Queer Representation and Visibility in Doctor Who - Vastra and Jenny

We are introduced to Madame Vastra and Jenny in A Good Man Goes To War. Vastra is a Silurian living in London, working for Scotland Yard and she employs Jenny as her maid. The Doctor recruits them both to help him rescue Amy and Melody who are being held captive on Demon’s Run by The Silence. 

It is debatable whether or not Vastra and Jenny’s relationship can actually be considered canon as it is never explicitly mentioned, rather it is alluded to through small looks and innuendo. They are, however, an incredibly popular ship and the implication that they are together is strong enough that I feel their inclusion in this series is justified.

There are only a few moments in the episode which imply that these two women are in something more than a professional or platonic relationship. The most overt of which takes place whilst Vastra and Jenny are holding some marines captive. The two share the following exchange:

Vastra: [referring to The Doctor] And rather attractive. 

Jenny: You do realise he’s a man, don’t you, ma’am?

Vastra: Mammals. They all look alike. 

Jenny: Oh. Thank you. 

Vastra: Was I being insensitive again dear? I don’t know why you put up with me.

Vastra then turns and lashes one of the marines, who was attempting to escape, with her extendible tongue. When she turns back to Jenny the two share a very pointed look.(x)

This scene includes small moments which hint at their relationship, such as Vastra calling Jenny dear. The biggest reference, however, is the giant innuendo, something which I’ve personally had many mixed feelings about. 

A big part of me finds this moment problematic. There is the fact that, yet again, we have two queer characters being used as the basis for a joke. More than that, though, this joke is about sex. 

There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with sex, or characters being sexual. It is, however, a common and long standing trope in popular media that, when queer women appear, they are overly sexualised and fetishised in an effort to appeal to the straight, male gaze. As a result, actual queer women have their sexual identities co-opted and their experiences erased. 

Overall I feel that, whilst Vastra and Jenny were undoubtedly badass, the depiction of their relationship was far from positive. I personally feel these characters and their relationship falls into the realms of queerbaiting. Admittedly queerbaiting occurs more commonly between (white, cis) male characters, however, it is strongly implied, yet never explicitly stated, that these two are a couple and their sexual identities are completely fetishised. 

That being said, given recent rumors and set photos, it seems Madame Vastra and Jenny will be returning to our screens for series seven. Hopefully their relationship will continue to be explored and we’ll get to see them develop into an interesting, multi-dimensional characters. 

Queer Representation and Visibility in Doctor WhoThe Fat One and The Thin One

The Fat One and The Thin One are minor characters who appeared in the series six episode A Good Man Goes To War. They are two, of many, Anglican Marines stationed on the Demon’s Run base, charged with guarding Amy and Melody Pond. It is revealed to the audience that they are married shortly after their introduction, during an exchange with another Marine, Lorna Bucket

Thin One: Hello. I’m the Thin One. This is my husband. He’s the Fat One.
Lorna: Don’t you have names?
Fat One: We’re the Thin Fat Gay married Anglican Marines. Why would we need names as well?

Though they are only minor characters I have chosen to include them in this series because much of what is problematic about their portrayal helps shed light on the  bigger problems the show has had with GSM representation since Moffat has taken over as showrunner. 

Firstly their sexual orientations are sensationalised for a cheap laugh. I mean, let’s be clear, if these two had been a man and a women the fact that they were fat, thin, married, Anglican marines would not have been a joke. This isn’t the only time sexual orientations are used for a punchline. It is something which happens over and over again, with Madame Vastra and Jenny, Canton, River and Captain Jack during his first appearance. 

This choice to constantly play GSM character’s sexual orientations for laughs is grossly offensive and a complete double standard that, as I’ve mentioned before, facilitates the othering of GSM folk and reinforces attitudes and opinions which are used to justify all kinds of oppressive behavior. 

Furthermore, with regards to these two specifically, the implication that their sexual orientations would be enough to differentiate them from every other marine on that base makes no sense. The Battle of Demon’s Run takes place in the 52nd century, a time where same-gender and inter-species relationship are, supposedly, commonplace. 

To top it all off, shortly after the above exchange, The Fat One is taken to the Headless Monks headquaters where he believes he is going to participate in a conversion tutorial, but is actually murdered. 

Whilst Moffat appears to want to improve the representation of GSM folk in Doctor Who he continuously turns these characters orientations into jokes. The Fat One and The Thin One encapsulate this tendency in a very revealing way. Whilst some people may be of the opinion that their presence, as visible gay characters, is valuable in and of itself, I personally feel that characters like The Fat One and The Thin One are far more harmful than they are helpful. Rather than have more characters such as these two, It’d be far better to see a return to GSM characters whose orientations are normalised and not reduced to one-liners and comedic relief. 

