Changing Times, Nice Guys and 'Strong Female Characters'


I've gone on the record saying I think Moffat's version of Doctor Who is sexist and heteronormative.  A challenge I often hear - and it's a serious point - is the idea that Moffat's Who is, at least, no worse than previous eras on issues like depictions of gay relationships, and is frequently better.  There are positive depictions of gay characters, quite unlike anything in, say, the Hartnell era.  Well, firstly, let me say that I don't want to claim that things are 'worse' now (in any absolute way) than in the Hartnell years, when homosexuality essentially didn't exist at all in-story in the Who universe. And sure, many old episodes have displayed all sorts of heteronormative stuff, and also outright homophobic stuff (albeit usually by implication).  Harrison Chase is, in many ways, implied to be an evil gay man (it's not that I think gay people are like him, but rather that he is constructed partly of tropes that connote gayness in pop culture).

It isn't that there's a scale that pertains to culture now just as it pertained in 1963 and 73 and 83 etc, with Who scoring 3.7 points on the heteronormativity scale (or the racist, or sexist, or whatever, scale) in 1963 but now scoring 9.1 under Moffat. That's not how I see it (which isn’t to say that comparisons across the decades are meaningless). Normative assumptions shift and fluctuate with all sorts of social and economic changes (this is part of what I was getting at in my previous post with regards to upswings and downswings in the reactionary content of culture). There are ideas now that simply weren't widely accepted (or even much known about) in, say, 1963... but which are now widely understood and championed by large numbers of people.

Awareness of homophobia, discrimination against LGBT people, heteronormativity, etc, are all examples of issues where people’s widespread views have changed drastically. And this isn't the ‘condescension of posterity’, because I acknowledge that people's ideas have been changed by people, particularly as a result of the great breakthrough struggles of the mid 60s through to the early 70s. That's partly why Moffat's Who looks extraordinarily liberal and right-on by the standards of much of the old show... if we look at them with the same constant, reductive scale of measurement... which we can't do because it’s more complex than that, with struggles and changing ideas altering the normative assumptions against which we make judgements. 

To be crude about it, even today's crusading reactionaries in the Tory party talk the talk of respect for gender equality, racial equality, etc.  They have to... even as their actual policies reinforce division, discrimination, inequality and attacks upon the living standards of ordinary people that Thatcher could only fondly dream of getting away with.  But there are swings and roundabouts in people's consciousness.  Poeple today would be (and are) very unwilling to tolerate open racial prejudice from their politicians, yet there is widespread anxiety about immigration and asylum, carefull inculcated by the media.  People still, by and large, frown on the idea of privatising the NHS, yet they have (like the frog placed in a pot brought gradually to the boil) been slowly trained to tolerate economic assaults that would once have seemed outrageous.

I think the (speaking broadly) liberalisation of views on cultural matters is partly what people are getting at when they say that some old bit of sexism or racism (Toberman for instance) is "of its time" - and to an extent that's a reasonable thing to point out. The trouble is that it forgets that there were plenty of people in the world at the time 'Tomb' was made who would've recognised it as racist, and who were fighting to change things. That's how things shift. To leave that out is to end up assuming a sort of inevitable, whiggish upward march of progress that doesn't have much to do with people (a widespread assumption actually, especially in much media that tells stories about the past, cf Downton Abbey, 'Human Nature' etc).

