Archive for September, 2011

Let me show you how it works:

  1. A female, POC and/or LGBTQ politician/leader is appointed in your area. This is cause for celebration, because
  2. while you aren’t sexist, racist or homophobic, you’re all too aware of the fact that other people – and, more specifically, The System – are frequently biased in those directions, making it harder for such candidates to be accepted regardless of their qualifications. Certainly, this new person is a definite a minority among their high-powered brethren, which suggests that
  3. they must be exceptional in some way. Depending on the context, this specialness could be ascribed to any number of skills, passions or characteristics, but the most important thing is that
  4. despite their gender, race and/or sexual orientation – or rather, despite the biases of less enlightened people who consider such things a handicap – the candidate has succeeded. But no matter how glad you are to see them installed, it’s important to remember that
  5. the candidate did not succeed because of their gender, race and/or sexual orientation. Regardless of whether quotas and/or tokenism are a relevant in this instance (which depends entirely on the individual circumstances), it’s generally seen to be the job of obnoxious, right-wing objectors to claim, sneeringly, that so-and-so was only let in because of their gender, race and or/ sexual orientation, this being a basic means of undermining such a candidate’s qualifications from the get-go. Nonetheless,
  6. it’s clear that their gender, race and/or sexual orientation is a relevant factor in terms of how they’ll be perceived in their role, no matter how irrelevant it might be to their actual portfolio. But even though these details only matter to you in terms of your being happy to see The System veer away from straight white male dominion,
  7. should an instance arise (as it inevitably will) where the candidate is in a position to act (or not) on left-wing issues – and particularly where, either accurately or not, you perceive those issues to overlap with their own gender, racial and/or sexual identity – your natural expectation is for them to Do The Right Thing. And as you’ve already acknowledged that the candidate is special,
  8. you’ve automatically set yourself up to hold them – albeit with the best of intentions – to a higher moral, social and political standard than their straight, white and/or male counterparts. Even if you can acknowledge that people in positions of authority must, of necessity, compromise their own values in order to maintain alliances, get work done in the long term and keep their position within the party/organisation, all that hopefulness about seeing a female, POC and/or LGBTQ candidate in the arena can turn swiftly to feelings of betrayal should they compromise on the issues you care about,
  9. because they, of all possible candidates, should know better. But now they’ve gone and abused your trust; they’ve proved that they weren’t special after all – no better than their straight, white and/or male colleagues, really, and certainly worse in terms of causing you heartache, because of how they should have known better. And because you took their betrayal personally, rather than viewing it as a pragmatic (if irritating) function of their being a human in office, you can’t bear to support them any more. You’d feel like a hypocrite now, and anyway, keeping them in just to maintain diversity and at the expense of your principles would really be tokenism. And so you take the only remaining, logical course of action, and
  10. vote them out of office. It’s a shame they couldn’t live up to your expectations, but maybe the next woman, POC and/or LGBTQ candidate to come along will be different. After all, is it really so unreasonable to expect that your chosen leader be a flawless paragon of virtue?

Congratulations! You have now succeeded in holding minority candidates to such an unreasonably high standard on the basis of their gender, race and/or sexual orientation that you’ve effectively recreated the same type of discrimination you were so angry about in the first place. Wash, rinse and repeat, until society collapses or insomniac authors die from an overdose of facepalm.

This tutorial/rant brought to you by politics, the internet and human nature.

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Warning: spoilers. 

This episode started out promisingly, and had some genuinely nice dialogue. Absent Amy and Rory, I suddenly realised just how little time we’ve spent with the Doctor since Smith took over the role – by which I mean, how rarely we’ve seen him alone – and why this has been a bad thing. As a character, the Doctor is so much a creature of his actions around, reactions to and interactions with the denizens of the universe that, paradoxically, his most important development often happens when we catch him without an audience. Tennant’s Doctor was all flashfire wit and insight when people were watching, but the performance was always tempered for viewers by our knowledge of the loneliness, rage and furious compassion that caught him in moments visible only through the fourth wall. This was a cinematic trick as much as a matter of scripting and ostensibly a simple one, but for whatever reason, it hasn’t translated to Moffat’s governance of the show, primarily (I suspect) because the little narrative spaces that used to flesh out Tennant’s Doctor have more commonly been used, with Smith, to focus on his companions. So when, in Closing Time, we were presented with the Doctor just being alone on the street, talking about what he wasn’t doing, or monologuing to baby Alfie about life, or even just physically exploring and interacting with his environment without constantly cutting back to someone else, it was genuinely refreshing. For the first time in a while, I felt like I liked the Doctor; that he was more than just a convenient backdrop for the dramas of Amy’s life. Similarly, it was nice to see Craig again; he was a good character the first time around, and his subsequent development felt consistent.

That being said, Closing Time is a far from flawless episode. The Cyberman plot is a deliberately simple background conceit whose primary function is to let the Doctor wander around talking to people, and while I’m generally in favour of that (see above), the Cybermen are such a big part of the show’s lore that bringing them in so cheaply – and at the cost of such a patently ridiculous and openly lampshaded retcon as being blown up with love – feels like serious laziness. An original villain could have achieved the exact same impact without being nearly so ridiculous, and the episode would have been stronger for it. And then there was the ending, where we see River Song confronted by the eyepatch woman (who ten bucks says is yet another future version of River) and hauled away by the Silence to kill the Doctor, which… yeah, look: is ANYONE at this point surprised by the revelation that River is the one to kill the Doctor? Didn’t we already know this? In which case, given that we’ve been repeatedly told that it’s his last day before failing to die (sorry, before dying permanently oh wait) did we really need the extra reminder? I’d feel less ambivalent towards the ending if it had fit with anything in the episode, or of it had introduced any information we didn’t already possess; but instead, it felt like textbook double-handling for the sake of filler: old setting, old characters and old motive, with only the most meager sprinkling of catharsis to justify it. Given my druthers, we’d have just cut from the Doctor being in the TARDIS to seeing River in her astronaut suit under the lake, but there you go.

