Tag Archive for sexism

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.

Companions in Comics: Getting into Sharon’s Head

A drawing of Sharon's face. Speech bubbles include the comments: "We don't want grown-ups poking their noses in. He's our alien! Our secret!"

Picture of Sharon from Doctor Who Weekly, published by Marvel Comics.

Doctor Who Weekly, latterly Doctor Who Magazine, was launched in 1979 offering comic strips, short fiction, posters and information about the show. Due to licensing problems not all the television characters could be included in its stories. New sidekicks were developed instead – and so started a separate genealogy of companions from the ones we’ve seen on screen.

Take Sharon, for instance. Twenty five years before Mickey Smith stepped foot on the TARDIS, Sharon was introduced in the comics as the first ongoing Black British companion.

She joined the Fourth Doctor in Doctor Who and the Star Beast, as an eighties teenager who finds an injured alien on her way home from school. The setting is Blackcastle: an English city of terraced streets, steel mills, and union disputes.

Incorporating a companion of colour, from an industrial town, was a departure for Doctor Who. Sharon was originally devised by Pat Mills, who in addition to creating the science fiction comic 2000 AD, had recently been working on Grange Hill spin-off comics. For the uninitiated, Grange Hill was a children’s TV series that aired on the BBC from 1978 to 2008. The school-set drama was popular in Britain for its realist approach and issue-led storylines. It also portrayed an array of working class characters; quite a rarity for seventies children’s programming. I raise this because Mills has since clarified that he wrote Sharon as a “Grange Hill type character,” which I take to mean a mildly irreverent school child with a background that would be recognisable to city dwelling, working class readers.

I have mixed feelings as to how successfully her personality is conveyed. Sharon has a pleasing affability, and phlegmatism, that offsets the cartoonishness of the villains. Admittedly she doesn’t always do a great deal, because she’s primarily a place holder for confused readers. So she asks questions—frequently—which give the Doctor a chance to explain what’s going on. But her youth makes this reactivity credible, and she does still get to save the day on at least one occasion.

On balance I like her. Yet from a feminist perspective, her storyline is marred by problems pertaining to the treatment of race, gender, and childhood. If you’re the sort who likes to avoid spoilers, this is where you should bow out.

Sharon appears in six comic strip stories, originally published between 1980 and 1981 (they were subsequently coloured and reissued in the Doctor Who Classics series): Doctor Who and the Star Beast, Doctor Who and the Dogs of Doom, Doctor Who and the Time Witch, Dragon’s Claw, The Collector, and Dreamers of Death. Her travels with the Doctor are initially accidental – but once on board, she’s in no hurry to get back, and the TARDIS doesn’t oblige the Doctor’s efforts to return her home. Near the end of her run, the Doctor’s attempts to mend a fault in the TARDIS instantaneously age Sharon by four years, propelling her into adulthood. Need I add, her clothing becomes considerably clingier in the process? Soon afterwards she disembarks at Unicepter IV, a farming world, to marry a man called Vernor Allen. She never returns to Earth.

Now throughout this, Sharon’s racial identity is scarcely mentioned. For the period, it is quite refreshing that her race should be incidental to the plot: she simply gets to have adventures. But choices about the wider cast of characters continue to imply that whiteness is the norm. Until the end of her storyline, Sharon doesn’t encounter one other black character. We never see her family, and this isn’t just a narrative aversion to domesticity, because we do see the home and family of Sharon’s white best friend. The other residents of Blackcastle are white, as are all the people Sharon encounters while travelling with the Doctor–excepting the characters in Dragon’s Claw, which is set in China. When Vernor, a second black character is finally incorporated—again, seemingly the sole black person in his community—Sharon announces her intentions for a “new life” with him almost immediately. (Yes, this does rather foreshadow the sudden and inappropriate pairing of Mickey and Martha).

It is not that their attraction is unbelievable. Vernor is handsome and personable. If there were more characters of colour throughout the comic, their relationship would be framed differently. As it stands, it is hard not to feel that Sharon’s departure with the only other black character is a reassurance that the comics will in the long term remain a white space.