I would actually argue that Moffat's Who is noticeably sexist and heteronormative even when measured (in that reductive and simple way) by the standards even of much old Who...  Amy seems a noticeably retrograde depiction even by the standards of, say, Jo Grant, who is at least not defined by her looks and her romantic/sexual relationships with men… though she ends up that way in ‘Green Death’, sadly.  But yeah, Moff-Who has overt and sympathetic gay/lesbian characters, which is definitely ‘progress’ (I take the concept of progress seriously, even as I see it as one side of one coin alongside barbarism). But it exists alongside all sorts of really quite outrageous gender essentialism, if not outright sexism. I mean, just look at ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’, which pretends to have loads of ‘strong female characters’… but which is actually about women slavishly obsessed with men, defined by their heterosexual relationships, and prone to obsessing over clothes, hair and their weight.  It remains to be properly analysed, but there is a definite unhealthiness (verging on the abusive) about the Doctor's treatment of River.  Note the number of times when, in a crunch, he aggressively shouts her down and she instantly starts obeying him.  She's not a dishrag peril-monkey like some of the various versions of Victoria.  Nor is she a kind of rape culture dolly like Peri so often was.  But that doesn't mean she's an acceptable representation.  She, I think, is a reactionary, sexist depiction for our times, not previous times.  She's how a certain kind of male privilege envisions a certain kind of woman now.  As with River, so with Amy.  She's not the kind of sexist depiction who twists her ankle and makes tea for the men.  She's the kind that starts out with a 'nice guy' admirer who is stuck in the 'friend zone', pining for the girl he think he deserves because of his longstanding puppyish devotion, while simultaneously wanting her for her looks not her personality.  She's the kind that represents the terrified longing of men who feel they have a right to the devotion of glamourous girls, who interpret gender equality and 'strong women' as entailing a relationship in which they are (pardon me) 'pussywhipped'... while still being grovellingly grateful for permission to stare up their partner's skirt.  This becomes the basis of a romantic relationship we're all supposed to cheer on, our 'shipper-hearts all aflutter.

There's loads more to be said on this subject alone.

To elaborate on shifting scales.  Our present awareness of 'Trans' issues is much better than it was fifty years ago (precisely because of the social struggles of people, as noted)... and yet we still get astonishing bigotry, like that article recently written by Julie Burchill and published by The Observer. By the standards of the 'old days' the whole debate looks insane because it takes place within a drastically shifted set of assumptions about what constitutes normality, acceptable lifestyles, etc. Suzanne Moore writes an article rightly pointing much sexist pressure on women today (ideas that wouldn’t have been considered acceptable, or even intelligible, public discourse at many times in the past) and, in the process, makes a transphobic remark. Called on it by and politicised people on twitter, she goes into defensive mode and her mate Burchill swings to her defence with an article that is a really repellent exercise in excluding language, patronising comments, condescension, stereotyping and victim-blaming. The whole debate takes place within a shifted culture, where it is nominally agreed that trans people shouldn’t be the victims of discrimination, but there is still the possibility of people at a liberal paper okaying something that is utterly vile in its discriminatory language. By the standards of fifty years ago, Burchill is a progressive, maybe even in that nasty article. By the standards of today, she makes any decent person lose their lunch.

It’s the same sort of thing with Moffat. Yeah, the guy’s more liberal and progressive and ‘tolerant’ than that old racist homophobe William Hartnell. Yet his version of the show continually reinforces heteronormativity and gender essentialism in the context of a culture that has greater scope than ever to engage with the idea that there really isn’t any such thing as a sexual or gender ‘norm’, and that the idea that there is (and that it consists of white, hetero, cis-gendered people getting married and having babies) is a discourse of privilege at best, cynical power at worst. Yet this knowledge doesn’t get in, besides some gay/lesbian bit-characters whom the Doctor ‘tolerates’ chummily. And, lets be honest here, it’s obvious that the lesbian couple are there at least partly so Moffat can make sniggery jokes about girl-on-girl cunnilingus.

Up to what I’ve seen, the Moffat era seems to have been one long carnival of reaction… or, at best, sheer disinterested apoliticism in places where apoliticism is effectively a tolerance of established power (i.e. Nixon). This is a key point. At times, disinterest becomes reaction. At his worst, Moffat’s Nixon is dubious in his cultural views. He doesn’t like the idea of Canton marrying a black guy.  This is a problem; that he ordered the genocidal carpet bombing of peasant countries isn't. Beneath the sneering at Dicky the Intolerant, there is heteronormativity (we don’t like him because he doesn’t tolerate our good gay guest character the way we right-on people do) and beneath that there is a tendency to side with power by default. By silence.

Of course, quite a lot of viewers will share Moffat’s normative assumptions about heterosexuality, gender essentialism, blindness to the genocide of ‘our’ politicians, etc… but that’s precisely why and how normative assumptions in media culture work, because they pander to some people’s… well… assumptions. The assumptions pandered to are likely be the assumptions shared by a privileged group in society, precisely because people with that kind of power and platform in the media are, by definition, privileged. It’s a circle, with the assumptions partly produced by, and then picked up by, and then reproduced by, the culture industries. And assumptions like that are retrograde in a society being increasingly challenged by people who are marginalised and patronised by the supposed ‘norm’. 

