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Martha as Mammy and yet more 'ism's in the Whoverse. 
2nd-Jul-2007 07:16 pm
fen of color
I'm noticing a lot of people insisting that the portrayal of Martha as strong and capable automatically negates any accusation of sexism in the latest season of Who. And people demanding step by step proof of the racism, because apparently it's all just the way things are written and we're making too much of it.

And really, were we talking about sexism and its stereotypes as framed for white women they might have a leg to stand on but sexism isn't a one size fits all sort of a category. Portrayals of women (and the attendant sexism) vary greatly depending on the race of the woman. Generally speaking young white women have options in terms of being chaste/being sexy and being heroines or being painted as damsels in distress. That's because the key word there actually isn't the distress part. It's the word damsel. Damsels are always desirable, no matter how much ass they kick (or don't) and nothing they do makes them unworthy of love or protection.

The stereotype start to swing in whole new directions when it comes to other ethnic groups. Latina women (assuming you can find many on TV) are usually either oversexed or completely sexless with a large number of children. If they have Latino boyfriends/husbands the men are usually portrayed as criminals or at best overtly chauvinistic. Mostly though they aren't portrayed at all. There have been some exceptions, but not many and mostly those exceptions are in sitcoms. Asian women get to be sexy or smart, but generally not both and they certainly don't have relationships with Asian men. But hey, Asian men aren't usually portrayed at all or if they are the options are sexless, king fu master, or geek who is obsessed with sex. Doubt me? Find me ten Asian male characters that don't fit any of those molds. Same with Latino men. And just look at Tosh on Torchwood for the Asian woman stereotype that keeps screaming at the top of its lungs. You can also look at Lucy Liu in Ally McBeal.

Now, let's talk about black people. Black women tend to get two choices. Mammy or Jezebel. Occasionally the third option of Sapphire (see nagging shrew constantly emasculating a weak black man) rears its ugly head. But mostly the choices are asexual Mammy or nympho Jezebel. And yes, Martha is smart and she comes from a good family and really it's not like we see her or her family running around as servants complete with little uniforms...oh wait. Let's start with the portrayal of Martha as Mammy (see her taking care of the Doctor repeatedly including being a maid for three months but also working to support him in the 1960's), no agency of her own to speak of when it comes to saving the world (particularly when you note that the grand plan amounts to her telling everyone to clap to save Tinkerbell) and then let's talk about her spending the entire season being made to feel like second best. She even gets the dubious joy of being told directly not to get above herself in Human Nature/Family of Blood. And I suppose the argument could be made that the characterizations were appropriate to the time of 1913.

However that doesn't tidy up the rest of the season where Martha alternates between flirting* with every available white man that crosses her path, pining after the unattainable Doctor and sacrificing her pride to save the Great White Hope. Martha's repeatedly laying it all on the line for a guy that treats her like crap, and I don't mean his lack of interest in a relationship. I mean his telling her (even after it's clear that Saxon is the Master) that she doesn't need to know anything else about him, or the screaming at her (which happens a few times, but most notably in Utopia) and even the point at which she goes out to get them all dinner while he and Jack hide out in the Warehouse in Sound of Drums. Martha isn't being protected, she isn't treated as a damsel. It's the Strong Black Woman/Mammy myth complete with the idea that she is supposed to be willing to sacrifice everything to protect the ones that can actually do some good. Theoretically I suppose the flirting is supposed to ameliorate the Mammy stereotype, but each time the flirtation is almost completely unconvincing (What is it with the guy in 42 flirting back, but then looking utterly shocked when she snogs him?) and there is no hope of the flirtation going anywhere. On an individual level the incidents aren't that bad, and could conceivably be construed as germane to the story.

But that doesn't explain the treatment of Tish and Francine. The portrayal of Francine as the Sapphire stereotype complete with the emasculated husband (who incidentally gets to be portrayed as a janitor) and Tish as a Jezebel that manages to get the hots for a man that was in his 80's a scant ten minutes earlier who has a wife no less is particularly telling. In fact we are told repeatedly that Tish is getting jobs for which she isn't remotely qualified solely as part of Saxon's master plan. He even tells her at one point that her job is to stand around looking pretty, which really made me wonder about sexual harassment laws in the UK. Yet he has no interest in capitalizing on Martha's relationship with her brother or her father until her Dad makes the effort to warn her. And you know, Tish didn't particularly strike me as a stupid girl when she and Martha were helping to stop Lazarus, so why wouldn't she be qualified for the PR job? She certainly seemed to manage to put together a beautiful gala in very short order. Martha's dad manages vaguely to attempt to fight back, but it's clear he isn't actually seen as being anywhere near as much of a threat as Jack. And Leo seemingly disappears completely from every one's mind. No strength or heroism to be found in him at all. And it's not just Martha's family that gets short shrift.

