A Tear for Sarah Jane – A Feminist Aca-Obit
Hannah Hamad / Massey University

Elisabeth Sladen

Elisabeth Sladen (1948-2011)

I had something entirely different planned for this column. However, the sad news on April 19th of the death of the British actor Elisabeth Sladen, who played Sarah Jane Smith, the most iconic of Doctor Who companions, prompted me to abandon it to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Sarah Jane’s adventures in feminism and postfeminism.

Sladen originated the role of the young investigative journalist in classic Doctor Who (1973-1976), reprised it in the abortive spin-off K9 & Company (1981), made occasional appearances as Sarah in the new Doctor Who (2006-2010), and was the eponymous heroine across four seasons (a fifth was midway through production when Sladen fell ill) of The Sarah Jane Adventures (SJA, 2007-2010), marking an extraordinary career renaissance for her, aged fifty-nine.

Doctor Who, and cult sci-fi more broadly, is not generally known for the feminist scholarship it has generated, due in part to its being a favoured object of eminent aca-fans who naturally bring to bear on it their preferred modes of analysis. Nonetheless, in the small but growing body of work on gender in Doctor Who (( Dee Amy-Chinn, ‘Rose Tyler: The Ethics of Care and the Limits of Agency’ Science Fiction Film and Television. Vol. 1, No. 2 (2008), pp 231-247; Richard Wallace,‘“But Doctor? – A Feminist Perspective of Doctor Who’, Lee Barron, ‘Intergalactic Girl Power: The Gender Politics of Companionship in 21st Century Doctor Who’ in Christopher J. Hansen (ed), Ruminations, Peregrinations, and Regenerations: A Critical Approach to Doctor Who (Newcastle-Upon-Tyne: C-S-P, 2010), pp 102-116, 150-162; Piers Britton, ‘‘WHO DA MAN?’: The Doctor’s Masculinities’ and ‘‘I’M NOT HIS ASSISTANT!: Being The Companion’ in TARDISbound: Navigating the Universes of Doctor Who (London: IB Tauris, 2011), pp. 83-145. )), discussions frequently turn to Sarah, who in her original incarnation was the series’ poster girl for second wave feminism; a notable development given the troubling gender politics for which the classic series is known (( James Chapman, Inside the Tardis – The Worlds of Doctor Who: A Cultural History (London: IB Tauris, 2006), pp 6, 79; Britton, p 124. )), and in contrast to which “Sarah [was] often taken to mark a new era for the programme in its search for more positive female roles.” (( John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado, Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text (London: Macmillan, 1983), p 212. ))

Her predecessor, Jo, was a mini-skirted dimwit who failed A-level science, while the actor who played her (Katy Manning) famously posed nude with a dalek for a top-shelf magazine in 1977 (( Tym Manley ‘Kissing The Daleks Goodbye’ Girl Illustrated (1977) Vol. 8, No. 10. )), a formative year in the feminist anti-pornography movement (( Lynne Segal, ‘False Promises – Anti-Pornography Feminism’ in Mary Evans (ed), The Woman Question (2nd Edn) (London: Sage, 1994), p 356. )). Her successor, Leela, was a “leather-loin-clothed cave girl… brought in for dads” (( Jack Bell, ‘Daddy’s Girl…’ The Daily Mirror (31st December 1976), p 15. )) and to allow the Doctor to effect and enact upon her a Pygmalion-esque makeover to contain her knife-wielding unruly femininity. Her feisty action-heroine credentials notwithstanding, Leela was hardly an example of the “prime time feminism” that Bonnie Dow argues attempted to negotiate the changing social discourses around gender in the 1970s. (( Bonnie J. Dow, Prime-Time Feminism: Television, Media Culture, and the Women’s Movement Since 1970 (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania UP, 1996). )) But Sarah was. She was conceived and introduced in direct response to these changes, and she has repeatedly been the benchmark for the series’ negotiation of “both entrenched and shifting gender norms.” (( Britton, p 112. ))

Her nominal feminism is most pronounced in her inaugural story ‘The Time Warrior.’ Her introduction to a condescendingly paternalistic Doctor is marked by her tart refusal to make his coffee, and her optimistic attempt at feminist consciousness-raising in a thirteenth-century England scullery, while undercover as a kitchen wench: “I’m not afraid of men. They don’t own the world. Why should women always have to cook and carry for them?” She later dismisses the false consciousness evinced by women there as “subservient poppycock.” Three stories later in ‘The Monster of Peladon,’ Sarah’s feminism is briefly revisited as she lectures the biddable ingénue Queen of Peladon on the virtues of “women’s lib,” assuring her that “On earth… we women don’t let men push us around,” and that “There’s nothing “only” about being a girl.”

The Time Warrior

‘The Time Warrior’ tx. 15 Dec 73 – 05 Jan 74

That was more or less it for Sarah’s feminist posturing, which in retrospect seems gimmicky, tokenistic, and fleeting, soon giving way to familiar cultural scripts for the containment of feminine agency. While her real world counterparts in the activist group of female media professionals Women in Media marched on Parliament, (( Dale Spender, There’s Always Been a Women’s Movement This Century (London: Pandora, 1983), p 126. )) Sarah was Fay Wray to a robotic King Kong in ‘Robot,’ was tied to a rock and tortured in ‘The Sontaran Experiment,’ blinded in ‘The Brain of Morbius,’ served up as a human sacrifice in ‘The Masque of Mandragora,’ and possessed in ‘The Hand of Fear,’ all in a standard cycle of scream, jeopardy and rescue.

Nonetheless, Sarah struck a chord with audiences. She was the “best loved” (( Britton, p 124. )) of the Doctor’s companions. This, I like to think, was due in part to her headstrong personality, self-possession, wit, inquisitiveness, and unruliness, which appeared at times to transcend the limitations of her agency and the flimsy tokenism of the more seemingly deliberate trappings of feminism attached to her character, such as her “‘tomboyish’ clothes [that] were designed in accordance with the dominant media representations of feminists,” (( Tulloch and Alvarado, p 102. )) and her upwardly mobile profession as a journalist.

In 2006, Sarah was reunited with the Doctor thirty years after he disappeared from her life in ‘School Reunion,’ a postfeminist cautionary tale of the abject singlehood (( Diane Negra, What a Girl Wants? Fantasizing the Reclamation of Self in Postfeminism. (London: Routledge, 2009), p 61. )) that awaits the Doctor’s discarded companions. It also sowed the seeds of the postfeminist gender discourse that would subsequently characterise SJA through its depiction of generational disharmony and toxic sisterhood evinced in the fractious exchanges between Sarah and Rose, an upshot of producer Russell T. Davies’ instruction to writer Toby Whithouse to “write it like Sex and the City.” (( Doctor Who Confidential, ‘Friends Reunited’ tx. BBC3, 29th April 2006. ))

Commensurate with the pointedly postfeminist manner in which the character was re-imagined for the twenty-first century, the potentially troubling scenario of her having aged into abject singlehood was deftly discursively surmounted in a number of ways, both textual and paratextual, as she was positioned as what Sadie Wearing calls a “subject of rejuvenation” (( Sadie Wearing, ‘Subjects of Rejuvenation: Aging in Postfeminist Culture’ in Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra (eds), Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture (Durham: Duke UP, 2007). )) (see example illustrated below), and thus her potentially problematic ageing femininity was “managed,” (( Negra, p 77.)) facilitating a culturally apposite re-entry into postfeminist culture.

