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

By Elizabeth Padden
2011, Vol. 3 No. 11 | pg. 1/2 |

Joss Whedon's series Dollhouse was an innovative and problematic example of what can be achieved on network television when no one seems to be watching.  

Dollhouse received mixed critical reviews and a fairly low number of viewers, but it is reasonable to argue that there has never been anything quite comparable to it before. Dollhouse combined elements of dystopian science fiction, fast paced action, and dreamy fairy tales while telling stories that were ostensibly about the sex trade industry or at least the buying and selling of bodies.

This thesis is not going to debate the relative merits of Dollhouse, but rather examine the relationship the series has with . Dollhouse is set in an alternate or speculative future and as a result has an alternate language, resembling our own but for a few key differences. Dollhouse aired for two seasons, from 2009-2010. The majority of the paper deals with textual analysis of the dialogue of those two seasons.

My analysis of Dollhouse is based on linguistic theory and secondary sources pulled from a variety of modern work on linguistics. The earliest work I will be referencing is Sapir's essay “The Status of Linguistics as a Science” written in 1929. My selection of secondary works is limited, as it would be impossible to account for all strains of linguistic theory in one paper. I have selected works for their relevance to an analysis using speculative linguistics to deconstruct language in science fiction.

Working from Myra Barnes' definition of “speculative linguistics” I will use linguistic analysis to examine the created language in Dollhouse (11). A speculative fiction set in an alternate and potentially future world fits Samuel Delaney's categorization of science fiction narrative as a predictive story that depicts “events that have not happened yet” (Delaney 11). “Linguist-writers” of science fiction invent new words and entirely new languages to aid in the creation of new worlds (Barnes 10).

As a subset of science fiction, dystopias tend to feature language designed to exert control over a population. Dystopian tales such as 1984 and Brave New World predict undesirable speculative futures, in which language is used as a tool that allows a small group of people to manipulate and suppress the masses. Usually closely related to the author's present, dystopias tend to use language that is similarly reflects the author's present. The dystopian subjugation of the masses through language can be resisted by gaining language awareness and language ability.  

Dollhouse can be categorized as dystopian fiction, flashing forward in the final episodes of each season to reveal a nightmarish future world in which language ability has been stripped from the masses. The descent into dystopia is characterized by rigid controlling language paired with uncontrolled technological advancement that, together, allows a small group of Rossum Corporation and Dollhouse employees to gain by manipulating the people.

In my linguistic analysis of Dollhouse I will begin by examining four words: Attic, Echo, Active, and Doll, selected for their frequent usage in the series and for their exemplification of the way in which new meanings are associated with words that already have preexisting meanings. Using Hayakawa's definitions of the two categories of word meaning, denotative and connotative, I will deconstruct the preexisting meanings of the selected words and address their relationship to new denotations and connotations associated through context. Literal denotative meanings and associative connotative meanings serve different purposes and Dollhouse uses both categories of meaning to build the speculative world of the series.

The invented and other speculative ideas of Dollhouse create a context that then associates new ideas and new meanings with preexisting words. In some cases preexisting connotations are used as a device to set up expectations that control the perceptions of the viewer. Words with the same denotation and different connotations give different lenses through which to analyze the same events and characters, and a group of words with the same denotative meaning and different connotations can be ordered by the positivity or negativity of their connotations in a ladder of connotation.

As reality is reordered by language, the use of words with negative connotations has the power to shape perceptions of characters and viewers and to some degree shape the reality of Dollhouse.

My second route of inquiry is an analysis of one of the linguistic devices used frequently in Dollhouse; repetition of key phrases. Two structures of repeated phrases, call-and-response sequences and “Doll phrases,” become opposing forces in the subjugation of the Dollhouse Actives. Call-and-response phrases “Did I fall asleep?” and “Do you trust me?” represent a frequently repeated form of controlling language, which manipulates the minds of the Actives.

Through conflation with technology, the call-and-response language becomes performative, taking on the role of technology by actively producing changes in the Actives mental state, compelling trust and limiting intelligence. Initially used in collaboration with aspects of the state and the public, the controlling language created by the Dollhouse evolves into a private weapon used to gain power and suppress enemies by the Rossum. The control that issues from the call-and-response language renders the Actives vulnerable and puts them in a position from which they may be abused.

A further examination of the call-and-response sequences reveals how they are also used to program the viewer, using hegemonic social constructions rather than technology. As with denotation and connotation, expectations are set for the viewer based on preexisting information, in this case culturally accepted assumptions, which are then frustrated, rather than fulfilled, in order to provoke a response in the viewer. The repetition of these sequences serves to reinforce social ideals and then deconstruct them, revealing how much the viewer has been programmed by his or her cultural environment.

A counter measure to the controlling language of the call-and-response phrases are what I term Doll phrases, language imprinted in the Doll-state that gives the Actives a structure in which to express individual beliefs and opinions. An examination of Doll phrases and when and how they are used reveals that the Actives maintain a modicum of autonomy in their language that implies a capacity for individual thought.

Deviations in the form and content of these short phrases maintain a recognizable shared structure of the phrase but demonstrate individuation among the Actives. I propose that these deviations in the structure of the Doll phrases stem from some essential aspect of the Active using the phrase; an “identity” that exists underlying an Active's original, imprinted, and Doll-state personas and that cannot be wiped away by the imprinting process.

The third line of inquiry I will pursue is an examination of identity language and how it is affected as Dollhouse descends into dystopia. Identity language encompasses all language that serves to indicate identity, including pronouns, gender indicators, and “identity phrases.” In addition to the call-and-response and Doll phrases, identity phrases represent another form of repeated language used to identify imprints.

In the face of the Dollhouse's imprinting technology, identity language begins to break down. Pronouns are no longer able to adequately describe the identities of the Actives, and the line between humans and technology blurs as personalities are stored in computer hard drives. The imprinting technology effectively divorces gender from sex, and gender becomes located solely in the mental imprint. An imprint can only be distinguished through language, as it has no stable physical body.

Identity phrases, gender indicators, and gendered language that indicate identity through dialogue are relied upon to determine who an imprint is. Without the physical body and with the constant imprinting and removal of imprints the notion of a set identity becomes unstable and unsupportable. Attempts to counter unstable identity are made by claiming the physical body through language, striving to tie it to a mental imprint. The destabilization of identity is directly related to the destabilization of identity language. When identity language can no longer accurately describe an identity, identity itself begins to fall apart.

These elements of language manipulation lead towards I have termed the “word-pocalypse” an apocalyptic event through which the language capacity of the world's population is widely destroyed, leaving a dystopian world behind. The massive language loss seen in the “word-pocalypse” represents a fear of linguists like Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, who theorize that thought is produced by language (Sapir 209), or David Harrison, who believes that when languages die, some untranslatable form of information dies as well (206).

Dollhouse also features dystopian monsters, dumb shows and butchers, as extreme versions of the suppression enacted on the Actives through the call-and-response language. Unstable identity language leads to imprints being forced upon civilians. Like the changing of word meanings in section two everything familiar has been made strange through a language centric event. The characters of Dollhouse combat their dystopian world and protect themselves through the mastery of language, which enables them to maintain their identities and resist controlling language.

