Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Kill the Moon: Maidens and Mothers in Doctor Who

After Saturday's Doctor Who, Kill the Moon, I went into the kitchen with my husband and dredged up some pretty tough things from the last five years, and cried for a good twenty minutes.

Then I drank a glass of wine, watched two episodes of Blackadder and - typing this twenty four hours later - am feeling a lot better.

Better enough to say some things that have been on my mind for a while.

It is a truism in some corners of the interwebs that while Doctor Who under RTD was a joyous experiment in tolerance, feminist messages and the trampling of conservative thought patterns, current showrunner Steven Moffat is a misogynist dinosaur who is intent on dragging our favourite show back into the Dark Ages™ and normalising all kinds of horrible things. While this is an opinion I do not share, I can see some aspects of justice in it. RTD's vision was carefully inclusive, squeaky clean and PC (not a criticism), whereas Moffat seems to have an much more cavalier attitude to such matters, instead telling the stories he wants to tell (and using the writers he wishes to use) while letting the pieces fall where they may. Moffat's showmanship seems characterised less by wilful offence than by unexamined prejudices and whilst I agree this is a problem, I'm not sharpening my guillotine about it. 

So, yeah. There are problems. There are also - despite all his best efforts - problems in RTD era Who, as well. As I've said elsewhere, we live in a society that is by its very nature unjust and problematic, so that - however hard we try - we cannot make our work just and utopian. No, this doesn't mean that we shouldn't try, but we should also accept that however hard we do try, we're still going to mess it up. And,when we spot it, we should call it out. So, it's calling out time.

Some people just can't hack it.
One of the things that bothers me enormously in RTD era Doctor Who are his concepts of worthiness. In classic Who, companions travelled with the Doctor because they wanted to, because they needed a lift home, or because they were refugees with nowhere else to go. Under RTD's guidance, they travel with the Doctor because they are 'worthy'; they ask the right questions, they make the right choices, they can - in short - hack it. Throughout the series, we repeatedly meet people who 'fail' this simple companion litmus test, they attempt to exploit the possibilities of time travel, they assert themselves in a non-Doctor approved fashion, or they simply fail to have the stomach for the role.

In some ways, this was an improvement. Eccleston and Tennant's companions are no wilting flowers, they do not archetypally 'fall and twist their ankles', they do rather more than pass the Doctor his test-tubes and tell him how wonderful he is. The problem comes, however, in the dynamic it creates in the relationship between the Doctor and his companion. Classic Doctors were frequently exasperated by their co-travellers, and companions were often hurt, dismayed or angered by the Doctor's less pleasant attributes. There was spark and conflict in the TARDIS - companions were anything from colleague to antagonist, friend to grudgingly accepted stow-away. The Doctor was generally kind towards Nyssa (refugee), playfully scornful of Tegan (getting a ride) and openly abrasive to Adric (stow-away). However, if a companion needs to pass a necessary test of worth to gain admission in the first place, an immediate onus is placed upon the Doctor to respect that worth, to give Nu-Who companions a kid-glove treatment that those in the classic series were not guaranteed. This is not to say that he is uniformly kind, gentle and forgiving to them (the writing is too good for that), but that their relationships are more static and less conflicted.

It also raised the question of what constitutes worthiness. All three RTD era consistent companions are female, human. They all have an implicit, absolute dependence on the Doctor. None of them have a serious romantic relationship at the time of them travelling with the Doctor. None of them have children. 

All three of them have a bad relationship with their mothers. In fact, all three of them come from what are arguably single parent homes - Martha's parents are divorced and one assumes the mother had custody, Donna's father is absent, Rose's is dead. These are mothers who have fought everything to raise daughters who are worthy, daughters who are strong, confident and feminist-icon enough to go to the distant ends of time and space with a man they hardly know, daughters who are clever and articulate and compassionate.

