Monday, 20 May 2013

Maybe some of us BELONG in the fields

A very good overview of the squalid pass to which Moffat has brought the show in its 50th anniversary year, with special attention paid to the issue of mysoginy, via River and Clara:

...we're not being encouraged to think there's something wrong with this person [River]: it's the show itself that comes across as jaded and withdrawn from empathy and decency to a psychopathic extent (and what a charming ethical copout to have the Doctor leave before he can witness the rest of the killing). Again, we have the depressingly widespread idea that a woman acting violently is empowering and a corrective to sexism and misogyny. When questioned about his ability with female characters during a Guardian interview Moffat replied:

River Song? Amy Pond? Hardly weak women. It's the exact opposite. You could accuse me of having a fetish for powerful, sexy women who like cheating people. That would be fair.
It would indeed. Unfortunately, a fetish for powerful, sexy women who like cheating people is no substitute for an interest in human beings.

I don't agree with every jot and tittle of this, but it's still excellent.  Very well worth reading, with lots of points which seem, to me, pretty much irrefutable... depressing but irrefutable.

I do want to express my increasing impatience with the idea of accidental reactionary writing, a notion that the writer of the above article flirts with (though his conclusions are nuanced).  Personally, I'm coming to the brain-bending conclusion that people who aren't racists or sexists don't need to concentrate on remembering not to say racist or sexist things. 

Thanks to Johnathan Barlow (or 'old Legohead' as I always think of him) for putting this my way.


  1. Re: Being "Accidentally Reactionary", as that's pretty much been the overarching theme of everything I've written for Vaka Rangi so far I agree that people who aren't overt racists and sexists need not worry about coming across as such, because a commitment towards being progressive means you're always thinking about this sort of thing in writing in the first place. It is possible to be reactionary unintentionally, IMO, but that's not an excuse either.

    There are two kinds of reactionary writing IMO: Hateful and thoughtless. The latter may not be setting out to marginalize people, but their ignorance and carelessness means they do so by association. They key moment happens when you point this out (politely and in an articulate manner, of course): How do they react? Do they take it as constructive criticism and vow to be more careful in the future or do they brush you off? If they brush you off, you may be dealing with the other type, who actually *does* actively hate other people. And there's nothing that can be done about that.

    Example, and minor teaser: Gene Roddenberry was most definitely an "accidentally reactionary" writer. Partially because he had some messed up ideas about gender and was ex-military and a retired cop, but mostly because he was a really, REALLY shitty writer. I think Steven Moffat may be somewhat comparable. However, that's an explanation of their positionalities, not an excuse or justification for the way they engage with them in their writing. It's still a criticism, or at least it is when *I* say it: I don't condone accidental reactionary writing any more than I do intentionally reactionary writing. I just make the distinction that I can maybe help with one, but not with the other.

    1. Obviously this is one of the biggest disagreements I have with the two of you, but.

      I don't think that a massively collaborative medium like television that's doing as frighteningly narratively dense stories as are the norm in contemporary Doctor Who can possibly have anything like complete control over their messaging. It's implausible to me that any episode of contemporary Doctor Who will have anything close to 1:1 correspondence between intent and outcome.

      Put another way, I'd love to believe that only racists and sexists have to worry about "accidentally" being racist or sexist, but given that Mark Gatiss has severally times hit "accidentally complete crap," I have no trouble believing that he hits "accidentally xenophobic" as well. And Gatiss has hit successful dramatic structure enough times that I do believe that The Idiot's Lantern and Victory of the Daleks are mishits, not evidence of fundamental incompetence. Certainly I've seen enough evidence to suggest that Gatiss knows full well he whiffed it on those.

      The question of how problematic accidental reactionary writing is remains vexed. The question for me is who, if anyone, actually notices and is influenced by the reactionary approach.

    2. The 'Chinese whispers' effect (is that racist?).

      Yeah, there's a huge gap between intentions and reality in TV - I'm sure you're right about that. But...

      a) there still must be some fundamental continuity between what gets tapped into the computer, what then gets rehearsed, what then gets performed in front of cameras and what then ends up in the editing suite. If not, how can we meaningfully credit any writer with anything? (I know you weren't actually suggestion otherwise... pardon my rhetorical flourishes.) Even if a large amount of the worrying overtones get accidentally generated, like interference or white noise, that must still leave a helluva lot of worrying material unaccounted for except by reference to what got tapped into the computer,


      b) if it happens that the process of turning ideas into actual TV programs creates racism and sexism THAT often then there's evidently something structural going on (which is true and is actually both far more interesting than the failings of this or that writer, and a far more important subject for radical analysis).

