Saturday, December 06, 2014

Doctor Who vs. Agents of SHIELD--Creating Strong Female Characters

Doctor Who vs. Agents of SHIELD—Creating Strong Female Characters
By Cynthianna

As a follow up to my critique of the Doctor Who 2014 season finale (The Death of Doctor Who), I thought I’d give you some insight into how I formed my opinion. I read manuscripts for a living; I edit manuscripts for a living; I write manuscripts for a living. In other words, I help create characters on a daily basis. Top that with an education in film studies and psychology, and you can understand why I don’t watch TV in quite the same way as others watch TV. Many viewers simply turn on the telly in order to lull themselves to sleep at night. When I switch it on, I analyze characters, de-construct plots, and ask difficult questions of those in editorial control. Sometimes it lulls me to sleep, too.

This introduction leads to the point of this piece: Creating strong female characters and how it applies to two current science fiction television series, Doctor Who (new version) and Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. How are strong characters created on screen? In visual mediums we see characters acting out their personality traits through dialogue and actions. We don’t read captions proclaiming “shy girl” or “bad guy” or “nerd” under the face of the actor to tell us the character’s disposition or his/her role in the story. We infer their personalities by watching the actors bring the characters to life through their interpretation of the dialogue and physical direction given in the script. Therefore, we see a little girl hiding in a corner, a sneering mobster wielding a gun, or a computer jockey entranced in front of her keyboard. 

The actors don’t create the characters per se—they are simply the means by which the characters written in the script are shown to the viewers. The final responsibility for creating strong characters rests with the TV show's writers and producersnot its actors. Sometimes fans confuse these two groups and blame the actors for a show's failures when nothing could be further from the truth.

My biggest disappointment with the current season of Doctor Who, besides the producer’s apparent lack of respect for sci-fi fans’ sensibilities and intelligence, is its failure to create strong female characters. It’s not enough for a producer to state, “This is a strong female character because I say so.” Viewers need to see female characters acting strong and competent in a consistent manner; otherwise, why should we believe this claim? Just as an out-of-tune guitar string after a few strums becomes annoying and irritating, so does an inconsistent character. We long to experience a character in tune. Many fans will give up on a TV series when the characters seem out of tune. Once an exodus of viewers begins, it can be difficult to halt.

All is not lost in TV-land in 2014, however. Excellent examples of consistently strong female characters in a science fiction setting can be found on Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. While Doctor Who has only one regular female lead this season, Agents of SHIELD presents Agents Melinda May, Jemma Simmons, and Skye. These characters are all portrayed as capable career women who concentrate on the task at hand. Simmons is a biochemist with two Ph.D.s, and Skye is a computer hacker second to none. Ace pilot May runs intricate operations as the second-in-command and kicks butt with her martial arts skills. She isn’t a twenty-something, either. It’s really nice to see a television series that demonstrates women do get better with age!

In every episode this season so far May, Simmons, and Skye have worked hard to keep the world safe and to clear SHIELD’s tarnished name. None of these characters waste much screen time putting theirs or their male companions’ romantic needs before the mission objective. Men and women in Agents of SHIELD are portrayed as equals, fellow agents working together in a just cause. Sure, there is a minor storyline of one minor character, Agent Bobbi Morse, and her ex-husband working together (and possibly reconciling), but the screen time devoted to this subplot is minimal compared to the overall story and doesn’t detract from the integrity of the characters. The female agents of SHIELD have a job to do, and they do it well. 

By contrast, the Doctor’s lone companion in the TARDIS this season is Clara Oswald, a young woman in her mid-twenties. Clara, a middle school English teacher, has a romantic companion in the character of Danny Pink, a former soldier turned math teacher. Unfortunately, Danny doesn’t become a regular companion in the TARDIS as many viewers had hoped after seeing previews. Danny’s character is written as a stereotypical “baby-killer”, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. A more sensitive portrayal of a young soldier would have been appreciated, since many sci-fi fans currently serve or have served in the military.

Viewers quickly learn that servicemen who served in an unpopular war are still worth fretting over by female characters, however. Clara worries how her boyfriend Danny will cope with her obsession with the Doctor and her desire for exotic exploits. In fact, much screen time in the season’s premiere is spent on Clara dealing with her conflicting emotions over the Doctor’s newly regenerated form. How can Clara have romantic feelings for a thousand year old Time Lord who now appears to no longer be a twenty-something but a silver fox of fifty-ish? Science fiction fans could be excused for thinking they were watching a Downton Abbey repeat, or some other soap opera, instead of a sci-fi/fantasy adventure. What has the Doctor’s sex appeal for Clara got to do with his ability to save mankind or travel through time and space?

