The Word-Pocalypse: Joss Whedon's Dollhouse and Dystopian Language

By Elizabeth Padden
2011, Vol. 3 No. 11 | pg. 2/2 |

Caroline incredulousy asks, “And I’m just going to trust you?” Boyd tells her “With your life” invoking the call-and-response for the last time in the series and revising all of the instances that demonstrate trustworthiness on his part as calculated acts of manipulation. Boyd has programmed Echo and his fellow Dollhouse workers to trust him based on both technological and social programming.

The social aspect has worked on the viewer as well, programming the perception of Boyd as one of the “good guys” according to social conventions. This abuse of trust, both programmed and unprogrammed, shows Boyd to be just as controlling towards Echo as Hearn was toward Sierra. By frustrating the viewer’s expectations that Boyd would be a hero of the series, Dollhouse shows how thoroughly those expectations have already been programmed by the cultural hegemony.

From call-and-response phrases used to manipulate the Actives and the viewers, we move to “Doll phrases,” the language the Actives use to fight that control. Since the majority of the Actives' language while in the Doll-state is constructed out of the limited range of imprinted phrases, it is within the constraints of these phrases that the Actives first manifest individual expression. Instances where the Actives modify repeated phrases in order to express opinions and concerns are the initial, crucial, indicators of individuation that distinguish Actives from one another in the Doll-state.

Moments when the Actives express individuality in repeated language relate to Johnstone's discussion of parallel language as something that, through repetition, “provides a frame in which the item or items that differ from line to line are highlighted and semantically juxtaposed,” (33). Dollhouse uses the parallel structure of repetition to contrast small variations in repeated language in different contexts. Through these variations in repeated phrases the Actives assert their individual identities revealing that even in the Doll-state Actives are never completely uniform.

Two call-and-response phrases are introduced in the first two episodes of Dollhouse, while the third and fourth episodes institute “Doll phrases,” phrases imprinted into the Doll-state that do not have any active purpose. Unlike the call-and-response phrases, Doll phrases do not trigger any changes in the mental state of the Actives or compel specific actions. Instead Doll phrases exist as the verbalization of a code of behavior for the Actives. “Stage Fright” introduces the phrase, “friends help each other out” (1.03) and “The Gray Hour” introduces, “I try to be my best” (1.04). “Friends help each other out” only gets repeated a few times during the series, but “I try to be my best” becomes a commonly used phrase by both the Actives and their handlers.

Actives operating between imprints in the Doll-state are programmed with the notion of being one's “best,” presumably as a way to motivate them to exercise; the phrase is introduced as a part of a discussion between Actives about physical activity. While the Doll phrases can be considered a further method of control over their bodies and minds of the Actives, the Actives also internalize the phrases repeating slightly altered interpretations of their structure and content throughout the series. These interpretations vary according to which Active is speaking and in what context, demonstrating that though the Doll phrases are repeated structure they represent individual responses.

All of the actives are equipped with the same Doll phrases, but instead of producing conformity “I try to be my best” is a point of division among the Actives. “I try to be my best” is an open-ended statement that the Actives use unprompted by any call phrase, which leaves the Actives the freedom to choose when and how to use it. Each usage represents an Active responding individually to the specific context they are in, which evidences their own marginal awareness of their context and their ability to respond to it. “I try to be my best” also has ideological implications that require the Actives to apply their own ideological structures to understand what is “best” in order to know when to use the phrase. As a uniform phrase imprinted into every Active, “I try to be my best” seems to create conformity, but actually insist upon individuation. The phrase requires individual interpretation to be used.

The context in which “I try to be my best” may be used is left open to the Actives' discretion, and the phrase itself is subject to small deviations. Words are added, removed, and rearranged within the phrase changing as it is used as a statement, question, and observation, but the same basic structure remains and keeps the utterances recognizably parallel. In “The Grey Hour” Echo, Sierra, and Victor discuss being “best” in a conversation that emphasizes the slight variations in their interpretations of the phrase:

Sierra: I try to be my best
Echo: Are you?
Sierra: Excuse me?
Echo: Are you your best?
Sierra: I'm not sure how to know that.
Echo: I think if you always try that's best, right?
Victor: Every day is a chance to be better.
(1.04 “The Grey Hour”)

This exchange between the Actives demonstrates how Actives do not simply repeat the Doll phrases as they do the call-and-response language; they evolve it into a conversation by trading different variations of the phrase. Their individual interpretations of “I try to be my best” reflect the differences between each of the Actives in the Doll-state. Victor’s response demonstrates a belief in gradual improvement, a daily process of becoming one’s best that evokes a militaristic ideology ties to his original personality, a member of the United State military.

