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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.
3rd-Jul-2007 12:24 am (UTC)
*<3s you for all your glorious Mness.*

Just does.
3rd-Jul-2007 12:27 am (UTC)
This post sums up everything I've been thinking throughout the whole season.
3rd-Jul-2007 12:29 am (UTC)
I kept holding out hope that I was wrong, but then Martha walked the entire world and still got no appreciation.
3rd-Jul-2007 12:35 am (UTC)
*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.

I imagine RTD thinks himself quite progressive for including interracial couples and doesn't quite realize what he's doing.
3rd-Jul-2007 12:36 am (UTC)
It's a strong argument and a viable one.

But, I do think you need to read it in light of the fact that the Doctor sidelined and belittled his other ex-companion, Jack, just as completely in the last three episodes. I specifically mention those three because of the overt images to Martha's family in servitude as opposed to images in the earlier episodes that show everyone as pretty successful and in relation to the 1913 episodes it really is as much an issue of class as it is of colour. If for those two episodes Martha had ceased to be a POC but had still been in John Smith's employ I am positive he would have treated her in the same way, so I think it's difficult to take a fair reading from those two episodes.

If the Doctor is anything this series I'd say he was speciest. He - to my mind - treated Jack abominably, he saved Lazlo the Pig!Man in the NY Dalek adventures but couldn't reconfigure the tech or reach for any kind of med kit to strip out the mutation and I don't imagine Lazlo survived for long. If there was realism under pinning those episodes I imagine his best bet would be employment in a carnival/freak show... he likes the idea of humanity but he likes them best as that... an idea. When they get too close he doesn't cling to them instead he evicts them and moves on.

In LoTL is biast (understandably) to the last of his species, be he genocidal and homicidal. Funnily enough I read the Doctor's relationship with the Master (especially in LoTL) as parental - with the Master as the terrible teenage son acting out and ripping the envelope. And I read Martha in juxtaposition to this and saw a Martha who has left home and travelled the world and grown up.

I hated the fact that she walks back into the Tardis for that PS because she did come across as a strong, self posessed young woman prior to that moment and I liked the fact that she was walking out on a man who treated her badly. But I don't think he did so because she is a POC. Really I don't. I'd be more willing to buy an argument of the Doctor as bi-polar and speciest than sexist or racist.

But that's just my reading.
3rd-Jul-2007 12:38 am (UTC)
Oh I think he's meant to be speciest, but he doesn't treat Rose or Donna the way he treats Martha which lets the air out of it being aimed at humans. He manages frequently to be quite compassionate with Rose and yet he can't seem to stop kicking Martha
3rd-Jul-2007 12:44 am (UTC)
I kept telling myself this all wasn't the case. That it didn't have to do with her being of colour, but wow..it's hard to deny the anvils eh? I adore you for your eloquence and just sheer bravery for putting this up here. (Backlash in fandom is harsh) So yeah, this is me saying I agree and you rock! =)
3rd-Jul-2007 12:52 am (UTC)
Thank you. Though to be fair, I'm not the sort of person that gives a damn about fandom backlash. I enjoy being mean.
3rd-Jul-2007 12:49 am (UTC)
They had such a perfect opportunity to do right by the first long-term non-white companion, didn't they? Unfortunately, I agree wholeheartedly with you that they completely screwed it up.

And you're right - just because it wasn't "Let's subjugate the black folk on purpose" doesn't mean it's not racist. Racism largely exists in the things we do without thinking. Because they're so ingrained in society that they're perfectly normal things to do and think and say, supposedly. But it still needs to be recognized and confronted.

*sigh* It's all so completely disappointing.
3rd-Jul-2007 01:01 am (UTC)
This was an excellent post, thank you very much for making it.
3rd-Jul-2007 01:06 am (UTC)
It really makes me think of the bit with Cathica (WOC) in The Long Game. Rose wonders why it's so hot, while Cathica doesn't question it, any more than I wonder every day why the water in my hometown doesn't taste that great; it's something you get used to, and it just feels perfectly normal, so why would you question it? But Rose is held up as a shining example of perfection for asking the annoying touristy question, while the dark-skinned woman in a management position is belittled and humiliated for never asking about something she probably ceased to notice years ago. If the Doctor uniformly treated people like crap, it would be one thing, but for Rose to get the star treatment for so little, and then Martha to...agh. She literally has to work twice as hard to be half as good, and it's just a hideous message to send.

And Martha as a maid in 1913 I could have handled if afterwards, the Doctor had expressed anything like the suitable horror at what she had to put up with (was it your fic where he eventually did?). But no, he just said thanks, and then they were off. Rusty doesn't do subtle, and I feel that if he had meant to really condemn racism and sexism, he would have done it.
3rd-Jul-2007 01:08 am (UTC)
She literally has to work twice as hard to be half as good, and it's just a hideous message to send.

Yes. And while Who bills itself as science-fiction, why is this aspect of human relations faithfully inserted into a narrative that's meant to be educational and inspiring?
3rd-Jul-2007 01:15 am (UTC)
I wonder how people-in-general would have reacted if Mickey had been gay, if Martha had been gay, if Martha's family had been gay (go with me here, right) and had been turned into, I don't know, rent boys for the Master, and they were the only major gay characters in the series. It's like--and my brain does this, I'm no exception--because we're meant to be above seeing skin colour now, all this stuff can happen without us realising. Whereas if they'd all been queer, I would've picked up on it way sooner, and made an awful lot more fuss.

