This essay is part of a series of feminist critiques of characters from the show Doctor Who. It was written for the livejournal community doctorwho.
Other posts in this series:
A Feminist Take on Doctor Who’s Amy Pond
A Feminist Take on Doctor Who’s River Song, Part 2
There are spoilers for season 5.
A Feminist Take on Doctor Who’s River Song, Part 1
The Doctor Who character River Song first appeared in the season 4 episodes “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead.” Fans disagreed wildly over whether or not she was a strong feminist character. I believe she is one of the strongest Doctor Who companions in the show’s history, and this essay explains why.
Part of the answer comes from outside these two episodes, part comes from the gaps and possibilities in her story, and part comes from her actions in the show.
Powerful Character and Actress
The character of River Song appears to have been inspired by Bernice Summerfield, a character from the Doctor Who novel series New Adventures who gained her own fan following. After the BBC pulled the rights for Virgin Publishing to feature the Doctor, Virgin produced Bernice-only novels, which readers devoured. Bernice Summerfield and is not owned by the BBC.
The actress who plays River Song, likewise, has her own career independent of the Doctor Who universe. Alex Kingston played a doctor on the popular American television show E.R. When she came to play the part of the Doctor’s companion, she had, in fact, never seen Doctor Who and therefore had no awe of the Doctor. It shows. She is also older than most of the Doctor’s companions, which helps counter the age discrimination too frequent in television adventure shows. Can an older woman be sexy? Yes!
Powerful in the Gaps Between the Action
Like Bernice Summerfield and Alex Kingston, River leads a life independent of the Doctor. She is an archaeologist, the leader of a team. Although she travels with the Doctor, she also parts from him to have her own adventures, and then returns to him. Who even knows what she gets up to in the meantime? It’s best if we never find out, if the show always leaves that open, because it means that she is not dependent on the Doctor for adventures.
River Song’s ending is also ambiguous, leaving space for a number of different stories and a wide variety of character development – ample fodder for fanfiction writers to take her anywhere.
Powerful in the Show Itself
Finally, River Song is a powerful character in the show itself.
In “Silence in the Library,” River first appears, with her team, in the middle of one of the Doctor’s adventures. He has just realized that he is surrounded by the “Vashta Nerada,” a race of aliens who live in the shadows and devour. River bursts in, and he shouts out an order that he expects to be obeyed: “All of you, turn around, get back in your rocket and fly away!”
She laughs in his face.
Then she calls him “pretty boy,” a term that many women will recognize as sexist. Like the word “babe,” it’s both complimentary and disempowering. Therefore, it’s a reversal of stereotypical gender roles.
She summons him into her office and proceeds to show him her superior technology, a Sonic Screwdriver that’s better than his, and her superior knowledge, a book, shaped like his TARDIS, with details of his future adventures.
As the adventures proceed, she sensibly follows his lead when his experience is greater than hers, but also acts on her own when it seems appropriate.
Then she whispers his name in his ear. This is possibly the most shocking thing any companion or enemy has ever done. In fairy tale, myth, and fantasy, knowing someone’s name can give you ultimate power over them. And, central to the Doctor’s identity is the lack of his name. “Doctor Who?” people often ask. The question is never answered. We’ll never know it. But she does.
In the climax of the show, when the solution suddenly becomes clear, she sees it first. One of them has to die. Paradoxically, if he’s the one who dies, she’ll never have adventured with him. Experiences will be stolen from her. So she chooses to sacrifice herself – not only to save the world, but also to protect whatever personal growth has occurred during her time in the TARDIS.
But, of course, he’d never allow it. So she knocks him out and handcuffs him to a pillar.
When he comes to, he insists that he die instead.
“What, I’m not allowed to have a career?” she asks him, insisting on her right to adventure in her own way.
Next, they have an interchange that reverses the stereotypical male and female roles. She reasons with him calmly, and he dissolves in tears.
Then she wins the argument with persuasion, the Doctor’s most effective superpower. She wisely sees that handcuffing him to a pillar is not enough to stop him, because he has the ability to travel in time afterward and counter her actions. So she persuades him not to.
Then she proceeds to sacrifice herself and save the world.
If the story ended here, it would follow a too-common precedent of strong women having to kill themselves. However, the Doctor finds a way to “save” her, transmitting her essence into a computer. In her “afterlife,” we see her meeting her team, reading books, telling stories, and taking care of children.
Up until now, River has taken power mostly in stereotypically male ways – punching out the Doctor, calling him “pretty boy,” and so forth. But when she becomes a caregiver of small children, she is taking power in stereotypically female ways. She’s transmitting culture to them in the form of story. And so she is also a role model for parents of all sorts. The job of parent is too often given short shrift, not seen as “real” work. But it is one of the most challenging jobs of all, and it’s an exciting adventure all on its own.
All the same, if the story ended here, it would follow another too-common precedent of women’s stories: ending in “domestic bliss,” ending “happily ever after.” The Doctor would have trapped River inside a giant computer, eternally taking care of children – “put her in a pumpkin shell and there he kept her very well.”
But it doesn’t.
Something extremely interesting has happened. When River left her body, she became an artificial intelligence. She has been transformed into – what? She’s no longer human (if she ever was to begin with) and therefore no longer a woman. She’s broken the gender binary. She’s made of bits now, ethereal, not dependent on a physical existence – which means that she may someday have the option of being transmitted somewhere else. And in the meantime, she has access to the most enormous library in the universe. (For more discussion on River Song and the library, see River Song, the Moffat, and Myth by livejournal user promethia_tenk.) Whatever might happen next is anybody’s guess. But is she trapped? No.
Her story has only begun.