Tag Archives: feminist who

Clara Oswald Series 9 – Moving On

(Part of a series of “feminist takes” on Doctor Who companions. Spoilers for Doctor Who Series 8 and 9.)

When I watch Doctor Who, I live vicariously with both the Doctor and the companions. The Doctor gets to have power and to talk smack to the ruling class. The companions, meanwhile, get to take a break from their regular lives and go on a thrilling extended vacation. That’s my expectation, anyway. And when it’s broken I get seriously pissed off.

I like to see companions take a journey of personal growth and end up somewhere different-and better-than where they started. For me, the bar was set by Nyssa, who departed from the Tardis to hunt for a cure on a plague planet. (I’m deliberately not considering the possibility that the plague kills her.) Few companions have been treated that well, though. They’ve been killed, married off, suffered memory loss, simply been abandoned, or gotten stranded in time. And when I’m living vicariously through the companion, that’s disappointing.

In Series 9, Clara Oswald departs. Does the show do her justice? I’d say yes. She continues on the trajectory established in the Series 8 episode “Flatline,” in which she temporarily takes on the Doctor’s name and token of power to act like him. But as Clara becomes more and more like the Doctor, she’s also punished for it. She’s seen as a danger junkie. And in “Face the Raven,” her actions kill her. Definitively. We watch her die. Many fans are sad. I’m not sad. I don’t get sad when companions have bad endings: I get furious.


But two episodes later, in “Hell Bent,” we see her again. How is this possible? We’re in a time travel show. Clara is snatched out of time, just moments before her death, and in between one heartbeat and the next she has an infinity to explore. (She’s “in-between-finite,” a term I learned from you-tuber Vi Hart in an entertaining discussion of Pi.) She ends up with a Tardis and the ability to defer the moment of her death as long as she likes. In her last scene, she spins off in the Tardis to have adventures. She gets to fulfill her destiny as a wandering adventurer. Sweet.

Even sweeter: fanfiction writers are taking the scenario and running with it. On sites like Archive of our Own, Fanfiction.Net, and A Teaspoon and an Open Mind, people are paring up Clara and her traveling companion Ashildr and writing stories like crazy.

And so the story goes on.



Feminist Take: Clara Oswald Series 8

(Spoilers for Doctor Who Series 8)

In Doctor Who Series 8, companion Clara Oswald came into her own. The actress, Jenna Coleman, simply shone. She was strong, brittle, funny, powerful, beautiful, unique. And she continued to maintain her life outside the Tardis. But the storyline itself betrayed her by pitting her accomplishments on board the Tardis against an otherwise compelling relationship with a richly characterized man. In so doing, it failed both Clara Oswald and Danny Pink.

From the moment we meet Clara Oswald in Series 6, she is something more than human. She’s a human/Dalek hybrid who has resisted Dalek conversion better than anyone ever–so well that she takes over the Daleks’ telepathic world. She is plainly and simply human in the beginning of the first episode of Series 7, but in the middle of the show, she gets a brain upgrade of alien origin that makes her hyperintelligent. She’s off on a hero’s journey, and it’s amazing. Through it all, she never fails to maintain her connection to her “real life,” the life Human Clara had chosen for herself before becoming entangled with the Doctor.

Then the end of Series 7 hits and Clara has another upgrade of alien origin, one that splinters her throughout time and space to live a thousand different lives, playing the hero in each of them. She also literally enters the Doctor’s essence, getting to know him arguably better than any other companion–so much so that in later episodes she starts to become the Doctor.

So what is in store for her in Series 8? A smackdown. She starts a relationship with a man named Danny Pink, a former soldier with his own complicated past and his own heroic journey to undertake. Just as in Series 7, she attempts to keep her home life and Tardis life separate. But two people won’t let her: the Doctor and Danny Pink.

The Doctor, upon regenerating, has become more unstable than usual, and gone farther into an ethical gray zone. Toward Clara, he acts as a toxic combination of jealous boyfriend, protective grandfather, and military commander. He interferes in Clara’s life in “The Caretaker,” where he first meets Danny Pink and first starts to denigrate him by calling him a P.E. teacher when he actually teaches math. (We’re never told whether this is racism–Danny is black–or jealousy or just because Danny was a soldier, but my money’s on racism.)

