Monday, April 13, 2009

on trust and intimacy

The most recent episode of Dollhouse can only be described as "ZOMG." Many interesting themes explored in that episode, and lots of new plot developments. In the opening sequence, in what can only be described as the most pandering move EVER made by Joss Whedon to his geeky male fans, Echo (Eliza Dushku) is in a "dude, this is OK for primetime?!" dominatrix outfit and trying to explain to her handler Boyd (protector, I'm not using BDSM terminology to my knowledge) about how it's not about pain or domination, but absolute trust. She is programmed to implicitly trust Boyd, who is for the time being the moral compass of the show and the only guy you can trust (maybe because of his open ambivalence about the show), and so far, that trust has never been violated, and it is as close to a paternalistic relationship as possible in that show. I am slightly reminded of the creepy Mayor from Buffy and Faith, but without the evil giant snake (literal, not metaphorical).

Trust was more deeply explored in that episode than before, through the plot device of a security leak: you didn't know whom to trust, secret messages were smuggled into the personality imprints, and Agent Ballard found out that his sweet and lovely girlfriend was actually a "Sleeper Doll" made to spy on him and kill him if necessary, but otherwise act like the perfect girlfriend. The head of security turned out to be a mole in the organization, although not to bring it down, but rather to contain its technology. It turns out that the programmable people, the "Dolls," are the only ones you can trust completely, because you made them to order and their memories will be wiped after your encounter, so you can tell them anything and feign real intimacy. So the head of the organization secretly meets with her own Dream Doll Ken, and has brief respites of intimacy and trust.

I am not going to turn this into a bullshit post about sex and vulnerability and how romantic intimacy is ONLY possible where there is ultimate vulnerability. As much as the show demonstrates how the Dollhouse makes fake intimacy and "girlfriend type" prostitutes a reality for their sad sack clients while keeping sex transactional (and see also, for an example of this in real life), I refuse to adhere to such a high stakes model of sex that almost overrides personal agency. Part of what I like about the sexual revolution, and what it has done for feminism, is to undermine the absoluteness of the proposition that sex must always carry such great emotional and psychic investments and costs, to the utter abnegation of your agency and soul. This is not unlike the scary worldview that Twilight espouses. Someone once gave me the advice, during a breakup, that I had permission to engage in "carefree fucking" in order to get over the heartbreak. I did not take that advice at the time, but amen to that! Sex positive feminism is about agency against patriarchal double standards and constraints (though I don't think it's about the overshare.) If the Dolls actually had agency, I would care less about the sex, even if it is transactional. (My feeling of repugnance to the "sugar babies" in the NYT article has more to do with my horror at their lack of desire to pay for their own Jimmy Choos and to subsidize or lower their high falutin' lifestyle, not to the work itself per se, particularly for those women who really are putting themselves through school. My views on sex work are quite close to those expressed here.) Because they do not, it is tantamount to sex trafficking, and so discussions about intimacy (which is always going to be faked and forgotten) are neither here nor there.

That said, there's still something to be said about trust in the show. The Dolls are programmed to trust their handlers and the staff, who do not always merit that trust. Indeed, one of the most unsavory plotlines involved one Doll's Handler using that speech-activated programmable trust to repeatedly rape her. Agent Ballard put all of his trust into one woman, who turned out not only to be untrustworthy, but also working for the very organization he wants to take down, and so he is himself a pawn. She has no idea she is a sleeper doll though, and he must keep up the charade, and so he is violating her trust as well. No one can trust each other, even if they must pretend to in order to keep the organization working or to pretend that the few relationships they have are meaningful. Despite the sexual nature of most of the engagements, there is no need for trust between the clients and the Dolls--the clients are to be vetted by the Dollhouse, and so the trust that exists must be between the staff and their security, to ensure that the clients pass background checks and are not the crazy sociopaths who kill like in Episode 3. It is thus interesting that the very concept of trust is disaggregated from sex and almost incidental to the relationship between clients and their Dolls (except in DeWitt's case, where she programmed a trust-based relationship into her doll), but entirely central between an individual and his or her organization. The only relationships that matter, then, are the organizational/business ones--do you trust who you work with, the people you work for, etc. Trust seems incapable of existing between those with interpersonal relationships.

Happily, in real life, that is not usually the case. If anything, we trust our significant others, family, and friends more than we trust those whom we are associated with more formally and transactionally. A contract (for employment or services) may be more formal, but it is not inherently more "trustworthy." It is a good, if naive thing to believe more in your partner than you do in your employer. One can always get shafted by the organization, and one can easily get betrayed by a partner, but no one would have relationships if we didn't believe in that particular script of romance that compels our suspension of disbelief so that we can ignore the appallingly high failure rate of relationships and marriages and believe our own to be different and a non-statistic, and makes us trust our partner more than we would anyone else, despite there being not much statistical difference in the likelihood of one person to fail you over another.

I can name only a few people I am truly intimate with, and whom I trust implicitly to not leave my side in a time of crisis. But they're a fair few, and I've cut out the people I don't trust. I don't know if I'm as lucky as or luckier than most, but I feel pretty good about that.