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The Doctor? A woman? Perish the thought!


The 12th Doctor is Peter Capaldi.

I haven’t seen much of his acting, but the people who have are really excited, so it seems like he’s a good choice. A fairly predictable and traditional choice, but a good one.

But after yesterday’s special, I may actually be done with Doctor Who.

They cast a white, male actor as the Doctor, as they have done twelve times, ever since the 60s. And everyone involved knew that. It was their expected default move. Yet they spent an LOT of time hyping up how this Doctor is going to be unexpected, a change in direction, something that might take people out of their comfort zone. They made sure that their press release, and any mention of the actor before the reveal, explicitly said “the man or woman,” “he or she.” And a lot of time was dedicated to the discussion of whether they would cast a female Doctor. 

They hadn’t, of course. The big “shock” with this Doctor was that he was an older white male than usual. But they still pushed the idea, over and over again, that there would be change. That a female Doctor would be a possibility.

In other words, they were using the very real issue of media representation as a PR device. They used it to build up hype, without actually having to do anything hype-worthy.

As I’ve said before, I’m pretty glad that Steven Moffat isn’t responsible for a female Doctor. That would be a mess of sexist stereotypes just waiting to happen. But it’s frustrating and disappointing that they used the idea as part of their promotion, especially when Moffat made it explicitly clear that he would never, never never never, consider casting a woman for the part.

As he said on TV last night:

I like that Helen Mirren has been saying the next doctor should be a woman. I would like to go on record and say that the Queen should be played by a man.

This is not a paraphrase. He actually said that on live TV. Apart from confirming that Moffat is completely oblivious about his sexism, I think this statement shows two things:

1. Moffat sees the Doctor as a 100% male character. The idea of casting a woman to play him is as preposterous as casting a man to play Queen Elizabeth II.

2. He truly doesn’t understand the issue, or any of the criticisms of the sexism of the show. At all. He thinks that casting a woman to playing a traditionally male part is the same as casting a man to play a female part, despite the fact that male protagonists are the norm in science fiction and that there’s a dearth of good female roles and role models for viewers. Add in the preposterous fact that Queen Elizabeth’s role has actually been played by both real men and male actors throughout history (they’re called kings, Moffat. We had a lot of them), and that last year was literally the first time it was possible for a woman to become ruler over younger male siblings, and you have to wonder what planet he lives on. One where men and women are completely equal and have been throughout history, but where women are still “different” and somehow less capable, apparently.

And I’m not sure I want to watch a show run by somebody so stuck in his own privileged ignorance any more. Especially when that show uses the idea of progress and equality and change as a promotional tool rather than something that deserves serious consideration.

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Doctor Horrible and Women in Refrigerators


Don’t you just love it when your ipod shuffle brings up something great you’d forgotten about? For me, this weekend, it was the random playing of the Doctor Horrible soundtrack that reminded me how fun that miniseries was.

It’s charming, ridiculous, funny and heartbreaking, and in just 45 minutes, it plays with and breaks a lot of superhero tropes. The music was a lot of fun to listen to. Except, as I played through it, I noticed many uncomfortable tones that I had missed when the series first came out. Because although the show plays with our expectations and is nothing like a traditional superhero/supervillain story, in one way it is incredibly conventional: it fridges Penny.


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How The Lord of the Rings Broke My Heart


When I was a teenager, I was a massive Lord of the Rings fan. I would count down to the release of each movie, see them multiple times in the theater, and could pretty much recite Fellowship of the Ring from memory. I read the books over and over, my internet usernames were all elf-inspired, and I dreamed of one day owning a replica of the Evenstar.

I loved Arwen, but my favorite female character (not that there were many to choose from) was Eowyn. What a badass she was. To my teenage mind, The Lord of the Rings didn’t have many female characters, but the ones that existed were awesome. 

Then I made the mistake of rereading the books in college. Suddenly I wondered why everyone was male, except for a couple of elegant elves who were mostly off-screen and a hobbit who exists to get married. I was disturbed by the racist tones that ran through the whole thing. But most of all, I was heartbroken by Eowyn.

