For a long time, despite urging from the various nerds in my life, I didn’t bother to get into the new Doctor Who. (I still have never watched the original series.) But about a year ago, my partner and I moved to a new state so I could go to grad school. Bereft of our former social life, we spent a lot of time snuggling on the couch watching TV, and we got a Netflix subscription, as you do, and then it turned out that the whole run of new Who was available streaming, and things took their natural course. We burned through the first five seasons in time to start watching season 6 in real time this spring. Also, as we do when we really like a show, we gave it a nickname that is far longer than the actual title—in our house we usually refer to it as “What’s-His-Fuck, M.D.”
Before I’d even started watching, I already knew the prevailing opinion of current Who fans was that the show did not become truly amazing until Steven Moffat took over as lead writer and producer at the beginning of the fifth season, the same time that Matt Smith became the new Doctor. (Up until then, the show was run by Russell T. Davies.) I was repeatedly assured that no matter how much I enjoyed Davies’s show—which I really did—the advent of Moffat would blow everything else out of the water.
It has since occurred to me that all of the people who told me this were dudes.
Now, my understanding, never having seen classic Who, is that in the old days the Doctor occasionally had traveling companions who were not hot chicks. But, except for a couple of episodes wherein David Tennant was accompanied in the TARDIS by a delightful grizzled dude whom my partner and I nicknamed “Lawn Gnome Grandpa,” the Doctor of the 21st century has never not had a gorgeous girl at his beck and call. First there was Rose, who was the Doctor’s true love, and eventually got to live happily ever after with a Doctor clone in an alternate universe. Then there was Martha, who lusted after the Doctor unrequitedly, then left the show and reappeared in several cameos where she was way more bad-ass than she’d ever been as a recurring character. (She ended up married to Rose’s ex-boyfriend Mickey, and if you can come up with a better rationale for their union than “hey, they’re both black,” I am all ears.) Finally, there was the glorious and all-too-brief season of Donna.
Donna was my favorite. She was loud and opinionated and made fun of the Doctor a lot and was capable of becoming extremely—and convincingly—shouty when she did not support the Doctor’s intended course of action. Unlike Martha, she wasn’t devastatingly intelligent; unlike Rose, she didn’t win the Doctor’s heart. She never even tried to get in his pants. She was just this normal, originally kind of shallow girl, who found out there was a lot more to life than she’d ever realized. I’m not arguing that Donna was a flawless character—she crossed the line from “brassy and awesome” into “stereotypical shrew” more often than I would have liked—but she was flawed in a way that felt real to me. And I’d still prefer Donna at her worst to what we got after her, any day of the week. Because what we got, after her, was Amy.
Anything positive that Moffat has brought to the show—some extremely creepy villains, the promise of an entire season with no Daleks, the worldwide bow-tie revival I’m certain will happen any day now—is pretty much overshadowed, for me, by the intensity of my dislike for Amy. It’s not that I have a problem with her as a person. She’s pretty! She’s funny! She makes that weird pouty face whenever she’s annoyed! What else can you ask of a female character? I think Amy would be a total blast to get drunk with (two margaritas in I would be like “Girl, the pouty face, what is up with that?”).
Amy as a plot device, however, 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, not just who they wanted to bone or what was growing in their lady parts as a result of said boning. (Granted, Amy’s family was eaten by a crack in the wall, which sort of limits their narrative potential, but still.)
She does occasionally save the universe, as all the Doctor’s companions are contractually obligated to do at least once per season. Her biggest universe-saving moment, however, came about in the most passive way possible—she just had to remember the Doctor really hard. And she had to do it by focusing on the words “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” At her wedding reception. Because if you want a lady to remember something, you need to make it relevant to her wedding. Am I right?
That, basically, is my problem with Amy. She seems to have been conceived by sticking every terrible romantic comedy ever made into a blender and coming out with a slightly lumpy beige mixture of Stuff Girls Like. Girls like weddings! Girls like sex! Girls sometimes try to have sex with boys who are not their boyfriends! Girls like making pouty faces! Girls like having babies! Girls enjoy engaging in banter! Especially girls who are feisty, which is how a lot of people, including Matt Smith, have described Amy. Can we all take a moment here to agree, unequivocally, that “feisty” is the single most condescending adjective in the English language, ranking even above “articulate” in its ability to convey disdain? Thanks so much. Moving on.
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.
I hated that love triangle with a fiery passion. But I did not know what it was to be truly annoyed until the mid-season finale, which happened just a few weeks ago. (The rest of the season airs sometime this fall.) That was when we found out why every episode for several months ended with the exact same shot of the TARDIS unable to decide whether or not Amy was pregnant. She had been both pregnant and non-pregnant at the same time, because the person we’d seen walking around all season wasn’t really Amy—she was a flesh fascimile controlled by Amy’s real brain, which had no idea that it was trapped in a small white room in Amy’s real body. A small white room that bore a remarkable resemblance to a refrigerator. And in that refrigerator, waiting to be rescued, Amy was pregnant.
I’m certainly not saying this situation was her fault—who hasn’t gotten a little confused about which of their bodies was the real one? But the fact is that the actual, physical Amy has not done a single thing so far this season except give birth and hope that her various men would come and save her. And no matter how glad I was that Rory finally got to be a badass and do some rescuing, that underlines what I find so troubling about Amy: the fact that the writers can’t seem to come up with anything for her to do that isn’t directly related to being a woman.
Obviously, lots of women really do have babies. Lots of women really do get entangled in love triangles. Lots of women would like to make out with Matt Smith. And lots of women, if kidnapped by shadowy alien forces with unknown motives, would have a hard time coming up with a better plan than “sit around and wait for someone to come looking.” None of these things are deal-breakers on their own, or even necessarily in combination.
But when it becomes clear that a female character is defined solely in male terms, as someone to be macked on, fought over, knocked up, or rescued, there’s a problem. It’s not even that any of these cliches are insulting. It’s that they’re everywhere, and they’re boring. So much of popular culture is devoted to telling the exact same love-marriage-childbirth story over and over, as though it applies to all women in the world, and peddling the lie that deep down inside that’s all any of us really care about. And lots of us care about those things deeply, but not to the exclusion of everything else.
Female characters don’t have to avoid traditional women’s roles to be realistic and compelling. They just have to do other things at the same time. A mother with dreams and regrets and a rich emotional life is a character. A woman who exists to bring a baby into the world (so that it can grow up and make out with Matt Smith) might as well be made of cardboard.
I worry sometimes that two-dimensional depictions of women in television and film may be warping our cultural understanding of real women’s lives and capabilities. But, more often, I just think it’s astonishingly dull. We’ve all heard this one a million times. Tell us something new.