Queer Representation and Visibility in Doctor Who - Canton Everett Delaware III

Canton Everett Delaware III was a character introduced in the series six opener The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon. We see him briefly, as an old man, in the present day. However for the majority of the episodes we see him as a young man in 1960’s America.

We learn early on that he was an FBI agent but was fired because he wanted to get married. It is not until the end of Day of the Moon that we are explicitly told that he wished to marry another man. He is recruited by President Nixon to investigate a series of mysterious phone calls and soon joins forces with The Doctor and Team TARDIS.

Canton is a great character in the sense that he doesn’t conform to the common stereotype of the effeminate gay man. Whilst it is always great to see queer men who don’t conform to this cliché, I am starting to sense a pattern in the portrayal of queer men in Doctor Who as badass, stoic types. Whilst I wouldn’t say this pattern quite falls into the realms of effemiphobia, I think it is time we see a queer man who embraces some more traditionally feminine pursuits.

There is, however, another very notable downside to this character. The only time Canton’s sexuality is explicitly acknowledged in the show is during his big "coming out" scene to Nixon.

It could be rationalised that, because of the widely held views regarding GSM folk during that time period, Canton would be somewhat reluctant to talk openly about his sexuality. However, given what we learn about his character, this doesn’t make any sense. To begin with Canton doesn’t bat an eyelid at the prospect of telling the president, the most powerful man in the world, about his relationship with another man. Rather, he relishes the opportunity to make Nixon squirm. So, why would he be reluctant to talk about it to, for example, Amy? Especially knowing that she is from the future.

This all leads me to conclude that the reason for only revealing Canton’s sexuality at the end of the program was to make a big deal out of it. On the face of it, there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly harmful about this. Sure, it’s hardly subtle but there’s nothing really wrong with it, right?

Well, if we compare this to the reveals of queer characters from RTD’s era there is a very clear difference. Whilst RTD’s queer characters really normalised non-normative sexualities, Moffat sensationalises Canton’s identity. This is harmful because, although it’s not outwardly hostile, it serves to other queer folk. What this means is the marginalised group, in this case GSM, is seen as separate. This, in turn, reinforces the attitude that members of the GSM community are not normal and it is this kind of attitude which is frequently used to justify oppressive behavior.

Overall Canton is a very enjoyable character to watch. I, along with many others, would love to see him make another appearance in the show (along with his other half). He is however fairly one-dimensional, we don’t get much insight into his private life, his family, his relationship. Whilst this is not problematic in and of itself, combined with the complete sensationalisation we see at the end of the second episode, it is yet another instance of Moffat’s, incredibly insensitive, exploitation of queer identities.

This is a pattern we continue to see throughout the rest of series six, as I will explore in my next few posts.

Queer Representation and Visibility in Doctor Who - River Song

Along with Captain Jack Harkness, River Song is one of the few recurring queer characters we see in Doctor Who. She first appeared in Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead before becoming a recurring character, appearing in several episodes each series. It is during this first appearance that we learn River is, as has recently been confirmed by Steven Moffat, bisexual. This is revealed during an exchange she has with Mr Lux in Silence of the Library.

Lux: Professor Song, why am I the only one wearing my helmet?
River: I don’t fancy you.

Since this initial illusion to her bisexuality, River’s non-normative orientation has not been mentioned again. In fact many fans of the show aren’t even aware of River’s sexuality. 

Though there may be many possible reasons that River’s orientation doesn’t feature heavily in her storylines, the fact is Steven Moffat created a bisexual character. Regardless of his reasons for doing this (I doubt it was to increase the visibility of queer folk in the mainstream media) he had an responsibility to do justice to that characters orientation. What he actually did was ignore River’s bisexuality in favor of a storyline where River is completely stripped of her autonomy as her entire existence revolves completely around The Doctor.

I personally find this erasure to be incredibly hurtful. By not making River’s bisexuality explicit in canon Moffat implies that queer folk are not worth the time and effort it would take to give us representation. We are not worth interesting, complex character arcs and storylines. We are not worth the representation which is given to heterosexual folk by default. 

It suggests to me that Steven Moffat has no desire to actually improve the representation of queer folk in the media, though he has implied otherwise, citing fans annoyance at a lack of queer characters in series 5 as “the one criticism I’ve ever listened to”.