Danny sees the abusive aspect of this relationship and names the Doctor, accurately, as a military commander. He predicts a moment when the Doctor will push Clara too far, and when that moment does come, he’s ready as a friend with a hug and some solid advice. But he oversteps himself and in so doing enters abusive-boyfriend territory.

Here’s the conversation that takes place after “The Caretaker.”

Danny says “I know men like him. I’ve served under them. They push you and make you stronger until you’re doing things you never thought you could. I saw you tonight. You did exactly what he told you, you weren’t even scared, and you should have been.”

This is a lovely, chill-down-the-back moment. Danny’s right.

Clara shrugs it off: “I trust him. He’s never let me down.”

Danny replies. “Fine. If he ever pushes you too far, I want you to tell me because I know what that’s like. You’ll tell me if that happens, yeah?”

Clara promises to tell him. So far, so good. Stop right here, and it’s a brilliant setup for the drama of the season.

But then Danny says, “If you break that promise, Clara, we’re finished. . . because if you don’t tell me the truth I can’t help you, and I could never stand not being able to help you. We’re clear?”

This is emotional manipulation. Instead of stopping at giving the her emotional support of a friend, an equal, he’s insisting on being her protector. And she never once calls him on it. She spends a fair bit of the season lying to him–going off with the Doctor and telling him she’s not–and I can only assume it’s because Danny has threatened to break off the relationship. This is not acceptable behavior.

Worse, Danny never acknowledges that Clara has been doing anything of import in her adventures aboard the Tardis. And we never see him asking about her past. Apparently, he’s satisfied with the half of Clara that likes to teach and hang out with him. Meanwhile, Clara’s perfectly willing to give Danny the impression she’s something less than she is. That shows a lack of respect for him.

While Clara and Danny are having their strange, dysfunctional relationship, Clara’s heroic journey is charging forward, full-steam ahead. In “Kill the Moon,” she confronts the Doctor to call him on his B.S. A few episodes later, in “Flatline, she literally takes on the role of the Doctor, complete with moniker, sonic screwdriver, and her own companion. She has a moment of epiphany when she asks herself, “What would the Doctor do?” and then corrects herself: “No. What would I do?” She has come fully into herself as a hero.

Then what? Two episodes later, in “Deep Water,” she gets a smackdown. Danny has confronted her about lying and said (finally!) that he’s okay with her traveling in the Tardis, as long as she doesn’t lie to him. So she starts off ready to confess everything. There’s an opportunity for them to finally have it out, for Clara to lay claim to her personal growth and accomplishments . . . but before she can manage it, Danny is suddenly killed (fulfilling the “Black Man Dies First” trope, by the way.). Clara is devastated. She finishes out the season as an emotional wreck. Her heroic journey is cut short.

There’s an age-old question this season appears to be playing out, badly. Can a woman be a good wife/mother/girlfriend and have her own life, too? Apparently not. We should just stay at home and let our men protect us.

This treatment wasn’t fair to Danny, either. It sidelined his own heroic journey, which was actually one of the most moving if you look at it in isolation. As an ex-soldier who left the army after accidentally killing a young boy, he became the one man to defy orders and save the Earth from Cybermen, and then, given the chance to return to life, sent the young boy instead.

I doubt the showrunner, writers, and editors meant to send the message they did. I think Danny’s sudden possessiveness, which destroyed Clara’s storyline for me, was just a slip-up. And that’s embarrassing. The show can and should do better.

Looking forward, in Series 9, it does. Mostly. But that’s a topic for another time.



Feminist Take on Doctor Who’s Companions

I’ve been working off and on over the years to create little bits of feminist analysis on the Doctor Who companions and thought I’d share them here. There’s a demand for “strong female characters” in our popular media, and the show has responded to it. Has it succeeded or failed? Both, of course. If there is a Feminist Ideal, and could a character live up to that ideal without being overly perfect, or contradictory, or both? I found myself in the strange position of judging the female characters. (Are they strong? Do they get to be the protagonists? To what extent are they the equal of the Doctor? Which stereotypes do they fit into, and which do they resist?) How catty of me.