But as always, and even though she only appeared for a second without actually speaking, my biggest problem with Closing Time was Amy, who has apparently gone on to become a model in a perfume ad. Now, OK. There is nothing wrong with modelling per se, although the industry itself is rife with problems. Nor is anything wrong with perfume! But consider the Doctor’s past companions: Sarah Jane, who starts out as a journalist and keeps on investigating later; Rose Tyler, who starts out a shopgirl and goes on to work with Torchwood; Martha Jones, who starts out a trainee doctor and also goes on to work with Torchwood/chase aliens; and Donna Noble, who starts out a temp and ends up brainwiped, after which she gets happily married. Donna’s arc was tragic and infuriating – she grew so much as a character, only to have all that growth and all her adventures erased. But for all the problems inherent in her removal from the show, we understand that her living a normal life is only made possible by her lack of memories. But Sarah Jane, Rose and Martha all acknowledge the impossibility of trying to adapt to everyday living after travelling with the Doctor – it’s why they all end up having similar adventures of their own. But Amy, whose whole life has been far more entwined with that the of Doctor than any of them, and whose daughter was stolen away from her because of him, can cope well enough with the change to just go off and become a model? I know she started out as a kissogram, but seriously: what the fuck? I keep asking myself: do she and Rory ever have any more children? How can they not be scarred by what’s happened to them? How does any of this even work?

And that’s another thing: as much as I liked watching Craig and Alfie together, I couldn’t help but juxtapose the father/son bond as written in Closing Time – where Craig’s love for his son is so strong that it blows up a Cyberman spaceship – with the complete and utter absence of a mother/daughter bond between Amy and Melody. Which is a recounting of the point I made last time – that Amy and Rory have stopped grieving for Melody/River – but even so, when the very next episode features a dad going through hell to return to his child, I can’t help but feel the issue is being thrown into stark relief.

But, yes. Otherwise, this was a decent enough episode. But after the final installment next week, I’ll be happy to see the back of this season. Moffat might still be in charge, but there’s a clean slate in the offing, and for all the show’s faults, I’m keen to see it improve.

Warning: spoilers. 

Since yesterday’s post, I’ve caught myself up to date with Night Terrors, The Girl Who Waited and The God Complex. All three are well-written, well-executed episodes: their plots are coherent and self-contained, the scripting is solid, and there’s a genuine feeling of mystery and tension to each of them. That being said, I’m still distinctly unhappy with the treatment of the female characters. In all three episodes, Amy ends up a damsel who needs to be rescued, while the latter two both use the deaths of competent, clever, interesting women to wring emotional responses from the audience. There’s also the lesser (but still relevant) issue of Moffat’s constant reuse of robots/functions as villains and the overwhelming number of Earth-based episodes, but we’ll get to that later. First, let’s look at the ladies.

For an excellent summation of the problems with the death of Older Amy in The Girl Who Waited, I recommend this post by Phoebe North. To quote:

Every single aspect of this plot and every action of the Doctor conspire to invalidate Older!Amy’s choices, desires, and personhood. What matters is that she be spared, even if she doesn’t want to be spared–because the men, of course, know better than she do about her very life.

In this episode, the Doctor acts in a way that’s in keeping with his recent behavior, but is still insanely maddening. He’s paternalistic. He’s condescending. He lies. He rejects Amy’s right and autonomy over her experiences outright…

It’s only Older!Amy who is anything new. This is the first time we’ve seen concrete, verifiable growth in Amy-Pond-the-adult. It’s also the first time it’s been suggested that she’s a certifiable genius. Karen Gillan is able to stretch her acting chops like never before. She fights. She invents. She hacks. She flirts. Despite the fact that she’s been hurt, she’s still indisputably a whole, capable person–in precisely the way that our Amy has never been…

Amy’s storyline is really more of the same. The woman has to be saved. Worse, the woman doesn’t really know what’s good for her–to the point where she has to be manipulated and tricked into making the right decision.

I understand television’s need to protect the status quo. But Rory has been allowed to grow, from passive near-cuckold into a hero. In previous seasons, Donna, Martha, and Rose all underwent very palpable growth as their experiences changed their goals, lives, and desires (even if Donna was pretty much royally screwed over in the end). Now that I’ve had a more concrete vision of what Amy could be dangled in front of me–and then snatched away by male characters and writers who say they know better–damn it, I want a sign of that woman on the actual showI want some sign that Amy can grow into a brilliant, kick ass person even as she stands by her husband’s side.

Because otherwise? If Amy stays as she is today–if the show continues to value damselship over competence, raw youth over experience, passivity over self-sufficiency–if Amy is always the problem and almost never the solution?

Then I’m done.

As has been previously mentioned, A Good Man Goes To War left me with so little faith in the show that I had to postpone watching the next set of episodes. This meant that my husband went ahead and watched them without me; a sort of advanced guard to test the waters. After finishing The Girl Who Waited, he came storming out of the bedroom in a state of distress, talking about how vile and awful it was that the Amy who’d been left on her own for 36 years – who was clever and capable and deserving of freedom – was killed off in favour of her younger self. What was worse, he said, was how little criticism of the episode he could find online: did people not realise how morally reprehensible this was? Admittedly, that absence may be more reflective of his weak Google-fu than of the majority reaction to the episode, but even so: my husband, who has been a fan of Doctor Who since childhood, has reached a point with the new series where he considers the Doctor to be morally bankrupt. And honestly? I am not about to disagree with him.

