(Content Note: This post contains discussions of the psychology of dominant/submissive relationships and their representation onscreen, but is not itself in any way sexually explicit.)
Those of us who either identify as a Gender/Sexual Minority (GSM), or just participate in what might be euphemistically called alternative lifestyle communities, (or some combination of the above) often find ourselves panning through a great deal of heteronormative/amatonormative, relationship-escalator, milquetoast/middle-class/Establishment Julia Roberts silt in order to find those tiny nuggets of gold that we actually feel represents us in mainstream media. Tiny moments, often unnoticed by the mainstream, become hugely portentious when viewed through the proper set of eyes. Consider Samwise touching Frodo’s hand in Rivendell, or the endless puerile humor of Batman and Robin, or the incredibly passionate fandom that’s arisen around Five/Turlough shipping (or Tegan/Nyssa, or… well, can we just say the whole of Doctor Who from 1981-1984 is just one big pile of queer shippery and get it over with?)
As a culture we’re very used to discussing gay subtext in media (who still remembers The Ambiguously Gay Duo?), and increasingly that comfort is being extended to lesbian and bisexual subtext, but outside of those fairly strict categories I see little discussion of representation of other GSM-types, except within the communities where individuals are seeking media representation. Asexual/aromantic persons, for instance, or those who do not define according to a gender binary (although this is improving now that the filmmakers formerly known as the Wachowski Brothers have revealed themselves to be the Wachowski siblings), or those who simply don’t have a problem with a casual threesome a few times a year tend to find themselves either 1) not represented at all or 2) represented in ways that are at best inaccurate and at worst actively harmful. (Buffalo Bill, anyone?)
The upshot of all of this is that a lot of us therefore tend to grasp onto whatever scrap of representation we can find of our identities or proclivities in media, and sometimes will accept a hugely problematic representation as being, well, better than nothing. And if you happen to be a person interested in BDSM, power exchange, and other D/s relationship types presented in any kind of sympathetic way, rather than as either a portrait of hugely damaged people feeding a sexual fix the way they’d feed a heroin habit or as the serial-killer-of-the-week in your average network procedural, the pickings get incredibly slim indeed.
Which perhaps explains why I find the Four/Leela relationship compelling not just on an abstract character level, but in the kind of fucked-up headcanony shippy way that is almost embarassingly uncomfortable to write about for this kind of audience. The erotic is almost by definition deeply personal, idiosyncratic, and weird. Why we like what we like in the bedroom or out of it is intimate and strange and can almost sound like nonsense syllables to those not in the know. I did some drafts of this trying to keep these ideas abstract, general, explaining things in this oh-so-distant way that kept my hands clean… and it was the kind of dryly academic bullshit writing that should never even be in the same room as something as electrifying, edifying, and communicative as good sex. I’m not going to get explicit below, but if you like your physical intimacy with the lights off rather than wet-and-slippery, you may want to pass the rest of this by.
Everyone comfortable? Good. Because I need to talk about this:
But first, a giant caveat.
Leela is in my opinion the single most problematic element of all of Doctor Who, and one of the most brilliant creations of the show. The character’s origin is steeped in deep racism and colonialism, the actress was horribly mistreated not just by the higher-ups in the production team but by sexist crews and, most damningly, by the King of Fucking Ego himself, Tom Baker. That’s before we even begin to touch on the long legacy of how fandom generally (and individual fans) have mistreated the character and the actress. If we’re going to have a real conversation about Leela we have to talk about all that, plus –off the top of my head– issues of male gaze, “strong female characters,” body image, sexuality within family television, representations of violence, pacifism, and why the fuck she ended up with that Arnold Rimmer lookalike in The Invasion of Time instead of the lovely Rodan. With all of that baggage, talking about Leela as a sexual being (or even a sexualized image) is by definition inherently problematic. Trust me, I’m aware of it, will hopefully write more on the topic in the future, and am very interested in comments and criticism of the way I’m handling it here.
Now that I’ve admitted that I should in no way be talking about Leela and sex, let’s talk about Leela and sex.
This is a screenshot from about halfway through Episode One of The Invisible Enemy, i.e. the one that comes right after Leela gets two whole stories where she keeps her clothes on, and what I’d consider to be the proper beginning to the Graham Williams era. Gone was the old wooden set that characterized Season 14, and Leela has helped the Doctor move some furniture back into the old white TARDIS set, notably a coat rack. The characters exude an easy chemistry, although not quite the fuckbuddy warmth Four would have with the second Romana. Although not even the later Mrs. Baker went quite so far as to wear the iconic hat, as Leela is here, paired adorably (and may I say sexily) with a revamped version of her skins. They banter as time-filler in between fairly excrutiating sequences of Saturn’s moon Titan being taken over by some mutant virus (or something like that, as I’m not bothering to look up the plot details at the moment), and then you get the shot above.
And instantly, on an almost molecular level, I get a huge kink vibe, with Four as a dominant to the submissive Leela. Because look at that pose again. She’s not given a chair and is forced to squat uncomfortably (showing off her legs, of course) as she learns to write her name on the Doctor’s instructions. He’s fiddling with the TARDIS console, not quite paying attention as she miswrites her letters like a schoolchild. I’m no expert in adult education, but good pedagogical practice this ain’t. The immediate and obvious conclusion is that education is just about the last thing on either of their minds: she’s playing naughty schoolgirl and he’s giving her a nice fun punishment that might also serve for a bit of handwriting practice.
