Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A Thought Concerning The Last Unicorn, Tehanu, and Doctor Who

Neil Gaiman was asked if he could explain his comment that it was "not yet, not quite time" to cast a female Doctor in the show Doctor Who. His response:
 Not really. Other than, if I were show-running I wouldn’t cast a woman as the Doctor yet, and it would absolutely be on my list of things to do in the following regeneration. (I was the one who wrote the line about the Corsair changing gender on regeneration, after all.)
Some of that is stuff I’d find hard to articulate, mostly having to do with what you follow Matt Smith’s Doctor with: someone harder and older and more dangerous and, yes, male feels right to me, as a storyteller. Where you go after that, ah, that’s a whole new game…
It doesn’t have to feel like that to you. We’re talking stories here, and opinions after all, and yours is as valid as mine.
I readily admit that I do not read Gaiman's works, or when I am reading them, I don't consciously know that I'm reading his works. I will say this.

Working through The Last Unicorn after reading many Le Guin writings, novels and poems, has given me greater appreciation for writing a narrative where a woman precisely is what comes to mind when thinking of "someone harder and older and more dangerous." Elli, the last creature of night in Mommy Fortuna's Midnight Circus, is perhaps one of the most frightening, traumatic "dark" characters one will read about. She's not cruel, malicious; she doesn't tear legs off ants or toenails off Afghan taxi drivers. She is simply the total acceptance of the oncoming nothingness of death and the finality of our loves dying.
Inside the cage, it was darker than the evening, and cold stirred behind the bars like a live thing. Something moved in the cold, and the unicorn saw Elli—an old, bony, ragged woman who crouched in the cage rocking and warming herself before a fire that was not there. She looked so frail that the weight of the darkness should have crushed her, and so helpless and alone that the watchers should have rushed forward in pity to free her. Instead, they began to back silently away, for all the world as though Elli were stalking them. But she was not even looking at them. She sat in the dark and creaked a song to herself in a voice that sounded like a saw going through a tree, and like a tree getting ready to fall.
What is slain lives on,
What is stolen will remain—
What is plucked will grow again,
What is gone is gone.

Mommy Fortuna herself is a fascinating, complex, and sincere character. She is very hard, old, and dangerous.

Tenar of the Ring, widowed farm wife caring for a burned little girl and the impotent fragility of the hollowed-out Archmage, has the courage to face down the daily terror of rapists and misogynists silently supported by a culture perpetually looking the other way. I didn't come to appreciate Tenar until I was much older than the young 20-something who read Tehanu the first time, older and experienced to know the longer endurance, wisdom, and capability to withstand life and brutality a woman possesses as she ages, but possesses without showing it off as the peacocks do.

I suppose it says something about the kind of storyteller Gaiman is that he did not, could not, refuses, to consider it more than just one's valid opinion that the Doctor, the sort of character written perilously close to self-apotheosis, in being hard, old, and dangerous is male. It is not simply an opinion, and labeling it "just another opinion" or "just another feeling" amidst a happy sea of possible positions only needing to be filtered by one's objectivity and symbolic interpretation of this storytelling narrative—to label it this is an act of ideological warfare.

Miss Havisham, for another example, is a woman who represents hardened old age and danger, although her terror still operates in the mode of the vindictive bitch necessary in patriarchal orders to keep women in line. Nevertheless, the zeal for her plan shows an older woman has as much right to manifest the singular ruthlessness the Doctor will exhibit in his temptation towards the darkness and egocentricity of the Valeyard. There is, or at least there was, some point to the bizarre inconsistencies of the Sixth Doctor, poising the "good" arrogance of the Sixth with the "bad" arrogance of the Valeyard, both of whom follow and bend the laws to their own ends, both of whom trust completely in their selves, both of whom willing to betray the great moral principles of the Time Lord society to win a position at the Doctor's own trial. That point: the Doctor is supremely arrogant and self-centered, but he can be this as well as good or bad. My point: this kind of recognition of how arrogance fits in either the good or the bad when it is not extended to the hardened wisdom of the Crone suits a narrow sense of what is valid to feel regarding a story about the fall from greatness.

Crones only fall before they ever began, when they were mistresses and maidens ruptured somehow. Crones do not fall having reached such a great age to actually be tempted with their experiential and learned knowledge of how the universe works; only men can fall at their most extended height.

This does a disservice to the challenge of being a woman, because it makes her always a passive slave to the universe when she was at her most accessibly virgin, rather than someone who also must risk everything by facing down her own ego in the later years.

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