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?