Thursday, August 28, 2014

What Was Wrong With The Lesbian Kiss on Doctor Who

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By Alexis George


[Like it even needs to be said, but Spoilers!]

Don’t get me wrong. I like kissing. I like kissing a lot. I’d happily watch a television show called “Katana Wielding Lizard People Make Out With Victorian Ladies for 40 Minutes In Space” weekly, if they made such a thing. My problem isn’t with the kiss, or the gender of the two characters doing the kissing. But as a bisexual female Doctor Who fan (grab your flaming pitchforks now, folks) I have a problem. Let's start at the heart of it, with Steven Moffat's questionable portrayal of women.

There’s something borderline insidious about the representation of the ladies in Moffat’s Who universe. It began back with River Song’s arrival as a gun-toting femme fatale in season four under Russell T. Davies' watchful eye, and came to fruition as everything independent, likeable, and ultimately defining about Dr. Song was gradually stripped away and replaced with an almost creepy dependency on the show’s main protagonist. All of this followed Moffat's takeover as lead writer of the show. A woman whose existence is reliant on The Doctor’s destruction (and her borderline abusive relationship with him) is certainly one way to fail the Bechdel test.



But personally, I was always for the most part skeptical of the criticism against Moffat. For one, the primary complaint seemed to be about his female characters being endlessly flirtatious and reliant on The Doctor. Focusing on contemporary Who here, I think that's a bit harsh. Amy had her pitfalls in that field, but she did manage to stay alive for decades in a hostile environment with makeshift armor and a katana sans Doctor, among other things. Let’s consult the data. In early 2014, a group of University students created an info-graphic on the aspects of female representation in Doctor Who. The study focused on comparing Moffat-era companions to those of Russell T. Davies. The results can be seen here.






There seems to be a lot of nostalgia for Davies when this argument gets brought up (and the data certainly reveals why). But with Davies era Rose, we had a character whose Season 2 fate was arguably there to deepen the male protagonist’s tragedy factor (not unlike Gwen Stacy in the Spider Man comics). The same can be said of a lot of the Doctor's companions, male and female alike. (Also she did come back wielding a huge weapon, so there's that to consider.)






Whenever the argument arises, I like to consider what the characters would be like if you take The Doctor out of the equation. Who do they become? For one, River’s character is rendered somewhat useless. But what about the others? You get the Bad Wolf. You get Amy and Rory, a couple almost worthy of their own spin-off. You get Catherine Tate's powerhouse, Donna Noble. The arrival of fast-talking Clara Oswin Oswald certainly doesn't hurt the female representation on the show either (though her recent damsel in distress scene in the last episode was disappointing to say the least, but that's a rant for another day).






But what does any of this have to do with a kiss?






The debate also has the addition of the lesbian couple Madam Vastra and Jenny Flint to consider. The Silurian detective and her Victorian wife got some mouth-to-mouth screen time in the season 8 premiere 'Deep Breath,' which has apparently caused some uproar on the internet.





Believe it or not, people actually complained about the kiss to UK communications regulator Ofcom. A representative stated “Ofcom can confirm it received six complaints about a kiss broadcast in an episode of Doctor Who on Saturday 23 August. Having assessed the complaints, we can confirm that they do not raise issues warranting further investigation. Our rules do not discriminate between scenes involving opposite sex and same sex couples.”

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Now imagine that kiss in Classic Doctor Who. Sexy.

Some of the criticisms on Twitter by fans were in regards to the "cheap" and "unnecessary" nature of the kiss. Some complained that the content was too "gratuitous" for BBC television, and argument we can dispose of considering the countless on-screen kisses between other characters, as well as the scene containing a Zeppelin made of human skin in the same episode. I could see why throwing two attractive, underwritten female characters randomly in the throes of love would be excessive, but the two have been an established lesbian couple for the better part of three years, and their presence on the show has been developed and explored in more than two seasons. So the idea that Moffat was simply throwing a lesbian kiss in for "shock value" or "cheap appeal" is sort of moot. (Further homophobic criticism of the episode has been concisely addressed and debunked here.)

What's wrong is the fact that the progression of female characters in Moffat's Who always seems to come with a catch, and the kiss is no exception. River was allowed to pursue a doctorate and roam about the Universe in killer shoes, as long as she was doing it to impress the Doctor. Clara can solve the mystery and be as clever as she's capable of, as long as the Doctor can be the one to pull her out of the situation in the nick of time. Two lesbian women can kiss, as long as the reason their doing it has little to do with their sexuality.


Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'The problem here is that the kiss isn't even a kiss at all. The two characters find themselves in a tight spot when Jenny needs to hold her breath as a plot point. Madam Vastra happily volunteers to share some Silurian lung capacity with her partner, throwing in a "my love" as the two connect mouths. (Which is such a trope it has its own entry. - Ed) The whole thing seems to have been blown out of proportion, frankly.


For a show with one of the most progressive LGBT representations in media, we never actually see the gay characters kiss. Jack Harkness' gay partnerships are hinted at (and far more represented in the show's spinoff Torchwood). Vastra and Jenny's marriage is blatant, and there's even a moment where The Doctor himself shares an excited, albeit slightly joking kiss with Rory in 'Dinosaurs on a Spaceship'.

We've had dozens of heterosexual make-outs throughout the entire run of the show. But the problem here is that, when there's even a single serious opportunity for an on-screen moment of LGBT love, it has to be cloaked with a halfhearted plot justification.

The same thing was seen with TV's first interracial kiss in the third season of Star Trek, when Uhura and Kirk locked lips against their will (which was actually TV's second interracial kiss, according to this article). While the moment certainly didn't do any harm to the representation of the LGBT community, (and Star Trek's kiss is seen as a major moment of progression in television), and Moffat is certainly past the point of 'queer baiting' with Vastra and Jenny, he missed a real opportunity to provide some groundbreaking representation in mainstream media, and that's what feels cheap.

Doctor Who is a headliner in television these days, and with such a massive and varied following, it's got the focus to really do something progressive.

Here's to hoping we get to see some unbridled GLBT kissing in the future from Who.

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Alexis George is a writer living in San Francisco. She can unfortunately be found on Twitter.

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