Archive for Character Analysis

You’re a beautiful woman, probably: My life as an ace Who fan

Some weeks ago, the Daily Fail wrote a spectacularly condescending article on a new book of social justice Who criticism, Doctor Who and Race. There’s a lot to dislike in the Fail’s piece, but I want to draw your attention to one of its most cynical and effective tricks: an insistence on a binary. In writer Chris Hasting’s view, you’re either with the Doctor or against him. He pits evil killjoy academics determined to suck the fun out of everything against a venerable, beloved British institution. On one side, checking your privilege and learning to acknowledge the problematic. On the other, kneejerk affirmation that Doctor Who rocks. Hastings’ readers knew which part they’d been assigned. Result? A book with important points to make will almost certainly get less exposure than it deserves.

We’ve written about moving beyond fandom binaries before–here’s my own piece. There’s another fandom binary that revolves around whether the Doctor is a sexual being, and the players in this one (as I experience it, anyway) are “prudish anoraks terrified by sex” vs. “sensible adults”.

This puts me in a bit of a bind. I am aromantic asexual, and, yes, it is important to me that the Doctor be asexual. In a world where people like me either don’t exist or need to be cured (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, that one episode of House), I like knowing that there’s one character who’s like me. When, in “City of Death”, the Fourth Doctor tells Countess Scarlioni “You’re a beautiful woman, probably”, it’s a beautiful shock to me because I can relate so completely. When Tegan, in “Enlightenment”, steps out in a beautiful Edwardian ballgown and shows off for the Doctor, clearly expecting his jaw to drop and his eyes to bulge out of their sockets, and he kind of glances her up and down as if to say “Yep, that’s an appropriate dress for a party”, and then turns away and starts down the hall–that, again, is me. Whereas today, we have a married Doctor kissing people (sometimes against their will) and going “Yowza”. Under Davies and, especially, Moffatt, I have less and less room to pretend that the Doctor is ace.[1] That hurts. We have a tiny handful of asexual characters out there–most of whom are never identified as ace–and now we can’t even have those?

Worse, fandom is not exactly a refuge: I’ve sometimes said that Doctor Who fandom is the only place I feel that asexuality and feminism are somehow in conflict. I don’t object to shipping. (Why would I?) What I do object to is what I experience as fandom insisting that shipping represents an advance over the old “prudish anoraks terrified by sex” days–that because, broadly speaking, shipping is associated with female fandom, therefore enthusiasm for shipping is feminist; and its opposite, preferring an asexual Doctor, is somehow anti-feminist. And when fans ritually denounce the sad caricature of the stereotypical fan as mid-thirties and virginal… well, as a mid-thirties virgin fan myself, I’ve had about enough of it. (Should I carry around a sign explaining that I’ve had offers? Maybe have a t-shirt made? Would this make me less pathetic, or more?)

I suppose I’m asking for a bit of room: room to not ship Sherlock/John, room to think UST is really overused in new Who. (Does everyone have to fall for the Doctor? Is romance the only way male and female characters can relate?) Room to imagine a Doctor Who that kinda sorta includes me–because right now, it’s feeling a lot like when I was a kid and suddenly all the other girls wanted to make Barbie and Ken kiss. I didn’t want to make them kiss. I wanted them to go on adventures.

[1] Matt Smith, bless him, is on record as thinking the Doctor (or at least his Doctor) is ace.

Domesticating the Doctor Part VI: Soufflés in the TARDIS

[Crossposted at TansyRR]

Previously on Domesticating the Doctor, we looked at our hero’s distaste of the domestic sphere throughout the Classic Years (with a brief holiday from it when he was Jon Pertwee), we looked at the three Mother-in-Law characters from the RTD era and how this new, rebooted version of our hero coped with jam, Christmas dinner and housing estates, we delved back into pre-war Britain with a very human Doctor, we poked holes in his new Moffat era family with Marrying the Ponds and then examined the final act of that relationship in Divorcing the Ponds.

As it turned out, the new companion of 2012 provided me with a brilliant coda to my Domesticating the Doctor series – a girl with an egg-whisk in her belt who moonlights as a Victorian governess!

