Lucy Pegg explores whether Clara looks set to follow a similar traditional trajectory to other companions on Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who. Will she fulfil the role of "strong character, female" Hope Dinsdale highlighted when she wrote about women on the programme back in 2011?
The second half of series seven of Doctor Who is now well under way and the show brings the (not so) new companion Clara Oswald (Jenna Louise Coleman) back to our screens. Since Steven Moffat took over in 2010, there have been increasing concerns among some fans about the way he represents women; in 2011, Hope Dinsdale looked at how the show has treated its female characters in more recent years and, since then, many articles and blog posts have commented on the very traditional “happy ending” given to most women in Moffat’s era of the show. Indeed, it seems nearly all are now either defined by their ability to conceive children or base most of their lives around their relationships and the writers seem to have a penchant for settling them down along these lines at their end of the stories. Having a family is obviously a valid lifestyle to choose but it isn’t the only one available to women and when a proportion of a programme is young and impressionable, accurate representations of all groups are surely important.
From what we have seen of her so far, does Clara look set to follow this path? Will she fulfil the role of “strong character, female”, highlighted in Hope Dinsdale’s piece, rather than simply a “strong female character” who is defined by her gender or functions as an exception to the rule?
Although Jenna Louise Coleman has already appeared in Asylum of the Daleks and The Snowmen, Clara’s first official appearance as companion comes in The Bells of Saint John, a story set in the frequently targeted London of present day. We see The Doctor (Matt Smith) in a monastery where he has clearly been meditating on the issue of the Clara/Oswin characters. This arguably establishes the idea that it is Clara who has the upper hand in this relationship. After all, it is not her dedicating her life to tracking down the Doctor. This seems to be in direct contrast to River‘s behaviour (Alex Kingston), who appeared to have entirely committed her life to meeting her beloved Doctor throughout their entwined timelines. In addition to this there is a subversion of stereotypical behaviour in the scenes in which the time lord cares for the unconscious Clara after she is un-downloaded from the server, setting out flowers, tending to her and generally taking on a traditionally feminine conjugal role.
An awareness of attitudes towards women is something else found refreshingly frequently in this episode. For example, the monk’s terrified reaction to the Doctor saying a woman is phoning him is a playful historical comment, acknowledging previous prejudices against women rather than being sexist in itself. Similarly, Clara’s (albeit flirtatious) refusal to enter the TARDIS recognises rape culture and the circumstances we live in today, without making this the crux of the story: when the Doctor, at this point a virtual stranger, insists on Clara entering his police box, her reluctance highlights the dangers women navigate in day to day life (as opposed to the alien threat, which is the actual hazard looming). Faced with a man whose behaviour up until that point would have seemed quite odd to her, it is understandable that Clara would be reluctant to enter what seems like a particularly confined space with him.
In many ways, these underlying references to gender injustices are just as important as more obvious discussions of the issues; it makes them commonplace, reflecting how they are in reality. For example, many women don’t directly fight for better representation in government or participate in other large scale struggles every day of their lives, but are frequently subjected to wolf-whistling and cat calls when they step outside their front door daring to wear anything even slightly revealing. Lending weight to Hope Dinsdale’s comments about the sexualisation of the companion/Doctor relationship, Clara asking if the TARDIS is “like a snogging booth” means that, in this instance, it is The Doctor who falls victim to this phenomena; his concerns are genuinely for her safety but are twisted by the implications of the society we live within to seem like a sexual advance.
Clara’s role as a childminder to the Maitlands – an echo of Jenna Louise Coleman’s second mysterious portrayal of Clara in the Christmas Special (The Snowmen) – is one she appears to perform well. However, she did not willingly choose to be in this position and is not satisfied with it in the long term. She is trapped by circumstances within a role which perhaps fell to her as the only available woman after their mother’s death. It could be said that Victorian Clara from The Snowmen was in a similar situation, with her career of governess/barmaid being one of a very few opportunities available to most Victorian women. When the Doctor presses Clara on why she continues to help the Maitlands, telling her she doesn’t “really seem like a nanny”, she refuses to be defined by the role. She cares for the children because she is compassionate and knows what it is like to lose a mother, but that does not mean she will not take charge of her own future in the manner she desires. Whereas childcare and motherhood are what Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) very much wanted to attain, it is the life Clara has fallen into and which she strives to escape. She climbs aboard the TARDIS to get away from domestic duties, whereas Amy left it in order to pursue them.
In the second episode, The Rings of Akhaten, despite having apparently run away from this life, Clara once again is put on child care duty. There is also a noticeable shift back to a focus on mothering which has been absent since the Ponds’ departure. This perhaps comes both in the form of Clara’s relationship with the Queen of Years, Merry Gejelh (Emilia Jones) – which it could alternatively be argued contains more sisterly affection than motherly – and the exploration of Clara’s backstory which comes into play to save the day. The problem with this episode is not that Clara is shown to be a damsel in distress or unable to handle herself – in fact the plot is largely driven by her – but that the power she does have is intrinsically linked to her mother and therefore hints towards potentially traditional ideas about gender.
At one point, the Doctor is quite literally doing the heavy lifting (albeit with his sonic screwdriver) leaving Clara to deal with the young girl, Merry. A few minutes later she is sent to safety with Merry, leaving the Doctor to face the foe of the week, despite him having as little idea what to do as his new companion. Additionally, the leaf which she gives to placate the “god” and which saves the lives of so many represents the supposedly perfect nuclear family she grew up within. The revelation of Clara’s childhood brings up more examples of women being defined by their relationships and family status, shown blatantly by the epitaph on her mother’s grave – “Wife and Mother”. Of course this is a common enough sentiment to be expressed in a tribute to the dead but, put into context and considered alongside everything else, this seems to simply provide yet more evidence of the show’s opinion of what a good woman should be. When power (more than even what the memories of an ancient nine hundred year old being can hold) is linked repeatedly to one way of life, it sends a very clear message to the audience about what lifestyles are considered to be are the most valuable.
