Are you my mummy? The power of motherhood in new Who

Parental love and its redemptive power has been a big Moffatt theme, no doubt about it.  In the last season alone, we had Stormageddon’s daddy making Cybermen explode (‘Closing Time’):

Craig: The Cybermen — they blew up! I blew them up with love!

The Doctor: No, that’s impossible — and also grossly sentimental and overly simplistic. You destroyed them because of the deeply engrained hereditary trait to protect one’s own genes — which in turn triggered a… a… uh… [sighs] Yeah. Love. You blew them up with love.

and George’s daddy taking on board that his son is an alien and being his daddy anyway (‘Night Terrors’):

Alex: Whatever you are, whatever you do, you’re my son. And I will never ever send you away. Oh George. Oh my little boy.

So it’s not perhaps as over the top as all that to have the power of motherhood as the focus of the Christmas episode this year, in ‘The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe’.   It seems to have annoyed people though, some people anyway.

The portrayal of an ‘ordinary’ woman roused to scary fierceness to protect her children is not probematic in itself – we’ve seen already that Madge is far from conventional, responding to the sudden appearance of an alien-angel in a quiet English village with considerable aplomb, and dealing with the Harvest Rangers in similar fashion:

Harvest-Ranger Droxil : There’s nothing you can say that would convince me you’re going to use that gun.

Madge: Oh, really? Well – I’m looking for my children.

[Droxil's expression changes to one of fear]

In her first encounter with the Doctor, Madge assumes a motherly role – ‘Oh no, love. No. I think you’ve just got your helmet on backwards. How did you manage that?’.  With her own children, though, she’s struggling to cope with the burden of her own grief and the tension of hiding from them the loss of their father, and she’s cross with herself for being cross with them.   She’s not some idealised image of motherhood, she’s real.

Some viewers had a problem though.  The Wooden King and Queen reject Cyril and the Doctor as not being strong, and Lily as not strong enough – what they need is someone  who not only potentially could bear children but actually has done.  Now, I don’t read that as a global statement, it’s a plot device.  But many [on the Guardian's Who blog ] did:

“hey, you called me sexist, so I’m going to write an ep that keeps saying women are awesome…because they can have babies!! ‘

‘the idea that all men are “weak” compared to women – even a male time lord is nothing in comparison – and that the maternal lurve of a human female for her cubs can overcome all obstacles, while the Doctor was reduced to a bystander, was kind of rubbish.’

‘Yes, girls, you’re all super-strong. But only if you lay back, think of England, and squirt out some babies’.

The hostility, it seems to me, arises from an extrapolation from the specific premises of this episode to global principles.  The weak-strong dichotomy has, surely, to be understood in the context of the world of the story.  In ‘The God Complex’, what saves them is scepticism, because faith is the specific emotional energy the creature feeds on.  Here, maternal programming happens to be something that the tree species can use to get themselves off the planet.  Whether that’s maternal instinct, mummy love, or chromosomes.   It’s not about awesomeness or fabulousness or the respective worth of the genders.

Having said that, Madge is rather marvellous:

Madge:  I’m perfectly fine, thank you.

The Doctor: Fine? You’ve got a whole world inside your head!

Madge: I know! It’s funny, isn’t it? One can’t imagine being a forest, then suddenly one can! How remarkable.

 

And despite the problematic nature of the Amy as mother storyline (which I’ve struggled with myself, along the way), there is something ultimately rather Madge-like about her take on motherhood.  ‘She’s a good girl’, she says of the child who was stolen from her, who she grew up alongside, unknowing, and who she now knows as  a woman seemingly old enough to be her own mother.

How remarkable, indeed.

6 comments

  1. Ritch Ludlow says:

    Within the context of the last season, the christmas special is just an extension of the parenthood theme. But a lot of people seem to be taking it out of context, as The Guardian apparently did with, “hey, you called me sexist, so I’m going to write an ep that keeps saying women are awesome…because they can have babies!!”

    Do we really believe that Moffat wasn’t going to write another story about being a mum after a season in which five episodes were devoted to being a dad (not including Rory’s episodes!).

  2. tansy says:

    Yeah I find it fascinating how many people seem to think that having one episode about the strength and power of women as mothers is somehow TOO MUCH, after a whole season which had fatherhood as a recurring theme.

