(Trigger warning for sexual assault, rape, discussion of rape tropes, misogyny)
Remember that sexual assault scene in Doctor Who?
Most people stare at me blankly when I ask that question. After all, although Doctor Who has complex themes and storytelling, it’s ultimately a family show. Surely they wouldn’t put a sexual assault in Doctor Who? Torchwood, maybe, but not Doctor Who?
Well, they did. It happened. And, worst of all, it was played for laughs.
A little context – I love Doctor Who. I remember seeing the Paul McGann film as a child and being entranced. I had a Sixth Doctor choose-your-own-adventure book that I read until it literally fell to bits. I fell properly in love with the show when it returned in 2005, and even deeper in love when David Tennant took the role and made it something truly magical. I signed up to Netflix just to watch the classic series. And, even though I’ve had to keep this article firmly in mind while watching the Moffat era, I haven’t stopped loving this science-fairytale about the dapper alien genius and his blue box.
But there’s one scene I can’t get past or reconcile, because it was a sexual assault scene that was used as a joke. Here it is:
Again, when I tell people that this is the scene I’m referring to, I get blank stares, or rolled eyes, or exasperated cries of “you’re reading too much into it.”
The thing is, I’m not reading anything that isn’t already there. Don’t believe me? Watch the scene again – but this time, reverse the characters. Imagine it’s the Doctor pushing an obviously unwilling Amy for sex. Could you ever think of him as a hero again? (Of course, there are plenty of heroes who do coerce, assault or rape women – good evening, Mr Bond – but that’s a whole other discussion).
This scene downplays a sexual assault because it’s happening to a man. It encourages the audience to laugh because the assaulter is a woman. It plays into one of the nastiest tropes in media: one formerly known on TV Tropes as Rape is Funny When It’s Female on Male.
This trope has always bothered me deeply, but it was only when I started watching and reading from a feminist perspective that I began to unpick just how horrific these kinds of “jokes” were. Contrary to what certain hate groups would have you believe, feminism isn’t about torturing men and revelling in their pain. Ironically, though, patriarchy kind of is.
The “joke” of a man being sexually assaulted or abused by a woman turns up a lot in film and television – see the link above – and it’s a “joke” that wouldn’t work if it wasn’t for misogynistic, patriarchal thought patterns. Here’s the basic formula behind the “joke”:
Women are weak and pose no physical threat to a Real Man™
A Real Man™ is virile and heterosexual, and will always want to have sex with a woman
Any many who is sexually assaulted by a woman is not a Real Man™. Instead, he’s basically A Girl. This is funny because being A Girl is Rubbish and Shameful. Ha ha.
Don’t believe me? Consider this scene from Friends, when Monica has just pretended that she isn’t angry with Chandler so that he’ll have sex with her.
Chandler: She tricked me into having sex with her.
Joey: So? You got to have sex, right?
Chandler: What’s the matter with me? Why am I such a girl?
‘Why am I such a girl’. This line proves beyond all doubt that this trope is rooted in misogyny; the misogynistic assumption that women don’t really like sex for pleasure or fun, that sex for women has to be emotionally meaningful, and that any man who might feel this way about sex is that absolute worst thing that anyone can be in a misogynistic, patriarchal society – A Girl. (Additionally, this also is why a woman like Amy, who does seem to like the idea of sex for its own sake, are portrayed as “funny” – because they’re not acting the way a woman is “supposed” to act).
Patriarchal ways of thinking have created a plethora of media tropes that primarily and overwhelmingly hurt women and non-binary people, particularly with regards to sexual assault. (All of these tropes have been used about male characters too, but far less frequently). These tropes reflect real-life attitudes to sexual violence; a story is never just a story, and we live in a culture that consistently blames women and non-binary people for the violence they receive.
The trope of Rape is Funny When It’s Female on Male is one of the most gut-punchingly awful examples of the fact that patriarchy hurts men too. Misogyny hurts, maims and kills women and non-binary people, and it catches men in a shower of shrapnel. Because, as this trope makes abundantly clear, any man who doesn’t fit the exacting standards of a Real Man™ – well, he’s just A Girl.
This trope is just another form of rape “joke”. It shames men who have survived sexual violence into not speaking out. It makes rape and assault into a source of amusement, which surreptitiously convinces the audience that really, it isn’t all that bad. And it tells everyone, of all genders, that A Girl is the worst possible thing to be.
The Doctor Who scene had so much potential for humour that didn’t use assault as a punchline. Amy and the Doctor could have joked about her upcoming wedding, or the Weeping Angels (after all, this was the episode where the angels stopped being scary and got silly instead). They could have foreshadowed Amy’s future as the Doctor’s mother-in-law (spoilers!) Instead, the scene had Amy trying to force herself on the Doctor, and him running scared, all with the implication that the audience should point and laugh. Call me a killjoy if you like, but I can’t imagine a sexual assault survivor, of any gender, being especially tickled by that scene.
I’d be happy to never see this trope, or any other rape “jokes”, in media again. The only way we’re going to achieve that is by dismantling the toxic notions of weak women and hypersexed men, and Being A Girl as the ultimate in degradation.
Rape jokes aren’t a fixed point in time and space. We can snip them out of the universe with no trouble at all, and replace them with something smarter, something that doesn’t hurt those already hurt, and which is actually funny. After all, you don’t have to be the Doctor to make things better.
Patriarchy hurting men: