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Feb 22 2012

In Which I Rail About Doctor Who Fandom and the Pink Ghetto

There will be spoilers.

I love feminist science fiction and fantasy fandom. I am part of feminist science fiction and fantasy fandom. And then I come across something like this in a post titled “I Hate You, Steven Moffat“:

Amy is instead a pale foil, along with bumbling Rory, and, of course, the vessel. Tropes leaning heavily on cis women as incubators are certainly nothing new in science fiction, but that doesn’t mean we should keep using them. What happens to Amy is profoundly dehumanising, at the same time it’s hard to feel affected by it as a viewer because she’s such a paper-thin character to begin with. Her identity, it turns out, is wrapped up around being a mother, a carrier, an object to hold something else.

This also popped up again in the Christmas special, which brought a side of gender essentialism to the trope with a storyline about how women are ‘strong.’ Not to defy stereotypes, of course, but because cis women have uteruses and can bear children, and a mother is the most strong and developed of all because she’s successfully had children. I’m reminded of people pacing around a horse auction, checking out the broodmares, looking for the ones who’ve been proven successful, to find the right one to take home.

Let me let you in on a little secret: Amy Pond isn’t “reduced to a vessel”. She becomes a parent–and she’s hardly alone in that this season.

A vessel is something that is passively filled and passively holds what it has been given. Amy doesn’t do that. She–and Rory–conceive a child. The implication is that it was done on purpose, though perhaps not without some ambivalence. In other words, they’re fairly normal for a young couple who wants children but are on a big adventure.

What happens next is a bit weird, yes, but only if you decide you have to take it literally. A pregnant woman feeling hijacked but trying to ignore it as she goes on with her pre-pregnancy life just isn’t that unusual. Strange people who look at you but don’t see you, institutional settings, lack of control, weird moments that tell you your life is going to change whether you want it to or not–welcome to modern pregnancy.

Is it dehumanizing? Rather, but not because Steven Moffat created the world in which it would be. Instead, he externalized those influences into something we could see without being blinded by our unexamined culture. That is, in fact, what science fiction is supposed to do.

Not only is Amy not some vessel filled by hostile forces, but she’s not even kidnapped because of anything special about her. She’s just like any other pregnant woman, except for one thing. A force of nature has had an unplanned effect on her fetus. Idris is the reason Amy is kidnapped. Idris exerts an influence on the developing Melody that changes all of her parents’ plans.

This, too, is hardly unheard of in real-life parenting. Once again, it’s a common fear externalized and held at a viewable distance.

This last season of Doctor Who is all about parenting, particularly the scary bits. It’s about creating new life that doesn’t conform to our expectations, in circumstances we can’t control, subject to influences we can’t dictate and can only hope to mitigate, with demands we might not be adult enough to handle or that might leave us with no lives of our own to live. There are children we didn’t mean to create, children who are not what they’re supposed to be, children who are hurt and scared and even attacked by their parents, and children we want to love even as we watch them destroy our worlds.

It’s also about it usually working out somehow, even though we feel totally inadequate to the task. Amy and Rory get their daughter back, and they have cozy family times, even if those look nothing like they expected. River is there when things go most wrong to reassure them that it can work out because it has worked out. Madge dredges up resources she didn’t know she had in order to–literally–pull her life back together, being much more than a vessel for aliens. Craig discovers that life doesn’t have to go perfectly in order for him to effectively parent; messing up doesn’t inevitably lead to tragedy.

Oh, yes. This season is as much about fathers as it is about mothers. Captain Henry rearranges his life and the life of his crew for the health of his son. Alex grapples with the fact that he can’t just fix things for George. Reg nearly kills himself trying to fulfill his promise to the kids to be home for Christmas. Rory adopts, protects, and tries to mold a new life form as well as dealing with all of the drama surrounding the birth of his own child. Even The Doctor copes awkwardly with the fact that River’s problems are caused by her being a sort of goddaughter to him. (Put that in your creepy pipe and smoke it.)

For whatever reason, however, none of the fathers provoke this kind of outrage. The mothers do, despite being more positive–and deconstructed–portrayals of motherhood than Jackie Tyler or Sylvia Noble or even Francine Jones, who can’t trust her daughter to figure out her own life and makes a huge mess because of it.

Of course, those mothers don’t demand a space on center stage. They sit in the wings, visited when their daughters feel like it. Center stage is reserved, by some sort of fannish right, for the women who walk away from all their social connections when The Doctor comes calling. They are somehow “independent” for leaving behind all the social resources that make them not solely dependent on The Doctor. (Still got your creepy pipe?) That behavior is considered radical where bringing family along into adventure and coping with the complications as they occur–because family is one of two things you’ve wanted since you were very young and never had–is not.