The Daily Record

The Daily Record, 13th October 2009, p 27.

SJA has consistently been a ratings winner on BBC TV’s children’s channel CBBC. (( http://www.barb.co.uk/report/weeklyTopProgrammes. )) Despite its seeming celebration of mature feminine agency, it nonetheless articulates some worrisome postfeminist tendencies. The tone was set when the extraordinary scenario whereby the heroine of a children’s sci-fi action-adventure series was a childless single woman approaching her sixties proved to be predictably short lived, as by the conclusion of inaugural episode ‘Invasion of the Bane’ Sarah fortuitously acquires a fourteen-year-old son. There is also the matter of the patently troubling connotations of Sarah’s catchphrase “Mr Smith, I need you,” which activates her supercomputer, a masculinised voice of intellectual superiority and authority, while in ‘Whatever Happened To Sarah Jane’ Sarah’s best friend from childhood (Jane Asher) shows herself to be duplicitous and murderous in one of many depicted instances of toxic sisterhood and monstrous femininity. Other featured female archetypes and tropes range from the madwoman in the attic, to the runaway bride, but most iconic of all of the over-determined signifiers of postfeminist femininity in SJA is Sarah’s sonic lipstick, which is deployed time and again as a visual shorthand for her empowered femininity.

Sarah Jane and her sonic lipstick

Sarah Jane and her sonic lipstick

My ambivalence about the show’s postfeminist gender discourse notwithstanding, I thought SJA was extraordinary for its discursive centralization of a sixty-something single woman with agency and amiability. I shall miss her.

Image Credits:
1.Doctor Who, ‘Planet of Evil’ tx. 27 Sept 1975 – 18 Oct 1975: author screen grab.
2.Doctor Who, ‘The Time Warrior’ tx. 15 Dec 1973 – 05 Jan 1974”
3.The Daily Record, 13 October 2009, p 27: author scan.
4.The Sarah Jane Adventures publicity still:

Please feel free to comment.

“My Wife Calls Him My Boyfriend”: Gary Barlow and Robbie Williams’ Reconciliatory Bromance
Hannah Hamad / Massey University

“My wife calls him my boyfriend. I call him my captain.”

“My wife calls him my boyfriend. I call him my captain.” Williams introduces Gary Barlow at Help For Heroes, Twickenham Stadium, 12th September 2010.

At the time of writing, a CFP for the interdisciplinary conference “Making Things Whole Again: The Take That Reunion” is being circulated following what it calls “the long-anticipated reunion of Take That and Robbie Williams and the unprecedented sales figures for their summer tour [in] 2011.” (( http://conference.fan-networks-exhibition.org/. )) This is symptomatic of more than purely scholarly interest in this current British pop culture phenomenon. The reintegration of singer Robbie Williams into the line-up of Take That, the boy band that spring-boarded his music career, was a UK pop culture talking point in 2010. Take That were a pop music phenomenon in Europe in the 1990s, they split in 1996 following the departure of Williams from the group, and successfully reformed without him in 2006. The relationship between Williams and former band-mate Gary Barlow, the group’s principal songwriter, played out in the media as a bitterly competitive rivalry, as both embarked on new careers to markedly different levels of success. However, following the announcement in July that Williams was rejoining the group, the pair publicly reconciled. The mediation of this reunion occurred surrounding the release and promotion of their single “Shame,” a duet that narrativized their estrangement and subsequent reconciliation, and that primed the public for the group’s accommodation of Williams, appositely bridging his re-entry in a manner commensurate with their larger narrative. In line with current popular cultural conceptualizations of close male friendships, and a culture attuned to the vagaries and changing ideals of mediated masculinities, the public spectacle of reconciliation staged by Williams and Barlow was framed, perhaps inevitably, as a bromance.

As one formation of postfeminist masculinity, the bromance trope has considerable discursive currency in contemporary media. Before the widespread adoption of this single word epithet, the phenomenon was variously termed “man crush,” (( Glyn Davis and Gary Needham ‘The Pleasures of the Tube’ in Queer TV: Theories, Histories, Politics (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), p 9. Ibid. )) “guy love” (( Ron Becker, ‘Guy Love: A Queer Straight Masculinity For a Post-Closet Era?’ in Glyn Davis and Gary Needham (eds) Queer TV: Theories, Histories, Politics. (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), pp 121-140. )) and in academia its antecedents can be found in earlier discussions of, for example, “queer straight masculinity,” (( Ibid. )) “male intimacy” (( Margo Miller, “Masculinity and Male Intimacy in Nineties Sitcoms: Seinfeld and the Ironic Dismissal” in James R. Keller and Leslie Stratyner (eds) The New Queer Aesthetic on Television: Essays On Recent Programming (Jefferson: McFarland, 2006), pp 147-159. )) and of course “homosociality.” (( Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990). )) It has been succinctly described by Glyn Davis and Gary Needham as “a queer form of bonding between straight men,” (( Davis and Needham, p 9. )) whereby “[t]he borders of homosociality, masculinity, and acceptable physical affection are troubled and toyed with… indicative of a wider cultural awareness of sexual identity fluidity.” (( Ibid. )) There has been a buzz of scholarly interest in this trope (e.g. Kelli Marshall’s recent Flow piece discussing Boston Legal) particularly around a pronounced Hollywood trend for the production of bromantic comedies, most notably I Love You Man. (( E.g. Joseph Aisenberg, ‘Here Come The Bromides’ Bright Lights Film Journal, No. 65 (August 2009) http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/65/65bromance.php; Claire Mortimer, Romantic Comedy (London and New York: Routledge, 2010), pp 134-136; the ‘An American Bromance’ panels chaired by Kelli Marshall at last year’s Film & History conference, http://www.uwosh.edu/filmandhistory/documents/2010Program11-8-10.pdf; and papers by Jeffrey Masko and Elspeth Kydd at the imminent SCMS conference, https://cmstudies.site-ym.com/resource/resmgr/docs/preliminary_draft_of_scms_co.pdf. ))

