The Importance of Doctor Who

My youngest brothers’ first exposure to a queer character in television was through Doctor Who’s Captain Jack. When you are eight (or really any age) Captain Jack is the archetype of complete cool that you are always striving to achieve; witty, brave, ridiculously charming, and has a gun. So when you see that that character “dances with everyone” it tells you that there’s nothing weird or wrong about queerness. And when, a few days later, you go to school and find your friends using homophobic language as one brother did, you tell them to stop because you know that people should never be a target for hate.

That’s the impact that a great show can have.

The recent announcement that Doctor number 13 will be played by Jodie Whittaker has had predictable reactions. To some this is the worst case of pandering. To others it is about time. But in reality it is just another form of the Doctor, and in some ways that is the most significant part. Because removed from all the adult conversations, all children will see is the central character of a show they eagerly watch simply looking different yet again but still going on the same adventures with the same balance of coolness and nerdiness that we’ve all grown to love. It’s that normalcy that made Captain Jack so important, and it will be the same again when the Doctor leads an army, saves the world, or refers to her wife in the seasons to come.

Doctor Who teaches morals. It highlights that sometimes it is worth risking danger to you and those around you for a greater cause. It shows that even genius is not infallible and that we all have a part to play in improving our situations. It tells children that you must have hope that people as a whole can be good in the end, and that though there are bad things in the world it is important to love and protect one another as best you can.

The wider world is a cynical one. It’s one that makes us forget these rules in favour of a more utilitarian bend. Yet the idealism of Doctor Who is what draws us in, and what makes these inclusions so important because it reinforces the humanity of groups who haven’t historically fared so well. The recent companion of Bill, a gay, black woman who unabashedly has crushes and has to rebuff interested men helps with this normalisation. Adding a Doctor whose gender in our eyes has shifted builds up not only what women can do in society’s eyes, but makes conversations around gender dynamics and the idea of a binary easier to have too.

Having a pop culture locus to discuss and represent difference shouldn’t be a marvel, but something ordinary. I’m looking forward to the next series of Doctor Who to take us a little bit closer towards this future.

More Lesbians! Consent! Violence!

Lesbian relationships in film often carry the burden of limited storytelling which focuses on coming out stories, pregnancy, affairs, and/or death. Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy has none of these traits. Rather it is a universal story about love and the ways in which we can be undone by it, exploring the emotional violence that can be carried by a relationship. Most importantly, unlike another film that shall not be named, The Duke of Burgundy highlights this as a failure of communication, not as an evil of kink itself.

It’s no secret I have a great soft spot in my heart for The Duke of Burgundy – it’s a amazing film about people that features a queer couple who’s issues are not rooted in their queerness. As part of their Violent Women Week I’ve got a guest piece over at BitchFlicks looking at the emotional violence inflicted in the film. It has spoilers so I recommend you watch the film first, but you can check it out here.

People can sometimes find it weird that I see a lot of the negotiations in the film as cruel – after all no one said they didn’t want to do anything. The truth is that good partners try to look out for signs of upset – people are often socialised to subordinate their own personal feelings for those of others, and there are a whole host of reasons why someone may not be comfortable enough with a partner to articulate them. A simple example would be to think of all the things you’ve done that you would rather not for the benefit of your family; in my case it would be wearing a dress to my graduation. Not all of these are wrong or a sign of abuse, but they might make someone uncomfortable or always feel off, and the more intimate the situation the more we must look out for this. When we play by the rules that everything must be explicitly stated (otherwise it doesn’t count as a no) then we risk straying into territory where we can wilfully ignore what we sense in others in order to ensure we get our own way. Instead of checking for a happy yes, we just look for a clear no.

Yes people should be able to speak up, but in this world that is hard. We have a responsibility to make sure that the level of trust to speak is actually there in the first place.

Watching BoJack Horseman / How to be a Good Person

“BoJack doesn’t get the Hollywood (Hollywoo?) pay off. He doesn’t get the satisfaction of forgiveness, or of being told that he is a good person. He just gets brief moments of self-realisation before he runs from his reflection once more. Seeing yourself in him you realise that you don’t get that cartoon magic of resolutions either.”

BoJack Horseman just launched the second series on the 17th July and my intention was to clean whilst I watched but, like last the last series, I ended up on a viewing marathon, gripped.

