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.