Freudian Friday: Come Away With Me

Yep, back by popular demand, it’s Freudian Friday! Let’s get down and dirty with some character analysis.

Today I want to talk a little about Doctor Who companions and their motivations for running away with the Doctor… and naturally, I want to talk about some gender issues in the show.

I’ve been lusting after this t-shirt for awhile:

GORGEOUS Threadless t-shirt design by Karen Hallion

The Doctor beckons, and Belle flies to his side. I actually love this t-shirt, entitled, “Adventure Awaits,” and the Cinderella counterpart, “Come Away with Me.”

But this one’s a little troubling. It’s rather shocking to see Belle dropping a book, of all things (heresy!), though we can probably assume that the Doctor has an amazing library in the TARDIS. She wanted adventure in the great wide open, and she’ll get it… but only if she takes the Doctors hand and follows him blindly.

It gets me thinking about the recent companions and their complete disregard for the lives they leave behind. Amy Pond leaves on the eve of her wedding. Martha Jones leaves a promising career. Rose Tyler leaves a boyfriend and her mother and an entire universe.

Granted, many of them leave behind dull, troubled lives. Donna Noble left a rather insipid existence to become fairly badass (though the results were disastrous), and Rose’s life and boyfriend were rather humdrum. Clara Oswold… well, we don’t really understand her motivations yet, do we? But when the Doctor comes along, generally cute and funny, and offers adventures untold in spaces unimagined, the companions snatch the opportunity to leave behind their dull existence and literally fly into a new one.

Young, bright women, abandoning their lives and family to join a mysterious man in his time-travelling spaceship. He beckons, and they come running… and don’t even get me started on how many of these women want to get it on with the Doctor. He’s irresistible, it seems.

There are a very few male companions in the 2005 reboot. Mickey and Rory accompany Rose and Amy, respectively, and Craig has a few of his own adventures with the Doctor. Donna’s grandfather tags along briefly, as does Captain Jack, whose motivations are sexually tense to say the least.

Most of them come along in the hope of some improved image of gallantry: Mickey, Rory, and Craig all want to mack on their ladies, all of whom have more or less abandoned them in favor of the sexy, exciting Doctor.

That doesn’t say much about the women in this universe, does it? They’re turned on by power and adventure, and consequences be damned if as pursue those qualities.

I don’t want to discuss River Song too much here, because a) she’s awesome and b) she carries her own set of fraught sexual issues.

On its face, the Doctor’s offer of adventures in space and time seems liberating. Come away with me, and I’ll show you the universe. It all hinges on him, though. These women, once on these adventures, have far less agency than they did in their ho-hum lives. They get to save children and aliens and the world—and the Doctor himself—but they invariably end up damaged, either emotionally or physically, and with no capability of returning to their normal existence.

Rose is thrown into a parallel universe. Donna has her eyes opened and then, lest the brightness of broad existence kill her, forcibly closed. Amy gives birth to and loses a daughter, and is thrown from her time to live out an existence she would never have chosen. We’ve already seen Clara die twice, and we’ve barely seen her at all.

So is it worth it? Would you trade adventure for certain emotional torture? And is it acceptable for the Doctor to continually snatch ordinary young women from what might have been ordinary, successful-in-small-ways lives?

And what does it say about Doctor Who as a show that the theme is one of a man enlightening and awakening pretty girls?

This is one of those questions that I hate to ask: I hate to scratch the shiny veneer of a show that I love. But there are some troubling issues here.

What do you think, readers? Are the Doctor and his writers misogynist pigs? Do the female companions actually benefit from his company? Would you go away with him?

Why Are Even Powerful Women Victims?

As I watched Emmie Mear’s #SuperWomen Twitter chat roll by me last night, and a variety of contributors trying to contribute names to a list of Super Women in popular culture today, I had some trouble articulating why I’m not a fan of Olivia from Fringe. She’s possibly the most bland character on television today—her evil twin was far more appealing—but that’s not what really bothers me.

