Thursday, 4 September 2014

Essential Problems and Dialectical Solutions ('Deep Breath' 5)

Many people have already commented on the expansion of Clara's character in 'Deep Breath'.  I think there's something to this... in that Clara now appears to have a character, now that she's been freed from her tedious and contentless mystery-arc.  Those impatient with the right-on critique of Moffat will respond with all sorts of examples of brave, complex things she did in Series 7, and some of those examples will be right, but still... she really did look like a characterless blur across the screen, a sort of jumble of traits, a Rubik's Cube with a face drawn on it.  There's no denying, she looked better in 'Deep Breath'.  It's possible that, as with so much else that seems better about 'Deep Breath', I may just be perceiving an improvement because the episode is largely free from the dominating and infuriating presence of a certain actor who will not be missed at all by me.  But then, such things do make a difference.  One performance in an 'actually existing' production of a written text can change the meaning.

Clara's monologue rebuke to Vastra is part of her apparent improvement... though I have to say (in my complainey way) that the monologue contains yet another example of Moffat fetishizing the powerful, with Clara saying that Marcus Aurelius was her only pin-up.  Of all the philosophers she could have idolised, Moffat chooses the one who was also a Roman Emperor!  I also noticed an implied contempt towards teenage girls who like boy bands, as if that makes them inherently trivial people.  Clara gets to angrily reject the notion that she is unwilling to accept an older man, but the idea is expressed in terms that imply contempt for young women who who don't reject young hot guys for old, establishment figures.  To be painstakingly fair, I'm sure this is not what was intended.  It's one of those examples of a writer being unable to fully win no matter what he does.  Which happens.  Sometimes writers can't win.  Sometimes they're damned if they do and damned if they don't.  It's not about their flaws so much as the social context in which they write.  That's not an excuse, but it is a thing.  The solution to this, as I've said before, is not to find better writers, or better ways of writing which square such circles away nicely and neatly so we can all watch in perfect comfort, but rather to change society so that massive imbalances of power don't keep setting off these little textual mines.  Sounds like I'm demanding a lot, doesn't it?  Well, I am.  Deal with it.  That's just how I roll.  Etcetera.

At first, the whole business with Clara's difficulty accepting the new Doctor reminded of the nasty reaction towards 'fangirls' that was unleashed by the news of Capaldi's casting, with all those memes about the shallow, hormonal girlies, supposedly devastated by the news that the new Doctor was someone old and wrinkly.  Just another manifestation of the 'fake geekgirl', a chimeric invention of a closed shop full of males objecting to the scary presence of women in 'their' fandom.  At one point it looks as though Clara is being likened to those allegedly inconsolable fangirls.  After all, Moffat makes Clara - the girl who, according to him, saw and knew every single one of the Doctor's incarnations - struggle with the concept of a new Doctor.  The episode is erasing a huge chunk of her experience, a huge chunk of all the stuff she did last year (stuff that is, by the way, also proffered as evidence of what a nuanced character she always was). Though, as I say, the jettisoning of all that baggage from Series 7 may not be a bad thing, given that it was a way for Moffat to insert his character (in both senses) into every previous bit of Doctor Who ever and rewrite it in the image of his own laughing face.

Clara herself rejects the idea that she resembles the sexist stereotype of the fake fangirl who only likes Who for the hottie menz (though why it should be so terrible for girls to watch the show to leer at Matt Smith escapes me, given the volume of comment from male fans about how much they fancy Jenna-Louise Coleman).  Moffat actually goes to some lengths to raise this accusation against Clara so it can be knocked down... which is why a simple reading of the episode which sees Moffat as endorsing this view of Clara is not really adequate.  The Doctor even implies that the fault was the other way, with him mistaking Clara for a girlfriend.  (And, it's true: the 11th Doctor spent far too much time treating Clara like his property girlfriend.)  Pushing aside the self-pity of the older man looking at the young girl he can't have, the "I never said it was my mistake" bit is actually rather a good moment.  The Doctor accepts that Clara wasn't the one who was actually confused about what was what and what wasn't.