Yet, the mothers are unarguably awful. Shrill and hysterical to a woman, they cannot be trusted not to start making a horrible fuss. They don't trust the Doctor, and are not happy with their child's new-found adventurous life-style. They attempt to stunt, to close in, to drown these wonderful children of theirs in domesticity - arguments about laundry and marriage and car-sharing schedules. Every time these daughters leave their mothers in the lurch, with every blasé, "I'll be fine!" kiss goodbye, every, "but I trust him!" truism, every pair of car keys thrown into a bin, we are supposed to smile and nod and applaud their liberation from the cloying maternal clutches. Of course, we sympathise with poor old mum getting a call that says, "I'm okay, but I'm being shot at," from God knows when, meant to congratulate her on each, "You'd better take care of my daughter", but ultimately, these women are not worthy. They are not companion material. Unless they learn to sit back, have faith in the Doctor and allow him to send their child into whatever danger he so chooses, they are in the wrong.

Feminism has always had a problem with motherhood

To accept the role of motherhood implies a biological imperative, a role which women naturally fulfil, for which they are uniquely suited. Essentialism, determinism, biology as destiny. Of course, it postulates a utopian ideal of childrearing, one which is split equally between the parents, one which pays no heed to a person's chromosomal make-up. But, ultimately, it is the female-bodied who pay the toll of pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding. It is the female-bodied who have a hormonal response that makes the cry of their child physically painful. Regardless of the intentions or ideals of the people in your life, it is the female bodied who have to take the rap for this one.

And it's such an awful job. The pay is terrible and the hours are crap. You will be hit, kicked, bitten, shouted at. You have to clean up all manner of bodily fluids. You are responsible, ultimately, for the way this child grows up, for the actions they make as an adult, for the people they hurt. Parenthood; someone has to do it and, despite all the rhetoric and the promises of equality, the majority of unpaid carework in this country is done by the female bodied. In the main, it is done by mothers. Every lunch box to be packed; every tantrum to be endured; every boundary, lesson, hygiene rule to enforce; every broken heart to console, this is on you, girls.

Motherhood will rip you apart.

No wonder so many feminists want no part in it. It's hard to do your best thinking when you've had an hour and a half's sleep because a there was a baby with colic who wouldn't latch and then wouldn't settle.

And here's a thing - it's difficult to write your Master's dissertation when you're freaking out about teething, or to compose a letter to an agent when you're busy sewing name-tapes into school uniform. No matter how loved your baby, no matter how wanted, when you're neck deep in dirty laundry and there is Lego everywhere you aren't thinking about travelling the world, or activism, or fighting the Daleks. No. You're hoping that the kids will stop fighting long enough for you to get the house tidy and that the baby won't choke on something your elder child has left on the floor and that you set the timer on the washing machine correctly because otherwise no-one will have anything to wear tomorrow. In those moments your ambition shrinks to managing the school run, to at least sweeping the kitchen floor, to getting five minutes by yourself with a cup of tea. It sets you down a few levels on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. It trivialises you. It limits your horizons.

It makes you unworthy.

But there's a get out, of course, isn't there? There's a way not to get ground down into that biological essentialism that is forced by way our society manages leave, finance and expectation around childbirth. Simply don't have kids! Be young! Free! Single! Travel the universe and really far-out stuff. Join the boy's club by virtue of not being a housework-bound-child-rearing-drudge. Be the exceptional woman. Be worthy of the Doctor.

Never mind who you leave behind. They had it coming, after all. They chose that life, didn't they? They opted to give it up.

But who else was going to do it?
Amy and the tragedy of motherhood:

One of the most vicious criticisms I've seen levelled at the Moff during his tenure on Doctor Who is that Amy Pond was "just a womb to him". Because, of course, in between her many adventures and her active role within them, she married, got pregnant, had a plot significant baby and then a plot significant discovered infertility. As though to turn an unflinching eye at the choice of motherhood and its unwilling denial utterly deleted her person-hood. As though this wasn't an issue women faced, as though it wasn't a terrible, silent tragedy in so many people's lives.

