Dollhouse Riffs: Special Edition: Victor’s Chin and Sierra’s Cheekbones: Dollhouse and the Reinvention of Beauty on TV

Author’s Note: I wrote this for the Smart Pop Books essay contest featuring Joss Whedon’s beloved-but-canceled TV series Dollhouse.  Since they did not choose my essay, I am posting it here on my blog.

Introduction


“A mask is but a sum of lines; a face, on the contrary, is above all their thematic harmony.” – “Garbo’s Face,” Mythologies by Roland Barthes


Dollhouse is revolutionary television in its depiction of beauty.  The beauty presented on the program encompasses the social, economic, and visual.  We get the exotic beauty of Sierra and Victor, Bennett Halverson’s nerdy beauty, the damaged Dr. Saunders, Alpha’s nice guy good looks, and Mellie as the archetypal Girl Next Door.  In the end, Beauty is a subjective, exclusivist concept.  Like money, one possesses beauty or not.  There’s a reason Donald Trump can date models.  He represents the moneyed clientele serviced by the Dollhouses.

This essay will explore how Dollhouse pushed and played with the concepts of beauty.  Society’s interpretation of a specific personality type and capital will also come into play, since beauty is a challenging concept to quantify, let alone define.  The thrust of the essay will be aesthetic, since aesthetics is primarily concerned with beauty, but ethical, political, and economic considerations will provide additional nuances to an idea one can misinterpret as a purely visual judgment call.

Why do we consider these people beautiful?  In the end, it will be a variety of factors beyond the nebulous cluster of personal opinions we call “good taste.”

Victor, Sierra and “the exotic”


“He will have to surrender before the orgy of tolerance, the total syncretism and the absolute and unstoppable polytheism of Beauty.” – On Beauty, Umberto Eco


Picture two things: Victor’s chin and Sierra’s cheekbones.  Victor has a chin that juts out from his face, the line from his nose to his chin forming a hook.  The Albanian-American Enver Gjokaj plays Victor, slipping in and out of personalities as divergent as a serial killer, a college girl, and Topher with chameleonic ease.  Sierra has high cheekbones and a large mouth.  Dichen Lachman plays Sierra.  Lachman’s father is Australian and her mother is of Nepalese descent.[1]

Sierra and Victor represent opposite poles of the Eurasian, especially if one considers Europe a glorified peninsula of Asia.  In interviews, Enver takes pride in his Albanian heritage.  Until recently, those of Central European descent have dominated the visual landscape.[2]

In the 1950s, television programs included ethnic fare that fit into nice little niches, like The Goldbergs, Marty, and in the Seventies The Jeffersons.  Everyone fit into their little box, whether on the TV screen or on the US Census form.  Dollhouse is not necessarily post-racial, but multiracial.  With a biracial President and the stigma of interracial relationships joining the growing trash heap of outdated evil ideas, the faces of Victor and Sierra point towards a beautiful horizon that will make a mess of preconceived categories like race and ethnicity.  The South Park episode “Goo Backs” satirized the concept of a society comprised of a people who combined all races.

Before going any further, it would be prudent to unpack the term “exotic.”  It is a loaded term, like “civilization” and “culture.”  Exotic has the prefix exo- that means outside, different, and “not us.” What standard should we use to measure exoticism?  The Dollhouse viewership, TV viewership at large, Corporate America’s conception of the (stereo)typical consumer?  For the purposes of this essay, the presumption will be that Dollhouse is written for a predominantly white middle-class, albeit geeky, demographic.[3]

The casting of Victor and Sierra represents Whedon’s evolution in worldbuilding.  In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy appeared as the stereotypical blonde-haired suburban white girl.  It was a very white show.[4] In Angel, the addition of Gunn was a welcome improvement, albeit as a racial token figure.[5] Firefly (and Serenity) saw a watershed in its depiction of ethnicities.  The program had white characters of all classes speaking fluent Chinese.  The mash-up of Chinese and Western (read United States and British) cultures provided opportunities to challenge the expectations of the viewers.  Dollhouse takes things a step further by casting Victor and Sierra not as racial tokens, but as members of an organic whole.  (The viewer does see other white people as dolls, but they have not received the same level of emotional investment or a long-term story arcs.)  This is in opposition to the “Five Token Band” trope[6] where “The general impression left by this practice is that what the characters are is noticeably more important than what they do.”

