I went back and forth over whether to post this, having drawn it up for my reference. But ultimately, I decided that, as we get closer to the Moffat era (which in many ways starts with Blink, the story with which it became obvious who the next showrunner would be) that I wanted one definitive, centralized post on the subject. (Edit: It’s rather closing the barn door after the cows have gone, but since this got way wider linkage than I expected… I don’t mean “definitive” in the sense of “the last word ever on the subject.” Rather, I mean it as “here is this Doctor Who blog’s one-stop definitive comment on feminism in the Moffat era so that, when I get to it in a few months, there’s an overall statement in place that provides context for my comments on any given story.” So, definitive for the context of TARDIS Eruditorum. Not for, like, the entirety of the cosmos.)
Let’s start with a brief overview of the history of feminism in Doctor Who. It’s never been the case that Doctor Who has been a tremendously misogynistic show. It’s also never been the case that it’s been a terribly feminist one. Instead it has always been somewhere in the middle, but unmistakably behind its times.
It started well enough, with Barbara serving as a terribly strong and iconic female character of the sort the series would go over forty years without seeing again – a middle aged woman who was not there primarily as sex appeal, but who was sensible, practical, and able to carry her own plot on her own terms. But she was paired with Susan, who, by the end of the first season, was such an obedient little peril monkey that she’d successfully avoid breaking out of prison cells because there were rats and would go willingly to the guillotine because she was feeling a bit queasy.
The history of subsequent female companions can hardly be called any better. No matter how lofty their intentions, they all ended up the same way. Let’s take a brief tour of the post-Susan female companions, or, more accurately, their fates. Married off hastily, as a last-minute replacement for a plot where she’d have died; died; died; mind-raped and dumped in London; hastily written out after only appearing in two episodes of her last story, last seen being told to look after the male companion who was also departing; given six episodes of 1960s torture porn before she sobbingly asks to leave because she can’t take it anymore; mind-raped into forgetting all her adventures with the Doctor.
One can only hope the refrigerator is bigger on the inside too. Sure, there are cases where male companions had similar fates, but that’s not the point; the point is that all of the female characters suffered ignoble and humiliating fates that cut them down to size. Every single one.
This brings us to the granddaddy of them all, Terrance Dicks. Who writes out a smart and capable female character with no explanation to replace her with a dumb blonde, declaring openly that he considers the companion’s only role to be getting captured and rescued. Dicks goes on to script edit two separate stories that make fun of feminists (The Time Monster and The Time Warrior). Despite all of this he is feted as “Uncle Tewwance” and treated as an untouchable icon of Doctor Who’s history.
The mid-70s show something vaguely resembling an uptick in feminism in Doctor Who, in that you get three companions in a row who were, at least in initial premise, more interesting than the Terrance Dicks model would have allowed. All, of course, have their problems – Leela mostly avoided regressing completely towards peril monkey, though not for lack of trying. That she was dressed in her underwear for a season and a half, however, remains distressing. The two Romanas were more promising, but even a peek behind the scenes reveals how much their screen time and ability to function as strong characters was tied to the dictatorial whims of the show’s star, and the version of Romana that offers a credible view of what a female Doctor might look like is, depressingly, the only one of the era’s companions played by someone who was sleeping with the star. Yes, Ward’s Romana is fabulous… but how many other companions could have been just as fabulous if sleeping with the star weren’t a necessary step in getting him not to be an abusive ass?
Then comes John Nathan-Turner, who offers a barely reconstructed view of Terrance Dicks’s sexist antics. He quickly pares away the capable characters, jettisons the one capable replacement he came up with (over the objections of Peter Davison, who viewed Nyssa as the one sensible companion his Doctor ever got), and started in a parade of peril monkeys. The nadir is Nicola Bryant, treated appallingly by both scripts and the production team. Things improved slightly in 1988, where Ace serves as a sort of Leela with clothes, but between the script editor somewhat creepily leering at her and the Doctor being written as an unnervingly paternal emotional torturer, it’s tough to call this a win so much as “not quite as bad as what’s come before.”
Enter the wilderness years, where Doctor Who gets its first ever feminist writers: Paul Cornell and Kate Orman. They do an impressive job where they’re allowed, but even they can’t solve a McGann-era plot about Time Lord rape camps, and it’s telling that when it comes time to dramatically kill off companions it’s, once again, the female ones that bite it while the male companions bounce merrily along.
The new series at least seems to offer some relief, with better defined female characters than we’ve ever seen before. But for a show whose overt model is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the female characters sure lack autonomy. The Davies era, as we’ll see, has its own problems, such that we get Martha and Donna played as Queer Eye for the Straight Girl – fag hags needing their gay best friend to fix them up so they can find a proper man.