As though there were a 'just' in this scenario.

I'm sorry, I'm getting fervent. The thing is, though, with Amy, Moffat turns the gaze of the viewer onto a woman who has made a choice that does not fit into the comfortable worldview of someone who has her 'freedom', as someone who turns her back on the grant of tolerance we give to an unattached young woman who doesn't bring her messy, fertile 'baggage' on an adventure with her. But we condemn this because mothers are not 'worthy', they do not count as people.

Moffat, for all the questionable things he has said about women, for all the legitimate complaints that can be raised against his tenure, has a respect for motherhood that RTD seemed unable to compute. Yes, I admit, he takes this too far at times (The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe...) but that is always the danger. If one treats motherhood as a valid choice, an honourable choice, a worthy choice, one does play into the hands of gender essentialism - and the aforementioned cavalier attitude to nuance really does not help with this. But not running this risk is a far more questionable strategy - who is raising all these strong, remarkable, forthright women who cheerfully clutch the ninth and tenth Doctors' arms? Who is doing the grunt work, the laundry, the duty of care while being shoved into the background as hysterical, demanding, unreasonable?

And, dear God, the pain that comes with motherhood, with its creation, with its denial. With Amy Pond, Moffat delves deep into the territory of the 'lost' baby, the 'missing' baby, the baby 'denied.' With the everyday tragedy that women you know will have faced, and will almost certainly not tell you about.

 I am pro-choice. I am not ashamed of this. A bundle of cells is just that - a growth which has a very low chance of survival. An embryo, a fetus, is not a baby. It cannot survive independently, and actually, its chances of surviving with a maternal body are not that hot; 1 in 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage, usually in the first twelve weeks.

But I also knows what it feels like to want a baby, painfully, physically with a gut-deep ache of need, a constant, nagging absence in your head, with tears of frustration at each little, blue 'negative' pregnancy test. The difference between an embryo and a baby is not scientific, it is emotional, it is philosophical.
The month before I conceived my first child, my period was a week late. When it came, there was a sense of loss, of mourning. What I had lost was not simply that month's blood, it was a baby. Not a real baby - it's likely I hadn't even conceived - but a baby nonetheless. With that week of negative tests, that thundering torture of hope, I was building a narrative in my mind. A baby. Nine months of pregancy, childbirth, a little downy head snuggled against my chest. The warmth of it, the smell.


As soon as I got a positive the next month, it was confirmed for me. What I was carrying was not a bundle of cells, was not an incidental meeting of sperm and ovum, it was immediately all the potential of an entire life. It was a baby. My baby.

1 in 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage, usually in the first twelve weeks.

Amy tells the Doctor she's pregnant. A week later, "I was. I mean, I thought I was. Turns out I wasn't."

You just have to get on with your life.

Even if you're lucky, even if you are the three in four, there is terror there. You are powerless to stop this little life growing inside you in whichever way it chooses. There is nothing you can do if one day it stops moving, stops growing, if it develops a disorder that threatens its life, or your own. Every moment of a wanted pregnancy is like this, fear and helplessness. What if it goes wrong? What if it can't live? What if it kills me? When the longing, the need, is so intense, when there is so much love for a thing the rational part of your brain knows isn't even alive...

Motherhood rips you apart. 

In some families, there is a baby who is missing. Late miscarriage, stillbirth, cot-death. They are so frail, so vulnerable. I know women who will say they have two children, even though only one survived pregnancy. I know women who will still choke up when they talk about that missing baby, ten, twenty, sixty years down the line. Ordinary women. Women with lives, and interests and passions. Women that you might know. 

Having a wanted baby is an amazing thing, a bliss and a joy, a struggle and a chore, it is also an investment in fear. They can just melt away into nothing. That's the terror of it. When they are so small, so vulnerable, they could vanish and leave no trace except the scar you do your best to hide. Two days after my first was born, I was beginning to feel human again. My baby was asleep in my arms and I was back in something approaching 'my' body as I like to perceive it. There, in a moment of bliss, of peace, I had the sudden terror that this had all been some kind of mistake, that the 'real' grown-ups were going to be back any minute, that they were going to take this baby away. That she would simply vanish, melt, just like little flesh-Melody.