Another connotation of the exotic is that which one sees on the skin or in the face.  This superficial reading relates to the concept’s exteriority.  Victor and Sierra are more than their skin tones and faces.  On further investigation, all the main characters have a multiethnic heritage.  Eliza Dushku (Echo) is half-Albanian; Harry Lennix (Boyd) is Creole; Tahmoh Penikett (Paul Ballard) is half Native American, specifically half English Canadian and was from the Yukon.

Besides their beautiful appearance, Victor and Sierra’s romantic relationship is also a thing of beauty.  The relationship transcended their imprints and continued to bloom with their “real” personalities.  If the relationship crystallizes into something multigenerational, their offspring will represent the future face of the United States – multinational and multiracial.

Bennett Halverson and Nerd Beauty

“It’s time for the odd to get even!” – Tagline for Revenge of the Nerds (1984)

Beauty is a social construct.  Like Art, it only exists when society deems it so.  Bennett Halverson is unaware of her beauty until she meets fellow wunderkind Topher Brink.  Granted, Whedon alum Summer Glau plays Bennett.  Regardless of how thick her glasses are or her social awkwardness, it remains a challenge to make Summer Glau unattractive.

Bennett and her male counterpart, Topher, embody Nerd Beauty.[7] An amalgamation of intelligence, appearance, and social mores, Nerd Beauty contrasts the supermodel looks of Sierra and Mellie’s Girl Next Door.  The Nerd remains one of the stock roles in the high school caste system.  The object of ridicule and previously embodied by TV icons like Urkel and Screech, the Nerd represented everything antithetical with the American Experience.  Guys want to be like the football players, not the nerds.  Girls want to be cheerleaders, not bookish and mousy.

Saved by the Bell and Family Matters drove the matter home.  Their depictions of the Nerd approached blackface in its comedic exaggeration.  While that parallel is broad and a bit crass (it seems shameless to equate 400 years of African-American oppression to people with pocket protectors getting swirlies and wedgies), one should remember the proud American tradition of ridiculing, tormenting, and oppressing the Other.

The rise of Geek Culture, Bill Gates, and the Internet provided a tectonic shift in Nerd Representation.  The nerds were now driving Ferraris in Silicon Valley while the jocks that tormented them remained trapped in their small towns selling insurance.  Subcultural solidarity and sci fi conventions also helped.  Like minds created a unified demand.  When network executives realized a section of the viewing population found geeky girls and geeky guys hot, it was only a matter of time before network representation shifted the standards of appearance.

Dr. Saunders: Scarification and disgust


“Children show scars like medals. Lovers use them as secrets to reveal. A scar is what happens when the word is made flesh.” – “The Favorite Game,” Leonard Cohen

Played by Amy Acker, Dr. Claire Saunders exhibits the dangerous consequences of beauty.  According to Adelle, Dr. Saunders, aka Whiskey, used to be the Number One Doll of the Los Angeles Dollhouse.  Left scarred following Alpha’s attack on the Dollhouse, Dewitt relegated her to the house doctor, uploading her with the imprint of the murdered Dr. Saunders.

On the surface, the retasking of Whiskey as Dr. Saunders seems like a downgraded or at least removing the damaged goods from the high-paying clientele.  Dollhouse has been consistent in showing the deceptions of reality as appearance and essence become unhinged.  The scarred Whiskey would probably not attract the same clientele since she represents damaged goods. Considered as attractive commodities, the dolls offer Beauty and Reality in one nice expensive package.  It is not some prostitute feigning love but an actual person in actual love with you, the client.

The superficial reading sees Adelle imprinting Whiskey with another imprint, thus preserving her use-value even as her facial scarring diminishes her exchange-value.  The Los Angeles Dollhouse and the Rossum Corporation function as businesses, thus a doll’s exchange-value is important to keep the capital rolling in.  Hence, no one would want a doll with the physique of Paul Giamatti or Camryn Manheim.  Aesthetic decisions reinforced with vast swaths of capital end in personally merciless decisions.  In the end, we’re simply not attractive enough to work in the Los Angeles Dollhouse.

