Oi! Spaceman: A Podcast

Speculative Fiction, Intersectional Feminism, and Dirty Jokes

If You Think Moffat’s Feminism Is Good Enough, You’re Factually Wrong (Part One)

I’ve been a bit cagey about this in public but I suppose it’s a good time to let the cat out of the bag: Phil Sandifer is guest-hosting on next week’s episode of Oi! Spaceman, in which we’re planning to talk about Mawdryn Undead and some other assorted topics. This is obviously something I’m excited about, as Phil is one of the brightest and most incisive thinkers out there about Doctor Who, its history, and its place in the culture, but it’s also something that I think many of our listeners have been wanting to hear for awhile. Namely: what happens when Phil, Shana, and Daniel chat about Steven Moffat and feminism?

(Or maybe I’m just fooling myself and no one is really thinking that. Although I’ve had a few listeners explicitly ask us to reach out to feminist critics who hold the Moffat era in high esteem, and there is none more prominent that I know of than Phil Sandifer.)

Since I know Phil doesn’t listen to podcasts (and has admitted he hasn’t listened to our show at all), and because we often speak about these issues on the show but rarely do anything systematic with them, I thought it would be worthwhile to put out a general statement on feminism within Doctor Who, with a focus on Steven Moffat. In Part One I’ll speak generally of what I think it means for a piece of media to be feminist and talk about some of the commonly-used yardsticks within Doctor Who fandom for judging the feminism of the show. In Part Two I’ll look specifically at the two pieces Phil wrote on his Eruditorum blog about Steven Moffat and feminism back in 2013-2014, and will probably get just a bit snarky with bits of it. And in Part Three I’ll look into the lion’s mouth and specifically get into the RTD/Moffat debate, find some faults and some successes with both, and close with a look at what I think a really robustly feminist Doctor Who would really look like.

And before anyone says anything about it, let me just say that I’m fully aware that I’m the fucking last person anyone should listen to on these subjects. As a cisgender, white, heteroflexible man born and raised in the West and with no real academic training or expertise in the social sciences or literary criticism, my opinions are more-or-less worthless. All I can say in my defense is I’ve tried to listen to those lower on the socioeconomic stratum than myself and while these arguments are my own, I believe they are largely in keeping with the perspectives of those much more knowledgable than myself. I welcome the criticism and judgments of all persons to these posts, and my most fervent wish is that someone with much more knowledge than I will prove me wrong on these matters. Until then, may I recommend Whovian Feminism for all your Doctor Who and feminism needs?

A Working Theory of Feminist Criticism

One of the frustrations of discussing (and reading popular essays about) these issues online is that feminism/sexism are so often discussed as binaries — either a particular work is “feminist” or it is “sexist” with no gradation in between. Further complicating matters, this binary is also often used as a strict marker of quality: feminist works are by-definition “good” while sexist works are “bad.” (In all honesty I think I’m sometimes guilty of having both of these unexamined assumptions myself when speaking off-the-cuff, a tendency I’m trying to wean myself of.) Of course neither is true: feminism can either be viewed as a lens through which we view texts or at the very least a multidimensional spectrum on which a text may fall, rather than a simple binary as is often implied by our language. And while I’d argue that feminist works are of greater value than non-feminist or anti-feminist works in general and generally have greater artistic merit, it’s certainly possible to find overtly feminist works that fail artistically and to find sexist works that have large amounts of merit. (For the latter, consider only Frank Miller’s Sin City comics which are by almost any measure overtly antifeminist but which are of very high artistic quality when viewed separately from those issues.)

