Tag Archive for gender

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) » Read more..

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.

Time Ladies: The Fanart

With our remit, what are the odds we wouldn’t feature Gladys’ excellent manga-flavored renditions of all eleven Doctors as women?

The first six Doctors, as women, drawn by Gladys.

Doctors seven through eleven, as drawn by Gladys

Doctors-as-women art isn’t new (in researching a post on femme Doctors, I found examples from 1985) or uncommon (anymore), but IMHO Gladys excels here at giving suggestions of personality to the Doctors that are similar to, but distinct from, their male counterparts. One has a suggestion of great warmth behind all her poise. Six, with her blonde curls coming undone from her bun, looks like she’s just paused to gather her thoughts before unleashing her tremendous intelligence on your ass. Ten I imagine as a mad librarian.

You and I both know, Rose, that the Doctor is worth the linkspams.

From Think Progress, a handy list of methods for male feminist allies to combat sexism in video game culture. It’s actually pretty useful, and most of the methods would transfer well to science fiction fan culture.

At Kotaku, Katie Williams documents her experience at E3, where game promoters acted as though she couldn’t possibly know how to play shooters because she’s a woman.

A thought-provoking post at Geekalitarian talks about body size, race, and cosplay.

Ever wanted to build your own TARDIS bookshelf? Of course you have!

A bright blue bookshelf with TARDIS panels and windows on the sides and a light on the top.

From STFU Moffat, a distressing quote from Steven Moffat on who can be a companion:

‘It’s just a question of who credibly is going to agree to go in the TARDIS? Who’s going to do it? Is it going to be a mother of 15 children? No. Is it going to be someone in their 60s? No. Is there going to be a particular age range? I mean… who’s going to have a crush on the Doctor? You know, come on! It’s more than a format. It’s evolved from good, dramatic reasons.’

At Medical Daily, psychologists have “discovered” how people identify closely with (or “subconsciously become”) their favorite characters in fiction. Fans worldwide roll their eyes that it took them so long to notice.

Over at Think Progress, Alyssa argues that we need to stop equating gender expression with sexuality, using the newly-released Brave as an example.

If you have a suggestion for our linkspam, please email it to: courtney (at) doctorher (dot) com.

“Oh, You Sexy Geek!”: “Geek Girls” and the Problem of Self-Objectification

Cross-posted at The Cosplay Feminist.

I just returned from the PCA/ACA conference in Boston this year. I’ll be doing a write-up on the other fan studies/geek presentations I saw, but I wanted to post mine first. I think it is relevant to our interests here.

My presentation had a powerpoint. I’ve embedded it below. You can also download it, if you like.

Oh, you sexy geek!

I’m fairly certain the embedded video for “G33k and G4m3r Girls” won’t work, so here it is:
And here’s the actual presentation I gave:

In July of last year at Comic-Con (the largest media convention in the country), a panel titled “Oh, You Sexy Geek!” purported to address the trend of female geeks dressing “sexy.” From the panel description:

Does displaying the sexiness of fangirls benefit or demean them? When geek girls show off, are they liberating themselves or pandering to men? Do some “fake fangirls” blend sex appeal with nerdiness just to appeal to the growing geek/nerd market, or is that question itself unfair? And what’s up with all the Slave Leias?

The discussion at Comic-Con was framed in terms of individual choices, not structural influences, and this limited the conclusions the panel could come to. The dichotomous choice offered—“Does displaying the sexiness of fangirls benefit or demean them? […] are they liberating themselves or pandering to men?”—fails to take into account the complexities of women’s positions in geek culture, the politics of cosplay, or how cultural ideals of beauty influence women’s fashion decisions and choices.Geek cultures—centered on video games, science fiction and fantasy, and comic books—are traditionally thought of as boys’ clubs. Even though women often make up half of geek populations, their roles in geek culture(s) are limited by the perceptions and actions of advertisers, producers, designers, marketers, and fans. Women are considered valuable additions to many geek cultures, but usually as decoration. Which means that most of the women “celebrated” in geek cultures are conventionally beautiful, thin, white, abled cis women who position themselves as sexy objects for male geek consumption, usually via cosplay. For the uninitiated, the term cosplay is a combination of “costume” and “roleplay” or “play,” and refers to when fans costume as characters or objects from their favorite media (like video games, movies, and TV shows). Cosplayers usually wear their costumes to conventions, and the “roleplay” aspect of cosplaying is often minimal in North America, and limited to the poses struck for photos or occasional interactions in the convention hallways.