Let's not forget Mickey being portrayed first as ridiculously cowardly (cowering behind Rose's legs and then being called the idiot for most of his appearances) ala a whole host of racist stereotypes including the old favorite of Step and Fetchit. In fact even when Mickey manages to grow a pair and break it off with Rose it's still made very clear that he's useless, and he only manages to gain redemption by abandoning his entire life (which again apparently wasn't worth much anyway) and sidestepping into an alternate universe. One in which apparently he's still content being Rose's tin dog. There are very few character's of color in the Who verse to begin with, and for all of them to fit so neatly into various stereotypes? At some point that's not accidental nor is it germane to the story. Is it meant to be overt racism? No. But it fits the definition of aversive racism very nicely, as does the insistence of much of white fandom that the POC are seeing things that aren't there. Sometimes the people who regularly have to experience racism? Know it when they see it. And when the white fans that also see it say "Oh my yes, it's clearly there?" Then the Emperor is not wearing new clothes and carrying a bouquet, he's naked and carrying a noose.

*I found it quite interesting that she never managed to be attracted to a single man of color, and neither was Tish. The Whoverse is mighty white even in the depths of space. In Gridlock the young couple trying to make a life involves a WOC and a white man. Newsflash, sometime POC date other POC. No really, and we make lovely successful families too. Also shockingly some MOC don't pine after white women.
5th-Jul-2007 11:52 pm (UTC)
I've just been told that having red hair is the same as being black. My head hurts and I think I may have to hate white people.

This is the kind of comment that drives me bonkers.

It *is* the same. You're still just as human as the red-head is.

You're talking about outward physical traits, not about mental capacity, talent, emotional intelligence, skills, abilities, talents, personality, or anything that really *matters*. Hell, you're not even talking about actual cultural stuff, the shared heritage and history of a particular culture.

It's the *cultural* baggage that defines the black experience in the US, or the Chinese experience in the wild west, or the Irish experience, etc. And there is no one "black culture", any more than there is one "white culture" or "asian culture" or "native culture".

It just isn't that simple. So why should Martha have to conform to YOUR ideas of what a black companion should be like, or how she should be treated?

I don't deny that there are some hits and misses in the new series, but it seems fairly obvious that you're seeing something a bit different to what I see. But racist moments are never tolerated without reproach or comment in the series, and since we aren't *telling* stories about civil rights or class struggle during Martha's tenure, why comment on it?

Indeed, I think it's wiser to avoid it, set the precedent that race shouldn't matter, and get on with the stories you want to tell. Wouldn't it be a WORSE cliche to have Martha being the one to deal with the race issue?
6th-Jul-2007 12:06 am (UTC)
...wow. I was going to reply to this, but I think I'll just let other people do it for me, because I think you've left me speechless with this one.
6th-Jul-2007 12:51 am (UTC)
NO. No no no. Being black is NOT the same as being a redhead. Sorry, it's not, it never has been, and it never will be. Yes, black people are just as human as redheads, but whether you choose to acknowledge it or not, black people are treated differently than white people, everywhere they go. Not just in the US or the UK. Just because you personally haven't experienced it doesn't mean it's not happening. Welcome to white privilege (forgive me if I assume wrong, but your comment just screams "white naivete"). I have it, you have it, but the difference is that I, unlike you, am making an effort to look OUTSIDE of my own personal experiences. Your experience as a white girl is totally different from the experience a black woman has. Trying to deny it is not just naive and ignorant, it's unconscionable and downright rude.

But racist moments are never tolerated without reproach or comment in the series

Let me fix that for you: obviously racist moments are never tolerated. And I'm sure Rusty et al patted themselves on the back for decrying the racism of people in 1913. The problem here is not that Russell T. Davies and the other writers are saying "black people are inferior!" The problem here is that the people of colour on Who and Torchwood consistently get short shrift in ways that are not overtly racist, but definitely look dodgy when viewed as an overall pattern. Martha's treatment at the hands of the Doctor is only one of those things.

The problem here is that because these things are subtle rather than overt, people are saying they're not happening at all. This is exactly the same mentality that makes (white) people say that racism doesn't exist anymore. It's socially unacceptable to say you hate black people, so racism moves underground. It becomes, "Oh I just don't find black people attractive." One is obviously racist, the other is subtly racist. But while most people will line up to decry the first one, lots of people will insist the second one isn't racist at all, when it is.

In an ideal world? Yes, we could write shows as if race wasn't an issue. But we live in the real world, in a world where people of colour are constantly discriminated against in ways that are not always obvious. And saying we just shouldn't talk about it is like saying we shouldn't talk about feminism because no one is sexist anymore.

I have internalised racial prejudices as a result of my cultural upbringing, and so do you. Whether you choose to acknowledge them or keep hiding your head in the sand is up to you. But whether you like it or not, people are going to keep pointing out white privilege, and refusing to acknowledge it makes you a shitty person.

No one is saying Martha should be treated like a queen because she's black. What they're saying is that the people writing Who and Torchwood should be thinking about the messages they send when both their black companions are rejected by the Doctor. And when they portray an Asian woman as smart but sexless. And so forth and so on.

