Sunday, April 14, 2013

Doctor Who, fairy tales, children's literature and strong female characters

Yes, I couldn't think of a pithier title.

I'm a Doctor Who fan. The third doctor was my first favourite. He wore velvet with panache, had a yellow vintage car, and fought ferocious plastic dinosaurs. I also recently discovered he had a shower scene that I had somehow missed. But I digress.

I'm also a Steven Moffat fan - ever since I watched the goings-on of Spike and Lynda (Press Gang).

It's been interesting watching the fan commentary on his seasons of Doctor Who. Steven Moffat is at his best, I think, when he's writing fairy tales and when he's writing for kids. He often combines the two. I sometimes smile at the outrage of fans who complain the plots are complicated and don't make logical sense. Diana Wynne Jones once remarked that children can follow much more complicated plots than adults (see Reflections), because they pay attention to the clues. Likewise, fairy tale logic isn't the same as usual narrative logic. It's fairy tale. Weird stuff happens. There are great leaps in logic. The logic is often in emotion and not always the emotional journey of the characters, but of the audience. Fairy tales are all about playing to an audience. Although, it should be noted that it would be very rare indeed for every member of an audience to love the same fairy tale.

I loved last week's episode, The Rings of Akhaten. I'm not a little obsessed with Clara's red satchel. Also, it was a wonderful fairy tale/children's story. Why? Because it was all about storytelling and the power and importance of storytelling. That's one of the secrets of fairy tale and children's stories. They're as much about the storytelling as about the story itself. In The Rings of Akhaten, all sorts of stories were being told. Clara told stories about being scared and lost, about her parents meeting, about the loss she felt when her mother died. Merry sang stories and learned stories. Worlds relied upon her knowledge of stories and her ability to tell them. The Old God could only be convinced to sleep by being told stories - a nicely weird twist on the idea of bedtime stories.

Stories are important in Moffat's Doctor Who, even more so than in Russell T. Davies', although the Ood sang the story of the Doctor Donna forevermore.

The Doctor immediately loves Amelia Pond, "like a name in a fairy tale." Small wonder that Amelia Williams, after writing about travel, becomes the author of children's books. Her book, Summer Falls, appears in The Bells of St John, when Clara says Chapter "Eleven is the best. You’ll cry your eyes out." (You can also buy Summer Falls - I have it downloading now.)(Also, remember when the Doctor told Martha before the release of the final Harry Potter "Wait till you read book 7. Oh, I cried"?)

River Song has been writing books too, not to mention a diary filled with delicious spoilers.

And now Clara is carrying around her book, 101 Places to See, in her red satchel.

Moffat's heroines are very literary (see Lynda, editor of the school paper in Press Gang).

I have recently been a little intrigued, though, by some commentary complaining that all Moffat's heroines are 'strong.'

That's a bad thing?

Can you have too many strong women?

Why would we worry about too many strong women?

Moffat's stories do feature a number of plucky young girls. Doctor Who is, after all, at core a children's show and having child protagonists is logical. It's actually nice to see so many girls in main roles in the various episodes. And you'd have to be quite plucky to go on those adventures.

Moffat's stories also feature a number of young feisty women. Again, you'd have to be quite feisty to keep up with the Doctor and tell him off when he needs to be. It's sort of a requirement of being a companion - unless you're just going to scream a lot and whine and, really, why would he want you about if that were the case?

Yet, I can't help but wonder at how we mark out strong, feisty or plucky female characters in the way we don't mark out strong male characters.* Strong male characters are a default. We don't often wonder about the number of them or whether writers have the ability to write diverse strong male characters.

Because... not all feisty, strong, plucky women are the same. Perhaps once one gets over the shock of another strong female character, it can be seen that Amy, River, Clara and the others are all quite different and do have other qualities that make them interesting. (Yes, that was a little snarky.)

Recently I've been musing about how female fairy tale characters are rewritten as 'feisty' and how this seems to be a response to a perception that the default for female characters is 'passive.' Perhaps once we rewrite the default for female characters, we can start to better enjoy the spectrum of strong female characters?

*Although, there is a good line in strong mothers and strong elderly ladies if the Duchess of Grantham is anyone to go by.

1 comment:

Kat Komin said...

Fun post! I love the strong female characters, there are more on tv now, but Doctor Who's are my favorite -- they are brainy, feisty and fun. I love Clara's character and how she's developing. I'm also quite obsessed with her satchel and was happy to see she wore it again!