Because Eowyn, as she exists in the books, is not a badass feminist figure. Not by a long shot. She does several badass things, disguising herself as a man to ride with the Rohirrim and defying and killing the Witch King to protect Theoden. But the book always presents her from a distance, with constant references to her “fairness” and her “beauty,” as though she is something to be seen, rather than a person who acts. And in the end, her fighting, her defiance, is presented as unnatural. She’s a delicate and beautiful lily, warped by necessity, and as soon as she sets eyes on Faramir, “her heart changes.” She declares that she will be a shieldmaiden no longer, and instead dedicate herself to being a healer — a far more suitable female pursuit. It’s almost as though she fought the Witch King because the legend needed someone weak and otherwise unlikely to do it (after all, no MAN can kill him), because the world was wrong and it needed something similarly wrong to do it, something that left Eowyn utterly broken and scarred and as hard as steel. And once the world is healed, she can heal too, and be the womanly figure she was always supposed to be.

The release of The Hobbit was equally sad for me. I wanted to enjoy it. I wanted to love it. But all I could think was why, barring a somewhat forced appearance of Galadriel, did not a single female face appear in the movie. Never mind significant female characters. Never mind flat or stereotyped or useless female characters. None. A huge cast of main characters, and all of them were male. My thirteen year old self would have just accepted it as normal (in fact, I did, when I read the book for the first time). Now, I have to wonder why this was considered a good, normal thing.

I still love many things about The Lord of the Rings. Its perspective on good and evil is incredibly simplistic, but it has some compelling elements, and the movies manage to avoid a lot of problems I found in the books. But as I read the books, I can tell that it clearly wasn’t written for anyone like me. The female characters weren’t intended to be characters. They were not intended to be people with independent roles in the story. And I have to wonder — why did I miss these things at 13, or 15? Had I just been trained to see these things as normal? Or was I so desperate to see fantasy and adventure stories with any female characters that I was more than willing to overlook the problems in what I was seeing? These women were warriors and elf princesses, with pretty fantasy dresses and awesome horseriding skills and swords. It was great to imagine being them, and to skim over the details in the books themselves that suggested the characters had never been who I hoped and pictured them to be.

And so finding out that I had misread the characters, that Eowyn and Arwen were never intended to be heroines in that way, that in fact their “heroine” status was taken away by the end of the story? That was a heartbreaking moment.

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New Adult Fiction


When I heard that New Adult was becoming a thing, I was really excited. I spent a lot of my first post-college year feeling kind of lost, and wishing there were books about characters my age, going through the sorts of things I was going through. And if not that, at least some books about characters in college, so I could feel close to their experiences. I wanted more books about female characters who weren’t teenagers.

Turns out the New Adult is just repackaged romance. And usually, it seems, not even good romance. It’s not at all about the female protagonist, and entirely about the true love she’s about to discover.

In fact, if you’ve read one New Adult novel, you’ve read them all. Sweet innocent usually studious and scholarly girl goes to college. She doesn’t fit in with her party girl friends, and is a bit of an outcast as a result (because no one actually studies in college!). She meets a bad-boy guy with a heart of gold. One or the other of them has some dark past trauma that needs dealing with. They fall in love, but drama happens. And somewhere along the way, there’s some kind of sexual assault plot. For flavor.

If someone can find a New Adult novel that doesn’t adhere to these tropes, I would love to hear about it. But I’ve yet to find it.

I just finished reading True by Erin McCarthy. Like all of the New Adult novels I’ve come across, it’s almost entirely romance-focussed. It was a fairly quick, enjoyable read, with some good chemistry between the main characters, but seriously. It stuck to these tropes in a way that didn’t even make sense. The first chapter involves a sexual assault on the main character which is basically never mentioned again. The hero rescues her, but seems more mad that the guy kicked our heroine after the fact than about the assault itself. None of the characters friends take it seriously at all. It is a complete non-event, thrown in simply as a reason for our hero and heroine to interact. 

The books I’ve read swing from being kind of substanceless and melodramatic to frankly offensive. Rape is a plot device. The heroine is “not like other girls,” because she doesn’t party and sleep with random guys every night. And the guy is always the most important thing to happen in her life.

As I’ve heard it being called in the media, New Adult is less the exploration of what life is life for college-age and early-twenties women, and more “Fifty Shades of Grey set in college,” all offensiveness included. I’m really disappointed. But perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised.

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Women and the Oscars

I didn’t watch the Oscars last night. The time difference between the UK and LA is brutal, and a scroll through my Twitter feed this morning, along with links to things such as “9 Sexist Things That Happened at the Oscars” and general disgust over Seth McFarlane as presenter, quickly convinced me not to both watching this morning.

