Friday, 8 February 2013

An Incredibly Frivolous Post In Which I Like River Song

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Posted by Sasha Rocket

Let me start off by saying I actually don’t understand a lot of the flack Steven Moffat gets for apparently not being able to write well-rounded female characters. That’s not to say he’s in any way feminist, or that he always gets it right (seriously, what the hell did he do to Irene Adler?) – it just means I find many of his female characters believable, relatable and likeable, at least to the same extent as most mainstream pop culture. Heck, Amy Pond (along with Han Solo) is the love of my life. And if there’s one person I want to be when I grow up (there’s many), it’s River Song.

Rarely have I seen the Whovian community so enduringly split as it seems to be on the issue of River Song. Is she impressively strong and independent or simply a vessel for devotion to the Doctor? Charming, sophisticated badass or cleavage with a gun? She’s undoubtedly capable, intelligent and remarkably self-assured – all things I like in my fictional women. She’s even regularly shown to be more skilled than the near-Godlike Doctor. River was actually one of the few female characters that briefly came into my head when I was reading Sebastienne’s post ‘Paging Doctor Sherlock House’. She certainly fits at least a fair few of the archetype’s characteristics: she is significantly more intelligent than almost everyone else around her, she’s self-sufficient (‘financially’ is a tricky word when one’s technically in jail), she doesn’t follow social norms, takes charge of situations, etc. So far, it looks like we have a pretty awesome character.

But, hold your horses, some viewers are saying. Moffat entirely undermines all this by being so wholly in love with the Doctor. Her devotion to him weakens her, they say, because it lessens her agency and reasserts the importance of the male protagonist. And, OK, there is a point here. ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’, anyone? Without wanting to give spoilers, lest the irony takes bodily form and attacks me, River has a pretty damn sharpish change of motivation and makes a huge sacrifice to save the Doctor’s life, in a fairly weak and unconvincing plot twist that exists no doubt to simply reiterate how central our male Doctor Sherlock House is to, just, everything. In many ways, the fact that River Song held so much promise is what makes this treatment of her relationship with the Doctor so galling; Moffat gave us the possibility of something wonderful, which makes it feel almost like a betrayal when he inevitably fails to deliver. As Cleopatra said of Moffat’s development of River, “I’m not angry, just disappointed”.

The other main criticism of River, as far as I can tell, seems to be that she’s little more than a twist on the ‘femme fatale’ trope or, as she’s referred to in The Wedding of River Song, “hell in high heels.” In fairness, this seemed to mostly come up following The Angels Take Manhatten, in which River/Melody Malone can definitely be read as a play on this stereotype. I actually struggle to see this as a fair criticism, since it seems to centre around the fact that she sometimes gets ‘dolled up’ (I’m not sure if I meant that phrase ironically or not), but we more often see her in pretty darn practical clothes by the standards of feminine heroes – the first two times we meet her, she’s wearing, first, a spacesuit and then combat gear. What’s more, she is actually always appropriately dressed (unlike the time Moffat inserted “I’m dressed for Rio” as a contrived excuse to get my beloved Amy into particularly skimpy shorts). Honestly, though, regardless of what she wears, River Song is always first and foremost a badass. A traditionally feminine or sexy look needn’t detract from that.
The point about River’s character being undermined by her love for the Doctor is trickier, because it points to a real trend of female characters being used to make it really obvious how super-amazingly-awesome the male protagonist is. Wow, we’re meant to say, look how much everyone loves this guy – he must be super-amazingly-awesome! Firstly, though, let’s remember, we’ve so far seen a relationship in which River has known the Doctor for a long time, whereas we’ve watched him get to know her. It’s understandable that her devotion to him is often shown as stronger than his devotion to her. Secondly, yes, she goes to extraordinary lengths to see or contact the Doctor – she breaks out of jail to go on a date and invents graffiti by desecrating priceless ancient artefacts to contact him, but on the other hand, she breaks out of jail to go on a date and invents graffiti by desecrating priceless ancient artefacts to contact him. It’s never played as River doing these things because the Doctor’s so special, but because she can. That’s the important thing – these actions say more about her than they do about the Doctor. She’s definitely not ‘plot flesh’* and actually never loses her agency – despite her devotion to the Doctor, she never acts out of character or loses control of the situation (with the exception of that one time in Let’s Kill Hitler). In fact, she regularly uses guns, which the Doctor famously disapproves of and it’s actually him that seems to bend his opinions in Day of the Moon, when he says, “this is my friend, River. Nice hair, clever and, unlike me, she really doesn’t mind shooting people. I shouldn’t like that. Kind of do a bit.”