Thank you, Mr Moffat. I’ll take it from here.

To me, the most baffling element of Asylum of the Daleks was not what the hell Jenna-Louise Coleman was actually doing there, five months before we expected her to arrive. It was: how does the Doctor know that you require fresh eggs and milk to make a soufflé?

I mean, seriously. It took him nine hundred and one years to get the hang of jam.

OswinOswaldColeman’s character of Oswin Oswald is explicitly domestic, from the cozy home she has set up for herself in the belly of a crashed spaceship to the egg whisk she wears in the utility belt of her little red dress. She even dictates letters home to her Mum. It’s all a cruel trick, of course, but it’s a clever one. Oswin is hanging on to the precious shreds of her remembered humanity, and the burnt birthday soufflé that was ‘too perfect to live’ is a part of that illusion.

Domesticity – the place we live, the everyday tasks that heroic stories tend to ignore – is an important aspect of humanity. We don’t all have to be 1950’s housewives who make perfect soufflés, or even switch on an oven, but to me the most interesting science fiction (and indeed the most interesting history) is that which explores how people actually go about their daily lives.

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The Girl Who Fell Out Of The World: or, The Importance of Being Tegan

Before we begin: Janet Fielding is battling cancer. I’d like to take a moment to wish her the very best of outcomes, and to point you all to her online support group slash charity page: projectmotormouth.org.uk

Actor Janet Fielding as Tegan Jovanka, in a screencap from the 1982 serial "Black Orchid". In this closeup, she is wearing a flapper-style green headband ornamented with a pink rose, and is smiling or laughing at the camera.

Actor Janet Fielding as Tegan Jovanka, in a screencap from the 1982 serial "Black Orchid". In this closeup, she is wearing a flapper-style green headband ornamented with a pink rose, and is laughing at the camera.

Mouth on Legs

Tegan Jovanka, everyone’s favourite trainee Australian flight attendant, is one of the Doctor’s longest-serving companions. She even eclipses the legendary Sarah Jane Smith, though only by a couple of weeks (and SJS was in more episodes). She’s pretty inarguably the Fifth Doctor’s companion, serving in all but two of Peter Davison’s televised serials. But you’d never know it from fandom. What is it with Tegan? Why is her sarcasm “stroppy” and “mean-spirited”, while Donna Noble’s is endearingly sassy? Why is her ambivalence about adventuring across time and space versus forging her domestic, Earthbound life–her real life–”whiny”, when Amy Pond’s very similar arc is portrayed much more sympathetically? I think it’s time to take another look at Our Tegan, the Classic Who companion who most clearly anticipates the New Who companion, and this time see the seeds she planted.

I hate those transmat things. I’d be afraid of coming out puréed.

Me, I had a soft spot for Tegan from early on. In “Castrovalva”, the newly-regenerated Fifth Doctor is looking for a Zero Room–a place, he says, that’s cut off from the rest of the universe. Tegan snarks that if she’d known that’s what he wanted, she would have suggested her native Brisbane. And lo, my little heart went “pwing!” What kid raised in suburban or rural environs–convinced that their parents had deliberately chosen the least interesting place on earth for them to grow up in– wouldn’t feel a twinge of empathy?

I love moments in Who that ground the fantastic in the earthy, that reach right past the high concept of the show to reveal how real people might react in such bizarre circumstances. I love the moment in “Forest of the Dead” where Donna, bewildered at the revelation that her life is a Matrix-like simulation, snaps, “But… I’ve been dieting!” All her discipline and willpower, and she could have had the chocolate cake anyway. Who wouldn’t feel frustrated? I love Martha worrying, in “The Shakespeare Code” whether Elizabethan London is a safe place for a black woman, and I’m annoyed that the Doctor brushes off her valid concerns.

And Tegan, with her shots at Brisbane and her entirely understandable wariness of this strange new world she finds herself in; Tegan, who never travels with a fellow human aboard the TARDIS; Tegan provides that essential grounded viewpoint.