It seems to me that the women are there to model the fashions (and be praised or torn apart for their efforts) and the men are there to represent the serious side of the industry and win the serious awards. And that’s reflected in everything about the awards, from the “jokes” made by the presenter, to the intense criticism of everything that female stars do (overwhelmed Anne Hathaway is too enthusiastic, while walking-in-crutches Kristin Stewart is not enthusiastic enough), to the nominee lists themselves.

Because, to be frank, it’s lucky that there are separate categories for “best actress” and “best supporting actress.” Otherwise, it hardly seems like women would appear on the list at all.


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Pride and Prejudice


Today is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice! Yay!

Pride and Prejudice is one of my absolute favorite novels. It is scathingly witty, with great female characters, an addictive story, and one of the most lasting romances of all time.

It also has a bit of a built-in test for its readers in its first line. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” Austen begins, and anyone eager to dismiss a female writer and her work as frivolous and sentimental can believe she is being serious and stop reading there. Those who are a little less presumptuous can laugh at Austen’s irony (and, weirdly, at the fact that Austen’s ironic statement actually turns out to be true in the novel) and tuck into a treat.

Elizabeth Bennet is one of the most liked and most respected female characters in literary history. She is intelligent, quick-witted and passionate about what she believes in, with little concern for the opinions of others, especially rich men who are too proud for their own good. She is also, in a fashion unusual for a female character, rather flawed. She’s quick to judge, too ready to dismiss Charlotte when she does something of which she disapproves, and is too willing to laugh at and reject rather than try to understand or accept. Sometimes nowadays she just comes off as a “modern girl” who is rejecting the repressive standards of her time, but she is far from a perfect figure of goodness, and when put into a modern context, as The Lizzie Bennet Diaries show, a lot easier to condemn. And this depth, the fact that she’s not always the perfect sensible heroine and that she’s not always right, only makes her story more interesting and more powerful.

And then there’s the story itself. Pride and Prejudice has all the wrappings of a happily-ever-after romance. After all, Darcy and Lizzie fall in love, everyone gets married, and nobody worried about money again. But behind it is a very pointed commentary on the difficulties in women’s lives. Mrs Bennet is obsessed with marriage — because it is the only possible route for happiness for herself and her daughters. Without a good marriage, when Mr Bennet dies, she and her daughters will lose their home and be tossed out onto the charity of a distant relative (and, as Sense and Sensibility shows, such charity can hardly be counted on). They cannot make money for themselves, they cannot do anything to improve their lot, except find a husband who can provide further male protection. The reality of it is harsh, and the Bennets are in a highly precarious situation — one that Lizzie does not always seem to fully understand, judging from her repeated willingness to reject men (first Mr Collins, and then Mr Darcy) would could provide that security not only for herself, but also for her entire family.

Although Pride and Prejudice is arguably Austen’s happiest and fluffiest novel, it has a dark social spectre in the background, one she explores in other novels, one that she satires to some extent in this novel, and one that could very possibly have caused the Bennets’ downfall without the powers of happily-ever-after and Darcy’s intervention.

It is both a really enjoyable and really important novel, from a feminist perspective and from a literary perspective in general. Although it would be a little radical to say that Austen was a hardcore 19th century feminist, her work both presented engaging, realistic, varied and flawed female characters, and played a part in the development of literature that addressed the difficulties and prejudices that well-off women faced in their lives at this time.

Pride and Prejudice is a wonderful book, and I cannot wait to sink my teeth into it again in celebration of the anniversary this week.

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Why HBO’s Girls Matters

Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls is back, and with it comes the intense vitriol directed against both the show, and against Lena Dunham herself. It’s more than a little uncomfortable to read reviews that attack Dunham for being “blobby,” and as someone who lives the whole “post college, aspiring writer, insecure about everything” lifestyle, there’s something personally painful about reviews that attack the series’ characters for being the worst kind of lazy, self-indulgent human beings possible. The problems that Hannah and her friends face, and the things that they say, are self-conscious and somewhat exaggerated, but they also ring true — and I think it’s this truth, more than anything, that inspires such hatred of the show.

Because Girls is messy. In a media culture where women are expected to have that glossy sheen of perfection, and where likeable characters rarely have any flaws more serious that clumsiness or a shopping addiction, the characters in Girls actually act like human beings. And, as human beings, they are not always likeable. Their thoughts and actions aren’t always logical, and they are at times irrational, emotional, and selfish. They have ambitions, and the sort of arrogance that comes with holding any kind of ambition, but they also have extreme self-consciousness and self-doubt about them… because, perhaps, they aren’t perfect, and non-perfect women are often viewed as unacceptable. They’re not all “conventionally pretty,” slathered in makeup and wearing the world’s most perfect clothes. They don’t always have a direction, or even know what they want. To me, their lives are less “funny ha ha” and more painful to watch, but they are oh so fabulously real.

