Friday 4 January 2013

Doctor Who - Chicks Dig Time Lords

I grew up during a time when being a geek was a very male thing, and often unwelcoming of the few women who came along. Or so I’ve always been told. You see, I was always an aberration. Although male myself, there never seemed to be an absence of geek girls in my life, whether through games like Dungeons and Dragons or fans of science fiction like Doctor Who, Star Trek, or Star Wars. Yes, there were usually more guys than girls, but the girls were always there. It was rare that there wasn’t at least one girl in my D&D games, and there were a few occasions when I was the only guy. Heck, I even managed to convince my nerd-hating sister and her friends to play D&D with me every now and then.

Of course, being a geek was still a socially ostracising thing, especially during my high school years. Most people, boys or girls, were not geeks and they did not approve of those who were. But amongst those of us who were, there was a significant representation of girls. It wasn’t until university that I first encountered the idea that being a nerd or geek was a “guy thing”, and that was pretty much confined to a D&D group I belonged to for a year. That group was all male and was the first place I ever encountered actual prejudice against female gamers. For the rest of my university life, I mostly didn’t encounter it. I was one of the founding members of a science fiction fan club at the university, and we never had any trouble attracting female members. In fact, by my last year there, I was the only male still on the executive council (I was treasurer that year, having given up the president’s position the year before).

Then came the internet. (I’m showing my age, aren’t I?) It was only then that I started to truly realize how few female geeks there really were, even though I could still point to many I knew personally. Nonetheless, I had to come to accept that I was simply an aberration. My experiences were far from the norm.

Luckily, that’s all changed now. The last decade or so has seen a huge increase in the number of women who call themselves geeks, nerds, or fans. Although I don’t have access to precise statistics, the numbers seem to be pretty close to evening out between men and women—at least among Doctor Who fans. It’s nice to no longer be an aberration. It’s nice to no longer have people (men and women alike) guffaw—or in some cases outright refuse to believe me—when they learn that I actually know some geek women. It’s nice to no longer be a rare male who accepts women geeks. Yes, there are a few men out there who still cling to the “old guard” and fight viciously to maintain their “boys-only zone” with nonsense such as the “fake geek girl” (sorry guys, having breasts does not make one a fake geek) or the recent atrocious hate-campaign against Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency. However, those people are losing and good riddance to them.

Into all this comes Chicks Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the Women Who Love It, a collection of essays by female novelists, academics, and actors. I’m actually a bit late getting to this book as it came out in 2010, but I only recently got a copy of it. I held back on reviewing it for a little while because I wanted to review it along with its follow-up, Chicks Unravel Time, published this past November. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet been able to acquire a copy of Chicks Unravel Time (and my Amazon order keeps getting pushed back; I could purchase the e-book, I suppose, but I much prefer reading from a printed book), so I’ve just decided to go ahead with my review of Chicks Dig Time Lords.

The essays (and interviews and even one comic strip) in this book cover a wide variety of style. Some are simply fond remembrances of growing up with Doctor Who, such as “Time is Relative” by Carole E. Barrowman (sister of Captain Jack Harkness actor, John Barrowman). Others are examinations of organized fandom and trying to fit in with it during a time when it was dominated by men, such as Kate Orman’s “If I Can’t Squee, I Don’t Want to be Part of Your Revolution”. Still others, like “Two Steps Forward, One Step Back” by Shoshana Magnet and Robert Smith?, are critical analyses of the programme. There’s even one essay, “In Defense of Smut” by Christa Dickson, that delves into the world of fan fiction, and more specifically, smut.

As with any compilation, some of the essays within are stronger than others. All of them are well written, but depending on personal tastes or what you’re looking for at the time, some will naturally be more entertaining than others. Many of the essays are also quite informative. One of the most fascinating things I learned over the course of all the essays was the differences between fandom in different countries. The authors in the book are not just from the United Kingdom. A significant number of them are from the United States, as a well as a few from Canada and Australia. In particular, the States were much more welcoming of female fans than other countries. Many of the authors reflect on travelling between the UK and the US (or Australia and the US in Kate Orman’s case) and discovering the surprising difference. Kathryn Sullivan says in “The Fanzine Factor”:

I had heard that Doctor Who fans in the UK were mainly male, but it was still a shock, after all the Doctor Who conventions I had attended in the US, to see an auditorium filled with men and boys. There were a few females—a dealer in the huskers room, a presenter doing a Vanna White impersonation during one of the game show segments, and a few girlfriend/wives scattered about—but not many others that I could see.

Things like this provide for an interesting new perspective and help to open one’s eyes to different situations.

