Women in NuWho: Stereotypes, Archetypes, Femmes Fatales and Steven Moffat
Someone’s dropped the S-Bomb on the Moff.
Again. In fact it’s the third accusation of sexism from this particular chap… Heavy-duty blogger, Alex Gabriel, has given a rather damning appraisal of women in Moffat’s writing – and not just in Doctor Who. This will be familiar ground for most Kasterborites.
Showrunner and BAFTA award winning writer, Steven Moffat has been charged with portraying women in an inherently sexist, or even misogynist, manner before. Previous attacks have pointed out how many of his female characters seem to deliver one witty one-liner after another following a sassy-feisty-sexy format. In short they’re not real women.
Gabriel delivers a broad survey of different Moffat templates for “women” linking back to two previous articles where he outlined his complaint in more detail. His visually-enhanced summary notes there are such marked similarities between Missy, the latest incarnation of the Master, and previous central female characters in Moffat’s writing, in Who and beyond, that they are essentially the same character.
Or rather they’re not characters at all – instead he sees them as tropes. Missy, River Snog [no typo], Tasha Lem, Sherlock’s Irene Adler among others and characters in 2007’s Jekyll are all versions of the same…
“…feisty, morally ambiguous adventuress and femme fatale with a murky past who flirts with everything and controls men through sexuality, boasting a hands-on relationship with the Doctor.”
River flirts like a trooper and borrowed toxic lip-stick from Poison Ivy (comic book femme fatal par excellence), Missy force-snogs, Tasha Lem effectively invites the Doctor to her bed and Amy causes temporal disasters by wearing the wrong skirt over a glass floor. And by George he’s spot-on when it comes to Irene Adler! [Gulp]
He also refers to other characters that amount to repeats of the other basic moulds. Osgood and Sherlock’s Molly Hooper are intelligent women underminded by their idolisation of the leading man. Madam Korvarian, Miss Kizlet and Sherlock’s Miss Wencelsas are power-dressing executive ball-breakers. In an earlier article he states,
“it’s not that writing women requires some special or distinct approach. Moffat’s women, with the odd exception, are just tropes rather than characters, and often repetitions of the same tropes.”
So the charge it that he IS using a distinct approach to writing women. The accusation is that he is consistently writing them as tropes or pre-packed characters – vampish, saucy and manipulative mysteries in lippy and heels. The corollary is that he’s failing to represent them as real characters with actual personalities. Gabriel does also imply, though doesn’t state outright, that there is something pervasively negative about Moffat’s take on the female sex.
Gabriel refers to a “casual sexism” in much of Moffat’s writing – like the Doctor’s comment on River Snog in Let’s Kill Hitler, “it all makes sense to her. She’s been brainwashed. Plus she’s a woman.” There are other examples we can call on – In The Bells of St John, when asked by a loitering monk whether an evil spirit is on the other end of the TARDIS phone in the 13th Century, the Doctor explains, “it’s a woman.” This prompts a protective sign of the cross from the monk. Similarly in The Wedding of River Song, when Churchill asks what has happened to all of time the Doctor ominously replies – “a woman…”
I think it’s fair to say we are –in part– supposed to be laughing at the Doctor’s or the monk’s trepidation towards the female sex. And I definitely did laugh at the monk’s shock. I thought it was a lovely character moment – fear or alarm at a woman is more understandable and palatable in a 13th Century monk. It was almost mocking historical institutionalised attitudes towards women. Almost. I feel less comfortable with the Doctor – a role model – viewing women as mysterious, troublesome or difficult to understand. They’re not a species – they’re *people*.
I don’t think I’m misreading the dialogue and performances in these moments when I get the impression that we’re also supposed to side with the Doctor/ Monk to an extent. And this wouldn’t be an absurdity on the part of Moffat’s men as the central female characters he writes are deliberately alarming – in Song’s own words she’s a “psychopath” with a gun and Clara’s volcano-trip in Dark Water was truly chilling.