I’m not at all trying to vindicate Moffat for all the times he’s been (intentionally or otherwise) pretty damn misogynistic, or trying to say that the context of how female characters are so often used isn’t relevant or doesn’t matter. Even so, River Song actually stands out in mainstream pop culture as an example of a self-assured, badass woman who’s in control of herself. Yes, Moffat’s let River down in some ways, but (irrationality alert), I still feel like that’s not her fault. The fact that she's pretty cool seems to have made her a bit of a figurehead for a much wider trend, in the same way some parents will be extra disappointed when their 'good kid' goes off the rails. Separating the character from the context is tricky business but, with current representations of women in pop culture, I feel a bit like I have to take what I can get while still trying to find better.

*A super useful phrase for a female character who exists only in relation to the male protagonist and whose personality and abilities changes to fit the whims of the plot, coined by a particularly charming gentleman friend of mine.  


  1. Thank you! I hear so much River bashing. It's nice to read someone writing something I can agree with. I think it's ok for incredibly strong women to be in love. Particularly when it's rather a non-traditional relationship. River and the Doctor is the only romance I've liked with him since Romana, and the reason is that they are equals. She is strong, smart, sexy and more than a match for him.

  2. Hurray for this! One of the striking things that I think has a disproportionate affect on how people read River is the fact that her story's so timey-wimey. I think Let's Kill Hitler was disappointing for a lot of people because they were used to the older version of River that we already knew and loved. I personally don't mind that we see her in her origin story that way - she's very young, relatively speaking, and rash and reckless, as by the end of the season she's seemingly willing to let the world end so she doesn't have to kill someone she loves. She does a lot of growing up after that and becomes a wonderfully pragmatic counterpoint to the Doctor in later (from her POV) adventures.

    I wonder how fandom would have reacted to her if we'd seen her story chronologically? Little girl is kidnapped and turned into a murderer, falls in love, changes her ways, and grows to be increasingly independent and badass over time, becoming an intergalactic adventurer, saviour of worlds, and Professor of Archaeology. I think seeing it all out of order makes people feel like the latter elements have been undercut, but they're not really.

    In conclusion, ILU RIVER.

  3. First point: Awesome profile picture!

    I didn't realise how emotive a character from Doctor Who could be! For the record, I am quite a fan of River Song myself, although I'm still undecided about the premise of your post. I totally agree she portrays a self assurance, sense of adventure and generally respect anyone who has gone through the gruelling process of submitting a doctoral thesis. I'm not a big whoovian in general but I am always impressed at the level of detail of fans to recall so many details in their analysis.

    When I initially read this piece I thought a little bit about the ways that fictional characters who are defined by their love are treated as in some way flawed or undermined. This implication reminds me of the way people read the story of Abelard and Heloise. Abelard was a great Medieval period intellectual, and as many read the story: he was punished by his peers for his moral failing of breaking celibacy and engaging in a relationship with Heloise.

    This idea also sometimes translates to the way that some fictional women have been percieved as mere accessories to a (usually) male protagonist. In this day and age this is a cultural prejudice that goes far back to suggest that women who display some strong sentiment are defined by a gendered dichotomy of reasoned = male/emotional = female. This kind of thinking is also suggestive of lots of things by implication: that there can't be sophisticated female characters, or emotional men without them being 'hysterical' (the word hysteria itself having a history as a gendered medical condition). Part of me wonders sometimes if this is what underlies the the criticism about the Song's character on the basis of her devotion with the doctor.

    I think that kind of idea that being emotional/loving undermines the scope of depth and breadth to a character should be challenged, and it is often one of those things that characters in Doctor Who episodes of recent years have made a good attempt at doing. So maybe Song is really devoted to the doctor, maybe even 'obsessed'. She still did a PhD and she still broke out of a super futuristic prison and she still knows her way around handguns - those are pretty awesome things to me. Does this change if she had a slightly obsessive romantic preoccupation with The Doctor?

    In my view this line of thought isn't necessarily a problem with the way she's written, but says more about the way the audience might read into her character. I do think she could have been developed more and some episodes with her central to the plot were rushed. I do think that her character could have been better - in terms of how her character was developed and I can't quite put my finger on why I think there were aspects of her back story that seemed rushed. That's more a Moffatt issue I have than anything.

    I wish I had a time travelling archaeologist friend with firearms experience :(