So here are my links. None of them represent The Final Word on feminism, the companions, or anything else. They’re what I saw, as I saw it at the time.

Zoe Heriot from the Patrick Troughton years, seasons 5 and 6. I fail to provide any criticisms whatsoever, because she was the first companion I ever saw and I simply adore her. She’s in black and white, she’s a screamer, and she’s the best.

Amy Pond in “The Eleventh Hour.” The Doctor meets the little girl Amelia Pond, and this visit marks her for life and transforms her into his perfect traveling companion. He leaves in his TARDIS, promising to return in five minutes, but instead returns when she is a grown woman. Was this accidental, or deliberate? Whose purposes did it serve?

River Song in “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead.”  Fan reaction has been mixed for this character, but I argue that she is powerful throughout. I might be reading more into this character than I should, but hey, it’s fun.

River Song after “The Time of Angels” and “Flesh and Stone.” I waffle back and forth between saying she’s a stereotype and saying she isn’t, and between saying she’s powerful and saying she’s not.

Clara Oswin Oswald after “Hide” and again after “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” and again after “The Crimson Horror.” Honestly, I don’t know what to think about her. Clara Who?

Clara Oswin Oswald in Series 8, written immediately afterward and again upon more reflection. She’s both extremely powerful and strangely mired in a bad relationship that depends on her pretending to be something she’s not.

And finally, Clara Oswin Oswald’s departure in Series 9.



zoe at tardis console


Update #3 to the Feminist Take on Clara Oswald

A couple years back, I started a series of “feminist takes” on Doctor Who companions, including Amy Pond, River Song, and Clara Oswald. I looked at ways they were, or were not, poster children for feminism.

But after three posts on Clara Oswald, I just plain gave up. She was such a squirrelly character that I couldn’t say anything definitive about her. As far as I’m concerned, she breaks feminist analysis. Maybe it’s a mistake to give characters “poster child” awards.

Here’s a recap of my commentary from Season 7. In the first post, I suggested that the character of Clara was suffering from a Bechdel test failure, but that even so, she was pretty amazing — in face, a mirror of the Doctor.

In my next post, I looked at the interactions between Clara and the TARDIS, arguing that it passed the Bechdel test and helped explore her character. But I also felt she was too perfect and not recognizably human. (I wonder if that’s why some fans have had strong negative reactions to her: maybe she’s an uncanny valley character.)

In the last post, I admitted defeat. I thought Modern Clara was a cardboard cutout of a person, but when you combined her with Dalek Clara and Victorian Clara, you got a rich characterization. But I decided to hold my opinions for later.

I didn’t put a post together after the stunning reveal of “Day of the Doctor.” To be honest, I didn’t know what to say. It was just beautiful and strange and blew my mind.

After “Day of the Doctor,” I believed everything Clara said and did. Dalek Clara and Victorian Clara suddenly made sense. Modern Clara did not. Modern Clara was acting like the post-transformation Clara. That’s going to bother me every time I watch Series 7. But it’s a critique of the narrative, not of the feminism. So I didn’t make an update.

Clara was amazing through most of Series 8. She was part human, with all the frailties and strengths a woman would have. But her character was also merging with the Doctor’s. I loved that. As a Doctor Who fan, part of me has always wanted to run off with him in the TARDIS and be his “Doctor Who Girl” (nod to Mitch Benn). And part of me has always wanted to be him. So I got to live vicariously. The episode “Flatline,” where she gets to play the part of the Doctor while he’s stuck inside her Mary Poppins carpetbag, was funny and amazing and thought-provoking too. Loved it.

Also fabulous: Series 8 Clara is transformed. She’s jumped into the Doctor’s – what? Mind? Time stream? She’s been thousands of people who were just as amazing as Dalek Clara and Victorian Clara. After that transformation, I believed every “too good to be true” moment.

Not so great: the narrative didn’t respect her transformation. She got this weird plotline in which she was trying to have a normal life with this Danny Pink character, but she kept lying to him, and she was blamed for all the lies. The Verity podcasters suggested it was an addiction storyline, which I guess it was. But why? Why expect that it would ever be possible for post-transformation Clara to live a normal life? The disconnect jarred me. But once again, it’s a critique of the narrative, not the feminism.