Sierra states the phrase and then admits to being unsure as to what it means, illustrating the way in which both Sierra and Priya resist definition. Echo is immediately set apart because she questions the phrase itself, already questioning the information she is imprinted with in the same way rebellious Caroline would be. The Actives' use of “I try to be my best” reveals some aspect of their identity that could not be removed through the imprinting process, an aspect that is, perhaps, essential to their identity and which underlies their original personalities, Doll-state personas, and imprints.

Actives are given such limited language that any sort of self expression emerges through established imprinted language first. Individual connotations surrounding the notion of “best” predominantly manifests through revisions of the phrase itself in the Actives' dialogue. When Victor is damaged in “Omega” he expresses his understanding that, in the Dollhouse, being one’s “best” is associated with physical looks and the appearance of wholeness when he asks, “How can I be my best now?” (1.12 “Omega”) in reference to his injured face. When Alpha tells Echo, “You are the best.” (1.12 “Omega”) he changes the phrase to express his own affection and estimation by associating “best” and Echo.

Echo expresses her own negative feelings towards the Dollhouse when she tells Dr. Saunders, “No one is their best in here,” and Saunders own use of “I'm trying to be my best” (2.01 “Vows”) in confrontation with Topher represents the search for purpose that exists as each Active tries to fulfill their imprinted parameters. However, since they are given no parameters as to what being “best” is the Actives must create their own definition, using the Doll phrase to express their beliefs and opinions through their adaptation of the phrase to their needs.

Echo’s question, “Are you [your best]?” does not seem to question why the phrase was programmed as much as it questions the ideology behind the programming. Being “best” carries connotations of being whole, but the Dollhouse reduces and fragments the Actives, preventing them from achieving wholeness. Best remains something undefined and barely understood by the Actives themselves, they are not asked to be best at something they are asked to be their best, the Actives are to evaluate themselves and strive for individual goals while the Dollhouse uses other forms of imprinted language to manipulate them into mindless conformity.

When Echo’s individuation comes to light she is threatened with the Attic, making the imprinted urge for self improvement and individual assessment seem counterproductive to the Dollhouse's control over its Actives. The point of the phrase could be a way to draw out and monitor individuality so that Actives who are not effectively controlled can be identified and contained, or it could be a flaw in the Actives programming. Either way, “I try to be my best” is a source of contradiction and contention that is never resolved, never clearly representing a form of freedom or another method of control.

Doll phrases infiltrate the spoken language of the handlers, programmers, and even the original personalities of the Actives, demonstrating how the constant repetition of the phrase has in a sense programmed them. “I try to be my best,” is frequently co-opted by the Dollhouse employees when they are speaking to Actives. As a way of apologizing to Echo in “Vows” (2.01) Paul tells her, “I guess I wasn't really my best,” creating a parallel structure between his language and Echo's to form identification between them. Paul's use of the phrase also demonstrations how Paul's own modes of expression have been compromised by the Dollhouse. Paul uses a Doll phrase to express himself in a way Echo would understand in her Doll-state, but by using the phrase he is participating in the programming of Echo reinforcing that phrase. Through his language choice Paul momentarily becomes a part of the system of control both he and Echo are fighting against.

Identity Language

I've been many people. I can hear them, sometimes suddenly. I'm all of them, but none of them is me. - (“Vows” 2.01)

Identity is a major theme in Whedon's work, and in a television series in which personalities can be changed as easily as clothing, Dollhouse uses language as the way identity is expressed. As indicated by the Doll phrases, Actives retain a level of individuation in the Doll-state but their individual identities must contend with the imprints manufactured by the Dollhouse. To create a distinction between the terms identity and imprint in this paper, imprint will be used to refer to the mental constructions the Dollhouse inserts into the Actives, while identity will refer to the combination of the mental imprint, the physical body, and whatever essential elements are not removed when a wipe occurs.

Dollhouse distinguishes between physical bodies and imprints that are purely mental constructions, leading us to question exactly where identity is located. Identity language, language that indicates identity, includes pronouns, gendered language, and “identity phrases”. Dollhouse assigns some of its imprints “identity phrases,” phrases that have no purpose but to indicate a specific imprint. Other identity indicators such as pronouns weaken in the face of imprinting technology through which multiple imprints can occupy the same identity.

The distinction between humans and technology breaks down as well, creating questions as to whether imprints stored on hard drives should be considered human. Gender and sex are operating independently of one another as imprints move from body to body and gender becomes a function of language. As identity language becomes unstable identity itself is destabilized. Because the language can no longer accurately describe the identities on screen it can no longer maintain constructions of identity, leaving bodies vulnerable to imprints.

