I have become everything I feared; I’m writing a blog about Doctor Who.
This relates to the 2011 Christmas day episode and the debates about sexism that it sparked, but so many common arguments came up that it provides a pretty good template for discussing prejudice in entertainment in general. Bear with me while I tackle the specifics of the episode:
In (very) brief: Some alien trees want to migrate to a new planet but they need a living vessel capable of transporting them. The Doctor, and some children, are too ‘weak’ for this purpose, but the children’s mother is ‘strong’ and able. What people have primarily taken issue with is the essentialist view of gender in the episode and the way in which the woman becomes powerful by conforming to her prescribed role, as per the patriarchy, of mother. Much of this is expressed by the Doctor when he works out why (according to the migratory trees) ‘She is strong’ while he is weak:
’Weak and ‘strong’; it’s a translation! Translated from the base code of nature itself. You and I, Cyril, we’re weak but she’s female! More than female, she’s Mum! How else does life ever travel than mothership?!
This pun lies at the heart of the conceit of the episode, but the Doctor’s epiphany is a little flawed. Life travels in all sorts of ways that are totally irrelevant to motherhood. Cells divide, plants are pollinated (in a program in which two characters are sentient trees, this isn’t a facetious comment!) – of course, Doctor Who is not written for bacteria or trees, or for seahorses (the males give birth) or for any of the alien species in Doctor Whowhich transfer life without a concept of motherhood, so we can forgive its anthropocentrism.
Even among humans likely to be watching the program, though, these statements (which are presented not as opinions but as a factual explanation for the action) are grossly reductive and genuinely insulting. Firstly, let’s accept that men can get pregnant and give birth. Gender is not a simple binary of male and female, and people identify (if at all) in a multitude of ways based on many criteria. To define gender exclusively by reproductive capacity is to reduce people to a biological function, rather than a personal identity.
Now, the attitude to women. The Doctor declares that to be a mother is to be ‘more than female’. Whilst it may be true that (good) parenthood requires many skills and strengths of character, to suggest that women who are not parents are somehow lesser beings is patently ridiculous. The idea that women are somehow incomplete without children, as well as being degrading and damaging on its own, is part of a broader patriarchal idea of social roles; parenthood is the job of women. My knowledge of Doctor Who is fairly sparse, but I’m pretty sure he’s a father; why couldn’t he be the vessel for the trees? Why is the female ‘stronger’ (translate, ‘better equipped’) for this? Why not ask ‘Where else do we feel at home than fatherland?’ It’s because there is an idea in our society that women are somehow inherently nurturing, caring and protective (in a way that men aren’t). This serves both to push women into lifestyles and employment based on these attributes (nurses, teachers etc) and stops them being taken seriously in other fields. Though we may pride ourselves on not being overtly sexist, this essentialism means that our prejudices about gender still define most social relations.
To some, this does not look like sexism. After all, a woman saves the day when the Doctor is incapable. Things are, naturally, more complex. Sexism is not always about men being good and women being bad; it is a set of prejudices about men and women which dictate certain appropriate attributes and roles for them. Women are, ultimately, to bear and rear children. Having a woman become heroic is good, but to have her be heroic by conforming to her patriarchal role of motherhood (literally, as she protects her children, and metaphorically, as she becomes a semi-willing vessel, a ‘mothership’, to carry life) is not progressive. Again, I stress that the issue is not just that characters think these things; it’s that reality in the show is constructed to make them true. This is a form of that most insidious prejudice, ‘benevolent sexism’. Sincere attempts to portray women as strong and powerful (which this episode probably was) can end up reinforcing prejudices which are ultimately damaging if they lack a critical awareness of those prejudices (which this program certainly did).
When I made these points during the program, I was met with a series of arguments which may be familiar to anyone who has criticised a well loved work. It was unfair to call the show sexist because, I was assured, there are strong female characters in other episodes, or because there were positive examples of fatherhood in other episodes, or because there were bad mothers in other episodes. This stemmed from an assumption that, if I identified sexism in one episode of Doctor Who, I must be condemning the whole program as sexist: specific criticism met with general defence. There was even talk of ‘forgiving’ the show, as if it could only be judged as a single entity, its constituent parts indivisible.