Now here we are in Series 9. This is the “Clara is going to die” series. Also the “Oh, and then she didn’t” series. But in “Face the Raven,” she really did. Except the actress is going to appear in the series finale, “Hell Bent.” How-what-who-I-don’t-even-know-what’s-going-on.

So I have nothing to say, really. I’m on a roller coaster and it’s about to plunge into the depths of the unknown. Maybe when the ride stops, I’ll have something sufficiently feministy to say.

Maybe not.




A Feminist Take on Doctor Who’s Zoe Heriot

This post is part of a series of feminist takes on Doctor Who companions. I ask these questions: Are they strong? Do they get to be the protagonists? To what extent are they the equal of the Doctor? Which stereotypes do they fit into, and which do they resist?

So far I’ve looked at Amy Pond, River Song, and Clara Oswin Oswald, all characters from New Who. Now it’s time for me to jump back in time to my favorite companion ever: Zoe Heriot.

zoe in front of cyberman

If you’re looking for a critique of feminist aspects of her character, you won’t get any here. Somebody else can criticize this or that. Nope, it’s pure appreciation. I adore her. She was the first female companion I’d ever seen, and if it hadn’t been for her, I doubt I’d have even started watching Doctor Who.

Who was Zoe Heriot?

She appeared in Doctor Who alongside Patrick Troughton, the 2nd Doctor, and Frazer Hines, his companion Jamie.  She was one smart girl:

Zoe Heriot is the Wheel’s parapsychology librarian (which means that she’s received brainwashing-like training in logic and memory), an astrophysicist, an astrometricist first class, and a major in pure maths.

(From the TARDIS Data Core wiki entry on “The Wheel in Space.”)

She was emotionally underdeveloped at first. But after she met the Doctor and Jamie, who taught her the power of intuition and instinct, she decided to set out on a journey of personal growth by stowing away on the TARDIS and becoming an Adventure Hero.

She was an Adventure Hero par excellence. Brave, smart, thoughtful, full of initiative, curious, you name it. And she developed emotionally pretty darn fast, building warm relationships with Jamie and the Doctor. She was a bit of a screamer. That’s the 1960s for you. But honestly, faced with the horrors she saw, I’d scream too. And her screaming wasn’t at all out of place: her Doctor was the panickiest Doctor ever.

Zoe was also Jamie’s equal. Jamie was a Highland Scot from the 18th century. He’d left a war for independence to travel in the TARDIS, but he was ready any minute to jump back into the fight. They complemented each other nicely: Jamie fought with his hands, and Zoe with her mind. Both were young and depended on the Doctor at times, but took initiative whenever needed.

She was also a match for the Doctor, intellect-wise. In “The Krotons,” she beat the Doctor on a computer-based test. I think this was my very favorite moment. As a young woman myself, in school, I was so excited to see a woman be smarter than the Doctor. At other times, she conversed with him in scientific gobbledygook — something few of his companions have done since.

Her ending was not ideal. The Time Lords wiped her memory, just as the Tenth Doctor later did to Donna Noble. That was unfair! But at least she got to retain the memory of her first adventure with the Doctor. She resumed her life on the spaceship, and in my mind at least, her character development stuck and she led a full and happy life.

A taste of her character

Here’s a snippet of dialogue in which Zoe interrogates the Doctor:

Zoe: [to the Doctor] How did you pilot the rocket ship? You see, I’ve calculated its original course. It was a surface and supply station for Number Five Station, overdue and presumed lost nine weeks ago. Well the rocket couldn’t have drifted eighty seven million miles off course.
Dr. Who: So what’s your theory?
Zoe: Well, there is a record of the last contract with the Silver Carrier rocket. It had seven million miles to touchdown, and enough fuel for twenty million. Well, it couldn’t have drifted here off course in the time involved. It must have been driven and piloted.
Jamie: Och, you are a right wee space-detective!
Zoe: There’s only one solution. That rocket was re-fuelled in space. – Provided for at least with another twelve fuel rods.
Dr. Who: Well, it is an interesting theory…
Zoe: Oh, it isn’t a theory. You can’t disprove the facts. It’s pure logic.
Dr. Who: Logic, my dear Zoe, merely enables one to be wrong with authority. Supposing there was a faulty automatic pilot?
Zoe: To drive a rocket eighty seven million miles on fuel for twenty million?
Dr. Who: Well, it’s a possibility.
Zoe: That rocket was driven here somehow. I know it was.

