Womanhood does not equal Motherhood (a Doctor Who rant)

*Here be spoilers for the Doctor Who Christmas Special. Read at your own risk if you are a spoilerphobe.*

My relationship with Steven Moffat is deeply fraught with contradictions. (For those of you who don’t know, Moffat is the current head writer behind Doctor Who, and also Sherlock. This post focusses on Doctor Who though.)

On the one hand, he is a brilliant, brilliant writer, and I love his timey-wimey, I love the way he plays with historical settings and plots (though the WW2 thing is getting a bit old now), I love the way he created River Song and the Eleventh Doctor, I love how his mind works.

And then there’s the other side of Moffat, the side that is a man who doesn’t seem to realise how terribly problematic and patriarchal things he says can sound [1], who creates all these intricate plotlines I love and then manages to say something through them that makes the feminist inside me stop dead and say “WTF is going on here? WHY did you have to do that?” (River, you have an awesome career. Shame you only did it to keep track of a man.)

Let it be said that I love Doctor Who so much that it borders on ridiculousness, and I always will. But that doesn’t stop me looking at it in a critical light. Science fiction in particular is a great genre for exploring feminism, ableism, sexism, racism, etc. Most science fiction is able to look at morals and ethics without sounding preachy and overly agenda-d.

But sometimes it also annoys me, because one small that niggles me is built upon by another small thing, and another, until it gets to a point where I just have to stop and rant. This is what happened a few nights ago, while I was watching The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe. I’m probably over-reacting, but it’s a culmination of minor annoyances that I need to get off my chest.

I was enjoying the Christmas special. So the plot wasn’t that great compared to some of Moffat’s other plots, and the opening scenes were a bit gratuitous, and there was a lot of emotion in the wrong places. But I liked the premise, it was a lovely sort of idea that really allowed the actors to shine. It was all a bit cheesy, but all had a good message at heart, even if the father did miraculously survive. Madge Arwell grew on me a lot, even though I found her a bit overbearing at first. But she’s strong, feisty, dedicated to her children – all great things. She faked being a weepy, scared woman in order to pull a gun on three armed humanoids from Androzani (and she totally had me there, I was just getting annoyed at why she had to be so weepy!).

That is, until we found out why Madge was such a strong, amazing character.

That’s right, there’s a reason why she’s so awesome, a very specific one. It’s because she’s a mum, as the Doctor explains. Her strength came from her being a mother. Not from her being a woman, not from her simply being an awesome character. No, it all comes down to the fact that she can do all these things because she is a mother, and that motherhood gives her strength.

Now I’m not doubting that being a mother is something great. I’m sure it is. And on the one hand, I think it’s definitely a step forward for Doctor Who to be focussing on mothers for once, after two series of idealising fathers and largely refusing to deal with mothers (such as in Amy’s pregnancy storyline). But what I’m mad about is the blatant conflation of motherhood and womanhood.

In this episode, motherhood and womanhood are portrayed as one and the same, two sides of a single coin. Madge and Lily are “strong” because they are biologically capable of producing offspring. They’re not strong in their own right, as women. They’re strong as mothers (in Lily’s case, a potential mother).

Haven’t we moved beyond this yet? The idealisation of motherhood as the most worthy pursuit for women? The implication that women who choose not to have children are less women? Surely having children is something wonderful, but it doesn’t define who you are in your entirety. It isn’t the only source of your power. I have no intention of having children because I want to focus on the things I am passionate about, which will lead into my future career. I despise the idea that I’ll want children someday because “every woman wants children” at some point. And I simply won’y buy the idea that I won’t be complete as a woman without the experience of motherhood.

Surely every woman has the potential and the right to be strong and powerful and complete of her own accord first?

Situations like these make me question whether we will ever manage to eradicate gender, and gender-based inequality in regards to opportunity and mindset and discrimination. If we can’t even get past the fact that women are able to have children, then how are we meant to make it work? Does it all start and stop at biology after all?

I don’t have the answers to those questions. I don’t think I ever will. In the meantime, I guess all I can do is point out iffy tropes where I see them. (Even if that means being told time and time again to get over it.)

[1] Some examples I guess: Stereotyping of women as needy and hunting for marriages here, some disturbing comments on Karen Gillan’s casting via here, and a bunch of bothersome bits in episodes such as “I’ll just keep following you home then” (this episode as well as Blink). These are some of the most often quoted examples. From all I have read, my general picture of Moffat is of someone who simply buys into the patriarchy and gender stereotypes without actually engaging with them.