I also feel it is symbolic of a shift in the representation of queer folk on Doctor Who. Whilst under RTD representations weren’t flawless, they were subtly executed and really served to normalise queerness. Moffat, on the other hand, lacks the understanding of erasure and marginalisation, which RTD clearly had, which results in poorly executed, heavy handed representations.

River Song had the potential to be another really great queer character but, ultimately, she is just another female character Moffat has fucked over. 

Queer Representation and Visibility in Doctor Who - Sky Silvestry

Sky Silvestry appeared in the episode Midnight. She was one of a group who were trapped, with The Doctor, during a trip across the “diamond planet” to see a Sapphire Waterfall.

The episode begins with The Doctor getting to know his fellow passengers to pass the time as they travel across the planet. It’s during a conversation between Sky and The Doctor that we learn she is queer.

The Doctor: I’ve done plenty of that—travelling on my own. I love it! Do what you want, go anywhere.
Sky Silvestry: Well I’m still getting used to it. I found myself single rather recently, not by choice.
The Doctor: What happened?
Sky Silvestry: Oh the usual. She needed her own space, as they say. A different galaxy in fact. I reckon that’s enough space, don’t you?

The revelation of Sky’s non-normative orientation is very subtle, if you weren’t paying full attention you could easily miss it. The result of this, combined with The Doctor’s reaction (or lack thereof) is that Sky’s sexual orientation is completely normalised. It is mentioned in passing, exactly the same way a straight women might talk about an ex-boyfriend.

In a society where portrayals of queer folk in the mainstream media must be justified through jokes, or where the implication that two characters of the same gender might share a romantic or sexual relationship is met with firm denial and cries of “no homo”. In this world the normalisation of non-normative sexual identities, such as we see in Midnight, is an incredibly powerful thing.

Sky, however, does not spend the majority of the episode as the women we initially meet as, soon after her conversation with The Doctor, she taken over by an mysterious alien. Aside from completely erasing Sky’s identity, this creature, now using Sky’s body, begins manipulating the people in the cabin, turning them on each other and nearly causing The Doctor to be murdered by his fellow passengers.

On the one hand, it could be argued that, this creature is a separate character and therefore you cannot make judgements about Sky based on this second characters actions. However I would argue that, although Sky has become the monster, she’s still referred to as ‘Sky’ and ‘Mrs Silvestry’ and she appears to be the same person. These two characters may be separate but they are likely to be conflated, to varying degrees, in the mind of the audience.

For the majority of the episode, then, Sky is the threat The Doctor faces this week and fulfills the psycho lesbian trope. She becomes murderous, attempting to cause The Doctor’s death, with no apparent motivation. For the only queer-identified character to become the villain, and ultimately end up dead, has very troubling implications. When we look at the history of queer characters in fiction, until incredibly recently, the vast majority end up dead. Often, it has been argued, as punishment for their violation of social norms, and this is a trope that still persists today.

There are many aspects of Sky’s characterisation which are really disappointing. She is just another queer character who ends up dead, fulfilling an incredibly archaic stereotype. That being said there are certainly some positive aspects to her character, leaving Sky as quite a mixed bag when it comes to portrayals of characters with non-normative sexual orientations.   

Queer Representation and Visibility in Doctor Who - Roger and Davenport

Roger and Davenport appeared in the episode The Unicorn and the Wasp. Though neither of them featured heavily in the Agatha Christie inspired murder mystery, they were a good addition to the episode and allowed for some interesting commentary on the oppression queer folk have experienced in the past. 

We are introduced to Roger and Davenport, and the rest of the main cast, as The Doctor and Donna meet them at a 1920’s party. It is during this scene that the audiences learns Roger and Davenport are in a relationship as Donna, noticing them flirting, bemoans the fact that all the decent men are “on the other bus”. 

I think the addition of these characters was a very interesting choice for Gareth Roberts to make. We’ve seen queer characters on Doctor Who before and, though there have been some references to queerness in historical stories, these characters and moments have generally featured in episodes set in the present or future. Therefore the inclusion of two gay men in a story where their presence could be the catalyst for some very heavy subject matter is something to be applauded. 

Throughout the episode, there are several more references to Roger and Davenport’s relationship. We see them spending time together, during Roger’s flashback, and when all the inhabitants are suddenly called out of their rooms Davenport emerges from Rogers room. 

The couple is, generally, handled very well. Though there are a few occasions where these characters are used for comedy, their relationship and sexual identities are never the butt of the joke. Likewise the fact that both characters are fairly under-developed isn’t particularly problematic as the same can be said for the rest of the cast.

