Can we talk about women in sci fi for a minute? I know this horse may be long dead and beaten to a pulp by now, but seriously can we just talk for a second?
I’m mostly talking, at this moment, about Doctor Who because Doctor Who is a MASSIVE pop culture phenomenon right now. And on a lot of levels that makes me really happy. But for cripes sake, people, the discussion about women in sci fi has been going for like… as long as sci fi has been even remotely popular. So why is Doctor Who still so… infuriating?
I love sci fi and fantasy, and though I’m not deep into the fandom (I’m sure if I were I’d know how much this has already been written about) and I only recently got really “into” Doctor Who, I watched all of the “new” series in a matter of a few months and have been eagerly consuming each new episode as it comes out. I’ve had long discourses about the wibbly-wobbly theory and also the intricacies of the finely wrought plotlines. I’ve told newbies to stick with it for a season and a half before writing it off, because in a delightfully British way, much of the show’s apparent silliness is in fact well thought out, incredibly precise writing. It just takes a while to come back around. And of course, I’ve gotten into deep discussions about the various pros and cons of Chris Eccleston, David Tennant, and Matt Smith.
But you know what doesn’t come up very often? In-depth discussions about the Doctor’s “companions.” There have been a lot of them since Chris Eccleston took up the reboot: Rose Tyler, Martha Jones, Donna Noble, Amelia Pond, River Song, and now Clara Oswin–“The Impossible Girl.” But none of them seem to come up very often in conversation. Seriously, do a Google image search for “Doctor Who companions” and there’s not even an actual BBC-sponsored image of all of them together. It’s all fan art. This says a lot.
When the womenfolk do come up in a conversation, it tends to pass over them quickly, ticking off their shortcomings or best features. Rose’s teeth are too big, Martha is too boring, Donna is too grating/bitchy, Amelia is HAWT, River is a badass, and Clara is… Well I don’t fucking know what Clara is.
That’s what got me thinking about all this. Ever since Clara became the Doctor’s latest accessory (I mean, really, that’s what his companions are; of course he cares deeply for them and always saves them and everything, but shit, I deeply love my knockoff Gucci handbag and I’m really sad now that it’s falling apart, but the truth is that my lifespan is just much longer than its is, and sooner or later I’ll either have to throw it out or watch it die in a mess of fake-leather crumble… See? You see what I did there?), I’ve been getting steadily more annoyed. Not by Clara herself, but by the way her character is (not) written. Hating Clara would be like hating a soap bubble. What’s the point? She didn’t do anything. She just sort of lacked… anything. She’s void of personality. Yes, I get that her purpose as a character is to be the “everything” person who fills up all the gaps in the Doctor’s time stream. She’s a sacrificial lamb. Yadda yadda. But can’t she be a sacrificial lamb with a real backstory, or a set of personal interests, or a plan in life aside from hanging onto the Doctor’s coattails? Clara is a nonentity. She’s half-made. She’s lazy writing.
I also get that Doctor Who is operating on an already-established set of rules from fifty years ago. The original series was written when female characters didn’t require personalities, on the premise that the Doctor travels with young, attractive female sidekicks as eye candy and trades them in frequently for newer models. The new series is continuing on this premise, and yes, it has endeavored to at least sort of acknowledge the problem of using women as disposable accoutrements to the male hero’s ego several times, with the addition of a few brief male sidekicks to the female sidekicks. And River Song, the Doctor’s fast-talking, ass-kicking wife, went so far as to address the fact that the best way to keep the Doctor in your life is to “Never let him see you age.” So, in a way, I guess Doctor Who’s writers are at least cognizant of the fact that their subject matter is off-putting to a lot of us who either sport, or support those who sport, ovaries.
But can we please get a real human being as the Doctor’s companion? Ever since Steven Moffat took over as the show’s primary writer when Russel T. Davies left, I’ve been disappointed with the writing of the females in the show. I know, I know, the Doctor is the center of the show and his personality is so strong, his ego so massive, that writing a character to actually match him is tough. But the only way to actually show that you give a shit in a situation like this, Mr. Moffat, is to stop apologizing and actually do something about it. And guess what? Some women have strong personalities and gigundo egos, too.