Part of my point was that so many of the great pop-culture icons of capitalist mass culture are now openly peddling very explicit, comforting, reassuring, aggressively defensive versions of just such normative assumptions. More than usual, I sense. And largely unhindered by any influence from struggle movements like Occupy or the Arab Spring... if not actively in negative response to them. There is a mobilisation of capitalist culture against the anxiety caused by its own crisis, and against challenges from below/‘outside’. And we are, socially and politically and economically, in such shit nowadays that this is actually really insidious. And one reason why I think the spurious gender/sexual certainties in Moffat’s Who are so worrying is precisely because it’s a hugely influential bit of mass culture that is widely identified with ‘Britishness’ and ‘our’ culture and society (like Bond and Shakespeare… and Sherlock Holmes, for that matter!). You only have to look at how the London Olympics summed up Britain to see how such icons were pressed into national ideological service… yet that’s actually a really good example of retrograde assumptions continuingly promulgated within a shifted discourse. The Olympics ceremony also had loads of left/liberal stuff about how great the NHS is, mixed up with genuflection before the Queen, the flag etc… not to mention the overpowering corporate sponsorship and cynical social cleansing beneath the whole event.


John 7 years, 11 months ago

I've lost count of the amount of times the revelation that a character or characters are gay in 'New Who' is expected to be treated as a source of humour. It's got to the point where the Lizard lady and her wife have to announce it to all and sundry every time they enter a scene just to try and generate a cheap giggle. Can we have some gay characters who are treated like any other character but just happen to be gay?

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encyclops 7 years, 11 months ago

Canton Delaware Everett III?

He's a little bland, I think, but that's what you get when your concept is "a gay character who just happens to be gay." Still, I liked him, in part because I like Sheppard, and I like Madame Vastra and Jenny even if the idea that they were the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes and Watson is somehow both absurd and unfunny at the same time. I think Jack offers good reasons why I shouldn't like them, but as characters to identify with on this show I really feel I could do a lot worse.

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Anonymous 7 years, 11 months ago

On the other hand, Moffat's only murdered one of his gay characters, and none of them have been evil. The previous showrunner had a long litany of evil and/or dead LGB (no T) characters, going so far as to make the most visible queer character in science fiction into a multiple child murderer. Moffat's women are independent, make their own decisions for the own reasons, and a large number of them stay happily single. RTD shoehorned every significant female character he ever wrote on Who into a heterosexual marriage as the culmination of her storyline. But no, let's have another round of how even though Moffat's representation of women and LGBT people and people of colour are better than anything else on television, they're not meeting our definition of progressive enough this week, so it's okay to go back to writing letters to bring Rose "I went from an interesting, independent young woman to a cult member obsessed with my ex-boyfriend and this was somehow presented as a good thing" Tyler.

Give me Moffat any damn day. He's far better than what we had from the last guy, and he gets better every episode.

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John 7 years, 11 months ago

The revelation that Delaware is gay at the end of the episode is part of a joke. That's one of the cases I'm talking about. The revelation that he wants to marry a black man is a punchline to a joke. I know we're supposed to laugh more at Nixon's reaction but still, it's one of many cases of using the fact that a character is gay as a source of humour.

"He's a little bland, I think, but that's what you get when your concept is "a gay character who just happens to be gay."

Sorry but this statement is absurd if you think Delaware is bland it's probably just because he's badly written not because he's not camping it up every 5 seconds. What if Leela just happened to be gay or Litefoot or any great character from Who. Gay characters can be like any other character it's their sexuality not their personality. You can write a great character who just happens to be gay without drawing attention to it every five minutes to get a laugh.


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Anonymous 7 years, 11 months ago

I don't want Rose back but the obsessed love interest whose entire life revolves around a man is River Song, not Rose Tyler.

River was a much more interesting character when she was an independent space archaeologist, not designed from birth for the Doctor and with super traits.

Jack - no comments on Amy being reduced to her womb? That's the most sexist thing about her. I actually didn't mind the Amy/Rory romance itself. The kidnapped baby storyline gave me mixed feelings. It was a huge cliffhanger (should have been the mid season break) but women only exist to produce children made Mel Bush look like Germaine Greer. I was also relieved when Karen started wearing trousers, because I thought we'd gone past Doctor Who is so rubbish we have to put in legs for the Dads.

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jane 7 years, 11 months ago

So what do we make of the fact that Karen Gillan's the one who lobbied for all those short skirts in Series Five, skirts from her own personal wardrobe?