Dollhouse is a contemporary example of dystopian science fiction, set in an alternate world where characters are subjugated through technology and controlling language, leading to an apocalyptic event. As the series progresses the story leads towards a dystopian future glimpsed in both the final episode of season one and the final episode of season two.

This dystopia is brought on by rapidly advancing technology controlled by the executives of the Rossum Corporation who use the unchecked power this technology grants them to manipulate the world to their liking. As Dollhouse descends into dystopia the language of the series becomes dystopic as well becoming more unstable and manipulative. Dystopian language is both a result and cause of Dollhouse's dystopian future, representing the relationship between language and the creation or distortion of reality in science fiction.

Speculative Linguistics in Science Fiction and Dystopia

“Aren't you big brother?” - (Vows 2.10)

Using speculative linguistics as a lens through which to examine and understand science fiction texts, this essay will analyze the language of Dollhouse. Samuel Delaney's essay “About 5,750 Words” will be used to distinguish the language of science fiction and dystopia from other forms of fiction. Discussion of linguist-writers demonstrates how science fictions create speculative languages in conjunction with speculative futures.

Science fiction proves optimal for study with linguistics because of the freedom in science fiction to create new words and new languages, a freedom that remains based on the writers’ conscious and unconscious internalization of linguistic rules. The dystopian sub-genre of science fiction uses the linguistic creation of science fiction as a method of control. Dystopian language can be used to control and manipulate the masses, but language also remains one of the few ways individuals can combat a dystopic power. Because language is valued so highly in a dystopia mastery over language can create and maintain a dystopic world or be the only way to fight dystopian control.

Myra Barnes' book Language and Linguistics in Science Fiction-Fantasy marks the beginning of a new kind of linguistic inquiry. Barnes calls her field of study “speculative linguistics” or “theoretical linguistics” (Barnes 13). She applies linguistic principles in the analysis of language in science fiction in order to determine what level of linguistic theory is enacted by authors both consciously and unconsciously to their fictions. The invented worlds, peoples, and technology of the genre of science fiction lead to the production of new languages some based on the projected future of English and others “alien” in origin, based outside of English or based outside of Earth entirely.

Barnes provides the linguistic framework I will be using, but Samuel Delaney provides an additional set of distinctions that separate science fiction and dystopian fiction from all of literature. Delaney, the author of a number of science fiction novels and short stories, distinguishes the genres of naturalistic fiction, fantasy fiction, and science fiction, He describes naturalistic fiction narratives as events that “could have happened” fantasy fiction as events that “could not have happened” and science fiction as events that “have not happened” (Delaney 10-11).

Linguistically in order to maintain the credibility of a fiction that “could have happened” the writer must utilize the credible language for the time and place in which the novel is set. In naturalistic fiction words and meanings must stay consistent with the usages of the time period in which the story is set, with no little for invention in language. Fantasy fiction covers events that “could not have happened” require no rigidity of language at all. A fantastic world has no relation to the past or present of our reality and thus its language is unburdened by the linguistic development of our historical context.

Science fiction is categorized as events that “have not happened,” the fiction of worlds that could exist. Science fiction stories take place in speculative futures or alternate worlds in which much of the language used is based on our own linguistic development, but some is based on invention of new words or repurposing of existing language.

Language is by no means the main focus of the entire body of science fiction literature, but it plays an important role in creating speculative worlds. Some writers choose to ignore the issue of language, while others make language central to their texts; Barnes terms this second group “linguist-writers”

While many writers ignore the issue of language altogether, a linguist-writer may choose to create an entire language system and build the society around it, just as a biologist-writer would give more attention to alien physiology. For this reason, the imaginary languages found in science fiction are more thoroughly explained and are superior because they are created by linguists who are fully aware of the linguistic principles involved, who choose this medium to explore theoretical possibilities. (10)

Linguist-writers of science fiction create speculative languages designed to describe a speculative future, sometimes popularizing invented words for new concepts that disseminate into the spoken and written language of the present. There are many cases in which words changed or created by science fiction writers for their own purposes have entered the popular lexicon. William Gibson famously popularized the term “cyberspace” with his novel Neuromancer which became the preferred term in 1980s for the world of networked computers.

Before Gibson, Karel Čapek created the word “robot” for his play, “Rossum's Universal Robots,” out of a Russian word for “worker” and applied it to the artificial life forms manufactured to perform manual labor. From its origin as an invented word in Čapek's play, robot has come to be a common present-day term for mechanical and artificial creations. In other cases authors have invented new words or repurposed existing words to describe speculative ideas that have not yet been achieved by science.

Gene Roddenbury's television series Star Trek (1973) popularized the word “beam” as shorthand for teleportation and invented words like “phaser” to describe the invented guns used by the characters. Roddenbury's invented words continue to shape and influence the imagining of speculative concepts which are not yet reality. Star Trek is also known for creating alien languages including Vulcan and Klingon, which are speakable languages with logical grammar structures invented by linguist-writers working for the series.

Whereas science fiction is uniquely optimal for the invention and creation of language, the subcategory of science fiction, dystopian fiction, is dominated by narratives where created language is used by characters or organizations to seek power through the manipulation of language. Dystopias (sometimes called “Anti-utopias”) are the opposing response to the idealized future worlds presented in the utopian sub-genre of science fiction in which humanity has naturally evolved a more perfect society and a more perfect language.

Both Utopias and dystopias are considered “technological and sociological predictive tales,” (Delaney 11), but dystopias are often more closely related to the reality of their writer. In “Claiming Mastery Over the Word,” David Sisk writes that, “Dystopian fiction is fundamentally concerned with the writer's present society, and builds much of its horrific power on extrapolating current trends to what the writer considers their logical conclusions,” (20). Returning to Delaney's definition of science (or speculative) fiction, “events that have not happened” contains all fiction that speculates about future worlds including utopias and dystopias. Dystopian fiction narrows Delaney's definition of science fiction to, “events that have not happened yet,” the “yet” carrying an implied tone of warning that is the basis for cautionary dystopias (Delaney11).

Dystopias usually represent a utopian idea gone cataclysmically wrong, usually when a new world order is constructed by man rather than by natural evolution:

Anti-utopias are the result of social manipulation by intelligent but designing men who occupy the highest social or political status... and who can remain in power only through rigid control of the lower social strata that they have created. These leaders do not rule by physical force, but by social psychology; and their tool is language. (Barnes 149)

Languages created for dystopian purposes are almost always a form of English, easily understood by the reader but subject to sometimes dramatic reordering and revaluing to represent the shape of that dystopian society (Barnes 149-150). In many ways dystopian fiction has become a structure in which writers can directly address their fears regarding language. In George Orwell's 1984, the protagonist works for the Ministry of Truth working on “Newspeak,” a government sanctioned, condensed form of the English language designed to limit expression and control the population.