This presentation will explore the ways in which female geeks’ choices are limited by geek cultures, how the trend of self-objectification among geek women can signal both a hostility towards women as equal participants and a resistance to that hostility, and how blaming women’s performances is a hand-waving exercise intended to gloss over the culture(s)’ problems.

The sexism that persists in geek communities is not special. It is not separable and inherently different than sexist institutions and behaviors in the “real world.” This means that the sexualization and objectification of women is not unique to geek cultures, though it is particularly severe in geek media. Video games, comics, science fiction, fantasy—these media forms are often at fault for promoting unrealistic (and, pretty regularly, physically impossible) standards of beauty for women. They fashion their female heroines and villains as sexy objects to be consumed, unlike male counterparts. Further, geek industries bring the objectification of women into the real world, hiring, for example, booth babes for conventions. Booth babes are conventionally attractive models hired by media companies to wear skimpy clothing and entice convention-goers to their respective booths. Geek women exist within this culture, which devalues their contributions as producers of media and meaning, but values their contributions as adornment.

This project is about self-objectification, not objectification by others, but the two are not wholly separable, any more separable than my putting on makeup and high heels this morning and the objectification of women in advertising and fashion magazines. Just as media representations of women influence women’s decisions to diet, wear cosmetics, get plastic surgery, lighten their skin, relax their hair, shave their legs, and wax their bikini lines, geek media representations of women influence geek women’s decisions to dress in “sexy” cosplay.

By “sexy” cosplay, I mean cosplay that appeals to heterosexual male fantasies, participates in the objectification of the cosplayer, and (purposefully or not) positions the cosplayer as an object for consumption by male geeks. There are two ways to participate in sexy cosplay; one is to choose a character whose costume is already sexy, and another to alter a character’s costume in order to make it sexy.

First, let’s look at cosplayers who do not alter their costumes. A rather visible example of this kind of sexy cosplay is women who costume as “slave Leia.” The Star Wars character has two main costumes that cosplayers choose from.  [Next slide] The first, and least popular, is the costume from A New Hope. This is the costume with the iconic buns. [Next slide] The second, and more popular, Leia costume is “slave Leia,” the bikini-style costume worn by Leia in Return of the Jedi when she is the prisoner of Jabba the Hutt. At major science fiction media conventions, like Comic-Con and Dragon*Con, it is common to have an official group slave Leia picture, because of the popularity of this costume with cosplayers and other convention-goers. In the slave Leia cosplay, we see a classic example of sexy cosplay in which the costumer chooses a costume that is already heteronormatively “sexy.”

Next, let’s look at an example of a cosplayer who alters their costume to make them sexy. [Next slide] This is LeeAnna Vamp as Chewbacca from Star Wars, who is on the left. This cosplay was featured on IGN, a website about gaming and entertainment. Notice how Vamp positions herself compared with the actual Chewbacca. Chewbacca stands firmly and aggressively, feet apart to keep him stable. LeeAnna, on the other hand, stands off-center, with her legs together and crossed: a passive position. In the kneeling photo, her position suggests sexual availability and exposure (not sexual aggression), with a slightly open mouth and legs parted. These positions, along with her revealing costume, position LeeAnna as a sexual object for consumption. [Next slide]

In both altered and unaltered sexy cosplay, we thus see a desire to be seen as attractive by straight men. These women visually signal to a viewer (there’s always a viewer for cosplayers) that they are conforming to heteronormative beauty standards. They do this by positioning themselves as sexually receptive and passive; by wearing costumes that emphasize body parts that our culture associates with sex appeal, like breasts, hips, buttocks, and navels; and by emphasizing their femininity and conformity to beauty standards.

