Wednesday 26 December 2012

Doctor Who: Sexism and Audience

Dr Who at Christmas is an established fixture, as festive as sausages wrapped in bacon and Noel Edmond's jumpers. And yesterday's annual fare, Dr Who: The Snowmen was alright. Like any good Steven Moffat episode, it made sinister the (wintery) accoutrements of childhood - snow, the eponymous snowmen, snow globes - and wrapped them around an absurd plot to conquer the world with ice people. The story arc for the 2013 season is set up nicely as the new companion, Clara Oswin Oswald (Jenna Louise Coleman - pictured), is seemingly reincarnated at different points in history (in The Asylum of the Daleks, The Snowmen's Victorian setting, and, as revealed by the coming season's teaser, the present day). And, for the proper purists, this special acts as a sort-of prequel to a couple of 1967 episodes featuring yetis and the London Underground, or something.

Okay, now is the time to talk about Steven. To put it mildly we know Dr Who's lead writer is a flawed genius, and the blemish on his character is, sadly, sexism. The last Christmas episode I reviewed was very suspect. And it's not just me who thinks this, nor is the Doctor the only Moffat production to manifest dodgy gender politics. There's this piece in the New Statesman on his re-imagined Sherlock, there's this hoo-ha over Coupling, and this takedown of episodes broadcast while Russell T Davies was still at the helm. Five minutes with your favourite internet search engine will turn up countless articles and blogs on the subject, including how Moffat deleted his Twitter account after another round of call-outs over recurring sexist themes.

Now, I accept all these arguments. I don't know why Moffat persists with rolling out the tired old sexist cliches. Perhaps he has a problem with women. As a bare minimum he drags around a load of unexamined and unacceptable assumptions. I don't know what his issues are, and wouldn't care if these attitudes didn't crop up and disfigure what is otherwise fine - and popular - work. But they do, so here we are.

However, on top of and in addition to emasculated men, and troublesome, objectified, infantilised women, I'd like to make a couple of other quick observations that may point to a contradictory influence on Moffat's Doctor writing.

A number of people have pointed out that Moffat just can't write women. In yesterday's episode, Clara proved to be flirty, chatty and sassy. Just like Riversong (Alex Kingston) and Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) who preceded her. Okay, so Moffat's women are cardboard cut outs. But this sits very much inside the Who 2.0 tradition. Russell T. Davies didn't use the show to play out questionable gender politics, but his female characters were cut from a similar cloth. You don't need an abiding knowledge of Joss Whedon's work to realise Davies and Moffat both owe more than a passing debt to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But I don't think their continuing and recycled "tributes" to her is accidental.

Who episodes and new characters are not conceived in a creative vacuum. They are part and parcel of a cultural phenomenon. It not only is a money spinner but has, strangely, become inscribed in the national character of modern Britain. As well as to entertain and nod occasionally to the canon built up over 50 years, Dr Who has to reflect something of what makes modern Britain back at its audience. Buffy knock-offs the female characters largely are, Moffat and every other writer are tasked with developing personalities that must appeal to its audience. And because, in all essentials, Dr Who is a *children's programme* characters have to walk the tightrope of being role models for kids and safe enough for parents. The political economy of the show's popularity demands women characters who safely convey initiative and the capacity to stick up for themselves. Similarly the men - the Doctor, Rory, and even Captain Jack (remember him?) - are emotionally engaged and right on, if bumbling and unsure of themselves at times. They are pretty much what we would have called 'new men' back in the early 90s. In other words, Doctor Who labours to reflect back what its audience thinks or, more accurately, *aspires* contemporary gender normativity to be (normativity is, of course, always conditioned by modern cultural and particularly media representations of what is 'normal' for 'normal' women and men, but I digress).

What this means is writers like Moffat labour against an ever-present background of expectation. It's a tension. The BBC expect a compelling ratings smash, as it does every year. Parents and children want some safe fare while Christmas dinner ablates in distended stomachs, and Whovians and sad folk like the author of this blog expect a little something we can rant on the internet about. Together, this background of expectation acts both as a parameter disciplining Moffat's writing, and as a countervailing force conditioning character development along the lines of certain sets of infinitely repeated but loosely progressive traits. Clara, Amy, Riversong, the Doctor, Rory - every other recurring 'good' character that has featured since the 2005 reboot are you and me. They are every woman, and every man; or the men and women we and our children would like to be.