It is fitting that the reparation of the fractured relationship between Barlow and Williams should take place in discursive terms that queer homosociality, given that the group’s ur-narrative has, to varying extents and at different times, self-consciously unfolded in queer terms and through a discourse of “ambiguous sexuality.” (( Tara Brabazon, ‘Robbie Williams: A Better Man?’ International Journal of Cultural Studies Vol. 5 No. 1 (2002), p 58. )) It is an established part of Take That’s rise-to-fame narrative that their early promotional build-up took place at the UK’s gay clubs, which they toured under manager Nigel Martin-Smith. Also well known are Smith’s allegations about Williams’ sexuality, who in turn has always courted the queering of his public identity, making po-faced statements such as “I only wanted him to love me,” (( Take That – For The Record, tx. 22 April 2006, ITV. )) “I think there is a gay man in everybody,” (( Larry Flick, ‘The Second Coming of Robbie Williams’ The Advocate (13 May 2003), p 38. )) and “He’s my soulmate… I hate it when I’m not around him.” (( Ibid. ))

The media’s narrativization of the Williams/Barlow bromance of September and October 2010 effectively commenced with the 2005 broadcast of Take That: For The Record, the documentary produced around the tenth anniversary of the group’s split, which prefigured their then imminent reformation, sans Williams. Williams displayed open hostility towards Barlow (“I mean it. He is a wanker”) in a continuation of the combative terms upon which their fractured relationship had been framed since the group’s dissolution, and with which Barlow was complicit (“Only one person can win.”) The extent to which this played out as a spectacle of competition, rivalry and one-upmanship was lampooned in the satirical series Star Stories(see below the two clips).[flv]http://flowjournal.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/Star-Stories-clip-11.flv[/flv]. [flv]http://flowjournal.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/Star-Stories-clip-2.flv[/flv] Latterly, For The Record was bookended by Take That: Look Back Don’t Stare, which chronicled Williams’ reintegration into the group, filmed prior to but broadcast after his reconciliation and collaboration with Barlow.

The UK press were quick to utilize the currency of bromance as buzzword of the moment in popular conceptualizations of masculinity, enthusiastically framing their renewed friendship and performing partnership (one paper called it a “‘bromantic’ reunion.” (( Neil McCormick, ‘Help for Heroes concert, Twickenham Stadium, review’ The Telegraph (12 September 2010), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/live-music-reviews/7998787/Help-for-Heroes-concert-Twickenham-Stadium-review.html. )) ) as such, as it had recently done for the partnership of Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg following the formation of the coalition government after the UK general election. (( E.g. Lucy Jones, ‘Nick Clegg and David Cameron Star in the Bromance’ The Telegraph (12 May 2010), http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture/lucyjones/100008116/nick-clegg-and-david-cameron-star-in-the-bromance/; Catherine Mayer, ‘Britain’s Hot New Bromance: Cameron and Clegg’ Time (12 May 2010), http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1988861,00.html. )) Something similar occurred surrounding the release of The King’s Speech and its depicted friendship between George VI (Colin Firth) and speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). (( E.g. Peter Bradshaw, ‘The King’s Speech – review’ The Guardian (6 January 2011), http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2011/jan/06/the-kings-speech-review?INTCMP=SRCH. ))

As indicated above, the release of ‘Shame’ anchored and fuelled the mediation of this reconciliatory bromance. The normalization of emotional articulacy to some formations of postfeminist masculinity, and the advent of the “post-closet era” (( Becker, p 121. )) notwithstanding, ‘Shame’ and the male intimacy required of its performers, still evinced anxiety over its transgression of the bounds of straightforwardly normative constructions of straight masculinity. This was made manifest via the tongue-in-cheek recourse to the iconography, visual aesthetic, queer gazes and performance mannerisms from Brokeback Mountain, which is heavily gestured towards in the track’s accompanying music video in the aforementioned ways. The video for ‘Shame’ over-determines its depicted queerness to the point of what Margo Miller calls “ironic dismissal,” (( Miller, p 147. )) also evidenced by Williams’ loaded reference to his wife while introducing Barlow as his “boyfriend” and “captain” live onstage at a televised concert, which kick-started the framing of their reconciliation as a bromance.

The single cover for ‘Shame’

The single cover for ‘Shame’ depicts the ironically charged gaze exchanged across a crowded bar in a scene from the music video (see below).


The reintegration of Williams into the larger group dynamic has also borne witness to the re-queering of Take That, as evidenced by their homoerotic video for ‘The Flood,’ their first single since Williams re-entered the frame, which cross-cuts between a boathouse locker room and a boat race, and by live performance of it surrounded by naked male dancers.

Take That re-queered?
Take That re-queered?
Take That re-queered?

Take That re-queered? Post-bromance homoerotic imagery.

The fifteen-year-long build-up to the end of one of British pop music’s most well known and bitter rivalries thus culminated with a cross-mediated bromance that a generation of aging fans attuned to the current zeitgeist of changing masculinities has seemingly willed into being.

Image Credits:

1. Gary Barlow and Robbie Williams perform ‘Shame’ at the Help For Heroes concert at Twickenham stadium, 12th September 2010
2. CD single cover for ‘Shame’ by Robbie Williams and Gary Barlow
3. Gary Barlow and Robbie Williams in the music video for ‘The Flood’ by Take That: author screen grab
4. Publicity still for ‘The Flood’ by Take That
5. Take That perform ‘The Flood’ at the Royal Variety Performance, 9th December 2010

Please feel free to comment.

A ‘Whoniverse’ of Runaway Brides
Hannah Hamad / Massey University

‘The Runaway Bride’ Doctor Who Christmas Special 2006

‘The Runaway Bride’ Doctor Who Christmas Special 2006

Since the 2005 return of UK telefantasy series Doctor Who, a gender discourse has circulated around the franchise articulating a number of established postfeminist tropes, while effecting a continuation of the dominant gender dynamic and hierarchised relationship between the Doctor and his predominantly female companions present across the classic series (1963-1989). Its revivification in a postfeminist context, and renewed recourse to the female companion as the principal means of representing femininity was always going to be noteworthy from a feminist critical standpoint. A particularly striking way in which femininity is depicted in manifestly postfeminist terms is via the entrenched, diegetically integrated, visually arresting trope of the runaway bride, commensurate with the new series’ marked thematic turn towards romantic relationships and sexual tensions. ((Matt Hills, Triumph of a Time Lord: Regenerating Doctor Who in the Twenty-First Century (London and New York: IB Tauris, 2010), p 37, pp 99-103))

The runaway bride is an iconic popular cultural motif, articulating fluctuating gender norms, shifting social roles and unstable patriarchal institutions, and rose to discursive prominence in classical era Hollywood screwball comedy. Commentators have correspondingly framed the dynamic between latter day Doctors and companions in terms of its comparability to that of the screwball couple, ((e.g. http://www.amazon.com/Doctor-Who-Complete-Matt-Smith/dp/B003EV6DBM; http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/17/arts/television/17who.html.)) and have done so irrespective of the heavy use of the generically apposite runaway bride trope, particularly central to the characterisation of current companion Amy Pond.

