The Mutual Exclusivity of Strong Female Writers and Strong Female Characters Aboard a Spaceship Steered by Men
“Catherine Tregenna Hired to Pen Doctor Who Tale! Women Rejoice!” our exuberant digital newsies cried in an elegant, bold Suffrage font. Score one for workplace equality! By which they meant, score one single point, for one single woman, being hired for one single episode, in only one of the last six seasons of Doctor Who. While I’m never interested in dampening the excitement of others, I feel it’s important to put this announcement in perspective.
There was an immediate onslaught of internet jabber touting the anticipated upswing of girl power in and around the TARDIS as a result of Steven Moffat’s new hire. One loud and prevailing leap in logic has been that a woman writer would strengthen the female characters (like in this short piece: http://doctorwho.io9.com/doctor-who-is-finally-getting-its-first-female-writer-i-1662884661). In particular, these strengthened female characters would not be propped up with love stories, dependent on romance to flesh them out.
While I’m pleased with any movement towards diversity and equality in the workplace and represented on our TV screens, it is important to realize that hiring talented women and writing three dimensional women are mutually exclusive matters.
For example, the historical culture in the Doctor Who franchise writer’s rooms includes these disappointing statistics:
- 4 of the 91 writers from the Doctor Who’s inception (1963) to present have been female
- 1 of the 34 writers from the start of the New Who episodes (2005) have been female
- Helen Raynor, the sole female writer for New Who, wrote four episodes in total between 2007-2008
- 5 of 21 writers for the Torchwood spinoff (2006-2011) were women
- 0 of 12 writers for the Sarah Jane Adventures spinoff (2007-2011) were women
The four episodes written by a Helen Raynor were two two-part episodes. These rare occurrences of a female perspective guiding the pen unfortunately did not reconfigure the existing framework of Doctor Who’s modern structure. Neither Dalek’s in Manhattan or a poisonous Sontaran sky did much to break the mould for women in Who. There was an attempt at giving Martha a makeover as an agent of world peace; but it can still be argued that lovelorn was one of her predominant features.
Love and romance was not a crutch or an end in Classic Whos. Early Doctor’s were not even allowed to put an arm around their companions. And yet, the audience voiced their own conjecture on budding romances, creating their own narrative around lustful relationships. Companions of this era have been widely panned as two-dimensional. So is the chance of romance a necessary element for characters to win audience approval in a modern setting? Or is it an easy, lazy way to plump up the plot? Are we forced to lean on sex and love for engagement because that’s what Moffat finds interesting? Or is he just supplying what the viewers demand?
The first kiss between the Doctor and his companion came under #8, seguing into the new era of freeish love indicative of the New Who series. Rose pining over #9/10. Martha’s stint ending with her unchecked feelings for #10. Amy’s underlying choice between Rory and #11. And Clara’s charged interactions with #11/12. And River Song, ruled by her love for the Doctor since her nonlinear beginning to her nonlinear end. Is Moffat suggesting that no mortal woman can resist the charms of this prickly, ancient alien? If you swap out for a male companion, will he too develop lustful feelings for the Doctor? I would be interested in testing that theory, but I worry that losing one of the mainstay female roles would be another step backward for gender equality in this production.
For this reasoning alone, I lean towards Donna Noble as my favourite companion. The only one who shares an intense, equal, and thoroughly platonic love with the Doctor. No romance crutch (once she shook that whole bride shtick). Her relationship with the Doctor is interesting because the type of love they share is boundless, built on respect and partnership. Unlike the other fawning, confused companions destined to hit a glass ceiling of romantic achievement with the Doctor. With Donna free of the typical New Companion entanglements, she is able to focus on her own wants, needs, and independent development, allowing for much more engaging and unpredictable exposition. Donna is a strong female character, not because she is powerful or confident, but because she progressed without the aid of a crutch, without the allure of a will they/won’t they sexual struggle. (And for the record, she was written by men, mostly.)
When Moffat first began writing for Who, on the heels of his sexually charged series, Couples, he was eager to see the show injected with sexual energy of its own. An aspect he felt necessary to attract a young, edgy audience. It was Moffat’s belief that the Who series always hinted at the sexual element: “Patrick Troughton had pretty girl, and boy, assistants, both in skirts. Russell [T. Davies] is quite keen on an element of sexiness and, any way, all TV is cast with this question high up the list: do we want to go to bed with these characters?” (For more insight into his start with New Who, here is his interview with the Scotsman in 2004)
Since that interview, Moffat has graduated from scripter to overlord. His propensity towards sexual tension permeates his tenure. (There are, of course, other complaints about his legacy. Here’s a short list.) The presence of female writers on the handful of episodes accredited to women have not altered this chemistry, nor changed the companions’ story arcs in a noticeably commendable manner. The addition of Catherine Tregenna’s single episode to the series’ roster of shows will not alter the tone inherent to the New Whos. Just as none of the women currently associated with the show as producers and editors have had an impressive impact towards that end.
The TARDIS will continue to fly in the direction Moffat steers it. The plotted course? Worlds full of women ruled by crushes and doomed relationships.
To be fair, Moffat’s crutch is often handed off to the male characters as well. Although the Capaldi casting was meant to shake up the dynamic, most of the other New Doctors were wrapped up in love stories throughout their incarnations. Even the male companions, Rory, Mickey, and Captain Jack were at least partially defined by their relationships with the women. So perhaps this repetitive romance default of Moffat’s should be excused as… a writing style, or an obsessive habit, or something else moderately dismissible.
Less acceptable perhaps, is the real world application of gender equality. If hiring one female writer every six years is Moffat’s idea of diverse and balanced, I’m not anticipating any drastic improvements in the Who franchises’ culture towards women while he’s at the helm. If he believes there aren’t enough talented female writers in the pool, I would beg him to make the effort, turn his head 90 degrees, and look into the vast ocean of women just outside his usual haunts who are brilliant enough to script the Doctor (and some who may even fight to prioritize fully fleshed out characters across the board).
So, I’m not getting my expectations too high regarding the Tregenna hire. Strong female writers do not equate strong female characters. I can appreciate this announcement for what it is, a long overdue workplace equality win. A single drop in a barren bucket in a line of empty pails. I can only hope more drops are added before the good intentions of this latest one evaporates.
And for the sake of the human race (and entertainment value), Moffat, try losing the crutch from time to time. Let Doctor Who and his companions learn to walk unaided. That makes for interesting television too.
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