The Appeal of the Dollhouse

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?

How Do We Talk About Eating Disorders?

I’m currently working on a post for Teen Skepchick¬†about eating disorders in a cross cultural perspective. At the moment, I’m just in the research stage of this post, so I’m reading a lot about the research that’s been done about cross cultural eating disorders and about the differences in symptoms, causes, and etiology of eating disorders in different cultures.

And I have to say that I am deeply upset by the way we talk about eating disorders. I am particularly upset because I’ve been reading academic articles, pieces by graduate students studying psychology, and other articles that are surveys of the literature on eating disorders. These should be held to the best standards we have. Unfortunately, no matter where I look (except for in very particular blogs written by people with eating disorders, particularly Science of Eating Disorders), I hear the same things over and over and over again:

“When we expose our girls to thin models and beauty ideals they develop eating disorders”

“Girls of African American descent aren’t likely to get an eating disorder because their culture values voluptuous bodies”

“Eating disorders only crop up in other countries as they become infiltrated by Western beauty ideals”

I am SO sick of the conversation around eating disorders being dominated by conversations about models and images of women in the media and the desire to be thinner. It cannot be that difficult for people to understand this, but I’ll say it again: an eating disorder is a mental illness. It is not a diet. It is not even an extreme diet. It is not a desire to lose weight. It is a coping mechanism to deal with difficult things in your life that you can’t cope with otherwise.

There is VERY little evidence that eating disorders are caused by skinny models. What there IS evidence of is that eating disorders are caused by low self-esteem, family disruption, trauma, other mental illnesses (depression, anxiety, OCD, BPD, bipolar, and addiction are common), abuse, or other difficult situations that you need a way out of. It is such a cliche by now that eating disorders aren’t about food, but I cannot stress it enough: eating disorders aren’t about food! They aren’t about looking pretty or beautiful. I have YET to meet someone with an eating disorder who says they just want to be pretty. I hear them say that they’re depressed, that they can’t cope, that they’re lonely, that they don’t feel acceptable when they’ve eaten, that they feel out of control around food, or that they use food to numb out emotions and manage other parts of their lives.

It is not helpful to keep refocusing the conversation on how someone’s body looks and the beauty ideals. This continues to reinforce them as what’s important, and it focuses the issues on the body again, instead of addressing whatever mental stress has occurred. It simplifies the matter to a point that is unhelpful, and makes treatment and self-understanding very difficult because it doesn’t allow us to reach the real etiology of the disease. It even reinforces those negative suggestions that a woman’s worth is in the beauty standards she does or does not strive to live up to.

Instead of these things, it would be far more helpful to talk about the sexism that makes women feel inadequate no matter what they do, or the bad family systems that don’t allow for good communication or healthy emotions, or the abusive relationships that many women are in, or the trauma and depression of daily life, or the failure of our mental health system to provide us with good coping techniques for when we do start to feel over our heads. If we want to talk about cross cultural eating disorders, maybe we should talk about the different family roles that exist, the different expectations of women in different cultures, the common mental illnesses in those cultures, the differences in guilt and shame in different culture (these feelings are huge in eating disorders), and the relationship that these cultures have to food as symbolic, relational, or positive.

Eating disorders are mental illnesses. They are not an attempt to be skinny. They are not a reaction to the media. They are not the desire to look like a model. They are serious. They are life-threatening. They are painful. They come with depression, constant mental stress, trauma, self-hatred, difficulty with relationships, isolation, loneliness, feelings of guilt and inadequacy, and all sorts of things that ARE NOT simply reactions to the media, but are about how we relate to ourselves and how we relate to others. Can we please start talking about them in terms of the mental situation of the individual suffering, because that is what makes something a mental illness?