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The Girls Left Behind

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WARNING: This post contains spoilers for the season finale of Doctor Who.

In the recent Doctor Who finale, Clara Oswald said goodbye first to her love interest Danny and then to the Doctor, both heartbreaking separations that deprived Clara of almost everything we’ve seen her care about in the show. She doesn’t get to make a choice to leave or to fight or to do anything, really, except be left in mundanity alone. And although Clara will hopefully get a different ending in the series finale, it got me thinking about how common these endings are. Amy was known as the “girl who waited,” and I’ve written about that trope before, but I think a better term would be “the girl who was left behind.”

When writers want to give female characters anything other than a happy ending, they rarely choose for them to go down in a blaze of glory, saving the world or their loved ones in dramatic fashion. Female character don’t often seem to self-destruct, or even to quietly choose to leave. They’re often just left with nothing.

Doctor Who is particularly bad for this. Even back in season two, Rose left the series completely involuntarily, crying on the beach because she was trapped in a parallel world and could never see the Doctor again or return home. Sure, she had her parents, and she built herself a good life, but we left her with the sense that she’d lost everything she cared about. Donna similarly lost everything against her will, with the Doctor wiping her memories of all their adventures, without even consulting her on what she would prefer. She lost all of her character development, all of her confidence, all her knowledge that she was amazing… back at home, like she was before. Amy at least chose to go back in time to be with Rory, even though again she lost everything that wasn’t him. And now Clara is alone, without Danny, without her best friend, no other friends or relatives shown on screen, just… left.

Each moment feels like an attempt to have a tragic ending without having the companion die. But in some ways, it’s a worse ending than if they did die. Characters like Danny get to leave the show by heroically acting to take down the bad guys, sacrificing themselves in the process. They don’t simply get left. But with characters like Clara, our final glimpse is one of sadness and powerlessness. If they do get a say in their own conclusion, it’s quiet, unremarked-upon self-sacrifice — the decision to go quietly, rather than the decision to go down in a blaze of glory.

And it’s got me thinking about female characters in other stories. Although she eventually gets her temporary happy ending, Arwen spends most of Lord of the Rings wasting away because she’s been left behind. And at the end of her story, she dies of a broken heart because Aragorn died, all the other elves left, and she has nothing. Such beautiful tragedy, right? Or Elizabeth Swann, the pirate king, left on an island with nothing because Will got cursed.

It’s the trope of the hero’s girlfriend waiting for him, hoping he comes back alive, taken to the extreme. Sure, these characters can be heroes themselves for the duration of the story, but once it comes to an end, they fall back into that pattern of waiting and loss. The weak damsel seems far more evocative than the strong heroine, and so their tragic endings are about powerlessness, about a lack of choice.

And it’s incredibly tiring. The character’s emotional journey, her previous achievements, her many talents… none of these seem to matter once we reach this “bittersweet” ending. These characters are left diminished, undermining all of the adventure that came before.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

4 thoughts on “The Girls Left Behind

  1. Well, I’d like to point out Martha, specifically in Doctor Who. She was pretty awesome. While all the other female companions were forced to leave, she chose to leave for herself. She knew her family needed her, and she knew there was nothing left for her in the Doctor. She realized she would have to choose one day, and she didn’t keep putting it off like Amy or Clara (arguably, both torn between a relationship outside the Doctor, and life in the TARDIS; I’m not mentioning Rose or Donna, because Donna wholeheartedly wanted to go with him, and Rose ends up leaving behind Mickey and choosing life with the Doctor in the TARDIS until she can’t have it any more). I really love Martha for that reason. She and Adelaide Brooke in “Waters of Mars” are the two people who I thought really really REALLY deserved just… so much more. They were awesome. And I think Martha got that in Series 4. And Adelaide… oh my gosh, that ENDING. That episode is one of my very favorites. <3 They both had a choice, and they took it. Martha enjoyed her journeys with the Doctor, and Adelaide I like especially because she never begged to get in the TARDIS. She just said, "Get me out alive, or ELSE."
    Personally, for me, I don't like how Moffat writes his female characters as much as I like how RTD does (with the exception of Martha and Adelaide, of course). I realize that all their characters (except Martha and Adelaide) fall into the damsel-in-distress trope, but Amy and Clara were both very similar, with different endings. They both seem to have feelings/want to travel with the Doctor and be with their boyfriend/husband. I actually found Clara a little bit more self-respecting than Amy, because she believes the Doctor has found Gallifrey, and doesn't want to spoil his happiness by giving him bad news. Though I do agree, girls like Adelaide Brooke and Martha Jones need more air time! ESPECIALLY on a futuristic, science fiction show like Doctor Who.

    1. I love Martha! I wish she wasn’t forgotten so often as a companion. As far as I remember, she’s the only one of the new companions who actually CHOSE to leave the Doctor, because the dynamic was unhealthy, AND she saved the world as well. She was definitely in my mind as I wrote this, as a not-entirely-happy departure done right.

  2. This reminds me of watching the extras on Shaun of the dead and finding out that the make up artists didn’t want the ‘girls’ to look messed up throughout the ordeal of a zombie apocalypse! Women are not really ‘allowed’ to get messed up in any way, in most telly and film, leaving us with the passivity that you describe. Sacrifice that results in death, esp a violent death is fairly rare for women.

  3. Let’s not forget what we saw of Sarah Jane in the new series! She had a whole touching scene about how the Doctor left her behind and she couldn’t do anything, except try and emulate the life she had with him via her journalism. Which is what Rose did (joined Torchwood), and Martha (joined UNIT).

    Also Cho Chang.

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