Consent in Dr Who

I love Doctor Who, and have been a fan for most of my life.  Yet the show has rightly been criticized many times over its 50 year history, over its portrayal of gender, race, sexuality, and disability.  And right now we have a show-runner (Steven Moffat) who faces accusations of sexism – or at best, an inability to write women characters well.

One particular trend that bothers me in Moffat-era Dr Who is non-consensual intimacy being portrayed as okay, trivial and something to joke about.

Now I absolutely hate using the word consent, as it immediately brings to mind matters of criminality, sexual assault and rapists.  But when feminists talk about consent, we usually are speaking about much more than that – genuine consent is about respecting other people’s personal boundaries and every persons autonomy to choose what we do and don’t have happen to our bodies and selfs.  Consent is about much more than just not going around raping other people.  It is about not coercing, pressuring, leering, or generally being creepy.  It is about respecting other people’s wishes not to be hugged, kissed, sexual, or otherwise intimate.

And in this Moffat-era Who falls down.  It’s one thing when the villain such as the Sheriff in last Saturday’s episode (34:3 Robot of Sherwood) acts in a creepy way, pushing Clara to be his consort.  At least here we can attribute it to the Sheriff not being a nice guy all round.  But the Doctor, Amy and Clara have all done similar things – pursuing physical intimacy with somebody who clearly didn’t want it.  And when the Doctor and companions have done it, it hasn’t been portrayed as a negative thing, but instead treated as trivial or shown in a joke-y manner.

First we had Amy’s attempt to seduce the Doctor, and repeatedly tried to force a kiss, despite his rather clear lack of interest and trying to get away from her (31:5 Flesh and Stone).  If anything in this scene was treated as being negative, it was the matter of Amy trying to cheat on Rory, but the whole non-consensual incident was largely forgotten about immediately afterwards.  Then we had the Doctor forcing a kiss with Jenny, whilst holding her in a position where she can’t stop him (33:11 The Crimson Horror).  If Jenny being lesbian and married wasn’t enough to signify the lack of consent, then Jenny slapping the Doctor makes it crystal clear.  Yet this wasn’t portrayed as the Doctor doing a bad thing, but in a light-hearted manner which the Doctor states felt “good”.

Now in the latest season opener (34:1 Deep Breath) we have a scene at the end where Clara goes to hug the Doctor who responds by saying he isn’t the hugging type.  Clara could have stopped there and then, but continues the world’s most awkward hug with a quip “I’m not sure you get a vote”.

I’m not arguing any of these incidents are the same as non-consensual sex, but that doesn’t stop the ignoring of consent being important.  For some survivors of abuse, physical intimacy including hugs can be triggers for traumatic flashbacks.  Or just knowing that somebody is willing to ignore consent when hugging or kissing, can lead to the very real fear of what else the person might do non-consensually.  And then there is of cause the issue that some people just don’t like hugging or kissing, or don’t want to do it with a particular person, and respecting those wishes is the decent human thing to do.

And this becomes a far bigger issue, when considering that many people (including children and young people) look up to the Doctor and the Companions as role-models.  When non-consent is treated as being completely normal on a popular television show, what sort of message does that send?

I may be an optimist, but I believe that the vast majority of people don’t actually want to hug, kiss, or have sex with a person against their wishes (and those people who do are unlikely to be reading my blog!).  But too often people do initiate intimate acts without checking that the other person wants it.  Or focus too much on what they themselves want, and assume that those desires are reciprocated.  Or assume that just because somebody doesn’t say yes to intimacy, then the person can be “convinced” to change their mind.  Or assume that the lack of a “yes” wasn’t a serious “I’m not consenting to this”.  Or assume that everybody likes hugs, kisses, etc therefore consent isn’t necessary.  Or assume that because consent has previously been given, the other person is still consenting now.

I would place all the non-consensual intimate acts done by the Doctor, Amy, and Clara in one of these categories.  I don’t think that makes them in the same league as serial rapists, but taking a reckless approach to consent can be just as harmful.  And an attitude towards intimacy that is the self-centred (“focusing just on my own desires”) or presumptive (“I know better than you what you want”) is not respecting the other person, nor treating the other person as a fellow human with thoughts, feelings and desires of their own.

It would be fantastic if Doctor Who adopted a feminist approach to consent, showing explicit discussion of consent before any intimate actions (or friends/partners explicitly discussing which intimate acts are okay to do without explicitly asking first).  But realistically it would be nice for the “heroes” to stop engaging in non-consensual intimate acts – and if non-consent needs to be shown in Doctor Who, then is it too much to ask for non-consent to be portrayed as a bad thing.  At the very least a few apologies are owed between Clara and the Doctor, and the Doctor and Jenny.


3 thoughts on “Consent in Dr Who

  1. I first read this post a while ago but thought about it again after watching the latest Doctor Who Christmas special. It seems like Peter Capaldi’s doctor is always having to touch or be touched against his wishes, and as you said it’s never portrayed as problematic, but rather played for laughs. It seems like in general people don’t respect it when someone wishes not to touch other people; it’s just not taken seriously, and as you said, people often put their own desires first–“we’re going to hug whether you like it or not, because I want to hug you.”

    Also, The Crimson Horror is probably my least favorite Matt Smith episode, the nonconsensual kiss being just one of many reasons!


  2. Pingback: Violation of [small, “insignificant”] boundaries | cinderace blogs

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