There is no reason why Older Amy had to die except that the writers wanted her to. In a show – and, more particularly, a season – where continuity is constantly being retconned, where exceptions are constantly found to old rules and where pretty much everything that happens is explicable only by magic, blaming the necessity of Older Amy’s death on any extant Whoniverse laws is both demeaning and cheap. Worse still is the decision to make the Doctor directly responsible for it: he literally slams the door in her face and leaves her to die, having promised sanctuary he knows is impossible. But the only reason for that impossibility is authorial. We still could have had a heart-wrenching finale where Older Amy was deposited on an alien world and forced to hand Rory over to her younger self; given that she was in a quarantine facility, she could even have been left behind on the original world, but in the visitor’s section, free to make her own way out. But no: as with ‘Ganger Amy before her, she is killed – and not just on the Doctor’s watch, but by him.

And then they pull the exact same trick again. In The God Complex, we are introduced to Rita, a clever, capable woman who immediately wins the Doctor’s respect to such an extent that he tells Amy she’s fired. It’s a joke, of course, but intentionally or not, this sets up the whole episode as a comparison between the two characters. Rita is brave, calm and selfless (and a Muslim! an actual positive representation of a Muslim woman on television!), while Amy clings, quite literally, to a blind, childish faith in the Doctor. There is no need for her to try and rescue herself or others, because he will always save her, and as the episode hinges on her admitting as much, it becomes abundantly clear that this has, in fact, been the defining aspect of her character all along. Meanwhile, poor Rita’s fate is sealed when the Doctor mentions taking her on the TARDIS with him, which has always been a kiss of death equivalent to watching a redshirt beam down to an alien planet alongside Kirk and Spock. She dies nobly and bravely, of course, but she still dies, and while in another time and place – by which I mean, an earlier season – I might have just accepted her death on its own terms, in the particular context of Season 6 and Moffat’s reign in general, it stands out as part of what is starting to feel like a calculated decision to keep the female characters young, pretty and pliant, or else to kill or depower them.

And then there’s the fact that Amy and Rory have ceased to grieve for their daughter. I don’t care that Melody Pond grows up to be River Song. I don’t care that Amy and Rory know this, and like who River is. They have, as a couple, lost a newborn child – one who goes on to be raised and brainwashed by terrorists – such that they are never really her parents, and know she endures a terrible childhood without them. This is fucking traumatic; or rather, it should be, except that we never actually see them grieve. In fact, against all logic and expectation, at the start of Let’s Kill Hitler, we learn that the Doctor has been looking for Melody through space and time without them, and I’m sorry, but what the fuck? Amy and Rory lose their daughter, and then they just go home to wait while the Doctor tries to hunt her down instead? This makes no sense; growing up with Mels is not equivalent compensation for losing a child; and when, at the end of The God Complex, the Doctor drops Amy and Rory home – seemingly for good, but who knows? – and Amy lightly says that he should tell River to drop in on them some time, my whole body clenched with anger. NO. As much as I’m ready for a new companion, Amy deserves better than to have been dragged through all of space and time, where she loses her child, and then just be taken home because the Doctor says so. I don’t care that he’s almost a thousand years old: this sudden, awful paternalism of Doctor Knows Best For The Ladies, such that he gets to override not only their desire to travel with him, but their desire to live, is vile.

To close out the feminist side of things, there’s an excellent piece at Tiger Beatdown about the problematic nature of Amy, wherein Lindsay Miller says:

Amy as a plot device… drives me insane with rage.  The writers cannot seem to come up with anything for her to do that doesn’t involve being a sexual or romantic object, a damsel in distress, or—more recently—a uterus in a box.  This is primarily a show about the Doctor, not his companions; I get that.  Still, Rose, Donna, and even the tragically underdeveloped Martha all got at least a few episodes dedicated them and their problems and their families…

Amy’s dialogue is reasonably well-written, and Karen Gillan’s performance is funny and engaging.  But her storylines are terrible.  We spent all of season 5 (which, for me, was about three days) hopelessly enmeshed in the Love Triangle that Just Wouldn’t Die.  Amy was engaged to Rory, who had a smallish head, but she wanted to make out with the Doctor, who had a huge head!  How would she ever choose between two such different head sizes?  Then she had a moment of realization and went with Rory, presumably because their eventual offspring would do less damage on the way out.  But every two or three episodes since then, we’ve gotten these teasing “maybe she really DOES love the Doctor” moments, even though everyone, including all three characters, is sick to death of that plot thread.  It’s like the writers honest-to-God cannot come up with anything better for two dudes and a lady to do, with all of space and time at their fingertips, than worry over which dude the lady will end up with.

Finally, there’s the Moffat tropes, which are wearing seriously thin. Let’s have a look at the themes and villains of this past season, shall we?

The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon: An eerie little girl in a spacesuit repeating the same few lines of dialogue over and over, plus the Silence, who also repeat themselves, are uniform in appearance, and can’t be argued with.

The Curse of the Black Spot: The robotic function of a medical ship, who can’t be argued with.

The Doctor’s Wife: An evil planet who eats TARDISes and who has actual conversations with the characters. (Note: this episode was written by Neil Gaiman rather than a member of Moffat’s regular staff, and was originally meant to appear in the previous season.)

The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People: Dopplegangers of the crew of a mining station, plus the crew itself and the Doctor.

A Good Man Goes To War: Headless monks, an army commander, and an evil eyepatch woman.

Let’s Kill Hitler: Robot doppleganger people filled with robotic ‘antibodies’ who attack intruders while repeating the same few lines of dialogue over and over, plus a creepy child-Amelia as a function of the TARDIS who repeats the same few lines of dialogue over and over.