No, I hate that she’s still portrayed as a victim: even her apparent “superpowers” came about because some mad-scientists experimented on her when she was a kid. Sure, she’s the only one to survive sane, with her powers intact, but those powers were forced upon her and she’s not that keen on using them.

Her reluctance isn’t caution: it’s fear. These powers only exist because she was abused as a kid. I get that it makes her noble for even thinking about using the abilities,  but the fact is, the show-writers perpetuate the effects of the abuse by forcing the character to never overcome them.

And she’s not the only example of the woman who only receives her powers through abuse: look at River Tam from Firefly, the perennial super-assassin-girl. She’s a badass, but she can’t control her badassery. Her skills are the result of years of brainwashing. A brilliant, bright girl was forcibly changed into a weapon of mass (and self) destruction.

That’s not personal power, folks. That’s rape.

It’s unacceptable for women to receive their super powers only as a result of tinkering by outside forces, especially when those forces are portrayed as male. These shows are basically telling us that these women are only amazing because a man stepped in and made her that way, forcing her out of who she was and into a painful new role. These women are powerful, and I won’t deny that. I just can’t redeem the victim-role they’re forced to play.

The journey for these women is then to integrate that power into their lives—and frequently that requires the aid of a lover, brother, or father. Although I hate to besmirch the name, River Song from Doctor Who is an example of where the path of abusive power-giving leads. She’s awesome (and empowering in other ways), but she only came into her awesomeness because she was programmed by a “religious order or movement” to kill the Doctor.

She overcomes that brainwashing, but only because the Doctor himself devises away to let her fulfill her mission, apparently killing him and satisfying her programming. All her well-laid plans to avoid the moment come to nothing, but the Doctor pulls her out of the fire and saves the day.

That’s really uncool when you think about it.

A strong woman’s journey should not require to overcome her abusive past. It should not require her to seek some man’s aid. It should not require her to integrate someone else’s idea of who she should be into her idea of who she is. Maybe she’s all the stronger for overcoming her past, but it’s still not okay to turn her into a victim. Perhaps making her overcome these challenges is more realistic—what woman doesn’t have to overcome some trauma and the perceptions of the world around her?—but the nice thing about television is that it allows us to move past what is and into what could be.

Buffy is awesome, and her power was inborn. Sure, she was “chosen,” but she had the latent powers there already. Part of her journey is to accept that these powers are a defining part of her, for better or worse.

I hate to be the lone nay-sayer, but I think the female superhero sub-genre has yet to reach its potential. We’re still a long way from giving women power without strings, and we viewers, readers, and writers, have the ability to change that. So let’s keep looking. Let’s keep fighting. We’ll have real Super Women across the board one of these days.


What do you think? Are you okay with this trope?

Who are some inherently super-powered women? How about:
Hermione from Harry Potter, who knows that nerdiness is awesome
Arwen from The Lord of the Rings films (who, sadly, chooses to give up her powers for a man, which could be a topic for another blog post!)
Daenerys Targaryen from A Song of Ice and Fire

Can you think of other powerful women victims? I can:
— Caroline Forbes on The Vampire Diaries received her powers from, well, a bite
— Seven of Nine on Star Trek: Voyager, kidnapped and turned into a borg as a kid
Sookie Stackhouse from True Blood, powerful but still vampire bait

Freudian Friday: Religion in Urban Fantasy

Throughout season four of True Blood, my constant refrain was, “This has to be offensive to Wiccans.” From what I know of Wicca, necromancy and murder aren’t high on the list of healthy pastimes.

More prayin’, less slayin’!

Now that season five has rolled around, though, my refrain is, “Whoa, this is super-offensive to Christians!” The vampires worship Lilith and call the “vampire bible” the true sacred text? Yikes.