      I now regret the way I phrased the above post. I boobed, big time. I didn't mean to say that "only racists and sexists have to worry about 'accidentally' being racist or sexist". We all have to worry about watching our privilege - if we have some. What I meant (and I fully accept that I failed to make this clear) was that racism and sexism appearing in texts is all too often passed off as accidental, and that when it appears it is far more likely to be evidence of unexamined privilege showing itself.

      We'll have to disagree about Gatiss. I think the man is fundamentally incompetent and that he has a raging case of unexamined privilege. The nasty undertones of 'The Unquiet Dead' are certainly an accident in that I don't believe for a moment that he sat down and deliberately tapped an anti-immigrant screed into his computer. However, his intentions are one thing and what comes out is another...

      You, Phil, have argued that this reading of 'Unquiet Dead' falls down on the issue of implied readers and implied writers. This is an ingenious defence. However, it rather fails (in my opinion, for whatever that's worth) to take into account the wider social context of anti-immigrant scares. The question of who would notice and/or be influenced by the reactionary subtext is arguable. You imply (I think) a lack of such viewers. Personally, I think the *cumulative* social effect of such reactionary texts is probably as massive as it is unnoticed... especially when buttressed and constantly reinforced by the very cultural climate that produces them. Racism and sexism are absolutely endemic and pervasive, and not all manifestations are as crude as the Daily Mail. We might ask who is ever influenced by the Daily Mail, since only those readers that are implied by its content ever read it... and yet it seems clear that it has had a huge and corrosive effect upon British society. If nobody who wasn't already a ressentimental middle-class crypto-fascist ever read it, how come it has managed to warp social attitudes so disastrously? (I don't mean to imply that it has done this alone, or that Doctor Who is now as bad as the Daily Mail.) Culture is an incredibly complex series of dialectical interractions, as is individual psychology. Research shows that our attitudes are immensely malleable in response to very subtle stimulae.

      And I've now run out of steam and lost my thread.

      I will own up to the fact that I (and others) probably pick on Moffat-era Who disproportionately to its actual comparative egregiousness and effect... but it's the current manifestation of the show that has, for better or worse, rented a room inside my head.

      As ever, thanks for the comments. :-)

    3. And, of course, my main disagreement is that there's any particular point of holding Doctor Who up to that so long as it stays within what we might call background levels of oppression. Which is to say that a society that is already oppressive is going to by definition produce artifacts of oppression. To what extent are these idle artifacts of oppression interesting for their oppression?

      I would argue that it's only interesting or productive to focus on oppression that exceeds background levels. Sexism in the Pertwee era is interesting in The Monster of Peladon, and that's part of what makes that story special in its awfulness. It's less interesting in Invasion of the Dinosaurs, even though that story maintains the dichotomy of the strong action man and the secondary female character he rescues a lot.

    4. I actually have a lot of agreement with that... though I'd question the characterisation of one of the biggest, most high-profile shows on UK TV as "background". But I know what you mean (I think). Translating into my terms, and probably departing from your view a tad: it's 'background' compared to actual economic/social oppression... and, as a cultural expression of a society based on such oppression, it's always going to bear the lowly stamp of its origins... at least until material oppression is removed. Same with much else similar culture.

      I end up with the rather feeble excuse that I write about Doctor Who because it's something I can write about with what feels (to me) like genuine knowledge... and also because its something I enjoy writing about, and I can only write about it from my own perspective. I'm quite prepared to admit that this blog is utterly pointless. But it's interesting (to me at least) to examine some of the oppression built-in to something apparently innocuous that I've been living with (and loving) all my life. And it does lead me places. To paraphrase others: it's my home mythology, and myths are handy things to think with.

      We also end up back with the fundamental disagreement, which is that I see Moffat's episodes as cultural products which exceed 'background levels' when it comes to manifesting oppression (at least in some relative respects), whereas you don't.

      There's also the fact that I think most of it's just plain boring crap. You wrote something very interesting at your site the other day about the change in the nature of the show from a marginal product, which could let in visionary amateurs because nobody was really paying attention, to something expensive and high-profile which had to be carefully controlled. This, to me, is ultimately a tragedy. The success of the new series is, in the end, tragic, because it makes the show into an investment which must be protected from making any mistakes, where 'mistake' means anything that will alienate mass audiences / critics / DVD sales... all of which are needed in order to make the huge investment worthwhile. (Of course, the show was always a cashcow, implicated in commodification, but it always felt like a byproduct... which may be an experience which goes with being a child of the 80s, when the show was in decline.) In any case, Who inexorably slides into being something carefully crafted to be bland, easy and inoffensive, to give viewers easy reference points and pat resolutions. far from being too complex, Moffat's Who is superficially complex to hide its actual homogenous goopiness. It soothes rather than challenges. Of course, there's a lot of pap in classic Who... but the window, in through which the eccentric and the baffling could occasionally sneak, has been closed now. Probably forever. RTD was genuinely ambivalent about capitalist media culture, and a genuinely talented writer. He kept the window open a crack. Moffat has shut and bolted it.

