Sierra being forcibly wiped
Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse
is a show about human trafficking and sexual slavery. Its themes are dressed in a science-fiction setting and the Dollhouse itself is beautified with its exclusive spa décor, but the show’s themes are as prominent as they are in the movie Taken
, however, contains the intriguing element of consensual slavery, which is what the Dollhouse’s management assures people is their business. In spite of this dubious claim, the Dollhouse has in practice obtained their Actives through coercion and it remains an enterprise of evil.
“There’s only one reason someone would volunteer to be a slave is if they is one already. Volunteer. You must be out of your [expletive] mind.” –Interviewed black woman, episode “Man on the Street”
Before it can be known what the morality of the Dollhouse is, it first must be examined what the Dollhouse is allegedly offering. Consensual slavery appears at first to be an oxymoronic phrase, entirely incompatible with our view of the world. By its very nature, slavery is an involuntary practice, right?
Well… hypothetically speaking, if someone gives their consent to enter into an arrangement where they will be held as a slave for an agreed-upon period of time then the decision to enter into slavery is consensual. It is only during the period of slavery that the individual would be without rights. Even without getting into the Dollhouse’s unique twist, this model is fraught with problems. For one, should they after entering the arrangement decide that they don’t want it after all – too bad. They’re frakked.
Why would someone agree to be a slave? There are various reasons I can think of. Some people are submissive, just biologically wired that way. It is not outside the realm of possibility to think that some such people would want to donate their lives to others through an organization like the Dollhouse. The BDSM subject is even touched on in the episode “A Spy in the House of Love” when Echo is imprinted with a dominatrix persona.
“If you could have somebody be the perfect person, the moment you wish for that you know you’re never going to get, and someone signed on to do that, to help you… I think that could be okay. I think that could be maybe beautiful.” –Interviewed blonde woman, episode “Man on the Street”
Another, less “beautiful” reason someone might sign on to be a slave is that they’re backed into a corner. For individuals who badly need money, the slavery situation may be their best bet for survival in the world. Like indentured servitude, the arrangement is based on the employer fulfilling some need of the servant in exchange for a period of service. However, because there is the issue of money or whatever the employer may offer, the slavery situation stops being 100% consensual and starts being coerced. You can say the person enters into the arrangement under their own free will, but if they’re caught between a rock and a hard place it’s not really their full choice to end up at either destination.
However, the slaves can be acquired through 100% nonconsensual methods. People can be forced into slavery, through trickery or pure brute force. Human trafficking is a very real thing.
The Dollhouse claims to be altruistic, giving clients the perfect experience. They claim that people enter into arrangements to be Actives out of their own free will. As far as we’ve seen, though, there no Actives who are just good-hearted submissive types. What we have seen is a good number of the indentured servant variety. In the case of Sierra, she was taken entirely by force after a rich misogynist decided that if she wouldn’t sleep with him willingly he’d arrange it to have her turned into a sex slave.
What is the Dollhouse? Whatever they say, it truly is a wicked organization dealing in human trafficking. It forces its Actives into prostitution on a regular basis, constantly subjecting them to rape and other abuses. Just so it’s clear, rape is defined as sexual activity for which explicit consent is not given.
The issues of giving such consent are complicated by the science-fiction nature of the Dollhouse’s practices. Immediately after joining the Dollhouse, the Actives have their memories wiped and they enter the “tabula rasa” state of childlike innocence. Dollhouse employees subsequently imprint them with other personas and send them out on engagements with clients.
These personas are often programmed to be perfect dates for the clients. During these dates, the imprints give consent to sexual activity. Because of the unusual mind distortion element, however, it probably cannot be called full consent. The Dollhouse programs them to give consent, so it is not truly the Actives themselves who have bodily autonomy. It is a situation analogous to a person suffering the effects of a date-rape drug where they are not in true command of their mind.
Here’s where it gets complicated. The imprints are really people in their own right. They’re not just zombies that sound like people with Chinese room programs of simulated intelligence. They have a lifetime’s worth of memories, everything that makes a person who they are copied from a mix-match of other individuals, placed in the imprint to create the person considered best for the engagement.
These people have rights too; however, they are entirely disrespected. As far as Dollhouse management is concerned, imprints are just clothes taken on and off their dolls. Boyd Langton is the only one who seems to care at all and even then his feelings really just stem from his affection of Echo. As with the concepts explored in the movie Total Recall
, there exists the possibility of an imprinted persona not wanting what the original persona had in mind and deciding that the original has no right to dictate their current life. As things are now, I’m sure no one would respect that.
After each engagement is completed, the Active is then wiped of their imprint and returned to the tabula rasa state. That’s an entire person being stripped away from life simply because it isn’t profitable enough for the Dollhouse to keep them there. Unless the imprinted personas give explicit, non-programmed, non-coerced consent for this to happen, it’s murder. If they take another scan of the persona before they wipe and use the imprint again at some point, it’s slightly less of a crime – more analogous to putting them in a coma – but it is still a major violation of their rights as people.
In conclusion, the Dollhouse is an organization that does some seriously twisted things, whatever they say about altruism. Though there may be some Actives that can truly be said to have consented to becoming slaves, who were not coerced and knew well what they were getting into, that is definitely not the standard. Dollhouse
’s characters are supposed to be morally ambiguous, and they are, but there is a lot of evil in the Dollhouse.