It’s gotten me thinking about the treatment of religion in works of urban fantasy. Most universes with demons, ghosts, or witches tend to look toward Judeo-Christian mythology and either corrupt it or use it to ‘preach’ to the audience. On the other side of the coin, we have worlds like the ‘Buffy-verse,’ where Wicca is synonymous with the practice of actual magic and there’s very little worship involved. Religion seems to inform these universes by adding a vocabulary and a mythology rather than shaping them with any remnant of accuracy. And that may not be acceptable to viewers with strong religious belief, of any creed or pantheon.

While we can’t treat religion with kid gloves, we should ask: how far is too far?

Note: this blog post will deal mostly with Christian and Neopagan traditions, only because those are the religions with which I am most familiar. Please, if you can think of additional shows with treatments of additional faiths, leave a comment!

Let’s look at a few portrayal of religion in televised urban fantasy (and/or sci-fi):

Operating within the Judeo-Christian mythology, the Winchesters fight demons, ghosts, pagan gods (who inevitably eat humans), witches (who deal with demons), and even angels. Season five deals with the battle between Michael and Lucifer (yep, that Michael and that Lucifer), who want Dean and Sam respectively as their “vessels.” The boys end up locking both Michael and Lucifer into “the cage,” some trap in hell from which even an archangel can’t escape.

That’s dancing on the line of what may be offensive to some viewers, Christian and Neopagan, but the real rub comes from the show’s treatment of God: he’s missing. Portrayed as an absentee father who never appears in the show and causes endless speculation among viewers, God has washed his hands of the whole race and no longer acts even in the capacity of a deistic “divine mover.” And Jesus? The elephant in the room, so to speak, is never even mentioned.

Angels are not soft and fluffy.

True Blood
As mentioned above, we had a season in which Wiccans appear as harmless Goddess-worshippers and quickly fall under the management of a true witch who wields the power of necromancy and harbors a serious vendetta against vampires. Now we’re learning that the Vampire Authority is split between those who worship Lilith by rote and “terrorists” who fight in Lilith’s name to institute the factory-farming of humans. They quote scripture, too.

Characters frequently pray and ask for God’s protection against the supernatural, but we rarely see truly “good Christian” behavior. Our only experience with a pastor is a man who has an affair with a main character’s mother and later performs an exorcism. That’s… not very inspiring.

It seems that True Blood is an equal opportunity offender.

One believer tortures another.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Buffy exists primarily in a dualistic, secular-humanistic universe. There is a First Evil, but the power of Good and the power of Evil are accessible to humans. The Powers That Be employ and equip champions like Buffy and Angel to fight Evil, but other humans are perfectly capable of fighting against evil without supernatural powers. I’m down with that—I really enjoy system built from the ground up, and this one is such that most dualist believers can place their personal mythology around the show’s framework, while non-believers can watch without offense.

But then there’s the whole sticky wicket of Willow’s “Wicca” and subsequent addiction to magic, which I’ve written about before. The conflation of Wicca and “Powers of Darkness” probably isn’t appreciated by practitioners of a religion that aims to harm none and live in harmony with nature.

Willow prepares to sacrifice a lamb as part of a spell to resurrect Buffy.

Confession: I’m not a Charmed fan. I never watched it as a teen, and when I tried to watch it as an adult, it just didn’t click for me. (I believe the words “sooooo cheesy” came out of my mouth repeatedly.) The show uses Wicca/witchcraft and Wiccan/witch synonymously, even though the characters operate within a Christian framework. Angst follows when a protagonist who identifies herself as Christian discovers that she’s a witch—even though she’s a witch that fights demons.

The show jams Christian mythology and dualism together with so-called Wicca (which is duotheist, not dualistic) and witchcraft, and the resulting blend tastes a little sour to me. The internet is rife with diatribes from both religions, complaining about how the show is Satanic or just plain inaccurate. (Aside: if you like Charmed, please tell me why. I’m always willing to be convinced.)

I’m not sure how they end up reconciling witchcraft to a Christian outlook.