Aldous Huxley's Brave New World takes a different route, limiting the populations’ capacity to understand and use language by regulating intelligence through eugenics. The acquisition of knowledge and individual thought are suppressed by burning of books in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. The regulation and destruction of language in a dystopia becomes the inversion of the free creation of language seen in the larger category of science fiction narratives.

Dystopian fiction seems to be preoccupied with language and linguistics and the authors of dystopian fiction use the loss, death, manipulation, or over regulation of language as both a symptom and cause of a world gone cataclysmically wrong. In his discussion of dystopian fiction David Sisk writes,

It behooves dystopian writers to base their hellish societies upon concepts that will make most readers simultaneously feel personally threatened and personally empowered to resist. Few concepts meet this dual need better than the idea of language, its presumed ability to control thought, and its presumed susceptibility to manipulation. ( 36)

Dystopian narratives are built upon the power of language to control thought, but they also present language as a way for individuals to fight against manipulation. Characters within dystopias cling to language as a way to gain agency and identity, their own ability to use language protecting them from the power language may have to influence them. For characters in a dystopia losing language ability means losing any individual influence over their lives. Their fear of losing language is a fear of the authors as well, for those who make their living from language must dread its degradation and manipulation.

Dollhouse is a linguistic science fiction with its own system of language that supports the speculative nature of its setting and technology. While the series does not invent new words, it expands the definitions of established words in new ways, manipulating word meaning in order to construct and challenge the viewer's perceptions.

Over the course of its two seasons Dollhouse shows a world much like our contemporary reality descend into dystopia. In the last episode of season one and the final episode of the series the story-world of the series jumps forward in time to show the projected future for its characters and story lines. Complete with wide ranging destruction of property, a breakdown of industry, massive control exerted over the general population through language, and a small group of rebels, these episodes depict a bleak and undesirable future that reflect the established tropes of a fictional dystopia as represented by writers like Orwell, Huxley, and Bradbury.

The technology of Dollhouse wielded by the shadowy Rossum Corporation, whose name cites another dystopian work, Čapek's “Rossum's Universal Robots,” suppresses and programs a select group of people referred to as “Actives. One of the Actives, Echo, becomes our protagonist taking on the role fulfilled by Bernard in Brave New World and Winston in 1984 by beginning to question the system that she is a part of. The Rossum Corporation and the Dollhouse fulfill the role of the intelligent designers of a system that has given them a privileged political and social status, marked by wealth, influence in the economy, and political influence.

The Dollhouse exercises rigid control over the Actives predominantly through technology and language, rather than force. Eventually the technology that has created a system of control that benefits the Dollhouse and suppresses the Actives expands to manipulate the world population.

The evolution of the story-world into a dystopia is linked to a use of language which features the word invention and manipulation of science fiction and the increasing use of language as a way to gain and maintain control over a population featured in the dystopian subset. A arises between the Rossum Corporation and Dollhouse that use language to suppress the Actives, and the Actives and their allies whose struggle to resist the manipulations of the Dollhouse involves gaining control over language.

Constructing Context Through Denotation and Connotation

Prove you're not just an echo - (“The Target” 1.02)

In order to more fully understand the importance of word meaning to the construction of the speculative world of Dollhouse, I will address “Attic,” “Echo,” “Doll,” and “Active,” as examples of words selected for the information communicated by their preexisting meanings. These words will be evaluated in terms of their preexisting denotative and connotative meanings as well as through the new associations they gain as they are repeated in new contexts. Words with preexisting denotations and connotations are essential to building a speculative world like Dollhouse because they bring an existing set of associations from which to determine a context.

In turn words used in conjunction with one another in a specific context may be influenced by that context, gaining additional new denotations or connotations. Dollhouse uses preexisting denotations and connotations of a word to encourage the viewer to form preconceptions about a new idea. In cases in which multiple words share the same denotation but different connotative associations, the different words provide different “lenses” through which the thing they describe can be viewed. A figurative “ladder of connotation” may be used to organize the words sharing a denotative meaning, ordering them by the positivity or negativity of their connotations. The frequent choice of dehumanizing language to denote the Actives creates a context in which they are rendered sub-human. The selection of words for their preexisting meanings and manipulation of word meaning influences the viewer's interpretation of the context and characters of the series.

Starting with the most basic way language conveys information I will examine the two categories of meaning associated with individual words: denotative meaning and connotative meaning. Denotative meaning is the literal or primary meaning of a word, “thought not to vary across contexts” (Johnstone 29).

Denotative meanings are relatively fixed as entries in the shared mental dictionaries of the population, and as in a dictionary, it is possible for one word to have multiple “entries” or meanings. Denotative meaning is also the extensional meaning of a word, or, “something that cannot be expressed in words because it is that which the word stands for.” (Hayakawa 36). Context does affect which denotative meaning is intended when a word has multiple denotations or is being used to describe something new.

In addition to denotative meaning each word has multiple connotative meanings. The connotative meaning of a word exists in a constant state of revision that correlates with the context of each usage. Connotative meaning is the idea or feeling a word evokes or, “that which is suggested (connoted) inside one's head.” (Hayakawa 37).

Connotations do not refer to the extensional world, but instead exist as mental associations between words, ideas, and feelings. What connotative meanings a word conveys is dependent on the context of the sentence, the context of the word within the sentence, the speaker, and the listener. Connotative meaning is dependent on many variables; one word may have many connotations and a word can even have connotations the speaker did not intend.

The only way to completely control both denotative and connotative meanings is to invent a new word. Science fiction affords the opportunity to create completely new words without impunity, giving a writer complete control over what a word denotes and what connotative meanings are associated, an opportunity taken advantage of in works like Brave New World, 1984, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and “Rossum's Universal Robots.”

Dollhouse forgoes this opportunity to denote new ideas and technology with invented words, in favor of using established words deliberately selected for their existing denotations and connotations. Complete control over meaning cannot be exerted over existing words, but the choice to describe speculative science fiction creations with words that have preexisting meanings is a way to manipulate the expectations of the viewer. Barnes notes that dystopian language is frequently built with familiar words, “Most prevalent and most significant is vocabulary, not in the creation of new words, but in the altered meaning which a familiar word takes on within the society; euphemisms abound, and the specialized vocabulary occurs in the area most emphasized in the society.” (150).

Familiar words give the viewer a framework for how to understand the unfamiliar aspects of a created alternate world. Using existing words relates the story-world of the series more closely to reality. Simultaneously, by using existing words to describe the unfamiliar, the writers make familiar words strange, undermining any comfort or stability they provide. The same words used to create the context of the series are affected by the context they create, adding new connotations with each usage and discarding those that no longer have any relevance.

Production of word meaning becomes a circular process where, “some new thing necessitates a social adaptation, and the language is adjusted to express the new concepts, which causes a new pattern of thought, which necessitates adding new dimensions to the grammar, and so on, ad infinitum.” (146). When existing meanings inform a context, that context produces new associations, and those associations go on to produce the context of the next usage.