As Naomi Wolf points out The Beauty Myth, women in the U.S. are rewarded for capitulating to narrow and often impossible beauty standards. She claims that beauty is a currency, with which “women must unnaturally compete for resources that men have appropriated for themselves” (12). Ariel Levy’s exploration of raunch culture in Female Chauvinist Pigs demonstrates, however, that women must often do more than merely perform beauty work. She argues that “hotness doesn’t just yield approval. Proof that a woman actively seeks approval is a crucial criterion for hotness in the first place.” In a world of booth babes and sexy cosplay, this is apparent. What makes the sexy cosplay sexy is not merely that the cosplayers are thin, young, and buxom, but that they are performing and actively seeking male approval. [Next slide] For a particularly egregious example of this, I’m going to show you the video created by some geek women, mostly actresses, who formed a group called Team Unicorn. [play to 1:28] The video is very repetitive, so we can stop it there.

Almost everything about this video marks it as a performance in the service of geek men. Of course, the participants in the video, Team Unicorn, consist of young, thin, light-skinned women who conform to cultural beauty standards. There are a number of particularly porn-like shots, in which the young women are naked, strategically covered by light sabers, video game controllers, or DVDs, and on piles of geek toys, movies, or comic books. Meanwhile, the men in the intermittent shots do not match cultural standards of male beauty or masculinity. They wear cheap costumes and dance in awkward or silly ways. The women in the video wear sexy and high-quality costumes, and their dances mimic those of pop stars, which is to say, their dances are meant to appeal to straight male viewers. The video is also framed by Seth Green saying, “Hello friends. Don’t you want to meet a nice girl?,” positioning the video as an introduction to women as dating partners or sex objects. The video is not meant for geek women to view, and feel empowered by seeing representations of other geek women. It is meant to be viewed by men who wish to believe that, despite their own inability to meet cultural standards of masculinity, there are geek women available to them who are “sexy” in two ways: 1. These women do fit a physical standard of beauty, and 2. These women want to please men, want to be sexually appealing to them.

The video’s YouTube description claims, “This music video parody proves Geek and Gamer Girls really do exist.” Since, at the time, there had been multiple headlines proclaiming that women make up 50% of gamers and Comic-Con attendees, this description seems disingenuous. This is because geek women who are not “hot” are routinely ignored or erased in geek culture. This video would more accurately describe itself as “proof that conventionally sexy women who are also geeks want to have sex with you, presumed straight geek male viewer.”

Because geek women are often clearly aiming their performances at geek men, geek men and women often place blame on the women who dress this way. [Next slide] A comment on Geek Tyrant, written by a blogger who is posting a collection of “cosplay cleavage,” is illustrative. Venkman writes, “And ladies, maybe some of you will find these images offensive, but these are women that are dressing like this. We didn’t ask them to, they do it on their own, and if women dress like this, the fact of the matter is…guys are going to stare [sic].” This sentiment lands the blame for the objectification of geek women squarely on the shoulders of women, and characterizes men’s responses to these women as inevitable, natural, and uncontrollable. [Next slide] Needless to say, however, the images included in the blog post make it clear that these geek men feel they have nothing to apologize for. The blogger is not suggesting that men do not objectify women (after all, they go to cons to see “cleavage,” not to meet women or fellow geeks), but he refuses to accept responsibility for this. Rather, he suggests that women need to just accept that “guys are going to stare” at women who perform a certain version of “sexy.” It is thus women’s responsibility to prevent their own objectification. [Next slide]

There are some obvious problems in this kind of hand-waving exercise, but the most important one for us today is that one of the reasons geek women seek the approval of geek men is that geek men have positions of power and privilege in both geek industries and in geek fan communities. While women understand that sexy cosplay won’t get them respect, per se, they also know that it is most likely to get them positive attention, recognition, and limited acceptance in geek communities. Women who do not or cannot seek sexual approval from the male geek community are more likely to be ignored, derided, or dismissed. They are more likely to be called harpy feminists or annoying squeeing fangirls than to get approval and acceptance. Team Unicorn, for example, was rewarded generously for their performance with relative fame and funding for a slick new website. They also managed to buy legitimacy in this video with the inclusion of Seth Green and Stan Lee. One has to wonder, would Seth Green have agreed to a video proving the existence of female geeks if those geeks had been fat, queer, or disabled?

