Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Complicated Feminism of River Song

Yes, those are Roman Centurions. Keep up.
For the 3% of you who've managed to be on the internet and not know what Doctor Who is, it's like this. The Doctor is a 900 year old time-traveling alien who looks quite human, he likes to pick up human companions to come with him on his adventures, and he goes around the universe righting wrongs and mucking up the timeline in his TARDIS (a spaceship that just happens to look like a 1960s police public call box). Got it? Good.

The thing is, the Doctor's always a man, and his companions are pretty invariably young, impressionable women. While this makes for pretty great television (next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the first episode), it doesn't really make for great feminism. We've got an old white man swanning around the universe, fixing everyone's problems, telling people what to do, and bossing around his young, pretty female assistants, who always look at him like he hung the moon.

Now, please remember that I like this show. More than like. I love it. But I do have some problems with it, and only recently has it started to address those problems. (Apparently all those letter writing campaigns have finally paid off.) For instance, in the more recent seasons, the companions have been more active, more equal, and generally more interesting.

But most importantly, we've gotten River.

Hello, Sweetie...

Who isn't on board with this?
As someone who has long watched Doctor Who, and long longed for more feminist characters on television, I greeted the arrival of Dr. River Song on my idiot box with something akin to miraculous wonder. She was just so She was a Doctor in her own right, of archaeology, sufficiently badass to pass any of my silly tests, and the Doctor clearly trusted her--there were even hints that she might be the Doctor's future wife! I was very, very much on board with River.

I continued to be on board with River for a long time. I mean, she's really, intensely awesome. Give her a chance to sass the Doctor and she will. She can drive the TARDIS on her own, and even manages smoother landings than he does. She's a femme fatale with a quick wit and a quicker gun, and I loved her.

Until we got to Season 6*.

Again, don't get me wrong. Season 6 is awesome in its own right, and well worth watching if you haven't already. But Season 6 got us deeper into River's backstory, and I'm sad to say that I'm not totally cool with what we found there.


I could go through all of the details of the events of the season, but if you already know then you understand, and if not, go wikipedia it. I'll wait.

Okay, the problem with River in Season 6 is simply that none of the decisions she makes are her own. Think about it.

She shows up in Utah because a mysterious card summoned her. She goes to Demon's Run because the Doctor asked her. She kills the Doctor because her orders tell her to. She kills the Doctor again because he tells her to. And so on.

Look at her. Smiling at a man. How dare she?!
In fact, the only two independent actions she takes in the whole season are to save the Doctor. And the second time he neither thanks her nor even really acknowledges it. He goes so far as to marry her to get her to kill him again properly, which some might call a little excessive.

And what we find out about her parentage and background makes her even more of a frustrating figure. Being Rory and Amy's child (two of the Doctor's companions) means that she has literally been on the Doctor's radar since before she was born. In addition, she's a time-traveler. He knows her future, just as she knows his. While this should give them some sense of parity, it doesn't, since he is much more likely to act on his knowledge than she.

But most importantly (to me), I hated Season 6's River because suddenly everything she did, everything she was, was all about the Doctor. Everything. I have nothing against love, but it felt excessive, forced, and kind of...freaky.

She wasn't my badass Dr. River Song anymore, she was River, the Doctor's Wife. And I'm not cool with that. The River I love doesn't need anyone else to define her, not even a man as awesome as the Doctor.

I hold out hope for the future of this character, that we can move away from her all-Doctor all the time persona, but I have to say that it left me disappointed and cold to see her painted this way. Love is grand, but obsession less so, and I want an awesome woman to look up to who doesn't need anyone else to know how awesome she is. Is that so much to ask?

Note: This article is a birthday present for the lovely and kickass Amy Gentile, who really wanted me to write about River Song. Amy, I'm sorry I ended up being so hard on River! I really do love her! Honest!

*The season count reset in 2005 when the show came back from a 15 year break. This is known as the start of New Who, though the continuity remained largely the same. There was a 1996 made for TV movie, but we don't like to talk about that.


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  2. It's OK, I totally understand and it's a fair critique. I think part of it too is that a lot of the parts of her we see in Season 6 is her as a younger version of the character...I suppose it goes to show that her bad-assery just gets better with age. And that's not too shabby, either. And I like the love story part, because even though I am a very happy singleton who enjoys being single and doesn't like all the pressures of society saying I need to be married to be happy [I'm happy now, dammit!]...I also have my romantic side--and River/Eleven with their witty banter fulfill that much better than say...Rose/Ten with their overly mushy unrequited/requited angsty bit.

  3. Oh, and she DOESN'T go to Demon's Run when the Doctor asks her too. Partly because she'd cross her own timestream--she can't affect the events that happened there. And when she DOES go at the end, she gives him all I don't think that should count against her. ;)

    I think it was mostly the "Wedding" episode that did it in for me. I was mostly OK with her being a punk and destroying time, but the resolution of that episode was just odd to me. I have a love/hate relationship with that episode.

    1. Thanks for the correction! :) I'll add that to my list of "Things River Did That I Approved Of" instead...

      But, yeah, the wedding? Kind of killed it for me. Because while I am so into the idea of the Doctor marrying a strong, independent woman, I am really not into the way they played that.

      As a side note, I think I find the whole Doctor/Companions dynamic much more interesting and less problematic if you view him as a Christ-figure, which I'm intentionally not doing here. But I digress.

      Oh, and Ten/Rose is too squishy. Give me Nine/Rose any day!

  4. Agreed. Nine/Rose didn't bother me so much. And yes, the wedding episode was a little too squishy at the end. In my mind, I justify it as a young River who hasn't fully matured yet, she's still a little doe-eyed and...when you think about it. It's like in TIA when she tells Rory the Doctor dropped out of the sky and told her everything about herself, then we see that sort of happen in TKH, which is presumably her last meeting with the Doctor before the Wedding--when she goes all flip-floppy from killing him, to saving him with her regenerations/realizing she loves him, to searching for him as an archaeologist [again, young] to being kidnapped and forced to kill the man she just fell in love with/to the wedding.

    Even though I don't like it from a feminist point of view, and I'm still not crazy about the episode, I think it fits with her character a little bit...she's got a lot of growing up to do in actually transitioning from "Mels"/Melody Pond to River Song.

    As an aside--the Doctor kind of gave too much away when he whispered whatever he did in her ear in LKH. He tells her somehow who River Song is, who SHE will be. She sees that and saves him.

    BUT she did the same thing to him back when we first meet her. She spoils for him who she's going to be [I'm presuming his wife is the only one who would know his name, as has been hinted at] by whispering his name in his hear in the Library. So she gets her own moment back of messing with him by revealing spoilers. ;)

    It's quite brilliant writing when you think of it. Moffat is a crazy bastard.

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