Such a wince-inducing exit seems partly motivated by authorial discomfort. Half way through Sharon’s storyline, Steve Moore took over writing duties from Pat Mills. During a subsequent interview Moore stated some of the thinking behind her departure:

I inherited her, and I didn’t like her at all! To me, being a young girl rather than a grown-up assistant, that said ‘kids’ story’, and I really wasn’t interested in writing for kids. I just wanted to do well-wrought SF stories, where the invention would appeal to all ages, and besides that, I wasn’t sure I could really get into the head of a young black girl in order to write the character properly. So I just wanted to get rid of her, right from the start… but it’s a bit difficult to ‘safely dispose’ of a child character, as this certainly wasn’t the sort of series where I could have got her killed. So the first part of the process was to have her grow up… then when the readers had got used to that, I could find a legitimate reason to remove her… Having made her an adult, marrying her off was the quickest and simplest way of getting her out of there and still leaving everybody happy. Not that I have any objection to female characters (I’ve written quite a lot of them), but I just didn’t take to Sharon, and I was much more interested in doing stories about ideas, rather than the characters.

I have some sympathy with worrying about “getting into the head” of a character if the writer fears appropriating experiences. That is clearly not what is going on here (and I’m disappointed, because I enjoy other aspects of Steve Moore’s stories). Sharon gets a very raw deal: her two options for development are, apparently, death or marriage as the quickest means of getting her out of the way.

To be clear, I have no problems with companions getting married if it makes sense in terms of their character development. I do have a problem with treating marriage as the default outcome for a female companion, which Sharon’s exit smacks of. The marriage becomes doubly problematic because, experientially, Sharon is not an adult.

The use of the accelerated aging trope is irritating. It might have been cool to see Sharon at different life stages if this had been differently handled. But the effect of rapid aging on Sharon’s personality and emotional development is barely explored. The implication is that female adulthood is just a physical category: experience and identity are ignored. This aligns rather neatly with sociocultural representations of women as children in adult bodies, and with attempts to racially other people by infantilising them.

Although I was annoyed I’d hoped, on first reading, that her transformation was catering to child readers’ fantasies of suddenly possessing adult power. I still hope it had that effect for some readers. Unfortunately the above quote shows that wasn’t the intention, because the rationale is entirely focused on adult centric priorities. The reluctance to write a “kids’ story” might not seem strange if you’re only familiar with these stories through the Classics reissue. If you’re looking at the originals, it sounds bizarre. The letters page, and the rest of DWW/DWM content, make it very clear this is a children’s publication. Even acknowledging that there was an adult readership, why does appealing “to all ages” necessitate writing only about adults? Every one of us was once a child. It concerns me that this is simply reflective of an attitude that adult interests must always be prioritised above children’s: even in cultural forms that allegedly belong to childhood.

Despite all these reservations, the gaps in Sharon’s characterisation and history intrigue me. Just what was that family on Earth like if she was she so happy to leave them behind—and to do so at such a young age? What sort of person elopes with blithe insouciance, without at least letting her family know that she is alive and well? Someone should get into Sharon’s head. She seems ripe for reinvention to me.

The Doctor: a God Among Women?

This guest post was written by Chris Emslie. Chris is a poet and editor living in Scotland. He blogs intermittently at Q.L.P. but spends most of his time yelling at his relatives for saying things they don’t realize are offensive. He co-edits the online poetry journal ILK and frequently gets angry at the TV. Who aside, Chris loves Buffy, True Blood and Dead Like Me. Also he tweets.

God and the doctor we alike adore
But only when in danger, not before;
The danger o’er, both are alike requited,
God is forgotten, and the Doctor slighted.

John Owen

*

“It’s always the women.”

Some of the many ‘dying words’ of Doctor Who arch-villain The Master. These come in the 2007 episode ‘Last of the Time Lords’, immediately after he is shot by Lucy Saxon, the human woman he seduces, marries and—ostensibly—brutalises and drives insane.

