There’s already a recap of this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special here at Tor, so I won’t go too much into what I thought about the episode as a whole. What I will say is that I loved it even more than last year’s “A Christmas Carol.” I loved that “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” captured what’s awesome about Doctor Who, particularly Matt Smith’s Doctor. The fact that he talks to children as if they are smarter than adults. To quote Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, “Parents are always more knowledgeable than their children, but children are always smarter than their parents.” I think this idea is central to who The Doctor is, and this special captured that in the two wonderful children at its heart, and in the way The Doctor built them a Christmas getaway that so readily appealed to them.
However, I also loved that this was the Girl Power (or rather, Woman Power) episode of Doctor Who. Now, there’s been a lot of debate about that on the internet, so allow me to lay out my case for why this episode was not the affront by Steven Moffat to women everywhere that I’ve seen it depicted as on Twitter. I’d also like to lay out how his Madge Arwell trumps his more problematic Christmastime female character, Abigail, of “A Christmas Carol.”
Motherhood is Power
I’ve engaged in a lot of debate about “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe,” regarding the portrayal of motherhood as a power. Several fans, apparently upset about the way Amy’s motherhood was used in Series 6 of Doctor Who, have had their anger carry over to this Christmas special, chiding Moffat for his “cult of motherhood” mentality; some even going so far as to liken it to the way the Nazis used motherhood and woodland imagery and symbolism in their propaganda. (No, seriously.)
While I’m not going to get into problems with Amy’s motherhood (my short comment: I don’t think there are any), I will say that in Madge’s case, motherhood was not presented as a woman’s only power. It was presented as one power women have, and I think that’s important. It’s important to see The Doctor — the all-knowing Doctor who can figure his way out of any problem, even to the point of overcoming his physical limitations (let’s face it, in hand-to-hand combat, this Doctor would have his ass handed to him) with his brain — acknowledge the one limitation he will always have. I’ve always been someone who believes that feminism doesn’t mean shunning feminine qualities and traits as “weaknesses,” but embracing them as strengths. Being a mother is a strength, and the vibe I get from Moffat’s scripts is that he respects and acknowledges the fact that giving birth to a child is something that a man will never be able to do or understand, and employs a valuable kind of strength that men will never have. Men and women either are equal, or can be made equal in many other ways. Even with regard to physical strength, a man and a woman might not be evenly matched on their own, but give the woman a weapon, and the playing field can be levelled. Yet there’s no way that a man can be modified to carry and give birth to a child, and with that comes a whole slew of experiences. This is not to say that all women are meant to be mothers, or should be. This is also not to say that all women are cis women. What I’m saying is that it is not only the physical ability to have a baby, but also the traits and characteristics associated with motherhood (everything from women being really good at multitasking, to our ability to nurture, to our ability to express our feelings, compromise, and pay attention to details), that are part of what make women powerful.
This is also not to say that there aren’t strengths that men have that women don’t have either. I’m not trying to say women are better, nor am I saying that fatherhood isn’t equally important (I love episodes like “Closing Time,” and “Father’s Day” precisely because of the way they highlight the importance of fathers). I’m saying this is one thing that women can do that men can’t do. That’s all. It shouldn’t be considered threatening. And what I love about Moffat’s scripts with regard to motherhood is that he doesn’t write about it as a threat. He writes about it as a power. His nuanced female characters don’t have to shed the parts of themselves that allow them to be mothers in order to be competent, intelligent, brave, or bold. No one of those things need detract from the others.
“The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe,” wasn’t just about the power of motherhood. From the beginning of the episode, Madge Arwell is guided by her motherly instincts. She wants her children to have a great Christmas and not associate the holiday with the death of their father so, at the expense of her own grieving process, she decides to put on a brave face, not tell her children the news she’s received, and wait until after the holiday to tell the kids the bad news. Later, when the tree energy needs a vessel, she allows herself to be used as one.
However, this isn’t the reason why they are saved. As they travel through the Time Vortex, her thoughts have to be focused enough to guide them home. She must think about her dead husband, and it is here that she has to shrug off her motherly instincts and act simply as a woman with her own emotional needs, in spite of her children being made aware of their father’s death. She allows herself to grieve for the man she loves, and it is this that saves them. It not only saves them, but it also saves her husband. Madge Arwell saves her Husband In Distress by not acting as a mother.
What’s So Great About Madge Arwell?