20 thoughts on “Womanhood does not equal Motherhood (a Doctor Who rant)

  1. I managed to wriggle around it by deciding that Madge and Lily were no stronger than the Doctor or Cyril; that was just what the trees thought. But it still bothered me, because I shouldn’t have to fanwank to make something less offensive.

    It also raised a lot of questions in my mind, such as:

    1) If a woman in the Whoniverse is biologically incapable of carrying a child to term, does that make her morally weaker than a woman who has given birth? (Before answering this, remember that the TARDIS seems to identify as a woman and has chosen to save the Doctor, the Earth and the universe many times. Also, the majority of the Doctor’s companions, most of whom were heroic and brave during their tenure with the Doctor and who went on to do amazing things that in some way benefited or saved multitudes, have been women who were not mothers.)

    2) Is a woman who is childfree by choice morally weaker than a woman who can’t have children but wants them?

    3) How does conceiving and bearing a child transform a woman into someone physically, mentally, emotionally, morally and spiritually capable of hauling an entire species around in her mind? Would the transformation still occur if the woman in question had abandoned her child in a Dumpster? What about a woman who, with malice aforethought, murdered her child (for reasons unrelated to sparing it future suffering or post-partum depression)?

    4) Why doesn’t becoming a father–that is, siring and raising a child–transform a man?

    5) How would “becoming a mother conveys all sorts of strength” affect species where the women cannot bear children–such as the Gallifreyans, who reportedly gene-spliced or “loomed” their children into existence?

    6) What about species that have more than two biological genders? How would this affect them? How about species that can transform from one gender to another?

    7) Would male sea horses be considered mothers by the Whoniverse? They don’t conceive the children but they do give birth to them.

    8) How would “becoming a mother conveys all sorts of strength” affect a transwoman? She is a woman. She may even have raised children. But she is not biologically capable of bearing children. What about someone who identifies as a woman but who is intersexed? What about a woman who’s genderqueer? What about someone who’s gender-fluid and who therefore identifies as a woman…just not all the time?

    9) By what means do biological sex, conception and the process of giving birth in any way affect moral strength, integrity, courage, nobility of spirit and compassion?

    I want to ask Moffat these questions. I do. Because I don’t think he’s thought about any of the implications for one second.

    1. Judging from his comments in the past, he probably wouldn’t answer you and would tell you that you were thinking too hard about it, which is my main problem with Moffat-Who. If you think too hard about it, it falls apart. RTD’s tenure was silly and full of plot holes, but you could think about it and analyze it if you so choose.

      Moffat? You think about it too hard, and you can see all the things he didn’t bother to think about. You look past the surface of what characters are saying, and there’s very little to find, I think. We all want them to be strong, awesome characters, especially since River, Amy, and Rory have such potential and fandom turns them into great characters, but if you think about it too hard, that’s not what you find.

      Sometimes, in episodes written by other people, that’s not the case, but I think everything has just felt sort of empty because of his focus on pleasing people that watch the surface of the show, especially children. Granted, that is 99.9% of viewers, if not more, but it still bothers me.

      His take on feminism is exactly a result of that lack of thinking.

    2. Fatherhood does change a man–“Closing Time” is all about becoming a father, as is “Night Terrors” and, in a way, “The Curse of the Black Spot”…

  2. I understand what you’re saying. However, I could see definite connections with this strong human mother and Gaia. Woman as goddess 🙂

  3. Thank you all for your comments so far, and I’m glad that you enjoyed the piece, Therese. Xenaclone, I can also see the parallels between the mythological construction on woman as goddess – but I have to point out that to me, a woman who has children is no more or less woman, or goddess, than a woman who doesn’t. I would like to see more women on TV be powerful and strong because that is their character, not because their character is a mother.

    Gehayi, you raise a number of excellent questions which all queer definitions of woman and man, of what the role of motherhood entails. Your #8 and #9 points are especially relevant, as not everyone fits into the nice little boxes that have been constructed. I would like to see every person being valued for who they are as a person, not as the role they play.