Yes, it’s progress, but so was Ace, and Sarah Jane, and a host of other things that were better than what came before without living up to what could reasonably be expected of the culture at the time. The Davies era is telling largely because its model is the genuinely feminist Buffy, and yet it falls so spectacularly short of what that show musters. It’s not, as I said, that Doctor Who has a history of misogyny. It’s just that it has never had a particularly impressive history of feminism. When reaching for cultural artifacts that represent feminism, Doctor Who has never been the most obvious thing to reach for.
And this is the show that Steven Moffat inherited in 2010. Now, I’m certainly not going to suggest that the Moffat era has no problems whatsoever with sexism and that it gets everything right. It doesn’t, any more than Joss Whedon gets everything right with feminism. A misogynistic culture is going to produce misogynistic cultural artifacts. There’s always a background radiation of misogyny. And what we treat as feminist is usually more accurately described as works that manage to rise above that background radiation.
We should also discuss the nature of rising above. I saw a lovely thing a while ago that suggested a distinction between works that are a product of feminism – that is, stuff that expresses a basically utopian feminist ideology – and works that are expressions of feminism, which try to work through feminist problems and end up being deeply uncomfortable as a result. There’s an important distinction here, in other words, between feminism that tries to respond to the concerns of feminism and create a safe space and feminism that tries to interrogate the existing culture and highlight its flaws. We might also note that Doctor Who, being a show about revolution and not about building a better world, is probably inherently more suited towards the latter.
Which brings us to Moffat. Notably, Moffat starts with what looks like a faithful imitation of the Davies approach. But five episodes in he shifts the game, with the Doctor actively refusing Amy’s interest in him (after a story in which the Doctor confronts his seeming wife) and Amy thereafter focusing her attention on her life with Rory. Which is how she remains for the next two seasons – a woman with her own life that travels with the Doctor sometimes. As does River. As does Clara. This is unheard of in Doctor Who – the idea that the companion might have a life outside the Doctor. For all that Moffat gets stick for defining female characters in terms of the Doctor, we shouldn’t forget that he’s the one who finally came up with a credible response to the problems posed by Sarah Jane’s anguished “you were my life” in School Reunion. The Doctor isn’t the life of any of his companions under Moffat.
And often this is the point of the exercise. The entire resolution of The Name of the Doctor hinges on the fact that Clara never has been the solution to the textual problem of Jenna Louise-Coleman’s appearances as other characters, but has in fact been a character in her own right with her own story. That the audience misses this is the point and the trap; the audience is invited to think of Clara as a mystery, when in fact she’s been a character all along. The Name of the Doctor is, in fact, a story in which huge amounts of the plot are given to the female characters – has there ever been a Doctor Who story so dominated by female characters? Well, yes – but it was The Crimson Horror a few episodes later.
It’s worth looking at Moffat’s larger career. He is, after all, close friends with Paul Cornell (he was the best man at Cornell’s wedding), and the influence of Cornell on his work is demonstrable. So it certainly isn’t a reach to think that he might share Cornell’s commitment to feminism. His earlier work is often about the damage that masculinity does; his first sitcom is a sitcom about divorce in which his self-insert is an unsympathetic figure, and the audience is meant to understand why his wife left him. Coupling is a sex farce about men and women, yes, but men come under interrogation repeatedly and ruthlessly.
Doctor Who continues in this vein – we see the Doctor’s marriage to River, but the Doctor is not meant as a sympathetic character in this. In Angels Take Manhattan, the Doctor is forced to the edges of his own story, made ineffectual, reduced to shouting impossible demands at River. It’s a very different sort of masculinity that saves the day – Rory’s.
Ah yes, Rory. The figure that critiques of misogyny in Moffat’s Doctor Who love to simply ignore. Because, of course, he is the Moffat era’s actual vision of idealized masculinity – a figure at relative peace with what he has in the world who retains his own identity and saves the day, but is nevertheless wholly devoted to the needs of the woman he loves. At every turn he’s the ideal husband. He’s always willing to do what needs to be done, even when it’s unpleasant and scary. He’s actually older than the Doctor – another fact that nobody bothers to remark upon.
The Doctor, meanwhile, is something else. Something more akin to the defining line of his take on Sherlock – a great man who, if we’re very lucky, might some day be a good one. And much of Moffat’s Doctor Who is about the damage such a man does to the people around him, and specifically to the women around him. From Rory’s anguished “you’re making me like you” to River’s “you learn to hide the damage” to Madame Vastara’s decision to protect the Doctor, Moffat has focused repeatedly not just on the people in the Doctor’s wake, but on their dignity and worth. And while Moffat never wavers on the idea that the Doctor is worth the monsters, to use his own line, he also never wavers on depicting just how bad the monsters can be. This culminates with what is, for my money, the single best depiction of what the “survivor” part of “rape survivor” actually means that I’ve ever seen, as Amy, despite the genuinely horrible things that happen to her, discovers that she still has her life and her loved ones, that she does have a relationship with her daughter, and that she can survive and get on with her life.