An example of this circular process within Dollhouse is the word “Attic.” “Attic” starts with an original primary denotation of the space, or room, just below the ceiling of a building, and has connotative associations with “storage” “dark” and “disuse.” When Dominic threatens to, “send [Echo] to the Attic,” for the first time in “The Target” (1.02) a new denotation is created for “Attic” as a place within the world of Dollhouse. Since the viewer has not been given any information as to what the "Attic” actually is – though we must assume it is not an “attic” according to the word's primary denotation based the context and the new denotation of the word “Dollhouse” – we are encouraged to imagine Dollhouse's “Attic” in terms of the preexisting connotative associations of “attic.”

This usage of “Attic” contrasts what is familiar about the word with new information gathered from the way it is used. By applying “Attic” in the context of a threat in “The Target,” it becomes associated with danger, and carries those connotations of “threat” and “danger” forward into subsequent usages, and as “Attic” continues to be applied to new contexts, it gains additional connotative meanings. Described as “signing a death warrant” and a “mental suck,” (“A Spy in the House of Love 1.09) “Attic" is associated with new connotations of physical harm and mental deficiency.

Connotative meanings can give real information, but they can also be deceitful. The connotations of “Attic” that associate the place with the feeling of being threatened and frightened create a framework for how the viewer should respond to the world of the characters. However the connotations that manipulate expectations of how the “Attic” appears visually and what function it serves are deliberately misleading, designed to trick the viewer into forming an idea of the “Attic” that is not based on any physical evidence.

When the “Attic” is finally revealed (“The Attic” 2.10) its unclear spatial relationship to the rest of the Dollhouse and the nightmarish technology it houses attach meanings to the word dramatically different from the pre-existing denotations and connotations of “attic.” Using purposefully misleading information Dollhouse creates an opportunity to control the viewer through their expectations in order to create more surprising and suspenseful revelations by defying those expectations.

During the process of attributing new connotative associations through new contexts other existing connotations become irrelevant and disassociated from a word. The process of disassociating connotations becomes significant in the case of the word “Echo.” Each Active is given a designated signifier chosen from the NATO phonetic alphabet and “Echo” is chosen to designate the protagonist of the series, an Active played by Eliza Dushku. In its original context the word “echo” denotes aural reflection, a repetition of sound that rebounds and fades.

The Dollhouse uses “Echo” to denote the body of an Active, while the series Dollhouse uses “Echo” to denote both the body of an Active and the emerging consciousness attached to that body. The existing connotative meanings for “echo” - memory, vestige, remnant, ghost, and mimic - inform the initial characterization of “Echo” as an Active that seems to have remnants of the body's original personality, Caroline. Using the word “Echo” to signify the protagonist is a deliberate choice to contrast the character's development against the preexisting connotations of her designation. In the second episode of the series Echo is told to, “Prove [you're] not just an echo” (1.02 “The Target”), setting up Echo's development as a personality and identity separate from those of Caroline.

Echo sets about proving her individuality, first with small hints of consciousness evidenced by her desire to finish an engagement in “Man on the Street” (1.06) and her request to be imprinted in “A Spy in the House of Love” (1.09), then with blatant statements and control over her imprints in “Belle Chose” (2.03) and “Meet Jane Doe” (2.07)). When she verbally claims “Echo” as an identity in “The Attic” (2.10) declaring, “My real name is Echo” she revises “Echo” from a signifier to a name, locating an original identity in a word with old connotations and denotations that are in direct opposition to its new associations with originality.

The conflict between the new denotation of Echo as a name and old associations makes “Echo” ironic, with preexisting meanings rendered inaccurate as the gradual revelation of Echo's individuality breaks with expectations they had created. As “Echo” evolves as a consciousness independent of Caroline, the word “Echo” is made into a name revising associations that indicate Echo is a reflection of something else in order to create her identity as an individual.

Those connotations no longer relevant to creating or understanding the context of “Echo” as a name and an identity are disassociated. By making “Echo” a name Dollhouse destroys the preexisting meaning of the word “Echo” leaving it completely open to new associations.

Words with different preexisting denotations and connotations are assigned the same new denotative meaning to give different “lenses” through which to understand the context of Dollhouse. The two primary words used to denote to the people who reside in the Dollhouse and have been altered by the imprint technology are “Doll” and “Active.” While both words are given the same new denotation their preexisting denotations and connotations are comparatively different, which affects the way they shape the context of their usage.

The preexisting denotation of “Doll” is a model of the human figure, often a child's toy, while “Active” has an existing denotation as an adjective is used to describe someone or something engaged in a physically energetic pursuit. Both “Doll” and “Active” were selected because of their previously existing denotative and connotative meanings which create points of contrast, and using both words links the disparate ideas together giving the viewer two connected sets of information through which to interpret the “Actives.”

Applied as a noun in the context of Dollhouse, “Active” denotes a resident of the Dollhouse. That denotation is combined with the word's previous denotation as an adjective; “Active” simultaneously identifies and describes the Dollhouse residents. When the “Actives” are “engaged” they are programmed as a specific imprint and to engage in a specific activity. “Active” is a word associated with ideas like motion, restlessness, physical engagement, mental awareness, purpose, and even health and wellness.

It is a more sanitized word, void of the patronizing insulting tone of “Doll.” Even when it is used to denote humans “Active” evokes positive feelings of health and well being, reflected by the general health, physical prowess, and attractiveness of the “Actives” themselves. “Active” seems to be the corporate word, predominately used by the Dollhouse's parent company, Rossum, through their representative of face of the company in the Dollhouse, Adelle DeWitt, in meetings with clients (“Ghost” 1.01).

Though being an “Active” is not a desirable situation, the connotations of the word “Active” and the level of regard it connotes remains preferable to alternative terms like “Doll” which have less positive connotations. In addition to its denotation as a child's toy, “Doll” evokes words like triviality, play, plastic, constructed, disposable, and manipulation. “Doll” connotes something synthetic and constructed, reflecting the nature of the imprinted “Dolls,” whose personalities are constructed by technology. Through the imprinting process “Dolls,” like the figurine “dolls,” can be posed, manipulated, and played with, a prospect that becomes disquieting when applied to human beings.

The connotations of manipulation applied to “Doll” temper the positive corporate spin the connotations of “Active,” painting a bleaker picture of the level of autonomy and free will the “Actives” possess. The word “Doll” also influences our understanding of the administrators of the Dollhouse and their corporate “Actives” by connecting them to children playing with toys, implying that despite their authority, they are no more responsible towards the “Actives” than children are towards the objects they possess.

“Doll” and “Active” also provide a way of understanding the Dollhouse residents and the way they are treated in terms of gendered language. Both words have differently gendered connotations, but both are consistently applied to “Actives” as a whole regardless of their sex or current gender identity. “Doll” has historically been used as a slang term for an attractive woman, something referenced in an exchange between Daniel Perrin and Echo in “The Public Eye” (2.05).

