On women in fiction and Disney Princesses and Steven Moffat.

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while now. And I’m still not really sure what I think. However, I’ve been somewhat inspired by today’s events on Twitter to write something to figure out what I think a little bit better.

First of all, I consider myself a feminist. (I would hope that anyone who knows anything about me already knew that, but it never hurts to make it clear.) I believe in equal rights for women, quite simply. And yes, women today may have more rights than at any other time in history, but I certainly don’t think we’re there yet. Secondly, I am a big fan of Steven Moffat’s work. His episodes of Doctor Who when Russell T Davies was showrunner are among my favourites ever, and I currently love Doctor Who ridiculous amounts. I was also a big fan of Jekyll, Coupling is possibly my favourite British sitcom, and I think Sherlock is one of the greatest dramas of recent times. So, yeah, I’m a big fan. (I will add here that I’m not enjoying Series 7 of Doctor Who as much as I usually do, in the interest of balance. I mean, it’s fine and it’s good and I still love it; it’s just not currently as brilliant as I think it has been.)

NOW. I could write pages and pages about Doctor Who and what makes it good and what makes it bad and whether current storylines are too boring or complicated, but to be quite honest, I can’t be bothered. Personally, I quite enjoy wide-reaching story arcs and television that is difficult to understand, and that, for me, is a priority over really brilliant in-depth characterisation. (It’s a HUGE generalisation, but this is often given as the difference between RTD’s Who and Moffat’s Who.) And that’s why I’ve enjoyed Series 5 + Series 6 of Doctor Who so much. Most of my friends disagree with me on this; that’s fine and I’m completely ok with that.

As such, there is a lot of criticism of Moffat (and particularly Doctor Who under his tenure) about. Fine. Fair enough. Most of it, I don’t agree with (but I’m glad that it exists!). But. There’s one strand of it which I can’t quite ignore, and it’s this that I’m unsure about, which is to do with Moffat’s writing of women.

When I first started watching Coupling, the summer before last, it seemed immediately obvious that the characters aren’t exactly feminist role models. Patrick, for example, sees women pretty much exclusively as sexual objects, and whenever Jane, Sally and Susan are together, their conversations revolve pretty much exclusively around men and wanting to be in relationships. Now. Is this necessarily a problem? I’m not sure.

On the one hand, it is disappointing that Sally and Susan and Jane aren’t exactly role models. I mean, I wouldn’t want my sisters or my friends or any daughters that I may have to look at them and think that they should be like them, in short. I want those people in my life to believe that they don’t just exist to make men happy; that they don’t need to be in a relationship to feel self-worth; that they don’t need to be dependent on make-up to be beautiful. That’s certainly what they should believe, to be honest. 

On the other hand, Sally and Susan and Jane and Patrick and Jeff and Steve are believable. Yes, as in any sitcom, they are more extreme than most individuals, but they all seem real and human. Yes, they’re deeply, deeply flawed. I wouldn’t be friends with any of these people. No, we shouldn’t aspire to be like them. Does it matter? Should all fiction be filled only with women who are feminists? I’m inclined to say probably not.

And as I’ve already said, I bloody love Coupling. Does that mean I’m somehow compromising on my feminist principles? I’d like to think that’s not the case. If I watched Coupling with the attitude that the women featured are the same women that I should emulate, then sure, there’s a problem. However. I don’t! I watch it and enjoy it and it’s entertaining; it’s just not feminist. I’d probably go as far to say that it’s somewhat patronising to argue that all women in fiction should be feminist role models; to do so implies that we are incapable of distinguishing between flawed and non-flawed characters, and to make it easier for us, these non-flawed characters should just NOT EXIST.

I feel similarly about many early Disney films, particularly those which feature the Princesses. Cinderella, for example, attends a ball wearing a pretty dress, and obtains her happy ending by being beautiful and marrying a Prince. Moreover, she is almost entirely passive; things happen to her, and she’s not the one ensuring her own happiness. I mean, she’s not exactly Germaine Greer. (The same could pretty much be said of many Disney ‘heroines.’ Except maybe Belle. Belle is awesome.)

All the same, it’s a film I adored when I was younger and I still consider it to be a good film.  (IT FEATURES THE SONG

Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo. What’s NOT to like?)

Nevertheless, I can remember watching and not wanting to grow up and be a Princess. I wanted to grow up and be awesome and BAMF-y and be Prime Minister and Change The World and in many ways, I still do. Not a Princess. Even at the age of 5 or so, I was capable of distinguishing between women who were awesome and women who were a bit…meh.

IN SHORT. My argument is that women in any sort of fiction shouldn’t always be expected to be feminist role models; to do so is hugely limiting. Women in fiction should be different, and above, all real. And sometimes they should be feminist and sometimes they should be loud and sometimes they should be quiet and sometimes they should be rude and sometimes they should be funny and sometimes they should be independent and sometimes they should be clingy. Basically, they should be different.

Now. If we return to Steven Moffat, I would have a huge problem with his writing (as I do with a lot of writers) if all the women that he ever wrote were the same. I really don’t think they are.

If we consider Nancy and Reinette and Sally Sparrow and River Song and Miss Evangelista and Anita and Amy Pond  and Liz Ten and Abigail and Jenny and Madame Vastra and Lorna Bucket and  Madge and Clara Oswald then I don’t think that they’re really that similar. Sure, some of them share similarities. That does not mean they’re the same! Some of them are attracted to the Doctor, yes, but a) not all of them, and b) considering who the Doctor is, I can completely see why some of them do express attraction to him. Some of them are quick and witty and are big fans of one-liners (Clara Oswin Oswald springs to mind!), but we have categorically not seen this characteristic in all of them. They’re different. And sure, there are clear similarities beween Amy and River (and I can understand why this irked some people, given that they were the main characters of Series 6), but this can be explained by their mother-daughter relationship, and not by the fact that they’re ‘women.’

I’d also have a huge problem with Moffat’s writing (and, indeed, any other fictional writer’s works) if they consistently wrote super awesome men, while making the women constantly the ‘damsel in distress.’  If we consider all of his male characters from Doctor Who, quite often, it’s the woman who helps to save the day. Not always, but it definitely shouldn’t be a case of ‘always.’ (Particularly in a show about the Doctor, in which he is ‘meant’ to save the day.) Moreover, his male characters rarely conform to traditional standards of ‘masculinity’, which is arguably just as bad as female characters regularly conforming to traditional standards of ‘femininity.’ Anyway, some of his male characters are awesome (LIKE RORY) and some are less so, and so that’s all good, I think.

Finally. I don’t want to convince you all that Doctor Who under Moffat is the best it has ever been, and nor do I even want to convince you that Steven Moffat is a ‘good’ writer. I just want for more time to be spent thinking about what we actually want in fictional characters; do we want brilliant feminist role models the whole time, or do we just want for characters to be real?

(Anyway, it’s also worth pointing out that there are a LOAD of things that I haven’t covered here. This is by no means representative of every thought I have ever had on this issues ever, and there is a lot more to be said.)


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