As Diane Negra highlights elsewhere on Flow, scholarship on screwball has read her symbolic significance progressively in terms of (albeit contained and negotiated) liberation and empowerment. The runaway bride has retained representational currency over time, figuring as rhetorical shorthand for the aforementioned concerns over decades, while her signification adapts to changing socio-cultural milieus, including the advent of postfeminism, the “hypermatrimoniality” ((Diane Negra, What a Girl Wants? Fantasizing the Reclamation of Self in Postfeminism. (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), p 44, p 81. See also Cele C. Otnes & Elizabeth H. Pleck, Cinderella Dreams: The Allure of the Lavish Wedding (University of California Press, 2003).)) of which exacerbates her representational viability. The contemporary runaway bride is thus “very much in keeping with a postfeminist media culture that tends to recycle classical representational codes but strip them of their progressive and/or ambivalent features.” ((Negra, p 42.)) Bearing in mind this conceptualisation, I turn to the recurrent use of this trope to signify femininity in the ‘Whoniverse,’ where the runaway bride has been repeatedly and multivalently deployed to a plurality of discursive functions.

runaway brides

The runaway brides of It Happened One Night (1934), The Graduate (1967), Private Benjamin (1980), Runaway Bride (1999) and Private Practice (Season 4 Episode 1, tx 23/9/2010)

In terms of formal characteristics and diegetic scenarios germane to cult TV, Sara Gwenllian Jones highlights that “as social practice, heterosexuality is antithetical to the exoticism and adventure that characterize the fictional worlds of cult television series,” ((Sara Gwenllian Jones, ‘The Sex Lives of Cult Television Characters’ Screen Vol. 43, No. 1 (Spring 2002), p 87.)) while Matt Hills notes former show-runner Russell T. Davies’ authorial concern with queerness as a foil to the likelihood of heterosexual coupling taking place. ((Hills, p 38.)) Nevertheless, and in contradistinction to the classic series, romance and the suggestion of sexual relationships between the Doctor and his female companions has coloured the new series from the outset.

The recurrence of runaway bride scenarios brings this romance thematic into focus, while the Doctor’s serial disruptions of his companions’ weddings gestures towards the impracticability of coupling narratives. So far, the nuptials of Donna Noble, Sarah Jane Smith, and Amy Pond have all been correspondingly thwarted by the Doctor’s direct or indirect intervention, while Gwen Cooper’s was delayed by Jack Harkness in spin-off Torchwood. Each woman embodies a different mode of (white middle-class) postfeminist femininity, which is filtered through a runaway bride scenario tailored to correspond with individually ascribed and embodied postfeminist tropes and themes.


“No stupid Martian is going to stop me from getting married.” Donna Noble, Doctor Who, ‘The Runaway Bride’ (tx 25/12/2006)

‘The Runaway Bride’ introduces Donna according to the familiar representational template of the ‘bridezilla.’ A public sphere underachiever (a middle-aged temp living at home) she is desperate to marry and publicly display what she perceives as her private sphere success through her evident thrall to what Otnes & Pleck call “the allure of the lavish wedding.” ((Otnes & Pleck.)) In this way, her runaway bride signifies inversely from the standard, in that Donna is running towards her wedding, not away, having spontaneously dematerialised midway down the aisle, to find herself with the Doctor. A subsequent season witnesses her process of enlightenment and epiphany as she transcends her hitherto limited life choices, is empowered after being imbued with Time Lord intellect, and becomes “the most important person in the whole of creation.” However, her story ends (albeit ambivalently) in retreat, reverting to a postfeminist script when her closure sees her memory erased in a typical “unlearning” ((Negra, p 33.)) of insights gleaned as, with her life at stake, she is subjected to an enforced downshift and we leave her much as we found her at the outset of ‘The Runaway Bride,’ at her wedding, which this time plays out to completion.


“They’ve done a runner.” Owen Harper, Torchwood, ‘Something Borrowed’ (Series 2, Episode 9 tx 3/5/2008)

Gwen’s most visibly ongoing articulation of postfeminism is via her action heroine persona, which is significantly complemented by her manifestations of work/life balance anxieties that come to the discursive fore though a runaway bride scenario in ‘Something Borrowed,’ which directly confronts the tensions between her professional life as an alien-fighting Torchwood operative, and her desire for “stability” via marriage.


“STOP THIS WEDDING NOW!” The Doctor, The Sarah Jane Adventures, ‘The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith Part 1’ (Series 3, Episode 5, tx 10/29/2009)

In spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures, the eponymous protagonist is posited as an ageing female subject and late-in-the-day single mother manifesting anxiety about her consignment to a future of abject singlehood, which is brought to bear via her romance with Peter Dalton, culminating in a hastily arranged wedding, and invoking what Negra calls the “spectre of female singlehood as it is staged in relation to a sense of time urgency.” ((Ibid., p 50.)) As Sarah states of her expedited wedding: “At my age, why wait?” During the ceremony the Doctor bursts in to stop the proceedings, which have been engineered by recurring villain the Trickster, who traps Sarah in a recurring second as long as she refuses to say “I do.” Discovering Peter’s collusion with the Trickster, Sarah removes her ring, flings it away and runs. Her perpetual singlehood is presented as a necessary but regrettable sacrifice she must make for the sake of the world’s safety, in an apparent concession to the impossibility of “having-it-all” as an ageing female subject in postfeminism.


“I’m not really the marrying kind.” Amy Pond, Doctor Who, ‘Vincent and the Doctor.’ (Series 5, Episode 10, tx 5/6/10).

Amy’s runaway bride status has been a structuring thematic anchoring her characterisation throughout her inaugural season, and she is the most literal embodiment of the trope to date, choosing to join the Doctor and flee her impending marriage, leaving her unworn wedding dress behind her. She later manifests retreatist tendencies through an ambivalent urge to downshift, flip-flopping between excitement and adventure with the Doctor, versus domesticity and village life with fiancé Rory, as her narrative unfolds in terms of the disingenuous choice rhetoric germane to postfeminism. It is frankly addressed as such in the episode ‘Amy’s Choice,’ which confronts her with the life she is likely to have if she marries Rory via a five-year flashforward, imagining it as non-eventful and dull, bringing further into focus that settled heteronormativity is what Amy ran from the night before her wedding. Although the pair do finally marry, they also re-embrace the liminality of life with the Doctor, becoming a runaway couple (“it can be the night before [or of] our wedding for as long as we want”), so the necessity of Amy having to address her ambivalence, continually alluded to over the course of the series, can be potentially endlessly deferred.