And that, it seems, is unacceptable. By having a TV show written by a young writer, based on her own experiences, where the characters are often deeply, unlikeably flawed, it’s almost as if it’s saying that it’s OK for viewers, for women in general, to be flawed as well. That they don’t have to have a glossy sheen all the time, that it’s OK to not obsess over being as thin as possible, that it’s OK to be insecure and kind of self-loathing but also somewhat ambitious, somewhat selfish, and to screw up a lot along the way.

The show is far from perfect, and it would be too far to hail it as “the voice of our generation” or anything so dramatic as that. But I do think it’s an important show. And the fact that it’s upsetting, even disgusting, so many critics is important too.

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Easy A


Over the Christmas break, I rewatched the comedy Easy A (thank you, Netflix!). For those who are unfamiliar, Easy A is a teen movie about a girl named Olive, who lies to her best friend about losing her virginity, and instantly becomes the focus of her school’s gossip mill. When a gay friend asks her to pretend to hook up with him to save him from bullying, she sews a scarlet A on her clothes and goes into business as the School Slut, allowing desperate guys to lie about hooking up with her in exchange for gift vouchers and money. Meanwhile, the school’s Jesus Brigade turns on her, determined to force her to leave the school for her sinful behavior.

The film has been praised as a feminist teen movie, with a powerful message about teen sexuality (aka, that it’s no one’s business but your own). And Easy A is a really fun film. But despite its apparently sex-positive exterior, the film is, in my opinion, pretty darn problematic when viewed from a feminist perspective.


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Unlikeable Female Characters

Over the weekend, YA author Courtney Summers blogged about the importance of unlikeable female characters in her novels. In particular, she talks about how she felt the constant need to soften up or apologize for the unlikeable protagonists in her early novels, or somehow make clear that they are nice people deep down, honestly. As she rightly points out, no one feels like they have to apologize for unlikeable male characters. Their unlikeability often becomes part of the reason that they’re likeable. But female characters must, at their core, be good, or no one will be willing to put up with them.

Actually, the “unlikeable” nature of Courtney Summers’ protagonists is one of the reasons I love her books. She presents messed up teenage girls in all their glory — selfish, narrow minded, temperamental and unpredictable, spiteful, perfectionist, self-destructive, self-loathing, and deeply, deeply flawed. Not because all teenage girls are this way, but because girls are people, and people have unlikeable elements to them. Every time one of Summers’ characters lashes out at someone else because they are hurting themselves, or puts up walls, or loses their temper, I like them a little bit more, because they are unapologetically, compellingly human. I probably wouldn’t want to hang out with them, but I love reading about them, because it makes such flaws (which everyone has) seem more acceptable.

Because let’s be honest. There’s a lot of unspoken pressure on girls to be perfect. To put others before themselves, and never ever screw up… because if they do lose their tempers, or do something less than perfectly likeable, they have failed. At life. At being a person. They must apologize for themselves, even when doing completely reasonable things, just in case someone finds it objectionable.

So having a series of unapologetically flawed female characters is refreshing, to say the least. No one should aspire to be like Summers’ characters, but readers might see parts of themselves in them, and find some catharsis in following these characters sorting through their own many problems. We spend a lot of time reading about “anti-heroes,” about angsting men and their pain. It’s time for girls to get in the action too.

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The Hobbit

A few weeks ago, I wrote that I wasn’t particularly excited about seeing the Hobbit, due the story’s slight “no women in Middle Earth” problem.

I don’t know whether this is a sign of the enjoyability of the movie, or simply of habits ingrained by years of movie watching, but the lack of female characters (excepting, of course, the powerful Galadriel) did not stop me enjoying the story. The film was what it was, and that was a retelling of one of the oldest, most classic, and so most male and white modern fantasy tales we have. And in that context, the film was actually quite an interesting achievement.

I’m not going to try to argue that The Hobbit was a feminist movie — with only one female character in the whole film, that feels a bit of a stretch. I’m not even going to claim that the film was perfectly executed, because I think it had many flaws. But I think it presented the all-male fantasy adventure in a somewhat new way, valuing strengths other than sheer might and blunt, obvious bravery.


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