What then, do we mean when we describe a work of art as feminist? At the risk of sounding too much like a bad high school essay, Wikipedia’s criteria for feminist literature is:

Feminist literature is fiction or nonfiction which supports the feminist goals of defining, establishing and defending equal civil, political, economic and social rights for women. It often identifies women’s roles as unequal to those of men – particularly as regards status, privilege and power – and generally portrays the consequences to women, men, families, communities and societies as undesirable.

which seems about as good a place to start as any. To extend this slightly for this discussion, I’d add that feminist media should:

1) be explicitly more feminist than the culture in which they are created and consumed. A work questioning and rejecting the sexist/patriarchal assumptions of the culture in which it is created, even to a small degree, will be often of greater worth through the feminist lens than a work which exhibits more feminist traits, but is made in a culture in which those traits are common.
2) generally reject notions of biological determinism and/or gender essentialism in its portrayal of its characters. Gender norms (i.e. blue for boys and pink for girls) should be shown a result of cultural or societal forces rather than biological realities. Where biological issues are directly at issue (i.e. larger average physical size of males), the value that cultures place on these biological factors (i.e. larger muscles are intrinsically superior to smaller ones) should be at least questioned if not outright rejected.
3.) ideally be at least aware of issues of intersectionality, such that racism/ableism/cis-sexism/amatonormativity/etc. are also considered as feminist issues, and to the widest degree possible explored in the media in question. Viewed this way, a text with reactionary racial politics is less feminist than one without, even if the standard hallmarks of feminism are present in both.

There is much more of course (and I welcome readers to submit their own ideas for extensions to the list above) but that’s a good starting place. I’m also sure there are decades of academic texts that explore all of these ideas in much more detail than I could imagine, and may in fact outright reject some or all of the above, but this is my essay and I’m positing what I think a properly feminist text should do. (One of my life goals in 2016 is to read much more feminist and media theory, and I welcome suggestions of texts in comments.)

Doctor Who, Yardsticks, Form, and Content

In practice discussions of feminist (or other social justice) values in Doctor Who often come down to either A) picking moments of interest, whether feminist or antifeminist, out of the episodes for highlight and/or discussion or B) a handful of common rule-of-thumb yardsticks, by far the most prominent being the Bechdel-Wallace Test but would also include such things as the presence of a Strong Female Character, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, general discussions of agency, male:female character ratios, etc. I think we can all agree that in general any individual measure of the feminism or sexism of a work/character/artist is insufficient and that we can be more sure of our conclusions when multiple independent lines of evidence agree with one another.

To give a non-Who example, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood is filled to the brim with middle-aged white dudes with (as I recall) one or two speaking female roles of virtually no importance, but is also a searing indictment of patriarchal capitalist aggression, and I’d personally describe it in its own way as profoundly feminist. More in line with the main topic of this series, the most thorough examination of Doctor Who through the lens of the Bechdel-Wallace test is Simon’s over at the Incoherent, who finds that Robert Holmes is far and away the worst Doctor Who writer in those terms. This leads us inexorably to the conclusion that the writer who gave us the first episodes of Liz Shaw, Jo Grant, Sarah Jane, and Romana is also profoundly anti-feminist, which sits uneasily for me. Do we ignore the results of the Bechdel-Wallace test, or do we ignore the long list of great female roles Holmes wrote during his career? In this case either measure, taken alone, leads us to what I’d consider a false conclusion. (Shana and I discuss this issue a bit in our episode on The Power of Kroll if you’re interested.)

Paraphrasing my personal friend Jack Graham said somewhere that I can’t dig up at the moment (maybe on Twitter or Facebook or some other inconsequential place), it’s a mistake to make false equivalences in politics by assuming that the subject has form but not content. In my words, the idea that it’s equally sinful to deny the Ku Klux Klan and Black Lives Matter a forum to air their views publically is just fundamentally wrong. I’ve been mulling over this idea of form versus content for a while now, and would like to extend it to feminist/social justice critiques of media: it’s very easy to focus on the form of a text over its content, but we do so to our peril.