That horror is primal, absolute.

For some mothers, it is also real.

And you just have to get on with your life.

The same goes for infertility, that final, grace-note of cruelty that Moffat throws in from The Church of the Papal Mainframe. "Whatever they did to me at Demons Run, I can't give you children."

Dear Christ, that line hurts. The sense of total loss, the feeling of failure and bewilderment. 'Whatever they did to me' - because you never know, really. There's no sense or logic or kindness to it. And as somebody who has wanted a child, wanted a child the way Rory probably wants a child, this is a huge deal. When it becomes an absolute like that, a 'never' rather than a, 'maybe not', a 'not now', an 'I'd rather not'. All of those others suggest a mutability, a possibility of change, or retraction at some future date. One can live in hope, even if that hope is never satisfied. There is no 'over-reaction' when feelings that strong are at play. And Amy, knowing the irrevocable truth of it, that one child lost, and all possibility of another snatched away. Because it feels like a theft, it will always feel like a theft, like someone has cheated you of it.

There's a lot of talk online about the fact that Doctor Who is a sci-fi universe, that somewhere, there must be a 'cure'. But that misses the point. Science fiction gives us metaphors through which to understand the world, and sometimes - in the world - there is no fix, no get-out, no reset button. There are all kinds of things people can try to overcome infertility, but there is no guarantee that it will work. Sometimes the sentence is immutable.

Being a Mother, being a person:
Also, because this is fiction, just because the character of Amy has been used to explore the darkest sides of fertility does not mean she can't be utilised to explore a more fully realised, sympathetic version of motherhood. After all, the whole tragedy of infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, is that they are invisible. One can already have children, or (infertility aside) go on to have more. The lost child becomes simply a mark in your life, as you continue and are not defined by it.

And, of course, having children, these children grow up, they become independent, outgoing, confident people in their own right. They fly off around space and time, making decisions that are not necessarily healthy and bringing themselves into all sorts of danger, and - as a parent - you kind of have to live with that.

Don't get me wrong, I think we are much too harsh on the 'overbearing', 'over-protective' type of mother. One of the things it is very hard to lose is that sense of frailty, of vulnerability that your child has as a very small baby. They will always be your baby, no matter how big and independent they get. Personally, if someone was dragging my child into the firing line of Daleks, Cybermen and evilly inclined Time Lords, I wouldn't be bawling, "You take care of her!", I would be finding out in a very visceral manner just how many regenerations the Doctor had left.

You don't mess with my kids.

At the same time, you do have to accept that your child will run risks on their own, will have to make decisions and mistakes and - I hate typing this - suffer the consequences. You have to accept that one day you will hand them off to people you don't entirely trust - schools, partners, friends - who will take them away and turn them into someone that you don't quite recognise, who cannot be the same little baby who didn't recognise anyone in the world but you.

Hell, I still have a nervous collapse when I consider letting my eldest walk to the swings on her own in a few years. But in another six, she'll be walking across town (or getting the bus) to get to school on her own. In another ten, she'll probably want to be going out of an evening, with all that entails.

I'll probably be letting her. You just have to set your chin and deal with it.

Motherhood. It tears you apart.

But Amy handles it, just like most of us have to handle it. She lets River have her independence, and they remain on good terms. Not cloying, patronising, 'dear old mum', terms but as two separate adults with their own lives. Motherhood is a part of Amy, it is a part of her and Rory's marriage, but it does not define her in the way it defines Jackie Tyler, or Francine Jones, or Sylvia Noble. She continues as herself, a woman with her own interests and pursuits, while also having a good relationship with her daughter. Even if, for story reasons, she missed the messiest and most exhausting bits of parenting.