Peel back another layer and we reveal Adelle’s matriarchal pride in her dolls, like a lioness with her cubs.  She has no tolerance for the freaks and sickos who request or demand their needs satiated.  Whether it is an arms dealer like Martin Klar, would-be serial killer Terry Karrens, and manipulative psychopath Nolan, Adelle has to keep her dolls safe and undamaged.

Los Angeles is where the pretty people come to work in the Dream Factory, entertaining millions on television or the movies.  At least that is what is promised.  It attracted Cordelia Chase.  The Los Angeles Dollhouse provides a metacommentary on this Dream Factory, giving those who want the dream a temporary and expensive taste.  With the high demand comes the high cost.  The costs include attractiveness and the discipline involved in keeping the Dollhouse’s commodities in optimal condition for exchange.  However, the demand for Beauty is a random thing.  Who knows what pop star will become the next Flavor of the Month?  Entertainment companies spend millions attempting to gauge the thought processes of the public.  In the end, the public’s decisions remain arbitrary.  A key area of arbitrary standards is the face.  One commonality in the public’s decisions is to desire an undamaged face.

Beauty and the Beast Next Door: Alpha and Mellie

“No more Mr. Nice Guy.” – Alice Cooper

Beyond the exotic and the damaged Beauties on Dollhouse, the program also cast a couple of individuals who do not fit the normal television standard for glamour.  Miracle Laurie plays Mellie, Paul Ballard’s one-time love interest.  Alan Tudyk plays Alpha, the bête noir of the series.

Casting Tudyk as Alpha was a brilliant coup.  Prior to work on Dollhouse, Tudyk worked as Wash on Firefly.  Seeing someone viewers recognized as a nice guy playing a psychopath with multiple personalities threw people for a loop.  Wash and Alpha represent diametrically opposed poles in terms of morality.  Alpha also does not look like a serial killer.  (Neither does Michael C. Hall as the eponymous Dexter.)

Alpha’s actions constantly play havoc with our preconceptions.  Alan Tudyk’s face reads, “Hey, this is a nice guy.”  Then he says something quasi-Nietzschean and slashes a face with a knife.  The scenario becomes more chilling when the psychopath looks like your next-door neighbor.

When Alpha led Paul down into the bowels of the Dollhouse, he acted like a nebbish, talkative and weak-kneed.  It plays like a mash-up of Vergil leading Dante into the Inferno and Abbot and Costello, with Paul Ballard as the humorless straight man.  The situation is complicated when Alpha reveals he houses dozens of personalities within his head.  His nice guy good looks mask a mind on the constant verge of collapse.

To FBI agent Paul Ballard, Mellie is literally the Girl Next Door.  She appears sensual rather than glamorous, exuding warmth rather than a beauty built upon exclusion and coldness.  In the absurd world of TV standards, Mellie can be considered “TV fat.”[8] However, one should take this appellation with a massive grain of salt.  Remember, we live in a world where the media describes Jennifer Love Hewitt as “voluptuous.”[9] Saffron (Christina Hendricks) from Firefly represents a truer example of the voluptuous female, with the character combining deception with a fleshly sensuality.

Just because Mellie has some body fat on her upper arms, therefore she exists outside the microcosm of the Supermodel.  The Supermodel, like the Supercar, is a commodity both exclusive and ridiculous.[10]

When Paul finds she was a doll, the Girl Next Door image shatters.  The destruction of the illusion has many aspects.  In the first place, the trigger initiated by Adelle robs Mellie of her free will.  She can be switched on and off at the discretion of someone else.[11] Her Dollhouse programming usurps her social programming.  The second aspect destroys Mellie’s benevolent image as a caring mother.  The programming turns from Madonna to Whore, since Paul is well aware of what the Dollhouse provides to its clients.  When Mellie warns Paul, she does so as a remotely controlled body, not as a self-controlled individual.  Mellie’s tragedy reaches its climax when Senator Perrin, himself augmented by Dollhouse technology, exposes Mellie as someone mentally instable and denies the existence of the Dollhouse.

