Sunday, 30 May 2010

The Flaw in Feminism: Conclusion.

Bloody hell: months of blogger apathy and uninspiredness and now two posts in a day. What's t'world coming to?

Before I go any further I'd like to make something clear. I don't AGREE with separatism, or the kind of feminism that criminalises sex workers, as the Icelandic goverment did, pre volcano, but I accept them as forms of feminism. I'm just keen to point out that they are not the only or indeed empirically best feminisms out there, and that the other feminisms often get dismissed or discounted both by some enemies of feminism and some feminists.

That said, back to Dr Who. When Russel T Davies regenerated the series back in 2005, it was with some amusement that I noticed that the term 'assistant' had been ditched and replaced by 'companion' when referring to the women who travel with the Doctor. It's totally acceptable that the power dynamic between them is anything but equal. It's not because of their respective genders that the Doc is superior, but because of their respective species. He is from a more advanced race, so it CAN'T be sexism when he patronises them and orders them about. But 'assistant'? That's an insult. I'm not knocking the doctor/companion dynamic and all credit to Russel T for mixing things up with a couple of male pseudocompanions. It was just something that made me smile.

The companions have a tough time of it though. They exist for bad shit to happen to them so that they can be rescued. It's ultimately a very passive model - although on Doctor Who it is quite often challenged with the Doctor placed in the role of distressed damsel from time to time. Still, it's there. Rose/Martha/Donna/Amy are there to be a bit stupid and need saving. No hiding from it.
There has been talk of the Doctor regenerating as female. Never going to happen. You know why? Because as soon as they do that it looks like an overtly feminist gesture. It becomes an ISSUE. A woman Doctor would be like the one ethnic kid in all early 90s school textbooks: A patronising and insulting piece of tokenism, which, because of the ridicule it would draw, would ultimately do the cause of equality more harm than good.

What I suppose I'm getting at here is that Doctor Who is an incredibly long running series and when the rules of the Whoniverse were first laid down a more sexist mindset was in play. We can't change that without changing the nature of the show itself so far as to be unrecognisable, so a lot of those old sexisms remain, under the guise of tradition. Kind of like real life, when you think about it.

There's one sexist Doctor Who tradition which I would love to see discontinued, though, and that’s the wholesale fanbashing of each new female companion the moment they show up.
Billie Piper? She’s a bimbo, she’s stupid, she’s got big teeth. She’s rubbish.
Freema Agyeman? She can’t act, she only got the part because she’s black. She’s rubbish
Catherine Tate? Good god the sheer venom that was spat at this woman for daring to be a comedian-turned-actor.
Now Karen Gillan is getting the treatment. The consensus seems to be that she’s the show’s weak point. What utter bollocks. Have you SEEN the woman act? She’s fab. She’s just a companion and as such to be hated.

My lovely wife - who actually likes the companions - suggested that this is because, regardless of our gender and sexuality we all fall in love with the Doctor, and thus see the companion as a rival. She’s not good enough for him. We would be so much better. She’s got a point there, I think. A woman in an enviable position always gets clawed at. There’s never a sense of “good for her”. It’s always “who does she think she is?” or, a personal favourite expression of mine “she’s no better than she should be”. Unless she dies, at which point she’s randomly a saint. See Princess Di and Jade Goody for concrete examples of this.
I’d say the venom aimed at companions comes from both sides of the gender divide. It’s not that women are bitchier than men. Some of the nastiest comments I’ve heard about companions have been from blokes. A straight, male acquaintance of mine publically advocated burning Ms Tate. In jest, I presume, but still, a very impassioned and violent reaction. However, there is a gender thing at work here. You see it all the time on reality shows with a phone vote.

This is how it breaks down:

Men will support other men out of a sense of tribalism. Male bonding and friendship are made much of in our society. The Carling ‘belong’ ads tap into this, as does the incredibly sexist expression ‘bros before hos’- i.e. loyalty to your male friends is more important than loyalty to your sexual partner, spouse, or indeed pretty much any woman in your life.
The problem with that is that women tend to do the opposite. Given a choice between supporting a man and a woman, most women stand by the nearest available man, and will criticise, undermine and judge a woman any way they can. For all the songs and slogans about sisterhood, somehow, it’s never really worked that way. ‘Women beware women’ is a far more accurate appraisal of cultural dynamics among western females than ‘friends foreva, boys woteva’ or indeed ‘zig-a-zig ah’. So why? Why is this?
I think it’s because women have been viewed as weak, as inferior, as property, as morally flawed for millennia. And when you are oppressed, one way to survive is to keep the oppressor sweet. We are, as women, socialised around making men happy through either nurture or sex. There’s an element of survival of the fittest as well. We are told that we have to ‘keep hold of our man’, that ‘man eating’ women will ‘steal him’ from us. (It is, of course, never the guy’s fault). These ideas run so deep in our society that we completely internalise them. I do it all the time. If a male acquaintance offends me I’m either long suffering or indulgent. If a female does the same I find myself pouring bile on her behind her back. I have to make a conscious choice not to do that. Sisterhood does not come naturally – there’s a lot of self hatred to unlearn.

