by Laura S. Jung
I love the Steven Moffat era of Doctor Who. LOVE it. I love that he tries to push the envelope with his plots and characters. But something I can’t quite wrap my head around is Moffat’s obsession with the mom trope. For all the progressive themes Moffat throws at UK and US audiences alike, he still finds a way to emphasize, and indeed define women in the role of mother, or psuedo-mother, or caretaker of children. Even the so-called “baddies” are often defined by motherhood. I, mean, what the hell man?! Even our latest companion, Clara, starts out as a super savvy and sassy barkeep, and independent woman, strong, witty, only to turn into friggin’ Mary Poppins – buttress and everything. And in the latest episode she’s toting the kids she currently nannies for around in the Tardis, making this weird nuclear family visual. In fact there’s this heteronormative, nuclear family theme throughout all of the episodes I can possibly think of in the New Doctor Who – and possibly many of the original episodes, too.
Why Steven, WHY-Y-Y-Y?!! For the love of all that is good and socially just in the world, this idea is contrary to modern family structures, and certainly to the view that women, mothers or not, have of themselves.
As a publicly gay male, why not dispel these myths and while you’re at it stop locking up women in dated, stereotypically patriarchal roles. (ed. Ooops, there was a mixup with initial showrunner Russell T. Davies here.) I’ll save “queering” Doctor Who for another time, but if we’re talking about the roles of women, it’s only fair to liberate every person, female-bodied or otherwise from the heteronormative stranglehold of the woman as caretaker, baby-maker, and doting admirer, “Sweety.” Look, I don’t have anything against mothers, or motherhood,or mommy-as-superhero. What troubles me is that “mommy” is often used in a way that weakens the power of a female character, or that overwrites any other forms of power and agency that a female character can have. Sometimes, it underscores the supposed deficiencies of a woman, or is itself the downfall of a woman in the “Doctor Who” universe. I’m not the only Whovian to have this beef with Moffat either. Nivair H. Gabriel over at i09 offers her perspective on the subject. (And, honestly, a quick Google search of “Steven Moffat sexist” will automatically bring up dozens of articles about his latent misogyny.) So though, it’s been said before, I feel compelled to add my voice to the chorus, pleading, compelling Moffat and all the writers for the Doctor Whoverse to make some real changes.
Let’s consider the evidence, shall we?
“Are you my mummy?” Remember this creepy episode? It. was. AWESOME. The Ninth Doctor (the fabulous Christopher Eccleston) encounters this kid-shaped being with a WWII-era gas mask fused to his face by nanites that couldn’t distinguish between the actual human face and the mask. This kid thing is chasing around this young woman, Nancy, who is also somehow made permanently young by the same nanites, creepily asking “are you my mummy?” I know how it ends, but it gives me the shivers, every – freaking- time. The young woman it turns out, is the kid’s mom. Some fluke of the alien technology that made the child a walking gasmask zombie stalled her aging process, making her look more like zombie-boy’s sister. Then, there’s some healing, motherly embrace and all is righted. Really Moffat? Really?! What do you take me for?! Why couldn’t she remain his sister? Or an extraterrestrial species? Why did she have to be mum?
And my least favorite rendition of this overused gimmick is in the Amy Pond episodes. Amy is made into the broodmare for the Silence who steal River Song/Melody Pond and make her into the Doctor Who lover/wife/killing machine. And then later we learn in the last half of the Ponds’ final season that “whatever they did” to her rendered her incapable of having other children. This is the source of the tension brewing between the rocky Rory-Amy relationship at the beginnging of their final season, because, we learn, he wants kids and she can’t have them. I wrinkled my nose and was (still am if you can’t tell) ALL PISSED OFF at Moffat for this. WTF?! Not to mention throughout this whole saga, the Tardis is scanning Amy’s uterus and making her body known to all but her. Dude, Moffatt, not cool. Why is her body, or my body, your business! Why she gotta be pregnant? Make Rory pregnant! Make the Doctor pregnant! Why must you confine us women to this biological oddity, and then summarily define us by it?!
It’s like Moffat isn’t quite sure what to do with us ladies other than make us baby fiends. Sure, babies are adorable if they’re Stormageddon (honestly, best baby name in the history of the universe), but not every woman is Jonesin’ to play the role of Mum. And we aren’t defined by motherhood. Women can be and are so much more than caretaker. We’re damn good at caretaker, but we are usually a million other things at the same time. We’re just good like that – or, it could be that we’re tacitly expected to do everything under the sun, so we’ve adapted the skills necessary to multitask and be all things to all people. And strangely, we’re only credited for our reproductive capacities. It just seems to shortchange us ladies when Moffat stuffs us into mommy role, constantly reminding us of what society-at-large expects us to do with our bodies, rather than exploding that paradigm, and exploring the myriad other facets that make us fearsome in the universe.
The vision of mommyhood as the end-point of a woman’s adventures, strengths, follies, or genius, is equally damaging to the real women who occupy the real universe, not just the characters in the Whoverse. Upon getting pregnant or having children, women don’t become docile, or powerless. Have you ever met a mommy? They are fierce! I get that the mommy trope can be useful for storytelling, but don’t do it so often that it starts diminishing the female characters in Doctor Who or diminishing the incredible power these women should be portrayed as having. It’s so one-sided, so limiting, so, dare I say it, unimaginative.
