Womanhood does not equal Motherhood (a Doctor Who rant)

Thank you to wom*news for allowing me to post this here. I’m looking forward to contributing here more often!

Warning: spoilers for the Doctor Who Christmas Special. Read at your own risk if you are a spoilerphobe.

My relationship with Steven Moffat is deeply fraught with contradictions. (For those of you who don’t know, Moffat is the current head writer behind Doctor Who, and also Sherlock. This post focusses on Doctor Who though.)

On the one hand, he is a brilliant, brilliant writer, and I love his timey-wimey, I love the way he plays with historical settings and plots (though the WW2 thing is getting a bit old now), I love the way he created River Song and the Eleventh Doctor, I love how his mind works.

And then there’s the other side of Moffat, the side that is a man who doesn’t seem to realise how terribly problematic and patriarchal things he says can sound [1], who creates all these intricate plotlines I love and then manages to say something through them that makes the feminist inside me stop dead and say “WTF is going on here? WHY did you have to do that?” (River, you have an awesome career. Shame you only did it to keep track of a man.)

Let it be said that I love Doctor Who so much that it borders on ridiculousness, and I always will. But that doesn’t stop me looking at it in a critical light. Science fiction in particular is a great genre for exploring feminism, ableism, sexism, racism, etc. Most science fiction is able to look at morals and ethics without sounding preachy and overly agenda-d.

But sometimes it also annoys me, because one small that niggles me is built upon by another small thing, and another, until it gets to a point where I just have to stop and rant. This is what happened a few nights ago, while I was watching The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe. I’m probably over-reacting, but it’s a culmination of minor annoyances that I need to get off my chest.

I was enjoying the Christmas special. So the plot wasn’t that great compared to some of Moffat’s other plots, and the opening scenes were a bit gratuitous, and there was a lot of emotion in the wrong places. But I liked the premise, it was a lovely sort of idea that really allowed the actors to shine. It was all a bit cheesy, but all had a good message at heart, even if the father did miraculously survive. Madge Arwell grew on me a lot, even though I found her a bit overbearing at first. But she’s strong, feisty, dedicated to her children – all great things. She faked being a weepy, scared woman in order to pull a gun on three armed humanoids from Androzani (and she totally had me there, I was just getting annoyed at why she had to be so weepy!).

That is, until we found out why Madge was such a strong, amazing character.

That’s right, there’s a reason why she’s so awesome, a very specific one. It’s because she’s a mum, as the Doctor explains. Her strength came from her being a mother. Not from her being a woman, not from her simply being an awesome character. No, it all comes down to the fact that she can do all these things because she is a mother, and that motherhood gives her strength.

Now I’m not doubting that being a mother is something great. I’m sure it is. And on the one hand, I think it’s definitely a step forward for Doctor Who to be focussing on mothers for once, after two series of idealising fathers and largely refusing to deal with mothers (such as in Amy’s pregnancy storyline). But what I’m mad about is the blatant conflation of motherhood and womanhood.

In this episode, motherhood and womanhood are portrayed as one and the same, two sides of a single coin. Madge and Lily are “strong” because they are biologically capable of producing offspring. They’re not strong in their own right, as women. They’re strong as mothers (in Lily’s case, a potential mother).

Haven’t we moved beyond this yet? The idealisation of motherhood as the most worthy pursuit for women? The implication that women who choose not to have children are less women? Surely having children is something wonderful, but it doesn’t define who you are in your entirety. It isn’t the only source of your power. I have no intention of having children because I want to focus on the things I am passionate about, which will lead into my future career. I despise the idea that I’ll want children someday because “every woman wants children” at some point. And I simply won’y buy the idea that I won’t be complete as a woman without the experience of motherhood.

Surely every woman has the potential and the right to be strong and powerful and complete of her own accord first?

Situations like these make me question whether we will ever manage to eradicate gender, and gender-based inequality in regards to opportunity and mindset and discrimination. If we can’t even get past the fact that women are able to have children, then how are we meant to make it work? Does it all start and stop at biology after all?

I don’t have the answers to those questions. I don’t think I ever will. In the meantime, I guess all I can do is point out iffy tropes where I see them. (Even if that means being told time and time again to get over it.)

[1] Some examples I guess: Stereotyping of women as needy and hunting for marriages here, some disturbing comments on Karen Gillan’s casting via here, and a bunch of bothersome bits in episodes such as “I’ll just keep following you home then” (this episode as well as Blink). These are some of the most often quoted examples. From all I have read, my general picture of Moffat is of someone who simply buys into the patriarchy and gender stereotypes without actually engaging with them.

Cross-posted from my own blog, a life unexamined. There is some great discussion of this post in the comments at the original post here.

By Jo.

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