TAKE A LESSON FROM SARAH, GWEN   2 comments

Torchwood: Miracle Day suffers from several TV tropes. One of the worst of which is killing the character of Gwen. This is the obsessive need among TV writers to write female characters as “strong” women. Please note the inverted commas.

British TV writers and actors appear incapable of presenting us with credibly strong women. A few years ago I was watching the introductory episode of yet another series of either Big Brother or The Apprentice. As each contestant/housemate was introduced, we were shown a brief video clip of them telling us about themselves and what made them special. At least half the women used the same phrase “I am a strong confident woman”, almost verbatim. We then saw over the next few weeks that their idea of “strong and confident” boiled down to being able to shout, sulk, bitch and backstab while scraping their hair back very tightly. The men did it too (apart from the hair) but none of them had been so lacking in self awareness as to introduce themselves with “I am a strong confident man.”

Be it Rose, Martha, Donna or Amy, whenever a new female companion is being introduced in Doctor Who, we’re told in the cut n paste PR blurb that she’s a strong confident woman. Or if they’ve decided to really delve into the thesaurus, she’ll be called a feisty woman which is usually  shorthand for “complete pain in the arse”. When I hear “feisty young woman”, I’m afraid I think of Bonnie Langford’s Mel and that’s not good.

The only time Doctor Who deliberately wrote a new female companion as “strong” and got it right was with Sarah. This is all the more surprising as Sarah was presented as the clear break from the helpless, gosh-I’m-so-silly, screamers making the tea who’d constituted the Doctor’s previous companions (yes, I’m looking at you, Jamie). With lesser writers and a lesser actress, we might have been in for four years of artificially shoehorned-in Women’s Lib references. But, aside from the dubious line “Doctor, kindly don’t be so patronising” in her first episode, we learned all we needed to know about how much of an independent woman she was from her clothes, her job and her self-assured manner. She was suspicious of the Doctor for a couple of episodes but, once they were friends, all was fine. Imagine if she’d turned out to be a Tegan and had spent the next four years whining for attention. It doesn’t bear thinking about. They gave us a fine actress who had a good on-screen relationship with her Doctors, wrote her decent scenes and good lines, gave her interesting things to do and and left it at that. I can still remember watching Pyramids of Mars on its first broadcast and not thinking it at all incongruous that Sarah would be a crackshot with a rifle. She was Sarah and Sarah was great so naturally she could do things like that.

Give us a likeable character, give her good scenes and good lines and we’ll assume without it being crassly signposted that she’s as good as the next man. Even when paired (or trio-ed) with the helplessly old fashioned chauvinism of Harry, Sarah never went beyond a mild exasperation with him. Of course, in those days, the writers had yet to arrive at the misconception that what was really needed was friction in the TARDIS. That we wanted the Doctor’s companions to be forever bitching at him and with each other.

The saving grace in the revived post-2005 Doctor Who is that the female companions often turn out to be well written characters. But strong? Rose perhaps. Martha definitely not unless “feisty” has recently been redefined as moping around being jealous of your fella’s blonde ex. Donna possibly but more because of her age. Amy not at all. In fact Amy comes closest to what we can usually expect to see on the rest of British TV when a character is heralded as “a strong woman”. Forever arguing, complaining and demanding explanations. When you see how Amy treats Rory for most of Series 5 (2010) of Doctor Who, do you conclude “strong confident woman” or “high maintenance, self-absorbed bitch”?

When do we ever hear adjectives as clichéd as “strong”, “independent” and “feisty” used to herald the introduction of male characters? Never, and the likes of Mickey, Jack, Rory, Ianto, Owen or a new Doctor are all the better for it. Now, I’m not blind to centuries of social history which have relegated women to walk-on roles in life and TV. I’m aware that one of the reasons why no-one thinks to trumpet or to actively portray male characters as “strong” is in part because society already tacitly ascribes such attributes to men. Or at least it used to do so. Do we have a level gender playing field in the world of TV yet? I don’t think we’ll ever know until TV writers start writing genuinely interesting female characters and stop feeling obliged to write “strong” ones in what they may imagine is a blow for feminism but is actually incredibly patronising.