Tegan’s character establishes itself early, and is remarkably consistent: she’ll speak her mind even when her voice shakes, she tries to be self-reliant to the extent that she won’t always ask for help when she needs it; she hides her fear and vulnerability behind a facade of snark and bravado. In short, she has a lot in common with one of the best-liked recent companions: Donna Noble. The two redheads are characterized by their fiery natures–both have tempers, neither is willing to take the Doctor’s crap, and both almost delight in puncturing his self-importance. Both remind the Doctor of the impact his plans have on the ordinary people caught up in them; indeed, they each almost consciously take on the mantle of the Doctor’s conscience. Both women were abducted aboard the TARDIS for their first experience(s) with the Doctor; leave when the Doctor finally returns them to their own time; and, later, dissatisfied with what had, pre-Doctor, been perfectly satisfying lives, chose to return for more adventures. [1]

So why is Donna beloved while Tegan, generally, isn’t? Is it the quarter century that elapsed between the two? I think that’s a large part of it. Nyssa and Tegan are both good examples of some of the problems with the way womens’ roles were written in the early Eighties: one was sweet and childlike; the other, adult but shrewish, and guess which one was allowed to be intelligent? Nor was the series at the time very interested in the companion’s story. We learned much more about Donna’s past, her family, and her character in one year than we did about Tegan in three, and the depth of Donna’s character helped make her sympathetic. So where Donna was a well-rounded character with flaws and strengths, Tegan, despite her much longer tenure in the TARDIS, is much more of a cipher.

I happen to think that human lives are just as valuable as yours!

Tegan’s original character brief is… kind of offensive.

Tegan is twenty-one, an attractive and intelligent Australian trainee air stewardess, whose brash confidence in her own abilities actually conceals inner insecurity, a state of affairs that becomes clear in moments of stress. On her way to her first real flight she accidentally blunders into the TARDIS and thus finds herself being inadvertantly [sic] abducted by the Doctor. Characteristically her inner bewilderment at the new situation in which she finds herself causes her to assume an attitude of overweening self-assertion, and she begins to take charge of the Doctor and Adric. During the course of three stories, Tegan’s superficial self-assurance will build until it becomes a real problem for the other two occupants of the TARDIS, and it will need drastic action on the part of the Doctor to put things to rights and show her the error of her ways. She may or may not continue with the Doctor thereafter.
(“Doctor Who – The Eighties” by David J Howe, Mark Stammers, Stephen James Walker; p.13.)

Oh, joy: the Uppity Woman Who Receives Her Well-Deserved Chastisement At The Hands Of A Wiser Man. (See, also, a remarkable fraction of the plots involving Lois Lane in mid-century Superman.) Way to smack down any female character who thinks herself a man’s equal!

But what’s remarkable here is how little of Tegan’s planned arc made it into production. Tegan had her flaws–rashness, a short temper, a bad habit of lashing out at people when she felt overwhelmed or frightened–but I think it’s very hard to argue that she was arrogant, much less that she “took charge” with “overweening self-assertion”. She makes her opinions known, but defers to the Doctor and Nyssa, less brash than she but more experienced. Certainly her comeuppance, as planned in her character brief, never happens.

Long shot showing Tegan exiting the TARDIS. Her inexpert landing has left the TARDIS sticking out of a hill at a strange angle, but she is proud to have landed it intact. Screencap from the 1981 serial "Castrovalva".

Long shot showing Tegan exiting the TARDIS. Screencap from the 1981 serial "Castrovalva".

Tegan gets away from the bitch in the character brief as early as her debut story, “Logopolis”. We meet her as she heads to Heathrow to begin her new job as a flight attendant, a job she is clearly looking forward to. She seems eager for independence, for a chance to prove herself in–yes–a man’s world. Tegan herself identifies her desire to fix her own car as feminist self-reliance.

Even when Tegan stumbles into the TARDIS and gets lost, she manages to maintain much better composure than might be expected of a human confronted with the overwhelming implications of a dimensionally transcendent alien spacetimeship. (Remember that, unlike nearly every other companion, Tegan doesn’t have the Doctor as a tour guide.) She is clearly terrified, but doesn’t let her fear disable her. She knows that she is in some sort of craft: she realizes that the console room is the equivalent of a cockpit; she tries to use the communication devices at the console; she reasons that there must be a pilot aboard, and asks to see that person. She, in short, displays a rather astonishing degree of analytical ability and sang-froid–and that’s just in her first serial.