Last series I had been hesitant to delve into it; the comedy starts off slow, and it was only the rave reviews from friends that invested me in it. However once I got to the second half it was compulsive. I kept watching all through the night, pushing myself deeper and deeper down into an addictive hollowness as it pummelled me emotionally. I recognise too much of myself in BoJack – the occasional arrogance, the desire to prove talents that he is not quite sure he has, wanting to numb himself emotionally from everything, self-sabotaging – and here was a show that didn’t end with roses and sunshine. The protagonist always making the wrong choice, over and over, in the idea that the choice will bring happiness and instead it brings nothingness.

*

Here’s a brief guide on how to be a good person:

  1. Lie to yourself
  2. Rationalise every action you’ve ever made based on “being true to yourself” and therefore good
  3. Justify that the consequences were the best possible outcome
  4. Say “I’m a good person inside”
  5. Do things every now and again for others and cling to them as indisputable proof of your goodness

*

The first series is the process of BoJack slowly coming to see himself properly. The marketing as an adult comedy does a great disservice to the beauty of an end product; the show is not hesitant to get into the darker parts of what it is to be human/horse. BoJack comes to realise he’s terrible, he realises that there are things people won’t ever forgive him for, that you don’t get to pick how people view your past. That it might actually be your actions and not your intentions that shape who you are.

BoJack doesn’t get the Hollywood (Hollywoo?) pay off. He doesn’t get the satisfaction of forgiveness, or of being told that he is a good person. He just gets brief moments of self-realisation before he runs from his reflection once more. Seeing yourself in him you realise that you don’t get that cartoon magic of resolutions either.

It’s hard to come to that conclusion. Extremes are easy to identify: this person is evil, that one is saintly. It’s the blurry areas in the middle that are complicated enough to allow us to fashion a false narrative about ourselves. We want to believe that the world works according to how we feel, and that therefore overall we’re pretty neat. We don’t fit the extreme so we must be good.

*

After getting through the second series and watching BoJack break me emotionally once more – realising his problems and still failing to act adequately enough – I was stuck reflecting on how I am always caught in the same mistakes too. At the core I want to feel like I have a goodness that is threaded through every action, and really the truth is that we are both good and bad in each moment and that one does not cancel out the other. Repetition means that it is not simply naivety but a willing ignorance to maintain the fiction that I make kind decisions. The people I have made feel terrible will still feel terrible. Whether they forgive me or not it doesn’t erase how I have treated them.

It is intriguing how so many of the “best” and “loving” actions align with what we want in our heads. This ego of good people syndrome extends to everyone, ruining revenge fantasies we build up. As much as we crave it people often don’t feel bad about the things they’ve done, or have everything turn to shit on them. The person that cheated on you? They probably are happier and feel comfortable that it was all for the best. Most people aren’t devastated, but walk away with a shrug – at the most you may get an “I’ll do better next time”. I am highly unlikely to think of myself as cruel in the moment.

*

In some ways intent doesn’t really matter, because of how often we lie to even ourselves about the true reasons, coating them in a more acceptable veneer. Goodness is frequently self-serving, sometimes we help not just for altruism but for showmanship. Even a genuine act can be tarred later on, allowing us to we cling onto them as proof of who we want people to see us as. I can tell the story of helping a homeless man who had suffered heat-stroke where I co-ordinated a group of the public and arranged an ambulance, leaving me an hour late to drinks with a friend. I don’t tell it because part of changing myself for the better means starting with me looking at the slumped over man, bright red and sweating, and walking on. It means telling people that I got to the end of the road and then felt like shit, so to soothe myself I went back. It means acknowledging that I still walk straight past people in need without a glance every week. And that means making myself look unforgivably human.

That’s not to say I’m a pessimist, or that self-serving altruism is bad. It’s just I’m coming to realise that being good is a combination both how you feel and what you do, but ultimately the more important thing is that consequences of your actions. Working on being an inch better is painful, and slow and you slip back. It’s what makes BoJack Horseman such compelling viewing. Knowing your faults is not the same as changing. I’m going to fuck up more than I get it right.

That doesn’t make me “good” but it’s a little bit closer.