A clear indication of the link between identity and language is the way imprints are programmed with “identity phrases,” phrases that have no other purpose but to indicate a specific imprint. In “The Grey Hour” Echo is imprinted with a personality named “Taffy,” an imprint that uses the phrase, “blue skies,” to express ease and certainty. Neither Echo nor any of her other imprints use “blue skies” in this manner. When Sierra is given the same imprint her version of “Taffy” says “blue skies” as well, using it for the same purpose as Echo's “Taffy.” Since the phrase has so far been unique to the “Taffy” imprinted in Echo, when it is used by Sierra the viewer infers that her imprint is the same “Taffy” and that imprints remain the same regardless of the body they occupy.

Other identity phrases, “Goodness gracious,” (“Belle Chose” 2.03) and “You can't fight a ghost,” (“Ghost” 1.01) work in the same way, indicating a specific imprint as Active bodies and circumstances change. As Echo evolves, becoming a body that contain multiple imprints simultaneously, identity phrases evoke previously introduced personalities informing the viewer who Echo is “accessing” at what moment. Because “blue skies” has been so strongly associated with “Taffy,” when Echo uses the phrase while escaping a prison in “Meet Jane Doe” (2.07) it allows the viewer to identify the imprint she has accessed as the “Taffy” imprint without any additional explanation.

Identity phrases are an aspect of a broader category of identity language, forms of language that are used to create and indicate identity. Pronouns and gendered language are forms of identity language, and they are used over the course of the series to distinguish and relate identities and imprints. Dollhouse sees the destabilization of the structures of identity language as the series progresses. Computer constructed personalities mean that the language used to indicate people, simple pronouns like I, me, you, and we, are no longer precise enough to convey clearly who is being referred to.

In “The Grey Hour” (1.4) both Echo and Sierra become “Taffy” showing that multiple Actives can perform the same imprint. “I” becomes something that is transferable from one physical form to another as the same imprint is inserted into different bodies. A singular personality may also exist in multiple locations and multiple bodies at the same time. In “The Left Hand” (2.8) there are two Tophers in two different bodies simultaneously and “Stop-Loss” (2.09) features Victor being inducted into a hive mind where multiple bodies share the same conscious mind synchronously. In these instances “I” becomes plural, and the boundaries between “you” and “I” break down as both terms are applied simultaneously. The inverse is also true; the Actives may house multiple complete imprints in one body at the same time. Alpha and Echo are both “many personalities” taking on plural imprints and Alpha uses “we,” a singular term, to refer to one body that holds multiple minds.

Echo may be the guiding identity associated with her body but even she contributes to the complication of pronouns telling Paul, “We are lost but we are not gone,” (“Vows” 2.01) referring to herself and all of the personalities her mind contains. Additionally there is a distinction between the imprints Echo and the other Actives carry and their own identities. Echo says “I'm all of them, but none of them is me” (“Vows” 2.01) indicating that Actives have a governing identity that contains and distinguishes between all of their imprints.

There is no adequate pronoun to describe two bodies sharing the same mind. “We” is insufficient because it is not specific enough to differentiate between a single body with multiple imprints, multiple bodies with the same imprint, and a group of bodies each with individual imprints. The same problem holds true for “I,” which is similarly ill-equipped to indicate “many personalities” and multiple bodies. The imprinting technology serves to break down the notions of singular and plural (primarily through pronouns) until they no longer have any stable degree of accuracy.

As the clear distinctions guaranteed by pronouns begin to disintegrate so does the distinction between human beings and technology. Imprints stored on computer hard drives (wedges) add another level of confusion to identity language by leading the viewer to question whether the data they store, or the tech itself, should be considered a person. After shooting the imprint chair in “Needs,” Echo asks “Did I just kill someone?” a valid question considering the destruction of a hard drive and loss of data can eliminate an entire personality and be considered a form death (1.07). When Paul catches a wedge in “Omega” (1.12)

Echo tells him, “You saved her,” giving a gendered identity to a piece of hardware. Digital copies of mind and imprints stored in hard drives have no status in language. Echo treats these pieces of hardware as if they are full human identities and members of the Rossum Corporation place an even greater importance on digitally recorded imprints than identities performed through human bodies. They are cavalier about the death of the bodies in which they imprint themselves, because they view their digital back up as their true reproducible identity.

Whiskey, imprinted as Clyde, claims that there are hundreds of bodies at his disposal waiting for his imprint (2.12 “The Hollow Men”). His personality has been digitized and it is the digital copy rather than the one occupying the living body that has value. Rossum executives like Clyde and Clive Ambrose treat the bodies they inhabit as disposable, disassociating identity from the physical body as recorded data takes its place as the locale of “self.”

Notions of gender and gendered language are also complicated by the imprinting process, destabilizing “he” and “she” in the same way as “I” and “we”. Assumptions as to a person’s gender are most often based on his or her physical body, but within the world of Dollhouse gender is part of each imprint and is completely severed from sex of the body of the Active. A female sexed Active may perform a male identified imprint and vice versa, and at times the gendered imprints switch quickly enough that the gender of the imprint must be determined by the content and signifiers of language alone.