Peter Davison’s been heard to say that he thought Nyssa was the companion best suited for his Doctor, but I think he’s wrong. Nyssa may have been the one the Fifth Doctor got along with, but Tegan–spiky, ornery, brave Tegan–was the one he needed. It’s Tegan who wants to know why the Doctor can’t go back and save Adric (“Time-Flight”), in a scene that–as the companion confronts the Doctor over a heartbreaking failure to save a fellow companion–is right at home in the new series:

Tegan: Aren’t you forgetting something important, Doctor? Adric is dead.

Amy: Save him. You save everyone. You always do. That’s what you do.
The Doctor: Not always. I’m sorry.
Amy: Then what is the point of you?

 

It’s Tegan who who commits to freeing the Frontios colonists when the Doctor is trying to butter up the villain (“Frontios”), Tegan who’s willing to throw knives at people in the Doctor’s defense (“The King’s Demons”). And, finally, it’s Tegan whose departure forces the Doctor to admit that his hands are bloody. The Doctor doesn’t last long without her–two serials after she leaves, he regenerates.

Tegan vs. Eurocentrism

"McArthur's Universal Corrective Map of the World": a 1979 world map by an Australian cartographer that is oriented so that it has South at the top.

"McArthur's Universal Corrective Map of the World": a 1979 world map by an Australian cartographer that is oriented so that it has South at the top and Australia in the center.

Beneath its glossy science fiction trappings, Doctor Who is a direct descendent of Victoriana: specifically, the Victorian traditions of the gentleman adventurer and the gentleman inventor. This is not an era known for its transgression or its diversity, and Who has at times struggled to rise above the colonialist subtext of “nice white man from advanced civilisation arrives to save backwards civilisations from themselves”.

As our own Courtney Stoker has put it, Doctor Who is:

… not a particularly progressive, transgressive, or subversive show. It’s just a show about a White dude who wields all the power and paternalism of a British imperialist force…

John Nathan-Turner’s reasons for creating an Australian companion probably didn’t include venturing outside Doctor Who‘s comfort zone or introducing a non-European perspective–accounts of the era suggest that he was mostly interested in selling the show to Australia.

But Tegan does bring a non-British, non-European perspective to the TARDIS, maybe most notably in “Four to Doomsday” when she can communicate with Kurkutji, a temporally displaced Aboriginal Australian, and the Doctor can’t.[2] The scene has some problematic elements that imply a screenwriter who seems not to have thought much about either linguistics or Australia’s diversity of languages, including the odd implication that Kurkutji’s language hasn’t changed over 40,000 years (by contrast, a mere 10,000 years separates English from Proto-Indo-European), and the extraordinary coincidence that Tegan happens to know that one particular language among the hundreds native to Australia. But Tegan’s achievement remains: she can do something that the Doctor cannot, and it is extremely important to the story.

It’s tempting to wonder how much of her pointed refusal to be impressed by the Doctor is that, from her perspective, he may well be the Ultimate Pom: representative of an allegedly superior culture who condescends to hang around hers.

It’s stopped being fun, Doctor

What does Tegan want? Does she want to stay with the Doctor or leave? Certainly she’s one of the companions most ambivalent about traveling with the Doctor. But her story is nearly unique among the companions: she stumbled aboard the TARDIS without meaning to, and the Doctor’s attempts to take her home repeatedly failed. She never asked for adventure; it was thrust upon her.

But how do you reconcile a life of adventure with a mundane Earthbound life? This is a major theme of the new series and its spinoffs, but it’s in Tegan’s story that we see it first broached.  The confident young woman we met in “Logopolis”, looking forward to her new job, has her horizons so shattered by her adventures that (per “Arc of Infinity”) she doesn’t last three months as a flight attendant.

So she returns to a life of adventure. This time she wants to be there. She seems happier, now that it’s her choice; she’s more of a participant than a bystander. She is increasingly concerned with the lot of the little people caught up in the mayhem that surrounds the Doctor, and is increasingly determined to give them a voice.