So far, the sexist graffiti Moffat sprays about his episodes have yet to undermine this convivial quality. But continued vigilance, calling out and critique will be necessary for as long as we wish Dr Who to stay that way.


Yakoub said...

No doubt Moffat's women are cardboard cut outs, but I'm not sure the male characters are all rounded, 3D people, either. Like so much contemporary drama, Who is tinsel made interesting by pulling it about in quick, quirky jabs. Fast and shallow. Our increasingly shakey civilization doesn't want to do too much depth, in case it upsets someone. Or everyone. Or the sales figures.

Phil said...

No, the blokes definitely aren't. They are equally as cardboard cut out. To push the Buffy analogy further, Rory is very Xander-ish, while the Doctor combines elements of Giles and Xander both. Again, I believe the reflection/aspiration thing is going on with them.

Anonymous said...

An extremely over-simplified reading.

Deciding that 'Who' female characters are all cut from the same cloth just isn't correct, as you'd see if you conducted any kind of sustained exploration into the characters. There's so much more to building a character than just making a half-baked observation that 'she is chatty'. Dynamics with other characters, plot lines... These are all important details which vary a huge amount between characters.

I'd also like to direct your attention to Roland Barthes, and 'the death of the author'. I.e: just because Moffat has been accused of sexism in the past, does not mean that DW is, by default, 'sexist'.

This seems a very 'looking for offence for the hell of it' type of post.

I can completely see that there are troubling elements around gender politics in DW, but to be honest this piece just attempts to ruin what is probably the best Christmas special since David Tennant's time.

It also needs to be pointed out that River Song was a Davies creation, not a Moffat one. Amy Pond began her stint as a companion as a fairly vacuous, one-dimensional creature, but her character was opened up and depth afforded her as the series progressed.

Perhaps give Clara a few more episodes before beginning to beat Moffat with a stick?

Phil said...

Your points may have been valid if they pertained to the post as it was written. You will note there was little comment on The Snowmen itself.

I accept your point about Riversong. But regardless of "the depth" added to the characters since, they are still archetypes. Perhaps Moffat has listened to and learned from the flak he's had over sexist themes - we shall see. But, as ever, "continued vigilance, calling out and critique" is necessary.

Anonymous said...

I'd love to see an awkward geeky girl like Willow or Fred become a companion to the doctor.

Anonymous said...

It could also be said that the Doctor has a "type" in the same way many people date similar types of people.

Gail said...

They are every woman, and every man; or the men and women we and our children would like to be.

This is the problem for me. These aren't people I would want to be or want my children to be.

I've had a hard time respecting a lot of the characters in New Who, something that was never a problem in Classic Who.

They managed to make "real people" who were "of the times" but without making them feel objectionable in these ways.

They seem to think it's character development, the problem for me, is that the characters they have developed are, in many ways, not very likeable.

I wouldn't want my son to allow a woman to walk all over him just because she was domineering and hot. I'd hope he'd eventually have enough self respect to call her on it. But Rory never does.

I certainly wouldn't want my daughter to think it was okay to be unfaithful to her fiancee the night before her wedding. Just saying Amy "was confused" doesn't change the fact that her "confusion" took the form of infidelity, and apparently she didn't see anything wrong with that, even later.

And I certainly wouldn't want my daughters to think they had to kiss any guy they thought was hot, as soon as they met him. Or for my sons to think they'd have to put up with that sort of behavior because "girls are like that."

Nor would I want my son's to be encouraged to think of girls as "Women!" As if they aren't individuals first.

Domineering women and henpecked confused men aren't role models I'd aspire to, or something I'd want my children to grow up thinking was a good thing to aim for.

Gail said...

There is also this worrying trend that the Doctor's "girls" don't seem to have a life before him. Their life only "begins" when he shows up.

And that has been fairly standard since Rose. Rose, Donna, Amy, and now Clara are all depicted as being aimless and having no life before the Doctor "magically" appears to give them purpose.

I find that a very sad view of real life. As well as a disturbing message to be sending to little girls. And the message sent to little boys that "their girls" are the most important thing in their life and that they should allow themselves to be taken for granted and insulted, used, and discarded at the girl's convenience, while she goes off with another man.

Those are really not messages that seem good for children of either gender. Or adults either.

And on top of that we have a Doctor getting portrayed in dialogue as someone who "offers sweets to children" and goes around in a "snog box" while luring young women to go away with him alone.

