I’ve been working film criticism for a little while now, and I’ve seen some pretty reprehensible films. I’ve seen films that carry racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic implications, and I’ve seen films that uphold ideologies that are actively harmful to marginalized communities. However, these types of films are at least usually presented with the nominal purpose of providing entertainment value, decidedly to an audience that shares its implicit worldview but rarely as a form of direct attack against minority groups or their allies.
Dollhouse: The Eradication of Female Subjectivity From American Popular Culture is in a whole other league. This is a film where the foundation is built on hate and prejudice. This is a film with a very particular audience in mind, selling its disdain for those different from the filmmakers through the lens of arthouse pretension. And perhaps worst of all, it seems explicitly designed to pull unsuspecting viewers in before revealing the underlying hateful thesis that drives the entire film.
And here’s the thing: Dollhouse starts out in a pretty decent place. Animated entirely with puppetry, writer-director Nicole Brending creates a mockumentary television program in the vein of Where Are They Now, following the life and career of fictional child star Junie Spoons. What follows is a dark comedy where the crude movements of the puppets highlight the lack of control Junie has over her own life, pushed into the public stage from a very young age to nonchalantly have her sexuality sold through the prism of the pop music industry. The jokes aren’t particularly clever, relying more on shock value than any depth of writing, but the palpability of the anger at an industry that uses young women as disposable props for profit keeps the film afloat.
But by about the halfway point, certain things start to feel off about Brending’s presentation. Liberal college student characters are introduced as sex-crazed gullible buffoons who prattle nonsensically about liberation. Black and South Asian characters appear with farcical names and caricatured accents. Some of this can be chalked up to the film’s recurring attitude of poor taste, and some of it can be levelled against Brending’s insistence to perform a majority of the voice acting herself, and while that doesn’t excuse the stereotyping, it does allow one to compartmentalize these decisions as bad choices in an otherwise solid and worthwhile production.
And then the film almost completely abandons Junie Spoons, its central character, in order to go on one of the most explicitly hateful screeds I’ve ever seen in a film.
Enter the character Some Guy Named Larry, who “comes out” as “Junie Spoons.” We watch as this character undergoes extensive plastic surgery to completely emulate Junie’s appearance, becoming something of a Frankenstein’s Monster in the process, while talking heads – with dialogue written and voiced by Brending – make farcical commentary about this character’s transition into “Trans Junie.” Trans Junie then proceeds to take over “Cis Junie’s” life, proudly proclaiming that her penis makes her a superior woman and that Cis Junie deserves to die for contesting her right to her identity.
At first it seems like this transphobic tirade will come and go like Brending’s other ill-advised diversions, but then it just keeps going and going until the entire back half of the film is devoted to conflating transgender identity with societal obsession with celebrity and elective cosmetic surgery. The usual straw man arguments are put forth – “What if I suddenly decided that I was a unicorn?”, transgender identity is an unjustly accepted obsession with sex and genitalia, no one wants to say anything against trans people for fear of legal repercussions, etc. – which not only betrays a deep misunderstanding on the part of Brending and her collaborators on what being trans even means, but also an unwillingness to understand as all their energy is devoted toward taking down an enemy that only exists in Brending’s mind.
And then, of course, the experience wouldn’t be complete without a great ol’ dose of homophobia to punctuate the whole thing, as the focus shifts yet again to a pair of lisping gay art collectors (whose entire collection is focused on representations of genitalia) as they purchase the vagina of the original Junie Spoons and fight a court battle with Trans Junie over the rights to the body part/art installation. While one sees the twisted logic by which Brending finds this blunt symbolism clever, even if it completely ignores her own film’s obsession with explicit representations of sex, the film never stops congratulating itself for taking down the LGBTQ "establishment" long enough to adequately address the supposed thesis of the narrative. Junie Spoons, ironically enough, gets lost in the shuffle, no less a prop for Brending’s hate speech than she is within the narrative as a vessel for underage sexual fetishization. There’s the seed of a helpful idea in Dollhouse, deconstructing our popular culture with sledgehammer satire that forces us to push back against the sexualization of minors. Yet Brending decides to focus her ire on other victims of that culture, and that’s not helpful to anyone’s struggle.