And things start going wrong. Gradually, Tegan realizes that the exhilaration of adventure is not worth the psychic toll it’s taking on her. She’s seen too much. She’s… outgrown him.

So she makes the excruciating choice–the only possible choice–and leaves. On her own terms, with her head held high. Brava.

 

There’s a woman in Australia… fighting for Aboriginal rights

I’m of the opinion that Who has, ultimately, just one lesson for us to learn, over and over again: we are the same.

Tegan learned it.

[1] It’s pretty common in the new series for companions to alternate time with the Doctor and time at home: Rose, Mickey, Martha, Donna, River, Amy, and Rory have all had adventures, left the Doctor, and then come back to have more adventures. But it was vanishingly rare in the classic series; I think Tegan’s the only example. (Sarah Jane didn’t come back until the new series.)
[2] Interestingly, this translation oddity didn’t make any sense at the time (I think it’s the first time the translation magic didn’t work) but does fit in remarkably well with current Who canon, which holds that the TARDIS can’t translate exceptionally old or obscure languages. (“The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit”)

Domesticating the Doctor Part V: Divorcing the Ponds

[Cross-posted at my blog, tansyrr.com]

The Christmas decorations are still up, we’ve only just started eating the pudding (if I’d known it only took 3 minutes in the microwave I might have cooked it on Christmas Day) but the festive season is pretty much over in our house. Time to chew over the 2012 Doctor Who episodes (Series Pond & the Christmas Special) with a couple of new installments of DOMESTICATING THE DOCTOR.

Previously on Domesticating the Doctor, we looked at our hero’s distaste of the domestic sphere throughout the Classic Years (with a brief holiday from it when he was Jon Pertwee), we looked at the three Mother-in-Law characters from the RTD era and how this new, rebooted version of our hero coped with jam, Christmas dinner and housing estates, we delved back into pre-war Britain with a very human Doctor, and finally we poked holes in his new Moffat era family with Marrying the Ponds.

Before I get to the 2012 episodes, I wanted to touch briefly on the Night and the Doctor shorts, which were released last year as part of the Season 6 box set, but which I personally failed to watch until somewhere around the beginning of Season 7. These little sketches not only answer some rather intriguing questions about the actual timey wimey physics involved in the Doctor’s marriage to River Song, but also expands on his relationship with Amy, cementing it once and for all as being far closer to a familial connection than anything else.

This Doctor doesn’t get why married people should want to share a bed, but is in his element when talking about his best friend’s childhood – children make sense to him in a way that grown ups don’t, and he seems far less threatened by their domesticity. If this wasn’t fully clear from The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe (which probably deserves a post of its own, to be honest) in which the Doctor upcycles a house to be a child’s paradise but sneers at the functional adult rooms, it should certainly be clear from the scene in which he shows Amy the power he can have over her childhood and her memories, using only a theoretical ice-cream.

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My bustle’s stuck!: Women vs. Victorian values in “The Snowmen”

tl;dr: Steven Moffatt brings us the very best Christmas gift of all: his A game. Spoilers for “The Snowmen” (a.k.a. the 2012 Christmas special) » Read more..

The First Face This Face Saw

[crossposted at tansyrr.com]

I know that most of us are thinking REALLY HARD about The Angels Take Manhattan right now, but I wanted to step back for a moment and talk instead about a thought that emerged from the previous episode, The Power of Three.

“The first face this face saw,” the Eleventh Doctor said to Amy, explaining why it is that he has been so very emotionally attached to her, and by extension, Rory, over the last several hundred years. Much like “I always took you where you needed to be” from The Doctor’s Wife, this one line throws the whole history of Doctor Who into a new light.

I’ve always subscribed to the idea that the Ninth Doctor was freshly regenerated in “Rose,” and that he went off to have a bunch of adventures in that instant before he and the TARDIS came back for her and he upped his offer: “Did I mention it also travels in time?” Not only is this a nice thought because it means he got to have a bunch of adventures on his own, but it allows him to appear at various points through history in his leather jacket, thereby catching the attention of Clive.