Let’s do an illustrative example to close out this part. Jo Grant and Amy Pond, on paper, look very similar. They’re both beautiful, strong-willed sassy young women with close emotional entaglements with their respective Doctors who stick around on the show for a long time. They both begin their stories with no experience as to the ways of the universe around them, both end up possessing an array of oddball skills and talents, and both end their runs married off to what might be seen as a Doctor surrogate figure. They also both have large fanbases obsessed with the way they look with little clothing, and both are well-known for their short skirts.

Yet to consider these two characters to be interchangeable (and I know there are fundamental differences between them that I don’t highlight above) is to deny that each character exists at a certain point in the show’s history and in the culture at large. Sexy, sassy Jo Grant is a reaction to the then-nascent sexual liberation movement and what was then called “women’s lib;” however you feel about the feminist interpretations of the wardrobe she’s given it’s fundamentally different from the context Amy Pond’s short skirts inhabit. If we focus on broad strokes (the form) we can claim a fundamental sameness, morally speaking, about the way the show’s creators and fandom treat the sexuality of these two characters. But this ignores the content of these characters’ narratives and their larger meaning, whether that intended by the creators or interpreted by the time-of-transmission audience.

I’ve referred to this elsewhere (generally on Twitter) as the miniskirt problem, and I hope no one minds if I continue to use this phrase in the following sections. Part 2, in which I discuss Phil’s feminism pieces in some depth will be out tomorrow, and Part 3 with a vision of a truly feminist Doctor Who will be out Friday.

4 responses to “If You Think Moffat’s Feminism Is Good Enough, You’re Factually Wrong (Part One)

  1. Phil Sandifer December 31, 2015 at 3:16 am

    Well if we’re drafting positions in advance… 😉

    First off, I want to resist a little bit on #2, just because I think biological determinism and gender essentialism are less related than you’re suggesting, and are wholly distinct problems. I agree with the complaints about biological determinism, and will happily concede that The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe is a bit fucked up on those grounds. But gender essentialism… that’s trickier, because I don’t think you can be feminist or engage with gender in a way that’s divorced from the material realities of the gender binary. Which is to say that a rejection of gender essentialism can very easily tip into a rejection of gender, which is ultimately contrary to feminism.

    I would also, in general, resist using the Bechdel Test as anything more (or less) than a systemic critique. While it’s presented within Dykes to Watch Out For as a test to determine of a movie is acceptable to watch, its real bite comes less from its utility than from the awful realization of just how much stuff fails this astonishingly low bar.

    Finally, I am deeply suspicious of notions of “truly” or “good enough” when it comes to progressive ideologies.

    Can’t wait for part two. 😉


    • danieleharper December 31, 2015 at 4:09 am

      I’m working on Part Two as we speak, and will take your points in reverse order very briefly.

      If we’re discussing how to move political systems and Overton Windows from within then I think we have to consider the purity of our standard bearers almost as a first step in the process. Perfection is an impossible ideal of course, one that’s probably even unable to be fully articulated within a real-world example, but I think “good enough” is appropriate language to use when discussing political movement. Along many of the axes of intersectionality, I’d argue strongly that Moffat is actively moving the show in the wrong direction entirely for instance. I’m also suspicious of purity trolling in ideological movements, and perhaps I could use different language than the above if the implications are getting away from me a bit.

      Yes, the Bechdel-Wallace test is a really blunt instrument that shouldn’t be considered nearly as important as it often is. It’s just such a common instrument in these discussions that I feel it deserves discussion. In general, I think that asking why Robert Holmes’s stories so rarely pass the test is much more interesting than simply observing that they do so and castigating Holmes as clearly anti-feminist. (If you dig into the links given to Simon’s look at the test as applied to Who, you find that nearly every Davison story passes with flying colors. It’s easy to do when you have two major female characters in nearly every episode!)

      Based on the above I think that gender essentialism is going to be a big sticking point between us. (I’ve been listening to Eruditorum Press Podcast 13 after posting this piece, and your casual admission of Moffat’s pervasive gender essentialism was instructive in this regard as well.) I’d posit that sex and gender are effectively orthogonal concepts, but that cultural factors have so wedded our concepts of masculinity/femininity (gender) to male/female (sex) that it takes a real dose of deprogramming to learn to effectively separate the two. (This is common with cognitive biases of course.)