The X-Files
This show spans way too many episodes and monsters-of-the-week for me to discuss them all, but a recurring theme is Scully’s semi-devout Catholicism at war with the things she sees in the show. The show takes that juxtaposition seriously, and it deals with the ongoing battle of how people explain the presence of great good and great evil in the world.

Although the show portrays witchcraft as a “black art” at times, it also presents a villain from Orthodox Jewish mythology: perhaps, like True Blood it offends across the board. That said, I believe that the show portrays supernatural or religious power as good or bad, depending on what the user makes of it. In this universe, Christians are just as likely to do evil as witches.

Mulder and Scully continually debate the merits of belief in a higher power.

Doctor Who
The X-Files‘s stance brings us to our final example, the classic British sci-fi show that perpetually looks askance at religion. Religion is forbidden on shuttle platforms, along with weapons and teleportation. The universe’s Big Bad, the Daleks, are the ones who kill because of belief and blasphemy. The Doctor himself treats religion with disdain, attributing to it more death and woe than many other human practices. While a discussion of religion in Doctor Who could run textbook length, I think it’s sufficient to say that religion occupies a fraught position in that war-torn universe.

The Doctor mocks the “impure” Daleks, whose own technology does not recognize them.

That’s just a sampling of portrayals of religion in urban fantasy and/or sci-fi, and it doesn’t even include books. What do you think, readers? How well does religion stand up in a world of magic and mayhem? What other shows treat faith with finesse or with brutality?

Freudian Friday: Arlene Fowler Bellefleur

Let’s talk about a “normal” this week. One of the poor, less-talented, non-paranormal folks running around in the True Blood universe, dealing with a world populated by vampires, werewolves, shape-shifters, witches, fairies, and who knows what else.

Back, fiend!

Arlene Fowler Bellefleur is a waitress at Merlotte’s, a coworker of main-character Sookie, mother of two wee-ones, gossip, four-time divorcee, and a seriously normal normal, terrified of vampires and anything else not fully human. When we meet her, she’s dating René Lenier, a laid-back (seeming) Cajun guy who turns out to be a racist (if that’s an appropriate term for someone who hates vampires) serial killer.

Okay, so much for the normal.

She survives the death of her murderer boyfriend with as much aplomb as we could expect anyone to have. She moves on, only to fall prey to the spell of a passing maenad and find herself (almost by default) dating a shell-shocked Iraq War veteran who turns out to be just about the nicest man in the entire show.

Sounds like a happy ending, right? Wrong. She quickly discovers that she’s pregnant with murderer-man’s potentially evil baby.

It turns out the baby is pretty weird. He likes decapitating barbie dolls and becomes fond of a seriously creepy doll, and then gets chummy with a ghost-woman who wants to steal him.

Arlene holds it together through this… more or less. She also learns to adapt to the craziness of the paranormal world she hates so much, gradually learning to deal with a vampire coworker and accept her seemingly-supernatural son. When baby Mikey is kidnapped by said ghost-woman, she’s frantic. She refuses cousin-in-law Andy access to her children until he gets over his addiction to vampire blood.

Arlene’s is probably the most promising story arc in the entire show. Not only does she come to love a good, genuinely kind (if damaged) man, she grows into a strong, flexible woman who will protect her children above all else. Her unfolding plotline in season 5 seems like it will allow her to dip into her thus-far untapped reserves of strength.

We don’t know much about Arlene’s background, except a little bit about her romantic history. All we know about her children’s father is that he was wild and he eventually left. We see her break down after René’s death, but she doesn’t mourn the murderer for long, instead responding to the timid approaches of Terry Bellefleur. But when Terry starts drifting away from her in season 5, Arlene fights for him, approaching the squadmate triggering Terry’s break-down and telling him to help Terry sort out his issues: she refuses to lose a man she is invested in.

But what triggers the shift and makes Arlene realize her own capabilities? Is it losing control to the maenad’s spell? Is it coming to see that, without her, her children have no one? Or is it that the world around her, filled with people she fears almost beyond reason, has driven her to adapt and use her strength to protect the ones she loves?

