Dollhouse: The Eradication of Female Subjectivity from American Popular Culture might be the most grotesque and nauseating films you see this year. It might also be one of the most relevant and important. Following the story of (fictional) teen pop music sensation Junie Spoons, Dollhouse is a mockumentary in the style of a tabloid news special. Along the way, other styles appear including reality TV show and police documentary, complete with interviews, reconstructions, helicopter and CCTV footage. It also boasts music video sequences, a fairy tale told through the pages of a story book, and even 8bit video game graphics.
Writer/producer/director/performer Nicole Brending embraces the various aesthetics consistently and effectively. The camera largely captures its subjects in medium shot while clichés abound in the production design, such as Newton’s Cradle on a desk, books and portraits as well as alcohol and drugs on the tables beside the talking heads as they discuss descents into addiction. There are steady fades from color to black and white, a common device in the documentary style that Dollhouse mimics. The production values are overtly cheap (more on that later) and Brending makes a virtue of this cheapness, making Dollhouse a great piece of independent film. In particular, the filmmaking highlights the importance of editing in general and for sensationalist reporting in particular. Cut from a talking head to news footage to magazine covers, and the continuity is clear. However, the film also brilliantly uses the juxtaposition of obviously faked footage to emphasize manipulation. These devices are a key part of Brending’s merciless dissection of the treatment of women by American popular culture, as the celebrity documentary format captures and continually recaptures the viewer’s attention with another flashy visual or shocking revelation. By faithfully recreating this format, Brending demonstrates how the manipulative narrative works and, perhaps, awakens the viewer to the mechanics of celebrity reporting more generally.
There is, however, a key tension in this faithful recreation, which is that the recreation is done with puppets. That’s right: With a simplicity of design that recalls YouTube’s ItsJustSomeRandomGuy more than “Team America: World Police,” Dollhouse uses cheap-looking fashion dolls to tell the story of Junie Spoons. Jokes about “seeing your strings” and being literally cracked declare the overt artifice while also pointing to the construction of female identity. Slight movements of the puppets in time with the dialogue (many of the characters voiced by Brending herself) create a minimal, yet effective, animation that brings the material to discomfiting life.
The life is discomfiting because, despite the puppetry and absurdity of the events portrayed, Junie’s rise to fame and riches before a tragic fall is familiar and strangely sympathetic. The protagonist’s suffering is recognizable because of what the film pitilessly and relentlessly satirizes, with the sledgehammer subtlety of news broadcast on “The Simpsons.” The dolls are as grotesque as the attitudes on display in the film, as Dollhouse dissects gender attitudes in popular culture with laser precision. Conceits such as topless consultants to undermine the integrity of journalism and fans literally paying to have sex with Junie are exaggerations for the sake of satire; yet these moments carry an uncomfortable truth. Junie is continually exploited by her family, managers and fans, indicating that she — and by extension women more generally — has no agency, while those actually responsible for her take no responsibility. Child-starring music videos that equate “dollhouse” with “vagina” and feature visual filters that look like “semen and vaginal fluid” may seem extreme, but check the lyrics of actual pop videos aimed at adolescent girls and the parallels appear. A bald head and drunken tumbles in the street echo Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, emphasizing the popular “trainwreck” narrative of female stars. Fan culture is presented as equally toxic, as we see a Junie Spoons expert shot in such a way as to obscure yet explicate that he is masturbating. The smart dialogue emphasizes sexuality and commodification inherent to the language around celebrity femininity and femaleness.
Commercialized sexualization of the female becomes ever more disturbing as the film progresses. There is reference to the manipulation of birth dates to avoid pedophilia for a marketable relationship; centerfolds in “Playtoy” magazine (geddit?); abuse, booze, drugs, gambling; interviews in which Junie speaks in the vaguest terms about loving her music, her fans and most importantly Jesus, because a girl needs to be devout, especially when sexualized. Brending highlights the double standards of sexuality for men and women: While Junie’s ex-boyfriend’s sexual activities make him a “stud,” Junie is “damaged goods.” The tabloid favorite of a sex tape comes up and is presented in graphic detail. As the viewer squirms, however, it may be worth asking what is more disturbing: That you are watching a sex tape with dolls or that within the fiction of the film this is underage sex? Or indeed the aftermath where the man who had sex with an underage girl decries pre-marital sex because of the importance of a “relationship with God?”
Dollhouse wins no awards for subtlety, from a celebrity imitator dubbed Some Guy Named Larry to a cop whose badge is a dollar sign to protests over “All Junies Matter.” But perhaps such absurdity and heavy-handedness are necessary to make us deeply uncomfortable about these aspects of culture, which are even more problematic by virtue of being normalized. It is an impressive feat that the film generates sympathy and disgust despite the characters being almost immobile dolls. Claims about being oneself and choosing one’s identity are flatly demonstrated to be untrue — anyone can put an album out under the name of a celebrity if that name and identity is itself a corporate creation. A woman’s vagina being up for auction may seem outlandish but does popular culture not treat women’s bodies as commodities? From the music, fashion and film industries to celebrity fandom to lawsuit culture to a misogynist spiel by President Trump, Dollhouse spares no section of society. Come the end of the film, the viewer may well feel dirty and would be naïve to feel themselves separate from the attitudes and power structures presented in the movie. But then, to feel complicit and therefore guilty is an entirely appropriate response to the subjugation and exploitation of women, making Brending’s film a masterpiece of low budget filmmaking, and a hugely important social document.