On a more positive note, some of the more progressive themes from the previous episode occur again. Due to the storyline, the Doctor is actually quite absent from this particular episode and does not spend the time alone with the Queen of Years that Clara does; perhaps if this hadn’t been the case the previous paragraph of this would not have been needed. This is because when the Doctor is around, the more domestic and caring role he played in the series opener is apparent again, though I would argue this is to a lesser extent.
In a nod to the classic series, The Doctor comments that the last time he visited the market was with his granddaughter, therefore associating himself with family situations just as Clara is in this episode. His sentiments towards his new companion continue to be rather sentimental and romantic, while hers remain lighthearted. Notably, he comments on “people we found after all these years”, while Clara is yet to express any desire for a long term relationship and laughs at the doctor’s attempts to “seduce” her. TV has a habit of portraying women as the emotional half (or third or sixth) of relationships, with men very often reluctant to give up their bachelor habits regardless of their feelings about their partner (see Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother) so it is refreshing not to see this trope perpetuated.
With Clara now integrated as a character, the Cold War episode focuses less on her personally and more on the wider story. However, one key scene does explore matters related to her gender: in the male dominated environment of a Soviet submarine, she manages to exploit the low opinion the men have of her to allow her access to the Ice Warrior, Skaldak (Spencer Wilding). Both the Doctor and Captain Zhukov (Liam Cunningham) are enemy soldiers of one kind or another, ruling them out from speaking to him, but Clara is allowed to because, due to attitudes at the time, it is clear that Zhukov does not view her as an instrument of violence or threat. While taking advantage of possible sexist attitudes is perhaps not the best way to combat them, this yet again demonstrates a recognition in the programme that they are held. Along with this, Clara continues to demonstrate her capabilities by participating and contributing to resolving the episode’s problems.
Interestingly, Skaldak himself talks to the Doctor about grieving for his long dead daughter, remembering fondly when he first took her into battle – clearly Martians have a more liberal view of women in war than we do here on Earth.
In Hide I find it hard to find anything to comment on pertaining to a feminist analysis of Clara. Perhaps this is actually a good thing. We seek equality with men and so in an episode containing more female characters than male, all of them with some unique skill set and all actively a part of the plot, possibly no more needs to be said. Clara helps to rescue the Doctor from the pocket universe he was left stranded in at the end of the episode, and does so in a way which makes no reference to her gender identity; she gets him back because she is determined and brave as a person, not because of some quality which only women supposedly possess.
I am trying to remain optimistic about Clara’s progression on the show. At least, so far, she doesn’t seem to centre her life around a man. (I recently heard someone say they wanted Clara to be gay and I think this sounds like a brilliant idea.) Maybe it’s still too early to judge Clara properly but I believe we are now beginning to get an idea of who she is. Certainly, she seems to be an improvement on both Amy and River and can hold her own in the Doctor’s universe. (If she could put those super-computer skills she was given in The Bells of Saint John to the test it would be even better!) She is definitely smart, witty and intelligent, but then a lack of such women has never been the problem in Doctor Who in recent years. The new companions may exist beyond the stereotypical and limited role of existing primarily to look pretty but, overall, Female Moffat characters tend to lack power that does not stem from their gender.
The most recent episodes, Hide and Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS have been less focused on the more obvious aspects of this, giving mixed signals on whether Clara will move in a different direction to other companions, so it could be said that episode ordering has ended up emphasising certain stereotypes more than the final picture will reveal. However, on the whole, much has been made of Clara’s apparent maternal skills and having a caring mother who died prematurely. Why couldn’t Clara have held emotional attachments to her father, a friend or a beloved fictional character? Acknowledging the significance of mothers is important but this point has been reinforced on the programme repeatedly. Why not a wider breadth of options for girls and women?
Of course, this all feeds into what Hope Dinsdale mentioned about the possibility of a female Doctor, which would -in a very immediate sense- help to remedy the current situation. The companion will always have to play the assistant in some way – they are the audience’s portal into the world beyond Earth – but the Doctor is the hero and brains of the mission. The Doctor is a soldier and a parent, a scientist and a lover; in general a rounded non-human being, with so many facets to his (as has been the case so far) personality that it would seem impossible for this lead character to become defined by one of them in the manner that many of the female characters currently are. Casting a woman in the role would definitely help to change this, in my opinion. It would be interesting to see how this would change the dynamic of the show and to what degree. Indeed, perhaps it would also reveal how much influence gender really has over the way characters are written on TV.
[Image description: This is the cover of the forthcoming Series seven: part two DVD. The Doctor looks windswept and anxious in purple as he rides a motorcycle in a flurry of shattered glass and flame at the wheels. Clara rides at the back, smiling at the camera. BBC logo on purple label in top left corner. “BBC DOCTOR WHO” and the TARDIS towards the bottom, with “SERIES 7: PART 2” below and “EPISODES 6-13 * 2012 CHRISTMAS SPECIAL” underneath that (all in white type). PG.]
ADDENDUM: The mention of “Jenna Louise Coleman’s *other* mysterious portrayal of Clara” in the sixth paragraph has been changed to “Jenna Louise Coleman’s *second* mysterious portrayal of Clara”. Thanks Mathilda Gregory for checking the piece and mentioning this error.