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The Reprogrammable Girl: Dollhouse, Gunslinger Girl, and Battlestar Galactica February 16, 2009

Posted by slickpig in anime, gender, television.
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I know there are a few Whedonphiles out there in the class, so maybe some of you have heard about his new show Dollhouse. The first episode aired on Friday night, but if you want to see it and have no moral scruples about illegal viewing, you can find the first episode, entitled Ghost, here.

Echo getting her mindwiped

Echo getting her mind wiped

Without spoiling anything- Dollhouse is about a group of people known as Actives or Dolls, who have had their minds, memories, and personalities wiped and can be reprogrammed with new memories or skills for various assignments. These new personalities are not fabricated out of thin air, but are actually amalgamations of various people’s personalities. Each Doll is monitored by a Handler and in between their Tasks, lives in the “Dollhouse” in a brainwashed state. The show follows one particular Doll named Echo, and descriptions of the show have implicated that she will become more self aware as the season progresses.

Gunslinger Girl This show reminded me a lot of the anime/manga Gunslinger Girl, where young girls who have been critically injured are upgraded and brainwashed to work for the Italian Government as secret ass kicking agents. Each girl also has a Handler, always an older male agent, who oversees her training. He is allowed to use any methods that he sees fit, and all the girls are brainwashed to give them unquestioning loyalty. I have only read the first couple issues of the manga, so I’m not entirely sure how the series develops/deals with the issue of cyborg self awareness.

What really struck me in these two examples is the idea of the Reprogrammable Girl. Although there are male “Dolls”, the show’s main character, Echo, is female. In each example, new desires and possibilities are being mapped onto a female body. I would argue that this is not just a sexual  fantasy, but something more. Yes, Echo is hot, but that doesn’t account for the fantasy of endless capabilities, of being able to manipulate/upgrade the human body and mind to do anything you want it to- cyborg possibilities. What is it about the female body, or perhaps rather the idea of femininity, that animates this fantasy? (And with Gunslinger Girl, we could also ask this question, not only about the operatives gender, but with their youth as well.) Perhaps it has something to do with the instability of Gender as a social category and ideas about performativity and control. These agents are given powers and abilities which change and challenge the idea of what a woman is, become more then traditional gender roles would ascribe to them. But they also are forced to perform their gender more fully, through their sexiness, their clothes, and additionally through constant brainwashing and reprogramming. Yet this constant brainwashing and reprogramming does not always work, as I think we will see in Dollhouse with Echo becoming self aware.

Sharon "Boomer" Valerii and Caprica Six

Sharon "Boomer" Valerii and Caprica Six

This idea of female cyborgs stepping out and their ability to exceed their programming and dodge brainwashing can be seen in Battlestar Galactica with the Cylon characters Caprica Six, and Sharon “Boomer” Valerii. I am woefully behind in my BSG viewing, so if my comparison is already outdated I apologize. In Season 2, each of them is reborn with all of these attachments to humanity. Because they have become individuals in a collective society, they are going to be “boxed” or have their personities laid to rest so that they can never be reborn, but last I watched they were attempting to persuade the cylons to negotiate for peace with the last of the humans. Out of all of the cylon models that we are introduced to, it is only these two characters that rebel, these two female characters.

Thoughts anyone? I know that was a bit of a ramble…

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1. Dave - February 17, 2009

To answer the question of why insofar as Gunslinger Girl, it is explained as the young are the only ones currently able to go through with the cybernetic surgery. The question of girls is answered as they are less likely to draw suspicion, and interact with their handlers (or the handlers interact with them) better. That is, if I am not mistaken.

In Gunslinger Girl, the girls are quite self-aware, but conditioned to accept their condition (even “enjoy” it to a small extent) and to follow orders. This conditioning takes the form of brainwashing previous memories (not every mission like in Dollhouse, just the first time, or when a crisis emerges) and is supposedly a necessary byproduct of the mental conditioning that must take place for the cybernetic enhancements to operate. The girls’ conditioning inevitably takes the form of them falling in love with the handlers, which is taken advantage of in at least one instance (sicko, although she was older than the rest, she would not have been in the first few chapters that you would have read), but that is not the norm.

Anyways, that is how the series explains it. I think the author purposely leaves it open enough for the reader to deal with it differently, and more on a moral level, as do some of the characters later on. I did not try literary analysis or psychological analysis here, I just thought you might want some more background for your comparison, as I’m sure more comparison will be interesting as we get more information on the background of the agents in Dollhouse.

2. 2010 in Retrospect: TV I’ve Loved @ Angela Tung, Writer - May 6, 2011

[...] the way, if you think Gunslinger Girl sounds a lot like Dollhouse, you’re not alone. Just to set the record straight, the anime came out several years before Joss Whedon’s [...]


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