Anyway, I'm glad people are actually thinking about it now. Including me.

3rd-Jul-2007 01:20 am (UTC)
You do realise that if the Master had had a troop of sexy twink boys in leather and bondage, chained to the conference table, fandom would have had to change it's undies before screaming sexism or stereotypification.
3rd-Jul-2007 01:21 am (UTC)
Oh, now that is more like it. Thank you, karnythia.
3rd-Jul-2007 01:24 am (UTC)
This is really interesting. I figured that Doctor Who was such a prominant show on tv that this kind of thing wouldn't happen, and when I considered it I pushed it to the back of my mind and thought I was being cynical. You outlined it really well here, and I'm beginning to agree with you.
3rd-Jul-2007 01:32 am (UTC)
You = made of awesome.

At this point I'm just ignoring people who are arguing that this isn't going on, because the sheer amount of wilful blindness makes me angry at people I normally like.
3rd-Jul-2007 01:38 am (UTC)
Thankyou for this. I have been thinking about this for a while, but never felt qualified to express it, so I'm glad that others are starting the long-needed discussion. Cos this is a big deal, a really big fucking deal. Especially when you consider it's a *kid's show*. And underhanded, unspoken racism is the most harmful kind in this setting - the kids who watch Doctor Who are probably sophisticated enough to understand how unacceptable the behaviour by characters towards Martha in 1913 was, but not make the same jump to The Doctor's behaviour. I just want to know what RTD has been thinking.
3rd-Jul-2007 01:41 am (UTC)
It is so difficult for me to critique the characterizations of POC in British television because as an American, I envy its INCLUSION of POC period. You must admit - for better or worse the UK is LIGHT YEARS ahead of the US when it comes to equality among TV characters. Where you point out that "Newsflash, sometime POC date other POC" I am thinking the exact opposite newsflash for America, because you rarely see interracial couples on TV over here.

I'm not saying you are at all wrong, quite the opposite. It just worries me that even the countries portraying more POC STILL can't doing it right.
3rd-Jul-2007 01:50 am (UTC)
See, I think he is doing it right. Because shrewish wife and emasculated husband are not race specific. And the companion being demoted into servitude is not specific to Martha. And Tish being dim and flirty is not a comment on her heritage and more than Jackie Tyler being dim and flirty isn't a comment on the fact she lives at the Powell Estate.

And I'm with you on the interracial couples thing - it's nice to see for a change. I'd say it's what impressed me about Rose/Mickey - at least in the beginning - but my brain doesn't really work that way; I saw them as a happy couple, my first thought wasn't "Yay, thanks for including an interracial couple, Rusty". On retrospect, I am so glad he did. My TV is white enough as it is.
3rd-Jul-2007 01:44 am (UTC)
RTD can't win with logic like this. But, unfortunately, a bigger picture needs to be considered. Rose was seen serving chips in a school cafeteria. Jackie Tyler was a nagging fishwife of a mother. Oh, I suppose this fits in with the complaints about RTD's misogyny... Like I said, he can't win.

If Martha Jones and her family were white people there would be no complaints. It would be disappointing if RTD had cast the Jones family with caucasian actors, but it would at least side step this accusation.

Your problem with POC flirting with or pairing up with White people is troubling because for so long, interacial couples were never seen on television. And they still rarely are. Now that they are, RTD gets accused of some kind of... well, I'm not sure what interracial couples are a symptom of. Open-mindedness? Colour-blind casting?

Martha's predicament in 1913 is clearly time specific. This foreshadows the Jones family predicament in the Last of the Time Lords - underlining what a malicious stereotype it is. It doesn't support the stereotype - it comments on it.

I also think Francine is more complex than you make out, particularly as I don't think her husband is emasculated - given that he no longer lives with Francine at the time when we meet them both.

Martha is a strong, capable black female character on television. But if you want to just focus on the negative parts of a perceived subtext that clearly isn't being written that way, fine - your loss.

I'll take Martha - the strongest Doctor Who companion ever, because she called the Doctor on his shit multiple times and he's now at her beck and call.
3rd-Jul-2007 01:58 am (UTC)
If you're seeing it as a 'Rusty can't win thing' then what is good? This discussion, this community, and the stories we share and dissect, reflect and affect the worlds in which we live, no? On one hand it's 'just television' but on the other, it's a lot more than that! Things do change. The stories we see, the stories we share with our kids, must shine a better light. I don't want little children, or adults for that matter, learning that some people matter less than others. And Rusty may be trying to make a positive change in tv, and if so, he and his crew must do better. And criticism is good feedback if someone, or some organization, is really about long-term, ground-breaking, positive change. It's a good blueprint!


'Rusty can't win'. Hello, could people of color and white folks win together, at least? Great stories that don't reify racism and sexism please? Or, in your view, is that far too much to ask? (That's a rhetorical question btw. Answer at your own risk.)
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