In many ways all the “Dolls” in the Dollhouse, both male and female, are “feminized” because they are gazed upon as objects of desire. In accordance with Laura Mulvey's discussion of modes of looking the “Dolls” are systematically objectified by the gaze (typically gendered male), and often dressed as fetishistic fantasies with no real existence outside of being desired. As “Dolls” the “Actives” are objects to be fetishized and objectified; part of their journey as characters is to rebel against that kind of objectification becoming subjects rather than objects.

Femininity is also connoted through the association of the Dollhouse and the “Dolls” with toy dolls and dollhouses. Primarily designed for and marketed to young girls, toy dolls are associated with femininity and are stigmatized as inappropriate for boys. The male appropriate counterpart, the “action figure,” can be associated with “Active” which has more masculine connotations. “Active” is a word put in place to create an air of respectability around the Dollhouse by the predominantly masculine hierarchy of the Rossum Corporation (in which Adelle is the only woman who appears to have any agency) and so it becomes associated with patriarchal power.

When it is used to denote Dollhouse residents out on engagements “Active” shares associations with the word “agent,” creating a parallel between the Dollhouse and its “Actives” and the predominantly male hierarchy of government and it's “agents.” This parallel between Active and agent implies agency for the “Actives” both male and female, something that is completely denied to them in the word “Doll.” The connotative associations of “Active” with power and agency are more positive than the connotations of “Doll” which give no agency, only objectification and manipulation. The male gendered word seems more desirable that the female gendered word, but the desirability of “Active” over “Doll” is illusionary because both words and both sets of associations are linked through their application to the same object.

Because of its connotative connections with ideas of the “synthetic” and “constructed,” use of the word “Doll” immediately makes the viewer question how “real” the residents of the Dollhouse are, if they are being manipulated, and who is “posing” them. As “Doll” is used by the handlers to refer to the “Actives,” it emphasizes the idea of manipulation and the power the Dollhouse has to control its residents. Though Echo and a few other Actives are increasingly able to resist manipulation by Dollhouse technology they are still controlled by the context Dollhouse has created for them.

The word “Active” becomes ironic as the series progresses, its preexisting connotations of activity, movement, and purpose coming into conflict with the passive malleable identities of the “Actives” in the Doll-state. Though in the “Doll-state” they engage in physical activity for the purpose of fitness, “Actives” have no ability to design or enact self-motivated actions beyond deciding whether to swim laps or do arts and crafts. It becomes apparent that the agency connoted by “Active” is non-existent, and the only actions the “Actives” are able to carry out are tasks assigned by outside forces.

“Doll” and “Active” are just the most commonly applied terms in a larger collection of words used to denote the “Actives,” all of which have widely different connotations. Concepts that are denoted by multiple words form, what I have termed, a ladder of connotation that contains words with connotations that range from negative, to neutral, to positive. The ladder of connotation for words that describe the residents of the Dollhouse includes the words “Doll” and “Active,” but also “Whore” (1.09), “Victim” (1.10), “Pets” (1.08), “Sleepies” (1.10), “Zombie slaves” (1.12) and “Special needs” (1.02), all used at some point to refer to the residents. The ladder orders these words by the positivity or negativity of their connotations. If I reduce our ladder to the words that appear more than once out of the above group, the ladder looks like this:

negative. _____Whore_____ Doll_____Victim_____Active_____positive

with “Active” at the most positive position and “Whore” at the most negative. “Whore,” which evokes the sex industry, coarse physicality, and is commonly used as an insult has the most overtly negative preexisting connotations. Neither “Doll” nor “Victim” can be considered “positive” but a hierarchy of the words is created in the episode “Haunted,” when Paul is reminded by his friend in the FBI that the actives are “Victims” when he calls one a “Doll” (1.10), making the “Victim” more sympathetic and positive than the “Doll.”

The most important distinction is that “Victim” connotes a person who suffers misfortune, while “Doll” connotes a manufactured thing, not a person at all. The Dollhouse uses word choice to reveal aspects of the characters that populate the series. Adelle DeWitt primarily says “Active,” in part to keep to the company line, maintaining a veneer of positivity around the organization, and in part out of genuine desire to see the Dollhouse as a positive place. Claire Saunders also rarely strays from corporate language when she speaks about “Actives” and “engagements” which could be a measure of respect for the “actives,” or may in fact be a result of literal programming, as she is revealed to be a former “Active” herself. Topher's role within the Dollhouse as programmer makes him the manipulator of the minds of the “Actives,” he frequently says “Doll” (“Did I just lose an argument to a Doll?” [1.09]) emphasizing his role as the child playing with his toys.

Lawrence Dominic most noticeably says “Doll” when he is under pressure in “Spy in the House of Love” (1.09) forgoing any sort of formality and revealing his underlying dislike for the “Actives.” Dominic uses the word “Doll” to illustrate how distasteful and synthetic he finds them, reacting with horror that he is a “Doll” himself when he is imprinted into Victor's body (“Briar Rose” 1.11). Coming from outside of the Dollhouse in season one Paul Ballard would not know the Dollhouse organization's term “Active,” instead he uses “Victim” and “Doll” words with connotations of suffering and control that support his opinion that the Dollhouse must be taken down and the residents freed.

Despite being a part of the Dollhouse organization Boyd Langdon strays from using the word “Active” into using “Doll,” and has gone the farthest down the ladder of connotation by implying the word “Whore” when he describing himself and the other staff as “Pimps” in “Spy in the House of Love” (1.09). This can be interpreted as lack of regard for his job or for Echo, or as foreshadowing his eventual unmasking as the villain of the piece who, as the head of the Rossum Corporation, is essentially a “Pimp” interested in the buying and selling of bodies.

“Handler,” “Babysitter,” and “Pimp” run a similar ladder of connotation for describing the caretakers of the “actives.” When Boyd describes the people who work at the Dollhouse as “pimps and killers” (1.09) he is not inaccurate in describing his role in of some of the work the Dollhouse engages in. He allows the negative connotations of those words to express his feelings about his job and the company, as does Paul when he is employed by the house.

Paul uses the word “Pimp” as well to describe his role (also implying the “Actives” are “Whores”) but the context of his statement, “I don't like being your pimp” (“A Love Supreme” 1.08), makes it less harsh and tones down the negative meaning. Boyd's statement has no context of remorse or unhappiness with his position as “Pimp,” while Paul's is directed to Echo and evokes his unhappiness with this characterization.

One of the consistent features of the words used to describe the “Actives” is that they are all dehumanizing along the lines suggested by Coker in “One of Dollhouse.”

The use of language is important in the dehumanization of a person. In our society, women are dehumanized with words like “bitch,” “cow,” “cunt,” “babe” or “baby,” etc. The terms consistently emphasize sexual and mental reduction. In Dollhouse, the codification for Dolls is similar. (231)

“Actives” are very rarely referred to as people, and if they are it is often in reference to their original personalities rather than their current state. In “Needs” Lawrence Dominic tells the handlers to, “Think of them as pets,” (1.7). The handlers and management are instructed to view the Actives as inhuman, “They are not friends, coworkers, or colleagues, not even human: they are pets,” ( 231). The words used to describe the people living in the Dollhouse frequently reduce them to faceless bodies (“Actives”) and manufactured technological products (“Dolls”).