The pressure is on for geek women to position themselves as sexy consumable objects for geek men. When they do so, their decision is framed as a freely-made choice. On the other hand, men’s behavior in reaction to sexy cosplay, like leering, sexual harassment, or other forms of objectification, is usually framed as inevitable and natural. The pressure women feel to perform “sexy” for their fellow geeks is usually ignored or dismissed, and the conversation becomes similar to the “Oh, You Sexy Geek!” panel at Comic-Con, in which the problem is framed as about geek women, not geek culture. Are women selling out, or being empowered?

The answer to that question is that it’s more complicated. While women performing sexy for their fellow geeks are unquestionably doing so within a culture that encourages this performance and values women merely as decoration, they may also be using sexy cosplay to subvert that culture’s objectification of women.

In John Fiske’s Understanding Popular Culture, he describes jeans as objects of popular culture that can embody contradictory meanings. Jeans, he argues, have multiple meanings given to us by jean producers, such as associations with heteronormative femininity, youth, toughness, and/or hard work. These meanings come from the top, and represent the interests of those in power. People can tear their jeans (or write on them, or bleach them, or cut them off) to subvert and resist those meanings, but this doesn’t mean that the original meanings just go away. Rather, both meanings coexist in the garment simultaneously. According to Fiske, this means that popular culture objects, like jeans, “can entail the expression of both domination and subordination, of both power and resistance. So torn jeans signify both a set of dominant American values and a degree of resistance to them” (4). Sexy cosplay works in the same way. There are ways in which individual sexy cosplayers incorporate meanings resistant to the culture’s demand that they proffer themselves as consumable objects.

[Next slide] Olivia Waite, a geek and erotica writer, wrote about her personal experience with the slave Leia cosplay, after I had blogged a version of this essay at the Geek Feminism blog. Waite was a big fan of Star Wars when she was a child, and her favorite character was Leia, who she describes as “badass, intelligent, and passionate.”

She writes that when watching Return of the Jedi,

as soon as [Leia] shows up in the gold bikini, with the high ponytail and the neck-chain, every cell in my being went, She must be so pissed about that.

Because what people forget, when they talk about Slave Leia outfits, is that it’s the one costume she doesn’t choose for herself. She’s forced into it, compelled to wear that bikini for Jabba’s dubious and slobbery pleasure. And I can see why people are upset that this happens—because if there’s one thing we do not need to gratify so much, it’s the male gaze in film—but at the same time, I think it’s important that this happens to Leia, because it happens to plenty of women, all the time, every day, around the world, with or without help from a gold bikini.

And here is what Leia does, when you force her into a scanty outfit and choke-chain: she takes that chain, and she kills you with it. She doesn’t let her clothing get in her way or limit her more than she can help—she waits for her moment to strike, and then she conquers her would-be conqueror and saves the day.

And I was a little kid, not yet desensitized to violence [...] Jabba’s death scene freaked the hell out of me. It wasn’t a clean blaster shot to the chest or a slice from a lightsaber that sent sparks flying or made you turn invisible. There were struggles, and flailing, and twitching limbs. The shots are close-ups, and very dark—it’s vicious, and vengeful, and physical, and very very personal.

So for me, wearing that gold bikini does not mean Here I am, a sexy toy for your amusement and gratification.

To me, that gold bikini says, If you fuck with me, I will end you.

It says, What I wear is not the same as who I am.

 

Waite’s is a particularly powerful example of how women can create subversive meanings in their sexy cosplay. Hers doesn’t even require an alteration in the costume, though it may include a more aggressive stance for pictures, or even a performance of the chain choking. But it is, all the same, resistant to the cultural meanings put onto the costume by the producers of Star Wars and by the powers that be in fan communities. In Waite’s cosplay, the gold bikini is a symbol of female power and resistance to objectification. At the same time, it holds those dominant meanings as well. It contains the raunch culture assumption that women are primarily valuable for their performance of “sexy” and a resistance to that gross objectification. It symbolizes the titillation of women in sexual slavery and a challenge to women’s subordinate status as the sex class. From my own experiences in geek fan cultures, I don’t believe Waite is an anomaly, a pioneering feminist geek who uses sexy cosplay to challenge the messages found in geek media and geek culture. There are others like her, whose sexy cosplays are also challenges to the status quo.

