By Jess Zimmerman
Let me start by saying I really liked the Doctor Who finale. But it was also emblematic of the Lady Problems the show’s been having, where otherwise good female characters keep getting turned into The Girl Who Waited or The Doctor’s Wife — people who are defined in the negative space of the central male character. We’ve found out a lot about River Song this season, which culminates in this episode as she both marries and kills the Doctor — but she does both as part of his character development, not hers.
River and Amy, most of the time, are fully-realized, interesting, flawed, admirable characters. At minimum, they look like someone really tried. But writing a character who’s some caricature dippy socialite or gross nouveau Stepford wife isn’t the only way to be sexist. You could also, for instance, forget that your fully-realized female characters are supposed to be fully-realized, just as soon as the need arises for them to fulfill some symbolic function.
Last season ended with a wedding, where the hoary old “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” rhyme actually SAVED THE UNIVERSE. Existence depended on Amy and Rory not only tying the knot, but doing it in the most heteronormative of possible ways — if they’d just gone to the courthouse, everything would have been wrong forever. (Other important plot points in the following season: Amy and Rory get pregnant, Amy and Rory get a house, the Doctor stops calling Amy “Amy Pond” and calls her “Amy Williams.” Ugh.)
In this episode, a wedding has to save the universe again, although I’m honestly not certain why. This time it’s a little less traditional — whatever the Time Lord version of the Wedding Industrial Complex is, I’m guessing it doesn’t involve bow ties. But the symbolic weight of the wedding is the same as it was last season. These weddings aren’t just plot, they’re allegory: they bring friends back together, heal broken memories and broken universes, knit fragmented timelines, put time back in its proper place. Which is pretty okay! Weddings are fundamentally symbolic anyway — why not put that cultural significance to use? Let them stand for unity and harmony and all those nice things. But there are down sides to too much symbolism, and I think we saw them on Saturday. To me, “The Wedding of River Song” served to reduce River Song to her wedding, as though her most important role was not her adventures with the Doctor (all off-screen!) or her adventures alone (likewise!) or her traumatic upbringing (this also does not happen on camera!) or her shift from trained sociopath to emotional devotee (I am sensing a pattern!), but simply her marrying the Doctor when the Doctor tells her to. “Now you’re the woman who marries me,” he says. Um, thanks.
I understand that River has her detractors, but I think most people would agree that when she showed up in “Silence in the Library,” she was frankly kickass. Maybe you were already irked by her way of intoning “spoilers,” but she was crazy and sexy and hyper-educated and mysterious and noble and brave and anyway WAY better than that “Planet of the Dead” woman, if you have to pick a lady-criminal with a boner for David Tennant. And she had had a lot of adventures. A lot.
Then there’s the River we saw on Saturday, a River with her backstory filled in. This woman’s life revolves around the Doctor. She was born because her parents got busy in the TARDIS and had a baby with a time head. She was stolen, because the Doctor couldn’t save her, and raised to be a Doctor-killing machine. She got her Ph.D. so she could research him. And then she fell in love with him, and killed him, and married him, or married him and killed him, and went to prison for him for the rest of her life. And she marries him even though he’s just been insulting her and saying he doesn’t want to marry her — she marries him because she’s doing as she’s told. Is this the story that makes the most sense for River, as a character? Or is the character being manipulated to fill a symbolic role?
This season has been about the Doctor recognizing the power of his own charisma, and what it makes people do for him — they do genuinely want to help him, but it’s also a sort of coercion because his personal gravity is notched up so high. It’s been interesting to watch him try to figure out how culpable he is when people then get themselves in trouble on his behalf. (It’s been less interesting watching him shout at people until they turn human, a trope that I feel like happened over and over again over seasons 5 and 6, including last week.)
So when the Doctor and River stand together on that pyramid clutching a bow tie, we know he’s a man who has struggled mightily with realizing his power and wondering whether it does enough good to make up for the pain. But what did River go through to get to this point? We don’t see her struggle, because her character’s been finessed and retconned over the course of the season so she could fill the bride role in the wedding finale. She tells us herself: “Who else was I going to fall in love with?”
Why have a wedding, as though there’s no other possible way for River to look into his eye or touch him and set time right again? As far as I can tell, it’s because the Doctor needs to decide on his relationship to a universe that loves him and relies on him and needs him dead, and he decides to marry it. And River needs to be there because universes can’t legally get married.
Making female characters into allegories and placeholders and figureheads is … not a very new concept. Think Manic Pixie Dream Girl movies, where the woman is not a character but a catalyst for the male character’s development — or classical art, where men are gods and kings with names and women are Graces and Virtues. But Doctor Who is capable of doing better. The writers have given us some pretty great female characters. But they need to treat them like real characters all the time, instead of only when they don’t need to stand for something else.
Jess Zimmerman puts words in order for money and also sometimes for free. She’s an editor at Grist.org, writes about lady things for xoJane.com, and is on Twitter A LOT. She has not seen The Sopranos or Mad Men, but knows most of Twin Peaks, The State, and Real Genius by heart.