And that same character is now being given dialogue where he refers to women as "Some bird" or "She's a woman!" or "What caused all this? A Woman!"


From a show with a tradition that showed women struggling for equality, having lives and goals before they met the Doctor, and a main character that treated his female Companions as individuals first, but not as source of sexual tension.

Well, New Who could do better. Classic Who did better depicting strong women at a time when women had to fight to merely be allowed to have a job. And not simply be pigeonholed as sources of sex or motherhood.

Now, more New Who women are being crammed back into the role of girlfriend, mother, or sex-fiend. While also having no apparent goals beyond that (a major problem with Amy).

While the men are portrayed as simply having to "take it" while at the same time being subjected to sexually aggressive women. (Oh the horrors! The dorky guys are getting all the hot girls!)

Sorry for the rant. But no, these aren't people who reflect real life, or who I'd want my children to aspire to be or to emulate in these ways.

New Who can do better. Perhaps focus more on people as people, as individuals, rather than as representatives of their sex. Or stereotypes of their sex.

bbb136 said...

It's difficult because I can't help but like Amy, Clara and River but at the same time the sexism in their characters is so off putting.

I get that there will always be an element of 'magical man makes your life incredible' in Doctor Who, I think it can be cool and it's not the element itself that I have a problem with. Just now (we were starting to see it with Tennant) it's taken over the entire character of the Doctor. He's the God. The One. It's all telling the audience and not showing them. I'd rather understand the Doctor's place in the universe though his actions rather than a super lofty speech.
And I don't know if anyone's already mentioned this but this element is being used in a really worrying way. This whole, meet girls when they're young then when they're old and hot and then follow them about is just not okay. It's sexualising little girls for one and it's telling girls to accept stalkerish behaviour as cute, when it's really not. Boys get told that they can have everything on their terms, that they're allowed to demand female attention and that they'll get it.

I don't have a problem with female characters falling in love, getting married, having kids etc, that's stuff people do. It's just when that's their entire freaking character - like what the heck?
When I first met River Song I thought she was in love with the Doctor but also was this awesome independent archeologist who did all this cool stuff, and I totally loved her. I like seeing the possibility of a romance with two equally dynamic characters. She was ace. But I don't really like her character anymore because her entire life basically revolves around the Doctor, plus she (i.e. Moffat) says some problematic things. "Never let him see you age. He doesn't like endings." Be that as it may HE IS A GODDAMN TIME TRAVELLER. Aging is something people do and he of all people would be aware of this. The Doctor needs friends but he does not need to be coddled. Moffat realises that he's basically just telling girls 'it's all about him never mind your mental/physical health' right?

As for Clara - well, in all honesty I enjoy seeing her. Jenna is a great actress and together with Smith the episodes are never lacking in terms of acting ability. (But frankly acting ability has never been the problem.) But I am so annoyed that she can't be some everyday girl - her back story is interesting and can't we just have that instead of 'the impossible girl'?
I'm sick of female characters being treated as puzzles and mystery's for the Doctor to solve. Women are people too for crying out loud.

Anyway - good article!

Anonymous said...

Moffat is definitely a sexist, and a clueless one at that. Davies is nowhere near the same category - he created Donna Noble, feminist icon LOL. Also, Roas and Martha were at least relatable human characters (if not a little dull) - they were supposed to be. They were meant to be the proxy for the audience, the average joes.

But after Moffat it's a shitstorm of Manic Pixie Dream Girls with not a semblance of relatable humanity - they are clearly the reincarnated manifestations of his own personal, tired, male fantasy. Rory is the relatable, human one - the ACTUAL companion/proxy for the audience.

However, to say they are anything like Buffy? That's insane. Buffy, for one, was NEVER flirty. And if she ever attempted to be it came off as incredibly awkward and self-deprecating. Chatty, she was. But 'sassy'? I don't know. She was incredibly insecure and unsure of herself at points - Moffat's women are perpetually over-confident, bone-headed, quip-spouting, automatons. To put Buffy in that group, or even refer to as inspiration, is an insulting and warped assessment of her character.

Anonymous said...

"Moffat deleted his Twitter account after another round of call-outs over recurring sexist themes."


Moffat deleted his twitter account after several rounds of bashing, severe cyber harassment, and DEATH THREATS! Even people who defended him began getting death threats from those loathsome people.