But Rose could well have been the first face that his Ninth face saw. At least, the first non-Auton, non-dead face. The first person he talked to, the first person he told to “Run.” Extending this thought further, this could be why he came back for her at the end of the episode, once he thought of something new to tempt her with. And maybe even that “run” was the first word he said, also imprinting itself upon the destiny of his incarnation of the Doctor.

Yes, I’m arguing that the Doctors set their own themes in the first moments of life. Bear with me.

I know that many fans are annoyed by the perceived “specialness” of Rose, while others love her best and most above all others. Well, she is special. Because she may well be the only person whom the Doctor saw first in two incarnations. With the Ninth, it’s arguable, but it’s definite with the Tenth. He regenerated in the TARDIS, and the first face his face saw was Rose, crying and angry and bouncing emotions off the walls. Rose, who loved him.

Yep, this explains a lot about the Tenth Doctor.

But does the theory hold up into the Classic series? I had a long walk this morning, which always does ferocious things to my brain, and I’m here to tell you that maybe it DOES.

Some are drawing a longer bow than others, I’ll admit. The first face the Eighth Doctor saw was that of a morgue technician screaming at him for being alive. But the surgeon who killed him, Grace Holloway, certainly can have had an effect on who he was as a Doctor. Did he see her through the anaesthesia? Does his grogginess explain the weird hallucination about being half human?

The Seventh Doctor is a way better example. The first face his face saw was his old enemy the Rani, pretending to be his companion Mel. No wonder he spent his whole incarnation as a sneaky, suspicious and manipulative dark version of himself! Apart from the whole spoon-playing phase which was obviously caused by the strobing effect from Mel’s psychelic apricot striped outfit.

The Sixth Doctor tried to kill the first face his face saw, the argumentative Peri, and his incarnation was certainly characterised by bickering and violence.

The Fifth Doctor saw three young people he barely knew: Adric, Nyssa and Tegan, and spent the rest of his regenerative crisis freaking out and impersonating his former selves. I have no idea what effect this had on his personality. But it does explain why he and/or the TARDIS failed so utterly to return Tegan to her workplace over and over again, despite her stated wishes.

The first faces the Fourth Doctor saw were Sarah Jane Smith and the Brig. Interesting then that he set out to distance himself quickly from UNIT and his previous life on earth. A born contrarian? Still, there’s no denying that he remained more closely attached to them both than almost any other companions of the classic era. He sent Sarah a K9, after all, and he always came back for Alistair Gordon.

The first face that the Third Doctor’s face saw was a random squaddie who shot him. He then spent five years living with and working for the military, despite the fact that this was dramatically against anything established for the character previously.

And finally, the Second Doctor. His very first regeneration, and the first people he saw were Ben and Polly. There was nothing particularly special about them, though it is worth noting that he spent his entire incarnation with companion pairs of a boy and a girl, except for the one time that Jamie stowed away.

The first faces that the first regenerated Doctor saw were human, though. And in fact, apart from Nyssa, Adric and the Rani, every first face his faces have seen have been human. No wonder he’s so attached to us all, to the humans who live on Earth. The First Doctor despised humans, and if he had any control over the TARDIS, would not have chosen to land on Earth nearly as often as he did. But the later Doctors… every one of them called Earth his home away from home.

And there we are, proof that I think about this stuff way too much.

Don’t Believe Everything the Doctor Tells You: On Fear, Gender, and the Weeping Angels

If there’s one thing that seems to be ubiquitous among Whovians– those I encounter, at least– it is an appreciation for season 3 (NuWho)’s “Blink.” Indeed, my scathing critique of Steven Moffat has been met, on more than one occasion, with “but he wrote ‘Blink’!” clearly intended as a strong defense of his competence and value as a storyteller. And I admit, I’m not immune. The episode has long stood out in my mind as one of the most memorable of the show’s run (it may even be one of my favorites, though that’s a more questionable statement). The Weeping Angels are often described as vicious, troubling, even frightening. When rewatching the episode recently, however, I found myself increasingly puzzled by two seemingly different questions: what work was the Angels’ appearance as uniformly feminine in shape doing, given the West’s cultural frame of reference for gender? And just what was so frightening, or at least unsettling, about them, anyway? (That is, why did they work as a villain?).  Upon closer reflection, it became apparent that the answers to both were more closely linked than one might suppose.