Those Legs Eleven
Now I think it’s very easy to level a claim of sexism at Moffat and I’m not entirely convinced on all sides. But there is something up. As a wise man pointed out over the interweb the other day, there’s no denying a significant change in the wardrobe of the companions as soon as Moffat took over as showrunner from Davies. Take a look at this line up…
What happened to trousers? And there’s no getting around the fact that after Moff’s first contribution to regular female characters (after the gun-wielding archeologist in Louboutin’s) is the only Doctor Who character to come out as an action figure in a kissogram costume. In fact I’m still not sure how he managed to sneak that one into a child-friendly show about time travel…
The Male Gaze
So, dear reader, the question is whether women are written as borderline or frankly sexist cyphers instead of real people in Moff’s Who. A helpful concept in thinking about Gabriel’s criticism is the “male gaze”. This is the idea that when our cultural products reference women e.g. a film, television or book, they tend to do so from the point of view of an heterosexual man. And let’s make no mistake, Moffat has made it clear as far as character goes, the Eleventh Doctor, far from the lofty aspirations of “Space Gandalf”, is an heterosexual man. The Classic era Doctor’s disinterest in sex was transformed into a fear or anxiety over his own very human sexuality – at the end of Nightmare in Silver the Doctor has a moment of fantasizing about Clara before appearing to mentally tell himself off. There are no two ways about it – this is a character designed for straight men to relate to. I’ve argued before that while sex in Doctor Who is well and good, it should be kept away from the Doctor. You never saw Gandalf rubbing his knees at Galadriel for a reason.
The idea of the “male gaze” cropped up in feminist academic, Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay on “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In this she discusses a psychoanalytic approach to how women are used in cinema – both visually and narratively. While I’m not proposing a full-scale Freudian deconstruction of gender in Who (but do let rip in the comments below) it helps to set out one basic concern about how misogyny can appear in television and story-telling.
A “male gaze” implies a narrative might be told from a masculine perspective typical of the patriarchy that produced it. In a culture where women are explicitly or implicitly devalued, e.g. as sex objects or obstacles, they will be presented in that manner. Somehow the story tells things from a male point of view. The Doctor doesn’t congratulate Amy with a “good on you mate” despite being his best friend – he congratulates the man who’s got the girl. Mulvey’s essay quotes American film director Budd Boetticher on how this is supposed to work,
“What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not the slightest importance.”
And that’s coming from a director of American Westerns who had spent time as a boxer, American Football player and BULLFIGHTER!
So while I’m cautious about full-on accusations of misogyny (it’s clear that Amy does have importance in the narrative) it does look as though Moffat writes with something of a male gaze. And of course he is an heterosexual man – to an extent this might be expected. But he’s also part of a profession that must take responsibility for the portrayal of stereotypes (negative or otherwise) in media designed for mass consumption.
I’m mindful of not making over-the-top claims or wilfully misreading what is put on screen. But sexism can operate on very subtle levels – the whole point of the male gaze argument is that it becomes the norm for how people see the world. Whether you’re a man or a woman, you are surrounded by sexualised images of women in advertising and long traditions of story-telling where men act and women are acted on or for. Very few fairy tales involve a heroine rescuing a bloke in distress, and the Doctor could have said “good on you mate” to Amy – she’s his mate and she’s just bagged a guy who waited 2000 years for her. But he doesn’t. In Moff’s Who, the Doctor behaves and sees the world as an heterosexual male.
Handbags and Fisticuffs
So what? Why is this potentially a bad thing at all? My feeling is that Gabriel might be on to something in his summary of several female templates in Moff’s writing and this is all part of the same approach to gender in story-telling. It does seem as though in the world of the Eleventh Doctor, where two principle characters are of opposite sex, this will lead to, or is simply code for a power-struggle.