Illustrating Zimman and Hall's concept of embodiment through language, the Actives of Dollhouse, “do not derive their meanings from a pre-linguistic natural order, but are imbued with meaning through discourse.” (166). Actives are imbued with gender as the imprints are performed through dialogue. Dollhouse relies on gender specific pronouns and indicators like boy and girl as the primary identifiers of an imprint's gender. They are supported by secondary identifiers in the tone, content, and context of the imprint's communication. When

Victor and Echo's imprints switch in “Belle Chose” (2.4) there is no alteration of costume or exposition to signal the change, instead Echo reveals she is no longer “Kiki” when the client calls her a beautiful woman and she responds with violence followed by the question, “What did you call me?” The line is a reflection of her new imprint, “Terry Kerrens,” recently taunted about his feminine name when he occupied Victor's body, now reacting with rage to being associated with a female gendered word.

Later when Echo enters Kerrens' storage space one of the women he has abducted exclaims, “We thought you were him!” Echo's immediate response is “I am him” taking possession of a male gendered identity through language since Kerrens no longer embodies a male-sexed identity physically. Victor, who has taken on the Kiki imprint, performs a female gender in his actions, dancing at a club, and his language, asking, “how about buying a girl a drink?” That Victor's imprint is gendered female (rather than flamboyant male) is reinforced with his subsequent exclamation, “You suck! Trying to hit a girl!”

Gender is also indicated in the Actives by the content and style of their language. In her study of communication through technology Stephanie Baron notes that in both spoken and written communication language is gendered:

“Women tend to use conversation predominantly to facilitate social interaction, while males are more prone to converse in order to convey information.... Women are more likely to use affective markers, diminutives, hedge words, politeness markers, and tag questions than men. By contrast, men more commonly use referential language and profanity, and employ fewer first person pronouns than women.” (Baron 50)

Dollhouse makes use of these gendered differences in style and content of speech to distinguish between differently gendered imprints that occupy the same body. The Dr. Saunders imprint is gendered female, and in her dialogue she questions more, uses politeness markers, and places more emphasis on feelings and emotion in her language than her male counterparts.

When the same Active is imprinted with male gendered Clyde Randolph, she expressly states, “I'm not big on sentimentality,” then proceeds to speak in harsher, more clipped sentences dominated by informational rather than emotional content. Through Randolph's mode of speech Adelle immediately recognizes the imprint as male and even correctly identifies the personality Whisky has been imprinted with. Addressing the imprint as, “Mr. Randolph,” using a male signifier “Mr.” rather than just a name, Adelle embodies the attitude Dollhouse has towards gender, as something unrelated to the body it inhabits.

Just as an aside, if Adelle represents the viewpoint of Dollhouse then the Clyde Randolph imprint presents an interesting problem. The imprint of Clyde Randolph is gendered male, and he even refers to himself as a “boy” despite the fact that he is imprinted in the female sexed body of Whisky. If gender exists completely in the mind of an Active as a part of the imprint, and the imprint of Clyde is gendered male, he would remain male in a female-sexed body. This situation calls into question the limits of societal expectations for gendered behavior.

When Clyde says, “You know this is the first time I can hit a girl without feeling bad about it” (2.12 The Hollow Men), he is not performing a female gendered imprint, but he believes that the societal limitations on male behavior no longer apply because of the sex of his body. By hitting Echo he is transgressing the established societal norms for acceptable male gendered behavior which dictate that men are should not hit women. If he were adhering to societal expectations for male behavior he would be expected not to hit Echo at all, or at least to “feel bad” about his transgression. Clyde uses his new body as a loophole to justify aggressive violent action that would otherwise be considered unacceptable behavior for a male.

Clyde represents the divide between the physical body and the mental imprint in Dollhouse. He is referred to by masculine pronouns though he occupies a female body and the content and style of his dialogue fits closely with Baron's description of a male gendered communications. However, through his transgression of the societal norms of male behavior in “The Hollow Men” (2.12) Clyde also demonstrates how tenuous that divide can be.

Clyde Randolph, as he exists imprinted in Whiskey, incorporates Whiskey's body along with his personality, into an identity that gives him an excuse to break from societal rule and regulations. By claiming Whiskey's body as his own, Clyde forms an identity that gives him the freedom to transgress boundaries he might have adhered to in a male body. Terry Kerrens is another example of an imprint that incorporates an Active body into a new identity. Though Kerrens reacts violently when he is first called a woman after being imprinted in Echo in “Belle Chose,” he quickly accepts his new body and lays claim to it, looking in a mirror and saying “I am an incredible woman” (2.03).