The character of Clara Oswald in episodes written by producer Steven Moffat demonstrates to viewers—particularly impressionable young girls—that a woman’s primary function in life is to please her man. For Clara, this could be construed as either Danny or the Doctor depending on the episode. The inconsistent rendering of her character becomes irritating, but the missed opportunity of turning Clara into a strong female role model is more than annoying—it’s tragic. Apparently Moffat did not create the character of Clara to be an equal to either the Doctor or Danny. She could have easily been written as a compassionate teacher with reserves of patience and courage (such as classic series companion Barbara Wright), but instead we witness her rudely slapping the recently-regenerated Doctor. (Is corporeal punishment still allowed in British schools, and is it ever acceptable for adults to slug their friends? Ouch.)

Clara’s poorly crafted character isn’t unique in Moffat’s Doctor Who. Most of the female characters in the Moffat-written episodes fail the Bechdel Test. (The Bechdel Test was developed for films. To pass, a movie must have at least two women in it who talk to each other about something besides a man. Read more: Sexism and Doctor Who)  The Doctor’s female companions generally don’t work side-by-side on projects as the female agents do on Agents of SHIELD. Instead, they focus their dialogue and actions on the male characters’ needs and directives. (One exception: Donna Noble and Martha Jones did work together in a few 2009 episodes. They have much higher Bechdel Test scores than more recent companions.) But it could be argued that the new series Doctor Who female characters have been created simply to serve as window dressing. Male characters get to make the important decisions.

A troubling question could be asked of show runner Steven Moffat: Were the female characters in this latest season of Doctor Who created solely to please male fans without a thought to how women fans may view these same characters? It’s possible. At least, it appears that some reoccurring female characters have been created to entertain males. The Silurian sleuth Madame Vastra and her human sidekick Jenny, lesbian lovers in Victorian England, seem to be added as titillation for teenage boys. After all, porn movies with lesbian action are aimed primarily at heterosexual males, are they not? (Notably absent in Moffat’s era, the reoccurring character of Captain Jack Harkness, a bisexual. Is Moffat afraid Jack's bisexuality wouldn’t appeal to heterosexual men?)

If Vastra and Jenny are to be seen as equals to the show’s male characters, why aren’t they shown doing more science and making less references to their mutual attraction? Work is work. What you do in your bedroom stays there during work hours. How do repeated references to any of the characters’ sexual orientations help the Doctor save the day? Sexual expression is a topic for late-night adult programs. Better for an earlier-in-the-evening series to present characters working together as equals and allow them to get on with fighting monsters and saving the world without unnecessary interruptions.

Romantic subplots and sexual innuendos were few and far between in the classic series of Doctor Who and for good reason—they detracted from the storylines aimed at a family audience. Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD seems to have taken the place of Doctor Who as a family-friendly television show for sci-fi/fantasy fans with a minimum of adult soap opera theatrics.

Child-friendly show or not, creating strong female characters should be at the top of every television producer’s list. Women watch a lot of television, simply put, and mothers exercise control over what they allow their children to watch. It’s foolhardy to disappoint such a large portion of the viewing audience.

We sometimes forget that it’s been less than one hundred years since women gained the right to vote in the United States and in many other countries. We sometimes forget that women are still victimized and kept “in their place” through violence and rape. We sometimes forget the horrors of human trafficking and sexual slavery still exist. It’s time that we stop forgetting and take positive action in all our forms of entertainment to teach children—and adults—that women and men are equals. Female characters deserve to be created and portrayed on the screen with respect and dignity. Female characters should act as positive role models and not reinforce negative stereotypes.

To sum up, women aren’t just eye candy to gain television ratings. We have brains and abilities. To denigrate one of us is to denigrate us all. 


A J said...

I agree. Although I'm a life-long fan of Doctor Who, at the moment I prefer Downton Abbey. Doctor Who has become asinine, with prurient speculation about Madame Vashta and Jenny's sexuality on the level of, yes, a twelve-year-old boy. I really hope the show gets better. I'd hate to see it founder in Moffatt's hands.

Cynthianna said...

While I like Downton Abbey--particularly for the costumes and setting--I'd much prefer to watch some intelligent sci-fi/fantasy where female characters are equals with their male colleagues. Even the CW's Arrow (which is very much a soap opera at times) shows women with actual jobs and conversing with each other about how to make Starling City a better place, such as Felicity the computer expert and Laurel the district attorney.They don't start out their conversations with "Oliver's a real hottie, don't you think?" They tend to stay focused on the task at hand.

Watching classic series Doctor Who on Retro TV lately has made me miss the strong women role models it had in Sarah Jane Smith, Barbara Wright and Liz Shaw.

google-site-verification: googlec9fe367ac800d499.html