With the recent rumor of John Hurt (another old, white dude – a great actor, to be sure, but seriously!) as the new Doctor succeeding Matt Smith (who is abandoning ship *supersadface*), I worry that it may be a while before I get my wish to see a less patriarchal, more radical exploration of gender roles in the Whoverse. The dynamic between Clara and Doctor Who XII is going to be much different than between her and XI. I mean is she really going to call John Hurt a “clever boy” or a “silly boy.” I’m dubious. I expect we’ll see more of the classic Doctor Who patriarchy, if Moffat keeps with his current M.O.
My plea to Moffatt, should he return for another season, is this: lay off the mommy trope for a while – or, no – AND hire a female writer who has experience being an amazing sci-fi writer on top of being a mommy. (Seriously, though, do this. it can only help right the listing patriarchal ship that is currently Doctor Who and improve the gender dynamics in the industry. See!? Real life consequences to the stuff you generate in the Doctor Who universe!)
I think you’re confusing Russell T. Davies, the previous showrunner, and Steven Moffat—Davies’ partner is a gentleman named Andrew Smith and Moffat’s wife is Sue Vertue, with whom he wrote the television show Coupling. Additionally, I think John Hurt is rumored to be the doctor between Eight and Nine, the one who committed genocide against the Time Lords, instead of the next Doctor. But that’s the rumor mill; you’ve probably heard something I haven’t.
For me, “The Empty Child” worked as a story about a young woman denying motherhood because of the circumstances she’s in, even though she wants to. The “twist” that she was his mother was one of those twists that makes perfect sense. Her character arc was about accepting that.
It also worked because Davies’ run featured a variety of female characters that the representation of women at the time on the show couldn’t be boiled down to “mums”, so they could have a Moffat episode about mothers in there.
But now that Moffat has the reigns, all the women are mothers to a certain extent—and all their lives revolve around the Doctor—flattening out the representation. If everyone is special, then nobody is, to quote The Incredibles. A diverse cast of female characters allows all the ladies to shine.
Thanks for the comment! Really interesting takes. And I hope the rumor mill you’ve encountered re: Hurt’s role is true – not only clever, but also avoids prematurely introducing us to the twelfth Doctor, which would have some serious consequences.
Oh how interesting! I wanted to be sure I was remembering correctly that Moffat is (or isn’t) gay, so I did some digging. The sources I found confirmed that Moffat, not Davies, is gay, but perhaps not. If errant a resounding mea culpa. Regardless of sexuality, there is still undeniably a heteronormative bent to every show I’ve seen in The New Doctor Who (and many of the originals, too). And I have to take issue with that.
I also agree with you that the Empty Child made sense, or that it was the character’s story line. My issue is that she must accept motherhood at all – especially if there’s the possibility that she didn’t want it. The women of Doctor Who so rarely seem to have a choice in the matter.
I like your optimism about the cast, but I don’t see a diverse cast of women (or men for that matter), and certainly not portraying roles that allow the women to shine in some way other than what I perceive as the standard expectation of femininity. If the only thing the women are illuminating is the (male) doctor, then all the women are still in the shadows of his patriarchal glory. I’d like to see that change.
Oh, I don’t mean this specific cast, but rather a hypothetical cast full of ladies, where everyone’s gender performance is different but respected, resulting in no gender presentation being presented as the best. The closest we’ve got at the moment is Once Upon a Time, where you have so many different female characters that it never feels like the show is singling one out to be the “correct” woman.
Thanks for the catch, LO!
One specific point: I need to re-watch this episode, but I have always interpreted Nancy to have been a teenage mom. So, to me, she was pretending to be the sister because it was the 1940s, and being a teenage mom would have been extremely not accepted. I actually had thought that the Doctor made some comment about being a teenage mom in the 1940s, too. Maybe not. Anyway, so that made sense to me, but, yeah, if she was the still just the sister, you’d think that her genetic data would have still be enough to reconstruct her brother.
Also, how the whole Amy/River Song/Clara story arcs have gone on have really annoyed me beyond belief. For one thing, so much of it them have become based on information about those people that the Doctor knows, where his keeping it a secret is “safer” for everyone. You had mentioned Amy’s pregnancy/not-pregnancy, but also all the stuff about Clara too fits into that. Relatedly, I think I started getting really frustrated in one of the episodes leading up to the Wedding of River Song where River says something along the lines of, “We do as the Doctor tells us.” To me, the companions NOT doing what the Doctor tells them (whether they’re right/wrong/neutral) has always been such an important part of the storyline, and now it seems he’s becoming too all-knowing and almost always right. Particularly with the Eccleston and the Tennant doctors, often the companions have been the real humanizing/empathetic force behind his and their actions (maybe Jack and Martha went against this a little, though).
[…] with Moffat as showrunner is not gonna happen, and even if it did happen, it would probably suck. We’ve written about Moffat’s lady issue on TLF before.But even if he did decide to cast a woman as the Doctor, I am sure he’d have her knocked up by […]
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