I realize that I react as a single, childless, middle-aged woman myself, and that my reactions to your most recent episode, “The Girl Who Waited,” speak as much about you as they do about me; my anxieties; my nightmares; my things that, while silent, go bump in the night. And yet, even as I recognize that I view this episode through my own “Rory-cam,” that is to say lenses that show you what you cannot see and what I can, I cannot forebear expressing that it is deeply, profoundly, and unremittingly bullshit. It is an episode simply fetid with bullshit, and yet more troubling, it continues a thought-free streak earlier exhibited in “Let’s Kill Hitler.”
Which is to say a troubling representation of women in general, and single, childless, middle-aged women in particular.
Dr River Song (see, I use the UK version of “Dr” here in deference to your cultural genesis, such is my respect) seemed so terribly fantastic. Beautiful in an atypical and even feline way, lusty with life, smart and competent, wry and sanguine, River Song is pretty much everything a SCMAW could hope to see on the little screen. That she is played by the incomparable Alex Kingston is merely a delicious cherry curled mop-top on the already very cool cake. And that River Song is also secretly a time-lord? Oh, dear sweet timey-wimey goodness. Be still my beating hearts.
Yet in the episode “Let’s Kill Hitler,” you gave an inkling that all is not self-empowered, if a touch melancholy, with River Song, for after Mels regenerates into River, the character is preoccupied with only one thing: her looks.
“Excuse me, you lot. I need to weigh myself!” She exclaims joyously.
Trust me. Women may enjoy their hair, their curves, their bodies and their clothes, but there is one thing women do not ever enjoy, and that is stepping on a scale. But let’s shelve that troubling moment and ask why for the love of all things wibbly-wobbly, when River regenerates her entire identity is centered on what she looks like and not, for example, what nourishes her. There is no fish-fingers-and-custard moment for River Song. There is only “shopping.” This episode suggests that a woman, even one as unique as River Song, is defined by what she looks like, and what River Song looks like is “mature.”
“I might take the age down a bit,” she says, “just to freak people out.”
Indeed. You’ve succeeded, Not-Quite-Dr-Song.
All of this ambient kowtowing to conventional representations of women and of sacrifice on the part of the SCMAW that “Let’s Kill Hitler” showed was nothing—nothing, I say—but sad preparation to what happened in the most recent episode, “The Girl Who Waited.”
"Spoilers!" below. Read on at your own discretion.
“The Girl Who Waited” puts companion Amy Pond on one side of a time divide and The Doctor and Rory, her husband, on the other. The driving force of the narrative is to a) reunite Rory and Amy and b) save Amy. Without getting bogged down in plot specifics, the group had been visiting the second-biggest tourist destination in the universe, an alien planet that unbeknownst to The Doctor had been struck by a virus that doesn’t affect humans but does quickly kill two-hearted aliens, such as The Doctor. Amy is held like a fly in amber in a “kindness facility” that treats the diseased by changing time and by the presence of “hand-bots” who minister indiscriminately to all bodies on the planet—even the humans who will be killed by their “kindness.” Amy is, essentially, alone on a great, fake planet and time moves very differently for her. When Rory finally arrives (The Doctor must remain on the TARDIS to escape infection), he discovers that Amy has lived here alone for over 36 years.
She is a changed woman, indeed. (Though her corduroy pants hold up shockingly well.) Future Amy is capable, savvy, bitter, angry and sad. She has learned the hard lesson of her solitary confinement and that was to survive, alone. She has survived admirably, fashioning not merely her own sonic screwdriver (“It’s a probe,” she spits, her Scot accent clipped and biting) and her robo-companion (whom she names “Rory”), but also a clear identity. She’s proud of who she is; how she has kept herself alive in such a forbidding, if beautiful, hell; and the way that she has kept her sanity in the face of so much loss.
It’s touching and more than a little exciting to see pallid Amy Pond colored with some of that old River Song empowerment.
Of course, it can’t last. I get it; it’s necessary for your story arc that Present Amy re-enter the picture. You can’t have your hot, leggy co-star go over all jowls and age make-up for the remaining season, after all. And so the narrative eventually puts both Amys, Present and Future, together, and you give us a rather poignant scene of them side by side. As a SCMAW, I often look in the mirror and wonder what my past self would see. You can’t not, as a woman; we do spend so very much time looking into mirrors and worrying about our reflection. So kudos to you for that.
It’s not the fact that the One True Love trope is the particle accelerator that smushes these fractious atoms back together to leave us with only the Present Amy that bothers me. I admit that I don’t have much love for conventional love narratives, but I realize that they’re classic for a reason (even if, I suspect, that reason is to convince us that we need the One True Love). I don’t even mind Rory and Amy as a married couple. I certainly don’t mind Present Amy and her young leggy hotness. Married couples, hot chicks, and legs exist. I’ve no major problem with their presence in my narratives, though I don’t look to Sci-Fi to reinforce the cultural memes that I can see, well, everywhere.
I recognize that Future Amy had to go in order to make room for Present Amy and that The Doctor lied when he said to Rory that it could work to have both because hey, “It’s your marriage.” I realize too that there’s no good way to kill off Future Amy, a character who may be bitter but is also nonetheless noble. I see myself in her; her death is my death.
But here’s the thing. I can live, however uneasily, with the idea that according to the subtext of the current Steven Moffat administration of Doctor Who that women have two choices: they can marry young and hot and constantly need saving, or they can be single and save themselves again and again unto bitterness. I'm not delighted to see a narrative that tells me the life of a young, married woman is more important than the one of a SCMAW (believe me, I bear witness to that message every single day). I’m not happy with those messages, but I realize it’s a bit transgressive to show us women who can both save themselves and be happy. However, you did not have to do it the way you did, Doctor Who. No, sir, you did not.
The beautiful thing about Sci-Fi is that you can do whatever you want. Multiple lives? Done. Multiple streams of time? Done. Centurion for multiple decades? Done. So why, dear Doctor Who, do you have to knock Present Amy unconscious in the requisite final battle so that Rory could lift her in his arms and rush her, comatose as Sleeping Beauty, into the TARDIS and out of the action? Why, Doctor Who, do you have Future Amy renege the value of her life in her choice to sacrifice herself to Present Amy and the One Great Love?
Future Amy is fully cognizant of her life’s value. She realizes that if she gives her space on the TARDIS to Present Amy that she'll die. More than that, Future Amy says, “I'll cease to exist. Everything I've seen and done dissolves. Time is rewritten,” and she realizes that this rewriting would be a loss. How is it that you don’t recognize the same? Why not impress upon a cogent, aware Present Amy that she too has a choice? She can choose agency; in fact, Future Amy could teach her to choose agency. Present Amy can choose to become sane, capable, proactive, beautifully mature woman that Future Amy is—and she can do it while married to Rory, if she so desires. Why does Present Amy not make the choice? Why is the choice Rory’s? Why, in short, is it not Amy’s hand flat against the TARDIS glass in farewell to her own self?
When first meeting Future Amy, Rory sees she has been crying. “Woman with a sword,” Future Amy snaps. “Stand back.”
Why, dear Doctor, must you give us an Amy who is, was and appears will always be “The Girl Who Waited”? Why can you not let her become, however frightening the prospect might appear to you, the “Woman with a sword”?
I stole most of these images from Teresa Jusino's fine (if completely divergent) review on Tor.com. I have to admit my great debt to Sady Doyle's recent post on Amy Pond. If you're interested in feminist critiques of Doctor Who, I'd also read this post from Tigerbeatdown called "Why I Hate Amy Pond."