  4. Good rant, enjoyed reading it, and absolutely how I felt watching the Christmas special – though because I always hold up the Christmas episodes to much lower standards, and because I’m tired of getting upset at Doctor Who these days, my ultimate reaction was more along the lines of ‘meh, what can you do’.

    I find Moffat a tricky one, because if you look at the pattern of Doctor Who since he took over, there’s definitely some stuff there to make you wince – but part of me can’t help but wonder if we’re all looking for that stuff just a little more than we would for other writers because of the off-screen interviews, etc.? I’ve never found anything problematic in Press Gang or Jekyll, if we look beyond Doctor Who, but Coupling has some issues, granted.

    To be honest though, I’ve found pretty much all of the revival of Doctor Who to be problematic from a feminist perspective, RTD’s era was just as bad. It’s like we’ve gone backwards in TV, where the new series is incapable of writing female characters who aren’t defined entirely by their relationships with men which was never a problem in the old series. How did we end up with better, more well-rounded, independent female characters in the 60s and 70s than we do now?!

    Whatever the issues though, I loved Claire Skinner’s performance as Madge in the Christmas special. 😀

  5. The part i loved about the chapter was that for the forest women are stronger than men. the motherhood interpretation and that all yadayada was all the doctor interpretation of the situation.

    the people of the forest didn’t say the girl was not a mother they say she is strong but too young!, so she is not a woman yet, nothing to do with be a mother yet.

    they need a woman, not necessarily a mother and i loved that!, so even if moffat made a awful discourse via the doctor. unintentionally maybe they did give an alien race the capacity to see that a woman is stronger not necessarily because she can bare children, only because she is a woman.


    this particular woman had children because in the 40ths you can not be a woman if you don’t have a husband a house and children,

    but her rol in her place of origin was never important for the forest they need her

  6. Long time lurker here…

    I had to stop and think about the gender issue, but ultimately I had no issues with it. The Doctor says it’s a translation error. “Strong” in this case means the physical capability to be host other life outside of your own. Males simply can’t do that.

    The young girl, clearly not a mother, was also described as “strong”. But she was a barely pubescent child, so clearly not as suitable a host for the trees as a full grown adult. She hadn’t completed her growth.

    I really enjoyed seeing the Doctor’s reaction to not being able to take the crown himself. It’s nice when he’s not the only one who can fix things.

    I don’t think the message here is that women HAVE to be mothers, or that their only value is in being mothers. I think it’s simply acknowledging that only women can carry life and that’s something very special.

  7. I hear what you’re saying, but I did feel it was an improvement on his earlier efforts. Better than the deep-frozen songbird of last year’s special, and at least Madge wasn’t a conventionally sexy woman. Agreed, sexual allure or motherhood certainly shouldn’t be the only options, but it’s a start. Whether I can ever quite forgive SM for River Song is another issue.

    I was about to say that Sarah Jane is a strong female character not defined by motherhood, but she does have an adopted son, so that only works up to a point.

  8. I tried to give myself a reasonable explanation for it during the episode so I could still focus instead of getting annoyed by Moffat. I came to the conclusion that since Madge needed to carry living beings inside of her, being a mother and having carried two living beings before made her strong enough to do so.

    But I definitely agree with everything you said. Great read! I’m really glad you posted this.

  9. Found you via who_daily on LJ, and I love what you’re saying here. You’ve gotten at exactly what was bothering me most of the episode — and indeed most of Moffat’s tenure. He makes great characters, he makes great plots. But the things that he does with women (River and Amy, mostly) bother me to no end. As you said, Madge should be strong because she’s determined and kick-ass and stubborn, NOT because she’s given birth to children. I get the mother nature thing, but it’s just not okay. And he did equally horrible things to Amy during and after her pregnancy, and then stuck River in a computer with two fake children, to be their mother, and called it a life.

    I just wish I could see that he values female characters for who they are, not what they are. But I can’t see any evidence that he does.

  10. ” I have no intention of having children because I want to focus on the things I am passionate about, which will lead into my future career”

    And mothers cannot do this either? I am passionate about what I love as well and I still want a career. But I still want children.

    You can do both. Please do not invalidate those who want and do do both.