It is also important to note that not all cosplay (sexy or not) is progressive or oppositional, either. As Henry Jenkins points out in Textual Poachers,

To say that fans promote their own meanings over those of producers is not to suggest that the meanings fans produce are always oppositional ones or that those meanings are made in isolation from other social factors. Fans have chosen these media products from the total range of available texts precisely because they seem to hold special potential as vehicles for expressing the fans’ pre-existing social commitments and cultural interests; there is already some degree of compatibility between the ideological construction of the text and the ideological commitments of the fans and therefore, some degree of affinity will exist between the meanings fans produces and those which might be located through a critical analysis of the original story. [...] Readers are not always resistant; all resistant readings are not necessarily progressive readings; the ‘people’ do not always recognize their conditions of alienation and subordination. (34)

That is to say, not all geek women recognize their conditions as alienated and subordinated members of geek cultures. Not all sexy cosplay is (or can be) oppositional or progressive, as Waite’s reading of the costume is. However, this does not mean that geek women are somehow to blame for their objectification. As Jenkins notes, fans make their choices in the context of their cultures, and not in isolation of social factors. The beauty myth, raunch culture, and the male domination of geek culture(s) all contribute to female fans’ choice in sexy cosplay, even if they choose to resist the meanings handed down from those in power. In order to fix the culture of objectification in geek culture, we cannot look to individual women and cosplayers, but rather to those in power, whether they be content creators (like George Lucas, Stan Lee, Felicia Day), influential commentators (like Chris Hardwick, Jerry Holkins, Mike Krahulik), convention organizers, or forum moderators.  The problem here is not “self-objectification,” as my essay title suggests, but the pressure to perform sexy (or be ignored, derided, or dismissed). The fact is, “sexy” is not the only way that geek women represent themselves; it is merely the representation recognized and rewarded by geek culture at large. That has to change before the position of women in these culture(s) can change.

  Works Cited

Fiske, John. Understanding Popular Culture. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2010. Print.

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Levy, Ariel. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. Kindle ed. New York: Free Press, 2005. AZW file.

“Oh, You Sexy Geek!” Panel at Comic-Con, 21 July 2011, 10:45 AM. My Comic-Con 2011 Sched*.  Comic-Con, n.d. Web. 25 September 2011. < http://mysched.comic-con.org/event/c31518fe1aa3bb6b788ba63757b84fba>

Venkman. “Collection of Cosplay Cleavage.” Geek Tyrant. Geektyrant, 15 July 2011. Web. 9 April 2012.

Waite, Olivia. “In Defense of Slave Leia.” Olivia Waite. Olivia Waite, 29 August 2011. Web. 8 April 2012.

Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1991. Print.

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Let me know what you think! And keep an eye out for my PCA/ACA write-up.

Companions in Comics: Can Frobisher Lay an Egg?

One of the delights of Doctor Who comics is that they offer different creative opportunities from television. In 1984, Doctor Who Magazine introduced Frobisher: an alien companion who seemed tailor-made for the format. He belongs to a shape-shifting species, and habitually assumes the form of a wise-cracking penguin. Perhaps the TV programme could have rendered his characteristics well, but I doubt it, given the show’s record of dubious special effects. In the strips Frobisher becomes a very effective source of irony and visual gags. More covertly, his shape-shifting also raises interesting questions about the comics’ treatment of gender.

Frobisher features in forty-eight issues between 1984 and 1987, as a regular companion to the sixth and, briefly, the seventh Doctor. Occasionally he crops up in later comics, prose fiction and Big Finish audio stories too.