This multiplicity of runaway brides, while complicit with broader postfeminist discourse up to a point, nevertheless articulates a degree of ambivalence with regard to her symbolic significance, placing as it does, large question marks beside the possibility of Donna, Gwen, Sarah or Amy ““living happily ever after” in a time outside of time.” ((Otnes & Pleck, p 12.))

Image Credits:
1. Donna Noble
2. Frame grab from It Happened One Night (1934), Elaine Robinson, Frame grab from Private Benjamin (1980), Maggie Carpenter, Violet Turner
3. Donna Noble
4. Frame grab from Torchwood, Series 2, Episode 9, ‘Something Borrowed’, tx 3/5/2008
5. Sarah Jane
6. Frame grab from Doctor Who, Series 5, Episode 13, ‘The Big Bang’, tx 6/26/2010

Please feel free to comment.

Postfeminist Primary Colors: Coding Femininities in Media Culture
Hannah Hamad / Massey University

Color-coded postfeminist femininity in the BBC’s Mistresses

Color-coded postfeminist femininity in the BBC’s Mistresses

In a key moment in Frank Oz’s iconically postfeminist 2004 remake of The Stepford Wives, beleaguered husband Walter Kresby (Matthew Broderick), in an attempt to assert masculine authority, tells his wife Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman), that from now on, he wants her to wear “no more black,” because “only high-powered, neurotic, castrating, Manhattan career bitches wear black.” He thus bluntly articulates the way in which the early part of the film has construed postfeminist femininity using a rhetoric of colour, and how it has been found wanting, as suggested by the monochromatic visual aesthetic embodied by Joanna and her look, and Walter’s damning characterization of what it signifies. Walter and Joanna have arrived at this face-off following their downshift to Stepford, heralded by Joanna’s work induced mental breakdown. Thereafter, Joanna resolves that as part of the renegotiation and reevaluation of her sense of self, specifically her femininity, that this has prompted, she will abandon black, and re-signify her feminine identity according to a different kind of postfeminist template, more in keeping with the hyper-domesticity she finds to be the dominant characteristic of the local women of Stepford. In subsequent scenes, her look instead conforms to the color coordinated aesthetic of pastels and/or primary colors that uniformly adorns the eponymous Stepford wives. In this way, the film overtly addresses the cultural tendency to signify particularities about some of the ways that femininities are conceptualized in postfeminism through color-coding.

There is a body of work in media studies addressing the meanings produced and communicated by the use of color in texts, and the potential for color to signify ideologically. For example, Judith Williamson highlighted its connotative potency in visual representational culture in her foundational work on ideology and advertisements. She argued that the “use of color is… a technique, used primarily in pictorial advertising to make correlations between a product and other things.” ((Judith Williamson, Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising (London & New York: Marion Boyars, 1978), p. 24.)) Kress and Van Leeuwen have theorized “colour [sic] as a semiotic mode,” ((Gunther Kress and Theo Van Leeuwen, ‘Colour as a Semiotic Mode: Notes for a Grammar of Colour’ Visual Communication, Vol. 1, No. 3 (2002), p 343.)) noting that “differentiation” is one major signifying functionary of what they call the “grammar of colour [sic].” ((Ibid., p 343.)) They further point to the potential for colors to do ideological work through their signification, as they can “be used and combined… to realize… different ideological positions,” ((Ibid., p 366.)) and in this way they have suggested “it is possible to see colour [sic] as the sign of a complex of discourses around femininity.” ((Ibid., p 363.)) Veronica Koller has discussed this as having the potential “to both reproduce and challenge gender ideology,” specifically in this instance in reference to the color pink as an over-determined, ironic or recuperated signifier of femininity in postfeminism. ((Veronika Koller, ‘Not Just a Colour’: Pink as a Gender and Sexuality Marker in Visual Communication’ Visual Communication, Vol. 7, No. 4 (2008), p 418.)) Thus Koller is one of several scholars who have latterly addressed the phenomenon of color-coding as a strategic visual mode in popular media with which to articulate particular meanings about feminine identities and subjectivities in postfeminism. This work has tended to focus on dichotomous black/white visual aesthetics, ((See for example, James R. Knecht, ‘It Really Isn’t All Black and White: Colour Coding, Postfeminism and Charmed’ in Karin Beeler and Stan Beeler (eds) Investigating Charmed: The Magic Power of TV. (London and New York: IB Tauris, 2007), pp. 143-153.)) or in the reclamation of (the formerly disavowed) pink as a signifier of femininity, with particular and new connotations in the context of postfeminism. ((In addition to Koller, see also Michelle M. Lazar, ‘Entitled to Consume: Postfeminist Femininity and a Culture of Post-Critique’, Discourse and Communication, Vol. 3, No. 4 (2009), pp 371-400.)) Here I propose the postfeminist significance of a visual rhetoric of primary colors, which effects controlled differentiation, and the ideologically loaded reduction of femininity to a selection of subject positions, which are limited to a handful of female archetypes.

Postfeminist media culture evinces a tendency towards representing groups of women, who are marked as subjects of postfeminism, as reductively individuated and glibly differentiated through visual coding across the spectrum of primary or otherwise bright colors, in line with the notion that Brenda Weber has elsewhere articulated in relation to the de-individuation of femininity in reality TV makeover shows, that femininity is operating culturally according to an “economy of sameness.” ((Brenda R. Weber, ‘Beauty, Desire and Anxiety: The Economy of Sameness in ABC’s Extreme Makeover’ Genders, No. 41 (2005), http://www.genders.org/g41_weber.html.)) In No Logo, her iconic treatise on the post-industrial, globally corporate condition, Naomi Klein noted that “Within a context of manufactured sameness, image based difference had to be manufactured along with the product.” ((Naomi Klein, No Logo (London: Flamingo, 2000), p. 6.)) In a similar way, manufactured sameness and basic image based difference marks the mediation of femininities in postfeminism across a plethora of media forms, genres and contexts to a notable degree, and the frequently occurring highly visible instances of color-coded femininities are symptomatic of this.

Individuation by colour in Real Housewives of Orange County

Individuation by colour in Real Housewives of Orange County

Popular music acts like The Saturdays, serial television dramas like Mistresses (BBC, 2008-present), and reality T.V. shows like Real Housewives of Orange County (Bravo, 2006-present) and How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? (BBC, 2006), to name just some examples, have all articulated particularized formulations of postfeminist femininity via the representation of discrete groups of de-individuated women. Each group is depicted as homogenously embodying an over-determined trope of postfeminist femininity (e.g. housewife chic, nanny chic, empowered girlhood, liberated sexuality etc.), while individual personae are constrained in their ability to manifest themselves, aided in part by the disingenuous strategy of differentiation that individuates these women through color-coding them. A clear visual shorthand is thus provided for purposes of crude separation, while ensuring that individuality does not transcend the postfeminist archetype being articulated by the women’s group identity.