The fact is that parenthood still occurs with a great deal of frequency in our modern lives. It’s changed since the days that required Madge to be strong enough for many. It’s shared more often. Basics are more automated. We don’t have to chose as much between that and other activities. None of the changes make the outcome less uncertain or requiring less bravery, though. None of that makes it less than very hard work.

Certainly none of that puts it out of bounds for science fictional deconstruction. Once upon a time, externalizing such things as the medicalization of pregnancy would have given Moffat’s stories a spot on lists of feminist science fiction. Instead, the very presence of Amy’s complicated pregnancy as an important plot point is used to argue that she is unimportant and bland. I’m not a mother and don’t want to be, but even I’m insulted by that.

There is a certain amount of reducing Amy to her gender going on here, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t Steven Moffat doing it.

22 comments

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  1. 1
    Ing

    Good case.

    Though I did think the motherhood issue in the Christmas Special pushed it a bit over the edge and was a case of Moffat failing his skill check Writing(female characters) roll

  2. 2
    Stephanie Zvan

    Well, I think Madge is a perfectly reasonable (British eccentric) character. Moffat may, however, have chosen to illustrate his ongoing point that caring is not weakness with a bit of a 2 x 4 in that particular episode.

  3. 3
    Stephanie Zvan

    On the other hand, Rory in his Centurian costume ain’t exactly subtle.

  4. 4
    kaboobie

    Thank you. I am a feminist and a long-time Doctor Who fan. I happen to love Moffat’s writing and was honestly rather surprised that many are railing against it as inescapably sexist.

    In any case, the Doctor’s companions over the years have rarely been feminist role models, and while I don’t excuse this I also don’t think Moffat has made the situation any worse.

  5. 5
    Brian G.

    I don’t understand how people who claim to love other human beings can have such naked contempt for the process by which they are made. The idea that motherhood is “dehumanizing” is absurd to me – what could be more human? I wonder if this commenter feels the same about her own mother. If human life is valuable, then creating it is a virtuous act. I don’t think it should be forced on anybody, but I do think it should be celebrated, and portrayed in films and such. I’m generally on board with criticism of essentialized portrayals of gender, but I’ve found that the most vociferous critics of such paradigms often end up in a dark place of spite and anger. Perhaps this person looks forward to a future where everyone just has themselves cloned, and we completely neglect the power of our natural reproductive abilities for synthesis and creation. It might make sense, given her high opinion of herself vis a vis people who make different choices.

  6. 6
    Emily Willingham

    I love this post, and (ducks) I don’t even watch Dr. Who (ducks again).

  7. 7
    Kelly McCullough

    Very nicely done.

  8. 8
    shari

    this is interesting – and I don’t follow dr. who. Being a parent, I am intensely interested in the commentary/deconstruction of parenthood. It sounds like a pretty cool series is tackling an enormous subject from many levels and viewpoints.

    A lot of what happens in pregnancy is flat-out illogical. You need to feed yourself and the baby as well as possible, yet you can spend half a day upchucking. You certainly need your sleep, as your body is creating another one – from scratch. Once the hips start expanding, kiss that sleep goodbye. You want to avoid tripping and falling for Obvious reasons – welcome to soft, loose tendons that can make you fall at the drop of a hat. And I’m Not even at the hormonally-driven emotional changes. This is all BEFORE the illogic of day-to-day parenting starts!!

    I guess what I am thinking about is that the act of parenting – even in-utero – is driven by flickering forces that are only half-named. Parenting changes you – and it creates ties that most people cannot sever. I applaud the recognition, that ‘Amy becomes an incubator, a carrier’….because days – in real life – exist purely at that level in many pregnancies. But I don’t get how that’s…a bad thing (possibly boring tv – unless they include a lot of the hurling, which is occasionally pretty funny, in retrospect for me….)

    Just reading the snippet posted here, it feels more like the critic has issues with parentood and pregnancy, more even than Stephan Moffat….

    then again, i could be wrong.Stephanie, lovely analysis :-)

  9. 9
    tielserrath

    Sorry, but I have to disagree. It’s late here, and I haven’t time to go into a full deconstruction, but Moffat’s portrayal of female characters is…not sure of the correct adjective here – disappointing? Unbalanced? Sexist?

    Shattersnipe has done some good deconstructions of the problem in multiple posts.. It’s not just Dr Who; the same issues are raising their heads in Sherlock, to an even worse degree.

    http://fozmeadows.wordpress.com/2012/01/08/imaginary-interview-with-imaginary-steven-moffat/

    But the issue with Amy wasn’t just the pregnancy, it was that she was defined entirely by it and by the supposed love triangle with Rory and the Doctor. We are left with no idea who Amy is, outside of these desires. We are shown Rory as a nurse, and even as a doctor. The only jobs Amy has is as a stripper and a model – jobs designed for her appearance and the male gaze. If this is what an individual wants, fine, but on a major 21stC TV show it feels very…1960s…to reduce a woman to this.