    1. Mandy, I tried very hard to convey in the post that I in no way think that motherhood is something which is not wonderful if you want it and a completely valid choice. I do not believe that there is anything wrong with wanting to have both children and a career, in fact, I think it’s admirable. But it’s not a choice that I would make for myself, because I don’t want to have children and personally feel no desire to be a mother. Perhaps I should have rephrased that sentence a little. I don’t want to be a mother because I don’t want to be a mother – my passion towards my career is something separate to that, something that I know will make me very happy. I was merely trying to point out that not wanting to have children does not in any way make me less of a woman, contrary to claims that I cannot be “complete” as a woman if I haven’t experienced motherhood.

      To everyone else, thank you for the multitude of comments! I’m so surprised that this many people have taken the time to leave thoughts of their own here.

      1. I agree that motherhood does not equal womanhood. I was not disagreeing with you there but I felt the comment ” I have no intention of having children because I want to focus on the things I am passionate about, which will lead into my future career” invalidated those mothers who make it work and get both and that children and careers are not mutually exclusive.

        I hate hate the attitude that comes from people who do not want kids that they ruin your life and that every woman who has them turns out to be soulless, sexless beings. I am not saying that you were perpetrating that exact thought but it did seem along those lines. I am the only one out of my friends that want children and I hear those things all the time and it bugs me. I fear for my friendships after I do have children. I personally don’t care if one decides to not have children but I do care about the assumptions people make about those who do happen to want children.

        Thank you for replying so politely and quickly.

      2. I can understand that the “children ruin your life” attitude would be frustrating for you. I have personally only ever encountered the opposite attitude, the one which says “every woman must have children or she is not a proper woman.” Both attitudes are equally harmful and outdated! Partially my own personal not-wanting-to-have-kids comes from the fact that I don’t feel the need or desire for relationships with men or women, and so if I did want to have kids one day it would be as a single mum. But again, it’s just not something I want for myself, independent of all other parts of my life.

        Thank you for this discussion – it’s exactly what I wanted this blog to be for. 🙂

  11. I have to look at this backwards. I want to say–so we cannot talk or portray how motherhood might make a woman strong? But we can talk about how women who do not need men are strong? And therefore being in love with a man somehow means you are weak? River may say, I’m looking for a good man, but I think it’s an inside joke–she is not some woman from our 1950s who hits college to score a man. The Doctor helped her become the person she was meant to be, and we’re not quite sure how this was achieved–other than seeing her image as River Song…

    What I’m saying is what I’m always saying–look at the big picture. Don’t judge the series or its creators based on one episode. I know you are not doing this–but I am a feminist too, and a mother and a wife, and I don’t put up with a lot of patriarchal crap. It’s possible, albeit not that common. I just found me a good man. ;P

  12. Commenting back to Shelley — unfortunately it’s precisely the big picture that is the problem with the Christmas special. As an episode, unto itself, it might not have raised so many red flags, if it hadn’t displayed so many symptoms of Moffat’s patriarchal attitudes. Madge is a really wonderful character– but then she is reduced to a vessel for transporting the species — just like Amy was narrowed down from an interesting adventurer in her own right to being the baby mama to River — who, for many viewers, has followed a sad path of devolution from brilliant mysterious archaeologist to crazy lady.

    It doesn’t make a lick of sense that a Time Lord would be less capable of carrying the life forces of an entire species around in his head than a human. Being a mum doesn’t somehow prime you for this. My womb bore a child — which is a big deal and certainly, having a child very much changed who I am as a person — but many ordeals and adventures in life can expand who you are and what you are capable of.

    The difference between the treatment of Madge in this ep, and say, Rory or Craig, is that the emotional response of Rory and Craig are interesting to Moffat in their own right as people — whereas Madge is reduced to a type — she is a Mum and a Wife so therefore she will succeed. Craig, learning to trust himself as Stormy’s dad, is a real person who goes through a learning process. We’re told in this story that Madge just needs to lie back and think of Home. Ugh!

    It is a shame really as many individual eps of Moffat are outstanding, and even this ep as a story was very engrossing and emotionally powerful, and my son and I enjoyed it together. But when a problem like this is so glaring, it is wrong to keep quiet. We have to demand that stories about women be told on a deeper level. A mum is a wonderful thing to be — but a woman, any human, is a complicated set of things and shouldn’t be reduced to just one of her many aspects.

    and original blogger Jo, you did a great job — thanks!

  13. This is almost exactly what I thought! 🙂

    One quibble with gehayi, though: the TARDIS has been identified as a woman; we don’t know how zie feels about that.

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