The Saturdays video of “Up”

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? was a British reality TV talent competition that saw a group of women competing for the chance to play the role of Maria in a West End musical theatre revival of The Sound of Music. With respect to some of the strategies of representational subjugation and identity management practiced by postfeminist culture, a rhetoric of color was in place throughout the show of bright, safe primary colors that reassuringly encoded the contestants as pleasingly and simplistically individualised but not worryingly diverse. Each contestant was assigned a colour, and was consistently dressed in costumes of this colour while performing on stage in the live segments of the show.


The final ten contestants perform the title song on How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

This would remain so throughout the rest of the series both while the contestants were dressed in the iconic aproned costumes, and in their different but still color-coded costumes for their individual performances, as this phase of the competition necessarily walked a line between the homogenisation and differentiation of the contestants. The color-coded costumes worn by “the Marias” were awash with significance in terms of the coding of their identities (‘Tomboy Maria’ was assigned a blue costume, ‘Irish Maria’ was assigned a green costume, ‘Sexy Maria’ a red costume etc.) Meanwhile the connotations of the apron adorned by the symmetrical multitude of beaming “Marias” semiotically facilitated a spectacle and enabled the enactment of a fantasy of female servility due to the strong implications of domesticity, childcare and the role of women attendant to it. These are all issues which are of course bound up with the character of Maria who becomes a governess to a stern and authoritarian widower. In this way the reductive manner in which femininities were individualised did not outshine their collective signification of Maria, and the mode of femininity she embodies.

The Color-Coded Marias of How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

The Color-Coded Marias of How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

Furthermore, in line with the gender specific nature of many of these strategies of identity management, this color-coding (and hence de-individuation) did not take place for the contestants of the later search in Any Dream Will Do (BBC, 2007) for a male lead to star in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat to nearly the same extent. This homogenisation and attendant pseudo-individuation of female competitors in reality TV has similarly taken place in comparable series Grease Is The Word (BBC, 2007), and its US counterpart Grease: You’re The One That I Want (NBC, 2007), ((Thanks to Susan Pearlman for DVDs.)) and the BBC’s own follow up show I’d Do Anything (BBC, 2008), while the colour-coding of male competitors was likewise downplayed, understated or non-existent in each case. It remains to be seen if the current iteration of this cycle of reality TV shows, Over The Rainbow (BBC, 2010) will likewise adopt the visual strategy of coding its Dorothys by colour to articulate particular and reductive subject positions for its female contestants.

Color-coded Sandys in Grease: You’re The One That I Want

Color-coded Sandys in Grease: You’re The One That I Want

This phenomenon of colour-coding, as illustrated by the textual examples mentioned here, is just one example of the numerous discursive, rhetorical and representational strategies of de-individuation that postfeminist culture continues to enact upon mediated femininities.

Image Credits:

1. Color-coded postfeminist femininity in the BBC’s Mistresses

2. Individuation by colour in Real Housewives of Orange County

3. The final ten contestants perform the title song on How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

4. Color-coded Sandys in Grease: You’re The One That I Want (Author screen grab)

“Attack of Boss-zilla!” – Female Conflict and Generational Discord…
Hannah Hamad / Massey University

“Attack of Boss-zilla!” – Female Conflict and Generational Discord in Postfeminism’s New Monstrous Feminine
Hannah Hamad / Massey University

Sandra Bullock as “monster” Margaret Tate in The Proposal.

Sandra Bullock as “monster” Margaret Tate in The Proposal.

In 2009, journalist Ellie Levenson asserted that “women bosses are… absolute terrors [and] make life hell for their junior colleagues.” ((Ellie Levenson, The Noughtie Girl’s Guide to Feminism (Oxford: Oneworld, 2009), pp 70-71.)) Popular culture concurred with this seeming truism. By several accounts, romantic comedy The Proposal was one of 2009’s sleeper hits. A return to box-office form for star Sandra Bullock, it also further raised the popular cultural profile of the figure of the female “Boss-zilla” who is terrorizing workplace fictions onscreen. Bullock is publishing executive Margaret Tate, feared and loathed by her cadre of underlings who dart away when she appears, testifying to her inhumanity with panicked IM warnings of her arrival: “It’s coming!” Unsurprisingly for a postfeminist “chick flick” it does not conclude until Tate’s unruliness is curbed, ambition adjusted, ((Diane Negra, What a Girl Wants?: Fantasizing the Reclamation of the Self in Postfeminism (London: Routledge, 2009), pp. 95-99.)) and she has endured various humiliations through this revenge exercise in “taming the savage boss,” ((Manohla Dargis, ‘From the Corporate Jungle to Wild Alaska: Taming the Savage Boss’ The New York Times (19 June 2009), http://movies.nytimes.com/2009/06/19/movies/19proposal.html.)) magnanimously saving her from a future of abject singlehood and the fate of having “nothing and no one” on her deathbed.

Contemporary conceptualizations of female workplace authority figures have come to be encapsulated by the reductive assignation of the pejorative epithet “Boss-zilla,” ((In critiquing media constructions of this figure, I acknowledge the existence of bullying bosses. My memories of unpredictable tantrums, and patronizing condescension, and inner anger at being addressed as “young lady” in my mid twenties are quite vivid: “Hannah, will you just DO what I ASKED you to do!”, “GET OUT OF MY OFFICE!”)) which (like variations “Momzilla,” “Wifezilla” and the ubiquitous “Bridezilla”) has entered the lexicon postfeminist culture to create a glib verbal shorthand for what is merely a modish way of articulating an old and continually pervasive trope: the interminable “monstrous feminine.” ((Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1993).)) Hence texts that feature this figure contain several such over-determined epithets (Tate is also “Satan’s Mistress” and “the witch” while Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada is both “Dragon Lady” and the eponymous “Devil”), which characterize these female authority figures as cartoonishly monstrous, demonic and/or destructive.

Barbara Creed’s canonical treatise on the subject influentially demonstrated that such demonization of women in representational culture is an age-old phenomenon, but I am keen here to flag some ways these newer, knowing and over-determined signifiers of female monstrosity have been tailored to and re-mediated for their postfeminist context. Invoking major points of contention, debate and cultural visibility as regards feminine identities and subjectivities in postfeminism, these femininities are derogated and made monstrous by the “zilla” handle. This speaks to continuing concern and anxiety over the ever culturally apposite issues of motherhood, marriage and work, and the need for the female subject in postfeminism to achieve, manage and balance them, without transgressing current codes of behaviour through misdirected goals or muddled priorities, which would render her abject, and labeled with one or more of these monstrous appellations.

