The Too-Strong Woman Cannot Exist: Rose Tyler and Donna Noble in Doctor Who

I am a recently converted Whovian who began watching Doctor Who this past summer. And while I had had friends for years tell me to watch Doctor Who, I never felt I had the time to sit down and watch a television series. I must thank my roommate who, over the summer, convinced me to watch this phenomenal series. But as much as I now love the show and am emotionally invested in the characters and story arcs, Doctor Who is not immune to participating in sexist tropes and practices.

For this post, let’s examine two particular moments in Doctor Who: at the end of Season 1 (9th Doctor) when the Doctor absorbs the time vortex out of Rose to save her life, and at the end of Season 4 (10th Doctor) when the Doctor takes the DoctorDonna’s memories to save her life.

To clarify, I know I am not an expert on Doctor Who. I have only seen the more recent Doctors, and even then I have only seen up to a few episodes into Season 5. All the same, I am not making an over-arching claim that Doctor Who is an entirely sexist program, nor am I claiming anything on the quality of the show. I am looking at two specific moments to identify a harmful trope against women.

For both Rose as the Bad Wolf and Donna as the DoctorDonna, the story line is, at its heart, the same. The female character has extraordinary powers, shines as the hero for a moment, and then the true hero of the show takes these powers away in order to save her life.

Let’s begin by analyzing Rose as the Bad Wolf:

On the surface, this is an incredibly empowering scene. The human female companion controls the action. She is the one to destroy the Emperor of the Daleks, save the Doctor and save the planet. But, as soon as the immediate danger of the Dalek Emperor  has passed, the series shifts back to the Doctor. It is his story we’re meant to follow, not Rose’s. When he says, “It’s all my fault” we are brought back to the reality of a male dominated program: the hero saves the woman.

I’m examining the Doctor absorbing the time vortex from Rose because this is more than a simple hero saves the day plot devise. The woman gains too much power and too much knowledge. For her own good, it has to be taken from her. The Doctor is a Time Lord and therefore he has superior intelligence, superior stamina and pretty much superior everything and that, as audience members, we trust his opinion. If he says the time vortex is killing Rose, he is correct. He sacrifices himself to save her and the world continues to turns on, with the hero saving the woman.

The writers wrote themselves into a jam here. Although theoretically, they could have let Rose continue to be the Bad Wolf and travel with the Doctor as his equal (or potentially superior), the Doctor wouldn’t have regenerated and the classic formula of Doctor and Companion would have been ruined. In short, Rose gained power specifically to for it to be taken away after the defeat the villain. Her power surge, is only to serve the Doctor’s story arc. There is no room for a woman who has knowledge and power because, as the Doctor explains, it’s killing her. For her own good, the Doctor needs to take that power from her.

The same issue of too much power and knowledge being deadly for a woman occurs when Donna becomes the DoctorDonna and the Doctor wipes her memory:

http://http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ScUgeZ-fvvU

Again, we have a female character in an incredibly powerful position, who gains knowledge and defeats evil. But, again this power is only temporary. She is not meant to hold onto it, as it is beyond her due. Now, I know some people may say that it is because she is human that this power was taken from her, not because of her gender, but television shows exist within a cultural context. It is not an accident that the man of the story is the alien of superior intelligence, wisdom and the like. It is not an accident that his companion is a human who needs to rely on the Doctor to save the day. The traditional power structure of the man knows best and female subservience is merely cloaked under the disguise of alien superiority.

This is an issue because it spreads the message that women cannot physically handle knowledge and power. It is too much for them. It is too great for them to exist holding onto such power. And for their own good, men need to keep them sheltered. If men do not then women will die as the result of over-reaching herself. The Doctor can possess immense knowledge. His female companion is along for the ride.

I do not say that what Rose and Donna do in the series is inconsequential or that their great deeds as the Bad Wolf and the DoctorDonna should be overlooked as a sexist scam. There is a strong possibility that the writers of Doctor Who are not even aware of the messages they are spreading to their audiences. But, they are spreading them all the same.

As much as I love the show and admire the Doctor as a character, it is not his job, or the job of any man (alien or otherwise) to strip a woman of power. The plot devise of “for her own good” does not hold up as legitimate when analyzed under a feminist lens.

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This is not Dragon Ball Z. Or is it?

I keep tabs on the Dragon Ball Z facebook page and frequently find their material strikes a chord with me. The page reminds me of all the reasons Goku is a loveable idiot, but such an amazing individual. The page reminds me why I believe in Goku and that there is so much more to DBZ than strong men beating each other to a pulp. Dragon Ball Z has provided me with heroes who are the epitome of fall seven times, get up eight times. 

But, as I’ve mentioned previously, DBZ is not perfect. It’s sexist toward men and it’s sexist toward women. What I haven’t had much time to explore however, is that as an extension of its sexism, DBZ is also homophobic. I’ll use this image posted on the DBZ facebook page to begin my point then I’ll explain further.

To begin, this image is homophobic. Even if it weren’t connected to DBZ, it would be homophobic. In this set of images, to be gay is something you want to get rid of in yourself. It is something that can be cured where you can walk away and be “better.” Especially in the context of this image set, it is the father telling his son not to be gay, to overcome his gayness, and–even worse–that gay here is used as a generic insult. The Great Saiyaman looks stupid and poses funny, that’s so gay! Yes, the Great Saiyaman looks stupid and poses funny, but all that means is that he looks stupid and poses funny. It has nothing to do with his sexuality.

When I first saw this image I commented and said how offensive it is. I also said it’s not DBZ. However, I was quite wrong in that second statement. This image set brings to the forefront homophobia that is present in DBZ, but never discussed.