Night Terrors: Creepy, unspeaking zombie-dolls who chase the characters and mindlessly try to convert them.

The Girl Who Waited: Hospital robots who mindlessly try to subdue intruders while repeating the same few lines of dialogue over and over.

The God Complex: A host of creepy, unspeaking dolls, plus a minotaur-monster who behaves exactly like a robot (i.e., he can’t turn himself off or stop what he does, nor do we hear him speak in his own right except through the Doctor’s translations) who causes people to turn into zombies and repeat the same few lines of dialogue over and over.

Is there a pattern here, do you think? Just to be sure, let’s run a check on the themes and villains of some previous Moffat episodes:

The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances: An eerie little boy in a gas mask repeating the same few lines of dialogue over and over, plus the robotic functions of a hospital ship who can’t be argued with.

The Girl in the Fireplace: Clockwork robots acting as functions of a ship who repeat the same few lines of dialogue over and over.

Blink: Quantum angels who don’t speak, but who prey on other lifeforms as functions of their existence and who, like robots, cannot be argued with.

Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead: Eerie dead people trapped in spacesuits repeating the same few lines over and over, plus the Vashta Nerada, who prey on other lifeforms as a function of their existence, and who are argued with once.

The Beast Below: Creepy clown-doll-robots acting as functions of a ship.

The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone: More quantum angels.

And then there’s the high incidents of female characters meeting the Doctor both in childhood and as adults, which started with Renette in The Girl in the Fireplace and goes on to define both River Song and Amy Pond. Put another way: Moffat seems to have a narrative range of exactly one female character, and the more he writes her, the weaker she gets.

Call me crazy, but I’m fairly sure this constitutes a pattern.

Which might go a long way towards explaining why we rarely, if ever, see any actual aliens any more; why we’re constantly stuck on Earth or in Earthlike settings as opposed to other worlds – because Moffat, for all his strengths (and some of these episodes are, in fairness, utterly brilliant) doesn’t seem to like writing alien races, or alien cultures. He likes puzzles and hospitals and automated processes and robots and enemies who can’t be argued with, which is all fine and awesome, except that this is all we’re getting any more. Even episodes which aren’t written by Moffat, like The Lodger and The Curse of the Black Spot – both of which feature automated hospital ships and their attendant robot-functions as the ultimate explanation for things – are chock-full of Moffaty tropes. And I don’t know about you, internets, but I am getting bored of so much sameness.

It doesn’t strike me as irrelevant that so far in Moffat’s tenure, not a single episode has been written by a woman. Admittedly, the same was true under Russell T. Davies – his first two seasons lacked any female-authored episodes, with Season 3’s Daleks in Manhatten being the first – but it shows more under Moffat, not only because of how he treats his female characters (badly), but because his preference for writing robots means that there are fewer gendered characters of any kind in the background, so that the number of secondary women has dropped, too.

I’m worried by all of this, internets. I really want the show to make a clean break next season, but I’m very much afraid that won’t happen. Yes, the writing and plotting has picked up again, but unless the ladies start to develop, too, it’s going to get harder and harder for me to continue with it.

Warning: spoilers, rant, etc. 

Internets, I don’t know what to tell you.

It’s pretty firmly on record that I was less than impressed with A Good Man Goes To War, which is why I’ve been putting off watching Let’s Kill Hitler. And then I saw this piece in today’s Guardian about whether Doctor Who has grown too complicated, and I decided to bite the bullet.

In retrospect, I’m sort of wishing I hadn’t.

The introduction of Mels is a retcon of epic proportions. If we’d seen her before in earlier episodes or heard her mentioned Bad Wolf style, that would be one thing; but we didn’t, and we haven’t, and that makes the whole setup for the piece feel utterly contrived. We’re with Hitler for five minutes – which is a relief in some ways, because any longer would have been unbearable – but there’s absolutely no reason AT ALL that the episode has to be set when and where it is, except that someone, somewhere thought it would be cool. Which, look: I get that coolness is sort of what Doctor Who is meant to do, but dropping in on Hitler is a pretty hefty way to fuck up the established timeline, and the fact that this is played for laughs – as irrelevant – in a show whose earlier series spent episode after episode making clear the dangers and difficulties inherent in messing with established events is sloppy, unprofessional and stupid. Which means, for my money, that the episode utterly fails at coolness.

In fact, it fails at everything.

Things I am sick of seeing in Steven Moffat episodes:

  • Female characters who are universally either River Song or other girls who’ve known the Doctor since childhood;
  • Robots, robotic processes or other soulless, impersonal creatures as the only villains; and
  • Dopplegangers of everyone. OH MY GOD, THE DOPPLEGANGERS.

With the exception of Neil Gaiman’s excellent piece, these three things define every single episode in the new season. They are also the hallmarks of Moffat’s earlier and best offerings, including The Girl in the Fireplace, The Silence of the Library and Blink. From what I’ve heard, the next two episodes are no different, and it makes me want to tear my hair out with frustration. These were all great ideas the first time around, but after the sixth or seventh repetition, they’re getting very, very worn. FIND A NEW STORY AND TELL IT INSTEAD.