Smug, isn’t she? She doesn’t back down if she thinks she’s right.

Oh, did I forget to mention?

Zoe is also a computer programmer. Here she is giving a computer an insoluble problem in ALGOL.

 How about the actress?

The actress who played Zoe, Wendy Padbury, went on to become a theatrical agent. In a bit of a quirk of fate, she was the one who discovered Matt Smith, the actor who plays the current Doctor. She tells the story in this Youtube video. She was also a theatrical agent for other actors who appeared in Doctor Who: Nicholas Courtney, Colin Baker, and Mark Strickson. Small world, eh? I wonder who her other clients were . . .

screwdriver and book2

Update #2 to the Feminist Take on Doctor Who’s Clara Oswin Oswald

For the last few weeks I’ve been doing a feminist take on the character of Clara Oswin Oswald in Doctor Who (here and here). How well does her character measure up to expectations of twenty-first century feminists?

I must admit defeat. Her character is a mystery. She is “the woman twice dead.” The Clara we are seeing now (Modern Clara) is for all intents and purposes a normal young women. However, we’ve met her twice before in other times and places (Dalek Clara and Victorian Clara). Both times, she’s died. If you put all three Claras together, what you get is an incredibly rich characterization. If you take Modern Clara by herself, though, she looks to me like the cardboard cutout of a strong female character. Too clever, too perceptive, and too fearless to be believable as portrayed. (Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying I don’t think a woman could be this clever, perceptive, and fearless. I believed Dalek Clara and Victorian Clara would be. Just not Modern Clara.)

This latest episode, “The Crimson Horror,” didn’t change my impressions of Modern Clara. It was a feminist masterpiece altogether. Bechdel wins all over the place, a fabulous critique of eugenics, a mixed-race lesbian couple, and eight strong female characters all in the space of a forty-eight(?) minute episode. The Doctor isn’t even the focus of the show: it begins with a chambermaid rescuing the Doctor and ends with a mixed-race girl confronting Clara with the results of a remarkable research project. Clara, though, stayed mainly the same.

So I give up. There’s no “Feminist Take” here. Clara’s character is clearly headed in some direction or other. I don’t know what it is. No more updates until I find out.

I do know, though, that this journey of discovery is going to be a lot of fun.

P.S. Update #3, from Series 8, is here


clara with ladder

Update #1 to the Feminist Take on Doctor Who’s Clara Oswin Oswald

Last week I began a feminist take on the character of Clara Oswin Oswald in Doctor Who.  It was necessarily incomplete, because we are missing a great deal of information about the character, for purposes of plot. But I voiced two concerns:

1) 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.

2) Clara asks a lot of questions, but they seem like they’re mostly to explore the character of the Doctor.

3) The show isn’t passing the Bechdel test. (See below)

After this latest episode, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, I’m going to argue that the show is batting two out of three.

Bad: Clara is still inhuman

Watch this conversation.

Clara says, “I think I’m more scared of you right now than anything else on the TARDIS.” (To give some perspective, she’s just seen her own future possible self as a zombie being horribly burned in a fire.)

The Doctor says something and hugs her.

Clara says, “Okay, I don’t know what this is all about, but the hug is really nice.”

A minute later he is asking her to jump off the edge of a cliff with her.

“Trust me just this one time, please . . .”

She gives him a skeptical look.


She nods. They jump.

I’m not buying it.

Good: Her character is explored

Clara spends a lot of time in this episode exploring and running around the TARDIS, while the Doctor is not present. She’s got initiative, curiosity, and is overly willing to take risks.