Kerrens verbally takes possession of the female sexed body demonstrating a new gendered identity, both male and female, that has evolved from the influence of his new body. These instances are examples of the bait and switch of the series, which initially insists that the mind is separate and more valuable than the body and then concludes by valuing the body over the mind, clearest in the character of Echo. Initially the viewer is conditioned to believe that Echo is exceptional because of the content of her mind. She can retrieve memories and access imprints even when they are supposed to be wiped. However in “The Hollow Men” Boyd explains that the Rossum Corporation was only ever interested in the unique properties of her physical body (2.12).

There is a movement to claim the body through language, demonstrated by Clyde and Kerrens. In order to “live” and function an imprint needs a physical body. A wedge may represent a “person” by holding an imprint, but it cannot form an identity because without a body it cannot express itself through language. Though Clyde and other Dollhouse executives treat Active bodies as disposable, the Claire Saunders imprint confesses to Topher that she does not want to give up her body to its original personality because she is “afraid to die” (“Vows” 2.01).

To lie dormant in a wedge is a form of death for an imprint because it no longer functions or communicates. In “Epitaph One” people tattoo themselves with “birthmarks” engraving their full names into their skin in hopes of preserving their identities in case they are unable to defend their minds (1.13). Attempts to claim individual physical bodies as a part of individual identities may in fact, be a reaction to the growing instability of identity language. As language gains the capacity to reprogram the mental aspects of identity the characters respond by putting more emphasis on the physical aspect of identity.

The destabilization of simple pronouns is one of the first steps towards a greater breakdown of identity language, and in turn destabilization of identity itself. In his essay “Identity” Joseph writes that, “Researchers have been analyzing how people's choice of languages, and ways of speaking do not simply reflect who they are, but make them who they are – or more precisely, allow them to make themselves.” (9). As pronouns lose their ability to accurately describe the character in Dollhouse they reflect the new and unstable modes of identity the Actives must perform. Because identity language is not sufficient to describe these new modes of identity, people cannot use it to define or “make” concrete identities.

The destabilization of identity language leads to a destabilization of identity, leaving bodies vulnerable to the imposition of outside imprints. In “Epitaph One” Lawrence Dominic remarks that he saw a grown man acting as though he was a young girl and he could not determine if the man had been imprinted with a different personality or had seen an opportunity to embody whatever identify he wanted (1.13).

For this man the destabilization of gendered language and the larger weakening of identity language have created an environment where societal conventions of sex and gender have been undermined, that allows him greater freedom to perform his identity. However, the threat in undermining identity language is that it becomes more difficult to distinguish and preserve individual identities. While this man could be freely acting out his chosen identity, it could also be that this man's identity has become so weak and ill-defined that it is subject to influence from roving digital imprints and that his true identity has been forcibly suppressed.

The Word-Pocalypse

“I'm the one who brought about the thought-pocalypse” - ("The Hollow Men" 2.12)

As Dollhouse approaches the dystopic future of “Epitaph One” (1.13) and “Epitaph Two: The Return” (2.13) the elements of language discussed in the previous sections contribute to the formation of a dystopic language, a language that is both a symptom and a contributing producer of a dystopian world. The dystopia of “Epitaph One” and “Epitaph Two” is characterized by a massive loss of language in the form of a “word-pocalypse,” which represents the relationship language has to creating the world as discussed in the previous section on word meaning.

The massive language loss of the “word-pocalypse” is paired with a massive loss of independent thought. Loss of language also correlates to loss of information bringing in David Harrison's study about how language holds information. The dumbshows and butchers that populate Dollhouse's dystopia are victims of language, people who have been manipulated by the same kind of programming represented in the repetition section taken to further extremes of suppression and manipulation. Manipulation of the actives through language contributes to the “word-pocalypse” by making them passive so they cannot object to the further advances in technology or the use of their own bodies.

Without objecting voices the technology runs rampant creating a dystopia. As language is used to manipulate the Actives and is manipulated itself, it becomes less stable, and so does the world it is creating. In order to survive the dystopia the characters of Dollhouse must gain control over their identities by mastering language. Ultimately the importance of language is undercut by “Epitaph Two” (2.13), which moves the importance placed on language development back onto technology, subverting expectations for language-based resistance to the dystopia.

“Epitaph One” (1.13) and “Epitaph Two: The Return” (2.13), set roughly ten years beyond the present depicted in the other Dollhouse episodes, present the end result of the Dollhouse's imprinting technology. “Epitaph One” begins in the ruins of Los Angeles where a small group of “Actuals” (humans that have not yet been affected by Dollhouse technology) travels through a world where disembodied imprints hijack bodies through broadcast signals.

The Actuals share their world with placid mindless bodies without personalities referred to as “dumbshows,” and equally mindless but aggressively violent and destructive “butchers.” Topher calls the event that throws the series world into dystopia the “thought-pocalypse,” an apocalyptic abuse of imprinting technology based on Topher's own idea for wireless wipes, but I feel that the term “word-pocalypse” would be more accurate to describe a world-ending event characterized by a mass destruction of language capability.

