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.