I think one of the great things about blogging is the
way in which it allows extended conversations with people you would never
otherwise meet. Without blogging I would never have ‘met’ people in the US,
France, Japan, Brazil and even here in the UK. Of course these conversations
can go wrong, for a variety of reasons. For that reason I try to avoid getting
into interblog spats, or get too bothered when an innocuous comment suddenly
blows up into a flame war. However two things in particular are likely to
derail me and make my responses less than optimum. The first is when I am
criticised, not for what I say, but for what I am, while the
second is being patronised. It isn’t surprising therefore that in this case, things went wrong.
I have to say that I still think the post written about below is an egregious crock of nonsense, perpetrated I suspect by an academic who should know better, made even worse by some of the lunatic comments. Add to this the fact that my final comment was disemvowelled, (including rather amusingly I thought, a quote from the site's own guidelines); that the nominal topic is one of my life long loves Science Fiction (and Doctor Who in particular) and I am persuaded to make an exception, however pointless it might prove in the long run. Now read on…
Beware - if you haven't seen this episode yet (Midnight) there are spoilers.
Of all the people writing for TV at the moment, I would not have expected Russell T Davies to be on the receiving end of claims of racism and anti-lesbian bias. However it seems I was wrong. A post on Feminist SF by the pseudonymous Yonmei, dealing with the latest episode of Doctor Who makes just such a claim. Initially I was pleased to find the site (via Liberal Conspiracy.) Together feminism and SF can offer a mirror up to society in ways that mainstream fiction often cannot do. However I was sadly disappointed (although I have kept the site in my RSS feed for the moment).
In essence Yonmei argues that the episode is both racist and anti-lesbian, based on claims that:
· because the person possessed by the alien identifies herself to the Doctor as lesbian in an early scene, this means she is singled out because she is lesbian.
· the three black people in the episode are in subservient positions and two of the three die.
the fact that no one knew the name of the cabin steward
who had saved them all is simply because she was black and therefore
Yonmei and some of the commenters on the post argue that the points they make are not just indicative of media bias in general, but represent a deliberate and systematic bias by the writer, Russell T Davis. In practice though, these ‘criticisms’ are based on inaccurate descriptions of the plot.
· In the case of the lesbian character (played by Lesley Sharp) her sexuality is totally unconnected to her role in the story, but simply part of the ‘fleshing out’ that all writers do.
· In the case of the black characters, two of the three are actually in charge of the vessel in which everyone is travelling (hardly servants), one dies heroically saving everyone else while the other dies alongside his white crewmate.
· The discussion in which the Doctor reflects on the fact no one knew the name of the steward is on board the vessel, while waiting for rescue - in other words before anyone could have found out anything. Russell Davies also made it clear in an interview in the supporting ‘Confidential’ programme that this was in part a commentary on the other characters and their attitude to someone they initially saw as a mere functionary. He was also looking to explore the behaviour of people who did not in general behave well under pressure.
My first comment was to the suggestion of racism, pointing out the importance of Martha Jones (played by Freema Ageyman) and to the issue of the anonymity of the cabin steward, making the point above. I suggested that you needed more than one example to support a claim of systematic bias. I didn’t get very far.
Yonmei dismissed this out of hand, accusing RTD of 'institutional racism'. (Quite how an individual can be guilty of institutional anything escapes me.) Yonmei and another commenter Ide Cyan (who posts on the blog in her own right and is a self described "man-hating separatist") also referred to a previous story in which Martha's mother and sister were enslaved by the Master and forced to wait on him in maid's outfits. It didn’t seem to matter to them that this was part of a story line in which billions of people were also enslaved and billions more killed. No, what is important is that two black characters are made to wear particular costumes by a megolamaniac monster. Ide Cyan also describes Martha as suffering from the "Mammy stereotype" This is so far from reality that my first response was laughter. After all, this is the character who walked the world alone at the end of Series 3, a world devastated by The Master, and whose actions literally saved the entire planet! That is apparently not enough however; it doesn’t count because she was doing it to save a man. Well, yes, but also her family and several billion other people...