But... and I'm sure you all knew there was a but coming... there are still problems here.  For a start, the Doctor is once again the pole around which the women revolve.  He is fetishised, once again, in Vastra's speech about how old and powerful he is.  And he takes on the contours of the complex and tormented man whose complexity and pain are something for the women to work through.  I've complained in the past about Moffat's female companions being puzzle boxes for the Doctor to figure out.  In 'Deep Breath', in some ways, the Doctor becomes the puzzle for the ladies to figure out.  It doesn't help matters much.  (I know, I know - I'm never happy.)  If you insist upon writing friendships as battles of wits, you're going to end up with implied winners and losers.  Though, once again, it doesn't really get us anywhere to do what I've done in the past, and just talk about these issues as though Moffat is alone in falling foul of them.  The battle of wits between the sexes is embedded in our narrative culture, and is a cultural expression of sexism in the form of gender essentialism.

Moffat is rather big on gender essentialism. This is partly to do with the genre he seems most happy writing in, the style of which he retains and adapts to other projects: sitcom.  Even the dinosaur in 'Deep Breath' is as much from Red Dwarf VIII as it is from 'Invasion of the Dinosaurs' (though, as I say, I rather like the melancholy way he ends up using the dinosaur).  Sitcoms are steeped in gender essentialism.  Sticking with Red Dwarf as an example, just look at the jaw-breakingly tedious stretches of Red Dwarf VII which concern themselves with 'jokes' about Kochanski being clean and tidy and liking salad and ballet, as opposed to the scuzzy boys.

Sitcom gender-essentialism revolves upon the ostensible 'war of the sexes'.  The boys behave badly, the women complain about the toilet seat being left up.  The boys make offensive remarks about periods when the girls are not happy about something.  And so on.  (To be clear, I'm not putting this forward as a description of Moffat's work but as a generalisation.)  Very often, in this sort of thing, the silly old men come off worst, as do the comedy hapless pratt Dads in assorted adverts... you know, the ones that privileged manchildren put forward as evidence of 'misandry' (a functionally meaningless word).  In this version of the relationship between the sexes, the men are overgrown little boys, helplessly entranced by breasts and bottles.  The women are long-suffering witnesses to the long childhood of these slow developers.  Basically, as someone once said, the women are better and the men belong in the fields.  Ho ho ho.

But pedestals are a way of controlling somebody, if you make them high enough.

The basic claims of gender essentialism are determinist, which is why it so often gets reiterated by various forms of reductionist science like evolutionary psychology, and why it has a conservative social effect.  It runs thus: men and women are fundamentally different at some irreducible level (i.e. brain chemistry, genes, whatever) and thus will always retain certain essential traits, some of which entail imbalances in attitude and capability.  We've all seen the titles infesting the bookshelves.  Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus (and books like this are from Uranus).   Why Men Can't Talk and Women Can't Read Maps.  Why Men Don't Like Quiche and No Woman Has Ever Learned the Bagpipes.  Etc etc et-fucking-c.  The gender essentialism industry is massive, hyper-profitable, retrograde and deeply reactionary.

No matter what its smiley, jokey surface message may be, this kind of pop-gender-wars stuff always peddles the idea that equality is impossible... or, at least, that further equalisation is impossible and we've already reached the functional optimum.  It peddles the idea that we already live in as equal a society as we can, and all we need to do is understand each other better.  Basically, it peddles the idea that our prejudices about gender are well-founded.  Even if you take the ostensibly pro-woman version of this that gets repeated in all those sitcoms about the ladies vs the manchildren, the message is still conservative and reactionary, a message of permanent and chronic and unimproveable imbalance.

One extension of this idea of built-in characteristics is the idea that, for instance, girls will naturally want to play with dolls and like the colour pink even if subjected to no social conditioning.  Indeed, one of the most pernicious aspects of gender essentialism is the way it peddles the idea that it's even possible to raise kids without socialising them into gender roles.  By over-emphasizing innate gender differences it obscures the forces of social conditioning.  One side-effect is that well-meaning, right-on parents make efforts to keep gender roles out of their kids' life, only to find their kids drifting into toys guns or Disney princess outfits, and then rather than think 'maybe I have unconscious assumptions which also influence my kids... and maybe my kids are also raised by a society which teaches and reinforces gender roles from day one', the parents instead take their failure to mean that it's all the the genes after all.  They then shake their heads at their own foolish idealism, and start being 'hard-headed' and 'realistic' instead, accepting consciously the very assumptions about innate gender differences which were trained into them in their own childhood, and which they have unconsciously been acting on all along.

