Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Dollhouse, "Stage Fright"

25 March 2009

I recently watched the "Stage Fright" episode (1:3, 27 February 2009) of Joss Whedon's short lived television show Dollhouse (Fox, 2009-2010) about men and women who have sold their bodies, their minds, and perhaps even their souls to a corporation who uses them, or so it seems, to serve the needs of their rich elite clientele. At first glance, a rather cursory glance, “Stage Fright” appears to be a stand alone episode focusing on a pop singer (Rayna) and an obsessed fan. But is that all it is?

I "force" students in my TV history class to read Douglas Kellner's essay “Buffy The Vampire Slayer as Spectacular Allegory: A Diagnostic Critique”. In that essay Kellner argues that Buffy must be analysed on three different levels--the realist, mythological, and allegorical. Can Dollhouse be analysed similarly?

I think it can. On the realist level “Stage Fright” is a tale of a pop singer and an obsessed fan, an obsessed fan who may want to kill Rayna (Jaime Lee Kirchner). On the allegorical or metaphorical level “Stage Fright” explores territory Whedon and Company took on earlier in season six and season seven of “Buffy”, the obsessed fan/object of desire as metaphor for fan obsession with Buffy specifically, and fan fanaticism in general. It is on the allegorical and metaphorical level that the Hitchcockian aspects of Dollhouse particularly come in to play. Here we the viewers, we voyeurs, are implicated in the dreams and fantasies and wishes Rayna and Echo represent just as Hitchcock turned viewers into voyeurs in Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958).

It is in these dreams and fantasies that the mythological or narrative level of Dollhouse becomes apparent. In typical Whedon and Company fashion “Stage Fright” is a commentary not only on Rayna's entrapment but also on the entrapment of the characters in the dollhouse especially the central character of "Echo" (Eliza Dusku, compare Echo to the “Inca Mummy Girl” episode 2:4, 1997, of Buffy). The pop singer Rayna is trapped in a box which is not of her making. She had once worked for "the Mouse". She is, in other words, as much a doll as Echo is. And like Echo she is a doll on which certain societal and cultural images have been implanted and in whom society plays out its own dreams, fantasies, and wishes, vicariously, voyeuristically.

Dollhouse is thus contrary to fan critics who find it different from the Whedon television programmes that preceeded it very Whedonesque. It may not have as much of the wit and pop cult references of Buffy but then it is not a bildungsroman about high schoolers growing up. It is much more of an adult conspiratorial noir (Dollhouse is more like Angel than Buffy) that offers a critique of consumer society and gender relations in contemporary American society and culture. And while it may not have the astounding episodes of Buffy--what television show does?--at least yet, “Man in the Street” excepted (e.g., “Prophecy Girl”, “Halloween”, “Surprise/Innocence”, “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”, “Passion”, “I Only Have Eyes for You”, “Becoming”, “Band Candy”, “The Wish”, “Doppelgangland”, “Graduation Day”, “Something Blue”, “Hush”, “Fool for Love”, “The Body”, “The Gift”, “Once More With Feeling”) it is both cerebral and entertaining, both hallmarks of the work of Joss Whedon and Company.

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