Oh! And then we have the sexism. Did I mention the sexism, internets? Because I’m rather annoyed by it! While regenerating, River/Mels snaps that she’s concentrating on a dress size, rushes off to weigh herself once she’s done, exclaims over the hot clothes she can wear in her new body, and then has her brainwashing-induced personality explained away by the Doctor with the hilarious addendum of “plus, she’s a woman.” AGH. Oh, and we get ANOTHER scene where the Doctor dies (only he doesn’t really) while everyone sits around being sad anyway – seriously, he’s the TITULAR FUCKING CHARACTER, he’s not about to die, there is NO TENSION IN THESE SCENES, JUST MELODRAMATIC BULLSHIT OH MY GOD – and yet more robots whose repetitious dialogue goes on and on and on; and more dopplegangers of everyone to pull focus so that the writers are spared the indignity of actually having to create new characters with actual depth; and then we end with River effectively depowering herself as a TimeLord to save the Doctor despite her brainwashing, and what the HELL? Seriously? She’s been trained to kill him her whole life, but then she mysteriously deprograms herself when he calls her River, even though that makes no sense? WHY DOES SHE SUDDENLY SWITCH SIDES WHEN SHE’S JUST SUCCEEDED IN HER LIFE’S MISSION? I don’t buy that the TARDIS made her reconsider, somehow, magically. No: she’s a main character, we should see this important deeply transformative shit actually HAPPENING and not just be told about it afterwards.

GAH.

So, yeah. NOT IMPRESSED. The Guardian asked if Doctor Who is too complicated now. I say no, unless by complicated you mean narratively disjunct, with new retcons every episode, plots that don’t make sense, and characterisation so thin you could shoot peas through it. In which case, IT IS COMPLICATED.

I’m going to watch the next couple of episodes in the hope that things might fix themselves, but honestly, my optimism is low. If Amy needs rescuing one more time, or another female character gets killed/depowered/hurt for stupid reasons that are never adequately explained solely to advance the arc of Rory or the Doctor, I will get very, very cross.

And now, I’m going to go change into my The Doctor Is In t-shirt, and pretend that David Tennant and RTD are still running the show. Also, there will be wine.

Once upon a time in the 90s, there was a critically acclaimed Australian TV series called SeaChange, which ended at the height of its popularity for the pure and simple reason that the creator wanted it to. Take a moment to appreciate how rarely, if ever, that happens in modern television, and you might begin to understand the scope of how awesome a show this was. After just three seasons, Deb Cox and Andrew Knight – the creators of what was, at the time, the highest rated program on Australian TV – turned down offers from every major commercial network to fund new episodes of SeaChange and declared instead that it was done. They’d closed everything out the way they wanted; the characters were in a good place, and even though they could have made a lot of money by extending the show, they opted not to milk the cashcow at the expense of running a good thing into the ground. Internets, nobody does this, and it’s really, really stupid. The otherwise universal fate of good shows is either to keep on plugging away, season after season, until they start to turn bad enough that they lose their funding, or else be prematurely cancelled by idiots. Nobody ever quits while they’re ahead, because the idea of discontinuing a popular story for the sake of artistic integrity is not how TV works.

But somehow, somewhen, Cox and Knight put their respective feet down and let things end. Three seasons of awesome, with an ending that closed out everything that needed to be closed out, left open what needed to be left open, and was utterly true to both the characters and the narrative ethos.

I watched SeaChange when it first aired, between the ages of 12 and 15, and have rewatched it multiple times since then. The premise is simple: Laura Gibson, a high-flying corporate lawyer and mother of two, has her whole world come crashing down in a single ill-fated day which culminates in her husband, Jack – who has just been revealed to be having an affair with her sister, Trudi – being publicly arrested for fraud. Utterly bereft, Laura remembers the last place her family was happy: a small town called Pearl Bay, where they spent their last good holiday before her career took off. Leaping at the chance to become the new magistrate for Pearl Bay, Laura promptly relocates – along with her teenage children, Miranda and Rupert – and instantly becomes embroiled in the various feuds, friendships and eccentricities that make up small town life, with the cases she rules on as magistrate providing a constant source of moral dilemmas and tragedies.

Main Female Characters 

Laura Gibson: Neurotic, stressed and out of her depth, Laura spends much of the show learning how to slow down and reconnect with people – particularly her children, but also the people she meets in town. She has two romances over the course of three seasons: one with Diver Dan, a local man with surprising depths, and one with Max Connors, a former journalist who returns home to Pearl Bay for personal reasons. Laura is sharply drawn, inviting sympathy even as she makes you want to strangle her, but always in a realistic way. For all the mistakes she’s made that have adversely affected her nearest and dearest, she’s honestly trying to atone for them, and in many ways is revealed to have been her own biggest victim.

Meredith Monahan: Laura’s first friend in Pearl Bay, Meredith is an older woman who runs the local pub. Possessed of a perfect memory for names, dates and faces, Meredith is sharply intelligent, a left-leaning town matriarch struggling to counterbalance the influence of the right-leaning mayor, Bob Jelly. Though usually rational, fair and compassionate, and always a fierce defender of the underdog, Meredith has a prickly streak, too, and is prone to letting her own stubborn biases get in the way of her judgement. She has spent the majority of her adult life in an adulterous relationship with the previous magistrate, Harold, who lives with her despite still being technically married to someone else.

Heather Jelly: Wife of Mayor Bob Jelly, Heather is, on the surface, the perfect housewife. Devoted to her husband, home and teenage children as well as being a prominent participant in local ladies’ groups, her seeming bubbleheadness conceals a brighter, more passionate person than anyone, especially Bob, gives her credit for. Over the course of the series, she steadily changes from being a passive to an active participant in her own life, slowly confronting the various ways in which Bob takes her for granted, discovering her own personality, and asserting herself outside the home.

Miranda Gibson: Laura’s eldest child, Miranda initially protests the move to Pearl Bay, but soon begins to settle in. Finding an unexpected best friend in Bob Jelly’s son, Craig, she struggles with her parents’ separation while coming into her own as a teenager, clashing with Laura over her hippyish leanings, but ultimately becoming much closer to her mother in the process. When Max arrives, she talks him into starting a local paper – the Pearl Bay Oyster – as part of her quest to become a journalist. She is spirited, sometimes reactionary, loyal, an activist and creative.