The apocalypse depicted in “Epitaph One” embodies the fear of massive loss of language, a fear which has particular significance to those who make their living from controlling language, including writers and linguists. A number of linguistic theorists have proposed that all mental processes are predicated on language, and a loss of language ability would therefore damage the ability to think. Linguistic determinism, “the idea that the language people speak controls how they think,” (Pinker 124) is a recurring theme in linguistic study. Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Lee Whorf explored linguistic determinism in the form of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which posited that thoughts and behavior are determined (or at least influenced) by language.

In his essay “The Status of Linguistics as Science” Whorf theorizes that our “social reality” can only be conveyed by the, “particular language that has become the medium of expression” (209) in local society. In simple terms, “the Whorfian Thesis is that a people's 'view of the world' is shaped by the language that they speak; language determines reality, or what is regarded as reality among its speakers” (Barnes 144). As language describes the world, categorizing and organizing it, we manufacture a reality, “unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group” (Sapir 209). The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis was a staple of language courses from its invention in 1929 until the early 1970s; “by which time it had penetrated the popular consciousness as well.” (Pinker 124).

While this hypothesis has been dismissed by well regarded linguists like Noam Chomsky and Ray Jackendoff (whose theory of conceptual semantics is in direct opposition to linguistic determinism) a recent revival called “neo-Whorfianism” (124) is evidence of the theory’s undeniable influence on popular thought. The process described by Sapir-Whorf is circular: by describing reality through language we create reality, and that reality is then described by language creating a new reality, and so on. In her study of speculative linguistics Myra Barnes remarks that, “all dystopian languages technically belong to Whorf” (Barnes 150).

The relationship between the manipulation of language and the dystopian future in Dollhouse shows a similar circular pattern as Whorf's hypothesis; as language is manipulated, destabilized, and restricted by technology the reality of the characters is manipulated, destabilized, and controlled, leading to a further destabilization of language. While the “word-pocalypse” is the result of technological attacks, it is the controlling language used to silence opposing voices that allows the technology to evolve unchecked. The language of Dollhouse is a participant in the creation of the dystopian reality.

While not Whorfian in its conclusions, David Harrison’s research on dying languages carries some similar implications about the relationship between language and thought. As a field linguist Harrison researches and records languages that have extremely limited numbers of remaining speakers. He theorizes that when a language “dies,” or stops being spoken, information specific to that language is irretrievably lost. In his book When Languages Die, Harrison writes, “As languages rapidly vanish into the vortex of cultural assimilation, linguists justifiably fear they will never see the full range of complexity and structures human minds can produce.” (206).

Information stored in spoken language, from grammatical structures to untranslatable concepts and descriptors, does not survive its speakers unless it is recorded. When there are no longer any speakers of a language that language dies and whatever information it carried is lost. If Harrison’s theories are applied to a dystopian event like the “word-pocalypse” the amount of information lost to the general public would be staggering. There is no way of knowing if in the world created for “Epitaph One” and “Epitaph Two” any languages have been completely destroyed but the number of humans still able to speak English has been so severely decreased that other more local languages are likely to have been wiped out entirely.

Like Dollhouse's Echo, Harrison seeks the acquisition and preservation of language. Though he preserves languages faced with destabilization in the wake of globalization, the rapid spread of “big” languages (English, Russian, Mandarin) can be compared to the blanket signals that create the dumbshows and butchers. Both reprogram the way in which people think, though in the case of Dollhouse the reprogramming is literal.

The origins of “dumbshows” and “butchers” can be found early in the first season of Dollhouse. The severely limited language of the Actives when they are in their doll-state is taken to the extreme in the form of the dumbshows, who are literally incapable of speech and equally incapable of independent thought. Dumbshows are victims of limited language capacity, similar to the Actives in the Doll-state. When Sierra is assaulted in the Doll-state by her handler her limited language gives her no way to address her rape (“Man on the Street” 1.06). The phrases that the Actives are equipped with, the call-and-response and repeated phrases as well as the extremely basic forms of interactive dialogue, do not give Sierra the ability to adequately protest her assault or even give voice to her pain.

Sierra's situation foreshadows the dumbshows as extreme versions of the Doll-state whose capacity for language is so limited as to be nonexistent. The vulnerability of the dumbshows is parallel to Sierra's vulnerability because they too have no voice and no agency in their situation, though they are presumably unaware of it. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the aggressively violent butchers, people programmed only to kill and destroy. First targeting those who are not also butchers and then turning on one another, butchers cannot stop until there is nothing left to destroy. November's wordless attack on Heron in “Man on the Street” (1.06) is the first incarnation of the rage-filled attackers in the Epitaphs. When she is triggered and November's “sleeper” persona is activated she stops speaking and becomes a mindless killing machine until she is released, and her return to humanity is demonstrated by her reacquisition of language.