Like many companions, he has a life he wants to leave behind. At the outset he is a jaded gumshoe, working under his original name of Avan Tarklu. He intends to capture the Doctor and claim a substantial reward. Of course they end up travelling together instead. En route Tarklu adopts his new moniker and hints at the recent failure of his marriage. Although Peri accompanies them on several adventures, much of the time the Doctor and Frobisher travel alone, providing a rare instance of a long term male-male pairing in the TARDIS. Their interactions are fun, yet bring a few depressing implications; Frobisher’s friendship with the Doctor is closer to a buddy story than the father/child dynamic we normally see with female companions.

But is Frobisher male? I want to consider that more closely.

Over three years of strips, Frobisher metamorphosises into forms as varied as telephones and hamburgers, human beings and birds. He also periodically acquires a disease called monomorphia, where he is no longer able to change his form at will. Throughout these many transformations, Frobisher is framed as a male character. His gender identification is by no means clear from the dialogue (my suspicion is that the authors didn’t distinguish between identification and presentation in their thinking). But we are led to read him as male. When Frobisher wears clothing, it is always normatively masculine clothing. If he appears in humanoid form, he tends to adopt roles – like the gumshoe – that are culturally marked as masculine roles. And even when these markers are absent, the Doctor, and all the other characters, consistently refer to Frobisher as “him” and “he.”

Big Finish would later be willing to confront the possibility of shape-shifters changing gender; Frobisher’s wife Francine, for instance, temporarily presents as a man in The Maltese Penguin. The comics shy away from this idea. I suspect the authors were trying, with partial success, to uphold the gender binary. Categorising Frobisher as male within that binary is a conservative act: the majority of characters from the mid-eighties comics are also framed as male, with the implication that female characters are less interesting, compelling, or important. But the act is not wholly conservative. Consistently assigning one gender to a shape-shifting character has subversive potential, in queering associations between assigned gender and morphology.

The relative silence on Frobisher’s gender identification, rather than assigned gender, also gives us some freedom of interpretation. As a demonstration I want to look closely at a particular incident in the story Time Bomb, which was first published in issues 114 to 116 of Doctor Who Magazine. The story relates how a time cannon hits the TARDIS, propelling Frobisher and the Doctor into prehistoric Earth. Previously the cannon has been used by aliens called Hedrons to eliminate genetic imperfections in their species. The genetic waste is transported alongside Frobisher, and on arrival, he mistakes it for an egg he has laid in shock.

This picture shows a drawing of Frobisher, lying on the ground with a spherical object between his legs. He is saying, "Doctor, I feel sick, something terrible has happened... I've laid a blasted egg. That's what! And it's all your fault!"

Frobisher thinks he's laid an egg. From Doctor Who Magazine, published by Marvel Comics.

As a joke, this sequence makes me uneasy. The humour is premised on combined misogynist, ablist and transphobic assumptions (“Haha, childbirth is like incontinence! Haha, you can’t be male and give birth!”). But there is plenty of potential for resistant readings. It interests me that online references to the incident, like this one, suggest that Frobisher has misunderstood penguin physiology, as though his shape-shifting is a type of impersonation that can be held up to an external standard of accuracy. Can’t we instead wonder whether Frobisher identifies as male at all? Perhaps Frobisher doesn’t even present as male here, if we take that to mean appearing normatively masculine; as cartoon penguins go, Frobisher looks androgynous to me. Assuming Frobisher does identify as male, maybe his reaction is a sign he construes a fluid relationship between gender and physiology? Perhaps he knows he can lay eggs, even if he hasn’t this time? Might his understanding of what it means to be male encompass that capacity? Alternatively, perhaps laying an egg is incompatible with his gender identity, and the anger and anxiety he shows here is an expression of dysphoria? Certainly Frobisher has lots of moments of feeling trapped in a body that he wants to change.

Ideally, it wouldn’t be necessary to address unsatisfactory representations with resistant readings. I hope in later posts to discuss less problematic portrayals of queer characters.

But in the mean time: all the above questions make as much sense as Frobisher not understanding how penguins work; and they can be accommodated just as easily by the text.

i09 commenters on femme Doctor cosplay: A response

Cross-posted at The Cosplay Feminist.

As a researcher of cosplay, who often makes conclusions about the feminist (conscious or unconscious) intentions of cosplayers, I am used to having people say my research and/or conclusions are illegitimate. I often have people tell me I’m “reading too much into” cosplay, that I’m assuming too much about cosplayers, that cosplay isn’t even more than women wearing pretty clothes (all women care about!), so what the hell is there to study?

