Sexism in Moffat’s Dr Who.

I am focusing on the Moffat era of Doctor Who because it is convenient, it is the latest and freshest in my mind. This is not the say that there was no sexism in other eras. Watch any classic Who and it will smack you in the face, but then that was hardly uncommon in the 70s. Davies did not exactly do better, lovesick or shrill tended to be his defaults when it came to writing woman. So this should not be seen as an attack on Steven Moffat, but rather an attack on the representation of ‘woman’ in Doctor Who.This rant, like so many lately, starts with River Song, a character of great potential that was squandered. Before her backstory was given to us, I created my own for her (did I fail to mention how much of a nerd I am). In my head, at some point in her career as an archaeologist, she had stumbled onto something about the Doctor and had become obsessed. I think that’s quite a regular thing with academics, it is what happened with me. I stumbled onto a reading about sexuality education and it changed my whole academic focus. This still allows for all the other aspects needed in the story, her obsession with the Doctor, her ability to track him through history, but it also allows her some agency of her own, some choice over her life.Instead we got the 50’s version of the woman that goes to University to fill in time until she gets married. She states the only reason she wants to pursue a degree is to find the Doctor, her life, her career, her goals are not about her, are not her striving for something for herself. They are about her getting a man. Moffat gave us the MRS degree in Who. So what does this say to young women? Go to University, if you are lucky you’ll find a man as wonderful as the Doctor. Don’t choose an academic or career path based on what you love, do one that will conform to a cultural standard of female as wife and mother.I have never brought into the idea that River was his true love, the woman he marries. This is not because of some obsession with another companion, indeed the companions I love tend to be the ones that are viewed as a best friend, as an excited explorer. It is, that when I look to River I do not see any compatibility. It also appears that the more we see of River the more shrill and nagging she becomes. It is like we are being presented with the worst stereotype of a wife. She nags at him constantly, she finds fault in everything he does, and only ever says derogatory things about him. This is what being a woman and a wife is becoming on Doctor Who.

I had heard that that the Christmas Special of ‘The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe’, would show that women are presented positively in Who. But then the Doctor Who fandom say a lot of things I have to wonder about. I thought I’d just watch it without considering the sexism, and just focus on that later. That didn’t last. For a show that the fans said would address the sexism, it is probably one of the worst. Of course this isn’t the say that it was officially presented that way, I have yet to read anything official about the representation of women in Doctor Who.

But back to the Christmas Special. I will say that I have never found jokes based on sexist or racist stereotypes that funny. I can see the bookending joke, the mirroring of the event in the beginning to the event in the end. But use something else than the all women are bad drivers stereotype. And yes, maybe in the scheme of things that is pretty minor, but it shouldn’t go unsaid.

Then we move onto the brother and sister in the episode. The girl is portrayed as stupid, as non-adventurous and scared compared to her brother. It is not just that she doesn’t know things, it is that she is presented as intellectually foolish compared to her knowledgeable brother. Boys are smart, girls are pretty is the message. There is a point where the Doctor calls her stupid. To some degree that works for my idea of the Doctor, he can be socially clumsy at times, this is the guy that eats a stranger’s jam with his fingers, but in this context it was jarring and hurtful, so much so that the actual joke gets lost. It is also the boy that is adventurous, that starts the whole adventure. The girl is reluctant, nervous and uncomfortable with the unknown. Boys it seems are adventurous explorers, running into the world to experience, girls prefer to sit quietly and read about the world instead. The sister does not overcome her fear, does not go to hell with it, I want to see this world, instead it becomes about her nurturing and compassion. She goes forth to take care of her brother, to ensure he is safe. Therefore her bravery is not for herself, but in service of another.

Which brings us to the mother, the supposed heroine of this story. Now I actually admit the fooling your captors by pretending to cry actually worked for me. It was saying don’t believe the stereotype is real, don’t think that the fragile tearful woman is the only version of woman in the world. And for that I liked it. But that also appears to be the only active role she had in the episode. In the end she saves everyone because she is a woman. My first issue with that is this idea that there is one universal meaning of being a woman, that all women will have some essential trait in common. As it turns out this essential trait for the writers is motherhood. I do wonder then if those women that don’t want to, or physically can’t bear children are somehow less, not fully a woman.

The woman that saves the day doesn’t do it because of some strength of character, some wisdom, some creativity, some endurance that makes her special. In fact when I considered it, it actually has nothing to do with her at all. She is not special, she was convenient. Indeed one of the Androzani was a woman and she would have been equally as effective. It wasn’t about who the mother was, it was about her fertility, it was about her reproductive organs. Her ability to carry life made her the right choice, but this ability doesn’t speak to the person, pregnancy does not actually require any active process from the woman. People may make choices about when to get pregnant, and choose healthy living, but it isn’t necessary for pregnancy to occur. What was being praised was a biological process, not the agency of the woman.

And this also gets to be seen in what I consider possibly the worse message of this episode. When the mother was talking about her husband it became clear that she did not choose him, indeed did not particular want to marry him, to have him in his life. He harassed her, he followed her everywhere, and she couldn’t tell him no, because that would have been rude. Again we are shown a woman that has no agency of her own, no ability to make choices, to decide on her own life course. There is no consent, because it wasn’t an option. Even if the other person is being annoying, is being aggressive and disrespectful, girls don’t make a fuss, don’t speak up, that would be rude.

The last issue in this post is about the intelligence of Clara Oswin Oswald. It is a little picky, and if in isolation I would not even be that worried, but as a pattern of women without personal choice, personal value it is yet another one. Oswin was extremely intelligent, the Doctor level of intelligence, but this was not her intelligence. She had no great intelligence of her own before the Daleks converted her. Oswin was not intelligent, the Dalek was. And then again, when she was downloaded, she was declared not particularly intelligent, and then given the upgrade. Her intelligence, her ability to assist the Doctor in finding the Great Intelligence, was not hers, she did not possess it, it was simply a failure to delete a file. Her skill, and perhaps even her value as a companion, has come not from who she is, but what others have done to her.

For the record I am aware this is a television programme, and some may consider that I take it too seriously. But these ideas of what it means to be a woman, how we decide what is of value they are socially constructed, and part of that construction is how we are represented in forms of media. Young people are watching these shows, and are seeing these things. And it gets incorporated in how they construct their meaning of gender.

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