Mellie’s Girl Next Door voluptuousness sharply contrasts Adelle Dewitt’s austere ice queen persona.  Adelle’s beauty originates in her power.  The icy woman in power is a very old trope, since beauty relates to its availability.  Dewitt is unapproachable and inaccessible.  Her seduction of Stewart Lipman, head of the DC Dollhouse, began as a stereotypical powerful-woman-using-her-sex-appeal shtick.  Like a chess master, Dewitt turns on a dime, switching from seduction to threats, clenching Lipman’s family jewels.  The Dewitt squeeze differs from Mellie’s “switch”, when Dewitt’s “three flowers in a vase” phrase turns her into a finely tuned killing machine.

The genius of Dollhouse is in its deft manipulation of age-old tropes, turning the Girl Next Door into an expert fighter.  It creates a story arc where an ice queen like Adelle Dewitt becomes an empathetic lioness fighting for her charges against the fascist excesses of Rossum.

Conclusion: Beauty, capital, and television


“Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.” – SCUM Manifesto, Valerie Solanas


In its deft casting choices and finely crafted storylines, Dollhouse comments on the promiscuous intermingling of beauty, capital, and television.  We all enjoy seeing prettier versions of ourselves on TV programs.  The moral muddiness of Dollhouse makes these desires uncomfortable.  It forces the viewers to question these desires.  The Dollhouse facility offers its high-paying clients services ranging from prostitution to assassination, making it as dangerous as any CIA station embedded in a United States embassy.  (The fact that numerous other nations embed intelligence personnel in their embassies for the same purpose of committing illegal acts does not really salve the conscience.)

For Dewitt and Harding, the Rossum CEO, beauty is a freely traded commodity.  People will pay large sums for the dolls.  By extension, the TV executives and audience did the same thing, since we demand to see these pretty faces week after week.

Victor and Sierra represent a positive trend in casting.  Instead of the casts’ whiteness in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, the non-white and non-European faces exist not as tokens, but as fully formed characters in plots where it makes sense.  The majority of the show takes place in Los Angeles, itself part of the Spanish and Mexican nations for several hundred years.  Slowly TV is revealing itself as a non-white medium beyond the racial and ethnic broadcasting ghettos of the WB and Telemundo.

Dollhouse works its best when it takes a common character trope – the Nerd, the Girl Next Door, the Psycho Killer, etc. – and takes it to a new strange place.  While Beauty is a challenging concept to quantify, let alone define, Dollhouse engages the viewer by both meeting and confronting expectations.  On a narrative level, it explored the issues of self, ethics, and corporate intrusion into the government.  On a purely aesthetic level, the show populated the TV screen with beautiful faces and beautiful bodies.  The show became more than the usual “pretty faces with problems” (Joss Whedon is not Aaron Spelling) in its magisterial handling of both narrative and aesthetics.  TV is a visual medium and Dollhouse revolutionizes the small screen in its casting, creating a future-present filled with gorgeous nerdy girls, exotic men and women with coherent, long-term story arcs, and showing us a future where “race, taste, and history are overcome.”[12]


[1] Liza Lapira plays Ivy, Topher’s assistant, is of Filipino descent and was born in Queens, New York.  Fran Kranz (Topher) was born in Los Angeles.

[2] It is worth noting that studio executives pushed for someone like Robert Redford to play the part of Michael Corleone in the Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972).  In the 1970s, people did not look like Al Pacino or Robert DeNiro in popular cinema.  Casting Enver Gjokaj as Victor represents another small shift in the public’s perceptions of what the European male looks like.  Ironically, Victor’s “real” personality is named Anthony Ceccoli, an Italian American from New York City.  One should also stop to ask why the term “ethnic” gets attached to those members of population groups not Central European?  The answer may have to do with the combination of history and habit.  Our short attention span and cultural naiveté do not help things either.