      I probably need to split the examination of sex and gender into its own post at some point, but in general I’d argue that the massive and concrete biases built into our concepts of gender by our culture are so pervasive (and obvious!) that they should be corrected first before we can even begin to understand the effects of our biology on our culture. If you fear the slippery slope of suggesting that gender is entirely socially constructed, I fear the much more steep and treacherous slope of armchair sociobiologists treating observed cultural differences as biological reality. I’d also suggest that there’s a huge gap between saying “gender is a social construct” and “gender doesn’t matter;” my marriage is most certainly a social construct, but it means a great deal to me regardless.

      Now on to finish part two. Thanks for the response.


      • Phil Sandifer December 31, 2015 at 4:19 am

        My concern with attempting to decouple sex and gender is twofold. First, the notion that sex is actually a genetic/biological notion with particularly well-fixed categories doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. I think there is only gender, a notion that has some biological basis and seems as fixed as sexual orientation. So I’m relatively disinclined towards the sex/gender distinction.

        Second, I think that if you make the “gender is entirely socially constructed” argument you end up leaving trans people in the dust in a troubling way. (Which the sex/gender distinction can do as well by creating a sense in which trans men/women are “not really” their professed identities – sure they may be *gendered* one way, but they’re immutably sexed another on a chromosomal level or whatever.)

        I’m inclined to see it as one notion with biological and social components.

        I also don’t think the sole or indeed primary purpose of political art is Overton Window moving.

        So this should be interesting. 🙂


  2. numinousnimon February 2, 2016 at 2:34 am

    I’m looking forward to part 2 and 3!

    Also I think the debate you and Phil are having here is really interesting. The phenomenon of TERFs (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists) is a real philosophical and practical problem for those of us committed to social justice for both women and Trans people. The fact is, there a great deal of transphobia which comes from some corners of the feminist world, and a deep resistance to accept trans-women as women and to include them in feminist spaces. I had a trans-man student who didn’t want to take a course in Feminist philosophy precisely because he felt alienated by this history of prejudice.

    Some of the feminist critique strikes me as at least partially valid – the experience of trans-women is surely different from that of cis-women in important ways. Trans-women, of course, experience intense prejudice, and suffer from misgendering and dysphoria, but at least up until the point at which they transition, they also receive male privilege (if only as a consequence of being misgendered). Most trans-women do not have the experience of being raised and socialized as a woman in Western society.

    But it seems to me that the deeper issue here is that the very existence of trans-people, or at least the way in which most trans-people frame the experience of gender dysphoria – is fundamentally incompatible with the idea that gender is entirely a social construct, which is a proposition to which much of feminist thought is committed, To say that someone is a woman trapped in the body of a man seems to necessarily imply that there is some essential and not entirely socially constructed quality which makes them a woman, not connected to physical sex characteristics but real nonetheless. I know that not all trans-people accept this idea or frame their experience in this way (there was an article in Slate recently written by a trans author who rejects this framework, grappling with other ways to explain the experience of dysphoria) but it is at least as far as I have seen the most common way that trans people express their experience.

    Accepting this idea entails re-thinking and possibly rejecting much of established feminist thought on the phenomenon of gender, and that is threatening to those deeply committed to the established paradigm. Additionally, there is a real political cost to giving up the idea that gender is a social construct – making the case for equality despite gender difference is potentially more challenging than simply denying that gender has any existence outside of culture and socialization.

    And conversely, to maintain a strict social-constructionist position necessarily entails rejecting the lived experience of huge numbers of trans people.

    As a cis-man, I can’t really say what the answer to this conundrum is, but it is both fascinating and I think pressing for progressives to deal with it.


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