Arguably good: I think it passes the Bechdel test

This deserves a whole blog post, which maybe I’ll do someday, but in short, I think it passes. To pass the Bechdel Test, 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

It has two named women, Clara and the TARDIS. Clara talks to the TARDIS about something besides a man. The sticking point, though, is whether they “talk to each other.” The trouble is that the TARDIS is completely silent. A reason for this was given in an earlier episode, “The Doctor’s Wife,” when she entered a human body and spoke — because she has an existence across time, she can’t speak in any one moment. I buy it. She had all sorts of trouble even in a human body, because she kept referring to events that hadn’t happened yet. She has so much intelligence that she can’t be comprehended by regular humans. (For more on this sci fi concept, see the Wikipedia entry on technological singularity.)

Still, I’m going to argue that they do indeed talk to one another. Here’s Clara’s side of the conversation, followed by my translation of the TARDIS’ side.

Clara’s side of the conversation

Clara says, “It’s an appliance. It does a job.” (She knows full well that this is not true, because the two of them have already spoken in the previous episode. She is taunting the TARDIS.)

Later, as she is running along the corridors alone, she sees a spectacular telescope room and a fabulous swimming pool. Then she sees a library and says,

“Now, that’s just showing off.”

She opens a book and learns something about the Doctor, and a bottle tips over, leaking out more information.

Later she is routed into the console room, where she says, “Oh, thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you,” and kisses the console.

But there’s no door, so she says, “No — the door, where’s the door gone, no. You can’t do this! Oh, why are you doing this?”

The TARDIS’s side of the conversation?

I would argue that the telescope, swimming pool, library, book, and bottle all qualify as conversation. It has already been established that the TARDIS is manipulating her architecture on purpose. And it has already been established that she’s a bit snarky with Clara.

So here is my translation:

“It’s an appliance. It does a job,” says Clara.

“Whatever,” says the TARDIS. “Look, I have a telescope room. Isn’t it awesome? You could use it if you wanted. One of the Doctor’s other stray pets liked it. Oh yes, and a swimming pool.”

(Later on)

“And yep, my library is at its architectural finest,” says the TARDIS.

“You’re just showing off,” says Clara.

“Clara, did you know that I have a history? It’s true. I used to have a lot of sister TARDISes, and they got wiped out. So I’ll tell you a big, big secret. Then you’re just going to forget it, which makes it kind of a funny joke. Still, you will try to remember, won’t you?”

(Later on)

“Clara, this concludes my rather hasty tour. Into the console room! You’ll be safe there.”

“Oh, thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you,” says Clara, and kisses the console.

“You’re very welcome. Do you still think I’m an appliance?”

“No — the door, where’s the door gone, no!”

“This isn’t the console room, dear. This is just a copy, and I brought you here to keep you safe. Didn’t you notice my color coding? Red for dangerous, blue for safe.”

“You can’t do this!”

“That statement is clearly and obviously incorrect.”

“Oh, why are you doing this?”

“Well, DUH, to save your life. Please stay put, Clara. I know that in a few moments you’ll be running out the door only to be pursued by a horrific possible future, but really, could you please stay put? Oh, HUMANS.”


Later updates to my feminist take on Clara are here and here.

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.

Update #3 in the middle of Series 8 is here

More About Clara!

In Awe of “The Doctor’s Wife”

Last week’s Doctor Who episode “The Doctor’s Wife,” written by acclaimed novelist Neil Gaiman, was fabulous. I don’t want to say much more than that, for fear of “spoilers,” but I will say that it perfectly summed up my opinions about a certain aspect of the show. It also definitely answered a question I posed in my essay  “Feminist Take on Doctor Who’s Amy Pond” (http://kristinking.livejournal.com/13762.html).

Let’s end with a quote (this is from memory, so it’s likely paraphrased):

“Biting is excellent! It’s like kissing, only there’s a winner!”

Makes me want to be a biting madwoman.

A Feminist Take on Doctor Who’s River Song, Part 2

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 of Doctor Who’s River Song, Part 1

Part 3 will appear after the season 5 finale.

There are spoilers for season 5.

A Feminist Take on River Song, Part 2
Is River Song More Than a Stereotype?

There’s a power imbalance between the Doctor and his (usually female) companions. It’s his show, and he calls the shots. There’s room for women to come in and help out, and sometimes they save his life or solve the mystery, but in the end, he’s the hero. Unless the Doctor one day becomes a woman, there’s a limited amount of room for women to be powerful.

