Posts Tagged ‘Villains’

Recently, my husband and I burned through S1 of Orphan Black, which, as promised by virtually the entire internet, was awesome. But in all the praise I’d seen for it, a line from one review in particular stuck in my mind. The reviewer noted that, although the protagonist, Sarah, is an unlikeable character, her grifter skills make her perfectly suited to unravelling the mystery in which she finds herself. And as this was a positive review, I kept that quote in mind when we started watching, sort of by way of prewarning myself: you maybe won’t like Sarah, but that’s OK.

But here’s the thing: I fucking loved Sarah. I mean, I get what the reviewer was trying to say, in that she’s not always a sympathetic character, but that’s not the same as her actually being unlikeable. And the more I watched, the more I found myself thinking: why is this quality, the idea of likeability, considered so important for women, but so optional for men – not just in real life, but in narrative? Because when it comes to guys, we have whole fandoms bending over backwards to write soulful meta humanising male characters whose actions, regardless of their motives, are far less complex than monstrous. We take male villains and redeem them a hundred, a thousand times over – men who are murderers, stalkers, abusers, kinslayers, traitors, attempted or successful rapists; men with personal histories so bloody and tortured, it’s like looking at a battlefield. In doing this, we exhibit enormous compassion for and understanding of the nuances of human behaviour – sympathy for circumstance, for context, for motive and character and passion and rage, the heartache and, to steal a phrase, the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to; and as such, regardless of how I might feel about the practice as applied in specific instances, in general, it’s a praiseworthy endeavour. It helps us to see human beings, not as wholly black and white, but as flawed and complicated creatures, and we need to do that, because it’s what we are.

But when it comes to women, a single selfish or not-nice act – a stolen kiss, a lie, a brushoff – is somehow enough to see them condemned as whores and bitches forever. We readily excuse our favourite male characters of murder, but if a woman politely turns down a date with someone she has no interest in, she’s a timewasting user bimbo and god, what does he even see in her? Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen some great online meta about, for instance, the soulfulness and moral ambiguity of Black Widow, but I’ve also seen a metric fucktonne more about what that particular jaw-spasm means in that one GIF of Cumberbatch/Ackles/Hiddleston/Smith alone, and that’s before you get into the pages-long pieces about why Rumplestiltskin or Hook or Spike or Bucky Barnes or whoever is really just a tortured woobie who needs a hug. Hell, I’m guilty of writing some of that stuff myself, because see above: plus, it’s meaty and fun and exactly the kind of analysis I like to write.

And yet, we tend overwhelmingly not to write it about ladies. It’s not just our cultural obsession with pushing increasingly specific variants of the Madonna/Whore complex onto women, such that audiences are disinclined to extend to female characters the same moral/emotional licenses they extend to men; it’s also a failure to create narratives where the women aren’t just flawed, but where the audience is still encouraged to like them when they are.

Returning to Orphan Black, for instance, if Sarah were male, he’d be unequivocally viewed as either a complex, sympathetic antihero or a loving battler with a heart of gold. I mean, the ex-con trying to go straight and get his daughter back while still battling the illegalities of his old life and punching bad guys? Let me introduce you to SwordfishDeath Race, and about a millionty other stories where a father’s separation from a beloved child, whether as a consequence of his actual criminal actions, shiftless neglect, sheer bad luck or a combination of all three, is never couched as a reason why he might not be a fit parent. We tend to accept, both culturally and narratively, that men who abandon their children aren’t automatically bad dads; they just have other, important things to be doing first, like coming to terms with parenthood, saving the world, escaping from prison or otherwise getting their shit together. But Sarah, who left her child in the care of someone she trusted absolutely, has to jump through hoops to prove her maternal readiness on returning; has to answer for her absence over and over again. And on one level, that’s fine; that’s as it should be, because Sarah’s life is dangerous. And yet, her situation stands in glaring contrast to every returning father who’s never been asked to do half so much, because women aren’t meant to struggle with motherhood, to have to try to succeed: we’re either maternal angels or selfish absentees, and the idea that we might sometimes be both or neither isn’t one you often see depicted with such nuance.

Which isn’t to say that we never see mothers struggling – it’s just seldom with their desire to actually be mothers. Maternal angels struggle with the day-to-day business of domesticity: how to deal with teenage chatback and those oh-so-hilariously forgetful sitcom husbands, how to balance the bills and keep everyone fed, how to find time for themselves amidst all their endless finding time for others. By contrast, selfish absentees are usually career-oriented single mothers in high-stress jobs, either unwilling or unable to find the appropriate amount of time for their children. Looking at the gender disparity in the characterisation of TV detectives who are also parents is particularly interesting: not only are the men more likely to have wives at home (to begin with, at least), they’re also more likely to be granted reconciliation with their children later. Contrast obsessive, depressive detective Kurt Wallander, who slowly rebuilds his relationship with his daughter, with obsessive, depressive detective Sarah Lund, who steadily destroys the possibility of a relationship with her son. Compare single fathers like Seeley Booth and Richard Castle, whose ability to parent well is never implied to be compromised by their devotion to the job, with single mothers like Alex Fielding and Gloria Sheppard, whose characterisation is largely defined by the difficulties of striking a balance between the two roles. Orphan Black’s Sarah is a rare creature, in that she falls outside the usual boxes for maternal categorisation, and in so doing forces us to re-examine exactly why that is.