As for River... I find it difficult to wrap my head around this character, partly because we've seen her story out of order, partly because we haven't seen it all yet, and partly because she's changed tremendously. She's very problematic coming out of her brainwashing at the hands of the Silence (now here's a villainy that deserves closer attention) but who she becomes in Manhattan, an Angel-hunting detective with no Doctor-obsession, is a very different person. Or when she comes out of the Byzantium, pretty much defying if not actively undermining the Doctor's plan to erase his story in the Universe by faking his death.

Frankly though, it's the criticism that Amy's "reduced to a womb" that I find most problematic and, well, reductive. Because there's a long line of amazing things that Amy's done both before and after that singular event that consistently get ignored, as if all a woman's accomplishments are somehow negated by giving birth. These are not mutually exclusive experiences! It's clear that the show and the character don't perform such a reduction going forward -- whether it's Amy running a black-ops group to take down the Silence, managing her own "companions" while uncovering the secret of the Silurian ark, or being the moral anchor in that town called Mercy.

If anything, the "woman is her womb" trope is consistently undermined, because every time someone tries to put Amy in that position (even when she tries herself) it completely backfires. Now, whether it's possible to subvert tropes in the first place is another matter -- one can reasonably argue that the trope exerts so much power it's best left avoided in the first place, but as Jack says, ignoring something can also function as tacit approval.

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jane 7 years, 11 months ago

Unfortunately, we still live in a culture where people react with dismay to the revelation of someone's being gay.

And actually, the revelation is part and parcel of the experience. It *is* a problem that stems from normativity -- after all, 95% of the people on this planet aren't gay. It's much like the normativity of meat being considered the main course at any meal. (I'm vegetarian, so I'm acutely aware of this.)

Anyways, to be effectively gay or queer under such conditions practically requires coming out of the closet, of disclosure. It's pretty much a ritual at this point, and an important one because it establishes a new social reality for the individual (or couple, as the case may be.) In today's Who, the "joke" isn't on the one making the disclosure, but on those who are still challenged by it. This is, again, a form of trope inversion.

What's more problematic as far as I'm concerned is the emphasis on marriage. Canton is a good guy because he want to get *married.* Vastra and Jenny are explicitly counterpointed with the villain Simeon on the basis that they are married, while Simeon has no relationship at all. (Thankfully, Strax -- a good guy -- is similarly uncommitted.)

It's problematic, because marriage today functions as tacit social acceptance of a sexual relationship. Yes, many people do end up becoming more mature and wise through a committed relationship, but just as many do not. Marriage itself is no cure-all for the problems of growing up. Furthermore, to make "being married" as a marker for social acceptance is to give power to the social institutions that promote marriage in the first place -- namely, state and religious institutions.

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Jack Graham 7 years, 11 months ago

Is it really 95% straight / 5% gay? I'm astounded by that. (Beyond my serious doubts about the whole idea of sexuality being that classifiable and quantifiable in such a reductionist way... but I suspect you're talking about people who live gay openly?)

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jane 7 years, 11 months ago

Roughly speaking, yes. And really, it's how people identify themselves through surveys, which can vary quite a bit depending on how the instrument is constructed, not to mention the sampling techniques employed.

For example, you'll get more people saying they've had homosexual experiences than those who outright claim such an identity. As far as the ratio of people who are exclusively attracted to the opposite sex, 5% is probably on the high side.

However, you can double or triple those numbers when talking about our major urban locations, which offer not just a safer place for being non-normative, but sufficient numbers of like-minded people to find a partner in the first place. And obviously, some industries are more gay friendly than others, so it might seem astounding how "straight" the rest of the world is if you're doing theater in San Francisco.

Part of this kind of gets at what you call "reductionist" -- which is a matter of how we go about categorizing ourselves. For example, I rather like the term "queer" when talking about myself, simply because of the lack of specificity involved; I've had sex with just about every "kind" of person, and been in both monogamous and polyamorous relationships, but really I tend to be attracted to the person(s) within, regardless of embodiment. I wouldn't say I'm "straight" or "gay" or "bi" because all those fail to capture what really turns me on. At the same time, I recognize I'm certainly non-normative. "Queer" seems most apt.

