Pristine Ong enters the Dollhouse and chats to its Aussie star, Dichen Lachman.
Even from their graves, Buffy Summers and Sydney Bristow cast long shadows.
I’m at Supanova, the fan convention for sci-fi, fantasy and anime. I’m doing a postmortem of the recently axed American show Dollhouse, amidst the constant waves of applause and cheers from the Cosplay competition behind me. Dichen Lachman, the Aussie co-star of Joss Whedon’s latest show, is excited to be back home from Hollywood to meet fans, friends and family. But when I raise the comparison between Alias and Dollhouse, Lachman sighs, “The only thing I can say about Dollhouse is that everyone at Fox wanted it to be Alias and it just wasn’t. Dollhouse was a lot darker and it went to very different places.”
Set in Los Angeles, the show revolves around the idea of bodies for hire. A man needs a date for dinner tonight. A recently widowed father needs a surrogate mother for his child. A thief wants to pull off the perfect crime. Enter Dichen Lachman and Eliza Dushku, who play “dolls”—people programmed to play characters that fulfil your needs and fantasies.
The challenging premise that appealed to the show’s small but loyal fan base was perhaps what led to its cancellation. “It had undertones of human trafficking and prostitution,” Dushku says. “It was socially and culturally controversial in many ways. That was something we wanted to do—to talk about puritanical America and how some of the most absurd things are considered acceptable but you can’t talk about sex!”
Despite its early demise, Dollhouse joins ranks with other “kickarse women” (Lachman’s words) of the action genre. The arc of the show focuses on how Lachman and Dushku’s characters wake up from their doll state to fight against corporate power and misuse of technology.
Yet, for every Sydney Bristow or Lara Croft who punches her way through the traditionally testosterone-filled genre, there’s a swooning Megan Fox who needs rescuing. Pop quiz: think back to these shows and films—do the female characters talk to each other, and if so, do they talk about something other than a man? It’s the Bechdel test. So, for the action heroine, does independence mean, well, the nunnery? Lachman says, “To be an empowered woman, you don’t need to be on your own. As a woman, I’ve crossed a lot of bridges and fought a lot of wars, but for a lot of the time, I’ve had someone in my life who’s been very supportive. I think I’m a strong person but I’m not afraid to say that there’s someone in my life who helped give me strength.”
As an Asian-Australian actress, Lachman encountered a lot of resistance. She says, “I got external resistance from people who said, ‘You’re too exotic.’ I encountered a lot of racism when I was a kid, but the thing is, it’s really changing now. Being a minority in Hollywood is a great thing now.” She cites Maggie Q’s lead role in Nikita and JJ Abrams’ casting of two black actors in his newest show Undercovers. “That is a huge step forward for America,” she says. “For a guy like JJ Abrams to have the complete confidence to have two African-Americans in the lead—that’s never been done before. It’s really changing and in a really positive way.”
Listen to Joss Whedon discuss pop culture and feminism at Sydney Opera House on 29 Aug. Tickets from $49.