Depictions of Women in STEM: Dr. Claire Saunders

October 04, 2019

Written by: Alicen Ricard

Dr. Clare Saunders Source: Fanpop

Years after Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly ended, Joss Whedon had his most controversial show yet air on television. This one a short-lived dystopian sci-fi thriller called Dollhouse. After being a lovable science geek named Fred on the show Angel, Amy Acker returned to the “Whedonverse” in Dollhouse as medical doctor, Dr. Claire Saunders.

Nothing is what it seems in the world of Dollhouse. In this world, there is a company called the Rossum Corporation which has created the technology to wipe people’s personalities and imprint them with new ones and then rent them out for whatever the client wants. These shells of humans are called “actives” or “dolls”. The problem is, you can’t always tell who is actually a doll in the show.


Whisky and the Original Dr. Saunders Source: Dollhouse Wiki

When we meet Dr. Saunders, she seems to be the only person who actually cares about the dolls’ wellbeing. She’s clearly had run ins with them in the past and has a scar that goes all the way across her face from when she was attacked by a rogue active. We know she is cautious and highly intelligent, and seems to be very good at her job. However, not everything is as it seems in a show like this.

Turns out Dr. Saunders isn’t actually Dr. Saunders at all. Claire Saunders is really an active named Whisky. She was the favourite of Alpha, a dangerous active who turned rogue, before a new active came along and caught Alpha’s eye and he ended up attacking Whisky. Along with her attack he also killed the real Dr. Saunders, a kind man who also cared for the actives. The Dollhouse needed a new doctor after that so Dr. Saunder’s personality was imprinted on Whisky, and she became Dr. Claire Saunders.


Clyde Source: Coolspotter

There are so many questionable things about the dolls. First off, there is a whole matter of consent. Some people sign up to be actives but not everyone does, and even if they do it doesn’t mean that they fully know what they are getting into. The science behind it is also questionable. If the real Dr. Saunder’s personality is imprinted on Whisky, that’s one thing, but she also magically gains all his knowledge as a doctor and is able to do the job without any training.

As if this isn’t enough, Whisky/Dr. Claire Saunders becomes a third character, the evil and duplicitous Clyde, who is a programmer of the dollhouse. It’s so hard to analyze her portrayal as a doctor as she has been forced into all these roles against her will. Whisky isn’t actually a doctor or an evil mastermind, but is just a puppet of the Rossum corporation. 



The former Obama Administration's White House fact sheet lists 3 goals for fictional representation of women in STEM. We are noticing a trend in the movies and television shows we have reviewed - they meet some of the following goals better than others.

1.  Include diverse STEM role models (past and present): There are only a couple characters in STEM, and two out of three are white men. In fact, most of the characters are white period. Dr. Claire Saunders herself is only a doctor because she has the memories of a white man.The show does not meet this goal.

2. Highlight the breadth of STEM careers and social impacts: This show is showing the negative impact of science so no it does not meet this goal. 

3.  Debunk STEM stigmas and misconceptions: This show plays off the "mad scientist" trope and shows a dystopic future because of it, so it does not reach this goal.

Want a better representation of a woman in STEM? Check out our blogs on Shuri or Dr. Brennan.