    People have also had serious concerns about the sudden absence of almost any character who is non-white or non-heterosexual. Previous Dr Who series under other writer/directors are so much more relaxed about sexuality, class etc. Now we’re firmly in middle class white cis world, and the occasional non cis character feels clumsily bolted on.

    The portrayal of female characters in his latest opus, Sherlock, is even worse. In this a woman can only be highly intelligent if she is sexualised, and every other woman is there to be despised or for comic relief.

    http://autistwriter.wordpress.com/2011/11/12/sherlock/

    So sorry, it isn’t about the feminist fans’ negative attitude to Amy’s pregnancy. To quote: I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.

  10. 10
    Stephanie Zvan

    Oh, good thing you’re here, because I haven’t heard any of this before. I’m totally naive about what is said about this series in the feminist SF circles I’m part of. You may or may not have noticed, but the post I’m reacting to is about Amy’s pregnancy and about evaluating it in isolation instead of in the context of an entire season about parenthood. But if you want to tell me Moffat couldn’t possibly have written something very interesting about pregnancy because he gave her a job [ahem] delivering kissograms, you go ahead and claim that. I happen to find Amy’s character as an orphan who was treated as crazy because she insisted on the truth to be a bit more interesting than you do.

  11. 11
    Sas

    @ Brian G. -

    The idea that motherhood is “dehumanizing” is absurd to me – what could be more human?

    It’s not so absurd, when you consider that women are under huge social pressure to become mothers, and how there are large movements such as religion and right wing conservatism that treat women as breeding machines first and foremost, and that a lot of feminism’s fight involves women being able to have access to roles outside of wife-and-mother. In both fiction and real life, the choice to not become a mother is often treated as selfish, short-sighted, deluded, or outright wicked. Becoming a mother is more than “celebrated”, it’s very often treated as the ultimate fulfillment of a woman’s life, trumping all other things about her. So while that writer may be reacting in a knee-jerk fashion and not giving these Dr. Who stories a fair treatment, the idea that motherhood can be written as dehumanizing is at least understandable.

  12. 12
    Ing

    I even have to disagree that Amy’s story was a love triangle. Superficially perhaps but the real conflict of her character in season 5 was choosing between facing adulthood or not. She ran away on her wedding night with her imaginary friend, The Dream Lord’s illusions were a choice between her nightmare version of a mundane life and the TARDIS. It’s about the adult world meeting the childhood (the finale even had child Amy and adult Amy) and how being an adult doesn’t mean you have to give up what you liked about being a kid. Amy gets to be married and take Rory on adventures with her, her holding on to the childhood memory brings the Doctor back.

  13. 13
    erratic

    Will we ever see the female Doctor, Sherlock, Harry Potter? Sigh. I love these imaginative romps (and especially David Tennant’s boyish looks) but I wish, wish, wish my teenage daughter had a story to follow where she can see someone who looks like her as the main character. I can only imagine how much worse it must be to be a person of color watching primetime TV.

  14. 14
    John Horstman

    @5: As Sas (#11) says, this results from a cultural context that often does overemphasize the motherhood role, often casting it as the only acceptable role for women. Women who chose not to have children are often viewed as selfish or strange. I very much agree that the extent to which the response is taken can be a severe overreaction, and I think this is frequently due to a misunderstanding of how cultural contextualization works. BECAUSE OF the cultural constructions of and the meanings ascribed to motherhood, it’s difficult-to-impossible to depict it at all without dragging all of the cultural baggage along with that depiction. Unfortunately, people frequently make the mistake of viewing that cultural baggage as intrinsic to the depiction, whether it is or isn’t, and therefore criticizing individual depictions that evoke the normative motherhood trope as though they are invoking it. This is especially problematic when the depiction is actually making an effort to engage in a subversive deconstruction of the trope it evokes, as the criticism is entirely missing the point.

    Consider this: I can’t depict race, ever, without evoking cultural tropes associated with it (notice that the criticism points out the fact that all of the main characters for this group are White). What I can do is, knowing that any depiction of race is going to evoke many cultural tropes, design my depiction to interact with the evoked tropes in ways that subvert, invert, or otherwise play with or deconstruct them. If I’m reading it correctly, Stephanie is pointing out that this is what Steven Moffat is doing (or at least attempting, perhaps unsuccessfully in the eyes of some, though I think it’s been pretty good – even the Christmas Special served to challenge essentialization: the strong/weak male/female dichotomy that is so frequently taken to be biological/essential is completely inverted, as the aliens make the opposite association; the ALIENS are engaging in biological essentialism, and Moffat is using this fact to demonstrate the constructed nature of both perspectives), and the author of the linked piece is failing to recognize exactly how the specific work in question is engaging with the cultural tropes it evokes, instead focusing on the fact that the work evokes those tropes and concluding from that fact that it must be reinforcing them.