A little later in the episode, during the dinner scene, Roger is murdered. Aside from a brief moment when Davenport reacts to the death, we only learn about his experiences through Donna. 

That poor footman. Roger’s dead and he can’t even mourn him. 1926? It’s more like the dark ages. 

In fact, throughout this episode, neither Davenport, nor Roger, have any space to talk about how the oppression and marginalisation they experience affects them. In real life marginalised groups are consistently denied their voices whilst the privileged speak for them. Having your voice silenced, even if the intention is good, is in and of itself a form of oppression.

Whilst what’s actually being said is important, and something that needs to be expressed, the decision to have Donna comment on it, as opposed to showing Davenport trying to deal with his lovers death and the discrimination he faces, was a small choice but it makes a big difference.

Ultimately I have to commend the writers for the addition of these characters. It would have been very easy to gloss over these issues or exclude them entirely, given that these characters, and their relationship, was in no way necessary to the plot. This, combined with the fact that heavier issues aren’t really par of course for Saturday night, family entertainment, leave me to conclude that, despite the slightly problematic elements, the inclusion of Roger and Davenport, was an excellent decision which, for me, really strengthened the episode. 

Anonymous: Hi! I don't have a tumblr, but I read yours with interest. As you've got around to the lesbian characters now, I'd be curious what you make of the fact that RTD’s era of Doctor Who features, as far as I remember, at least 9 male gay or bi characters (and 3 "maybes" in the Doctor, the Master and that boy from "The Idiot's Lantern”), some of which are recurring characters or at least the focus of their episode, while there are only 5 female gay or bi characters, and those are minor side-characters

like the Cassinis, the victim who basically loses her identity right at the start in “Midnight”, a “blink and you miss it” comment from River, and Tosh, who only showed interest in women in a single episode, on a different show? I mean, I can understand that he wanted to address his own underrepresentation first, but it still seems unfairly skewed. Or is it just another unfortunate side-effect of the “almost every woman falls for the Doctor” syndrome? Why couldn’t Harriet Jones offhandedly mention a wife, for example?

Hi there. 

I completely agree. RTD’s Who is very unfairly skewed in it’s portrayal of queer characters. However this is a problem with the representation of GSM in all mainstream media, not just Doctor Who. 

The majority of the time, when a queer character is featured in a TV show or in a film, that character will be a gay, white, young, male. There is complete disparity between representations of gay men and lesbians in mainstream media, not to mention the general bi-erasure (and erasure of other non-monosexual identities). 

Whilst I have no problem with the amount of gay men on television, and would love to see far more, nuanced portrayals of such characters, the underrepresentation of lesbian and non-monosexual folk is incredibly problematic. 

Going back to Doctor Who; given that a lot of RTD’s previous writing features queer characters and themes (Queer As Folk UK, Bob and Rose), and that improving representation is clearly something he is passionate about, it is disappointing that there were so few queer characters who diverged from the relatively common depiction of young, white, male during his time at Doctor Who. 

Some of this can be attributed to characters falling victim to “almost every women falls for The Doctor”, which I’ll be discussing further in my post about River, but it’s really no excuse. Men’s stories getting precedence in mainstream media isn’t anything new and happens right across the board. This is more a problem with mainstream media’s depictions of GSM more than just an issue with RTD’s Doctor Who.

Queer Representation and Visibility in Doctor Who - The Cassini ‘Sisters’ (Alice and May

The Cassini ‘Sisters’ appeared in the series 3 episode, Gridlock. They assisted The Doctor in finding Martha, who had been kidnapped, at the beginning of the episode, by a couple trying to get on the ‘fast lane’. 

Though they only appeared briefly, the Cassini ‘Sisters’ are notable for several reasons. Firstly they are a depiction of an older queer couple. Very rarely are older queer characters portrayed in mainstream media. It could be reasoned that sex and sexuality doesn’t come into the conversation as often when older characters are concerned, gay or straight. However older straight couples still exist without being to be overtly sexual, this is a clear double standard in the portrayal of relationships. Therefore, the inclusion of The Cassini ‘Sisters’ is a refreshing, and welcome, change of pace from other queer characters in the mainstream media. 

They are also notable for the fact that their relationship is normalised. We know, from previous episodes that, by the 51st century, there is no longer any stigma attached to people who deviate from hetrosexuality. In fact it’s quite common for people to have relationships with, not only people of various different genders, but also different species. 

Though there is a small line which seems to suggest that relationships between people of the same gender is a source of discomfort to some.

Alice Cassini: You know full well we’re not sisters. We’re married.

Thomas Brannigan: Oooh stop that modern talk, I’m an old fashioned cat. 