Your Childhood is a Demon that You Hide from Yourself

Content Note: This contains discussion and a video of discussion of potential sexual assault

Does anyone remember ‘Chums’? It’s a very British institution, a parody of Friends that was broadcast on ITV as part of the Saturday morning kids programme SMTV:Live. I used to watch that show with my brother religiously because everyone knew ITV was where all the good cartoons were. We especially loved Chums though, because it was ridiculous and the live nature of the filming meant that we felt like we were watching friends (haha, but that was genuinely unintended). It was part of what Saturday mornings and the weekend meant to me as a child and so I had fond memories.

Childhood is like that – if you’re middle-class and live in relative privilege it becomes the time you keep turning to for good feelings. You have hope and possibility and no worries and genuine enthusiasm for silly things. Some people have smells that draw them back to this time, a lot have shows such as Pokémon, or old Playstation games (remember Rayman? It was the one game I was fairly competent at).

I suppose that this is why in the first year of university, homesick and lost in a different country I decided to go and find something from my childhood to watch. A nice comforting memory to stand in for the friends and family I had left behind. I picked Chums, since I figured that I would get the humour now as well. And I sort-of did, though the laughs were more because I was in a silly mood and feeling like I was transported back to sitting cross-legged on the white shag carpet. That sentiment was interrupted when I clicked on yet another episode only to bear witness to Ant encouraging Dec to attempt to strip a passed out Cat so they could see her breasts. Maybe more, I don’t know where they were going with it exactly.

As a joke.

As a joke in a show for kids.

Of course Cat wakes up before anything happens (it is still aimed at children after all so we can show them boundaries laughed away, but never nipples) yet that doesn’t actually matter. It’s incredibly messed up that anyone thought that was acceptable as a gag regardless of the target audience (as a heads up, if you have ever been confused about what rape culture is, well – this is what rape culture is. It’s where we go “haha, they were going to violate that woman, isn’t it hilarious because she wouldn’t know”). And now I can’t think back to Saturday mornings without dwelling on what other damaging messages I may have obliviously absorbed.

Since then I’ve told many different people, and they all seem horrified, mainly because no-one can remember registering the actual implications behind this kind of humour. A few have vehemently denied that a children’s programme would do such a thing. Nobody wants to admit that part of their childhood was laughing at the idea of sexual assault.

Anyway, after years of avoiding trawling the internet for it, I finally I found it again. So here is my proof that this did happen:

*

As much as I would like it to be is not an isolated incident. I do not think these childhood betrayals are unique. Speaking to my mother she clearly remembers how her favourite book when she was young was ‘Little Black Sambo’ and a family favourite to watch was ‘The Black and White Minstrel Show’. I was aghast that she could have thought this was okay but “everyone watched it” and childhood is a time when you don’t think further than yourself. It’s the responsibility of the society around you to protect you from this, but what do we do when the society around you doesn’t care?

Even in my youth I remember watching a show featuring a Gollywog in it – a grotesque racial caricature – and not thinking too much of it other than being a little scared. It took me until I was an adult to have a sudden realisation of what it actually represented. I think that’s the worst part – when you have privilege you just don’t even pick up on it because you’re not forced to. It’s only when you make yourself learn that you see all the terrible things that have been in plain sight. It’s why remembering your position and always striving to learn and listen is so key. It’s also why romanticising childhood is so bad – childhood is where all these murky ideas started to grow, and saying something was “of it’s time” is not an excuse. We have to know better.

It’s tough to watch your childhood destroy itself but you must. When you start seeing the flaws in everything is when you can start improving. Sure it tears holes in your nostalgia, but you need to honestly appreciate what the culture of the time wanted to teach you, and how wrong it was. And then you remember a time last year when people thought it was funny to try and get a girl to take her top off and you kept saying, over and over, that she didn’t have too. You see all the little links. They grew up on the same stuff but never got to the point where they questioned it.

I’m not saying you should have no fond memories, just that we should cast that adult eye – the one that calls their favourite show “problematic” because it is – and actually look hard at what we treasured, and still treasure now. Nostalgia is not and never will be worth the price of that girl’s dignity.

Lesbians! Kink! Sidse Babett Knudsen!

So recently I got the chance to chat with my friend Fikri (@metafiktion) about the great film ‘The Duke of Burgundy’ and our review (with an extra special spoilery second page) can be found here:

http://www.autostraddle.com/the-duke-of-burgundy-is-the-lesbian-bdsm-film-youve-been-waiting-for-278921/

Check it out, and also check out the film because it is amazing.