In Defense of Clara Oswald

When does criticism go too far? This question has come up a few times in class and I’ve been hesitant to speak about it because I needed time to better gather my thoughts, so basically, here’s a blog post about this whole issue, using Doctor Who as an example.

Criticism of media is very, very important. That’s part of why I took this class; I wanted to look at video games more analytically and learn how narrative and characters in games are viewed by the larger community, both in this class and in the realm of the internet. There are a few differences from criticism of less interactive media; namely, the interactive elements in video games need to be taken into consideration as well and there’s often not just one distinct story to discuss – and even that is only talking about more typical rpg-style games, like Liberation, Freedom Cry, or The Walking Dead. There are so many different styles and genres of games that it’s difficult to consider them as a whole, but you can always still look at the presence or absence of a narrative along with how the game relates to our own world and society, and what message it is trying to convey. Diversity in video games is just as important as it is in other media, in part more so because the culture of ‘white man’ being the norm is even more prevalent in video game communities. But there is still such a thing as taking criticism a bit too far.

My main experiences with this have been in the realm of television fandoms, and I’m going to focus on Doctor Who because that’s the community I know best. I’ve managed to find a wonderful community within the larger whole, but overall, the online fandom can be very divisive. I like reading good meta and criticism of the show (and while i’m thinking of it, here’s a post I found about trans representation that’s really really good: (x) (spoilers for Season 8 if you haven’t seen it)). As someone who enjoys writing, I like looking at narrative and plot structure and character development in the show, and I like seeing feminist or queer-positive or poc-positive elements in the stories and talking about that. That includes calling out incidences where the show falls short in these ways. However, you also get stuff like this:

I’ve seen some /completely opposite/ criticisms of Moffat-era Who lately, the general gist of each being:
– ‘Clara doesn’t have enough agency in the story and she’s only there as a mystery to be solved’ (season 7)
– and ‘Clara’s been given way too much to do and she’s annoying me, what is this show, ‘Clara Who’?’ (season 8)
– oh and also ‘Clara still doesn’t actually have a personality.’ (also season 8)
Now, I have a whole lot of problems with all three of these that I’ll get into in a moment, but most importantly, seriously? Make up your minds? Now, I know that there’s not complete overlap here, and some people who thought the first now like her as a character in season 8 and some people who were indifferent to her originally now can’t stand her, but I’ve definitely seen at least a couple instances of the same people saying all this stuff, and a lot of instances of different people in the same general ‘anti-Moffat’ part of the fandom saying these completely different things and using it all as evidence.

I’m going to backtrack for a second and explain the structure of the Doctor Who fandom for those who don’t know. The show started in 1963 and ran until 1989, with a failed movie revival in 1996 and a successful tv show revival in 2005, that has continued until today and is now more popular than it ever was. The show still takes place in the same timeline/continuity as the Classic series, and this is possible because the main character is an alien (a Time Lord) who regenerates into a new body instead of dying. That way, they can continue to cast new actors as the Doctor and his (usually human) companions, and the show keeps going. The current Doctor is the Twelfth, and Clara is his companion, with season 9 probably starting in late August. The characters travel throughout time and space and save the universe a lot. Now, in the modern series, sometimes referred to as NuWho, there was a change of showrunner in early 2010. Russell T Davies, who was first in charge of the revived series, was replaced by Steven Moffat. A portion of the fandom has developed a very negative attitude toward Moffat-era Who, and what started out as informed critique has devolved into often blind hatred and false criticism.

can we just stop debating about which of these two are better and just focus on the show as it is now? thanks.

