figure to villain
who still thought he was a father. Each settled on one thing and
excluded everything else.

A lot of this obstinate character behavior stems from the
way that Susan/Echo explained the story of Briar Rose to little
Susan: “Briar Rose was trapped all that time, sleeping and
dreaming of getting out. The Prince was her dream. She made
him. She made him fight to get her out.” Since Dollhouse was
built to be a show about Echo, all the men were designed to
serve a purpose in their relationship to her. Every character on
Dollhouse was programmed, both on a narrative and meta-narrative
level. These men (and women) were all the products of
writers, after all. Though Whedon was presenting a sci-fi universe,
it was a universe based in contemporary realism and realworld
cognitive science, which includes the principles of innate
programming. In our world, men have an expectation of their
own competence, of power, and of independence, and Whedon’s
realistically built male characters found themselves in a
world where they were sure of none of those things.

If these men were pawns within the narrative, a role typically
reserved for the female characters (especially within the
sci-fi and fantasy genres), they weren’t men in the “traditional”
sense because they couldn’t actually make choices—they
couldn’t drive the narrative. They possessed a crippling rigidity
because they were written/programmed that way, in order
to support Echo’s journey—the primary journey of the show,
according to its creator. Within the universe of Dollhouse, the
men orbited around one very special Supergirl, rather than the
women supporting a Captain Kirk–style male lead. This is not
so uncommon a role reversal within television in general. Bones,
Veronica Mars, and 30 Rock all have casts that revolve around
their female leads. Before that there was Murphy Brown and The
Mary Tyler Moore Show
. Sci-fi, fantasy, and other so-called “genre
shows” have been the final holdouts. Xena and Buffy are notable
exceptions, but in general the genre shows tend to be the last
bastion of the figurative space cowboy. One of the most effective
parts of Whedon’s feminist critique of the genres he loves has
been to place these cowboys outside of their hegemonic comfort
zone, i.e., in worlds where the women are generally more
powerful and more important than the men, and the men have
to cope with that. It is yet another way that Whedon highlights
the strangeness of the world we live in and the worlds we tend
to create by taking us to a world we’ve never seen before. The
given circumstances change, but the programming doesn’t,
which helps highlight the faults in the code. As Topher told
Boyd in “Echo”:

Does that tie keep you warm? It’s just what grownup men do
in our culture. They put a piece of cloth around their neck so
they can assert their status and recognize each other as nonthreatening
kindred . . . You wear the tie because it never
occurred to you not to. Everybody’s programmed, Boyd.

And if we’re all programmed that way, nobody’s a man at all.

Enjoy This Essay?

More from Lillian DeRitter

Stay Updated

on our daily essay, giveaways, and other special deals

Our Books

On Our Blog

The Big Bang Theory: A Writer’s Panel at San Diego Comic-Con 2014

Coming just in time for the holidays, Smart Pop is working with George Beahm on an updated edition of Unraveling...

Posted August 14th

San Diego Comic-Con 2014 Recap + Giveaway

A couple weeks ago we headed to San Diego for our fourth year of exhibiting at Comic-Con. It was equal...

Posted August 5th | 13 Comments »

San Diego Comic-Con 2014

SDCCIt’s that time of year again, although...

Posted June 30th | 4 Comments »

Subscribe via RSS