Quick Thoughts On What Was Wrong With “Deep Breath”

Now, I’m mostly going to be echoing what a lot of other people have been saying about last night’s new episode of Doctor Who, and many of those people will have said it better than I do.

Before I get started, let’s get this out of the way: I enjoyed the episode, and I think Peter Capaldi’s Doctor has potential. I do criticise Doctor Who fairly often, but once again: I like the show, as the fact I’m still watching it shows. I do think it’s worth looking at why Doctor Who attracts the criticism it does, though.

I’m skipping over the boring, trivial issues – yes, the episode has some really dumb plot points, but it’s a rare episode of Doctor Who that doesn’t, and in fact the rare TV show these days where dumb things don’t show up now and then (Orphan Black, I’m looking at you…). The issues worth noting concern the way the episode treats women.

It’s not so much about what Steven Moffat put in the script, but about asking why it was included.

A big deal was made in “Deep Breath” about Clara having difficulty adjusting to the new Doctor – and Madam Vastra outright accuses her of only being with the Doctor because he was young and good looking. This means that a significant part of the episode is spent on Clara having to explain that she isn’t and never has been interested in young, pretty men; the implication being that it would be wrong if she was with the Doctor partly because she found him attractive. The question is, why would that matter at all, and why is it relevant to the episode, to the point that they put this much emphasis on it? Why did Moffat feel the need to have Clara challenged on the issue of being attracted to the young Doctor, and have her accused of rejecting the new one because of his age?

The thing is, Vastra’s reaction to Clara and the subsequent interrogation seems entirely unwarranted. Yes, Clara is confused and upset by what has happened to the Doctor – she doesn’t know how his regeneration works, and he’s suddenly turned into a very confused old man. Vastra’s hostility to Clara comes when she asks the perfectly valid question – for someone in her situation – of how do we fix him?

Later, we have the scene where Strax, where he gives Clara a physical examination with some kind of alien device. The question again is why this scene was necessary. It’s another excuse to get some jokes out of Strax’s complete ignorance of human biology and lack of social graces, but beyond that it serves no purpose other than to make some jokes about Clara’s body, and one about female aging in particular. There’s also a bit about Clara’s subconscious being full of images of muscled young men doing things that may or may not be sports. While I do not object to the depiction of Clara as someone with a sexual side in itself, in the context of the rest of the episode it comes out as another attempt to belittle her for her sexual attractions. I’m only glad the scene managed not to have her react as if she were ashamed herself of those thoughts.

And finally there is the way Madam Vastra was depicted in the episode. Vastra is a lesbian, married to her “maid”, Jenny, and the episode takes every opportunity to use her to objectify the other two women in the cast. In the middle of a murder investigation, we see her having Jenny pose in a revealing outfit for what seems to be a portrait – but oh ho ho, she’s really tricked her wife into posting in her underwear for no reason, isn’t that hilarious. (Not really, no.) There are also repeated references to Vastra, a happily married woman, being attracted to Clara – including Clara accusing Vastra of thinking she is shallow just because she is attractive. Immediately after Vastra’s abuse of Jenny’s trust to get her to pose barely dressed is revealed, Clara walks into the room, and Vastra attempts to get her to take her clothes off also.

The scene’s only purpose in the episode is to laugh at Jenny’s expense and depict Vastra as a woman who eagerly objectifies other women. Anything relevant to the larger plot happens after this part is over.

Now, I think the key point to make here is that these latter two scenes are both played for laughs, and it’s very easy for people to just let those things slide when you do so. If something is portrayed as a harmless joke, a lot of people will gloss over it, and not realise the issues at play. Even minor things like these, though, are problematic because of how they normalise certain jokes and behaviours. Objectifying women is funny, women having water retention is funny, oh, ha ha, this young woman can’t stop thinking about young, attractive men, isn’t she silly. Funny how the show doesn’t do any of this stuff with male characters.

And the former scene I mentioned has its own whole host of issues, for the way it implicitly criticises women for liking the Doctor – which would probably include Doctors Smith, Tennant, and Eccleston – in part for being good looking. Given the large female fanbase of the show, this has not been well received.

Once again, I am not condemning Doctor Who. I just think the people making the show, particularly writer/showrunner Steven Moffat, need to ask themselves questions like why they’re including these jokes, and at whose expense they are being made.

(These quick thoughts have not been as quick as I intended.)

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The Thing That Bothers Me About Spider-Man

(or about the Spider-Man movies, at least,)

…is that they always have to give Peter Parker a love interest whose only purpose is to make him worry about her getting hurt. Whatever else is going on in the story, Peter Parker needs to angst about whether his being Spider-Man puts his girlfriend at risk.

We had five movies of this now. Five movies of Peter breaking up with his girlfriend because he doesn’t want her to get hurt. Five films of her breaking up with him because he can’t make up his mind one way or the other. Five films where villains realise he cares for her and target her specifically, so that Peter has to rescue her. Even when it’s as strong a character as Gwen Stacy in the newer films – who is smarter than Peter, accomplished, independent – she falls into the same role.

Occasionally – such as in the latest film, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 – the writing acknowledges Peter’s protectiveness as a problem. Gwen Stacy is intelligent, capable, and independent – and she has specific knowledge that will help with what Peter’s about to do – and when Peter tries to leave her behind to keep her safe, she calls him out on it. But even then, the narrative inevitably goes on to prove Peter right.

These characters, even when they aren’t actually fridged, exist to present the threat of fridging. Their place in the story is to be the potential woman-in-refrigerator, so that Peter Parker can agonise over the danger he is putting them in.

Now maybe it’s true that these issues are just inherited from the comic books, that the creators are adapting the stories that already exist. But by doing that, they must acknowledge that they are perpetuating this trope, the image of the love interest as a victim, or potential victim. After five movies of the same thing, it really starts to stand out. It’s time they tried to do something different.

A Few Links

Good things seen on the web recently.

1.
You should read this excellent essay by Kameron Hurley on the depiction of women in media and in history lessons, and its effect on cultural perceptions. And also llamas.

So you forget the llamas that don’t fit the narrative you saw in films, books, television – the ones you heard about in the stories – and you remember the ones that exhibited the behavior the stories talk about. Suddenly, all the llamas you remember fit the narrative you see and hear every day from those around you. You make jokes about it with your friends. You feel like you’ve won something. You’re not crazy. You think just like everyone else.

2.
io9 has posted a very funny FAQ that tears apart the many, many plot holes in Star Trek Into Darkness. I saw the film a bit over a week ago, and while I did enjoy it, I can’t help but agree with the points made here. Note: Spoils the entire film.

3.
And in fiction, I recently read this excerpt from the novel Rupetta by Nike Sulway, posted on Weird Fiction Review: The Miracle of Consciousness. It has easily convinced me to buy the full novel. Check it out.