Tag Archive for role models

Radical Inclusiveness 2: or, Dear Mister Moffat

Now, the point to all this blustering about qualifications is to get at something the Grand Moff said a while ago:

“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.”

With respect to Moffat, and with pains to point out that he is an award-winning screenwriter and I am not: bullshit. For one, the Sixth Doctor’s run with sixtyish history professor Evelyn Smythe is one of Big Finish’s real triumphs, a perfectly tuned relationship that works precisely because of Dr Smythe’s age and rich life experience.

And why not a mother of 15 children? Because she has responsibilities towards them? The Doctor has a time machine! She can kiss them goodnight, be off adventuring for as long as she likes, and be back before any of them so much as turn over in bed! Martha Jones’ arc explored this! For heaven’s sake, Moffat himself spent large swaths of series 5 doing the same!

I’m not really sure how to parse Moffat’s comment about companions having crushes on the Doctor, but I do want to stipulate that this trend of everybody falling in love with the Doctor is one of my least favorite aspects of the new series.

In short, I think that the very best thing Moffat could do for the show would be to write down all the requirements he thinks a companion should have, and then deliberately scribble them out and write a companion that violates as many of his requirements as possible. Because fuck “the rules”. Because adventures are for everybody, or they should be, and it breaks my heart to see the Doctor, of all people–a trickster figure uniquely qualified to break rules–endlessly select from the tiny subset of society that is young, well-off, abled, cisgender, pretty white British women.

Radical Inclusiveness: or, Why Hufflepuff is the Best House

We spend a lot of our lives being told that we’re not good enough. (Enough for what, the obvious question, doesn’t come up nearly as often as it should.) You don’t get to do X–sorry, you just don’t meet The Qualifications. Thirteen women met or exceeded NASA’s requirements for the Mercury program, except that NASA required experience as a pilot. The women started pilot training. NASA changed the rules to require experience piloting military aircraft, and the military at the time didn’t let women fly. See how neat that is? Sorry, we’d love to qualify you for spaceflight, but it’s these requirements, see?

And the truth, then and now, is that a lot of The Rules are bullshit, and are there to keep the “wrong sort” out. Therein lies a bit of the genius of Doctor Who, by the way: the Doctor is a trickster figure, who isn’t always bound by rules, who has the power to distinguish the sensible rules from the bullshit ones. The Doctor has invited princesses and hooligans aboard the TARDIS, and he’s treated them the same. That’s a powerful message. There’s no entrance exam. You don’t need experience piloting any sort of aircraft. You’re companion material just as you are. Not just inclusiveness, but radical inclusiveness. Not only Hollywood-anyone, but anyone-anyone.

It makes me think of the least defined and most overlooked house in Harry Potter, Hufflepuff. Nobody seems to know much about Hufflepuff for the first few books; they’re just sort of… there, unlike Gryffindor (brave!), Ravenclaw (smart!) or Slytherin (inbred elitists!). It isn’t until book five that we finally find out what the organizing principle behind Hufflepuff House is:

Said Slytherin, “We’ll teach just those
Whose ancestry’s purest.”
Said Ravenclaw, “We’ll teach those whose
Intelligence is surest.”

Said Gryffindor, “We’ll teach all those
With brave deeds to their name.”
Said Hufflepuff, “I’ll teach the lot
And treat them just the same.”

Catch that? Hufflepuff isn’t the house of last resort; it’s the only house that deliberately eschews bullshit entrance exams. Because fuck them; there’s no guarantee that they’ll produce a better wizard or whatever–it’s the Hogwarts curriculum and the student’s own work ethic that determines thatand every indication that they both raise meaningless walls between people who really should be working together and create feelings of inadequacy in at least some of the students in them. You don’t have to prove yourself, in Hufflepuff. You want to learn? That’s all that matters. Pull up a chair and let’s do magic.

And that, in the face of a relentless onslaught of stories about the chosen one, the special one, the one marked by destiny to do great whatever, is a radical notion. One that Doctor Who, thanks to its trickster hero, is uniquely qualified to propagate. And that’s why my fondest hope for a companion is an unlikely one–one unlike companions of the past, maybe one selected by the Doctor before s/he has a chance to prove him/herself.* Because you know what’s bullshit? It’s our stories telling people who are female/Black/Native/Asian/queer/disabled/whatever that the best they can hope for is to be inspiration and help to the people who really matter to the story.

It’s time for us to call it bullshit, loudly, and say that everyone matters. No more tests. No more proving yourself. You’re fine. You’re exactly what the Doctor ordered, not despite whatever’s slowing you down, but because of it.

