Nicole Brending wore many hats on the set of “Dollhouse: The Eradication of Female Subjectivity from American Pop Culture,” a tale of the rise and fall of fictional child pop star Junie Spoons. Brending wrote, directed, edited, and produced the film, voiced many of the characters, and designed the dolls that are used in place of actors.
Brending and I spoke about her film, its feminist messages, the mid-2000s pop culture satirized, and creating a film with dolls in place of actors.
Junie goes through not just the typical rise and fall of a child star, but through some remarkably heightened issues. What inspired you to take her story to such highs and lows?
There’s a number of things. One of the things that the film is satirizing is how the media is always topping itself. After each episode that Junie goes through, it had to get worse, or crazier, or just more extreme. That was the part of the concept of the film, but also the challenge of the film was to see, like, how much more insane can we get? How can we take it to a place that is inevitable but that’s also unexpected?
The ending of the film was a phenomenal twist. It was simultaneously shocking and yet felt like the only logical conclusion to the story. How did you decide to end her story in such a way?
That way this movie is looking at how we destroy women and dismantle them and take from them and so, like, that’s a part of it. So it was kind of like the only thing to do eventually is to discard her when she’s no longer useful, but I don’t want to give away the ending.
There are obvious practical reasons for animating this story — the sexual escapades of a 12-year-old are not something that can or should be filmed with actual actors. The stylistic choice to use the creatively designed and eerie dolls was a really interesting workaround. What made you choose the specific doll-based animation for this film? Did you ever consider other animated forms?
I worked dolls and puppets before, and one of the things that I really love about them is, more than traditional animation, people really seem to connect with them. There’s kind of a living quality to them that a regular animation wouldn’t have. I had this one film some years back called “Operated by Invisible Hands” that was this love story between these two dolls. At first, people are laughing, and they think it’s funny.
Then there’s a point at which they get quiet, and you realize it’s not because they’re not engaged; it’s because they’re so engaged with the love story. I think there’s something there’s that aspect of them that I really wanted to bring to the project. It’s important that people connect to the story.
I also think, like you said, for the purposes of satire, there’s a lot of stuff you can’t do with real people or it would be unpalatable. You could, but it would be unpalatable, like the sex tape, like literally all of the film. In order to really get across the truth of I’ve what I’m trying to explore in terms of misogyny in our perspective on women, I wanted to do it in a satirical way, and I wanted to do it in a way that people could watch and get the meaning from and really, really take some truth from it, but not feel like they were being preached to, and not feel like they were being alienated.
With static dolls, there is an added benefit of style and it contributes to the doll motif throughout the film. However, you do lose facial expressions and body language. Did you ever fear the effect of losing this form of storytelling? As a director, how did you work around that? And how did it factor into your design of the dolls?
One of the things that I enjoy doing with puppets is finding an expression that really captures the essence of that character. That came through the story, and then through the directing of them, the way that we shoot. I’ll get certain angles and certain kinds of staging. It actually really changes your perception of their expression.
And then of course there’s the voice acting, but I’ve had actors say to me, after seeing some of my puppet movies, “Yeah, it really means you don’t have to do much as an actor.” There are tricks to dealing with that, and I kind of prefer it and having the mouths move. It cheapens the effects of them being toys.
One of the other reasons I think viewers like the dolls is that they seem like toys. There’s this idea that you could maybe be doing this at home. To have things that are professionally made, or that were made for them to be on film, cheapens the effects.
For the latter third of the film, the film is hijacked by a new character from seemingly out of nowhere, and that is Trans Junie. What was the inspiration behind that character, and what were you trying to get across to audiences?
What we’re trying to get across to audiences in that part is the eradication of female subjectivity from American popular culture. One thing that I thought about just in terms of the structure of the project was that, eventually, Junie would need to be eliminated from her own story.
I thought about different ways to do it. We always hear about these rooms, you know, of white men making decisions about women’s bodies, but I think there’s another way that women are being silenced right now. And I think that’s through gender politics, actually, which is kind of surprising. Their perspectives are being eliminated. I want to look at the logic behind trans ideology, and then see how that logic was being used to silence women.
I think there’s also just an aspect of, like, looking at how we don’t really even respect women’s talents. It doesn’t matter that Junie’s talented. She just is something that we feed off of, and then we get rid of her. It’s just the image of her that Trans Junie takes on. There’s a lot going on in that.
I would say, generally speaking, when we’re talking about the controversial aspects of the film, it’s definitely this part of it. What I’m trying to really demonstrate, because it’s really happening, is how trans ideology is being used to silence women, and it’s unacceptable. I think as women, we are entitled to define what it means to be women.
The film has a clear message against the commoditization and sexualization of young women in the music industry. How do you want audiences to relate the themes of the film into their own lives?
I don’t see this movie as actually being about a pop star. I think women [have] everyday experiences like this, where they are being silenced or they are being ignored. To me, Junie’s story is very much about trying to look at various ways that we deny women their own subjective perspective. I’ve had many women come up to me after a screening and say, “This is what my life is I feel like. I relate to this, like, entirely.”