Of course there are always power dynamics between any two characters appearing in a narrative, but repeatedly there seems to be a law that that a man and a woman in a room together will start flirting, competing and vying for power. With the Doctor and River Snog this almost becomes a fight to see who can be the greatest self-sacrifice (the man wins, of course).
The potential problem here, as I see it, is not even necessarily that the Moff might use gender as a battleground – it’s the way in which so many of his women use their sex as a means of combat. There’s frequently a tension between blokes and birds in this era of Doctor Who and you get the sense we’re supposed to be siding with the man. Women are somehow dangerous – look what they can do to all of time! This would be fine if the women weren’t simply repeating tropes – shallow impressions of women from the male perspective.
But is this really true about Moffat’s writing? One way to assess Gabriel’s claim would be to see if we can produce a similar list of male tropes and repeating collections of character traits. It’s certainly interesting that both Sherlock and the Doctor are ultimately isolated super-intelligent men who have difficulty maintaining non-hazardous relationships with women and their male side-kicks (Watson and Rory) both get mistaken for being gay.
But after a brief survey of Moffat’s episodes (far from comprehensive – please set me straight if I’ve missed things) I can actually find very few principle male characters at all save for a handful army General types and briefly glimpsed panto villains. None of these get as much screen attention (nor interaction with the Doctor) compared to River, Tasha, Miss Kizlet, Madame Korvarian etc.
In fact Moffat writes oodles of women’s parts again and again. And it surely should be acknowledged that this in itself is quite the opposite of one kind of misogyny prevalent in television for decades. That’s not to say that the parts themselves are unproblematic, but in an industry where female actors are underrepresented and valued less than their male colleagues, this is most definitely a good thing.
To briefly, briefly touch on the issue of “strong” female characters: it’s frequently implied that sexist story-telling represents women as weak and passive in contrast to more dynamic and active men (who the audience are intended to empathise with). But just because a character is active, socially powerful and clever, doesn’t mean sexism can’t still be there. The concern here, as Gabriel’s article indicates, is that making women strong by writing them as using their sexuality to gain power over men doesn’t really achieve gender equality.
BLINK AND YOU’LL MISS IT
But something I had been forgetting and was pointed out to me by the same wise man with the action figures, was the female protagonist in Moffat’s earlier episodes. Nancy in The Empty Child is a quiet heroine with a complicated internal struggle. She’s gutsy and argues with men but she doesn’t flirt or use her sexuality to do it. Sally Sparrow in Blink is similarly one of the most reasonable and sensible characters on screen while the men are almost caricatures. And while the Doctor is ultimately the saving factor in both episodes, both stories also rely on the choices and courage of a central female character without her becoming totally besotted with the Doctor.
This contrasts with Gabriel’s complaint that River, Amy, Clara and even Reinette in the Girl in the Fireplace are women who became infatuated with the Doctor as little girls and end up “part companion, part love interest to the detriment of her own life.”
So it looks like there are some clear examples of Moffat writing excellent leading ladies – but there has been a bit of a vampish run for a few years. It should also be pointed out that when a writer produces as much material as Moffat has, it’s hardly surprising that themes and character traits will be repeated.
I’ll leave you with these final thoughts. Series 8 has given us a new Moffat leading man – and Capaldi’s wonderful Doctor seems to subvert some aspects (if not all) of the male gaze. This Doctor can’t tell whether Clara is attractive or not, doesn’t care and certainly won’t need to tell himself off for having impure thoughts about her tight skirts. And, barring some over-enthusiastic slapping (which our own James McLean has called “irrational female anger”) the impossible plot device has had some much needed character development. Have we turned a corner with our new TARDIS team? Have we reached Space Gandalf?
So what do you think, dear readers – is Gabriel’s complaint justified? Does Moffat write with a male gaze? Are his women mere tropes and negative ones at that? Or is this a skewed view and Moff’s Who has given us far more rich and engaging female characters that a lot of shows out there? Let battle commence…