(Continued at Radical Inclusiveness 2: or, Dear Mr Moffatt.)

* It’s true that some past companions have stowed away–I mean, “self selected”. But, as I’ll discuss when I finish my piece on Tegan, the show never really explored the ramifications of this, and I’d really like it to.

 

Is Rose Tyler “fantastic” for our daughters?

 

The excitement in our household was palpable in the Spring of 2005 when Doctor Who returned to the BBC. My husband a life-long fan, me a fresh convert and our impressionable two-year old daughter—who we said had to watch it with us or go to bed. You always remember your first Doctor.  In the case of my daughter Christopher Eccleston came and went too quickly. Her Doctor will always be David Tennant, though she has embraced Matt Smith’s Time Lord incarnation. Rose Tyler will always be her first companion. And so I choose to place Rose first under my Feminist Fan Girl Icon Microscope because, like my daughter, Rose was my first companion.

Investigating the impact of Dr Who on the developing feminist consciousness of my daughters requires me to do some rather difficult things. I must first step outside of myself and re-connect with little Kate. I have to look at these female characters from a juvenile view point in order to truly assess the cultural communication taking place. I also need to place Dr Who in the context of other forces muscling in on this conversation, attempting to shape the characters of our children. All this I shall attempt whilst sticking to my previously established success criteria.

Does Rose embody a positive body image? I believe she does. She is not unreasonably skinny nor is she unattainably glamorous (excessive mascara notwithstanding). When I compare her with characters from the Disney Channel shows my daughters watch, Rose seems positively radical in her disregard for fashionable footwear and hair extensions. She does not appear interested in cultural standards of beauty, a fact emphasised on Rose’s first trip in the Tardis. At The End of the World, she meets Cassandra: “The Last Human”. “You’re not human,” says Rose to Cassandra. “You’ve had it all nipped and tucked and flattened till there’s nothing left. Anything human got chucked in the bin. You’re just skin, Cassandra. Lipstick and skin.” (The End of the World 2005) What a marvellously eloquent and witty comment, worthy of science fiction’s long tradition of exploring the extremes of human society in order to shine a laser beam on our foibles and follies. Even when enjoying the attentions of Captain Jack, The Doctor and Mickey, Rose never gives the impression her desirability is rooted in her body or in her ability to accessorise.

Does Rose use her intelligence and is she valued for it? First impression reports a negative on this issue. Rose is not a medic in training nor an accomplished reporter or a brilliant scientist. In the very first episode (Rose 2005) she loses her low status retail job and confesses to having no academic qualifications. However, her keen observation and deduction skills capture The Doctor’s attention right away.

Rose Tyler: Very clever, nice trick. Who were they then, students? Is this a student thing or what?
The Doctor: Why would they be students?
Rose Tyler: I dunno.
The Doctor: Well you said it, why students?
Rose Tyler: Cos… to get that many people dressed up and being silly… they gotta be students.
The Doctor: That makes sense. Well done!

Class plays an important role in determining the value of Rose’s intelligence. Marxist Feminist theory would say Rose has a high level of intelligence based on her relatively far out position in the concentric socio-political hierarchy since she is a working class woman of little education. She also possesses a great deal of emotional intelligence. Perhaps Nu Who has a theme of valuing alternative intelligence in its female characters, creating a dramatic balance to the Doctor’s supernaturally logical mind? While this is not the post for examining in detail the relationship between the Whopanions and the concept of Multiple Intelligence, it would be an intriguing topic to explore at some point.

But all this gets rather lost on the under-ten crowd.

To my daughters, Rose exemplifies a kind of homespun common sense intelligence throughout her travels with The Doctor, as does Donna’s character in Season Four. But is Rose truly valued for it? The honest answer is probably: Sometimes Sort Of. Obviously Rose is no Hermione Granger (the Feminist Fan Girl epitome of being valued for your intelligence), but she receives far more respect for her brain power than Lisa Simpson or Katniss Everdene. The Doctor himself vacillates between praising the alternative intellects of the women around him, while also making it clear that no one can possibly possess more wisdom and intelligence than the last timelord.

Does Rose sometimes “save the day”?  The answer to this is an unequivocal: Hell Yeah! From her first episode to her last, Rose’s stubborn courage saves the day over and over again—and she does not give up easily. She swings heroically on a rope, absorbs the heart of the Tardis, abandons her family to help save the world, convinces The Doctor to spare the life of a dying Dalek, infiltrates a Cyberman factory and risks everything to break through dimensions in order to save The Doctor and The World. She makes my childhood hero Princess Leia look like a bit of a wimp in comparison.