As white people, we have the privilege of ignoring these things. As human beings, we don't have the right to.
6th-Jul-2007 01:04 am (UTC)
This comment was so ridiculous as to confirm my opinion that half of the people making comments are racist and really don't like having to look at that fact in the mirror.
6th-Jul-2007 01:59 am (UTC)
If I don't share my pain with you the patron saint of clueless racist comments, how will I ever hope to heal?
6th-Jul-2007 02:08 am (UTC) - the patron saint? YOU ARE THE PATRON SAINT!
6th-Jul-2007 05:12 pm (UTC) - ps
STILL HATE YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
6th-Jul-2007 01:38 am (UTC)
since we aren't *telling* stories about civil rights or class struggle during Martha's tenure, why comment on it?

...And yet, I'm contemplating using tactics that got people of color through the insults and degradation involved with actively fighting the civil rights battles AND I've come to find out, I'm not the only one.

You are so lucky, the Haitian revolution didn't spread to every place, in every corner of the Earth, where children of the African Diaspora live in oppression.

Or maybe not.
6th-Jul-2007 01:47 am (UTC)
Jimbo - I think the point you're trying to make is that skin colour should matter no more than hair colour.

But as mocked and stereotyped as we gingers sometimes are, we have no history of slavery, indentured servitude which might as well be slavery, lynching, being told we can't marry brunettes, attempted genocide of various forms, cultural appropriation, wartime internment, exclusion from the media, having our land pinched, etc etc etc.

So comparing race to redheaditude hugely risks trivialising racism, which is why you're getting such a gobsmacked, negative reaction. I've had some unpleasant experiences as a carrot-top, but no-one's ever going to refuse to rent me an apartment, or pull my car over for a random search, because of my hair colour.
6th-Jul-2007 01:54 am (UTC)
It *is* the same. You're still just as human as the red-head is.

*bows head, eyes fill with tears*

Thank you. I really, really needed to hear that from someone who knows the truth.
6th-Jul-2007 02:01 am (UTC)
You seem to be working from a different definition of what it means to "be black." I don't want to speak for karnythia, but I would like to suggest that "being black" may mean more than "having dark skin" -- that it in fact may mean "descended from people who were treated like disposable property, living in the horrifying legacy of that phenomenon, and still encountering prejudice, hate, and oppression on a daily basis." In that respect, being black is nothing like being red-haired, and insisting that the two are equivalent will deeply offend many if not most people of color.

Please remember that racism is not some past transgression from which Euro-American societies have emerged enlightened and virtuous. Racism is the present and the forseeable future. There are certainly a few black people who seem to think racism will go away if we just ignore it (Ward Connerly comes to mind), but they are in the extreme minority. Most POC I have talked to about this issue feel strongly that racism shapes quite a bit about their daily lives.
6th-Jul-2007 02:27 am (UTC)
"being black" may mean more than "having dark skin" -- that it in fact may mean "descended from people who were treated like disposable property, living in the horrifying legacy of that phenomenon, and still encountering prejudice, hate, and oppression on a daily basis."

that's just cultural baggage!
6th-Jul-2007 02:36 am (UTC) - and...
it could even be argued that there's more to blackness and black identity than suffering and all that, but i KNOW that's crazay talk.
6th-Jul-2007 02:47 am (UTC) - Re: and...
Well, there's no sense in bringing up malt liquor and fried chicken here.
6th-Jul-2007 02:04 am (UTC)
a) You missed the point. This post (as are most discussions of racism) were not about what black people and other people of color do, but what members of the dominant culture do to PoC, because they are of Color.

b) http://harriet-spy.livejournal.com/467056.html
6th-Jul-2007 04:47 am (UTC)
It *is* the same. You're still just as human as the red-head is.

The tragic thing here is that you probably think you're being an ally to people of color when you say something like that.

Yeah, no duh, red-heads are just as human as blacks.

But, as has been explained to you by some red-heads here, being black has a whole heck of a lot more impact on black people's lives than being red-headed has on their lives.

Which means that being black is not the same as being red-headed.

Indeed, I think it's wiser to avoid it, set the precedent that race shouldn't matter...

It might be a great thing if they told that story, a story where race doesn't matter to the Doctor, race doesn't matter to this alien or that, and so on. But as far as I can tell, that's not the story they're telling. The Doctor treats Ricky and Martha in an actively abuseive manner quite out of character. It's not because Ricky's irritating -- Harry Sullivan was very irritating, and even when the Doctor lost patience[1] he was mild.

But tell a story where race doesn't matter in the UK in 2007? Only if it's not this earth and this UK and this 2007.


D: Harry?
H: Are you talking to me?
D: Well, there's only two of us here and your name is Harry.
13th-Jul-2007 11:06 pm (UTC)
Four was really nice and Ten is an asshole. they're really not at all the same.

i think that it is totally 100 percent in character for Ten to treat nice people like Martha and Mickey and Adam and Jack like shit.