Having characterized the representational backdrop of workplace centred popular culture of early postfeminism, notably in much discussed films like Working Girl and Disclosure, the “diabolical working woman,” ((Suzanne Leonard, Fatal Attraction (Oxford and Malden, Massachusetts: Wiley Blackwell, 2009), p 55.)) who is “overloaded with monstrousness” ((Charlotte Brundson, ‘Post-Feminism and Shopping Films’ in Screen Tastes: Soap Opera to Satellite Dishes (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 92.)) has persisted in recent popular culture, latterly returning for a noticeable encore in a group of recent texts like The Proposal, but also tent-pole “chick flick” The Devil Wears Prada, ((Adapted from Lauren Weisberger’s novel based on her experiences working for Anna Wintour at Vogue, it is the iconic entry in a sub-genre of “chick-lit” that Kate Betts called “bite-the-boss” fiction (also called “underling lit” or “assistant lit”), ‘Anna Dearest’ The New York Times (13 April 2003), http://www.nytimes.com/2003/04/13/books/anna-dearest.html.)) (and de facto offshoot The September Issue), and television drama Damages, which have become key cultural touchstones for discourse surrounding the female “Boss-zilla.” Both Prada and Damages have some similarity to their cinematic forebearers from the 80s and 90s, and make inter or intra-textual allusion to extant iconic hate figures of postfeminist culture that have dominated popular cultural conceptualizations of female workplace authority figures: editor-in-chief of US Vogue Anna Wintour and Fatal Attraction’s Alex Forrest. However, a notable development is that each takes the tensions, face-offs and discord in a fraught working relationship between a baby-boomer female boss and her Gen-Y minion as the thematic focal point. “Bosszilla” can thus be understood as one of what Diane Negra calls the “new archetypes of the female labor market” ((Negra, What a Girl Wants?, p 86.)) in postfeminism: “the middle-aged “bad” female professional whose interests are antithetical to the heroine’s.” ((Ibid., p 88.))

It is this generational discord upon which I now focus my comments, as it marks an aspect of the evolution of “Boss-zilla” from a player in the aforementioned early postfeminist cautionary tales into an overused archetype, but latterly with a nuanced representational dynamic, accounting for a shifting sociocultural context, specifically the entry of new generations of young professional women in the workforce. Hence the generational multiplicity of postfeminism’s subjects in the represented public sphere, which popular culture has tended to place at loggerheads correspondent to what Negra has described as the “postfeminist propensity for setting women in conflict with each other.” ((Negra, ‘Trauma Time: Family, Community and Criminality in Close to Home’ FlowTV. Vol. 3, No. 9 (13 January 2006), http://flowjournal.org/?p=256.))

Momzilla Bridezilla and Bosszilla

“Momzilla”, “Bridezilla” and “Boss-zilla” in Monster-In-Law, Bride Wars and Damages.

As illustrated in these posters, female conflict is central to the premises of these texts, which articulate their respective mêlées around motherhood, bridehood and female workplace authority, imbuing the depicted mutually antagonistic relationships between these women with violent toxicity; hence the boxing bout aesthetic of Monster-In-Law, the pseudo-sword fight of Bride Wars and the high heel to the jugular in Damages.

Damages centers on fearsome lawyer Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) who, Lucas Hilderbrand notes, “destroy[s] everyone she meets.” ((Lucas Hilderbrand, ‘Justice Is a Bitch: On Damages as a Liberal Revenge Fantasy’ FlowTV. Vol. 10, No. 1 (12 June 2010), http://flowjournal.org/?p=4014.)) He highlights the theme song lyrics (“when I am through with you, there won’t be anything left”) as a textual nod towards the destructive monstrosity that characterizes her, which recalls the way soundtrack songs like Ladytron’s “Destroy Everything You Touch” and VHS Or Beta’s “Burn It All Down,” which accompany footage of Anna Wintour at work in The September Issue, similarly over-determine her characterization as monstrously destructive. Patty’s monstrosity is similarly averred both by her bullying office antics, massive mood swings, manipulative machinations and most of all by her attempt to have her young entry level protégée Ellen (Rose Byrne) murdered. Thus, the heart of the tensions that drive the character dynamic and make for the central conceit of Damages is the troubled bitter working relationship between them, that from early in the second season becomes increasingly overtly articulated as a “mother-daughter dyad” of the kind Astrid Henry highlights is “a trope [used] to describe intergenerational conflict” between second and third wave feminists. ((Astrid Henry, Not My Mother’s Sister: Generational Conflict and Third-Wave Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), p 182, p 47.))

Intergenerational office tensions between the women of The Devil Wears Prada and Damages.

Intergenerational office tensions between the women of The Devil Wears Prada and Damages.

Both Ellen and Prada’s heroine Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway), an aspiring journalist working as a fashion magazine editor’s assistant, are urged to quit their browbeaten professional lives by their boyfriends (both much more securely professionally settled as a gourmet chef and doctor) but these women are simultaneously drawn by intrigue toward and repelled by fear from their “Boss-zilla,” which also speaks to the configuration of their relationships as maternal/filial via Adrienne Rich’s concept of “matrophobia” wherein “there may be a deep underlying pull towards [the mother], a dread that if one relaxes one’s guard one will identify with her completely.” ((Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1976), p 235.)) Andy, having transformed into a budding Miranda, avoids this fate, breaking from her by flinging away the cell phone that heretofore bound her to her boss. Events in Damages have seen Ellen morph from a diligent ingenue into Patty’s duplicitous short-tempered mini-me.

Thus they both journey toward a scenario in which the power balance between them and their respective employer is either leveled or reversed from that of the early days of their downtrodden employment under Miranda and Patty, which saw them wither before “Boss-zilla” in response to severe words and curt dismissals from which they slunk away humiliated, in a walk of shame from an expansive forbidding executive office. Redressing this imbalance through their respective moral and psychological victories, Andy and Ellen’s stories seem to stand as cultural manifestations of what Angela McRobbie calls “post-feminism as daughter’s revenge” ((Angela McRobbie, The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change (London: Sage, 2008), p 40.
)) upon their formidable “Boss-zillas” whose professional identities have made them monsters.

It is regrettable that destructive monstrosity, in whatever form, mode or tone it is mediated, and as it is reconceptualised for shifting mores and contexts, remains visible and recurrent in the discursive landscape of postfeminist media culture. One that rhetorically categorizes women into reductive, yet predictable, identity brackets according to perceptions that their personifications of these roles (boss, bride, wife, mother) transgress the boundaries of acceptable, reasonable or normal behaviour within the mutable norms of their moment, to the extent that they are characterized as rampaging beasts that grotesquely derogate the feminine identity they envelope, leaving destruction in their wake. Stomp… STOMP… STOMP.

Image Credits:

1. Sandra Bullock as “monster” Margaret Tate in The Proposal
2. “Momzilla”, “Bridezilla” and “Boss-zilla” in Monster-in-Law, Bride Wars and Damages
5. Intergenerational office tensions between the women of The Devil Wears Prada and Damages (Author screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.

