JACKI LYDEN, host:
Welcome back to All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Joss Whedon has always been associated with girl power in Hollywood. His signature show, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," was hailed by fans and critics for its strong female leads.
A couple of years ago, Meryl Streep presented an award to Whedon on behalf of the women's rights group "Equality Now." Here's a bit of his acceptance speech.
(Soundbite of speech)
Mr. JOSS WHEDON: The misogyny that is in every culture is not a true part of the human condition. It is life out of balance, and that imbalance is sucking something out of the soul of every man and woman who's confronted with it.
LYDEN: Joss Whedon has a new show premiering this week on Fox. It stars Eliza Dushku, one of Buffy's slayers. This show is called "Dollhouse." And as a character explains, it's about an organization that takes young women and men called "actives," wipes their minds clean and gives them new personalities to match their client's wishes.
(Soundbite of TV show "Dollhouse")
Unidentified Actress: A friend, a lover, a confidante in a sea of enemies. Your heart's desire made flesh.
LYDEN: Joss Whedon joins us now from the studios of NPR West. Welcome.
Mr. JOSH WHEDON (Writer, Creator, "Dollhouse"): Hi. Thanks.
LYDEN: Now, this new show is about having personality erased. And I have to say, looking at it, it looks to me and feels to me like the ultimate misogynistic male fantasy. Tell me how having your personality erased and having someone program a new one into you isn't that?
Mr. WHEDON: Well, I won't necessarily say that it isn't that. I will say that it's very tricky territory, and that the first people that I ever actually pitched the show to, besides Eliza and the network were, in fact, the staff of Equality Now because I knew that would be the toughest room I would ever sit in.
And what I basically told them was I was examining the idea of fantasy and that, you know, some of the stuff that would happen would be good, and some of the stuff that would happen would be kind of awful. And that the whole point was going to be to blur those lines, to talk about what we want from each other sexually, how much power we want to have over each other.
The fact of the matter is that in the wrong hands, it is a completely misogynist thing, except of course, it's happening to men, as well. But what we're trying to do is take somebody's identity away in order to discuss the concept of her identity.
LYDEN: In the first two episodes, Eliza's character, called Echo, she's essentially, and specifically in the second episode, programmed to be a call girl. And it has almost a kind of snuff-film motif in that she has sex with him and then he sets out with a bow and arrow to kill her. She's not in any sense in control of her own life. So why present that type of main female character?
Mr. WHEDON: Well, I do think obviously, the point is you have to take control away from her so that she can get it back. Obviously, the man does not kill her. And the...
LYDEN: She's saved by another man.
Mr. WHEDON: She's helped by another man, but she ultimately ends up saving him. But yes, she is hired by this man to have sex, and all of the actives have that as part of their engagements.
And that is something that Eliza and I set out to do from the start. She wanted to - even before I came up with the idea, I was talking about wanting to do a premise that dealt with sexuality. And the idea that people are being paid to have sex is one that, you know, this country feels very twitchy about, and I know that once the show got on its feet, I think the executives kind of went, oh, wait a minute, we're not OK with that.
But, you know, the way you're reading it is going to be - I think it's going to be read that way by a number of people. But I think, I hope, that there's going to be two sides to it at all times.
LYDEN: You speak about sexuality, but Echo doesn't really have a choice about who she's sleeping with. And that's one of the things that I think is terribly uncomfortable and perhaps, off-putting, she isn't - it isn't consensual.
Mr. WHEDON: That is more or less the case. And it is supposed to be a little uncomfortable, and that's something we get into more in the later episodes. But to say that people are going to be - to have the ability to program other people and are not going to do that, that sex is not going to be one of the first things on their minds, to me, would be very disingenuous.
And yes, it's true that, you know, these people apparently volunteered to just give up their lives. And what's interesting to me is if they decide to give up their lives, if they're told, OK, you're this person. You love to kill. And sometimes, you know, they'll be an assassin or whatever because there'll be crime because it's - you know, an adventuresome show. And then another time, they're like you're going to be in love with this person and have sex with them.
And I'm not saying that, you know, non-consensual sex is ever OK. This is, after all, a science fiction show. But I am saying that we put such an onus on it that nobody says, well, you know, somebody puts a gun in her hand, and she shoots someone, isn't that just as bad for a person as, you know, a sexual act that is, you know, not in any way physically harmful? And you know, some people would argue that it's not the same question, but for me, I think it is part of the same question.
LYDEN: This had a very rocky start with Fox. They asked you to reshoot the pilot episode of "Dollhouse" because of creative differences. I don't know specifically what those were, but how has this changed the show from what you'd originally envisioned? I mean you, yourself, said they had an issue with women being presented as paid to have sex, and men being presented, also, as paid to have sex.
Mr. WHEDON: My problem has always been that what happens is that you get the corporations basically enjoying the titillation of the thing without ever wanting to baldly talk about it. The one thing I would say that really had to change from the original vision besides sort of upping the action and conspiracy of the whole thing, which was one of the mandates, was that we sort of had to shy our way around the idea of - that some of these actives are hired by people for sexual engagements, and that wasn't something we intended to do. We really wanted to hit it in the face and say, well, what does it mean? Is it wrong to pay somebody to have sex? How wrong is it to try and create your own perfect experience? When is it appalling and when is it just part of our society becoming increasingly - people becoming increasingly incapable of dealing with other people and living these incredibly insular lives?
LYDEN: You have made speeches on behalf of girls who've been executed in third-world countries who don't have women's rights. Here you have a character who is very much being acted upon, at least in these initial episodes that I've seen. What are you going to say if you find your former supporters becoming quite critical?
Mr. WHEDON: The fact of the matter is I've been worried about this, it's kept me up nights. But I believe that the best way to examine anything is to go to a bit of a dark place. You can't be a storyteller and a speechwriter at the same time.
I did write a blog about Dua Khalil, the girl who was stoned to death and how it had been shown on TV and how appalling I found it. And I knew, from the moment I did that, that it was going to make things harder for me as a storyteller because I was going to be held to this standard that I had set. And you start to worry, well, wow, you know what, they're going to be disappointed by this. They're going to interpret this, you know, a certain way, and they're going to be maybe, you know, people might be angry with me for having come up with a story like this.
But I believe in the story and I believe that what it's going to say and where it's heading is a valid human place, and so, you know, I have to take that risk. I can't just write a polemic. I have to be a storyteller and to be a storyteller I have to go to the dark place.
LYDEN: Joss Whedon is the creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel," "Firefly" and his new series, "Dollhouse." It premieres Friday night on Fox. Thanks for joining us, Joss Whedon.
Mr. WHEDON: Thank you.