Ide Cyan also described Martha’s character as being treated as a second best character to a departed white girl. A huge part of series three is of course driven by the simple fact that the Doctor is in mourning. (If you have read Philip Pullman’s Subtle Knife trilogy you will see strong resonances with the separation of the Doctor and Rose).Far from being a 'Mammy stereotype', Martha is a strong, intelligent, independent black woman. After all – you don’t spend a year walking the world the Master created without being pretty damn special.
Ide Cyan responded to this by describing the story line as being an aggrandising mirror for white straight males (this is about a series produced by a gay man remember!)
I tried to probe the other issue – the supposed negative take on lesbianism. I argued that the matter of fact acceptance of a character’s sexuality was actually a positive; that it meant the writer looked beyond the reified status of the character as a lesbian to her position as a human being. Again I didn’t get very far. Essentially both Ide Cyan and Yonmei appear to believe that placing any lesbian or black character in jeopardy before a straight white male is evidence of bias.
The response from Yonmei included these gems:
“At a guess you yourself are a straight white male”
“I suspect that leap of imagination is beyond you right now. But maybe it’ll sink in. Given a few years. Until then you may be right not to join in discussions where people with more experience than you are talking about things that you don’t comprehend.“
It became clear to me at this point that concepts like plot, dramatic effect, story arcs, scheduling, even the simple fact that the story had to be told within about 40 minutes meant nothing to these people. Everything has to be made subservient to gender and racial politics – an attitude every bit as sexist and racist as those they attack. My ‘incomprehension’ is down to my gender and sexuality and any attempts to put my case are dismissed as me being ‘angry’ because I can’t ‘force them to agree with me’.
My responses to this were the start of the disemvowelling. I suppose with hindsight I might have been politer – but I could have been a damn site ruder too! For what it is worth, I have copied most of the remainder of the exchange below - with vowels restored.
ian on June 17, 2008 6:32 am
1. I have never
seen such a patronising heap of garbage - even on the internet as your last
2. You know sweet fa about me - about my history, my background.
3. I don’t think in your case it is a failure of imagination - just the opposite. A lesbian character is placed in a TV plot but the story has nothing to do with her sexuality. What happens to her has nothing to do with her sexuality. That is a positive - it means her sexuality is treated as normal. You however construct a vast conspiracy around one small line. You want every lesbian character to be given privileged representation in the plot.
4. As it happens I am straight - but I am also disabled. If I see a character in a wheelchair who is also a villain, or who comes to a sticky end I don’t think this is stereotyping the disabled. I think that there is at least one writer who manages to see past the stereotype and recognise that disabled people live in a world where things happen to them.
5. I hope for the next generation’s sake you are not an academic foisting this garbage on young minds, but I have a sinking feeling you are…
· ian on June 17, 2008 6:36 am
Oh - and as for experience - I saw the very first episode of Doctor Who with William Hartnell and I have followed it ever since. I have been reading science fiction (and every other literary form) for 50 years and politically active for almost as long. I think it you need to grow up and - in the words of your own web site - remember that “Communication techniques include understanding the flow of an argument, what’s going on with it, and making sure the discussion continues effectively.” You have singularly failed.
Now I really am going.
· Yonmei on June 17, 2008 10:16 am
ian: You know sweet fa about me - about my history, my background.
And yet, somehow, I deduced - correctly, I might add! - from your incomprehending comments that you are indeed straight, white, and male.
For the rest: well, I think you are now just angrily repeating yourself, unable to understand why you can’t just force me to agree with you.
Now I really am going.
So people – I need some help here. Is this exchange really an indicator of racism and sexism on my part? Or are these people really so extreme and blinkered as they seem? Remember at least one describes themselves not just as a man hater, but as a separatist. For my part I find the idea of female separatism almost literally alien.
One point does seem to come through. I see nothing wrong with subjecting TV, film and other modern media forms to the same intellectual scrutiny as the written word has received historically. Similarly, the often tortured, relationships between men and women in society need to be closely examined. From what I have seen though, the whole field of media studies - with a few honourable exceptions - seems inane, simplistic and anti-intellectual. Platitudes are presented as major discoveries, nonsense as scholarship. If this exchange is typical, does this apply to academic studies of gender and sexual politics too? Please tell me I’m wrong.