This scene is dominated by a tearful farewell conducted exclusively between men, but there is more to note here. While the  Doctor in this scene is literally all forgiveness and light, the only dangers to the Master’s life come from wronged and vengeful women: Francine Jones and Lucy Saxon. The impulse to revenge immediately casts these women as morally inferior to the Doctor.

This unspoken assertion of the Doctor as the superior / rational man among hysterical / inferior women is symptomatic of a larger trend in the series’ history. What are unendingly termed ‘strong women’ are permitted space in the narrative to display their charm / wiles / independence, but only to a point—only so long as they do not present a sustained challenge to the Doctor’s supreme position at the centre of the Whoniverse.

The best examples, distressingly, can be found in the rebooted series, from 2005 onwards. The Doctor’s female cohorts might flirt with equality, but it cannot last. In ‘The Parting of the Ways’, Rose Tyler is granted superhuman abilities by her contact with the heart of the TARDIS, but at a cost: the power will kill her without heroic male intervention (“I think you need a Doctor”). Similarly in 2008’s finale ‘Journey’s End’, Donna Noble achieves the vaguely-defined ‘metacrisis’ that puts the Doctor’s Gallifreyan brainpower in her ickle human (read: female) head. But again, the sudden upsurge in agency is too much for Donna. Indeed, she gets so close to true equality with the Doctor that she has to be punished—“all those wonderful things she saw” have to be stripped from her, reducing her to the bridal archetype she represented at her inception.

More recently, River Song has been repeatedly been billed as ‘[more than] a match’ for the Doctor.  She almost succeeds in killing him, and her ‘human-plus-Time-Lord’ physiology removes the impassable disadvantage of species. But let’s stop and consider the fate of the Time Ladies (or variations thereof) who have given equalling or surpassing the Doctor a real shot:

  • Romana Mk. I is shown as stuffy and narrow-minded in comparison to the Doctor, and only outsmarts him very occasionally. She regenerates into the more submissive Romana Mk. II, who conveniently departs for E-Space and never comes back—at least not in the television series.
  • The Rani is arguably a cautionary tale against allowing Gallifreyan women access to education (they’ll only end up as evil geniuses, ultimately dropped without much ado from the programme).
  • 2008’s ‘The Doctor’s Daughter’ gives us Jenny, genetically a female offshoot of the Doctor. She is born a morally misguided killing machine, reformed by the reason of a Doctor at his most literally patriarchal, and then swiftly killed off, resurrected and sent on her merry way.
  • And then we have River Song herself. She has all the makings of a true equal, on the Doctor’s own turf: she is ingenious, heroic, brave and appealing. Her knowledge of the Doctor’s personal future puts her at an unprecedented advantage. This is balanced initially by her being homicidal—no one can be that badass and morally righteous but the Doctor—and latterly by her domestication. Okay, ‘domestication’ might be a strong word. But the bulk of River’s considerable ability is used to preserve the Doctor’s place on his pedestal, cohesion of reality be damned. The woman who almost defeats him gives up her regenerations to save him because (of course) she has fallen in love with him. Is anyone else noticing a trend in Steven Moffat’s writing here? And of course, River’s threat to the Doctor’s role as patriarch is neutralised by the fact that we know from her first appearance that she is doomed to die, while he can potentially live forever. Take that, woman!

Let’s end with a nice, light-hearted moment from 2006, when Rose Tyler meets Sarah Jane Smith, the celebrated damsel-in-distress from the days of the third and fourth Doctors, in ‘School Reunion’. Sarah-Jane ribs the Doctor:

“You can tell you’re getting older […] your assistants are getting younger.”
“I’m not his assistant!” Rose rightly protests.
“No?” Sarah Jane shrugs and smiles to herself.

We cannot help but infer from this brief exchange that Rose thinks herself equal to the Doctor. Quite reasonable, really, to assume that about your best friend. Sarah Jane’s smile tells us that Rose, like countless other women to have travelled with the paragon Doctor, will inevitably learn otherwise.

*