Carmen Blake: Meredith’s wayward niece, Carmen is a free-spirited hippy who shows up pregnant to an unknown man and settles into town life in preparation for her daughter’s birth. Prone to straying a little on the wrong side of the law, Carmen is sharp, stubborn, opinionated, spiritual, outspoken and fiercely independent.

Karen Miller: A dedicated police sergeant, Karen wants nothing more than to marry her long-time fiance, Angus, and settle into motherhood. Though enthusiastic, driven and a little naive, Karen is also deeply traditional, occasionally judgmental, possessive and insensitive. Her development over the course of the series is both touching and believable: though she never wavers in her affection for Angus, she also goes on something of a journey of self-discovery, finally exploring the world outside Pearl Bay and, consequently, coming to see it differently on her return.

Phrani Gupta: A local businesswoman, Phrani is scrupulously honest, unfailingly cheerful, and fierce in the defense of the people she loves, though sometimes prone to anger and defensiveness. As the series develops, she comes to have a closer relationship with Kevin, the owner of the caravan park, with the complicated reasons behind her relocation from India eventually being revealed to hinge on domestic troubles. Like Meredith and Heather, Phrani plays an active role in town politics, and often clashes with Bob.

Main Male Characters

Daniel ‘Diver Dan’ Della Bosca: Dan is Laura’s first love interest in Pearl Bay, a widely-traveled man who runs the school ferry and lives above his cafe, which is housed in a boatshed. Adventurous, unconventional and wryly humorous, Dan takes it upon himself to try and calm Laura down, infuriating her almost as much as she infuriates him in the process. Though seemingly cool and collected, he’s had a lot of hard knocks in his life, something which occasionally shows in his quickfire temper. Dan has little tolerance for the rules of ordinary society, and tends to live much as he pleases. He is chaos to Laura’s order, but cares a lot more deeply about most things than he lets on.

Bob Jelly: Mayor of Pearl Bay, Bob is also a real estate mogul and all-round genial patriarch. Though neither as intelligent nor as dignified as he thinks he is, Bob is bluff, corrupt, politically incorrect and prone to massive obliviousness when it comes to his wife, Heather. Bob develops hugely over the course of the series: challenged by the success and failure of various schemes, the implications of Laura’s arrival and Heather’s self-assertion, he slowly changes into a (slightly) better man. For all his faults, he’s a sympathetic character, and not without redeeming qualities, the most important being that, when it really matters, he tries. An equal source of comedy, outrage and pathos, Bob is frequently an antagonist, but never – crucially – a straw man.

Max Connors: A former foreign correspondent, Max returns home to Pearl Bay as a damaged man, his defensiveness and seemingly cheerful sarcasm masking the pain of recent loss. Unable to put his investigative instincts to rest, he amuses himself by hunting down Bob’s various corruptions and bringing them to light, and expresses his attraction to Laura via the adult equivalent of ceaselessly tugging on her pigtails. Max also has a tense, often destructive relationship with Carmen: the two share an inquisitive, journalistic bent and both have suffered trauma, but Max has no patience for Carmen’s spirituality, and the pair are as often at each other’s throats as not. Max is contrary, loyal, empathetic, stubborn, curious and a prankster, and delights in every opportunity to circumvent authority.

Harold Fitzwalter: Meredith’s paramour and the ex-magistrate of Pearl Bay, Harold is also a recovering alcoholic. Now representing clients in his old court, he struggles with getting older, with sobriety, with family and with life. He loves Meredith dearly, and as the two of them deal together with the new resurgence of old secrets, he begins to recover his passion.

Rupert Gibson: Laura’s younger child, Rupert has been the most challenged by their move to Pearl Bay. He misses his father, and is constantly scheming for ways to get his parents back together. Finding a best friend in Trevor, the son of Kevin the caravan owner, Rupert’s various observations about life, his academic struggles and his various shenanigans often end up causing Laura no end of trouble, but as the series develops, he starts to come into himself and not only accept, but embrace his new life, though never losing faith in his father.

Angus Kabiri: The court clerk and Karen’s paramour, Angus is a quiet young man of set routines and (very well hidden) depths. Kind and compassionate but nervous of committing himself fully to Karen, Angus exists in a state of anxiety about what he wants to do, the sort of man he should be, and where his life is headed. His greatest passion is surfing, and he is often at a loss as to how express his feelings to Karen. Good-hearted, occasionally vague and prone to evasion, Angus’s constant worries nonetheless give him a strangely existential bent, while his occasional passionate outbursts on court matters are a strong counterbalance to Laura’s usual deference to procedure.

Graham Grey: The local police sergeant, Grey is a frequently mistrusted authority figure more often allied with Laura than the rest of the town and still considered an outsider by many, both because of his job in court and because he’s still looked upon as a new arrival. He feels this isolation keenly, and walks the difficult line of trying to fit into a town whose citizens he must simultaneously police. His home life is complicated, and though he sometimes clashes with Max, the two are on friendly terms. Grey is also given the unenviable task of mentoring Karen, whose enthusiasm for policework often expresses itself in inconvenient ways.

Kevin Findlay: The owner of the caravan park and father of Trevor, Rupert’s best friend, Kev is sweet and hard-working, but far from being the sharpest knife in the block. For this reason, he is frequently manipulated into being Bob’s dupe in town matters, and though Phrani defends him fiercely, he is often the accidental cause of more problems than might otherwise be the case. Despite his difficult childhood, Kevin is kind, thoughtful in his own way, and as the series develops, he becomes increasingly confident in standing up for both himself and others, even when this means crossing Bob.