In fact, though their respective shows and stories are utterly dissimilar in every other respect, in terms of her approach to motherhood, the character Sarah most reminded me of was Laura Gibson, the protagonist of SeaChange, an Australian show about which I have previously waxed lyrical, and which I cannot recommend highly enough. Though ostensibly subject to the same stereotyping outlined above – Laura was a high-flying corporate lawyer and newly single mother whose decision to move to a small town and reconnect with her family constituted the titular sea-change – she was written with such complexity and feeling as to defy the cliché. She was eager and well-meaning, but just as often selfish and oblivious. Though she learned to slow down and listen to others over the course of three series, she never became a domestic goddess or a motherly martyr; nor did she magically lose her flaws or suddenly develop a perfect relationship with her children. Instead, she remained a prickly, complex character, quick to both give and take offence, but also introspective, passionate, sly and caring. Like Sarah, she wasn’t always sympathetic, but that didn’t stop me from loving her, flaws and all.

But what of female villains? Perhaps I’m just not reading the right meta, but it’s always seemed a bit glaring to me that, whereas (for instance) there are endless paeans to the moral complexity and intricate personal histories of the Buffyverse’s Spike and Angel, their female counterparts, Drusilla and Darla, never seem to merit the same degree of compulsive protection. I’ve seen a bit of positive/sympathetic meta surrounding Once Upon A Time’s Regina, but otherwise, I can’t think of many overtly antagonistic female characters whose actions and motives are viewed as complex, and therefore potentially redemptive, instead of just as proof that they’re bad women. We think of men as antiheroes, as capable of occupying an intense and fascinating moral grey area; of being able to fall, and rise, and fall again, but still be worthy of love on some fundamental level, because if it was the world and its failings that broke them, then we surely must owe them some sympathy. But women aren’t allowed to be broken by the world; or if we are, it’s the breaking that makes us villains. Wronged women turn into avenging furies, inhuman and monstrous: once we cross to the dark side, we become adversaries to be defeated, not lost souls in need of mending. Which is what happens, when you let benevolent sexism invest you in the idea that women are humanity’s moral guardians and men its native renegades: because if female goodness is only ever an inherent quality – something we’re born both with and to be – then once lost, it must necessarily be lost forever, a severed limb we can’t regrow. Whereas male goodness, by virtue of being an acquired quality – something bestowed through the kindness of women, earned through right action or learned through struggle – can just as necessarily be gained and lost multiple times without being tarnished, like a jewel we might pawn in hardship, and later reclaim.

Throughout history, women’s legal status and protections have been tied to the question of whether or not they’re seen to be virtuous, whatever that means in context. The sworn virgins of Albania were granted equal status with men – indeed, were allowed to live and act as men – provided they never had sex, owing to a specific legal stricture which ascribed female virgins the same financial worth as men, while valuing women less. The big three monotheisms – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – all boast scriptures and/or religious laws that have, both historically and in the modern day, allotted specific legal privileges to women provided they remain virtuous; privileges which are invariably retracted should the woman in question be seen to have strayed, or become tarnished, or to have otherwise lost her virtue. We see this echoed in modern rape culture, which puts the onus for self-protection on women to such a degree that, far too often, if a woman is raped, her victimhood is viewed as a consequence of poor character – because if she really was innocent, then how did she let it happen? Why was she dressed that way, or out late, or drinking? Why, if she wasn’t already lacking in virtue, would she have been in the company of a rapist?

And so, our treatment of morally ambiguous female characters ends up paralleling some truly toxic assumptions about gender and morality. Women cannot act to redeem themselves independently, because under far too many laws, our need of redemption voids our right to try and reacquire it. Good women can redeem broken men, but good men can’t redeem broken women, because once we’re broken, we lose our virtue; and without our virtue, we’re no longer women, but monsters, witches and viragos.

Which is why, to come full circle, I fucking love the fact that Orphan Black’s Sarah Manning isn’t always sympathetic; isn’t always traditionally likeable.  She is, rather, an antiheroine in the most literal sense: and with all the Madonna/Whore bullshit we’re still caught up in imposing on women, that’s a class of character we desperately need to see more of.

(Note: I’ve only talked about men and women here, rather than third gender, genderfluid and other gender non-conforming persons, because it’s men and women we usually see depicted in stories, and whose narratives therefore form the bulk of our cultural stereotyping. The absence or elision of narratives concerning other genders, however, along with their own highly stereotyped portrayals when they do appear, is a problem in and of itself, and a contributing factor in the way men and women are stereotyped: because when we view gender purely as a fixed binary phenomenon, whether consciously or unconsciously, we make it harder to see beyond the rules that binary has traditionally imposed on our thinking, repeatedly foisting “masculine”/”feminine” values onto successive new characters without ever stopping to think that actually, we might challenge or subvert those norms instead, a blindness which only helps to further perpetuate the problem.)

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.