As extreme forms of Sierra, November, and the other Actives, the dumbshows and butchers can be recognized as logical extensions of the products of the Dollhouse. Dumbshows resemble Actives in the Doll-state, but their level of suppression is much greater. They are left without any ability to speak, and are therefore denied even the most basic form of expression granted the Actives. Referencing Sapir-Whorf theory, Dollhouse implies that in addition to their loss of language dumbshows have also lost any ability to think, linking the ability to produce language and the ability to produce thought. Butchers are similarly speechless and potentially devoid of thought, but have also been programmed to pursue unthinking violence and destruction. The unquestioning nature of this state also bears commonalities with the manipulation of trust in the Dollhouse, as both butchers and Actives give up individual thought in order to follow directives and dumbshows are helpless without outside manipulation.

Repression of the Actives ability to use language to voice individual thoughts and feelings or assert themselves in any way deprives them of what Huxley terms in Brave New World, “the right to be unhappy” (240). By limiting their language the Actives are less able to dissent, to express unhappiness about how they have been manipulated by the actions of the Dollhouse. Manipulation of their language faculties makes the Actives passive characters, and it is their passivity that allows for the Rossum Corporation to create even more extreme forms of controlling technology and to reduce language capacity even further. The end result of the technology, the creation of the dumbshows and butchers, happens because no one has the right to be unhappy and to protest their creation in the early stages. Those who do oppose the Dollhouse are suppressed; made into Actives like Echo or handlers like Paul. By the time the technology is introduced into the general population it is too late to curb the coming dystopia.

Because dystopian societies are so dependent on the suppression of language for their existence it is only appropriate that they may also be combated through language. In Brave New World “Huxley's society fears the printed word as perhaps the only force that can subvert years of wordless conditioning, even prenatal conditioning” (Sisk 52). Any threats to the establishment are dealt with by “appropriating words, stripping them of genuine meaning, and using them to further extend State conditioning of its citizens,” (52). Despite deadly government retaliation in Fahrenheit 451 people continue to conceal books in their homes, knowing that the mastery of language they represent becomes more important when language is restricted.

Language is a threat to both sides; it is a weapon through which dystopian oppressors may seize and maintain power, but at the same time “language also serves as the primary tool by which the oppressed characters in these fictions resist and rebel” (57). The gradual increase of language awareness and subsequent language ability is the key factor in the development of the Actives' identities and the best hope of combating the vision of the future shown in the first “Epitaph.”

Echo's quest to master language, first shown in her use of the Doll phrases, is a quest that is designed to prepare her to survive the “word-pocalypse.” Echo develops a use of language based on the foundation of the simple repetitious call-and-response and Doll phrases she is equipped with, and as her control over language expands she begins to gain power over her circumstances. Instances, like in “A Spy in the House of Love” when Echo asks to be imprinted, are moments where she changes her reality through language.

By employing language to request an imprint Echo makes the imprinting process a matter of her choice and takes control of her interaction with the technology. As she enters the second season Echo has learned to manipulate words, lying to Boyd, reading books, and even writing out her memories on the ceiling of her sleeping pod (2.04 “Belonging”). By “Meet Jane Doe” (2.07) Echo has completely mastered the ability to use language and as a result has emerged a fully realized identity. What the viewer roots for in the character of Echo is her anamnesis, literally her “loss of forgetfulness,” achieved by regaining the language ability she possessed as Caroline and lost when she became Echo. As she reacquires language and masters the ability to manipulate it, Echo gains the agency to affect her reality denied to her as an Active. Echo represents hope in the dystopia by demonstrating how mastering language may be used to fight manipulation by dystopian control in order to retain freedom and identity.

In a sense the ending is in keeping with the way in which the rest of the series sets up expectations through language that are continually undermined and frustrated. Dollhouse is subverting any expectations created through its own dystopian fixation with language by resolving the dystopian world of the Epitaphs through technology rather than mastery of language.  In the interest of tying up loose ends “Epitaph Two” concludes with a mass restoration of language and identity that is, presumably, the first step back from the chaotic dystopia.

As Topher’s blanket signal sweeps the globe dumbshows and butchers are eradicated and people begin to regain consciousness from their “sleep.” The act seems to fulfill Echo’s desire to “wake” those who have been imprinted, but it does not feel wholly appropriate as the final act of the series. While the ending reads as an attempt to provide the viewer with utopian hope, Baccolini qualifies such hope in the context of science fiction endings:

Utopian hope does not necessarily mean a happy ending. Rather, awareness and responsibility are the conditions of the critical dystopias citizens. A sense of sadness accompanies the awareness and knowledge that the protagonist has attained. Instead of providing some compensatory and comforting conclusion, the critical dystopias open ending leaves its characters to deal with their choices and responsibilities. (521)

What remains problematic about the end of “Epitaph Two” is that much of the world population has no awareness of what has taken place and no ability to learn from it. Unlike Echo, the majority of the survivors were susceptible to programming because they never mastered language to the extent that she did. Echo serves as an example of how individuals can fight “programming” through awareness and control over language, but rather than structure an ending that values her and her companions for their accomplishment of resisting linguistic manipulation, the end of Dollhouse places value on technology to restore identity.