We do not need to view things in terms of condemnation or praise; we need to acknowledge something has problems and watch it maturely. This is well addressed in the blog How To Be a Fan of Problematic Things, though of course it extends far beyond geek fandom. The Merchant of Venice is an anti-Semitic play, but that doesn’t invalidate its value as a work of art. Triumph of the Will is a masterpiece of cinema, despite being Nazi propaganda. We all enjoy things which have bad politics, but that doesn’t make our politics bad, unless we fail to be critically thoughtful. The danger comes when people attempt to defend every aspect of a work because they are somehow invested in it. To say that an episode of Doctor Who had a sexist plot line is not to say that Doctor Who fans are sexist (unthinking loyalty to a television program regardless of the concerns of people offended by it, on the other hand, does reveal a bad set of priorities… )
So, then, the final concern when criticising and critiquing popular entertainment; is it appropriate or necessary?
If millions of people watch a program, many of them children, and if few of them are critical of its political values, then that would suggest that it is necessary to vocalise criticism when it occurs to us. As for appropriate, it’s easy to be accused, when considering light entertainment, of ‘over-analysing’, ‘reading too deeply’ or ‘thinking too much’. There is a misconception that just because a work was not written in terms of conscious political awareness that it cannot be read in those terms. To follow this line of denying critical views is a form of obtuse anti-intellectualism, and those who choose to excuse themselves from thoughtful discourse should have not further bearing on it. Much more serious, though, is that to dismiss articulated critique of popular entertainment is to shut down discourse on privilege and oppression for the sake of a television program, which is unforgivable.
It was suggested to me that ‘if you look hard enough you can find sexism in anything’ (which to be honest I don’t doubt, at least in terms of artwork since everything is the product of a pervasively sexist society), the implication being that people, presumably humourless, man-hating straw feminists, comb over everything they can find looking for things to be offended about. Of course, this isn’t the case; no one chooses what offends them, or what their reaction to a TV show is. When sitting down to watch Doctor Who, it wasn’t that I chose to see the sexism in it, it’s that I couldn’t chose not to, and yet still there was a suggestion that I and everyone else who viewed it as I did should try to ‘just watch it’, to ‘just enjoy it’, and even the notion that we might be souring the mood for those who would otherwise watch quite unproblematically.
Now, I am not an ideological purist, a dogmatic crusader or a moron; I understand that a constant sense of struggling against entrenched injustice is not good for one’s mental health. What if you’re tired? What if you see sexism every day? What if you fight misogyny every time you leave the house, what if the entire direction of your life is based, beyond your control, on your gender and what if when you sit down on Christmas day to watch some light entertainment with your family you don’t want to think about feminism and oppression and offence? Isn’t it ok to ‘switch off’? Isn’t it ok to seek escapism from time to time without feeling compelled to confront injustice and prejudice?
My only answer is of course it’s ok to seek escapism, to watch things for pleasure without composing a political response. But that’s why we need to force improvements of our popular entertainment, so that it’s possible to watch them without having to confront the tiresome and horrific inequalities that define our daily lives. Art can only ever be so far ahead of the society that produced it, and is likely to be a fair way behind, and as such will always be riddled with problems which, in our ignorance and privilege, we may only be dimly aware of. If we attempt to deny ourselves and each other, explicitly or implicitly, the act of critical analysis of the art that we consume, be it by claiming that the work doesn’t warrant so sophisticated a reading or by declaring that offence taken is somehow not valid, we leave ourselves disenfranchised. If we value our ability to watch a television program unchallenged as higher than someone else’s ability to watch it uninsulted then we have probably picked the wrong side in a long established relationship of privilege and degradation. We may choose to sit quietly through the objectionable bits of a work of art, from time to time, even when it offends us, but we can’t expect other people to do so with us (even on Christmas day) and we must be prepared to acknowledge it when the things we like problematically contain things we have to hate.