Talking of new perspectives, one of the essays that I found most intriguing is “Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: Have We Really Come That Far?” by Shoshana Magnet and Robert Smith?. Oddly, I actually disagree with most of Magnet and Smith?’s opinions and conclusions, yet it’s the one essay in the book that has kept me going back to it multiple times to reread either the entire thing or sections. The essay is an analysis of social equality (examining sexuality, gender, and race) during Russel T Davies’s time as Doctor Who’s showrunner. The authors argue their point well, even if I feel that many of their points are misplaced. It seems terribly unfair to dismiss Captain Jack’s pansexuality because he’s from the future and then complain that there were no non-straight companions during the period. As well, calling for companions “who can be police officers, tomboys, warriors or journalists, not shop assistants and temps...” strikes of classism. There are legitimate criticisms that can be made of Rose, but being a shop assistant and from a lower-class background isn’t one of them. Strong female characters should be able to come from any station in life. Not everybody has the opportunity to become police officers, journalists, etc. Nonetheless, despite my disagreement with much of the essay, I found it a fascinating look at a different viewpoint, and a strong lesson in how the same thing can be seen in starkly different ways by different people. I must admit that I find the essay’s final sentence rather amusing: “With the Moffat era on the horizon, Doctor Who’s feminist future is suddenly looking very bright indeed...” To be fair, at the time this was written, I probably would have agreed with that sentence, but given how things have progressed since then (see here for my views on the subject), I’d be very curious to know Magnet and Smith?’s current views.

One of the essays I was most looking forward to reading is Kate Orman’s “If I Can’t Squee, I Don’t Want to be Part of Your Revolution: Crone-ology of an Ageing Fangirl”. Orman was one of my favourite Doctor Who novelists during the nineties (and one of the very few female ones—something that is still unfortunately true today), writing what I consider some of the best Doctor Who novels ever. However, I hadn’t seen or heard much of her in recent years, so I was very curious to learn her view on modern fandom. Her essay is a fascinating examination of fandom as a whole over the years and its intersections with feminism. She discusses the difficulties of being a female fan in Australia and learning to use “the communication style of the testosterone-drenched environment of Usenet” in order to fit in, something that has made it difficult for her to relate to modern female fans. As she says, “So my bluntness shuts down discussion; it’s something about myself I want to change.” Orman is open and frank about everything—the good and the bad, both regarding herself and fandom as a whole. It makes for a very engaging and satisfying read.

However, my favourite essay in the book is, without a doubt, Seanan McGuire’s “Mathematical Excellence: A Documentary”. There is nothing particularly deep about this work. It doesn’t perform a detailed critical analysis of the show or purport to contain any great wisdom. It’s just pure, light-hearted fun. Without any shame or apology, McGuire tells the story of discovering Doctor Who when she was seven and believing it to be a documentary series. This eventually leads, at twelve years of age, to her crush on Adric—yes, Adric, one of the most lamented companions of the show’s entire run, old and new alike. The companion few fans ever have anything good to say about. To be honest, I actually liked Adric when I was young, even though I look back now and ask myself, “Why?” But I suspect McGuire asks herself that question sometimes, too. Overall, her story is both heartwarming and hilarious. It’s short, but fun. And very memorable.

While there are some essays in Chicks Dig Time Lords that I consider less interesting or entertaining than others (“Two Generations of Fangirls in Middle America” by Amy Fritsch, for example, does not appeal to me as much), the parts of the book that most disappoint me are the interviews. There are three interviews spread throughout the book: the first with India Fisher (who plays Charley Pollard, companion to both the eighth and sixth Doctors in the Big Finish audio Doctor Who series), the second with Sophie Aldred (who played Ace during the seventh Doctor’s time), and the third with Laura Doddington (who plays Zara in the “Key 2 Time” mini-series from Big Finish). On the whole, I find the interviews lacking in depth. I don’t feel that I really learned much about these three women—about who they are, their careers, or their time with Doctor Who. While the interviews sort of scratch the surface of these things, they don’t go into the kind of detail I would have preferred. Still, interviews can be tricky things. Time constraints can often play a role in limiting them, not to mention you can’t really control how the interviewee responds. As such, I’m not too bothered by the interviews. There’s enough good stuff in the book to overshadow them.

There is one comic strip in Chicks Dig Time Lords as well. I was not previously familiar with Torchwood Babiez, an online strip by Tammy Garrison and Katy Shuttleworth. However, reading “Behind the Scenes” in this book has made me want to check it out. In the strip, Garrison and Shuttleworth describe how they first created Torchwood Babiez and how they were unprepared for its popularity. The strip is a humorous and entertaining read.

Overall, Chicks Dig Time Lords is a fascinating examination of fandom from a female perspective. Despite the surge in the numbers of female fans, there still aren’t very many women writing for Doctor Who (in any form, be it the tv show, books, or audio), and this book helps to turn that around just a little. I’m looking forward to Chicks Unravel Time.

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