A Feminist Take on Doctor Who’s Clara Oswin Oswald

Updated 4/26/2013

For the last few years I’ve been writing feminist takes on women in Doctor Who, starting with River Song (here and here) and Amy Pond. I usually do them right away, partly to see if I can predict the direction that Steven Moffat will go with the characters. So I wanted to do a take on Clara Oswin Oswald, but I’m not altogether sure what I think of her. Yet.

What she isn’t

She’s not a screamer, she’s not clingy, she’s not a femme Rambo. She’s smart, she’s brave, and she has goals for her life, or at least her immediate future. So far so good. Is she perhaps a feminist’s dream come true?

What she is (what is she?)

But there’s something not quite right about her. In a recent Salon.com article, author Phil Sandifer says, “I feel like the mystery of her character is kind of eating the actual character.” He suggests that she might just be a Generic Character.

I strongly disagree. She is a young woman who has a definite goal of exploring the world, which she is postponing in order to help a family in need. She is often frightened but rarely lets it stop her from pursuing adventure. She is forthright with her thoughts, keenly perceptive, and always asking questions. She is wicked smart and delights in it. She sees through evasions. How could you possibly call her Generic? Meanwhile, if you include her other incarnations, she is the kind of person who would make a souffle and then, when it burns, throw souffle and pan together into the trash. She is a storyteller who enjoys fantasy. She is a master of disguise and crosses smoothly from one class to another.

But Sandifer is onto something. She is missing something. To me, she does not seem recognizably human. She doesn’t show the kinds of human emotions or reactions I would expect from anyone, male or female.

Why? Maybe it’s part of the plot, and there’s a mystery to be revealed later.

Or maybe Moffat looked at feminist fan critiques of Doctor Who companions (hey, it’s plausible) and then took too many human weaknesses out of the character.

Or maybe she’s a pastiche instead of a person. Imagine what would happen if you took Alice in Wonderland, Wendy Darling, and Mary Poppins and mashed them all together.

Or maybe she’s written to appeal to children rather than adults. She takes surprises in stride the same way children often do, and faces scary situations with the same kind of reliance on the Doctor that children have on their parents. Plus, she finds it easy to mix the fantasy world and the real world. And which little girl would not want to be Clara Oswin Oswald and go on fantastical adventures?

Or maybe she’s a victim of the highly compressed storytelling. Her character has to appear in broad brush strokes. And it does. The writer in me is impressed. But the compressed storytelling means taht in a moment-to-moment level, her reactions are off. Something terrifying happens, for example, and instead of showing an emotional response, she asks an insightful question and then makes a quick decision and acts.

Or maybe . . . listen closely, folks . . . maybe she is a mirror image of the Doctor. Leaves family to rush off in Type 40 TARDIS. Check. Does not behave in recognizably human ways. Check. When faced with facts that are scary or upsetting, looks at them analytically. Check. Appears to like children more than adults. Check.

It is perhaps a bad sign that her character could be read in so many different ways. Or a sign of brilliant writing. Or both. I’m not sure.

What does she get to do and say?

To sum up, I can’t decide how feminist Clara’s character is until I decide what is going on with her character development. But there’s another angle I can take: to look at what she gets to do, what she gets to say, who she gets to interact with, and whether she is master of her own narrative.

She deserves cred for having her own life goal and chasing them, in all three of her incarnations. Modern Clara was planning to travel, and the Doctor just happened into her narrative and provided her with the best vehicle ever. Victorian Clara was busy juggling careers and telling improbable stories, when the Doctor showed up and provided entertainment in the form of a Sontaaran and a memory worm. Dalek Clara was in the middle of some highly successful Dalek resistance, when the Doctor showed up and needed saving.

But here’s my concern with Modern Clara. By and large, the only person she’s talking to is the Doctor. She’s asking lots and lots of questions, which reveal her as more perceptive than maybe any other Doctor Who companion. But the end result of those questions is to reveal details about the Doctor’s character. The focus is on him, which means there’s less time to explore her.

I’m thinking particularly about a wonderful scene in “Hide,” which I discuss at more length here. After taking a trip in the TARDIS from the birth of life on Earth to its death, she starts asking lots and lots of questions. You can see her mind turning and later, when she talks to another woman, you can see what she is feeling as well. But her character reveals pale in significance to the Doctor’s. What was that conversation for? Her, or him?

In fact, who is Clara’s life for? Is it for her, or for him? The Doctor’s been awfully needy ever since David Tennant lost Rose Tyler. We are shown again and again that he loses it when he travels without a companion. So he needs one. And that outweighs whatever it is she needs (if, that is, we ever find out).

Pleeaze pass the Bechdel test

I think all my concerns could be settled if the writers of Doctor Who could only pass the Bechdel test. To pass it, a movie or show must:

1. Have at least two [named] women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man
More than anything else, that would tell me who she was.

The Jury’s Out

So what do I think? The feminist in me is cautiously optimistic, while the writer in me is unconvinced. I’ll be posting updates as the season progresses and linking to them below.

Updates to the Take

Update #1 after viewing “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” is here.

Update #2 after viewing “The Crimson Horror” is here.

More About Clara!

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