How rarely does TV present us with any genuinely “strong” women? I mean “strong” in an admirable way which doesn’t include “shouty ballbreaker”. Invariably what we get is women whose “strength” amounts to stamping their feet, demanding to be respected and smashing Dresden shepherdesses and other such occasional ornaments. Why? Because writers seem to regard creating “strong” women not as a contribution to the show but as a contribution to social equality.

The truly good TV writers never seem to fall into this trap and most of those appear to be in the US. Look at a show like The West Wing which has any number of genuinely strong women. But strong in the proper sense which is strong characters, not characters who behave with strength. Some of those characters have weaknesses which often cause them to make bad mistakes but because the writers have taken time to develop warm and sympathetic characters who we actually like for their own sake, we’re happy to root for them though all the hard times.

So, getting back to Doctor Who For Grown-Ups, the big victim of “strong woman sydrome” is Gwen/Eve Myles. She’s always been bigged-up as a strong female character and, to be fair, she was OK in the three previous incarnations of Torchwood. But in Torchwood: Miracle Day, her character is little better than a disaster who reminds me of that Catherine Tate comedy character who jumps and shrieks with terror at the slightest thing. It’s all very well to have her playing kick-ass Gwen blowing up helicopters as she declares “we’re Torchwood” but all those baddies in the helicopter needed to do was to shout “we’ve got your father’s milkman’s daughter-in-law as a hostage” and Gwen would throw down the shoulder mounted missile launcher in panic and run around in circles shrieking and hyperventilating as her eyes bulged larger and larger before rushing off to do something unbelievably stupid like killing her own father. This must be in part a fault of the writing but it isn’t helped by Eve Myles’ acting limitations. It must be having appeared alongside John Barrowman for so long which leads so many fans to imagine that she’s Judi Dench, Katherine Hepburn and Meryl Streep combined (and by comparison she is).

She’s OK with any of the routine plot stuff but, apart from the rare soliloquy, her emotional scenes are so badly written that she’s thrown back on running around, shouting very loudly and scowling at people. When she arrived at the Welsh camp and started shrieking hysterically at the soldier who wouldn’t let her pass, that was some of the poorest acting I’ve ever seen in Torchwood. And that’s saying something for a show with you-know-who as the main star. Her solution to not getting her own way? She blows the place up, thereby killing (or category one-ing) any number of people who we’re presumably not meant to care about as their names aren’t credited. The writers seem to be saying OK, so she’s a frantically panicking woman at a loss for an answer but she must be “strong” because look at the size of that explosion she’s just caused. Don’t even get me started on that scene where Gwen turns up on a motorbike and then dramatically drags the bike round in a screeching 360 degree circle to leave her facing in the same direction. It’s a bit like the characters in Merlin who for some reason, preparatory to a broadsword fight, flick their swords around to make swooshing noises. Yes, very macho and visually impressive but completely purposeless and quite likely to leave you with a sprained wrist which won’t help in the upcoming swordfight.

If yelling at the baddies to put their guns down doesn’t work, there’s always the ludicrous threats. “You’d better pray that death comes back to this planet before I’m finished with you.” Or how about meeting the elderly harmless man in the chemist shop and telling him “Go now or I will put a hole in your head.” If you want threats like that to be taken seriously, you’d better pray that the person you’re threatening has no notion of how ludicrously incompetent and emotionally insecure you are. What exactly is Gwen going to do to make good her threat? Accidentally knock out the plug of someone’s dad’s life support machine with her bum? All the Nana Visitor character has to do is reply “Oh yeah? Well I’m holding as hostage your primary school English teacher’s next door neighbour’s postman’s hamster” and she could escape while Gwen was running around in circles shrieking and hyperventilating as her eyes bulged larger and larger in panic before rushing off to nuke a pet shop.