Getting back to demographics, location seems to matter. You'll find that people in the US are more likely to identify along the GLBT spectrum than in the UK (and in Europe in general) -- and that the numbers shift over time, sometimes in surprising directions; for example, the number of reported singular homosexual experiences ("experimenting") dropped dramatically between 1970 and 1990, possibly because of the ascendant meme that homosexuality is an "innate identity."

Hence my concern with the use of "marriage" as a tool for sanctioning relationships. It's double-edged. Yes, it's great to have institutional protection for all kinds of relationships, but at the same time it's depending on social institutions to grant "privileges" in the first place. I wonder how many couples have subsumed the popular narrative of "exclusive and innate sexual preference" as the price paid for widening the acceptance of non-normative relationships.

On the other hand, I think there's merit to the marital institution insofar as it recognizes the maturity and responsibility that have to be exercised to make a long-term committed relationship. Likewise, there are consequences to dissolving a marriage that aren't there for the non-married. In the end, it's not something I see as cut-and-dry.

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Jack Graham 7 years, 11 months ago

"I've had sex with just about every "kind" of person"

Jane, now you're just boasting. ;-)

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Lauren 7 years, 11 months ago

"It's clear that the show and the character don't perform such a reduction going forward -- whether it's Amy running a black-ops group to take down the Silence, managing her own "companions" while uncovering the secret of the Silurian ark, or being the moral anchor in that town called Mercy."

Nice points about Amy's accomplishments - except for the fact that in Mercy, Jex is able to identify that Amy is a "mother" - despite the fact that she only knew her baby for about five minutes and never really had a problem with not raising her. Yet here it seems to be implied that the fact that a child came out of her womb is the reason she is the "moral anchor" in that story.

And don't get me started on the fact that she divorced Rory because she couldn't bear the fact that she couldn't have his babies...

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jane 7 years, 11 months ago

Well, yes. The Polish Communist, an economist by trade, was perhaps the strangest, though I think that was largely due to his penchant for drinking (and sharing) tremendous quantities of vodka.

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jane 7 years, 11 months ago

Jex assumes that Amy's a mother because Amy is kind -- because she's compassionate. It's her *compassion* that anchors her morality. When it comes down to Amy's calling out the Doctor, her motherhood's got nothing to do with it; don't make the same mistake that Jex made -- after all, he's more a villain than a hero, who projects his own issues onto the people around him (hence the "mirror" speech he has with the Doctor.)

And yes, Amy makes the same mistake with herself when she divorces Rory, but the point was she was wrong to go there in the first place. Amy's fear of being reduced in that fashion turned out to be unfounded, but it's such a powerful fear to root out because it so easily manifests as self-hatred. (I would know -- it's one of my many personal issues, and I've sabotaged more than one of my relationships because of it.)

Anyways, the "womb trope" is employed to be undermined, as their relationship is based on so more than their fertility issues -- but as I said before, that's the danger with ironic subversion of tropes, it's very easy to miss the subversion. The best example I can think of for this phenomenon is The Dave Chappelle Show. Chapelle relied on employing racist tropes, always to undermine them. He ended up walking away from suitcases full of money when he realized that not everyone got the joke -- and a lot of his contemporaries were divided by that choice.

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Anonymous 7 years, 4 months ago

Rose starts as an independent character with her job, her mum, her boyfriend, her dead father, her own nascent dreams of a better life, but ends as someone whose entire motivation* is the Doctor. (The first thing he does is blow up her job.) River starts as someone who is forced to hate and fear the Doctor and dies as a woman with her own independent career, her friends and colleagues, contacts all across the universe, an acceptance of her life as it has happened, and a deep abiding love for her husband.
That's the difference.

*You can argue there are other motivations, but what she actually says is "It's what the Doctor would have done", "The Doctor won't stop travelling, so I can't" and "So I could come back."

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Kyle Edwards 4 years, 3 months ago

Wow. I have to start off saying, I love the Moffat era. It's remarkably entertaining, his characterizations are bar none the best Doctor Who's ever gotten, and his plots complex and engaging without being impenetrable. However, I also love this post. Don't get me wrong, I disagree with a lot of it, but I fully understand where the criticisms come from and they make a lot of sense. I've looked far and wide over the internet for opinions on Doctor Who, and have found quite a few Moffat hate articles. This is one of the few which seems to actually be talking about the same show I've watched, and look at the subtleties of the show (just in a negative direction instead of Phil's and others' positive one).

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