 In context it’s clear the line is supposed to a light hearted joke, but it’s still a little disheartening to see that queer relationships can be delegitimised even in the far future, particularly as this goes against already established canon. 

It is even more disheartening when we consider the widely held opinion that science fiction is arguably more about our current society than future societies. Are we so uncomfortable with queerness, in this society, that any depiction of queerness in mainstream media needs to be delegitimised? Because this is not an isolated incident, but rather a pattern we see cropping up whenever queer characters are introduced into television shows (across all genres).

This small line, however, is the only moment the relationship is shown as anything other than completely normal and it’s easy enough to put it down to banter between old friends. Overall, I feel, The Cassini ‘Sisters’ are a positive addition to Doctor Who’s collection of queer characters. My only wish is that they’d had more screen time. 

Queer Representation and Visibility in Doctor Who - Ricky Smith and Jake Simmonds

During one of their trips the TARDIS takes The Doctor, Rose and Mickey to a parallel universe. They find themselves trapped in this universe for 24 hours. Rose, along with The Doctor, uses this time to go in search of her father. Mickey, left to his own devices, decides to find out if his gran is still alive in this universe. This leads to him being mistaken, by an underground organisation called The Preachers, for the parallel version of himself, Ricky.  

Though it is not explicitly stated or shown during the episodes, we know that Ricky and, fellow preacher, Jake were in a relationship from deleted scenes and statements made by the actors. 

Andrew Hayden-Smith, who played Jake, said that Russell T. Davies had wanted to include a kiss between the two characters, however he felt he "couldn’t push it that far". We can assume that the lines which revealed Ricky and Jake’s relationship were cut for the same reason. 

That being said, it is still clear when watching these episodes, from the manner the two interact with each other and moments such as Jake learning of Ricky’s death, that they had a particularly close, intimate relationship.

It is unfortunate and sad that this relationship was completely cut from the episodes for fear of offending, as I feel it would have made a sweet addition to the episodes. However it does give us an indication of how Doctor Who is moving forward and improving their representation of queer indivduals and relationships.. Though there has yet to be a romantic kiss shared between two characters of the same gender, there have been numerous queer couples featured on the show since Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel aired in 2006.  

Queer Representation and Visibility in Doctor Who - Jack Harkness

Captain Jack Harkness was first introduced in The Empty Child as a rogue, 51st century, time agent. He began travelling with The Doctor and Rose before being stranded on Satellite 5 in The Parting of the Ways. He has since re-appeared in Doctor Who, had a spin-off (Torchwood) created around him, and become an iconic Doctor Who character.

When we are first introduced to Jack we learn, almost immediately, that he isn’t straight. Mere moments after he is shown ogling Rose, he flirts with fellow officer, Algy. By the end of his first episode it has been firmly established that Jack is attracted to multiple genders and species.

He’s just a bit more flexible when it comes to ‘dancing’.

Jack’s sexual fluidity or ‘omnisexuality’ continues to be demonstrated throughout his time on Doctor Who and Torchwood. He is shown to flirt with, be attracted to, and have relationships with many people of different genders.

There are two main elements of Jack’s sexuality which I’d like to highlight.

Firstly, Jack embodies typically masculine roles. He’s the dashing hero who saves the day. Very often in the mainstream media, queer men are portrayed as ‘feminine’. Whilst this is not an innately negative thing and can be done well (e.g. Kurt Hummel), it is generally routed in misogynistic ideas which link traditional femininity with weakness and is not, by any stretch of the imagination, representative of all queer men.

That’s not to say queer men don’t or can’t inhabit traditionally feminine roles however it is important that queer men can are also portrayed as traditionally masculine and everything else in between.

Secondly, Jack’s sexuality is presented as incredibly fluid. He flirts with men, women and aliens alike and has had relationships with both men and women. This is very different from the way most of the mainstream media portrays sexuality. It is often shown as a strict binary. You are either straight or gay. Bisexuality, if it’s shown at all, is rarely taken seriously. This doesn’t really reflect the reality. Yes there are people who are gay and people who are straight. However, there are also people who are bisexual, pansexual, asexual, queer. People who refuse labels and people who haven’t quite figured it all out yet.

Portraying Jack’s sexuality as fluid is a brilliant first step in moving away from depictions of sexuality as a binary and allowing for a more diverse and realistic depiction of sexuality in the mainstream media.

Overall, I think Captain Jack Harkness is an incredibly positive addition to queer characters we see on television. His sexuality doesn’t define him but it is not ambiguous. Now we just need to get more like him on our screens.