I definitely think it has broader applications than just the pop world. I’ve also been really pleased with how a lot of men have said, “You know, I really love this movie.” I feel like it’s a way that men can be a part of the conversation about the subject because it’s not vilifying them; it’s looking at how everybody’s culpable.
I think that’s a really important thing to think about, is that we’re all culpable in misogyny and the silencing of women. It’s a lens, so misogyny is a way that we perceive people. It’s not just a group of people acting upon another. I want people to be thinking about that in their daily lives. Even my manager is said, “It’s actually changed the way that I interact with my wife.” That’s really cool. I think that’s like the best thing you can hope for. It starts conversations.
When I was at Slamdance, a filmmaker came up to me in the filmmaker lounge, and he said, “So what movie did you do?” I said, “I did that one with the puppets.” He responded, “You know, I’ve been hearing conversations about that movie, just like overhearing conversations that I couldn’t stop listening to, because people are talking about that subject matter in a way that I’ve never heard people talk about it.” It’s really exciting. I mean, that’s the best you can hope for. I think it does inspire conversations. I also hope people find it funny, and they can have a laugh at the same time.
Real-life pop culture, especially mid-2000s, clearly inspired lots of the aesthetics and events of the film. What was the intention behind that choice? Was it contemporary pop culture or was it more to sort of couch it in a sense of reality, or both?
It’s a little of both. I was thinking of the Britney Spears video “…Baby One More Time.” She’s super sexualized, in a Catholic school uniform, but like she’s like 15. I mean, she’s a child. When I was working on the songs, we were trying to go through an evolution of the music, but then also how the music videos might change as well, with them based on the kind of videos that I’ve seen. To both, not mock them, but satirize them, but also to give people a sense of “this is the world that we live in and this is really happening.”
The songs they felt like music that I grew up on, that early-mid 2000s pop. I was at a party a few months ago and parties were still happening and people playing throwbacks, when we collectively realized how some of the lyrics that we would scream at age like eight, nine, ten. Things like Rihanna’s S&M, or Britney Spears lyrics, that we didn’t understand at the time. Your film did a great job with highlighting like these innocuously shocking lyrics for children…
So funny, it was like, you have that one Christina Aguilera song, “Genie in a Bottle,” and it’s so dirty. They would do interviews with her, and she’d say, “No, it’s not about sex. It’s about respect.” It’s funny how people will try to buy into the marketing even though they know deep down that the messages are there. “Genie in the Bottle” is like, “You got to rub me the right way.” Not all about sex. But you can tell people it’s a metaphor, and for some reason people buy it for a while. I find it fascinating how over and over again, the marketers with the labels try to deceive you that something blatantly sexual is not sexual.
Speaking of that era in pop culture, what is your opinion on the #freeBrittney movement? That whole story seems like something straight out of your film.
Yeah, #FreeBritney certainly feels like an episode straight out of Junie’s life. We’ve even adopted a #FreeJunie hashtag. I haven’t been following too closely, but Britney’s conservatorship certainly looks to be a way for some people to profit off of her. Conservatorships are really only for people in comas or who are so severely mentally ill, they can’t function on a daily basis. Since the conservatorship went into effect, she’s had a Vegas show and was on “The X-Factor,” working the entire time.
Again, I think we are getting back to this principle that women are a kind of property and not autonomous, conscious people. Britney has suffered from a very classic method of control, which is to permanently label a woman as crazy if she acts out. The fact that it’s led to conservatorship and control over her assets is a symptom of how little we regard women and their ability to manage their own lives, and how easily their assets can be taken from them.
If she’s so mentally ill that she needs constant care, then she shouldn’t be working. She should be getting care. But if she’s still capable of making the kind of money she makes, then it would follow that she is capable of managing her own life. Instead, she’s a cash cow for others while she has to ask permission to go to Walmart to spend her own money. It’s disturbing. But, unfortunately, not surprising.
In a film with several unsettling aspects, I found the PhD character to be the one that got under my skin the most. I didn’t really know what to make of him until the ending. What was the purpose of his character, and what did he represent?
He’s the kind of guy who says he’s a feminist but doesn’t actually respect women. He represents a man who thinks that studying feminism entitles him to certain kinds of attention from women. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the SNL skit where these guys try to pick up a woman at a bar, and when she says no, they’re like “Screw you, b-tch.”
He’s a creepy guy. I mean that’s kind of his deal, that he uses academia, he uses all of this rationalization. You see that a lot of those who commit sex crimes against women have a way of thinking, they’re treating her as if they were, you know, gentlemen.
So in the setting, I don’t think there really is a character other than him that really represents a kind of hostility towards women in deeper, sexual kind of way. He is sort of obsessive, thinking women are objects, women are things to be controlled, really in a basement dungeon kind of way.
What’s up next for you?
I have a couple projects. I’m working on a feature based on my experience when I was a stripper. I think it…ought to be a totally other debate that we have, but I read about how radical feminists tend to be really anti-sex work. I don’t consider myself a radical feminist, but I don’t disagree with that.
However, there are men who make money out of their bodies too, like as construction workers. I actually didn’t feel as exploited being a stripper as I do as a screenwriter. I also have a something in the pipeline on a woman mathematician.