I don’t think it will come as a shock to anyone to discover that I’m a huge fan of Doctor Who. And, for a long time, I’ve been studiously avoiding reconciling my adoration (which, to be fair, is pretty swiftly waning) of the classic sci-fi series with my views on feminism and gender roles on TV. But I think it’s time.
It’s no secret that Steven Moffat is pretty sexist-Christ, every time he opens his mouth he seems to blurt out something else that alienates a big chunk of his fanbase. Aside from the complete lack of female writers and directors for the first three years of his stint as DW showrunner, he’s come out with such classic hits as “women are out there hunting for husbands” and “women are needy”, and “there’s a huge lack of respect for anything male”, and- fuck it, just read this article, it sums it up pretty nicely. And that’s infuriating for me, not just because he’s disparaging my entire gender, but because he’s the man behind a show I love. Now, it’s becoming more and more clear that the man REALLY behind the show I love(d) is Russel T Davies, but I can’t avoid the fact that, if I want to engage with Doctor Who (which I do), I have to engage with his shitty notions of gender roles, too.
So, as a companion series to my reviews of season nine of Doctor Who, I’ve decided to take a look at the representations of gender, sexuality, and especially women in Moffat’s era of Doctor Who. I was planning one giant article, but so much of his work on the show is so awful in such a myriad of different ways that I want to be able to focus on just one bit at a time. And this week, I’m starting with his first set of companions, Amy Pond and Rory Williams.
I think it’s important to look at these two as a couple and as individuals, because a lot of their characterisation centres on the adherence to and subversion of gender roles. Let’s start with Rory, a trainee nurse who’s beaten Amy down over a number of years to ackowledge his romantic feelings for her and also return them (see: every time he throws a hissy fit when she doesn’t refer to him as her boyfriend). I really love Arthur Darvill, who plays Rory, but there’s no arguing with the fact that he’s a perfect example of the Nice Guy (TM) trope in fiction. While Amy and Rory do build a solid, semi-believable relationship across the course of the series, it seems to spring mostly from Rory’s wearing-down of her defences as opposed to any mutual feelings on her part. Rory can only offer Amy a very ordinary life, while the Doctor can offer her…well, the entire universe, really. His feelings of not being good enough are understandable, but they often manifest themselves as trying to force Amy to choose between him or the Doctor, even though it’s not his desicion to make.
And she chooses him. Eventually. And that brings us on to their relationship as a couple-it’s clear that the show tried to subvert gender roles by making Amy the more adventurous and curious of the two (good), but failed by simply foisting the negative gender tropes on to the opposite sex (bad). For instance, Amy is the more aggressive of the two- she slaps Rory, throws shoes at him, and generally doesn’t treat him with much compassion, which is played off as a joke because she’s a woman and we expect the men to be….aggressive? Hitting their romantic partners? A negative trait isn’t funny just because the “wrong” gender has it. Amy is still straight-up physically hurting her husband/boyfriend to keep him in line. Flip the genders and it would be unthinkable in a Saturday night kids show.
Similarly, Rory is consistently portrayed as the more “feminine” of the two- firstly, there’s his job as a nurse, then there’s the fact that he’s referred to as “Mr Pond” after he and Amy get married, then there’s his jealousy, his insecurity, etc, etc, etc. Again, these are played off as a joke, because apparently it’s so impossible to get our heads around the idea of a man being or doing any of those things. This is a subversion of the usual manly-bloke stereotype (hello Mickey from season one), but those traits are shown to make Rory less of a man, as the show is often quick to point out through other character’s jokes about his masculinity. As opposed to, you know, just being a human who’s capable of the full range of emotions, occupations, and decisions.
It’s worth noting that one of the only times in the series’ run when he refers to Amy as “Mrs Williams” is when he comes to rescue her from her then-damselled state, all dressed up as a soldier and exhibiting traditionally masculine traits that are usually absent from his character’s development. Because only when he’s being a stereotypical dude can he really claim ownership over his wife. His wife, who has at this stage had a pregnancy forced on her and has ended up with nothing to do but sit about waiting to be saved by one of the men in her life. Because gender roles.
And that brings us to Amy. Wow, Amy. The first in a string of Moffat women who fall in love with the Doctor as children and spend their whole lives pining for him to come back (I count…what, four off the top of my head?), Amy is outwardly a traditionally spunky female sidekick- she’s smart, quick-witted, and brave. But 99% of her characterisation revolves around the two men in her life (Rory and the Doctor). Her entire arc is, notoriously, as “The Girl who Waited”- the woman who put her life on hold for a man she wouldn’t see for decades. We hear next to nothing about the life she had without the Doctor, and what little we do get almost all revolves around, you guessed it, Rory. Her character is defined by the push and pull of the…ugh…love triangle that surrounds her, not as an individual outside of the men she loves.
Then, of course, there’s the fact that she’s constantly, CONSTANTLY sexualised. Moffat said of the casting of Karen Gillan “And I thought, ‘well she’s really good. It’s just a shame she’s so wee and dumpy’…When she was about to come through to the auditions I nipped out for a minute and I saw Karen walking on the corridor towards me and I realised she was 5’11, slim and gorgeous and I thought ‘Oh, oh that’ll probably work.’”.
And boy howdy, does he make the most of his “slim, gorgeous” leading lady. She’s introduced in her work clothes-her job being a kissogram, obviously, and her work clothes being a skimpy police uniform- and proceeds to hang out in teeny-tiny short skirts for the rest of the series. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a woman wearing a short skirt if she’s making the decision to do so, but, considering that the writing and directing staff was entirely male at the time, it wasn’t a woman making the decision to do so. It’s a show making the choice to have one of their main female characters constantly sexualised, both by the show and by the characters in it (the Doctor refers to her as “The Legs”, Rory peers up her skirt without her knowledge, various characters comment on her attire, etc. Fuck, the first time we see her as an adult the camera pans up her bare legs).
Women dressed up all sexy-like isn’t a problem in and of itself, but when it becomes something that she’s defined by, that’s really not great. It’s…ooky, especially because the show so clearly wants us to see Amy as a character to look up to, but fails to make much of her outside of either her looks or her relationships with the men in her life. This is a recurring theme in Moffat’s women, as we’ll take a look at later in this series. Christ, the Doctor even asks Rory’s permission before he hugs Amy, because God forbid another man touch his women, right?
Moffat described Amy Pond and her intended influence in a particularly telling way: “A generation of little girls will want to be her. And a generation of little boys will want them to be her too.” For one, I really hope there are no little girls sitting at home thinking that the best they can do is sit around waiting for a man to make their life exciting, and doubly hope that a generation of little boys aren’t expecting women to define themselves based on their relationships to them.
Because there’s so much great writing on the subject of sexism in Doctor Who across the internet, and because, I can’t possibly hit all the sexism bases with any level of coherence in a single essay, I’m going to round up every article with a few awesome links that expand on the subject of each of these essays.
This article takes a look at the problematic elements of Amy’s mystical pregnancy arc and how the show undermined her initially strong character.
This compares the casting of Freema Aygeman and Martha to the casting of Karen Gillan and Amy.
This author writes about the objectification of Amy and how it undermines her character.