Dollhouse: The Eradication of Female Subjectivity from American Popular Culture – Film Review

Dollhouse is reminiscent of Spitting Image by using puppets to provide satirical commentary. However, Dollhouse provides a provocative, acerbic commentary on celebrity culture in a mockumentary style. Love it or loathe it, Dollhouse is designed to shock as it charts the highs and lows of the rising success of child pop star Junie Spoons, drawing inevitable comparisons to the pop singers Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus, and the associated pressures of the surrounding fandom.

Dollhouse is certainly uncompromising and graphic in its outlook to deliver its bleak message about society and its obsession with celebrity. The lines are blurred as to whether Dollhouse revels in the crudeness of the subject matter or whether it is an insightful portrait exposing society’s negativity and the pressure placed upon those young girls whose sole ambition is to be a pop star. Frankly, Dollhouse is disturbing and problematic in many respects.

Dollhouse is a frenzied journey following Junie Spoons using tabloid headlines, candid interviews and eye witness footage as a critique of the toxic construct of a child pop star. The viewpoint is objective but seems to exert a degree of manipulation with its exposure of a pushy mother behind Junie’s success who literally ‘pushes’ her daughter. Such horrifying activity almost seems to be celebrated as it is repeated through the gaze of several television reports and sensationalised.

Junie Spoons music video
Junie Spoons music video

Dollhouse reveals that behind the scenes viewpoint of a marketing machine in operation, even in such scenarios that would usually be the subject of public outrage but are instead exploiting a teenage girl to create a ‘child star’! This is a concept repeated throughout the film as there are several wince inducing moments of public humiliation. Such moments do create that modicum of hope that a responsible adult may intervene to save Junie and prevent the descent into a meltdown in response to the societal pressure. Dollhouse, however, is not that type of film and so it displays society’s build up and ultimate destruction of Junie Spoons graphically.

Junie is only 12 but, throughout the more sensationalised moments of the film, she goes through a shotgun wedding, which may be reminiscent of Britney, all of which is publicised. There is also the inevitable backlash from society when Junie’s face is revealed on one of those intimate tapes that should never go viral. Dollhouse explores that hypocrisy as only the woman, who is a girl in this instance, is the subject of such public shaming, is demeaned and becomes the subject of offensive sexual slurs. As Dollhouse is never subtle, these elements highlight the obsession with a puritanical public image and that disassociation from others that may happen to be caught on camera for taking part in the same sexual activity.

Such situations have also been witnessed in real life with the infamous Superbowl incident, on US television, with a wardrobe malfunction of which the blame and the public shaming lay solely at the feet of the woman. Dollhouse holds a mirror up to such misogyny but the question also arises as to whether the depiction of such incidents in such a graphic manner also results in the film being complicit in such misogyny, objectification and the male gaze ultimately.

Dollhouse is primarily a work of feminism as a first feature from director Nicole Brending and is the winner of the Grand Jury Narrative Feature Prize and the Spirit of Slamdance Award at the 25th Slamdance Film Festival. The film was also launched at the 2020 Online Cannes Film Festival and it is easy to see its attraction to festivals as Dollhouse is a brave examination of this toxic culture with the over sexualisation of child pop stars.

The use of puppets in Dollhouse may remind us of dolls that are fragile but easily disposable just as the young child pop stars may be. Equally, there is something grotesque and absurd about the puppets, with their caricaturing, the controversial antics depicting the brutal dimensions of such celebrity world and the emotional abuse directed towards such child pop stars. Brending’s use of puppetry, in this critique, does enable Dollhouse to explore extremes that may not have been possible or indeed palatable with the use of real life actors.

Dollhouse is unsettling in its quest to expose these truths and its controversial, honest approach will not appeal to all. The humour is puerile, at times, similar to a South Park series but the sexual ambiguity of the nature of the songs sung by the teenagers, presented in footage similar to the style of VH1’s film Behind the Music, provides another no holds barred examination of pop culture within Dollhouse. Again, through the pressures of the marketing, the teenagers deny, in Diane Sawyer style interviews, any sexual connotation within the lyrics.

Similar denials were given by many of the former Mickey Mouse Club presenters that became child pop stars in real life, who disturbingly defended the ‘wholesome’ nature of the lyrics sung instead. Their voices are effectively silenced in this manner and it is uncomfortable to watch. It is a shocking idea to tackle but Dollhouse does so seamlessly with its judgement placed upon the music executives that are seemingly grooming these young girl pop stars rather than attacking the vulnerable teenage girls, as society has been known to do.

Junie Spoons at an awards ceremony
Junie Spoons at an awards ceremony

Unfortunately, despite Brending’s acerbic attack on the patriarchy regarding the toxic creation of and sexualisation of female child pop stars, Dollhouse changes tack in the final act with the arrival of Trans Junie. This section of the film merely seems to be tacked on without adding further commentary to the earlier ideas explored. Brending continues to explore the grotesqueness of celebrity within these Trans Junie scenes but it is lacking the enthusiasm and depth of the earlier segments of the film and as a sub-plot it does not fit Dollhouse’s overall message and seems superfluous. Trans Junie’s role is likely, however, to evoke controversy with its depiction of the transgender community with some bizarre scenes. What is also noticeable is that eradication of the female voice in this final third of Dollhouse, which connects to the film’s title, as Junie is remarkably absent for the most part.

Dollhouse subverts expectations with its critique of the status quo and the objectification of these child pop stars thrust into the limelight. Whilst the current social media culture may assist in the creation of these teenage celebrities there is an element of toxicity that pervades and may ultimately result in such singing sensations being the subject of ‘cancel culture’.

Dollhouse provides a fresh take to such phenomena, subverting the stereotypical tropes, with its blunt approach to storytelling which is compelling but unflinching but will provoke further discussion. Brending has impressively written, directed, produced and edited Dollhouse as well as providing the voice of many of the characters and should be recognised further for bravely tackling such controversial but disturbing topics within this powerful film.

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