Does Rose show spunky independence? Again, the answer has to be: Yes. All Whopanions show a certain level of spunky independence. If they simply did as they were told, the program’s narrative would lose a great deal of its dramatic conflict.  Rose is no exception.  When did she ever just “stay in the car”?

Does Rose strive to stay true to her beliefs? In the beginning, Rose does not really appear to have any beliefs. She comes across as a Little Girl Lost—dissatisfied with her career prospects, disaffected with her education, disinterested in her relationships. One thing she does appear to believe at the start is the dignity of working class women. She converses freely with maintenance worker Raffalo in The End of the World. In The Unquiet Dead 2005 she even attempts an East End London Chav’s version of Consciousness Raising with Victorian servant girl Gwyneth. However, as Rose was likely absent the day her College Life Skills course addressed the topic of Respect, she handles Gwyneth in a way that clearly shows an ironic lack of appreciation for the servant girl’s own intelligence.

Gwyneth: Don’t I get a say, miss?
Rose Tyler: Well, yeah… look… you don’t understand what’s going on.
Gwyneth: You would say that, miss, because that’s very clear inside your head, that you think I’m stupid.
Rose Tyler: That’s not fair!
Gwyneth: It’s true, though. Things might be very different where you’re from, but here and now I know my own mind.

These early attachments to working class women have more to do with Rose’s need to connect with familiar circumstances and people in the mad world she has thrown herself into than with promoting social equality. What Rose truly believes in is The Doctor. The same can be said of most Whopanions. Does she stay true to this belief? Every single time.

In the end, Rose Tyler passes my Feminist Fan Girl Icon test. She may not be an adult fan’s idea of a feminist character but, where our daughters are concerned, she presents a positive image. It was not until later in life that I associated the changes in Princess Leia’s character with the cultural backlash against second wave feminism. As a little girl, I thought she was incredibly brave and powerful. Adult Me has cultivated serious righteous indignation at the desexualisation of Velma, but kid me loved the fact that a smart girl always solved the mystery. So it is with Rose. Flawed though she may be, I believe she is a feminist force for good among the under tens.

Doctor Who quotations courtesy of Doctor Who Reference Guide.

Professor Bernice Summerfield is kickass

(This post originally appeared at Geekachicas.com. It has been updated. I should also mention that my thinking on female Doctors has evolved somewhat since I originally wrote this: while I still think that more attention could be paid to the female-led spinoffs, I’m beginning to agree with Courtney that even many wonderful supporting characters do not equal a lead character.)

She’s a little bit River Song, a little bit Lara Croft, but predates either.  She’s worshiped on some planets as a minor goddess of inebriation.  She’s interstellar archaeologist Bernice Summerfield, one of the Whoniverse’s most successful spinoffs, whose audio adventures with Big Finish are on season 13.

Check her out on YouTube in her first animated adventure, a prequel for season 11, with this link: Bernice Summerfield: Dead And Buried

Several months back, I wrote a piece on femme Doctors.  It subsequently got linked to from a couple of places (including here, in French!); where, oddly enough, one throwaway detail got picked up on: that I, personally, don’t particularly want to see a female Doctor.  People seemed to think that that implied I didn’t see women seeing themselves in the lead roles; in fact, I’d stated that it was because I thought the Whoniverse has plenty of kickass female characters already.*

Front and center of these is Professor Bernice Summerfield, interstellar archaeologist and action heroine.  Why Benny Is Awesome is a long and complex topic, and better writers than me have had a go.  But let’s say that any random Doctor Who companion discovered that the Doctor had lied to them, by omission or not, and/or tinkered with their destinies.

  • Probable Rose reaction: None, too busy making googly eyes at Doctor.
  • Probable Martha reaction: Expression on face indicates that she’s hurt and disappointed.
  • Actual Benny reaction: “Git! Git! Git!

 

For everyone who’s complained that the Doctor’s companions are wide-eyed teenyboppers with supermodel bodies, Benny is the tonic.  She’s over 30, ex-military, smart and focused, with a career and a backstory and (you may wish to sit down for this) regular-sized boobs.  And that was just when she was introduced, in 1992, by feminist Who writer and all ’round mensch Paul Cornell.  Since then, she’s acquired an ex-husband, a half-human son (long story), an implacable nemesis or two, a best-selling book or three, and has died at least twice.  Think Martha kicked ass in “Human Nature / The Family of Blood“?  She did–but the original companion for that story (in the Virgin New Adventures novel “Human Nature”) was Benny.

