I was in the mood for a musical day, so I pulled out my DVD of My Fair Lady earlier today. During the very famous racetrack scene, Mrs. Higgins scolds her son and Mr. Pickering,
“You’re a pretty pair of babies, playing with your live doll.”
That, not surprisingly after our liveblog last night, got me thinking about Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse, its weird take on the Pygmalion myth, and the nature of identity in all of these works.
In the original myth, Pygmalion literally creates a woman, sculpting her out of nothing. He falls in love with his creation and prays to Aphrodite, who gives the statue life.
My Fair Lady is a musical version of the George Bernard Shaw “Pygmalion” story. The biggest leap between the original myth and this story is that the “creator” in this case, Henry Higgins, does not create Eliza out of nothing. She exists before him, and once she has been changed so thoroughly by Higgins’ teachings, she doesn’t feel comfortable in either world. She goes back to her old, lower-class world one night out of a desire to return to what she knows, but she doesn’t fit there anymore.
Higgons doesn’t seem to understand this dilemma at all; he informs Eliza more than once that he created her, and he has no sympathy for her existential crisis. It isn’t until she tells him she’s leaving, and that if he really misses her, he can turn on the records, that he finally gets it. “I can’t turn your soul on.” Who she was before is not insignificant. Higgins certainly changes a lot about the way Eliza behaves and speaks, but she is who she is independent of his creation, and that’s why he needs her.
There is, obviously, a lot of Pygmalion in Dollhouse. After all, the central premise is about the reshaping of, the creation of a new personality in order to conform to a client’s desires. What makes the Dollhouse take on the story so disturbing, I think, is that Echo, like Eliza, existed before. She had a life and a personality. But here, the collective forces of all the Pygmalions have found a way around that. They’ve removed her former self completely from her. She has no past, no self to hold onto except for that part of her that has been imposed on her. Even when she has an identity, it is fundamentally not hers, and they will take it away from her whenever they want. They can turn her soul on and off.
There is a very deep violation going on. That’s why it’s so especially gross when say, Echo’s programmed to have sex with a client. She doesn’t have a choice here. Her free will, her very self is gone, and she’s at the mercy of her creators in a way that not even Pygmalion’s creation was. It’s frightening to think of identity like that. This is not just about objectification: it’s about the commodification of someone’s soul.