And what’s the usual response to this? People who wanted more scenes of her in agony and suffering. Give people “oh look, there is such a thing as someone who isn’t defined by their rape” and they ask to see more rape scenes.
Which is the weird phenomenon of Moffat’s Doctor Who. Despite being the most consistently and investedly feminist take on Doctor Who… ever, actually, it’s routinely pilloried for being anti-feminist. Why?
To some extent, the answer seems to be that Moffat has created a Doctor Who that’s feminist enough to get criticized. The truism that Moffat broke Doctor Who out in America requires some elucidation; by all appearances, he broke it out among female geek fandom. That is, he did what Davies’s Doctor Who couldn’t – sell Doctor Who to the post-Buffy audience.
It may be worth remembering the sheer hatred that Joss Whedon was the target of at the end of Season Six of Buffy. And rightly so, given his use of Tara as a sacrificial lamb and the way in which it pushed Willow into a painfully stereotypical plot of being the crazy lesbian. (Ironically, the hatred there seems to have been what made Amber Benson balk at reprising Tara in Season Seven, denying Whedon the resolution he wanted, which was to bring Tara back and give her and Willow a happy ending. But that’s another story.) Nevertheless, it’s worth remembering that this is a part of feminist fandom – it is unapologetically savage in naming and shaming misogyny in the media it loves.
But we should also note that the reason feminist fandom is even targeting Moffat is that Moffat finally made a version of Doctor Who that speaks meaningfully to feminist fandom at large. If you’ve been to American cons over the course of the new series you know exactly what I mean. I did Dragon*Con in 2009, 2011, and 2012. I can say emphatically that the amount of Doctor Who cosplay skyrocketed from 2009 to 2011. River and Amy were characters people latched onto in a way they never did Martha or Donna or Rose. More stunning, though, is the amount of genderswapped cosplay Doctor Who generated – a raft of genderswapped Doctors, several genderswapped Jacks. And not just genderswapped Elevens and Tens, but Sevens and Twos and Fours. (The genderswapped Two I met in 2011 is firmly my second-favorite piece of cosplay ever, my favorite being the genderswapped Link/Navi I saw in 2012 in which Link was leading her Navi around on a leash with “No you listen” scrawled on his chest. But I digress.)
And no wonder. Because for all of its faults, Moffat’s Doctor Who is doing things no other series is in terms of geek feminism. River is instructive – a middle-aged woman who is confident in her own desires, can act as a Doctor surrogate every bit as much as Romana ever could, and has a strong emotional arc defined by her own choices, even when those choices are made out of love. I mean, holy crap. Is there another character like her in geek media? All I can think of is some of Greg Rucka and Bryan Q Miller’s contributions to the Batman mythos. You know the ones I’m talking about – the ones that were all retconned in The New 52. (And even there, it’s not a character that allows a fifty year old woman to play a sexually confident action hero. Is there another show on television that comes close to that?)
But by doing this, and doing it consciously, Moffat suddenly found himself being handed authorship of the 47 years of behind-the-times Doctor Who that preceded him. This is perhaps inevitable, and certainly not a bad thing for the series. The pressure to cast a female Doctor felt genuinely different this time around – I don’t think there were ever people who talked seriously about walking away from the series over a male Doctor before 2013. This is what progress looks like. The next showrunner has to do better than Moffat, and that’s as it should be. But the next showrunner has a much shallower hole to climb out of than Moffat did.
And that’s the thing that usually frustrates me in discussions of sexism in Doctor Who. The decision to treat the flaws of the series as authorial criticisms of the big bad sexist Moffat simply does not match up with the actual history of the series. I don’t think there’s been a single leap forward in feminism in the series larger than what happens between The End of Time Part II (Oh look, the Doctor’s finally managed to marry off his last two companions) and Series Five. The only contender is Romana, really.
Yes, the Moffat era of Doctor Who is sexist. Because it’s television made in a sexist society. But it has things to say about that society, and they are not kind things. I genuinely fail to understand anybody who claims that the Moffat era is sexist in excess of background radiation. This is a show that’s repeatedly telling girls that they can be as cool as the boys, that the boys don’t always know better than them, and that love and independence don’t have to be antagonistic qualities for women. It’s a show that tells rape survivors that it’s OK to not be defined by the terrible things that happen to them. It’s a show that says that women aren’t done being sexy once they get a grey hair and their first wrinkle, and that tells the Doctor off for thinking otherwise.
Yes, it can be better. Yes, it should be better. And yes, when we get to the Moffat era I’ll talk about that.
But to me, what’s key to note is that the practice of demanding that it be better should be separated from authorial criticism of the person who has done more to make it better than anyone in the history of Doctor Who. And that’s why, in the end, I’m hard pressed to treat Moffat as anything other than a massive positive for Doctor Who and feminism.