  15. 15
    John Horstman

    @12: Yeah, they make it pretty clear that it’s not a love triangle (while deliberately needling the audience members reading it that way, as with Amy’s words on the sub-dermal recorder or the opening narration to “A Good Man Goes to War”).

  16. 16
    Ms. Daisy Cutter, General Manager for the Cleveland Steamers

    Sas, #11: Holy shit, YES.

  17. 17
    Ing

    Will we ever see the female Doctor

    Smith is supposedly leaving in a season or so…fingers crossed.

  18. 18
    Jason Thibeault

    We Are Ing @12 has this exactly, exactly right. I could not be more in agreement. Amy’s entire arc is defined by deciding whether to grow up and settle down, or whether to have one more fantastic adventure with her imaginary pal the Raggedy Doctor.

  19. 19
    Ing

    Amy’s entire arc is defined by deciding whether to grow up and settle down, or whether to have one more fantastic adventure with her imaginary pal the Raggedy Doctor.

    And the right answer of course is “both”

  20. 20
    leni

    I do not watch Dr. Who. I’ve never really been a fan, but I’ve occasionally watched it and enjoyed it’s weirdness. I don’t really have anything to add to the commentary about the show, except to say that this:

    This last season of Doctor Who is all about parenting, particularly the scary bits. It’s about creating new life that doesn’t conform to our expectations, in circumstances we can’t control, subject to influences we can’t dictate and can only hope to mitigate, with demands we might not be adult enough to handle or that might leave us with no lives of our own to live. There are children we didn’t mean to create, children who are not what they’re supposed to be, children who are hurt and scared and even attacked by their parents, and children we want to love even as we watch them destroy our worlds.

    very much reminded me of when Angel become a parent.

    And not trying to derail or imply some sort of rip-off occurred or anything. I just thought it was almost a perfect description of that show’s depiction of parenthood, too.

  21. 21
    Kevin

    While this analysis certainly made me think a lot more about my conceptions of Amy’s character, the end of the “god complex” episode – where Amy and Rory get “dropped off” really made me mad.

    Amy had chosen to continue to be an active pre-parent as long as she could, going on adventures with the doctor as long as she deemed she was able to do so safely. Rory wanted her to move back to small town “perfectly safe and controllable” land. The doctor delivered her into Rory’s fantasty.

    What gifts did the doctor leave them? Rory’s dream house in Rory’s dream town and Rory’s dream car.

    It was pointed out that in the Dreamlord episode (Amy’s Choice) the reality of small town life was “nightmarish”. While she somewhat wanted it, she didn’t now, and the doctor – with Rory’s enthusiastic assistance – forced her into it.

    That, if nothing else, I found very domineering and very inconsiderate of her as an autonomous agent.

  22. 22
    badandfierce

    I remember seeing this article and being deeply confused. I haven’t kept up with Dr. Who very closely of late, so I can’t answer for much of the motherhood theme. What I found confusing was the assertion that Rose is an example of a good female character, as contrasted with Amy. Rose’s character consists of:

    -Treating her mother and boyfriend like crap at every opportunity.
    -Throwing tantrums when the universe doesn’t revolve around her.
    -Vaguely poking at things in such a way as to call the Doctor’s attention to them.
    -Being deified whenever Davies wrote himself into a corner.
    -Being remembered fondly by everyone for no demonstrable reason.

    She’s actually quite like Gwen in the sister show Torchwood. Another female character who accomplishes nothing, is a demonstrably terrible human being when it comes to relating with her nearest and dearest, and being constantly talked up by the rest of the cast like she’s some combination of Chuck Norris and the Virgin Mary. If you want some weird, messed-up, and rather antifeminist characters, try these two textbook Mary Sues. Amy, though she seems like a distinctly flawed character, has actually called the Doctor out when he’s been wrong and accomplished various things on her own initiative (like Donna and Martha; Davies improved after a while). I was rewatching a bit of the former seasons with some friends and when Rose was banished to another reality we all cheered and the hatred for Gwen in my part of the fandom is considerable. How either character ever wound up as positives in anyone’s eyes confuses me profoundly.

  1. 23
    A Taste of 2012 » Almost Diamonds

    [...] about sexism in entertainment media. One post of note has to do with Doctor Who and the way a season about parenthood was dismissed and undervalued by some feminists because it was about a “women’s topic”. I explained the “pink ghetto” [...]

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