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Consent isn’t that Complicated: Dollhouse, Slavery, and the Sex Trade} ?>
Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse (or as my sister calls it, “That Porn Show”) never got the commercial success I think it deserved. Arguably much darker than Whedon’s previous fare, the ethical grey areas of the show prevented it from the more casual tones of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly—shows that allowed for a comic flair that would diminish Dollhouse’s themes—in order for it to explore topics like slavery and sexual consent.
Following a group of people who have new personalities programmed into them to satisfy the needs of rich clients, the freedom of the “dolls” to consent seems complicated at first. They have given up the use of their bodies, supposedly willingly, for an allotted time. In the main character’s case, she agrees to the terms under duress. And it’s revealed later that one of the other dolls, Sierra, was put there against her will—an elaborate trap by a rejected suitor who was intent on “owning” her. Because their purpose is fantasy-fulfillment, all of the dolls are extremely attractive. As they are often programmed for sexual contracts, they are essentially sex trade workers, slaves unable to leave or even access their original personalities. However, clients’ consciences are pacified by the Dollhouse assuring them everything is consensual, with the original owner’s persona erased from that body and exchanged for whatever the client wants.
According to Canadian laws, it is generally accepted that consent cannot be given by someone who is impaired or sleeping:
“It’s a strong and clear judgment that consent requires a conscious operating mind and that you can’t either actively consent or revoke your consent in the absence of that,” says Melanie Randall, professor of law at the University of Western Ontario, to CBC. “So, it’s impossible to consent in advance to sexual contact when you’re unconscious.”
Even though the dolls are awake, they are not themselves; they’ve been programmed with a new personality and memories. It’s like they are sleepwalking, and sexual conduct on someone who is unconscious is rape.
There are feminist practices of sex work that heavily rely on consent, which is how Inara Serra, another Whedon character, operates her business. She decides which clients she takes, what activities they partake in, and when and where things start and end. In a study funded by the Canadian Institute of Health Research, 81% of Canadian sex workers and 83% of clients said that the sex workers set the terms of the transaction. 70% of the sex workers even reported job satisfaction, though this doesn’t diminish the issue of human and child trafficking in Canada, which is a larger problem than many realize.
Much like trafficked victims, the dolls don’t have a choice. They are made to order, whether for sex, midwifery, hostage negotiation, or other directives (but mostly for the sex). So if they are sex slaves, and Whedon knows how to write a feminist, self-determining sex worker, what is Whedon saying about sex work?
Of the Dollhouse’s staff, it is only Doctor Saunders and Echo’s handler, Boyd Langton, who seem to have reservations about the ethics of what the organization is doing. Though neither of these characters are what they seem, Doctor Saunders is disfigured, disapproving of the Dollhouse but continuing to work for them, seemingly because she is so depressed that she cannot be bothered to leave. And Langton, a black character and new staff member, seems to turn a blind eye because he cares about Echo and wants to ensure her safety. At the beginning of the show, both of these characters are less privileged than the other staff.
The people with authority are Adele Dewitt, the Dollhouse manager and a high-class British woman; Topher Brink, the precocious scientific genius who finds pleasure in the power of technology with little concern for the dolls’ safety; and Laurence Dominic, the head of security who views the dolls more as robots than humans.
It is British and male privilege that is conceptually invested in the running of the brothel, and the racial, sexual, and disfigured lack of privilege that allow the business to continue despite reservations. In the first season, before the complicated plot twists of the second season, the show seems to say that while it is people with power that organize sex trafficking, people with less privilege allow the trafficking to continue.
The redemption arc of Adele and Topher in the second season allows for some hope and capacity to change. However, it is only when the mind-wiping technology is weaponized, creating an apocalyptic disaster, that they are confronted with their complicity in the destruction of the Western world.
I may not be complicit in sexual trafficking, but as a Canadian person, I am complicit in the continued colonization of indigenous people in this country, their continued dehumanization through lack of access to water, over-incarceration, and the violence against women and children. I am complicit in the exploitation of overseas workers who make most of the clothes I wear. As a person of mixed privilege and lack of privilege, I am complicit in the silence that enables and encourages violence in the Church and across the world. My voice is needed to combat these injustices.
Even if I feel like I’m not making a difference, if even one person hears me, I can be part of the change I want to see. I want to be more like Echo, who refuses to stand by and let unfairness happen. And I want to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves.
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