(On this subject and other related ones, I implore everyone to read the superb Delusions of Gender by the amazingly brilliantly fantastically excellent Cordelia Fine, who is very good indeed.  And great.)

Gender essentialism doesn't challenge male privilege.  It shores it up.  It obscures systemic sexism, taking imbalances out of the realm of the social and into the realm of the universally biological - like all forms of sociobiology.  It acts as an excuse and an alibi for men, and for the system they dominate and which privileges them.  It relieves them of responsibility.  If they can't help staring at boobs that walk by, or leave the toilet seat up, and all those other things that all men supposedly do, that's just because they're blokes and blokes are like that.  Nothing to be done about it.  Some gender essentialist observations may take the form of criticism, but it is criticism which instantly supplies a get-out clause.

The "I never said it was your mistake" scene is a good scene.  A great moment.  But the episode as a whole sends mixed signals, just like the Doctor does.  That scene coexists with scenes in which Clara is described as a control freak and a narcissist and needy gameplayer, and all as part of the sitcom 'war of the sexes' sniping that constitutes Moffat's default mode of writing male/female interaction.  "5'1 and crying - you never had a chance!" thus tends to undercut the brilliance of the scene where Clara, looking truly human (both terrified and heroic simultaneously, with the two being inextricable) faces down the droid.  Yes, we are supposed to frown at this kind of gender-essentialist stuff coming from the Doctor… we’re supposed to think he’s being a prick… yet we’re also clearly supposed to find it funny.  As so often with Moffat, we're told to think one thing while being tacitly invited to enjoy something contrary in the text.

I wrote about 'A Good Man Goes to War' with reference to this.  The whole idea that there is any critique of the Doctor in that episode relies upon us taking River's rebuke seriously, which itself depends upon us taking seriously the notion that there is something shameful in being a warrior... and yet the entire episode is about noble, heroic warriors fighting and dying for a wonderful, moral cause... and about how exciting the Doctor and Rory are when they go all badass (i.e. genocidal) on Cybermen.  (It's only fair to point out that RTD was guilty of just this sort of inconsistency too, perhaps most evidently in 'The Stolen Earth' / 'Whatever the Other Episode Was Called' in which the Doctor is critiqued by Davros while viewing an internal clipshow which proves him innocent.)

We’re also clearly supposed to find the Doctor funny when he displays all the characteristics he charges against Clara and which she charges against him (he said, she said - har de har).  It doesn’t really matter if the writer has strong women declaring “men are monkeys” if the text ultimately and implicitly invites us to find the monkeyish behaviour vastly charming.

We're meant to like it when men behave badly, you see.  And then we like it when the woman puts him in his place.  And then we like it again when he does it again.

And so on and so on and so on forever.

I don't want to imply that any of the problems I raise in this post are unique to Moffat.  On the contrary, they're widespread... and often such problems are unavoidable when anyone writes about things like, say, gender in the context of a society that is deeply sexist.

Remember, the solution to the problem of such textual timebombs is a dialectical one.  So, basically, all we need for Doctor Who to be perfect is a full scale socialist-feminist revolution.

Now, tell me... is that really too much to ask?


  1. Thank you for this. A big part of me going crazy and being unable to interact with Doctor Who for the past six months without having a debilitating acid reflux attack was the way that people could with a straight face claim that Moffat was a feminist while accepting that he was also a gender essentialist, as if the two things weren't irreducably incompatible.

    1. Sorry to hear about your acid. Get well soon!

  2. Men are allowed to be monkeys. Women have to meet higher standards of behaviour in order to be accepted. Flicking over some of my favourite shoujo anime (aimed at girls) and their heroines, I'm not rapidly finding anyone who meets the standards required of Moffat's leading ladies.