Jack Gibson: For all his faults, Jack is never a straw man. Trying to rebuild his relationship with Laura and his children, he presents as both a weak and sympathetic figure: weak, in terms of his business failures, jealousy of Laura’s success and ongoing relationship with Trudi; sympathetic, in that he was and remains and excellent, devoted father, one who tries to mend his mistakes even as he keeps making them. Though sometimes acrimonious, Jack’s relationship with Laura slowly improves over the course of the show, though not without pitfalls on both their parts.

There are other supporting regulars with smaller parts – notably Craig and Jules Jelly, plus local blokes Griff and Simmo – as well as other, more important characters who only appear in a handful of episodes, but despite its size, the cast is universally well-developed. Across all three seasons, everyone grows and changes: relationships form, fall apart, develop and start again, friendships mutate and evolve, secrets are revealed, and challenges are surmounted. There is tension, drama, humour and tragedy, with just a touch of the improbable thrown in (Pearl Bay itself is prone to a surprising number of improbable weather phenomena, ensuring that the bridge to the mainland always ends up broken). It is, in short, an incredible show, and one which defined both my teenage years and my sense of narrative in multiple significant ways.

What really sells SeaChange is the characterisation. The cast is dominated by strong women, all of them exploring love and relationships in different ways, but none of them perfect; and by the same token, even the antagonists are given fair shrift, with no straw man characters and development for all. There’s a decidedly left-leaning bent to the narratives: every episode passes the Bechdel test and there’s an undeniably feminist flavour to the proceedings, but never at the expense of demonising the more traditional characters, all of whom are shown sympathetically. Like the population of Pearl Bay itself, SeaChange walks the line between extreme local conservatism and extreme far-leftism, with hippies like Carmen taking the same gentle mocking as right-wingers like Bob. There’s an amazing sense of strength and community to the show, and despite the number of heavy issues touched on in various episodes – corruption, homophobia, domestic violence, euthanasia, freedom of choice, freedom of speech, prejudice, sexuality and suicide being just a few – the writers never preach to the audience, leaving the ultimate decision up to the individual viewer. Dark moments are leavened with humour, and there’s an endearing self-awareness to the occasional moments of absurdity.

SeaChange is an amazing show, but one which few people are likely to have heard of outside of Australia. If you can lay hands on a copy, I highly recommend doing so.

A couple of years ago, I went with a friend to see a children’s show as part of the Melbourne Comedy Festival. It was based around the conceit of a magic pencil: there was an interactive screen where a digital cartoon character interacted with images the (male) comedian drew in real-time, with a pre-recorded voice providing one half of their conversation. At four different points, the comedian asked for child volunteers to come up onto the stage and have themselves drawn, with the subsequent caricatures becoming part of the show. It was a small audience mostly comprised of young children and their parents – my friend and I were almost the only exceptions to this – and whenever the call came for volunteers, a sea of eager little hands would stretch into the air.

Sitting directly in front of us was a pigtailed girl, aged about seven, who desperately wanted to participate. Each time she wasn’t chosen, she slumped down dejectedly in her seat, only to spring straight back up again at the next opportunity. There were easily as many girls as boys in the audience, with an equal parity in the number of hands raised; and yet the comedian never picked a girl. The fourth and final time her hand went ignored, the girl in front of us let out a frustrated sigh and exclaimed, ‘He’s only choosing boys!’ Both her outrage at this situation and her powerlessness to correct it were fully evident in her voice, and I felt myself getting angry. I’d noticed the same problem, and hearing it summed up by a child in tones that suggested she’d witnessed the problem before made me utterly disconnect from the show. I tried to think of reasons why the comedian had chosen only boys. Maybe he thought their facial features would make for better caricatures; or perhaps he was worried that the good-natured teasing with which he accompanied his drawings might be more likely to upset a little girl. Maybe he was simply picking the first hand he saw, regardless of who it belonged to. Most likely, though, he didn’t even realise he’d done it: whatever other planning he’d put into his act, the idea of trying to choose two boys and two girls for the sake of equality seemed never to have occurred to him.

When the show was over, I caught sight of the little girl on the way out. She looked forlorn and sad, which is hardly the reaction that a children’s comedy show is meant to provoke, and I left feeling dejected and furious that a seven-year-old girl had already learned that sometimes, it doesn’t matter how badly you want something or how high you raise your hand: just being female is enough to make you invisible. For whatever reason, the comedian hadn’t seen her or any of the other girls in the audience, and no matter how benign the reasons for that blindness might have been, it had unquestionably had consequences.

Earlier in the year, an eagle-eyed blogger used word clouds to illustrate the boy/girl gendered language of toy advertisements. A recent article discussing gender reveal parties hosted by expectant parents shows a sample invitation which reads, “Boy or girl? Astronaut or ballerina? Come spend the afternoon with us when we find out!” Then there are images of congratulatory cards for new parents, where baby boys are praised as brilliant, while baby girls are called beautiful. Children’s books are rife with male characters, but women? Not so much. No sooner is their gender known than children are defined by it: pink for girls, blue for boys, baby dolls for girls, action heroes for boys, kitchens for girls, tools for boys, ponies for girls, cars for boys, and God help any child who wants to play with both.

All this gendering, and then we have the temerity to act surprised and shocked when a seven-year-old girl can clearly and comprehensively identify when she is being discriminated against on the basis of being female.