Frankly, that's why I prefer Moffat's stuff. I'm a mother, and I get the feeling he takes me seriously.

Finally, to Kill the Moon.

Okay, I went on a bit.

The thing is, Kill the Moon - while not written by Moffat himself - is another story commissioned and approved by him that gives a serious, thoughtful look at some of the terrible dilemmas around parenting, most specifically around motherhood.

Obviously, Kill the Moon engages with this in relation to the question of abortion. It looked at the matter as being a 'woman's choice', as being something private and personal that cannot be decided by opinion pole. Yes, on some levels it had an anti-choice (or, more generously, a pro-life) message that as a pro-choicer, I found deeply unsettling. But, as science fiction, as metaphor, it had the possibility of asking a bigger question, of addressing a wider set of concerns about parenthood and risk and life.

Every pregnancy is a gamble for the female body that hosts it. However wanted, however desired, however remarkable you are sure the offspring will be, however invested in the philosophical ideal of 'baby' lodged in that fetus - it could kill you. In pre-modern times, every pregnancy carried a roughly 1 in 13 chance of mortality for the mother (if I remember my figures correctly). What's more, once labour starts, it cannot be stopped. Every action is made in a pressed time-frame of irreversibility. Decisions have an effect that is immediate, and potentially fatal.

A friend of mine haemorrhaged and, without modern medical care, probably would have bled to death.

During my first labour, my heart-rate went from around 80 to about 120 in the space of five minutes, which isn't too much of a worry, except I'd been lying down for four hours and my contractions had all but stopped. It was also weak enough to be mistaken for the baby's. Hers, however, had dropped from around 120 to about 80 - and become so weak as to be difficult to find. I was on the sofa in the front room, a fifteen minute drive from the hospital, with no ambulance present and six inches of snow on the ground.

An hour earlier, the midwives had suggested going in to hospital, but my birth partner had convinced them to wait. I wanted a home-birth so badly.

They said they could leave it another sixty minutes.

Perhaps we would have been okay. Perhaps another couple of lacklustre contractions and she would have been born. Perhaps neither of our lives were ever in danger. The speed with which the midwives acted suggests differently.

You get one shot of this, one try, one chance, and, ultimately, it is down to you.

When my second child turned breech at 36 weeks, I had to make the decision of whether to stick to my principles (natural birth, home birth, low-intervention), or take the medically recommended Caesarian at 39 weeks. I had to research things like cord prolapse, foetal brain damage, popliteal pressure, Lovset's manoeuvres. I read that extended breech births were perfectly safe if delivered by a confident and experienced midwife, but that few midwives felt that way because of the ubiquity of Caesarian for breech delivery. I had to decide whether my baby's personal safety was more important to me than the preservation of skills in the community for the furtherance of natural birth.

And the choice was mine. I had brilliant doctors, consultants and midwives (thank you NHS!), I had a supportive family and the best husband anyone could hope for, but the choice was mine. My body, my baby. Ultimately, I got to hit the switch. The stress, the trauma of those three weeks is still with me.

There was no right decision.

Actually, the wriggly little beggar turned back at 39+1, the day after I would have had the Caesarian, had I made that choice. Like Clara, I lucked out. I never had to live with the consequences of fouling it up. It still hangs over me. If I had folded at the last minute, I would have had an unnecessary medical procedure, a scar, a weakened uterus. If I hadn't had that thousand to one luck, I would have had to live with the consequences of attempting home-breech birth, whatever they may have been.

You can't know. You just can't know, and you can't ask anyone else to make that decision for you. You don't even get to say, stop, no. I don't want this. It's too late for any of that. You missed your chance on that call. You have three weeks, 45 minutes, one hour, whatever - you can open it up to a poll, you can take expert advice, but no-one can tell you what to do.

The decision you make will always be the right one, because it is the only one you get.

That doesn't mean it's easy. It doesn't make it comfortable television.

But necessary?

Yeah. Maybe it does make it that.

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