The repetition of these words serves to strip the actives of their humanity and reduce them to objects. In his essay “About 5,750 Words.” Delaney writes that in Science Fiction, “The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words.” (Delaney). The language used by the handlers and the administrators of Dollhouse manipulates the reality of the “Actives,” by influencing how the handlers and the viewers understand the Actives and how the Actives view themselves, actually dehumanizing them through language.

Repeated Phrases in Programming and Resistance

Did I fall asleep? - (“Ghost” 1.1)

Repetition of phrases features heavily in the dialogue of Dollhouse, and is used to affect and control the mental landscape of the Actives. In both of the frequently repeated call-and-response sequences, designated by the call questions “Did I fall asleep?” and “Do you trust me?” repetition of sequences in conjunction with technology conflates technology and language. The product of this conflation is language that performs the function of technology. The call-and-response sequences have the ability control the thoughts, actions, and perceptions of the Actives through technological “programming,” and are used to suppress and manipulate the Actives both inside and outside of the Dollhouse.

Repetition of the call-and-response phrases in Dollhouse also “programs” the viewer by appealing to the hegemonic expectations and values of the viewer's society. The controlling language of the call-and-response sequences are contrasted with the moments of individual expression the Actives find through “Doll phrases.” The Actives use “Doll phrases” to assert individuality in the face of Dollhouse suppression. By making slight modifications to the structure and content of imprinted “Doll phrases” the Actives set themselves apart from one another and reveal that even within the Doll-state some underlying aspects of identity cannot be wiped away

“Call-and-response” refers to a form of linguistic interaction between a speaker and one or more listeners in which every utterance of the speaker elicits a verbal or non verbal response from the listener or listeners. Call-and-response sequences are composed of two parts, the “call” phrase that initiates the sequence, and the “response” phrase that completes it. There may be multiple call phrases, each with its own response phrase or action, in a call-and-response sequence. In order to be successful, call- and-response phrases require interaction between at least two participants, someone to initiate the call and someone to complete the response.

Dollhouse adapts call-and-response language to the programming of its Actives using the frequent repetition of call-and-response sequences as a method of control, suppression, and manipulation. The call-and-response phrases used in Dollhouse are performative, actually causing a change in the mental state of the Actives when they are initiated. The language is also extremely repetitive using the same phrases to elicit the same responses without variation. The two sequences which I will refer to as “Did I fall asleep?” and “Do you trust me?” both trigger different programmed responses in the Actives each time they are used.

Appearing multiple times in the pilot episode and in every subsequent episode of the series, “Did I fall asleep?” is the initial phrase in a series programmed to be repeated by an Active when he or she has been wiped of an imprint. To initiate the sequence the active asks the call phrase, “Did I fall asleep?” and a programmer or handler answers with the response phrase, “For a little while.” In some instances the sequence continues with the Active asking “Shall I go now?” to which the handler responds, “If you like,” but as the series continues the latter part of the sequence is often left out or cut away. This call-and-response immediately follows every wipe and is primarily used as a diagnostic tool to check whether an imprint has been successfully removed. It also signals the return an active to the Doll-state.

Since, for the majority of the series, personalities can only be wiped through the use of a specialized chair and computer system, the sequence is predominantly used (with a few notable exceptions) when the active is in direct contact with the technology. In effect “Did I fall asleep?” becomes a part of the technological process of removing personalities; an Active's imprint has not been wiped away until the call phrase is voiced. Repetition of the call-and-response phrases when the active is in direct contact with the imprint technology begins to conflate the two, becoming most evident when the chair is not present (ex. remote wipes in “The Grey Hour” (1.04) and “The Public Eye” (2.05)) the call phrase, “Did I fall asleep?” is the lone signifier that a wipe has taken place. Language, in effect, becomes technology, though its association with technological processes.

Each time the call-and-response is spoken the sequence becomes the process through which the imprints are wiped, changing the mental state of the Actives returning them to the Doll-state. As the resting state between engagements, the Doll-state is a standardized imprint that suppresses intelligence, emotion, and language ability leaving the Actives helpless and pliable in the face of the manipulations of the Dollhouse. “Did I fall asleep?” comes to represent the technology that removes both the original identities and imprints from an Actives body, leaving them in the Doll-state, vulnerable without full control over their minds, their bodies, or their language.

In relation to the individual recruitment of the Actives, a trajectory emerges that shows the Dollhouse slowly privatizing controlling language. “Did I fall asleep?” and the suppression through programmed language is initially used in collaboration with the state. Of the known Actives the one recruited earliest in the continuity of Dollhouse, is Alpha. As an incarcerated criminal, Alpha is given the chance to become an Active for the dual purpose of serving his prison sentence and suppressing his violent tenancies with the technological language of the Dollhouse (“Omega” 1.12).

Alpha's recruitment and term as an Active demonstrates a collaboration between the United States prison system, a representative of state government, and the Dollhouse. By serving his prison sentence as an Active, Alpha is an example of how the controlling language of the Dollhouse is initially used in the mutually beneficial service of the Dollhouse and the state, fulfilling the needs of the government by contracting out prisoner care and incarceration and the needs of the Dollhouse by providing bodies to make into Actives. From working with institutions the Dollhouse integrates its form of controlling language with the public sector volunteering the Doll-state as a service available to members of the public.

Both November and Victor are citizens without any direct ties to the Dollhouse or orders from the state, who volunteer to become Actives because they are seeking a form of suppression for their memories and emotions. November uses the Doll-state to suppress her debilitating grief at the death of her child (“Needs” 1.07) and Victor hopes the mental rest provided by the Doll-state will cure his post-traumatic stress disorder (“Stop-Loss” 2.09). November and Victor are both engage with the language of Dollhouse as consenting participants, using the suppression brought on by “Did I fall asleep?” to serve their own needs.

As the series continues the Dollhouse evolves from exerting control through language with consent and for mutually beneficial purposes, to using it privately for the sole benefit of the Dollhouse itself and its parent corporation, Rossum. From working in cooperation with the public, the Dollhouse turns its language of suppression towards private gain, forcing its enemies to consent to be Actives and creating Actives without any consent at all. When Echo's original personality, Caroline, begins to cause problems for the Rossum Corporation she is coerced into giving her consent under a threat of imprisonment or death.

To become an Active is the only way for Echo to stay alive and out of prison, and it allows Rossum to literally silence her objections by limiting her language ability and gain use of her body as well (“Ghost” 1.01). While Echo was at least given the illusion of a choice during her recruitment, in “Belonging” it is revealed Sierra was made into an Active against her will and without her consent to fulfill the desires of a Rossum executive whose advances she had rejected (2.04).

Finally in the case of Daniel Perrin the Dollhouse makes a man into an Active without his consent or knowledge in order to forward Rossum's political agenda (“The Public Eye” 2.05). Every repetition of “Did I fall asleep?” relates an increasingly privatized form of language-based control which services the agenda of the Dollhouse.