    I really enjoyed Madge as a character, and I don’t think the episode was saying at all that the only strength that’s important is maternal strength – the only people saying that were the ALIENS, and the Doctor interpreting their vision of the universe. Also she is very much a product of her time, when wife and mother were far more weighted roles for women than they are now, and I enjoyed the exploration of that too. My only regret is that – and it probably would have confused the episode – it might have been nice to have Amy as a more active part of the story, to compare the different eras and their attitudes. But then it wouldn’t have been the elegant standalone story that it is.

    As a mother, I have enjoyed the inclusion of motherhood as something worth talking about in New Who. I liked the mixed and abrasive/clumsy relationships that the 9th and 10th Doctors had with domesticity and I really like the 11th Doctor’s attempts to embrace it.

    I certainly felt like this Christmas episode was Moffat attempting to “balance the books,” possibly after taking on the valid criticism of the invisibility of motherhood as a priority in season six – just as he took on the valid criticism of lack of gay characters in season 5, and gave us the wonderful, nuanced character of Canton in The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon.

    But I’m okay with that. Because a writer who learns and grows from his mistakes is exactly the kind of writer we want at the helm of the show.

    This is how I feel about Amy, too – we’ve never, ever had a pregnant companion before. We’ve never had a companion who brought her marriage into the TARDIS. And yet so many people seem to feel that this brush with domesticity is TOO MUCH, that there’s something inherently weak about her character because the writers are playing with these themes.

    Heh, this is a long comment. I guess I’d better write my own post. But I really enjoyed this one, Cathannabel!

  3. I was a little bit twitchy over that particular plot reveal, primarily because it was just so utterly corny. My gut instinct was to object to the reductionist view of women and motherhood. However, as my roomie pointed out, science fiction/fantasy could use a bit of absolutely positive portrayals of being a mom. Within the story, motherhood was this awesome thing and was shown to be a 3-dimensional, often really difficult, job to pull off.

    Additionally, I would rather Moffat attempt to say ‘women are awesome, here’s one reason why!’ and have be only partially successful in communicating that and open the dialog on WHY it was only partially successful, than to have Doctor Who not even bother. A partial failure that draws criticism and makes people think, in my humble opinion, is just as or more valuable than a straight-up success. As one of the previous posts on Doctor Her said, Moffat doesn’t seem to quite understand women, but he attempts to appreciate them and continue (in his own way) the broadening (and queering) of the show that RTD accomplished.

    But – I guess I’m kind of confused as to my own reaction, because it’s a science fantasy show saying, ‘Moms are AWESOME and you better believe it!’ I get that in a greater context it is completely problematic, but objecting to the basic message? That’s a little bit strange and worthy of further investigation.

  4. pickwick says:

    Ha, the “they called me sexist” comment on the Guardian was me. I’ll freely admit that I’m childfree and a whole season of “parents are the BEST” was starting to grate anyway – believe me, I ranted about the POWER OF FATHERLY LOVE resolution too! But I stand by my opinion that Madge’s single qualification to save the day was having given birth, and that’s totally reductionist and not exactly a feminist win. There’s a difference between “Mums are awesome” (which I agree with!) and “women are awesome when they’ve given birth.”

    “I don’t read that as a global statement, it’s a plot device” is kinda problematic, because you can apply “it’s not meant to be a global statement” to anything. To see the existence of subtle prejudice you have to to look at the patterns, and I’m one of the people who has ISSUES with Moffat’s women.

    • cathannabel says:

      Ah, then you and I have had this spat before, I think (I have a feeling it was a rather more civilised bout of fisticuffs than some I’ve had on that forum though…). ! I certainly don’t see the episode as a feminist win, but I accepted the premise in context and it didn’t trouble me (and there are plenty of aspects of DW that do). I agree entirely with the principle in your second paragraph, but I just don’t see this as part of a pattern of problematic portrayals of women, because I don’t see anywhere else that message is being put across.

  5. fontgoddess says:

    I very much agree with the reading “kids, your Mom is totally a hero who will save you” from that episode. It wasn’t immune to criticism, but if Doctor Who wanted to have fewer people reading the show in that way they should have more varied portrayals of women and more writing for the series done by women (who mightn’t be so challenged by filling in the interior lives of “strong women characters”).

    I also find it interesting that women (Madge and River and the TARDIS herself) are shown to be the most competent pilots in the time vortex.

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