The global population has their voices stolen by technology and then restored by that same technology, and both are examples outside forces manipulating a vulnerable population. Rather than being an act of liberation, it reduces the world population to the position the Actives held earlier in the series, and transforms the protagonists, including Echo, the manipulators of language assuming the role of the Dollhouse. One shadowy organization is replaced by another and the apex of Echo’s quest to acquire language and maintain her identity puts her in the position of control she originally fought against, which compromises her integrity.


In conclusion I will briefly restate how the elements of language discussed above form a dystopian language that both responds and contributes to the formation of Dollhouse's dystopia. As the world of Dollhouse moves towards dystopia the language of the series reflects that trajectory. Words like“Attic,” “Active,” and “Doll” become a part of a dystopian language as familiar words that are made unfamiliar and threatening through the attribution of new denotative and connotative associations.

As they continue to be used, these words produce a context that is altered by the information contained in their recently added meanings. Since “Attic” “Active” and “Doll” have been associated with Dollhouse control, the context they then produce through each usage reinforces and builds upon that control. The call-and-response sequences of Dollhouse represent the dystopian intent on the part of the Dollhouse to manipulate a group of people. Designed to suppress and manipulate Actives, call-and-response uses language as the medium through which the Dollhouse exerts its control.

The Dollhouse creates an imbalance of power by using its mastery over language to limit the language ability of the Actives, thus limiting their ability to resist manipulation. The breakdown of identity language in the series foreshadows the impending dystopian collapse of society. Language that defines identity is no longer able to provide structure for the rapidly changing notions of identity manufactured by Dollhouse technology, and as a result identity is destabilized. The collapse of identity language is the beginning of the wider destabilization of language in the world of Dollhouse which leaves the Rossum Corporation; and the Dollhouse as the only remaining entities with any control over language.

In the dystopia of the “Epitaphs” (1.13, 2.13) another word has taken on new meanings that reflect the most important threat to the remaining Actuals. “Tech” or “technology” in “Epitaph One” refers to any form of electronics that might be able to carry a broadcast signal. It is through “tech” that Actuals are imprinted against their will to be dumbshows and butchers, and all things considered to be “tech” are destroyed by the Actuals.

While the word “tech” is broadly applied to all forms of electronic technology, the technology from which the threat to the Actuals stems is communication or broadcasting technology. Anything designed to transmit language can be corrupted to transmit dystopian language that destroys identity, suppresses intelligence, and manipulates bodies into violence. While “tech” is violently destroyed by the Actuals it does not eliminate omnipresent danger of being imprinted. What the Actuals must ultimately fear is what Dollhouse uses to create the dystopia over the course of the series: dystopian language.

Some additional concluding thoughts: After Topher restores the world with his sacrifice there will presumably be a process of reordering and recovering language that will create a structure for how the world will recover. Interestingly, it is a process from which the Actives are removed. We are told that the Actives will stay underground for as much as three years before rejoining the world, and therefore will be unable to participate in the initial restructuring.

With their unstable identity language and their programmed call-and-response phrases, perhaps the Actives cannot be a part of the linguistic structuring of the world without starting the process towards dystopia again. It would be worth further analyzing what meaning can be taken from the continued segregation of the Actives and whether they can ever hold a place in a non-dystopian society.

Also, while I discussed how Echo and the Actives engage in a process of language acquisition and express individual identities through language, I did not address what motivates that acquisition or expression. The motivation for language ability is not something imprinted into the Actives, so it must stem from what I earlier termed “essential aspects” of the Actives that cannot be removed by a wipe. Within the series the idea of an “essential aspect” is acknowledged and related to the idea of a “soul.”

Though the series contains very little overt religion many of the characters express a belief in the soul. Characters questions whether a person's soul can be wiped away, if the soul is a component that can be stored on a wedge, or if the soul remains attached to the body. A distinction between original personalities and imprints seems to be that original personalities are in some way connected to a soul while imprints are not. In order to be the seed of the desire for language acquisition the soul would have to be an element that remains attached to the physical body at all times and that cannot be influenced by technology.

However, while the Actives' bodies seem to retain some essential aspect of their individual identity that cannot be removed during a wipe, the dumbshows and butchers show no evidence that they retain anything of themselves after their imprint. I am unsure as to whether any clear conclusion can be drawn from Dollhouse's references to the soul. The issue invites further analysis.


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