      We have now reached that point in any such discussion when we're just restating our positions at each other (well, I have anyway). :-)

  2. That's pathetic. I can't think of another word for it. I'm sure you're aware that you're saying you don't have the responsibility to make an effort not to participate in the oppression of already oppressed people. That seems to be your entire point, that women's and people of color's oppressions aren't important enough to inconvenience you. So fine. OK. You go, tough guy. But also consider, that if you speak and function as racist and sexist, there is no way for anyone to know your Secret Identity as a Great Guy. In not resisting those behaviors, you make your speech and actions function as support for racists and sexists. When you speak and act in those ways, you not only oppress the oppressed, you comfort the oppressor.
    Though, if behaving like an oppressor (but secretly not being one!) doesn't bother you, maybe offering them cover and support doesn't either.

    1. Perhaps I didn't make myself clear. I DO believe, fervently, that people shouldn't say racist or sexist things. To do so IS to contribute to racism and sexism, and to comfort racists and sexists. Basically, that's my point... if you say/do/write racist or sexist things, that IS racism or sexism. My impatience is with the oft-heard excuse that such things can be accidental. I just don't feel that, when people say/do/write racist or sexist things, "they didn't mean it... it was an accident" is much of an excuse. Especially not when the person in question has a platform the size of a TV show (or newspaper column, or whatever).

      Accidents happen because of inattention, sure, but also because you're in a position to have an accident in the first place. For instance, the article I link to uses the example of the implied anti-semitism in 'The Web of Fear', which features a covetous old git called 'Silverstein'. As I said elsewhere, it's not enough to call this an accident. Without wanting to sound self-righteous, I don't routinely assume thoughtlessly that people with names like 'Silverstein' are covetous. This isn't because I constantly remind myself not to. It's because I'm not an anti-semite.

      Full disclosure: there's an article on this blog about 'Planet of Fire'. I wrote it in 2005. I rewrote it before I posted it here. The original version, in which I went on and on about Peri's bikini, was deeply sexist, coming from a mindless position of entitled assumptions. Since then, I've been re-educated by brilliant feminists. Nowadays, I don't write stuff like that. Not because I make an effort not to but because I no longer want to. I no longer even consider it.

      I guess this shows the need to make a conscious effort... and I daresay I still say/do loads of thoughtless things that betray my privileged position. Thing is, I'd like to think that, if called on something, I wouldn't try to fall back on something as feeble as 'I didn't mean it'. Okay, maybe not... but we ARE our actions. You can't display your assumptions and then disown them because you didn't think about them. THAT's the whole problem.

      I definitely didn't mean to say that we don't have a responsibility to watch what we say. We do.

    2. Well, sure: It's tough to "accidentally" spew hate speech. But there is such a thing as privilege blindness, which is more what I was trying to get at, and that's a different thing. It's how someone responds to their privilege blindness that's the key.

  3. Yeah, I see the source of the confusion here: it's the phrase "don't need". Clumsily put. I didn't mean to imply that there's no obligation to use sensitive language, rather that when you write something racist or sexist it signifies a problem with your attitudes rather than just your attention span. My goof.

    1. Appreciate the response because it's extremely freaking important. Without the responsibility of the privileged person to to be self-aware, good outcomes in practice and work become possible only through either the oppressed person's capitulation to oppressive words and actions OR their doing the additional work of ferreting out someone's secret identity as a decent human being. Leaving them with *still more work to do, and the already privileged person/oppressor class with less to do.
      But really, f you're genuinely interested in doing work on behalf of women and people of color (or any group of which you are not a member, but are socially positioned over), then you have to be willing to let them define the terms of your involvement. That means you simply do not get to declare that X is not your responsibility to them. That's job one of being on someone else's side.
      That isn't to say that people need to do what they are told. You select the work you want to do, you choose it based on its alignment with what you are willing and able to give. But you cannot be an ally to a group as whole, if you insist that you can define the terms of allied behavior. The group defines their allies and allied behavior. Depending on the specific group, cause, action, whatever, sometimes you're an ally, sometimes you're not.

  4. Aww shucks. You're welcome.

  5. Wow, thanks for the link to my blog! You do know I'm a Tory, don't you?

  6. If you prick Tories do they not bleed?

    1. No, we are made of Tellurium crystals. We are grown in vats using the mental energy of dispersed members of the working class.