Breastfeeding, motherhood, hormones, and Joss Whedon. . .

8 October 2009 at 9:26 pm 2 comments

I’m a big Joss Whedon fan–known simply as Joss to fans of the long-running and pretty darn feminist Buffy the Vampire Slayer series, Whedon has been making fans slightly less happy with his new series, Dollhouse, about a world where people can be controlled and programmed to be whoever or whatever someone else wants. Last Friday’s Dollhouse episode starred Eliza Dushku as a woman programmed to think she was a new mother. We see Dushku’s character hold “her” baby, coo to him, apparently bond with him, sing to him, and nurse him, but then when the powers that be decide she’s too bonded to the baby, she’s supposed to just give him up and be re-programmed to forget everything. 

Here’s a link to a brief review of the episode and a clip of the nursing scene; here’s a blog with some quotes from Dushku herself on how difficult it was to play the role.

Personally, I have really mixed feelings about the episode and what it says about motherhood. I do believe that my feelings toward my baby are some of the most intense I’ve ever had, and clearly there’s a huge hormonal aspect to that, but on the other hand, I don’t think I merely love my baby because my hormones (as the episode implies) programmed me to. Of course, I was totally rooting for Echo (Dushku’s character) to successfully run away with the baby–Thailand, Alaska, anywhere! If only Echo were a better babywearer (in one scene she wears a Bjorn, but in another key sequence she’s awkwardly holding her baby in a carseat/baby bucket while people try to wrest him away from her), then I’m sure she would have won.

What do others think? Does the happy bonding nursing scene outweigh the scary post-partum woman gone haywire scene where she clutches the baby and threatens someone else with a knife? Like I said, I’m not quite sure what to make of this episode overall.



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Book review: Birth Day (Sloan, 2009) Happy midwifery week!

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. bubbasmama  |  10 October 2009 at 6:45 pm

    i think you — and the authors from the links you included — make some interesting and excellent points, christina, and i am fascinated by the way that different people can watch the same story unfold and see and interpret in such different ways. i can totally see where you are coming from, although i saw and felt things a little differently:

    first, i was shocked and thrilled that they had programmed echo TO BREASTFEED. AND THEN THEY SHOWED IT. yes, i realize that joss whedon was using the incorporation of “not just the brain” into echo’s programming to make some new plot twists and points, but it didn’t HAVE to be something so socially controversial as breastfeeding to make this point. lots of incredibly devoted and loving mothers formula feed with no troubles bonding with their children, echo didn’t HAVE to breastfeed, an explanation could easily have been written into the story if the point was merely about echo being a “crazily baby-bonded mama”. and then of course we didn’t have to see echo bare part of her breast and then pull the baby to it. it could have been mentioned, or she could have pulled a cover over the baby to save us from the sight. so my first reaction was just — whoa, this is a seriously intense pro-breastfeeding message that this episode is sending. totally unexpected and kind of thrilling. we’ve seen a lot of eliza’s dushku’s gorgeous rack these last two seasons but this is the first time it was acknowledged in any way that her lovely bosoms may serve any other purpose than to boost the show’s ratings (one might even argue that in this episode they risked lowering them).

    and then second, i felt that this episode also sent a powerful message about a mother’s love for her newborn baby, and i think the show is looking at the way we humans feel love in general as an over-arching theme. that yes, topher turns people’s emotions on and off on a weekly basis — at least at the superficial, intellectual level. the actives really feel the emotions that topher requires, but these emotions are easily wiped out (or in echo’s case, they take a significant backseat) with one flick of a switch at the whim of the folks in charge. but this time they engaged a deeper level of emotional commitment by turning on the “love” for the baby in echo’s body as well. i can definitely see how this could look like mere triggering of a hormonal response and not “real” love — and topher himself (charming idiot that he is) interprets it this way. to topher the mind if merely a computer and the body is merely a machine that he uses this computer to direct its function. so of course he sees the fact that he forgot to “turn off” echo’s “glandular problem” as just that. but to me it just underscored topher’s and many of the staff of the dollhouse’s inability to understand what love is, especially the love of a mother for her sweet tiny baby. when my son was just a few days old, i remember crying when i sat down to eat at the dinner table 6 ft away from the couch where my newborn was sleeping because my body was ACHING from his absence. yes of course i acknowledge that i was sleep-deprived and hormonal, but i also NEEDED TO BE WITH MY BABY, and it was a pull i felt with every fiber of my being and my soul — intellectually, there was no connect at all. i KNEW that my baby was safe and fine without me, that i could use this chance while he was sleeping to get some nourishment without juggling his sweet self and that i even maybe needed a few minutes just to myself to refresh. but THE REST of me was not buying that 🙂 so i actually felt like this episode was in some ways a beautiful representation of both how a mother’s love for her baby is SO MUCH MORE than an intellectual connection but a deep-rooted, whole body bond and how the folks in the dollhouse are pretty much totally clueless in their understanding of this. and i this this message has been presented over and over throughout both seasons — melly “loving” ballard with her mind, but having no connection to him whatsoever after she’s been wiped; dewitt definitely “loves” viktor (in her own twisted way) but despite repeated weekends being in “love” with her as an active he actually recoils from her touch when he’s “just a doll”; viktor and sierra, however, are clearly very deeply emotionally drawn to each other even though they spend most of the time with each other “wiped”, they appear to be “in love” with each other even though they are not supposed to be able to connect on that level as dolls.

    finally, i agree that last scene with the knife and the crazy baby stealing was totally intense and a bit over the top, particularly if taken out of context it’s not very kind to post-partum mothers. but given echo’s general total and increasing imbalance lately, it seemed to me to really fit with what is happening with her character than a commentary on post pregnancy hormones.

    yes, i totally went overboard with my dollhouse nerding out in this comment…!! i just wanted to throw out my initial feelings from when i watched the episode. i love that you blogged about this because i was totally blown away and excited by the breastfeeding in this episode and think it’s a fascinating topic for discussion!

    • 2. Christina Michaud  |  13 October 2009 at 5:11 am

      Ooh, don’t apologize for geeking out on _Dollhouse_ here–I love the show (even if for no other reason than _Angel_, _Buffy_, and _BSG_ actors all in one place) and I agree, I was super excited about the episode. When I heard that it was about motherhood and Echo being brought in to bond with a baby, I told my husband that there was no way they’d show her breastfeeding; then, all the “I changed her on a glandular level” comments at the beginning and I started saying, “well, maybe–but I bet they’ll chicken out,” and I was very impressed that they didn’t.


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