Rose Tyler was a good start, what with her falling in love with the doctor and being a strong and smart and capable and believable enough human being that the Doctor also fell in love with her and thus the end of their relationship being so utterly tragic but necessary… but you didn’t write her, did you, Mr. Moffat?
Martha had some potential–we got to know a bit about her past, her family, her life. It made sense for her to go with the Doctor, but in the end she was just kind of a boring person. But at least a person. And a person who had the cajones to tell the Doctor to fuck off when she realized she was being used, albeit not exactly in those terms. I’m not sure who wrote her, but it was an honest effort, even if it kind of missed the mark.
Donna Noble was absolutely brilliant, able to speak her mind, and–dear god, dare I say it for fear of jinxing it?–funny. She knew what she wanted and she fucked up sometimes and then was able to admit she’d fucked up. Brilliant. And she was brave and strong and real. (She’s absolutely my favorite.) But you didn’t write her, either.
Nope. You’re responsible for River, though, Mr. Moffat. And she’s a Strong Female Character, right?
No. No, she isn’t. Don’t misunderstand: I enjoy River’s smarmy retorts and superpowers as much as the next female sci fi fan, starved for a character who isn’t boring as watching paint dry, but River doesn’t really have a personality, does she? At least not one that’s based on anything other than wanting to be As Cool As the Doctor. There’s not a twinge in her that responds to the fact that she was basically abandoned along the time stream by her parents or pretty much ignored by her husband. Sure, she calls herself a psychopath and maybe that’s a nod to her lack-of-humanity, but she’s not a psychopath. She’s vapid. We only get the barest hints of her life outside of her run-ins with the Doctor. She fails the Bechdel test like woah. Oh, and, attention, writers: “Strong Female Character” does NOT mean “Stereotypical Man Just With Boobs” or “Able to Handle Self in Fight.” There can, and should, be a lot more to it, mmkay?
And then of course there’s Amelia Pond, who was sofuckingclose to getting there for me. She had a backstory and smarts and everything, but somewhere in there it was decided that she wasn’t enough on her own. She needed to be in love with someone, and it shouldn’t be the Doctor, so it’d be Rory and Rory would come along too, and there’d be all kinds of tension about who she loved more because somebody had to have her. She couldn’t just be. Amelia Pond couldn’t just be Amelia Pond. Sure, you gave Rory her last name, and clearly she was the alpha in that relationship, but that doesn’t distract me from the fact that she was only half a person. (Again: I love Rory! Totally love him! But we didn’t need him, is all I’m saying. And I’d have been perfectly happy to have him around if we’d have been able to see a real character not only emerge, but grow, in Amelia.)
And then… Clara. Well, I’ve already talked about Clara. She’s a plot device and nothing more and I’m sad for her. I want to know about her but I don’t think that Steven Moffat has given her anything more for me to know.
Look, I think Moffat might be really on to something with the way he’s developing the Doctor–I kind of hate Matt Smith’s depiction of the Doctor–he’s arrogant and too-goofy not nearly brooding enough for my taste, and he treats his companions pretty abominably. In the 50th anniversary special, he got hella pissed off when someone asked him if he was the Doctor’s companion… as if he feels that way about his own companions. Not cool. But, still, it seems to be building toward something, and the War Doctor didn’t seem too impressed, and there are some nods being made to the current Doctor’s ego. Clearly, something is working since Doctor Who continues to grow in worldwide popularity. But with popularity comes responsibility, Moffat. And a whole lot of female viewers who are sick to death of seeing nobody who even remotely resembles them in their science fiction (ie, women, ie, half the world). I think what pisses me off the most is that Moffat seems pretty masterful at building male characters, even if they’re kind of jerks. Case in point: Sherlock. Moffat is an expert at taking male characters originally written by other people and making them complex–if egomaniacal–interesting humans. But inventing a female character who isn’t a caricature or just a yawnfest? Not so much.
Here’s my suggestion to clear it all up (which I know isn’t going to happen since we’ve already gotten the announcement about the next Doctor): make one of the Doctor’s incarnations a woman. Force the writers to deal with a central Strong Female Character who isn’t just half of somebody, or a pretty accessory, or a Strong Male Lead With Boobs. Make a person out of a woman. I dare you.