A big conclusion for a little moment, one almost certainly brought on by the BBC budget not quite stretching so far as to cover a chair for poor Louise Jamison to sit in? Of course, but the Author is Dead and for someone interested in playing games revolving around corporal punishments as fun Saturday activities, her discomfort in the moment (alongside the obvious warmth the two characters have for each other at this point) is a giant blinking light pointing at power exchange. Squatting to write her name is pointless if she’s trying to learn to write her name, but it makes perfect sense if the Doctor just likes the way she looks when she squats for him while she writes her name. Or if he just likes to think of her squatting, uncomfortable and a little cold in that drafty old TARDIS, writing letters that he might not ever bother to look at, but doing her best all the same to make him proud….
The unitiated to power exchange and D/s relationships might think I’m a bit silly for suggesting Badass Leela as a happy submissive, especially to the boastful, silly, and colorfully-dressed Fourth Doctor. Maybe the Ninth, with his black leather, or the Sixth, with his oblivious dickishness — that’s the kind of abusive asshole who’d make a poor ignorant girl squat in leather skins. And instead of take-no-prisoners Leela, wouldn’t mousy Nyssa, or petulant Turlough, or put-upon Peri make much more sense as a lifestyle submissive?
Maybe. (I’m quite drawn to Nyssa servicing Tegan, and not just for the obvious lascivious reasons you’d expect me to have, mostly-hetero patriarchal cisgender male that I am.) But D-types and s-types come in lots of shapes and sizes, not just the stereotypes out of Fifty Shades of Gray or a leather bar in a Police Academy movie. It’s a mistake, for instance, to think of sexual or lifestyle submissives as weak-willed or of dominants as imperious or uncaring: in a real relationship submission is a gift given from one partner to another, and the one nominally “in charge” is actually taking on a responsibility for that partner to exactly the degree they accept that submission. A good D-type may put on an expression of imperious neglect or disinterest, but inside must be watching constantly for signs of overwork, undue stress, or psychological trauma. A good s-type may desire to give up agency and authority, but this may not be due to weakness but to strength: subsuming their will not just out of a desire to let go of responsibility, but to give that responsibility to one they trust to use it properly.
The submissive picks the dominant. Not the other way around. Always. (If the relationship is to be at all healthy, at least in my experience.) Leela is being excommunicated from The Sevateem at the beginning of the Face of Evil because she no longer has any respect for the cargo cult religion engaged in by the tribe; she has no need for the authority of those whom she does not respect. Upon meeting the Doctor, she at first believes him to be the instantiation of evil in her world (which has enormous fetish potential; think naughty priests and nuns for the flavor), but as she learns who he is she begins to respect him for his intelligence, his boldness, his capabilities, his natural authority. At the end of the story, structurally, she’d be a natural choice to lead her people, but she instead sneaks on board the TARDIS to follow this strange alien man who offers her a kind of fulfillment she won’t find at home….
And the Doctor? Lots of adjectives get thrown around to “sum up” the Doctor’s personality and appeal, but one that I think most hits the nail on the head is anti-authoritarian. The Doctor is a force acting against heirarchy and authority… when that authority is mistaken, stupid, or abusive. The Doctor is just fine with authoritarian structures that work well, producing happy and well-working societies, and he’s absolutely smitten when he himself gets to be an authority for awhile. (President of Earth, or basically every other Third Doctor story….)
I think this reading of the Four/Leela relationship actually redeems some of the horrible mistakes alluded to much earlier by the production team. Why, after two stories with “proper” clothing (as problematic as the idea of “proper” clothing is in general) does she return to her skins? Maybe just because he likes the way she looks in them, and she’s happy to show off, especially during those long journeys together in the TARDIS. The “My Fair Lady” storyline that never quite went anywhere? The Fourth Doctor is very keen on giving Leela the tools of science, reason, and education, but doesn’t particularly care about Victorian social mores and is more-or-less fine with her using her violent impulses against the kinds of people who deserve it. Even him calling her “savage” reads very differently if one imagines it whispered in her ear after a rough scene, intimately snuggled together with the scarf still tied around her wrists, her sweating body quivering as he quietly accuses her of the worst insult he knows…. In these dark recesses of life, in these places of repression and oppression, can come the most intimacy, the most understanding, and the strongest bonds. Just ask someone in an interracial Master/slave relationship.
Through this lens, then, what the Doctor has really done is take the gift of submission Leela has given him and helped mold those violent impulses, to channel them towards likely targets. Through his guidance and tutelage (which she has freely chosen to take), she helps save planets, topple horrible regimes, and afflict the comfortable. The strongly feminist image of take-no-prisoners-and-give-’em-hell Leela can sit beside the fact that she is secondary to the major male character, wearing a skimpy costume, and enduring the pressures of patriarchy. It is because she is strong, both as a character and an icon, that she is able to stand beside (and even serve the interests of) our major model of alternative masculinity in the title character. It’s not hard to imagine Four giving her a grin with that twinkle of his eye immediately after the events of Talons of Weng-Chiang, letting her melt into his arms as he brushes her hair aside and gives her a loving, “Good girl,” before they’re off to the bedroom….
But down that path lies a very particular brand of fanfic, so I should probably leave it at that. For now.