Early in primary school, I had a friend called Ben. We’d hang out together at lunch and recess and sit together in class, which felt like a fairly normal thing to do. This was not, however, a universally held sentiment: one of the boys in the year above, called Tim, thought there was something deeply wrong with a boy and girl being friends – or, more specifically, he thought that we couldn’t possibly be just friends, and so took to seeking us out on the playground for the sole purpose of first declaring us to be a couple and then taunting us for it. Neither of us liked this, but it was harder on Ben than me. I have a very clear memory of us sitting down together one lunch, only to find that Tim was, as usual, heading straight for us. Ben looked at me and said, ‘I think we’d better split’ – both serious and sad. I nodded, and up he got, walking away to find someone else to talk to. Tim saw this and grinned in triumph, having  accomplished what had evidently been his mission all along: to split us up.

Tim was six when this happened; Ben and I were five. I very much doubt that Tim’s parents ever sat him down and explain that boys and girls being friends was wrong – it would be as ludicrous as suggesting that adults invented the idea of girl germs and boy germs (or, for the Americans, cooties). Nor do children instinctively police each other along gender lines; certainly, Ben and I never did. But we are not raised in a vacuum, and if, from minute one of their lives, you call half the children Blue and the other half Pink; if you dress them differently, give them different toys, tell them different stories, praise them for different qualities, rebuke them for different transgressions, encourage them at different activities and actively enforce all these differences on the basis of gender (‘No, sweetie, that one’s for boys!’), then the inevitable consequence of sending them off to interact in an environment where, true to form, all the Pinks are wearing dresses and all the Blues are wearing shorts, is that even a fucking five-year-old will start to think that boys and girls talking is wrong.

Nobody has told them this explicitly.

Nobody has had to.

Writing about this week’s controversy over gay characters being removed from YA novels (excellent summations of which can be found here and here), author N. K. Jemisin says, “As many have pointed out, we live in a world full of bigotry but no bigots. No one wants to claim their own little slice of the Contributing to the Problem pie, even though everyone should get a little.” Giving her keynote address at the recent Tights and Tiaras conference on female superheroes and media cultures, author Karen Healey talked about the cultural reasons why women who otherwise love SF, fantasy, comics, fanfiction and superheroes end up steering clear of mainstream superhero comics and comic stores – specifically, about the idea that the prevalence of sexism and objectification of women at the level of both the narratives of said comics and the creative processes which create them are, not surprisingly, offputting to female readers.  And at the end of last year, an American mother blogged about what happened when her five-year-old son dressed up as Daphne from Scooby Doo for Halloween; how other mothers attacked her for it, saying that I should never have ‘allowed’ this and thank God it wasn’t next year when he was in Kindergarten since I would have had to put my foot down and ‘forbidden’ it.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – and will keep saying it forever, because it will never cease to be true: we are all a product of culture. Five-year-old children experience discrimination from parents, from their peers and from society –  because they’re boys who dress like girls, because they’re girls who want to be friends with boys, because they have the temerity to be different – but when the question of why comes up, we never consider that all those seemingly innocuous things like toy choice and clothing colours and storybooks might have something to do with it; that when you pile up all the individual molehills of culture, the end result really is a mountain. Most of us were raised this way, and we continue to raise more children along the same lines – because what’s wrong with girls being girls and boys being boys? Children are just like that. Well, of course they are, if that’s how you insist on raising them. And then those children grow up into teenagers, the primary demographic for so much of our culture, and while many of them are increasingly savvy about the subtleties of the gender biases that govern their existence, many more aren’t; and that means that they don’t question cultural output whose tropes are reflective of those biases. And after all, why would they be? Isn’t the world just like that? Well, of course it is, if nobody tries to make it otherwise.

And then publishing companies and advertising agencies and Hollywood and every other organisation who sells things for a living looks at the buying habits of the general, youthful populace says, It’s not that we’re bigoted, but books about gay teenagers don’t sell and neither do comic books where the women aren’t sexualised or films where the leads aren’t white. And I’m sick of it, because if all the excuse-mongering about demographics and target audiences by people who should know better is to be believed, then the whole of Western creative industry is made up exclusively of lovely, unbigoted people who are the friends of other lovely, unbigoted people forced by circumstances beyond their control to make books and films and comics and toys along bigoted lines, because apparently the entire creative monopoly of unbigoted editors, writers, agents, artists, filmmakers and producers constitutes such a powerless minority voice that they couldn’t possibly hope to change the standards they purport to hate, and anyway, it’s not like they’re in charge of our culture – oh, wait, it is.

The moral of this story is: don’t take culture for granted, because if there’s one thing it exists to do, it’s change. Our whole society is Theseus’ Ship, and the sooner we realise our collective power to tear down broken parts and replace them with things that work, the better. Especially those of us who tell stories; and doubly for those of us who tell stories to children and teenagers. To quote the Witch from Into the Woods:

Careful the things you say; children will listen. 

 

 

One week ago, I blogged a piece about the necessity of feminism, a reasonable percentage of which was given over to a selection of pertinent links I’ve been filing away since April. Since then, it’s struck me that I’d like to make such posts a weekly endeavour, so that instead of just dropping pieces into a folder and potentially forgetting about them, I can actually group them together. As the vast majority of my bookmarks get dropped into either of two main folders – Feminism, Motherhood, Sexism and Sexuality and SFF, YA and Literary Culture – it only seems fitting to present those links here in two comparable categories: General and SFF, though doubtless there’ll be multiple points of crossover.

Here, then, is the first installment of Weekly Feminist Linkspam.

General

SFF

You guys, that is literally how many links I’ve spotted since the start of September. ONE WEEK. Admittedly, a few of the SFF ones were written a while ago, but all of those are tied in to more recent pieces. Thats *counts* THIRTY-FIVE LINKS. In a WEEK.

Maybe it’s just been a really exceptional seven days for lady-matters, but somehow? I don’t think so.

*headdesk*