Last night I decided that I would rewatch Dollhouse. The first time I went through the series I whizzed through it, so my memory of some episodes is hazy. I know I loved it, so I want to recapture the feelings I had the first time around. Watching the first episode, I was struck immediately by why I was so drawn to the character of Echo in the first place, and why the setting of the Dollhouse always makes me feel transported from my own life. (note: there will be spoilers here)
At the end of episode one, Alpha is sitting in a house watching a yearbook video of Caroline before she becomes Echo. In the video she says that she “just wants to do everything”. There’s an interesting juxtaposition between her youthful joy at the possibilities of life and the shots of her as a doll after a day of doing things no one else could imagine, empty and numb. I suspect that this is supposed to be creepy and unsettling for viewers, but I have to be honest: to me it is simply appealing.
Because that’s the secret of the Dollhouse: even though you are no one, you get to do everything. You get to be everyone. You get to have every dream you could imagine. Even better, you get to be perfect at all of them. You are created to be ideal and if you aren’t ideal, it isn’t your fault. All responsibility for your failures is lifted from you.
Of course this comes at a cost: the loss of your own self. For many, that’s the terror of the Dollhouse, the dystopian element. But there is another way to see this. Echo’s mind is quiet. At no point do her thoughts roil and catch, never is she troubled by things left undone, but she is not stupid: many times she is smarter than anyone else in the Dollhouse. She has adventure in her life, amazing adventures, overwhelming adventures, but she is never left with the aftermath. Is peace too high a cost for the loss of self?
Something about these two elements of Dollhouse speak to what I see as the collective consciousness of Millenials: an intense drive for perfection, accomplishment, and activity, coupled with an expectation of constantly being “on”. Nearly everyone I know who’s my age has intensely high expectations of themselves: they want to do something that no one else can do. They desperately want to be needed. And many of them have passions ranging across the board, from theater to science to crocheting and they want to be the BEST at each of these things.
Of course this is impossible. Unless you’re a doll. Unless you can be someone else each day. Unless you can emerge two years later and know that you accomplished impossible things, even if it wasn’t you. Something about this power is intensely appealing.
The flip side of this is that Millenials know the cost of perfection: hours of anxiety, work, self-hatred, low self-esteem. You constantly beat up on yourself in an attempt to be better. Harsh self-criticism. Our brains do not leave us alone. They do not shut up. They have been filled with the message to “be all you can be” and if you spend any second of your life not doing that, you’re not living up to expectations. Imagine how quiet it would be to save the world and come home to an empty head, to trust those around you to take care of you, to have no questions and worries about how you performed or what you should be doing tomorrow. Imagine the zen of simply being without a single thought.
Imagine the beauty of a world where you can accomplish all of that without the cost.
Many main characters in movies are considered idealized versions of what people wish they could have, superheroes in particular. We see people who are strong, who are intelligent, who have lots of money-these are the things we want. Echo is the superhero of this generation: she can become anything and do everything, but has peace at night.
At first glance, the world of the Dollhouse looks egregious. But the draw of it is that many elements of it are exactly what we want. The realization of this ambiguity of the Dollhouse is what I love about the show, but also says something about the struggles that we face at this moment in time. This kind of hero is very different from the muscle man or the detective of the past, and illustrates what kind of strength we feel we need right now.
Art reflects life. What can we learn of life from this reflection?