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.

16 comments

  1. tigtog says:

    Interesting – I didn’t view them as overwhelmingly feminine at all. The clothing looked to me like a long version of the ancient Hellenic chiton, which was worn by both men and women, and which is a traditional costume used in artistic portrayals of masculine angels.

    • Megan says:

      How interesting! I have to admit, I’m not entirely surprised- my initial reaction was clearly to read them as feminine, but upon closer study I had to admit it wasn’t clear that was the case. I suspected the garb wasn’t clear cut (though without confirmation until now- thanks!), and there’s nothing in the physicality to suggest gender either way (that I noticed, at least). My remarks in the last paragraph about androgyny gesture towards this dilemma. So the question then became ‘for those of us inclined to that initial conclusion, why?’ I -think- it may have had something to do with the combination of the posture in which we’re first introduced to them and being raised in a cultural discourse that allows for women to engage in (some) stereotypically male behaviors, but almost never the reverse.

      I’d be interested to know, though: if you did think of them as male, did the episode make an impact on you? I’m still trying to work out how I think the theory works in the reverse (if the hypothesis could be broadened to encompass gender ambiguity and the ‘surprise’ factor of mixing gendered response styles), but since I didn’t perceive them that way it’s a bit more difficult without perspective!

      • tigtog says:

        The episode definitely made an impact on me, I found them very creepy as predatory stalkers masking themselves as harmless when being observed by others. That’s something that reads very differently when one genders them as male.

        • Megan says:

          Oh I do like that as an alternative and/or complimentary gendered reading, particularly with Sally at the center of the narrative and my very strong suspicion people wouldn’t believe her about the behavior’s occurrence because something so nice/harmless couldn’t -possibly- have that hidden that toxic and dangerous side.

  2. I certainly read the Weeping Angels as female, possibly because of the way they are dressed, whereas most angel iconography does code male to me (the angel figures in Voyage of the Damned, for comparison).

    The fact that they are played by women probably has a lot to do with that of course! Likewise the Voyage angels are voiced by men…

    Great, thoughtful article!

    I find it interesting that the angels are so “passive” in this story in many ways – in their frozen state they appear almost gentle until you learn to be afraid of them, and only later unwind enough to make scary, attack faces. Worth considering that passive female figures are no longer as socially approved as they used to be, especially in science fiction circles where ‘passive’ is hurled regularly at pretty much any female character who isn’t showing off her cleavage while pointing a gun and shouting.

    I quite like that the ‘passive’ female figure gets to metaphorically bite a few heads off in this story! But then that reversal, of an unthreatening female appearance revealing their true capable/violent self, has been a big part of our pop culture since Buffy and Darla appeared on our screens in the mid 90′s. Children as the ultimate passive innocent figure being revealed as evil has been a staple of the horror culture forever…

    How would the effect have been different if the statues in question were Herculean muscle men, for instance? Possibly they might have been unintentially funny… especially if they were some of the more anatomically correct Roman statues. And bearded.

    Now I’m imagining the armless Venus De Milo bearing down on them…

    How on EARTH did they have confidence the episode would be scary? I mean it is, the design is amazing, but how did they know that it would be? It could have gone so horribly wrong.

    Garden gnomes…

  3. Maureen says:

    To me the episode was scary mostly because it preys on primal fears about what happens when you’re not looking/when the lights go out. I was bothered, though, by the fact that they’re called psychopaths, because really, they rely on time energy for survival, and they get that time energy by zapping you back in time, and it doesn’t seem fair to call someone a psychopath because you don’t like what happens when you’re their meal. Nobody would call a lion a psychopath when it is hunting, for example.

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  5. DoomOverlord says:

    Angel’s gender never even crossed my mind. The thing that scared me isn’t even sending me back in time. It’s the lack of knowledge and the helplessness you feel when you look away. How do you fight something when your primary sense betrays you(when you blink)?

  6. AmandaonMaui says:

    I never considered the gender of the angels either. I guess I saw them as being androgynous, as many of our mythical beings have been throughout history. Fairies, creatures of the forest, and even angels have been androgynous. Even the archangel Gabriel can be read as male, female, or without sex.

    For me, the creep factor came in the startle value. The shock. The fear of the dark that all humans have to some degree. I suppose too, that there is the fear of losing control of your own reality.

  7. Cicci says:

    See, that’s interesting. I have ALWAYS pictured them as male. Strange since, as you point out, their appearance are traditionally feminine… I wonder if I do it because they’re villains, and villains are in my mind male?

    Need to ponder this for a bit.