So when a new assistant/companion takes her first steps into the Tardis, the male fans, on the ‘bros before hos’ model, compete for the affections of their Galifreyan ‘brother’ by slagging off his girl. The female fans want her out of the way so they can fantasise about taking her place. And all the hapless woman can do to become beloved by her public is suffer some godawful fate, because we can only allow ourselves to love a martyred woman. A happy one is far too threatening. Same with hookers, it would seem.

What an astounding number of people don’t realise, of course, is that this bone-deep internalised sexism affects feminists too. And, as such, feminism has a huge hurdle to overcome. As feminists in a patriarchal culture, we have to challenge the sexism ingrained in our own mindsets before we can even THINK about changing the world.
And just a note to all those feminists jumping down the throats of women like Brooke Magnanti, Jen 'Boobquake' McCreight, Penny Arcade and all other women who make an assertive and conscious choice to use their sexuality as a means to an end... Those women scare you because, deep down, you think they might be sexier and more loved than you are. You see them not as traitors to their sex, but as competition, and you feel the need to take them down any way you can. It’s not our fault, We're socialised into it. Just don’t pretend it’s not happening, otherwise it can never, ever change.

WG x


  1. I never fell in love with the Dr. Too much hair ;) At least on the original show in the 70s!

  2. *agrees with both posts*

    I occurs with so many degrees too. It's the same odd competitiveness with underlying bitchiness that leads to women who're friends commenting on each others lunch choices (which bugs me no end at work. My colleagues call themselves feminists, so I'd expect them to respect my choice as a woman to eat deep fried crap every now and then, but alas, no.)

    It doesn't half make communication complicated. And yes...I do think that a big problem within any group of women who, in theory, have the same goal, including feminists, is internalised sexism. As much as internalised homophobia affects queer activists. That's just it, yes we live in a patriarchal society that has it's problems, but it always seems that women are doing a good enough job of oppressing or just plain undermining each other that the 'big bad men' don't need to bother.

    Equally, what a lot of separatists feminist don't seem to want to acknowledge is that men get as big a dose of messages from society as women do. They have to, it's the same society. The messages are different and arguably more less damaging, but there is no big bad oppressive male entity and wee innocent oppressed female entity, it's all way way way way way way more complicated.

    And even within TV land with it. How many times when a new female character is introduced does the existing female character take a dislike to her/compete with her/undermine her....or vice versa. And it's not just male writers who think that's how things go.

  3. Hi Sarah, what about the companions' male partners though? They have always been weaker and apparently more stupid than the women they are with. This tends to make the female companions seem strong in comparison.


  4. interesting point, RVW. The boys ARE always a bit dopey. But again I think something else is going on. The slightly crap men exist to show us how awesome the Doctor is, and to push the companion into making a choice. EG between stability and adventure. That may seem to contradict my entire argument but I don't think it does. When 2 women compete for a man, the fight gets desperate, dirty, for all the world as if it were a fight for survival. Two guys fighting over a girl can be no less impassioned, but that air of desperation is missing. they are more jockeying for status, with the woman as a trophy to signify the 'better' man. I think. Might have to go further into that later...

  5. I dunno. I have felt pretty desperate competing over women before - because I really liked the woman, not because I was trying to gain 'status'. Maybe I'm weird.

  6. Or do you just mean in the TV world?

  7. Yeah, kinda. More that that's what's EXPECTED, and shown in the media, so a lot of people end up fulfilling it. It's too sweeping a statement to make about the real world, but life hasa habit of imitating art.

  8. DA: Just wondering... when feeling desperate over a woman, was your impulse to scupper the competition in any way you could? What I mean by that is: does the desperation manifest as hatred or willingness to activey undermine/humiliate male rivals, or do your emotions, positive or negative, focus on the object of your affections and/or yourself?
    My impression, from the media, perhaps, is that it is more expected that a woman will stab her best mate in the back over a bloke than a man will over a woman. That's probably quite unfair.