Whereas “Did I fall asleep?” uses call-and-response language to suppress the actives intelligence and emotions, the call-and-response “Do you trust me?” uses language to directly manipulate the actions of the actives. Appearing in the second episode of the series “Do you trust me?” is introduced as a way of creating a bond between active and handler, but quickly reveals itself to be a method of control. The following sequence,

Boyd: Everything is going to be alright.
Echo: Now that you're here.
Boyd: Do you trust me?
Echo: With my life.
(“The Target” 1.02)

is initiated by a handler to gain control over an active's behavior. Upon completing the call-and-response, regardless of the personality they have been imprinted with, the active must comply with whatever commands their handler issues without question. Unlike “Did I fall asleep?” after the trust imprint's initial programming “Do you trust me?” is used entirely independent of technology, and remains responsible for eliciting a change in the behavior of the Actives without support from the imprinting technology.

This call-and-response sequence becomes a force of subjugation and manipulation, and another example of how language has become technology. This series of call-and-response phrases is able to infinitely reproduce a standardized mental state in the Actives that renders them completely malleable. The control exerted through those phrases allows the handlers manipulate the bodies and actions of the Actives.

When Topher explains the call-and-response sequence to Boyd he says, “This isn't about friendship, man. It's about trust. From this point on Echo will always trust you, without question or hesitation. No matter what the circumstance,” (1.02 “The Target”). He uses the term “trust” but what the sequence is actually used for is to compel obedience. Feelings of trust are manufactured in the Actives, not only to bond an Active to their handler, but as a method of control. When a handler initiates the sequence they are not really asking, “Do you trust me?” they are engaging in controlling language designed to produce mindless submission.

The submission produced by the call-and-response highlights the difference between statements like “I feel like I can trust you” (“The Target” 1.02) and the call-and-response sequence “Do you trust me?” The first is an observation put forth unprompted by Echo while she is imprinted. She is expressing the “feeling” of trust, different from the mindless abdication of autonomy coupled with the response “With my life.” “Do you trust me?” may evoke an emotional response that is similar to trust, but it also functions to eliminate any form of free will, which Echo's unprompted expression of trust does not.

The manufactured feeling of “trust” that is associated with the call-and-response language of “Do you trust me?” make the sequence more dangerous than “Did I fall asleep?” because, like the Doll-state produced by “asleep” this “trust” removes agency, but unlike the Doll-state it additionally compels the Actives to follow instruction. Sierra's interactions with her handler Joe Hearn demonstrate how harmful “Do you trust me?” can be to the Actives. In “Man on the Street” the call-and-response is used by Hearn to take advantage of Sierra, forcing her through the sequence to have sexual relations with him (“Man on the Street 1.06).

Because she has been imprinted to trust Hearn she is unable to resist Hearn's advances. All control over her physical actions is relinquished to Hearn with her repetition of, “With my life,” and Hearn uses that undeserved level of “trust” to take advantage of her body. Sierra's experience as the victim of call-and-response language in “Man on the Street” (1.06) depicts the way in which language is used in Dollhouse to manipulate and abuse the Actives.

To briefly summarize, the purpose of call-and-response sequences in Dollhouse is to suppress autonomous individual thought and manipulate actions and behavior in the Actives. Over the course of the series this purpose is realized through a trajectory that moves from state to private, as the Dollhouse increasingly uses manipulation through call-and-response sequences to support its private agenda.

In the instance of “Did I fall asleep?” suppression of the Actives is achieved by producing the Doll-state, a state of consciousness that limits emotional response, intelligence, and memory, to eradicate individual responses. After “Did I fall asleep” is uttered Actives lose any agency afforded them by their imprint, their re-entry into the Doll-state ensures they are unable to voice dissent, eliminating any resistance to the manipulations of the Dollhouse. “Do you trust me?” achieves total control over the actions of the Actives by producing a manufactured feeling of “trust” which compels Actives to obey their handler without question. “Do you trust me?” indicates a direct seizure of an Actives' agency by their handler.

Both “Did I fall asleep?” and “Do you trust me?” represent language that has been conflated with technology, taking on technological processes that give them the power to reprogram the Active's minds. Each repetition of the sequences eliminates individuality and autonomy, leaving the Dollhouse as the sole controller and ultimately sole beneficiary of the continued suppression and manipulation of the Actives.

Whereas the call-and-response phrases literally control the Actives, programming them through language that acts the role of technology, “Did I fall asleep?” and “Do you trust me?” also “program” the viewer. Because the viewer operates outside of the logic of the Dollhouse and would theoretically be unsusceptible to the programming that goes on within the Dollhouse. Though the call-and-response language does not work as a form of technology on the viewer, but it has the ability to tap into a more social form of “programming,” using hegemonic assumptions, based on the viewer's experience with television, to influence the viewer's perceptions of the characters in Dollhouse.

In a sense the television viewer is already programmed, conditioned by the familiar formulas constructed for television to have certain expectations of television fictions. Dollhouse makes use of those formulas and expectations to create a framework in which the viewer may be manipulated and mislead.

Dollhouse begins its manipulation of the viewer by positioning the subject of controlling language, the Active Echo, as the protagonist of the series in direct conflict with the viewer's assumption that the series will have a dynamic protagonist who is the motivating force in the story. The repetition of “Did I fall asleep?” makes the Actives inaccessible as dynamic protagonists because it limits their agency, their motivation, and calls into question if they are even “awake.” When Actives ask “Did I fall asleep?” they are interpreting their previous state as sleep, implying that the transition signaled by the call question has moved them from “sleep” to “waking.”

As a part of the controlling language of the Dollhouse the effect of “Did I fall asleep?” is the opposite, acting to suppress the mental wakefulness of the Actives. Boyd and Topher refer to the Actives living a “dream” (“Ghost” 1.01) and Sierra's designates the Actives in the Doll-state as “Sleepies” (“Haunted” 1.08), confirming associations between the Doll-state and sleep. In her essay “A Painful Bleeding Sleep,” Renee St. Louis questions what kind of conclusions the viewer is supposed to draw from the connotations of “Did I fall asleep?”

the Actives are conditioned to ask about their state of consciousness, and they are supplied with an answer that is both a truth and a lie—they have in fact entered a kind of sleep, but coming out of the chair doesn't end it. This sleep is not over and, at least in most cases, did not last just “for a little while,” which points to the reality that this walking dream state is one in which the ability of the Dolls to perceive reality is deeply compromised. (10)

Unlike the Actives, the viewer remembers both before and after a wipe takes place, and recognizing that the Actives are not literally asleep before or after the call-and-response, the viewer must interpret “Did I fall asleep?” as evidence of physical wakefulness and of mental “sleep.” The Actives unawareness of the time they have spent imprinted and their interpretation of engagements as time spent asleep shows how “Did I fall asleep?” halts any dynamic development within the imprinted personality, frustrating the expectation that the Active protagonists be the source of progression in the series. Each repetition of “Did I fall asleep?” asks the viewer to “start over” from the blank undeveloped Doll-state.