The comments on my interview at i09 were no exception. I didn’t comment over there, because you have to pay me money to get me to go below the line at major websites, but I will respond to some of the “threads” of comments that were common over there. I also chose these four because I’ve heard them all before, and they are common objections or reactions to my research.

Reaction #1: People can cosplay without having motivations! As exemplified by this comment:

While there are many fascinating points about this interview, saying ‘…but even the ones who were less conscious were clearly making up for what they saw as a lack of female protagonists.’ it is too broad a brush to paint everyone’s motivations with. Sometimes making a costume for fun is just fun without any deep, psychological motivation behind it.

Pretty much everything human beings do creates meaning. Fashion is no different (and neither is costume). To say, “Some people just wear clothes for fun and without having other motivations!” is as silly as saying, “If I wear a suit to work, it’s because I have fun wearing it, not because my boss will then interpret me as professional and qualified.” Clothing has meaning, both personal and cultural. Cosplay is rife with meaning, determined by the wearer, the fan community, and the culture within which the cosplayer exists. The femme Doctors are using certain sartorial choices (like corsets, which may have overlapping meanings on the personal, fan community, and cultural levels) to create different meanings.

Cosplayers don’t always know why they make cosplay choices, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t subconsciously making decisions based on the meanings they want to convey. My interviews with cosplayers have borne this hypothesis out. At first, many want to say that they cosplay “just for fun.” And “fun” is a motivation behind their costuming, but it’s not the only motivation they have. When pushed, they are usually able to come up with all sorts of motivations for what they do. Or their choices conveniently match up with their interpretations. (Take my question to Niki La Teer, who dressed in a femme TARDIS costume and just happened to interpret the TARDIS as female.)

My short answer? No, people can’t cosplay without having multiple motivations and without trying to convey multiple messages/meanings. Everything in my research has led to this conclusion.

Reaction #2: Ladies cosplaying is for fapping. An example:

I would do unspeakable things to most of these doctors. Yep.

Not to mention the TARDIS.

Just…gross. Stop it, fans, because it’s not as endearing as you think.

Reaction #3: The companions are heroes, too! By saying they aren’t, you’re saying they aren’t awesome. Exemplified by this comment:

River Song isn’t a hero? I’d argue that Rose becomes a hero in her own right, too. Though I have problems with the direction they eventually took Martha Jones in, she certainly became her own woman, and a hero. We haven’t followed their solo adventures, but then Doctor Who isn’t their show- it hasn’t depicted Captain Jack’s independent exploits, either.
Sarah Jane may have started out as merely a companion, but her solo adventures have been covered.

All these characters play second fiddle to the Doctor, but since it’s his show, so that criticism seems invalid to me. Batman is a secondary (or tertiary) character in the new Batwoman series because it’s her book!
Like CJ, I applaud how this kind of fan activity can criticize or just recontextualize gender and how it works in the Whoverse, but it seems unfair to these great female characters to say that they’re mere sidekicks.

This comment even mentions why I said that the companions are “definitionally” sidekicks in Doctor Who: the show is about the Doctor. It’s not a two-man show, it’s a one-man show. Notice how there are no episodes in which companions appear, but no Doctor. But there are several episodes in which the Doctor appears with no companion. That’s because the show isn’t about them. They can’t be “heroes” in a show that makes them play “second fiddle” to a dude. You can’t actually have it both ways.

Here’s the thing: this show does not have to have a White man as its hero. It’s not a requirement to be on TV (even if it may seem like it). The producers have choices they make, and they choose for this show be focused around the subjectivity of a person played by an actor in a particularly privileged set of social and political categories. The people who say, “But the show’s about a dude, thus you aren’t allowed to be mad the ladies aren’t protagonists!” are completely missing the point. The show. Doesn’t have to be. About a dude. Even if they wanted to keep the Doctor a White man, it’s possible to have a leading duo in a television show where both subjectivities are at the center of the show, and one is not secondary to another. (See: The X-Files, Castle, Warehouse 13, Bones, etc.) Doctor Who chooses not to do this.