We’ve seen Arlene go from a comic-relief character, protecting her children against “good” vampire Bill with silver bracelets and having an exorcism performed on her home to a capable, collected woman actually seeking out a problem and dealing with it before it turns into a disaster… and that’s impressive progress.

Freudian Friday: “He’s Too Good for Me!”

This post is going to branch beyond fantasy, because it’s a trend that’s bugging the heck out of me. We could also call this post Freudian Friday: “I’m Just Not Good Enough!”

You see, I read 50 Shades of Grey while I was away. It was… not the best… but I’m not going to review it in depth. What irks me enough to write about today is the main character’s perpetual insistence that she’s too plain, too boring, too normal to be with the rich, attractive, intelligent, athletic, attractive (yup, throwing that in twice, ’cause the main character is always bringing it up), and deeply disturbed Christian Grey.

The internet has pulled the book to pieces because it’s based on a piece of the author’s Twilight fanfiction, and the resemblance to Twilight is impossible to miss… but frankly, 50 Shades makes Twilight look like a portrayal of a nice, healthy relationship between two nice, healthy people.

I’m not talking about the BDSM elements, either: that’s probably material for another, very different post.

I’m really talking about the female lead’s attitude toward herself. The last fifteen years have seen a lot of books, television shows, and movies that revolve around a plain (or Hollywood Homely) main character who attracts a stunningly attractive man and then can’t believe her luck, even when he turns out to be a controlling a-hole. The heart-warming idea these works are supposed to convey is that real beauty is on the inside, and sometimes even ridiculously handsome men are smart enough to see the wonders of a Plain Jane or at least a Normal Nancy.

“Bizarre what some men find attractive,” says ANOTHER WOMAN about adorable Bridget.

Here’s just a small selection:

  • Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996), which I love, portrays an awkward, normal woman who really thinks that, at 130 pounds, she needs to lose weight. She goes on to snag TWO handsome, rich men who love her just the way she is.
  • Twilight (published 2005-2008), in which Bella, who at least perceives herself as plain, wins the heart of sexy-vampire Edward. She spends a lot of her free time thinking about how she’s just not good enough to have won him. The series ends with her becoming a beautiful vampire and thus “worthy” of her mate.
  • Ugly Betty (2006-2010), which I’ve never watched, has the whole less-than-lovely-woman built right into the title. I gather that the awkward title character and her handsome boss become friends, and Betty overcomes her awkwardness enough to become a magazine (sort of) bigshot.
  • Drop Dead Diva (2009-present), portrays, weirdly, the soul of a beautiful young wannabe-model who refuses to “go into the light” after her death, and ends up in the body of a plump (but still beautiful) lawyer. The show continues today, but it revolves largely around the main character’s quest to make her former body’s fiance continue to love her, new figure and all.
  • 50 Shades of Grey (2011), a titular reference to the shades of effed-upness shown by the love interest, portrays a basically normal girl getting swept up into the sexual life of a 27-year-old billionaire and wondering how she could possibly have done to deserve it.

As I said, that’s just a small sample. And it’s quite a trend reversal from what TV Tropes calls, “Ugly Guy, Hot Wife,” prevalent in sitcoms, in which a seriously unattractive dude lands a total hottie… and as far as I’ve seen, takes it as his due and never broods about how he’s just not good enough.

All in all, the pattern suggests that “normal” women should be grateful to have attracted “beautiful”men and that they should put up with any sort of bad behavior, up to and including outright abuse, in order to keep their beloved happy.

Talk about inferiority complex: These women feel so inferior to their mates that they will try to lose weight, try to change their interests, try to adopt an “alternative” sexual lifestyle, or even die and become a vampire, all in the name of “keeping” the man.

This is not a good message to send.

What do you think, readers? Why are inferior-feeling women a much-enjoyed trope in books, television, and movies?