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)

Some time ago, Courtney asked me what kind of reaction I was trying to draw by doing femme Doctor cosplay (deliberately feminine variants of Doctor outfits), and I said that I wanted people to think about how clothing hobbles women. You simply can’t run in a corset, as Johanna Mead noted in her essay in the Hugo-winning Chicks Dig Time Lords (whose followup, Chicks Unravel Time, has contributions from Doctor Her’s own Courtney Stoker AND Tansy Rayner Roberts and is available now from quality booksellers everywhere), and as anyone who’s worn one will know. Part of the point of putting the Doctor in, say, a Fifties pencil skirt is to visually demonstrate that she would be ill-equipped to, as the Ninth Doctor said to Rose and then immediately demonstrated, run for her life. People wear what society expects them to wear, and if your society sticks you in a corset and bustle, then your society has assigned you the role of “monster food”, not “hero”.

That societal expectations constrain womens’ choices of roles is key to this story, which is fraught with female agency and the inevitable male pushback. Everyone’s favorite katana-wielding lesbian Victorian ninja detectives, Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint [1], are revealed as the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, but because they are women their achievements are taken from them and assigned to men. Dr. Simeon is quite upfront about that. Never mind that they are a lizard woman and a working-class woman in an openly romantic relationship, it’s their gender that makes their accomplishments unbelievable. Clara is whip-smart, but even she is trapped by a society that keeps trying to assign her a role–barmaid or governess, posh accent or Cockney, inquisitive or ladylike–and insists on a skirt with a bustle in either case.

The men we see are freer, but still constrained. Captain Latimer is cut off from an affectionate relationship with his children by his cultural belief that children are “not his area”. Dr. Simeon is a product, at least in part, of his society’s belief that men don’t have emotional lives and can do without human contact. Like the snow, society is revealed to be everyone mirroring everyone else, in a horrible feedback loop of perceived propriety.

And it’s the stifling propriety that’s the problem here. Captain Latimer is confronted with, in short order, a lizard woman with a human wife, a Sontaran, and an evil ice reincarnation of his former governess, but it’s the notion that Clara has a “gentleman friend” that he finds the most objectionable. [UPDATE: Very possibly for more than one reason, as several have noted in the comments. I'll freely admit that, as an ace, I often miss this sort of thing.] Governesses are supposed to be respectable. Women who have gentleman callers immediately cease to be respectable. When Dr. Simeon muses about Vastra’s “suspiciously… intimate… companion”, Vastra knows right away that he is attacking her respectability. Her defense (hilariously, she’s culturally savvy enough to know that 1) her respectability is an extremely important social aspect, and 2) marriage is a defense against impropriety) has no effect–she, and we, and Dr. Simeon all know that the allegations of impropriety are enough. “What’s wrong with Victorian values?” asks Dr. Simeon as the Doctor faces him down, and for once the Doctor (and the show) spell it out. The problem is that emotion is assigned to women and only to women, and women are devalued. The problem is that even a respectable Victorian woman is only an insinuation away from catastrophic social ruination. The problem is that privileged white men built themselves an echo chamber and used it to convince each other of their society’s enlightenment and advancement. The problem is that a society that has no room for dualities or human failings or even human emotions has no room for humans, only human-like simulacra made of ice.

Now that is some shit I’m delighted to see brought up in Doctor Who.

[1] SPIN-OFF! SPIN-OFF! Are you listening, Mr. Moffatt? I WOULD WATCH THE HELL OUT OF THAT SHOW.

12 comments

  1. Kate Harrad says:

    Love this!

    Apparently Stephen Moffat has suggested that a Vastra/Jenny spin-off should be called Tipping the Scales, which is making me laugh every single time I think of it.

    Re the gentleman friend thing, my impression was that the captain focused on that because he fancied Clara and was jealous. But would have to watch it again to be sure.

    • bryan says:

      agreed the captain fancied Clara. Notice Clara’s exasperation at his plaintive tone.

    • CaitieCat says:

      Brilliant post, and I’m with Kate and others, I suspect Capt. Latimer’s objection was proprietary, rather than propriety-based.

      Not to say that he wouldn’t ALSO object on propriety grounds, as I’m sure he would, but the “but I wanted that one” whine is, to me, quite apparent.

  2. Thanks for this post! It sums up a lot of the things I really liked about this episode. Of all the New Who Victoriana pieces (and I include A Christmas Carol, because it kind of was) I think this one did the best job of actually interrogating gender roles and expectations of this era – critiquing Victorian values instead of just wallowing in them or using them as pretty set dressing.

    The only other one that came close to doing that was The Unquiet Dead, and I think the Snowmen did it better.

    Also Clara’s frocks were so PRETTY. But I loved the bustle line which pointed out the way women were hobbled by them.

    Jenny’s clothes in the whole story also have a lot to say – from her heroic Mrs Peel outfit to the more fancy ‘wife of the house’ black dress that she wears. I love that she’s not pretending to be a maid any more, but she dresses as appropriate for her new station even though no one in Victorian times (except Vastra) would actually acknowledge her as Vastra’s wife.

  3. CaitieCat says:

    I also liked that they gave Clara a chance to subvert a show trope while also lampshading that it IS a trope: “It’s smaller on the outside!”

    I cheered, vigourously.

  4. What a brilliant review of the episode! I’m so glad I found your blog (thanks to links in Jim C Hines’ blog).

  5. [...] My bustle’s stuck!: Women vs. Victorian values in ‘The Snowmen’: “Part of the point of putting the Doctor in, say, a Fifties pencil skirt is to visually demonstrate that she would be ill-equipped to, as the Ninth Doctor said to Rose and then immediately demonstrated, run for her life. People wear what society expects them to wear, and if your society sticks you in a corset and bustle, then your society has assigned you the role of “monster food”, not “hero”.” [...]

  6. This… is fantastic! They need to do more of this sort of thing! Although hopefully not just as an excuse to do more costume drama, although Jenna Coleman does seem to be reveling in those too…

    Just found this blog this evening, and am now reading as much of it as I can before my eyelids give out. Fantastic blog, and ta muchly for the introduction to the term “ace”, not one I’ve come across before.

    Third point (please forgive the disjointed post) – the cynic in me says that there probably won’t be a series about Vastra and Flint because katana-wielding lesbian Victorian ninja detectives are a little too niche for a Who spinoff – they’ve done “Doctor Who For Grown-ups” (or at least, with more sex) in Torchwood, where does this marvelous idea fit into their marketing scheme? And is there anywhere I can delve in to find something like fan-written material with these two ladies?

  7. VTEC says:

    I never looked at it that way. I just watched the episode an hour or so ago, admittedly, but I hadn’t realized the extent of the message they were trying to send. And now that I know, that Christmas special is that much more awesome!

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