The Angels, as described by the Doctor, are “the only psychopaths in the universe to kill you nicely.” Within the episode we’re compelled to agree with the Doctor’s assessment of their character– present are all the traditional hallmarks of a crazed killer: tense music, a suitably decrepit house, nearly palpable terror on the part of the protagonists. Once one stops to consider it closely, however, this narrative sows the seeds of its own destruction. After all, the individuals we see taken by the Angels can scarcely be said to be miserable. They both lead full lives, and die seemingly content. Even the Doctor himself is forced to note that this “death” involves the victims… living an otherwise normal life. How very terrifying. (Most refugees– the real world equivalent of being forcibly removed from one’s rightful place– should be so lucky!) Make no mistake, there is grief in it, for the partings and opportunities lost, but life is full of just such mourning. Thus, the havoc wreaked by the Angels seems unworthy of the amount of fascination, dread, and fear they’re accorded. What, then, makes them so unsettling? I would argue it has to do in no small part with their feminine form and the embedded gender stereotypes it triggers… or, more importantly, the ways the Angels transgress these stereotypes.*

Critical to this analysis is the stance commonly taken by the Angels when someone’s gaze is upon them, framed as “the most perfect defense system ever evolved.”  Shoulders bent, hands covering the face, it is a pose commonly associated with grief in the wake of death… or, more specifically, feminine grief. One article studying gender differences in grief has noted that

 

mothers scored higher on measures of coping difficulty, active grief, depression, preoccupation, sadness, difficulty in functioning, and finding resolution than fathers, whereas fathers scored higher on measures of specific anger… this apparent sex difference is related to male and female sex roles that are taught and heavily reinforced within the culture. It is believed, therefore, that gender-stereotypical grief behavior may result in more sympathy and may be considered to be more appropriate than gender-atypical grief behavior.

– Alexis Versalle and Eugene E. McDowell, “The Attitudes of Men and Women Concerning Gender Differences in Grief,” OMEGA, Vol. 50(1)  at 54, 57(2004-2005).

 

Note the linkage between passive/female and active/male when discussing grief: women were depressed, preoccupied, and experienced difficulty in functioning, whereas men were angry. At rest, then, the Angels are feminine enough– perpetually catatonic (that is, immobilized) in their apparent grief, unmoving, completely unable to be threatening.

 

The problem arises, of course, when one’s back is turned. Fears over female deception and women lying in wait for the unwary are everywhere in the popular imagination (rape accusations, lying about birth control use to “trap” a man, and the popular male lament that women change right after getting married immediately spring to mind), and it is within this frame of reference that the Angels become so striking. To look at the face of a Weeping Angel caught mid-motion is to see not passivity, as might befit their form, but ferocity and danger (with great restraint, I’m refraining from using the term ‘man eating’, even tongue-in-cheek).

 

This argument is not without its caveats: for instance, it utilizes a gendered frame of reference that is applied mainly to white men and women born and raised in the Anglo tradition, with no variance for class, sexual orientation, etc. Moreover, it does assume that the ostensible gender of the statutes is intended to be read as it’s presented (e.g., as female). In the absence of the markers noted above (well, and the plethora of female-presenting grieving angel images), the Angels themselves might appear androgynous enough. This uncertainty, however, does not necessarily make the argument irrelevant, it only serves to alter it: feminine cues utilized by those born with male anatomy (regardless of their self-identification) are themselves treated as alarming and deceptive within the manstream, after all. Nonetheless, I would love to see how the effectiveness of the Angels would be altered with a more masculine appearance– without conjuring up gender stereotypes and their transgression, would the Angels still seem to make sense? It’s an interesting question, though my suspicion is they wouldn’t.

 

*That’s not to say it’s the entire story, of course. Underlying the West’s moral and political philosophies is a fundamental belief in the right to choose one’s life for oneself, something the Angels’ intervention summarily denies their victims. For those socialized to such beliefs, the Angels likely should be met with a certain distaste and dislike on an  emotional level.