Epic fail Abigail

We Whovians are prone to a linear view of social justice progress in Who: a more or less direct march from the Bad Old Days to the present enlightened times. Only trouble is, it’s nonsense. Classic Who was occasionally way ahead of its time… and current Who is sometimes appalling.

Case in point: who’s the worst character, from a feminist standpoint, to grace Doctor Who in a long time? For me, any of the screaming women of yore is preferable to Abigail from “A Christmas Carol”, and the 2010 Christmas special itself is a small master class in paternalism and women as property.

When we meet Abigail, she is being kept as collateral against a loan, like a pawned watch or something.  Women and poor people have a long and ignoble history of being viewed as the property of others; a system that makes this explicit without ever criticizing it is marching straight into Problematic Land. Viewers are meant to sympathize with Abigail (and, presumably, the other frozen people), but the classist and sexist collateral system is never even examined within the context of the story, much less denounced as the abomination it is.

Worse yet for Abigail, she continues to be a prop long after she wakes up. She’s consistently othered:

Young Kazran: Abigail’s crying.
The Doctor: Yes.
Young Kazran: When girls are crying, are you supposed to talk to them?
The Doctor: I have absolutely no idea.

Girls! They’re so mysterious! Not like proper people!

Abigail functions, in fact, as nothing so much as a toy: the boys take her out of her box once a year, play with her, and then put her back in her box. Her feelings are foreordained by the script. She falls for Kazran because he needs saving. She defends him to her family. She completely lacks any agency at all. The Doctor and Kazran treat her remarkable singing ability as theirs to use, not hers. I’m reminded of a similarly odious bit in Stephen King’s novel The Green Mile where the protagonist discovers that a prisoner under his care has magical healing powers and immediately starts a plan to smuggle him out of the prison so he can heal someone. His opinion is never asked; it’s just assumed that he’ll do the healing. He’s not a character, he’s a plot device.

We’ve talked before about Moffat’s unfortunate tendency to draw women from buckets of stock characters: the vamp, the shrew, etc. Abigail is another of these: The Ingenue. If she has any character traits beyond being sweet, she does not make them known. To her generic niceness we can add Friend To All Living Things, Tragically Ill, and Beautiful Singing Voice, for a complete package of Victorian Novel Heroine. Not only has Moffat gotten Abigail from stock, he’s gotten her from stock that was discredited 100 years ago.

10 comments

  1. Michael says:

    As with the usual ‘Moffat is a sexist’ diatribe…..bullshit.

    • Nightsky says:

      1. Care to rebut my arguments, or is a one-word dismissal all you’ve got in you?
      2. Refer to my last post, wherein I state that I don’t think Moffat is sexist–but his writing sometimes is.

    • Nightsky, honestly, you can delete this. It doesn’t actually add to the conversation (see: complete lack of engagement with your essay) and is just dismissive. You aren’t obligated to publish these, and I actually think it detracts from the conversation to do so.

      {edit] Haha, or you can publish to mock! I always approve that message.

  2. TiG says:

    A-Men! …er, I mean…:-)

    I hated that episode for a lot of the reasons you point out, although you say it a lot better than I.

  3. Brass Cupcake says:

    Unfortunately, neither the 2010 nor 2011 Christmas specials are available on netflix, so I haven’t yet seen them. But I appreciate your examination of the episode. It’ll give me some things to think about it when I do get to watch it.

    – “Classic Who was occasionally way ahead of its time… and current Who is sometimes appalling.”

    Good point. That’s a nice reminder not to over generalize the Old and New Who.

    I was very disappointed with the way women (and LGBT) characters were handled in Season 5, but felt Moffat improved by the mid/end of Season 6. I’m hoping that upward trend will continue in Season 7, bringing things at least back on par with what I had come to expect from the earlier reboot.

  4. I agree with you very much about Abigail (though I don’t subscribe to the female stock characters idea as regards Moffat’s other female characters which I tend on the whole to find complex and layered).

    It’s such a shame, because the episode as a whole is gorgeously constructed, with a clever story structure, some of Matt Smith’s best work, and some of the best worldbulding/design Doctor Who has ever done. There’s just this one thing wrong with the story: the treatment of Abigail as a passive object (with a weirdly specific use by date) and it’s such a BIG thing that it can certainly break enjoyment of the rest of it.

  5. Sally O says:

    Well, of course… she’s a Dickensian character, no?

    • Nightsky says:

      I’m not sure that she is. Though Abigail combines aspects of Tiny Tim and Belle Fezziwig, she has no real analogue in Dickens’ original.

  6. Ritch Ludlow says:

    Moffat’s work quite often features men talking about women with a total lack of understanding. I’m not sure I agree with you on this “othering” being dehumanizing, just very “male gaze”. These two male characters, the Doctor and Kazran, were earlier seen talking about what boys say in the face of danger: “Mummy!”

    I’m not sure how I feel about it, but this habit of Moffat’s doesn’t, I feel, demean women, it just distances the genders. I think his work is pretty gender inclusive, and definitely doesn’t consider “male” to be the standard (see Moffat’s Silurians and Weeping Angels). But he constantly expresses his total bewilderment at understanding women. Yet, unlike most authors, he doesn’t put women down for being emotional, he just portrays men as being incompetent in response.

    I’m not saying this isn’t problematic, just that it isn’t used to make women less like “proper people”.

    Hmmm. Might blog about this.

  7. Ritch Ludlow says:

    Oh, and the Ingenue thing…the link you provide mentions that it implies some kind of sexual purity, and I seem to remember Abigail being the one in control of the first kiss situation between her and Kazran? In that same kinda way that Moffat’s women tend to be sexually in control, while the men have absolutely no clue. Maybe I’m remembering that wrong. But either way, she was eagerly mackin’ on the guy only a few days after she met him. And she sure wasn’t hopin’ to get anything long term out of it…

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