What some people may not be aware of is that homophobia (and any other form of oppressive thought and action) does not need to be as direct as someone proclaiming “I hate gays” or “homosexuality is a sin.” Most bigotry is more subtle than that, but no less harmful. Because it is silent, it is allowed to persist.

So, how is DBZ homophobic? Let’s look at the images presented of men and women. The men are all the absolute epitome of “traditional masculinity.” They are muscular, they are courageous, they take punishment in battle without complaining and they are unfaltering in their straightness. The special cases are Goku and Piccolo. Goku exists in a state of partial asexuality–though more to comment on his purity than to ever suggest he is queer. Piccolo, as an alien, is also for all purposes asexual–but more to express his alien difference than to highlight a queer identity.

Of the main male characters, Tien is the only one without a love interest and fans speculate he is in a relationship with Chiaotzu. If this is the case and Tien and Chiaotzu are the only queer characters in the show, their relationship is entirely speculative and because Chiaotzu looks and acts so different from every other character, even the hint of being gay becomes something to look askance at. If Tien and Chiaotzu were to be openly together, their queerness would be immediately visible because Chiaotzu does not look or act human. If Chiaotzu is written as a gay character he is an offensive stereotype.

As for the female characters, the few there are are unfaltering in their straightness as well. They may not always be perfect paragons of female virtue–Chi-Chi fights in DB and Bulma is a computer tech and scientist–but Chi-Chi is also introduced from the start as a love interest for Goku and Bulma’s original quest is to find the perfect boyfriend. Android 18 winds up marrying Krillin. Even Launch from DB is last seen chasing after Tien. Lesbianism is a foreign concept in the DBZ universe.

So, when the DBZ facebook page posts an image such as this:

it is actually being very honest about DBZ’s homophobia. In DBZ, being queer is speculative (at best) for the men and impossible for the women. It makes perfect sense that this image set would blatantly highlight the resistance to queers. Being queer can be the butt of jokes because there are no openly queer characters to offset the stereotypes. There is no one to defend the queer community and so to be anything but straight puts you in direct conflict with the rigid gender binary of masculine men and feminine women who only desire heterosexual relationships.

My response is that you cannot “get a little gay” and there is no way to “better” from your gayness because there was never anything to be fixed in the first place. I know I would feel better if Gohan if DBZ was not so heteronormative.

“No, I’m not gay”…I’m just not straight

My mother is a wonderful person who cares deeply about the rights of every human being. Although she initially told me being asexual was a phase I would grow out of, she is now my staunchest supporter. She wants to ensure that I feel comfortable with my sexuality and am treated with respect. She works that this same respect is given to everyone as a matter of course. I am grateful beyond words.

But I spent time visiting my grandfather who believes gay people shouldn’t get married and says he believes so because that’s how he was brought up. I don’t think he understands that being queer is not a choice. And, even more unfortunate, he doesn’t think to question why he holds the beliefs he does. Like my brother, he believes that because he has a right to his own opinions, this right extends to saying whatever he wants. He has no understanding of his privilege as a straight, white cisgender man. And I knew my grandfather was conservative (he watches Fox News religiously), but when I told him his comments were hurtful he did not understand.

“How am I being hurtful?” he asked.

“I have a lot of gay friends and they do not have the same rights that you do–”

He interrupted and turned to me. “Where did you meet these people?”

“At my college. I have a lot of gay friends and they deserve to be married and have lives for themselves. They’re great people.”

We went on for a bit, back and forth and getting nowhere. He assured me that if he were to meet any of my gay friends (as if being gay is always as visible as a birthmark or a scar) he would still treat them with courtesy. I wonder if this is worse: closeted homophobia. It certainly feels worse to be on the receiving end.

For years now, I was certain my grandfather has been waiting for me to come out as a lesbian. I have never dated and never showed any interest in boys so therefore the only option for me was lesbianism, in his view. And after all these years he finally asked me the big question:

“Tell me, then are you gay?”

And I stared at him and kept my face blank. “No. No, I am not.” I came so close to following my statement and revealing the truth that No, I’m not gay, but I’m not straight either. 

I’m queer. I’m asexual. I won’t bring home a woman on my arm anymore than I will bring home a man. But I didn’t say any of this and, though I know how lucky I am to have my mother on my side, I felt shoved into the closet. My grandfather and my aunt are my only immediate family I have not yet come out to. I am fortunate that I can easily pass as being straight.

Still, I don’t think my grandfather believed me when I told him I’m not gay. He asked me later that day about when I would want to get married and I told him that I don’t want to get married. He didn’t press the issue then and told me it is my decision–though he would have been able to hold a lovely wedding reception. I was not surprised when he brought up the issue of my refusal to marry to my mother. Again, I see how damaging closeted homophobia is. I fear my grandfather will never see me the same way and, even worse, he will never tell me so and our anger and misunderstanding will simmer away under the surface.

I know I am not the only one to feel closeted and to be concerned about coming out. I know I am incredibly lucky to have my mother as my support network. I know I care about queer issues beyond my own sphere and this conversation with my grandfather really brought homophobia home for me. I am even more dedicated to advocating for queer rights because no one deserves to suffer under homophobia or any other type of bigotry.

A few months ago I spoke on a “Queer + [Blank]” panel  where everyone who spoke came from a place of intersectionality. I have a shirt from the event that proudly displays “Queer + [Blank]” and I have yet to fill in my intersectionality because I am afraid to wear this short outside of my campus environment. When the panel was first being publicized I did not yet know that I was speaking and I talked with a queer friend of mine about the design for the shirts. She is very open about being a lesbian, but she said she had to ask herself whether or not she would want to walk down the street and have everyone know that she is queer. I agreed, but I felt I needed to do buy this shirt because I needed to embrace being queer as an essential part of my identity.

I do not know if I will come out to my grandfather anytime soon, but I will not get married–even if it means I stop entirely passing as straight.