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.