Further, it’s ridiculous to recognize that all the women in Doctor Who play “second fiddle” to the Doctor and then tell me they are heroes/protagonists. I should point out that the reason I used “heroine” as the label here is because, in my mind, the use of “heroine” to describe a secondary character is mainly rhetorical. Obviously, women doing femme Doctor cosplays are not of the opinion that companions are simply not awesome. But they want more. They want women to be the protagonists, the main characters, heroines.

The women of Doctor Who have been amazing. They’ve been complicated, flawed, funny, brilliant, and resourceful. I think they could be pretty fabulous heroines. But the show? It does not frame them as heroines. They may buck against the label “assistant,” but that’s what they are in the show. They are helpers and sidekicks. Their subjectivities, their storylines, their very existence on the show (and in River’s case, their very existence full stop) are predicated on the Doctor. They wouldn’t be there, and we wouldn’t see their stories, without him. Which is why they can never be called heroines.

Reaction #4: Cosplay is derivative, and thus not creative (enough). It took a while for this guy to come right out and say this, but he finally did:

The problem with fandom is that it wants to own the thing it loves and then transform it into their own image. Nu Who is a living testimony to this, but what’s wrong with just liking something for what it is?

If you want to be creative, create your own stuff. Fandom is inherently parasitic these days.

[Emphasis added.] I’d like to point out, first, the privilege inherent in the statement, “What’s wrong with just liking something for what it is?” Oh, you mean a pseudo-imperialistic show that often marginalizes women, people of color, asexual folk, and GBLTQ people? Yes, I suppose I could “just like” that if I was so privileged that I had my head up my own ass.

So, fan culture does indeed take raw material (a TV show, a film, a comic book, a novel) and (irreverently) rips it apart. Fans mine these texts for what they find relevant to their experience as a human being. And they transform that text. They recreate, re-imagine, reinterpret. Bourgeois values are against us doing this, in part because when fans recreate, they are refusing to accept the values, interpretations, and perspectives that are given from the Powers That Be (in this case, authorized creators like actors, directors, and writers). Going against power structures has never been okay with bourgeois value-systems, particularly when those interpretations (like femme Doctor cosplay) makes apparent the structures that oppress particular classes of people.

I’m going to guess this commenter is a straight, White, abled, cis-gendered man. The reason I’m guessing that? Because the show would already have to speak entirely to your (privileged) existence for you to say you’re a fan without irreverently reinterpreting the show yourself. (Or, he’s not, and he does reinterpret, but he assumes that because he doesn’t write fanfic or cosplay, it doesn’t count or he doesn’t do it.)

Let’s address, then, his statement that cosplayers should “be creative” by “creat[ing] their own stuff.” This is a common sentiment about fan works. People act like fan works are derivative, and thus they are less-than. I’ve got news for you, folks: Everything ever written down is derivative, except maybe cave paintings. (Maybe.) Every song you hear on the radio is derivative. (Yes, even the “good” music.) Every piece of artwork, every fashion creation, every architectural masterpiece, every piece of choreography: all derivative. That isn’t a critique; it’s descriptive. Fan works are simply more honest than most about their derivative nature.

So sure, you can draw an arbitrary line between, for example, fanfic and “real writing.” But that line is a construction, not natural truth. There’s nothing more creative about writing something not based on Doctor Who (or Harry Potter or Supernatural). You could argue that most fanfic is terrible, and thus it’s not real writing, and I would laugh at you. Most of the fiction that’s been written down in the world is just as terrible as the vast majority of fanfic. Perhaps you want to argue that because fanfic has not been published, it is not “real” or “creative,” but then you’re just being an asshole.

Fan works and productions are creative. Hell, the works you are deriding, those that reinterpret the text to fit their experiences, may even be more creative, if simply because they are more interpretive. Cosplay is not parasitic, it is productive, like all other fan production.

Examples of creative processes are analyzing a text, reinterpreting a text, and critiquing a text. Fan works do all these things. An example of a non-creative process is “lik[ing] something for what it is,” or passively accepting others’ interpretations.