This is nothing new to action-adventure stories. In a recent study, “Violent Female Action Characters in Contemporary American Cinema,” researcher Katy Gilpatrick found that in the top-grossing films between 1991-2005, the vast majority of female action heroes acted as sidekicks who are subordinate to the main hero. Gilpatrick writes that most of the female action heroes “are just added to the script to serve the heroic acts of the male lead action character or serve as a love interest to him.” Instead of breaking down gender barriers, “they operate inside socially constructed gender norms, rely on the strength and guidance of a dominant male action character, and end up re-articulating gender stereotypes.” (Source: “Do Kick-Ass Action Heroes Move Gender Stereotypes Forward or Just Perpetuate the Current Ones?” by Melissa Silverstein)

Does this sound familiar? Do any of the Doctor Who companions submit to his greater experience and power, following his lead, or act as love interest? Or rather, are there any who don’t?

In action-adventure shows, even when a woman becomes a primary action hero, she is generally only allowed one of two roles: the hypersexualized, scantily clad Buffy, Xena, or Wonder Woman character; or the fully-clothed, masculine Sarah Connor character. That is, she can fight as a stereotypical woman or a stereotypical man, but she usually can’t fight as a person, plain and simple.

In addition to gender roles, even the most independent female action heroes are usually expected to submit to the authority of a male. Wonder Woman reported to Steve Trevor, Buffy reported to Giles at least initially, Scully followed Mulder’s quest, and Emma Peel took direction from John Steed.

So how does River Song stack up? Does she escape gender norms? Is she a powerful female action hero, or is she still a stereotype?

River Song as a Powerful Hero

In my essay, “A Feminist Take on Doctor Who’s River Song, Part 1″ I described the character of Professor River Song as she appeared in the Doctor Who episodes “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead.” She is a competent, capable adventure hero with a career as an archaeologist, leadership of a team, and also the ability to be nurturing. She’s sexy while fully clothed. She arrives knowing the Doctor’s future and even his name – a piece of information that probably gives her some power over him. And she owns her actions rather than submitting to her authority, eventually overpowering the Doctor and handcuffing him to a pillar so she can sacrifice her life to save his.

Maybe Too Powerful?

Doctor Who fandom was split over River Song after “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead.” Many found her a feminist hero, but many were uncomfortable. In a Livejournal poll on July 20th, 2009, 47 percent liked her, 40 percent disliked her, and 12 percent didn’t care. In the comments to my essay, many fans said things like, “I don’t know, she just rubs me the wrong way.” Some fans called her “smug,” “superior,” or “smarmy.”

These responses were somewhat understandable, because River Song did flaunt her knowledge of the Doctor’s future, and she also romanticized him as a hero. But the depth of the dislike suggests to me that she transgressed gender norms in ways that people found uncomfortable — not because fans are sexist, but because we’re conditioned to expect those norms. The term “smarmy” is especially interesting, first because it implies insincerity and second because it is generally used for men. Fans doubted the depth of her love for him even though, at the end of “Forest of the Dead,” she sacrificed herself for him — reducing him to tears as well. And fans doubted her expertise, even though she led a team competently and had the technical ability to do the Doctor’s job. Is it possible that fans could have swallowed a “feminine” awe of the Doctor or a “masculine” expertise, but not both?

A Challenge to the Doctor’s Authority

At the beginning of the show “The Time of Angels,” River reappears, and the smug and superior attitude that bothered fans in the earlier shows goes over the top. River summons the Doctor by sending a note into the future that specifies the exact time and place she is going to throw herself out an airlock. “Oh, and I could do with an air corridor,” she adds. After the rescue, he says, “I’m not going to be there to catch you every time you feel like – like jumping out of a spaceship!” and she retorts, “And you are so wrong!”

Even worse, she hits the Doctor where it hurts – she threatens his authority to pilot his time machine, the TARDIS, by showing him features that she knows about and he doesn’t. Most offensively, she silences the materialization/dematerialization noise that has been a hallmark since the beginning of the show, and, when he objects, says, “It’s not supposed to make that noise. You leave the brakes on!”