  8. Trialia says:

    I’m another who never thought of all the angels as being female. I see them as androgynous, really; I don’t think gender is really even a concept for them. They don’t appear to reproduce sexually, for one thing.

    I have to wonder why you read them that way. Is it because you’ve seen the actresses and know that underneath the make-up and prosthetics they *are* female? Or is it because ‘angel’ in your mind conjures up something feminine? The associations are interesting.

    I honestly don’t think Moffat wrote them to be a sexist portrayal, and I’m a passionate feminist. As for their feeding method, fair enough on the time dislocation thing, but I’d say snapping necks and stripping your cerebral cortex to reanimate a version of your consciousness is pretty damn nasty, so we know they *can* be when they want or need to be. They also wanted the Doctor to commit suicide to save them – and Amy and River, though I have a definite idea they’d have stranded or killed those two as soon as he was gone just for causing them so much trouble. (Don’t spoil me for Angels Take Manhattan, please; I’ve not had the opportunity to see that as yet.)

    I find the scariest things about the Angels are that the majority of human beings struggle never to blink or look away – it’s reflexive and necessary! – so the translocation or death is inevitable in that way; that angel statues are *everywhere*, so it *could* be true, theoretically; and that in the dark you have no protection from them whatsoever.

    I was 26 when I first encountered the Angels in Who, and I had a nightmare about them right after: that they were real, had distributed disinformation purposefully, and could shapeshift. I dreamed that my duvet was an Angel and was trying to strangle me or break my neck, and I woke up screaming. So they’re scary enough for me!

    • Megan says:

      Two points:

      – I don’t necessarily think Moffat consciously intended a sexist portrayal, either. My argument was more that, conscious or unconscious, some of the fear factor derives from the gendered uncertainty that might be (equally unconsciously) raised in the minds of viewers. Tansy’s mention of garden gnomes above, for instance. I’m not at ALL convinced it would’ve had the same impact. If I had endless funding and a tenured professorship in pop culture or gender studies (which, being a lawyer and legal scholar, probably isn’t going to happen :) ), I’d love to test my hypothesis, maybe by asking subjects to gender the angels, rate their relative fear factor, and then a couple of free form interview questions to draw out any possible associations.

      – Going with the above, whether -they- have gender as we imagine it isn’t really crucial to my argument. It’s if our first instinct is to assign them a gendered category based solely on appearance. We could be wrong, and indeed often are even in our day-to-day interactions (particularly for people who identify far outside the gender binary), but I’ve known quite a few people to gender even their inanimate objects in various ways. I have no idea if this impacts the relative value we place on these objects, or how we think/interact with them/etc, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it does.

      Your point on their feeding methods as a form of nastiness is well-taken. I didn’t really consider their further iterations after “Blink,” though some of the points raised about how these episodes might alter things are really interesting!

  9. Sara says:

    I think being sent back in time would be a pretty awful fate. What happens if you have a medical condition, like diabetes or asthma? Even if there is some method of threatment available, your quality of life would decrease.

    What about the friends and family left behind? Even if I arranged for my parents to be sent one of those “I led a full and happy life” notes, I’d never know if they actually received (or believed) it. I wouldn’t know their reactions, or whether they were coping well.

    These angels are so scary (in Blink, at least) because if you make one mistake, you slip up once, you BLINK, there are no do-overs. And hell, everything I know about being an actuary in 2012 would NOT translate well to what being an actuary used to mean (we were basically glorified computers until computers came along and allowed us to not spend so much time doing manual calculations).

    • Megan says:

      Thank you so much for making this point. I think you’ve hit on something really important in my initial post– when making the point that being sent back in time wasn’t really -that- terrifying, it very much assumed a certain subject position. E.g., the able-bodied white male ruled by rationality that is so often the default in mainstream society. I’m particularly unsettled by this in my own writing, since it’s in no way my own subject position. I mean, yes, I maintain that if the only consequence is temporal displacement, that’s not as bad as, say, the cybermen and their complete stripping of humanity. On the other hand, as a woman of color, if the Weeping Angels sent me back to the pre-Civil War United States? I’d probably take any number of fates over this, some infinitely more (acutely) painful, but at least I’d die with my dignity intact, you know? (Octavia Butler’s “Kindred,” anyone?). Similarly, there has to be a particular form of terror for someone with a chronic illness whose life depends on medicines recently invented, and suddenly finds themselves without. Will this asthma attack finally be the one? Or, heavens, imagine trying to live with mental illness like anxiety or depression in an era before modern medicine and understandings. That definitely sounds a lot more like torture to me.

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