[3] Dollhouse is more than its target demographic.  TV demographics should not be confused with a show’s artistic merit, since popularity is handcuffed to market demand.  Ratings mean increased market revenue, hence the gradual whittling away of show time for advertising time.  Half hour sitcoms now become twenty minutes, hour-long shows now last forty minutes.  Technology and alternate distributors (DVR, Hulu, etc.) force viewers and advertisers into an adversarial relationship, since twenty minutes is a serious chunk of time to waste, regardless of a show’s inherent worth.  It would try the patience of a saint.

[4] The term “white” is another loaded term.  For the sake of simplicity, the term “white” means European.  However, one should remember that various ethnic groups abandoned their ethnic tags and opted for the general “white” during the Fifties and Sixties.  The struggles of African Americans to regain their rights, following the devastation of the Post-Reconstruction South, led many Americans of various European backgrounds to seek solidarity in the term “white.”  Outlier groups like the Italians, Eastern Europeans, and Jews still had a difficult time getting accepted into the exclusive club we call “white people.”
For those interested in the genesis of “whiteness” as a community identifier, a good place to start is the book Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Become White: The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs (Basic Books, 2005) by David R. Roediger.  An alternative perspective of “whiteness” is explored in Blood in the Face: The Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, Nazi Skinheads, and the Rise of a New White Culture (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1995) by James Ridgeway.  The history of the United States becomes a contentious, schizophrenic, and nativist amalgamation of mythology, cultural amnesia, and hollow catch-phrases due to each cohort of immigrants claiming to be “the original” or “the real” Americans.  As the late Robert Anton Wilson asserted “‘Reality’ is what you get away with.”

[5] South Park exposes the condescending paternalism of the concept by naming the African American classmate Token.

[6] http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/FiveTokenBand

[7] Willow Rosenberg from Buffy the Vampire Slayer was an early example of the Nerd Beauty.  One can contrast Willow’s intelligence (and computer-savvy) with Buffy’s superpowers.  Along with Bennett, Nerdiness comes from the combination of smarts and looks.  Intelligent girls intimidate some guys while some find it a turn-on.  The popularity of Whedon’s shows proves a lot of guys find the latter favorable.  Victor: “Librarian glasses on the chain.”  Topher: “For the win!”

[8] “TV Fat” (see the website TV Tropes — http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/HollywoodPudgy — for a comprehensive list and definition of the term.)  On the definition page, the author states, “If you took the Hollywood Pudgy character out of her movie and plunked her down among a representative sample of real women, she’d be positively svelte.  … [M]any men find women more attractive, not less attractive, at this weight. Not so the tabloids and fashion magazines, in which one can readily find complaints that these women have put on too much weight.”

[9] “Love Hewitt’s voluptuous hour-glass figure provides the perfect vehicle for Joseph Porro’s creative genius as the costume designer on Ghost Whisperer.” From Wikifashion entry on Jennifer Love Hewitt(http://www.wikifashion.com/wiki/Jennifer_Love_Hewitt).

[10] Stephen Bayley, a design consultant, gives this description of the 1971 Lamborghini Countach as supercar: “‘Countach’ is Piedmontese voce de gergo, the gasp of astonishment made, for example, on sight of an exceptionally attractive woman.  …  Just as this period [the late Sixties and early Seventies] saw the invention and separation of powerful and charismatic supergroups from the swill of ordinary pop, so the supercar became a type when the mass market had been satisfied by waves of ingenious small front-wheel-drives.  …  Supercars might be ridiculous … but they are never boring” Cars: Freedom, Style, Sex, Power, Motion, Colour, Everything (New York: Octopus Books, p. 326).

[11] In Serenity, Simon Tam uses a trigger word to stop River from her asskicketry.

[12] Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Part Two: Perestroika, Tony Kushner (New York: Theatre Communications Group, Inc., 1994).  From the description of Heaven by Belize to Roy Cohn.  Belize, in his description of Heaven, also says “And everyone in Balenciaga gowns with red corsages, and big dance palaces full of music and lights and racial impurity and gender confusion.  …  And all the deities are creole, mulatto, brown as the mouths of rivers.”

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One thought on “Dollhouse Riffs: Special Edition: Victor’s Chin and Sierra’s Cheekbones: Dollhouse and the Reinvention of Beauty on TV

  1. Pingback: Quick scan of the net – buffy the vampire slayer « They stopped gently with the writ

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