Okay, going back to the Clara opinions, here’s why I have a problem with those statements to begin with, let alone their contradictory nature.
– The first one is actually the one I understand the most. She is introduced as a mystery for the Doctor, since he meets her twice and she dies twice before he actually meets her (it’s a science fiction show, just go with it, I don’t have time to explain right now. It makes sense in context, I promise). However, we also get a lot of details about her life and personality right away. She’s compassionate, adventurous, and self-assured. She loves to travel, but stayed behind to care for the children of a family friend. She was scared of getting lost as a child and had a strong relationship with her mother before she died – this is all established in her first couple of episodes. And in the end, it turns out that her ‘mystery’ was due to the fact that she sacrificed herself to save the Doctor and the universe, choosing to do so – she jumped into his timeline and echoes of her were scattered all along the course of his life. The echoes themselves can also tell us a lot about the qualities Clara values, but that’s a whole other essay in and of itself. Basically, while I understand being a little unsure of a new companion at first and it’s definitely true that her story took a little bit of a backseat in the episodes leading up to the 50th anniversary of the show, if you take the time to look back, the writing actually sets up a strong foundation from her character even from the beginning.
– Now, the next two are the ones I have the most problems with. People have been criticizing Clara because she’s too involved in the show, and is acting toomuch like the Doctor. Like, wait, what? She is one of the two main characters, you know. She’s gotten quite a bit of character development in season 8. She’s made difficult decisions, been a leader, and if I had to sum up her personality I’d probably say she’s confident, kind, bossy, brave, intelligent, and a bit of a control freak. Now, the fact that a lot of people are annoyed with this is kind of telling, since these are qualities often stereotypically associated with male characters. However, when a female character acts like this, she often gets some backlash. (Honestly, my favorite response to the whole ‘Clara Who’ thing came from the show itself, when they put her name first in the credits of the season finale after she pretended to be the Doctor in the opening scene.)
– The last one, though, is just… no. I don’t care whether or not you like Clara as a character, maybe you’re annoyed by her personality traits or you’re really attached to one of the other companions or whatever instead, fine. I’m not saying everyone has to like her. But if you’re saying she has no personality at this point, then have you even been watching her story arc? She’s gotten more character development in the past season than most companions ever do. Now, the main problem with this viewpoint can be summed up by explaining a certain article that made the fandom kind of explode a while ago.

Here’s a link, but read at your own risk. It’s incredibly misogynistic: (x)

For those who don’t want to read the whole thing, here are some highlights. Clara got the worst of it, so that’s what I’m going to focus on, though some of the other companions were subject to it as well. Alright, here we go, from mostly innocuous to outright sexist and inappropriate:
– “Unlike the other companions on this list, after two full seasons, we still don’t know a lot about her, other than her being plucky and attractive.”
– ”What It Says About You If Clara Is Your Favorite: You don’t like Doctor Who.”
– “And unlike the other entries, I can’t tell a lot about your psychology from your love for her, beyond the fact that you relate to cute vapid stuff that sucks.”
– “Look, I’m not saying I wouldn’t have sex with her, I’m saying she’s a bad character.”
– ”ultimately she’s just a young, hot schoolteacher, and those are not characteristics that generate plot so much as wet dreams.”
– “Also, please kill Clara. Thanks.”

Just… wow, no. That article was bad enough, but the part I actually care about in terms of this post is the fandom reaction to it. There were some really good rebuttals (one of which is here: (x) if you care to read it (it’s worded well and addresses each part of the article)), and for the most part what I saw was fine, but there are a few people who just don’t get it. A large portion of the anti-Moffat fandom targets sexism in the show (which in some cases is definitely necessary) but in the wake of this article I saw a lot of the same people who would pick apart episodes searching for any hint of misogyny to use in their criticism look at that article and go ‘yeah, that seems reasonable because it agrees with my opinions’ and completely ignore the article’s blatantly sexist language.