She also exerts power over him by understanding what motivates him – his insatiable curiosity. After they land, the Doctor is ready to say goodbye and leave her on the planet, but she gives him just enough information about the current alien threat to catch his interest. She turns to the Doctor’s companion Amy and gloats: “Now he’s listening!”

Oops, But it’s a Bluff

Although River demonstrates the ability to summon and manipulate the Doctor, we learn early on that she is, in fact, under male domination. She has been put in prison after killing a man, and the soldiers who appear at her request are, in fact, her captors. Their leader, Father Octavian can jeopardize her power over the Doctor by telling the Doctor some secret information about her. River’s power, therefore, is subordinate to that of Father Octavian.

She’s Supporting the Real Hero

Also, although River maneuvered the Doctor into the adventure, once it begins, she becomes subservient to him, supporting him in his heroic acts. When he finds an especially clever solution to defeat the monsters, she whispers, “Oh, you’re a genius!” Her over-the-top superiority has given way to over-the-top hero worship.

Also, while River and the Doctor each perform heroic acts, River’s is smaller. River uses her technical skills to rescue Amy, whom the Doctor had foolishly left to fend for herself in the middle of a forest of monsters. The Doctor performs the major heroic act, saving all three of them and, by the way, protecting the universe from oblivion.

And She’s Put in Her Place

Finally, once the adventure is over, River is firmly placed under male authority. She’s in handcuffs, about to be sent up to a prison ship, where she may, or may not, be set free, depending on whether or not the authorities believe she’s earned a pardon. She and the Doctor have a brief exchange, in which the Doctor finally relaxes and enjoys her company. She’s no longer challenging or threatening his abilities.

But Then Again . . .

The saving grace of this scene is the exchange between River and the Doctor over her restraints.

“You. Me. Handcuffs. Must it always end this way?” she asks archly.

“Mmm-hmm,” he says, with pleasure.

This teasing exchange is a reminder of “Forest of the Dead,” when the Doctor inquires about the handcuffs that River has used on him. It implies that the handcuffs are a game of mutual enjoyment, in which River and the Doctor take turns being the top.

The exchange also puts River’s superior attitude in a new light. She forced him into the uncomfortable position of being summoned and manipulated, and enjoyed watching him squirm. She’s playing a game of dominance. What if he likes it? After all, he does keep putting himself in the hands of his worst enemies, essentially playing a game of BDSM with foes like the Daleks and the Master, who are out to kill him and annihilate the universe. Would he really be doing it if he didn’t get something out of it? Maybe it’s healthier and safer to play BDSM with someone he loves and trusts.

Oops, Back to the Love Interest Stereotype

But this interpretation brings us right back to the love interest stereotype. Sure, River Song is smart and clever and sexy and throws herself out of airlocks like nobody’s business, but is she just there to be the love interest for the Doctor?

Or Maybe Not

Well, maybe she is and maybe she isn’t. In “Silence in the Library,” River implies that she is the Doctor’s wife, but she also tells us that she is always lying. There’s another explanation for how she knows his name and how to write in his language and fly his TARDIS: River could be a future incarnation of the Doctor. In the “Time of Angels,” the Doctor makes a curious mention of “self-marrying” – that is, marrying a future incarnation of himself.

Another possibility is that River kills the Doctor in his future (and her past). Father Octavian has told the Doctor that River killed a man. When the Doctor asks River who she killed, she says it was “a very good man, the best man I’ve ever known” – the implication being that she has killed the Doctor.

So which is she – the Doctor’s wife, his murderer, the Doctor herself, or some combination thereof? We won’t know that until the final two episodes of the season, in which writer and showrunner Steven Moffat has promised to bring her story to a satisfactory resolution.

She’s a Work in Progress

Either way, the character of River Song has moved beyond stereotypical gender roles. She’s been a gun-toting action hero and also a nurturing caregiver. She’s mixed hero-worship with smug self-satisfaction. And if she is a love interest, she’s certainly an unusual one.

How much power she holds is an open question. Does her power depend on meeting the Doctor out of order? What will happen in future encounters if we see her with less knowledge and experience than the Doctor? Will she still be strong then?

We’ll see.