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. 

ileolai: She did tho. I mean, the Doctor recognises himself that he's had far too much influence on her life and leaves her alone ["We have to let her find her own way now"] and it would have taken her years and years to get her doctorate, time in which she'd have to travel on her own.

Though River wasn’t literally with The Doctor her decisions are still influenced by him. She decides to become an archaeologist in order to look for a “good man”. Furthermore, she doesn’t make the choice to go back into The Doctor’s life. She is forced to “kill” him by The Silence and is then imprisoned and vilified for his murder. None of the choices she makes are free from The Doctor’s influence until she goes to The Library, where she dies, for The Doctor. Her entire life completely revolves around him. Every choice, every decision, The Doctor’s influence is there.

ileolai: River starts off with no agency because of a bunch of space bastards, then turns that on it's head and reclaims her agency. Instead of forever being a helpless slave to the Silence, she turns on them and slaughters them. Instead of giving in to her destiny as the Doctor's killer, she decides that she's going to have a relationship with him instead. I see her story as one of a woman's empowerment.

I have to disagree. The Silence manipulates River and takes away her agency in a very obvious way, yes. However, it’s still due to The Doctor and his influence. 

The Silence are using River to get to The Doctor. Everything that The Silence does to River happens because of The Doctor, and all her choices made after she escapes The Silence are because of The Doctor. It’s two slightly different angles, but ultimately it always comes down to The Doctor.  

I love the idea of River having a relationship with The Doctor as a great fuck you to The Silence, but that would only work if River had spent some time on her own first. Away from The Doctor’s influence, having her own adventures. 

As it is, we can’t know that her decisions are truly made freely as there is that constant presence of The Doctor in her life. He influences every decision she makes, in overt ways, but also subtly.

Rivers entire life from conception to death revolves around The Doctor, and I just can’t see that as empowering. 

Anonymous: I was wondering if you could clarify exactly how you meant that River Song never has any agency throughout the run, since she does act on her own free will, and there have been other companions who's lives are affected by the Doctor.

I’m not entirely sure which post you’re referencing, but I shall do my best to clarify what I meant. 

I don’t think it’s strictly true to say River has no agency throughout her entire run. I think when we’re first introduced to her in Silence of the Library she certainly appeared to have a lot of agency. 

The problem is that as more and more of her back story has been revealed we’ve been able to see just how her life is connected to The Doctor. He’s been an influence, really from her conception, right up until her death. It’s not that he merely affects her life, but rather her entire life revolves around him. This means that all of her decisions come into question. They’ve all been influenced in some way by The Doctor. Her decision to become an Archaeologist, for example, was not because she was interested in that field, but rather because she wanted to learn about and find The Doctor. 

It’s kind of comparable to living in a patriarchy. How can our decisions truly be our own when we’ve been socialised to think in certain ways and believe certain things. For example, I may choose to shave, but that isn’t without influence from the patriarchy, and all of it’s ridiculous and arbitrary standards of beauty, and so can shaving really be considered a free decision?

It’s undoubtedly a complex issue and there are many who would be able to explain it far better than I have, however I hope I’ve been able to clarify what I was getting at when I stated that River has no agency. 

"To really examine how incredibly messed up this is for Amy as a character, you have to look at how River is introduced. In the previous Doctor’s tenure, once Moffat had been named the future show runner, he introduced a woman called River Song, who was The Most Important Woman That Will Or Has Ever Existed To The Doctor, but she couldn’t reveal why because she was meeting him out of order (curse of the time traveller). The next season, Amy is introduced.
The main purpose of Amy Pond was always for her to be the mother of the magical child who would be both the Doctor’s Girlfriend and Ultimate Foe. This was Moffat’s long game. Her relationship with the Doctor was predestined not because of her own, unique self but because of what would be in her uterus. And Steven Moffat expects us to think this is the most amazing plot twist ever in the near fifty-year history of Doctor Who.

The Dangers of Mystical Pregnancy as Entertainment by Crystal Coleman, in Persephone Magazine



So maybe I am watching different shows from the rest of you because I fail to see how Moffat is sexist.
I think he writes brilliant female characters. What exactly has he done to River Song, Amy Pond and Irene Adler to make you all bitch and complain so much? Honestly, I really am curious.

Mostly? Taken away their agency.

Amy spends the first half of series 6 as an incubator for the Doctor’s future wife. She doesn’t have any choice in the matter — she doesn’t even know she’s pregnant until she goes into labour. That’s horrifying, though you’d never know from how cavalier Amy is about it. Then her baby is taken from her, and the story barely even allows her to grieve. She gets evicted from the TARDIS by the Doctor, rather than choosing to leave on her own (which would be MORE than justified at this point).

River’s story in s6 made sure that her life literally revolved around the Doctor from conception until death. From conception, until death. She’s kidnapped as a child because of the Doctor, brainwashed (and let’s face it, probably abused) and trained to kill him, which she does, but then she gives up all her regenerations to save him. She studies archaeology to find him. She’s forced into the suit as an adult again in order to kill him, and then he marries her so that he can “request” she fake his murder and take the blame for it, spending years of her life imprisoned for a crime she didn’t commit. Eventually, she gives up her last remaining life for his.

Irene Adler is a smart and capable woman who describes herself as gay and yet falls for Sherlock so hard that she decides to make her all-important “I’d die before relinquishing this” password his name, because of some kind of crush. It’s not that she has a crush — it’s that that crush and her ~emotions get the better of her and nearly lead to her death. Irene, the woman famous in the ACD canon for being “the woman who beat him”, is bested by Sherlock in the end (he cracks the password) and has her life saved by him, while she, the dominatrix, kneels helplessly in the face of her death.

There are lots of other things, including Moffat’s own tendency to say [offensive and problematic] shit during interviews and on Twitter, but since you asked specifically what he’d done to Amy, River and Irene to make people complain, there’s the big one. It’s not usually the characters people dislike, it’s how those characters are treated within the story, and how much agency/control over their life and stories those characters are given, and whether or not those characters have stories unto themselves or they exist solely to do something for the male protagonist. Obviously not everyone is going to agree with the all of the above. But you said you were curious, so that’s where many of the criticisms come from.

(emphasis mine and edited slightly for ableist slur)

All of this so hard. 

So often people only think of “strong” or “good” female characters in terms of character’s attitudes and behaviours. However, the way in which these characters are treated, the way other characters interact with them, the storylines they are given, and a million other things, are just as important when examining sexism in television. 

(Source: indreamshecame)

Anonymous: What is your opinion on River Song and how her live revolves around the Doctor?

River Song was a fantastic character when she was first introduced. I know a lot of people disliked her during those first couple of episodes bit I think that’s where she really shone. 

She was an equal to The Doctor, not afraid to challenge him. However, as more about her back story has been revealed, I find myself becoming more and more frustrated. 

Not just with the fact that her life revolves around The Doctor, but with the way she’s treated by him. The way he talks down to her, bosses her around, refuses to explain things to her, insults her, it just really does not sit well with me. 

These are just my immediate thoughts. I do plan to write a post on River Song but I want to re-watch all her episodes before doing so.

(and I’m terribly sorry it took me so long to answer these asks.)