Once upon a time, the Doctor had a Companion, whom he left behind quite suddenly in the wake of an emergency. This Companion expected that the Doctor would come back, but he never did—at least not for a long time. Never one to live quietly, however, the Companion dedicated their life to defending the world from alien threats.
And then, Rusty decided to create a spinoff.
But it wasn’t Torchwood.
I confess myself to be an ardent fan of The Sarah Jane Adventures (SJA), the Doctor Who spinoff aimed at kids in the 6-12 age group, focusing on Sarah Jane and a trio of 13-14 year-olds: her adopted super-intelligent and socially awkward son Luke (human, but created in a vat by aliens), her next door neighbour Maria (who has recently been replaced by a new character, whom I’ll avoid naming due to the lack of a spoiler warning), and their friend Clyde. Together, they are far more adept at saving the world than their adult counterparts in Torchwood— in fact, I might even suggest that they are a little too adept. While the show always needs to have a happy ending, I’d quite like to see a story in which the kids screw up a bit and then have to deal with the consequences (not in a moralistic sense, but simply in an, “Oh crap!” way).
There’s plenty that I could say about how SJA works stylistically (usually well-scripted and well-acted, but with some clunky, unrealistic dialogue, particularly when it comes to backstory and thematic exposition), but my main interest today is looking at the show from a feminist perspective. Overall, SJA is very clearly the most woman-friendly show in the Whoniverse (and indeed, one of the most woman-friendly shows out there). That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its shortcomings from a feminist perspective—it certainly does—but there’s a lot to love about the way it portrays women.
Sarah Jane has always been a feminist character, right from her time alongside the Third and Fourth Doctors, but the writing in Old Who was undeniably shaky; writers tended to vacillate between portraying Sarah Jane as feisty and independent, and simply using her, in Lis Sladen’s own words, as a “cardboard cut-out”. Since her re-introduction in Doctor Who episode “School Reunion”, however, Sarah Jane has been portrayed consistently as a complex character, although she is still undoubtedly recognisable as the woman who travelled with the Doctor in the 70s. In addition, Maria is intelligent and brave, while her mother Chrissie, although sometimes flighty, clearly loves her daughter, and, is not a character afraid to stick up for her own needs and desires. This is frequently condemned by fandom, which has a rather negative attitude to Chrissie overall, but I rather doubt that the same characteristics would be condemned so harshly in a male character.
I could probably ramble on about this for an awfully long time, so in the interests of brevity, I’ll now summarise five points of WIN and five points of FAIL for SJA, from a feminist perspective:
- Every episode passes the Bechdel test easily, and it’s not just the two “lead” female characters who talk to each other—they also have conversations with mothers, scientists, antagonists, and other women and girls who exist outside the small circle of main characters.
- Sarah Jane is a middle-aged single mother who works as a journalist and kicks alien backside on a regular basis. And although one never doubts that Sarah Jane’s decision to adopt Luke has been a positive in her life, it’s very clearly not the only significant part of her life, nor is it the only significant relationship that she forms throughout the series: indeed, in “Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?” Sarah Jane nominates Maria as the person she trusts the most.
- “Family” is not defined solely in terms of traditional nuclear families—we have single parent families, parents who remain friends after a divorce, adopted kids, and overall, the sense that one’s family is not simply a matter of bloodlines.
- Although Sarah Jane is the “adult” character—almost Doctor-like, sometimes—she is allowed to have flaws. She doesn’t always have the right answer, and she doesn’t always do the right thing. She becomes emotionally withdrawn when she perceives any threat to relationships that are important to her, and she often simply doesn’t know how to negotiate her way through the social niceties of everyday life. That is: she is allowed to be both imperfect and awesome.
- The show always has a darker edge, in spite of its necessarily happy endings. In the second story, “Revenge of the Slitheen”, Maria kills a Slitheen with vinegar, the third story, “Eye of the Gorgon” sensitively tackles the issue of Alzheimers and the way that older people—particularly older women— are marginalised and silenced, while the fourth story, “Warriors of Kudlak”, examines the way that masculinity is constructed in terms of violence and warfare.
- Ever since her re-introduction in “School Reunion” Sarah Jane has been portrayed as someone who has led a lonely, isolated existence, largely because she never stopped pining for the Doctor. Although there was little sexual tension between them in the old days, Sarah Jane appears to have romanticised her travels with the Time Lord, and she claims that “there was only one man for me” with reference to the Doctor. In contrast, Captain Jack, who was left in a comparable position, has had a plethora of friends and lovers along the way. (I had hoped that the recent Doctor Who finale would reveal that Jack and Sarah Jane had had a torrid affair sometime in the past, but alas, it was not to be.)
- In a similar vein, when one considers the entire spectrum of the Whoniverse, ranging from Torchwood through to The Sarah Jane Adventures, we can see that these shows conform to a broader schema whereby Male= Adult, sexual, violent, while Female= Child-like, chaste, (mostly) non-violent.
- Sonic lipstick. Back in the Inaugral Whoydensday Post Tigtog linked to Sonic Stereotypes at the Feminist SF Blog, which explains exactly why it’s so problematic that Sarah Jane has a gendered sonic lipstick, while the Doctor has a gender-neutral sonic screwdriver. (Although I will say that I think there is the potential there for an alternative reading—perhaps Sarah Jane’s sonic lipstick represents the subversion of a patriarchal stereotype, reclaiming it as an object of power hidden behind something that most people dismiss simply because it is “feminine”.)
- Although the show has plenty of queer coding, the explicit discourse regarding romantic/sexual relationships, so far, has been pretty heteronormative, which plays into the idea that homosexuality is something that children shouldn’t/can’t understand—that it’s purely an “adult” thing. Hopefully, of course, the child audience of SJA will also be watching Doctor Who, which should redress that a little.
