Unpopular opinion time. The new season of Doctor Who starts soon. I’m both excited and nervous for what is going to happen. You see, the last season was a bit of a disappointment, mainly because of the downfall of what was previously a pretty good Strong Female Character (SFC). Like all failings recently in Whoville, our SFC was Moffatized, brought down a notch, and put into her place within the hierarchy.
You see, there are a lot of (particularly male) writers of shows who give us characters we think are promising, we think are going to be that representation of a good, strong female character. We think, finally, a character that isn’t a weeping mess or constantly dependent on others.
And, inevitably, we’re let down.
Take, for example, the character of River Song.
I loved River when she first appeared. She was a brilliant, mysterious scientist who clearly knew who she was. She was independent, and had a little bit of a bad streak. And The Doctor instantly respected her, even without knowing her. She was a model I could look up to.
And then Steven Moffat took the reins of the show. And here’s the thing about Moffat: he thinks he’s writing strong female characters. He will point to each of his females as “strong characters,” and… he’s half right. His female characters are often independent and unwilling to take anyone’s bullshit. But, Moffat, never one to leave well enough alone, usually gives them some kind of weird, crippling fall that inevitably weakens their character extremely.
With Amy Pond, it’s that she has no history or life outside The Doctor. Think about it – with Rose, Martha, and Donna, their families appeared and played significantly parts of the show, they had a life to get back to and a life to live. With Amy, her entire life outside The Doctor is a mystery. There is absolutely nothing we know about her that doesn’t relate back to The Doctor in some way, which isn’t the case for any of the other companions.
While this doesn’t negate her presence as a strong woman, it does undermine her as a realistic character. I can’t relate to Amy outside of The Doctor because there is no HER outside The Doctor.
River Song takes a similar journey. She’s a brilliant woman, a scientist, even, and a great fighter. She doesn’t need anyone else and is good at taking charge.
But then, season six happens. And the River we knew – the River with whom we had fallen in love – is turned into a femme fatale. She’s still brilliant, but now her brilliance is all about how she’s trying outwit The Doctor, not about she just wants to learn things. Even her interest in archaeology is explained as an attempt to find The Doctor. She’s no longer beautifully independent, but instead becomes, almost literally, a tool, an object of manipulation.
Another SFC becomes a weak woman who needs to be set straight and on the right path by a man.
Now, you could explain this evolution of her character by saying that, in the world of the series, we’re seeing her at younger and younger times, so it’s reasonable that our introduction to her would be a better character with more growth than her younger self. This is true, to a point, but then you realize that all her brilliance is then attributed solely to her encounters with and relationship to The Doctor. All of her brilliance isn’t her own making, isn’t her own independent awesomeness, but is shaped and influenced and guided by … a man. Albeit, an alien in the form of an Englishman, but still definitively male.
This is the part where Whovians throw up their hands and yell, “MOFFAT YOU TROLL.”
I’m not sure how to fix this issue, as Strong Female Characters with a Fatal Flaw that makes them Bad Women until they meet The Right Man (SFCFFBW… aw, screw it, you know what I mean) are incredibly common. The main problem seems to be that, in trying to make a strong female character more interesting or to introduce conflict or growth, writers end up destroying the character by making her reactive instead of proactive.
Take the journey of Liz Lemon, for example. She started out as a great, independent woman, but in recent seasons has become totally codependent on Jack, practically unable to make a decision without consulting her mentor. This is part of the humor of the show, but it also weakens her character as a role model. Tina Fey, the creator of this character, seems to have noticed, and in the last season, attempted to curtail that progression. But it was too little too late – the damage was done. Our SFC had become codependent, whiny, and annoying.
But there are some examples, and television is gradually improving. Though I don’t expect that television writers should listen to me, I do think the important thing to remember is this: no matter how fantastical the world you’re creating, your characters need to act and function like real people. They are not stereotypes, and a trope - even if lampshaded and used cleverly - is still a trope. Women are not there simply to react and be the damaged little one who needs rescuing, but can have motivations, occurrences and plot points entirely separate from the male characters in their lives.
One of the ways to do this is to bring in woman writers. The vast majority of writers for television shows and movies are still white men, which naturally skews characters, themes, and plots toward white men. We need to encourage and foster and environment that embraces minority writers – and we’re not going to do it if we’re still living in an environment where male stars can hold up production by demanding that a make-up artist show him her breasts before going to set. Creating a healthy, encouraging environment where women are welcomed for their contributions is merely the first step toward creating realistic, awesome, badass female characters.
Please, don’t let the Moffats of the world control the presentation of women for future generations.