There was one specific debate I found and followed, which involved a couple anti-Moffat blogs supporting the article and a bunch of people, both pro-Moffat and anti-Moffat, calling them out on it.
These quotes respond to this and sum up the situation better than I ever could, honestly (credit to peoples’ tumblr urls):
– “You know, I’m really very interested in how you can can call Twelve’s descriptions of female characters in Last Christmas sexist (while getting the dialogue wrong, no less) when the descriptives aren’t gendered, but when you see an article reeking of misogyny you nod happily along.
…Oh, hang on, it’s because right and wrong don’t matter as long as the content makes Moffat looks bad.” (stfumoffathaters)
– “plus, even if you don’t like clara, this article puts the actual words “i said i don’t like her, not that i wouldn’t fuck her” under a picture if her. that. is. misogyny.” (alljustletters)
– “It’s important (for everyone) to be on the look out for things like misogyny and classism even in something we agree with some points from. It’s always harder to spot flaws in opinions you agree with, but I think it’s one of the most worthwhile things we can do, even if it is one of the most difficult.” (abossycontrolfreak)

It’s also telling that the person they were mostly responding to (whose url I will not put here) was male – if you’re a man telling a woman what qualifies as sexism and then saying their experiences are wrong, then that’s basically like being a white person and stating your opinions about racism as fact and ignoring the people of color who tell you otherwise. You just, like, don’t.

Basically, if you’re taking things that are sexist and using them to support your opinions about part of a show that you believe is sexist, then you’re no better than you think the person you’re criticizing is. Also, most criticisms of Moffat’s Doctor Who revolve around the idea that his female characters are one-dimensional or only there to support the male characters, which they’re really, really not. Clara, Amy, River – they all have detailed backstories and distinct personalities, and I think that sometimes the fact that they’re less demographically diverse than RTD-era Who (and yes, that’s something that I agree should be fixed) causes some people to go ‘oh, they’re all conventionally attractive and confidently outspoken, clearly that’s all there is to their characters and Moffat is sexist’ rather than taking the time to look at the actual writing and realize that each character is nuanced and unique. And that, in itself, speaks to misogyny, because you’re not looking at who these women actually are. Donna, a companion from the RTD era, is often held up as the best companion because she’s older, sarcastic, a ‘normal’ woman, and /not a love interest/, and while Donna is a wonderful character (and probably one of my favorites), I think it’s telling that the one woman who ‘can’t’ be viewed as a pretty young love interest for the Doctor is the only one who rarely gets criticism for being shallow or vapid or one-dimensional.

There’s also evidence that certain people are taking fandom statistics and skewing them to fit their own views. A couple of ‘studies’ go around the fandom every so often and sometimes get deliberately misconstrued. For example, here’s a link to a post that deconstructs one such study that analyzed how often Doctor Who episodes passed the Bechdel test: (x)
Basically, the study in question (which actually got posted around popular mainstream media sources also) ignores episodes that by their own definition actually passed the Bechdel test. It makes Moffat-era Doctor Who seem a lot worse than it is, when really, the entirety of NuWho is fairly equivalent when it comes to female representation. Here’s part of an accurate study, by the same people who deconstructed the first one (you can find the whole thing on that blog):

and both showrunners are doing a whole lot better in their own episodes than some of other writers are.

(that’s also not even taking into account that the Bechdel test is actually a very basic form of judging media from a feminist lens, and the actual content of episodes could be better or worse than its Bechdel test status indicates it to be.)

So what’s the point of me writing this whole post, which admittedly turned out a lot longer than I originally intended? Well, basically, people need to stop being assholes to each other. Fandom criticism and critique can loop back around so far that it in itself actually becomes hateful or even sexist. Critique is important and necessary and I enjoy reading/thinking about it, but not when it turns into hate-filled rants or people wanting Moffat to get fired or even, I’ve seen once or twice, die. When people watch a television show (or, getting back to the original topic of this class, play a video game) with, I don’t know, /goggles of hatred/ or something permanently attached to their face, all they’re going to see is a twisted view of what’s actually there. If you keep an open mind and don’t just blindly hate something to begin with, you’ll be able to see the good parts of it and understand that everyone is learning and changing over time, even writers of television shows. If you’re not going in with this mindset of ‘everything is awful and evil and something sexist MUST EXIST IN THIS because this person sucks’, then your critique will end up being much more meaningful. Comment on things that actually need to be changed, don’t be a hypocrite, and oh my god, everyone, don’t be a jerk.

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