- Okay, I can’t think of a fifth point, so I’ll hand it over to all of you. 🙂 (Of course, please feel free to add to the WIN as well!)
And lastly, we have some pretty pictures:
Sarah Jane, from “The Time Warrior”, in 1973
Oh, and I should probably add that Series 2 of SJA is currently airing on CBBC in Britain on Mondays at 4:35pm GMT, and Series 1 is due to start airing in Australia on October 31 at 7pm on the pay-TV channel Nickelodeon.
Categories: arts & entertainment, gender & feminism
All I can say at this point is yah boo sucks that it is only being shown here in Australia on cable. The show itself sounds ACE.
I’m sure this post will make far more sense in some utopian future wherein NZ television actually decides to screen good shows (and at decent times, have we mentioned that Torchwood is on at 10.30 on a fracking WEDNESDAY?).
I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve caught so far. It’s very much more targeted at kids moving into teen-hood, so that has to be kept in mind as far as some plotting and character interaction goes, but there’s a lot to cheer at.
I love Sarah Jane Adventures! As for the “pining for the Doctor” thing, it was strongest in the first episode and has been mentioned only a few times since, fortunately. It’s so much more fun than Torchwood (and yes, I do like Torchwood) and I’ve certainly enjoyed it a lot more than the skeevy, lazy aspects of Doctor Who recently. Personally, I liked the “sonic lipstick” (though I would have liked a sonic pen better) because of the way Sarah Jane uses it throughout the series. It’s coded female/harmless/frivolous, but she subverts that by making it a tool, and tricking people into letting her keep and use her weapon. And I love that Sarah Jane has very human, complex reactions – it’s very rare that an adult on a kids show is portrayed this way. She sulks, gets angry, pretends not to care, holds grudges…and yet she’s still a good person and a heroine.
I haven’t seen it, but just reading this post, I feel pissed off that something with a woman in it has to be centred around chidren. Why can’t she be a grumpy old child-hater? Oh no, she’s a woman. She’s nurturing! I find that a lot more problematic than lipstick. It’s only lipstick, folks.
Why can’t she be a grumpy old child-hater?
Actually, she sort of is. 😉 The children get involved pretty much against her will. Mind you, she develops strong relationships with all of them once they do get involved, but it’s very much a matter of getting to know them as people and forming relationships in a normal way, rather than “ZOMG, I love kids so much!” Mind you, as I said in the post itself, I DO think it’s problematic that it conforms, more broadly to a schema that lumps women in with children, particularly in opposition to Torchwood (and oh how I’d love to see a Torchwood with Sarah Jane in charge– Jack can be 2IC), but at the same time SJA does not make Sarah Jane out to be the “nurturing” type– in fact, she often seems uncomfortable and awkward in situations where people expect her to take on this role.
Personally, I liked the “sonic lipstick” (though I would have liked a sonic pen better) because of the way Sarah Jane uses it throughout the series. It’s coded female/harmless/frivolous, but she subverts that by making it a tool, and tricking people into letting her keep and use her weapon.
Yeah, I definitely see the merits in reading the sonic lipstick this way. It makes me happy that most of the “FAIL” points tend to have a pretty good counter-argument. 🙂
It’s very much more targeted at kids moving into teen-hood, so that has to be kept in mind as far as some plotting and character interaction goes
Yeah, it’s true that you need to have a certain degree of plot exposition, etc, due to the younger audience, that you wouldn’t need in a show aimed at teens or adults, and by the same token the teen characters can’t interact quite as normal teenagers (although Luke is NOT a normal teenager, and he’s still learning the rules of social engagement, so it doesn’t matter so much with him). In general, I find that they get around this issue pretty well, but there were a few times I felt that they would have been able to make the same point just as clearly with stronger dialogue.
Yes, but as you say, it still lumps women and childre together. You never see the Doctor or Captain Jack hanging out with kids. But it’s such a strong trope in sci-fi, that when you have a main woman character, she’s motivated by a child. Look at Sarah Connor and even Ripley in the sequal where she rescues a kid.
Absolutely, Fine. I do think we’re mostly in agreement here (it’s actually one of my post-thesis dreams to write a paper titled “Jack’s Shagging the Tea-boy, while Sarah Jane is Minding the Kids”)– but I do think that Sarah Jane is still a pretty awesome feminist character, and SJA is still woman-friendly and well worth watching.
Could Jack be shagging both the tea-boy and the tea-lady at the same time? Whoo-hoo!
@Fine: In defense of Ripley in Aliens, at least the whole Newt plotline is in-character (Ripley overcoming issues re: own daughter dying of old age before she got home), Ripley isn’t the only crew member who bonds with Newt (and the other main female doesn’t bond with Newt at all) AND it all builds up to the most kickass depiction of warring maternal instinct in sci fi (that I can think of at the moment) – in fact, the entire violent-protective-maternal-instinct trope is part of the reason I love that film so darn much.
QoT, I do love the line, “Get away from her you bitch”.
I’m not keen on the computer being called Mr Smith; it seems a bit off, like a Doctor-substitute.
Sarah Jane feels more like a gruff mentor than a nurturer to me, and I like that.
Yeah, Sunless Nick, I probably should have included Mr. Smith in the “FAIL” list– my boyfriend finds that one really disturbing too. It’s another example of one of Sarah Jane’s instruments of power being hidden behind a veneer of patriarchal convention– in this case, a husband or, as you say, Doctor-subsitute (meaning that the whole pining-for-the-Doctor thing resonates whenever Mr Smith is invoked, even if it isn’t referenced directly).