 

Find out more about Benny at the TARDIS Wiki, or check out the Big Finish page.  You can start from the beginning with the audios; or, if you’re into books, I suggest you start with The Dead Men Diaries, a collection of short stories that picks up Benny’s life as she starts work at the Braxiatel Collection.

Or, if you can wait a few months, there will be the perfect intro to the Benny stories: Bernice’s first story, Love And War, adapted by Jacqueline Rayner (who REALLY needs to write for the TV show, am I right, Big Finish fans?) from Paul Cornell’s novel, is coming to audio this fall.

 

* In fact, of the many spinoffs, no fewer than seven nine have or have had female leads (The Sarah Jane Adventures, K9 & Company, the Sarah Jane Smith audios, Virgin New Adventures, Bernice Summerfield, Gallifrey, Graceless, Counter-Measures) and one has three have two female co-leads (Gallifrey, Graceless, Counter-Measures). (Thanks to Kieran for reminding me of Graceless and Counter-Measures!)

Women in Doctor Who

The women in Doctor Who are an interesting bunch. Over time, almost every imaginable form of womanhood, from the frighteningly intelligent Dr Liz Shaw to capable (if under-dressed) Leela to Rose Tyler. More on Rose later. For every companion that you hate, there will be another that you love. That, for me, is one of the show’s strengths. The companions, male and female, are people with stories and personalities of their own.

I originally planned this post as a discussion of strengths and weaknesses of the female companions as feminist role models. When I got to the end of the first page of A4 and hadn’t finished the introduction, I realised that there was just too much material to work with. Instead, this is something of a statement of intent, if you will. I fully intend to go into more detail on the various characters in future posts, but in a more manageable way. One doctor at a time, perhaps. For now, I’ll stick to a very quick overview of the points I want to cover.

In terms of role-models, there are some very strong ones in place right from the start. The first human to step aboard the TARDIS is Barbara Wright, a strong minded and capable teacher. In the face of the Doctor’s ranting the The Edge of Destruction, Barbara remains calm and logical, and helps the Doctor trace the actual source of the problem. I’d say that’s a pretty good start to the series, from a feminist point of view.

The third Doctor was something of a purple patch for strong women. I’ve already mentioned the wonderful Liz Shaw, but we also get spunky UNIT operative Jo Grant and investigative report Sarah Jane Smith.

I won’t list all the amazing women the Doctor has travelled with, but as a child of the ‘80s there is a special place in my heart for Ace. What isn’t to love about a companion who takes it on herself to act as the Doctor’s bodyguard? If the series had continued, the producers intended to send Ace to Gallifrey to train as a Time Lord herself. Wouldn’t that have made an interesting story?

Of course there are also some less than stellar examples as well. I reserve a special kind of bile for Rose Tyler and the completely unnecessary romance plot that Russell Davies forced upon her. And the less said about poor Mel, the better. She was supposed to be a computer programmer – no small thing in the early 1980s – but she was consistently portrayed as a ditzy twit who was more trouble than she was worth.

To my mind, the problem with Dr Who is not the women that appear in the series, it’s the necessity of using peril as a plot device to drive the stories. At its most simplistic, Dr Who is a show about a semi-omnipotent being who gets into a difficult situation and extracts himself from it using his extraordinary brilliance, resolve and courage. To illustrate the danger of the situation, the (usually female) companion gets into trouble and has to be rescued.

There is an argument that the women could extricate themselves from their difficulties. They are, after all, intelligent, capable characters in their own right. But let’s be honest – the series is called Dr Who. We tune in every week to watch the man who flies the blue box. Given that simple fact, it would be a little unreasonable of us to expect the writers to make women the focus of the series. Instead, we should celebrate the fact that the show continues to provide examples of the very best of humanity. The central message of the show is that everyone has it in them to be exceptional. What could be more positive than that?

My Dad, John Barrowman and Me: How Captain Jack Helped Me Come Out

I realised — or, more accurately, noticed — that I was gay when I was thirteen. I came out to my parents — or, more accurately, they noticed — when I was sixteen.

“Your mum and I have been wondering,” said my dad, putting the kettle on. “Do you think you might be gay?”

“… Um, well actually,” I said, my brain shorting out due to the unexpected turn in the conversation, “now that you mention it, yes.”

We hugged, drank tea, and talked about it for a little while, and then we all moved on with our lives. Everything was fine, and it was honestly the most low-key and therefore somewhat surreal coming out conversation I could ever have hoped for, and certainly not what I expected.

I would like to give John Barrowman partial credit for my dad’s attitude.

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