Madge makes good on the troublesome issues surrounding Doctor-Donna and even Rose As A God. Whereas Donna had her memory forcibly taken from her, and Rose was eventually exiled to another timeline with a Doctor who wasn’t really The Doctor, Madge Arwell has this experience of ingesting an entire race and seeing the Universe through Nature’s eyes, and is allowed to keep the memory and have it inform the rest of her life. She even, in a humorous moment, gets to treat it nonchalantly. She tells her husband something to the effect of, “The Time Vortex is wonderful! I’ve seen it! Well, let’s go have dinner!” leaving her husband extremely puzzled. She doesn’t suffer Rose’s ennui in normal life after having been exposed to an amazing experience. Madge is not only strong enough to have an extraordinary experience, but she’s strong enough to hold onto it without it making her crazy, or affecting her relationships with people.
There’s also the matter of her PILOTING A ROBOT HAVING ONLY EVER SEEN HER HUSBAND FLY A PLANE. This is, of course, after she took the robot over at gunpoint from a three-person crew.
Madge is a woman who takes care of business in spite of, and then because of, her grief. She is strong in many ways that have nothing to do with her motherhood. She is someone who, unafraid and unfazed, helps a man in a backwards spacesuit to a phone box no questions asked. She is a mother who loves her children, coddling and disciplining them as needed. She is someone who saves her husband, carries a race of beings through the Time Vortex to safety, meets The Doctor, and still has the fortitude to simply go on with the rest of her life without freaking out or compromising any part of herself.
Which is why I don’t understand the criticisms I’ve read of her husband courting her by following her home every day. I’ve seen this dismissed as “stalking.” However, Madge is not a woman who would allow someone to follow her home if she weren’t interested. This was not a case of her husband wearing her down until she reluctantly went out with him. You can see it in the way she talks about the memory. This was a case of her allowing someone she was interested in to prove his interest. She made him work for it, and he proved himself worthy of her by doing just that.
The Problem With Abigail
Honestly, I’m surprised that I didn’t see more feminist hubbub about Abigail around the time of “A Christmas Carol” last year. Even I didn’t mention it in my review, because I was so in love with Kazran Sardick’s story that I didn’t even stop to think about Abigail’s role. But that’s precisely the trouble, isn’t it? She’s so insignificant, it didn’t even occur to me to give her role any thought. When I do stop to think about it, I realize just how problematic she is as a female character.
She’s problematic, because she doesn’t really have a role in Kazran’s story. Abigail is essentially a prop. Her only function in that episode is as a symbol of Kazran’s frozen heart. That’s it. She is literally the embodiment of Kazran’s frozen love. I mean, SHE’S ACTUALLY FROZEN. She has no personality of her own, we only hear about her from other people, and she only exists as a goal for Kazran, whose story “A Christmas Carol” is. She doesn’t even come up with the idea to sing into the sonic screwdriver herself. The Doctor tells her that. She contributes nothing to the story but a pretty face and a pretty voice, neither of which she seems to have any control over. Once unfrozen, she never attempts to stay unfrozen. She has an incurable disease, but rather than spend her remaining time with her family, or even simply living her remaining days in freedom, she willingly returns to the cryogenic storeroom in service to Kazran’s desires. Because she loves him? More than her own life and experiences? More than her family? More than anything? This guy that she’s only ever seen once a year? Really?
The more I think about Abigail, the more annoyed I get.
I’m all for women in love. I don’t think love is a weakness. I think that writing a woman who doesn’t have a nuanced personality is a weakness, one to which Steven Moffat succumbed in writing “A Christmas Carol.” However, he shows us that he can do it right with Madge Arwell in “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe,” which made this Christmas a happy one indeed!
Teresa Jusino wouldn’t mind being Madge Arwell when she grows up. She can be heard on the popular Doctor Who podcast, 2 Minute Time Lord, participating in a roundtable on Series 6.1. Her “feminist brown person” take on pop culture has been featured on websites like ChinaShopMag.com, PinkRaygun.com, Newsarama, and PopMatters.com. Her fiction has appeared in the sci-fi literary magazine, Crossed Genres; she is the editor of Beginning of Line, the Caprica fan fiction site; and her essay “Why Joss is More Important Than His ‘Verse” is included in Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon By the Women Who Love Them, which is on sale now wherever books are sold! 2012 will see Teresa’s work in an upcoming non-fiction sci-fi anthology. Get Twitterpated with Teresa, “like” her on Facebook, or visit her at The Teresa Jusino Experience.