Related to the assumption the protagonist must be dynamic in order to fulfill lead a series is the expectation that individuality and autonomy are sacrosanct. The second part of the “Did I fall asleep?” exchange in which the Active asks “Can I go now?” and the handler responds, “If you like” ostensibly gives the Actives a certain degree of autonomous choice and movement. Though the Actives ask if they may leave, the handler’s response does not instruct them with a course of action but instead requires the Actives to make their own decision as to whether they should stay or leave. Yet the continuation of the call-and-response sequence to include “Can I go now” and “If you like” only ever occurs inside the Dollhouse which the Actives, once they are in the Doll-state, cannot leave.

The handler's response, “If you like,” especially gives the illusion that the Actives are not only awake but autonomous, though they are guided everywhere by handlers and caretakers. Though they are able to move around the house like, “free range chicken” (“Getting Closer” 2.11), the Actives cannot leave, they have only an illusion of choice built into their programming. Any autonomy granted to the Actives in this exchange is in name only with the actual purpose of the language working against what the phrase means. As participants in the technological language of the call-and-response the handlers are responsible for the eradication of autonomy and individuality in the Actives. By violating the sacrosanctity of individuality and autonomy, the handlers are coded in the perceptions of the viewer as untrustworthy.

By frustrating the viewer's desire for autonomous and dynamic protagonists, Dollhouse programs the viewer with a sense of paranoia regarding the development of Echo and the Actives. As Echo begins to evolve a personality and identity outside of the programming of the Dollhouse, each repetition of “Did I fall asleep?” comes to represent a threat to that identity. As a piece of language that has become performative, the call-and-response is a part of the process through which imprints are wiped away, which makes every repetition of the sequence an opportunity for Echo's development to be removed, along with the imprint, as she reverts to the Doll-state.

Her continuing repetition of the phrase demonstrates that no matter how far she has progressed mentally beyond the rest of the Actives, Echo is not free from the manipulation of the Dollhouse. She still initiates the call-and-response that exists to suppress her and her fellow Actives, even as she is trying to free herself from that suppression. The Doll-state, signified by the call-and-response, remains one of the few places where Echo is vulnerable through the majority of the series.

Even when it becomes apparent that she has gained a degree of control over the imprinting process the lingering fear remains that she could be put back into the “walking dream state.” Viewers who have invested in Echo must fear that each new repetition of “Did I fall asleep?” might erase her fragile progress, returning the character to the complete blank slate the Doll-state is intended to be, and rendering their investment in her development worthless.

Rather than creating a sense of paranoia and unease in the viewer, “Do you trust me?” is used to lull the viewer into believing that the unprogrammed interactions between Echo and Boyd have more value than the programmed trust manufactured by their call-and-response interaction. Through its repetitions the viewer learns that “Do you trust me?” is a programmed call-and-response sequence that compels a form of trust that manifests as obedience. They also learn that the trust produced by the call-and-response is not voluntary or earned, and that it can be abusive (“Man on the Street” 1.06).

After setting up a framework for how “Do you trust me?” functions, Dollhouse then deviates from that framework in an attempt to create an unprogrammed bond of trust between Echo and Boyd. Echo does what should be impossible in “The Target” (1.02), failing to give the correct response to Boyd's use of the call phrase, and then asking Boyd “Do you trust me?” reversing their positions in the call-and-response. She presumably breaks the control of the Dollhouse by failing to continue the sequence with the appropriate response and never enters into the compelled obedience directed by the call-and-response. By “freeing” herself of Dollhouse manipulation Echo makes the subsequent interaction between herself and Boyd a basis on which to earn unprogrammed trust.

Boyd responds to Echo’s use of the call phrase by continuing the call-and-response in the position of the responder, “earning” Echo's unprogrammed trust by choosing to abdicate the position of power in the call-and-response sequence, and taking on the submissive role of the Active. Ramifications of this interaction and unprogrammed trust are seen when Echo is assigned a new handler. During the trust imprint procedure with her new handler, Echo keeps her eyes trained on Boyd (recalling Topher's expository lecture in “The Target” when he says, “The handler active imprint requires a direct line of sight” [1.02]), “choosing” to continue to trust Boyd over this new handler. These two instances represent the moments where Echo and Boyd appear as equals and “choose” to trust one another.

Apparently unprogrammed and free of Dollhouse manipulation, the relationship between Echo and Boyd falls within the parameters of hegemonic societal conventions of trust, allowing the viewer to designate it as “real.” In a later episode Adelle confirms that Boyd's devotion to Echo resembles the obedience produced by “Do you trust me?” when she says, “You know Mr. Langdon sometimes I think you are the one bonded to Echo, not the other way around” (“Stop-Loss” 2.09).

Her words again put Boyd in the position of the Active, making Echo and Boyd equal in their relationship to one another. Because he trusts Echo without being programmed to and she has demonstrated she can break from the obedience of the call-and-response their trust appears mutual and freely chosen.

Unprogrammed “organic” trust and programmed trust start to blend together as the call-and-response is repeated both in contexts where it obviously performs its function, as well as in contexts in which unwilling obedience is not produced. The viewer is able to ignore the fact that Echo's trust in Boyd was ever programmed, and that as a handler working for the Dollhouse Boyd may in fact be morally compromised. Repetition of the phrase in contexts that feature both organic and inorganic trust, conditions the viewer to associate all repetitions of the phrase with organic trust, and to trust Boyd as well. As a handler Boyd uses the controlling language of the call-and-response to manipulate his Active and becomes the subject of programmed trust, but he also evolves an “organic” trust-based relationship with Echo. Aiding the viewer in the belief that he is worthy of organic trust, Boyd is performs a variety of culturally valued roles and traits that provide balance to his somewhat dubious role as an employee of the Dollhouse. He is constructed as a father figure to Echo, protecting her both inside and outside of the Dollhouse.

Though his expression of trust in “The Target” (1.02) he treats Echo like an equal, and as she evolves he becomes her confidant, helping her hide her newfound language ability and later to escape the Dollhouse altogether. He protects other Actives in the house as well, saving Sierra from her rapist Joe Hearn. Boyd is trusted and respected by the other members of the Dollhouse staff (Adelle, Dominic, Topher, Dr. Saunders) and gains the respect of outsider Paul Ballard. As a result of the overwhelming unprogrammed trust and the positive societal roles he fulfills, the viewer becomes conditioned to trust Boyd as well.

The revelation of Boyd Langdon as the head of the Rossum Corporation and villain of the series is effective because it is a betrayal of the programmed trust produced by “Do you trust me?” as well as the organic unprogrammed trust that has come to be associated with the sequence. Echo and Boyd's mutual trust is undermined as soon as it becomes apparent that he is culpable for making Echo an Active in the first place, and therefore directly responsible for all of the manipulation and control aimed at suppressing her. Their relationship is no longer mutual because, as the head of Rossum, Boyd has information and resources that give the upper hand. When “The Hollow Men” (2.12) flashes back to Caroline's initial meeting with Boyd before she becomes Echo it becomes apparent that Boyd has been manipulating circumstances to gain Echo's trust since before the series began.

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