The other female characters are fortunate enough to be almost ignored by the writers and so get by on the strength of the relevant actresses. Thus Dr Vera comes over as an intelligent and capable character trying to do her best in an impossible situation with what abilities she has. Esther (oh dear) doesn’t spark enough interest in us to allow us to forgive her idiot incompetence. Jilly Kitzinger gets the best character as sufficient attention is paid to making her and her motivations interesting and the writers have perhaps assumed that an amoral PR agent working for a multinational pharmaceutical must already be enough of a total bitch to preclude their having to write her as “strong”.

What TV writers don’t seem to ask themselves is what is the virtue of being strong. These writers are supposed surely to be people who have some special insight into the human condition otherwise how are they in their jobs? Yet they either can’t see or deem it too much effort to see that strength of characterisation is far more important than “strong” behaviour.

The irony here of course is that, in seeking to show how “strong” their female characters are, these writers use a definition of strength which is primarily if stereotypically male – physical strength, loudness of voice, blowing things up and generally confrontational. The strongest woman I’ve ever known is my mother and she’s never killed anyone in her life, she would probably never raise her voice to a stranger even if he was pointing a gun at her, she doesn’t stand with her feet ludicrously spread wide, she would be sensible enough to wear flat shoes if running was required and the scariest threat she’s ever come out with is “tidy your room or you’re not watching Doctor Who”.

It’s just possible that it’s asking too much to expect credible characterisation from writers whose shorthand for “adult” is not mature but rather alternately shouting fuck and getting your cock out. At last Gwen can’t be accused of doing the last.

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Posted August 29, 2011 by docwhom in Miracle Day

2 responses to “TAKE A LESSON FROM SARAH, GWEN

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  1. But how are you defining “strong” where female characters are concerned? If not possessing male characteristics, such as shouting, blowing things up, etc., then what do you expect to see? Is a strong female character simply self-assured and able to respond in polite terms when patronised or otherwise spoken down to by one of the male characters? Or is she just interesting and able to evoke sympathy when things don’t go her way? Are the generally self-reliant, auhoritative baddie female characters, from Servalan and earlier through to Madame Kovarian – and which TV sci-fi has been able to present under the banner of “fantasy” for longer than any other genre – strong? Without a definition of what female strength is, of what it looks like, and how it responds in certain situations, then all that’s left is to use the standby of the male definition: that is, shouting a lot and blowing things up.

    So far as recent Doctor Who is concerned, both Rose and Donna were drawn, if not as strong, then certainly as self-reliant, by stint of their backgrounds. Martha, on the other hand, was notoriously ill-served. It was bad news for the character that in those episodes where she clearly is shown as being strong and independent, the general collective memory is of her moping about in Rose’s shadow and ultimately leaving because she could never step out from it. Amy, I don’t think has ever been described or thought of as strong. The constant re-appearance of Amelia being a reminder that much of her character is still seven years old: she is only just growing-up.

    In dramatic terms – and this is where Gwen and Torchwood come to the fore – the downgrading of female characters can be as much a consequence of weak male characters as it can be of deliberate poor writing of female characters per se. Lacking a face of the enemy (at least by the end of episode seven of Miracle Day), we’ve been left primarily with Oswald Danes, Rex and Jack. Jack has been almost side-lined for the first six episodes, almost playing a cameo role. Rex has been… well a waste of time up until the closing scenes of episode seven, while Danes has at least has, like Kitzinger, an inherent evil which means the writers don’t have to worry about developing his character, other than to show him as being both manipulated and manipulative. In short: the entire characterisation of Miracle Day has been weak so far, with the exception of Dr. Vera. And frankly, it’s easy to display someone as intelligent, artculate and independent when you’re going to kill them off five episodes in! This is just poor writing, and its taken until epsode seven for the story to even come alive. The West Wing, to use your example, could afford to have well-written female characters because it had well-written male characters.

    But do you see there as being a difference between being strong and just being well-written?

  2. Pingback: THE LONDON DERRIERE | DOCTOR WHOM

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