DAD TV – Postfeminism and the Paternalization of US Television Drama
Hannah Hamad / Massey University

Paternal instinct in Everwood

Paternal instinct in Everwood

Recent years have witnessed a pronounced thematic and representational trend in television serial drama towards paternalism, fatherhood, and relationships between fathers and children. In many ways, the WB’s Everwood, which ran from 2002-2006 is epitomic of this trend in terms of its heavily paternally inflected premise, centred on the down-shifted life a widowed single father in the aftermath of his wife’s death, and his efforts at solo parenting in her absence.

Prior to Everwood’s premiere it was described by Entertainment Weekly as “a rare showing of paternal instinct” ((Lynette Rice, ‘Fall TV Preview’ Entertainment Weekly No. 671-672 (13 September 2002), http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,348148,00.html.)) by the network, quoting then entertainment president Jordan Levin asserting “This was a conscious decision to tackle an arena we felt is underserved in network TV – portraying a father in a strong and sympathetic light.” ((Ibid.)) Similarly, creator Greg Berlanti identified what he perceived as a dearth of depictions of father-child relationships onscreen as a motivating factor in his decision to develop Everwood in the way that he did – as a paternal drama of lone fatherhood –telling Variety when it was first broadcast, “I just wanted to write something that was a father-son story because I felt it was under-represented on television.” ((Stuart Levine, ‘‘Everwood’s’ Cold Comfort’ Variety. (16 September 2002), http://www.variety.com/article/VR1117872862.html?categoryid=1351&cs=1&query=everwood%27s+cold+comfort.))

A major turnaround of this state of affairs has taken place since Berlanti expressed his perceived lack of representations of fatherhood on television, to the extent that it is a ubiquitous trope and a dominant structuring theme in contemporary televisual discourses of postfeminist masculinity. Symptomatic is that in the multi-layered narratives and ensemble casts of characters of high-end series like Lost and Heroes, nary a character can be found populating their respective diegeses who does not have a paternally inflected back story, or sub-plot centred upon their own situation and identity as a father (or both) built in to the series’ arch-narrative at some point.

This thematic prominence of fatherhood has not gone unnoticed by critics and commentators with regard to individual shows, genres and creative personnel, and attempts have been made to understand this representational recurrence in relation to various critical frameworks. Elsewhere in Flow, Michael Kackman identifies it as a “central narrative preoccupation” of Lost, citing it as Oedipal. ((Michael Kackman, ‘Quality Television, Melodrama and Cultural Complexity’ FlowTV. Vol. 9, No. 1 (31 October 2008), http://flowjournal.org/?p=2101#identifier_0_2101.)) Ina Rae Hark notes that the first season of 24 is (amidst themes of terrorism, counterterrorism, intelligence, and conspiracy) “the story of three fathers whose… work has interfered with the well-being and happiness of their… families,” ((Ina Rae Hark, ‘“Today Is The Longest Day of My Life”: 24 as Mirror Narrative of 9/11’ in Wheeler Winston Dixon (ed), Film and Television After 9/11 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004), p 130.)) and explores this theme in Deleuzian terms. Rosalind Coward points to the paternal in Desperate Housewives in which, despite privileging a representational and thematic discourse centred on motherhood and femininity, “the main narrative impulse… is a mystery centring on a father-son relationship.” ((Rosalind Coward, ‘Still desperate: Popular television and the female Zeitgeist’ in Janet McCabe and Kim Akass (eds) Reading Desperate Housewives: Beyond the White Picket Fence (London and New York: IB Tauris, 2006), p 40.)) And New York magazine’s Logan Hill makes an auteurist case for the noticeably father centred work of J.J. Abrams, posing the question “Does J.J. Abrams Have Daddy Issues?” before tracking the paternal thematic drive that has infused Abrams’ cinematic and televisual output from 1991’s Regarding Henry through 2009’s Star Trek by way of serial television dramas Felicity, Alias, Lost and Fringe. ((Logan Hill, ‘Does J.J. Abrams Have Daddy Issues?’ New York. (3 May 2009), http://nymag.com/movies/features/56444/.)) He answers this question squarely in the affirmative, positing the prevalence of the paternal in both film and television as a signature trope of an individual auteur. Abrams’ authorly idiosyncrasies notwithstanding, a structuring theme centred on a given character’s “daddy issues” in contemporary television drama is not unique to the output of this one individual. Rather, it is increasingly omnipresent in a postfeminist media culture in which the hands-on, emotionally involved practice of fatherhood has become a prerequisite for the attainment of mature ideal masculinity. Frequently, anxieties that trouble this paternal ideal (often in relation to the fatherhood of men from the generation that preceded postfeminism, which tends to be depicted as inadequate) emerge in cultural discourses, manifesting in the form of the aforementioned so-called “daddy issues” that blight the development and narrative progression of innumerable characters, and thence inform and nuance representations of the fatherhood of younger generations of men whose job it seems to be to personify the postfeminist paternal ideal.

Postfeminism operates to naturalise cultural imagery of involved fatherhood as simultaneously progressive, and preordained by second wave feminist shifts in notional norms of gender equity in parenting that resulted, or were perceived to result. One cultural upshot has seen fatherhood become the testing ground upon which masculinity is affirmed and celebrated, or censured and disavowed, while effecting the political neutralisation of the concomitant marginalisation if not outright elision of motherhood from representational discourses. I hence offer postfeminism as a critical framework and cultural context that enables further understanding of the pronounced paternalisation of television drama, a case in point for a much wider representational trend.

The way fatherhood is introduced to a series varies in the extent to which it impacts the narrative, and the degree to which it nuances characterisation of the father character/s depicted. There have been self-contained individual episodes within series specifically thematically privileging fatherhood or treating it as a representational phenomenon unto itself (while subsuming it into the series’ narrative context in a diegetically apposite manner), such as the Desperate Houswives episode ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy,’ which makes the fatherhood of Rex, Carlos, Mike and Tom the structuring theme. Or the Lost episode ‘All The Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues,’ which reveals a significant moment behind Jack’s traumatic paternally inflected back story (thereafter it becomes a recurring trope to paternalize the back stories of other characters). And the Angel episode ‘Dad’ that focuses on his attempts to adapt to fatherhood following the arrival of his son. Oftentimes paternalization occurs as a significant development, whereby fatherhood is introduced to an established character, and the show modifies its thematic accordingly as in Angel, and Six Feet Under and Nip/Tuck, which similarly paternalized Nate and Christian.

Introducing fatherhood in Angel, Six Feet Under and Nip/Tuck

Introducing fatherhood in Angel, Six Feet Under and Nip/Tuck

It is beyond the scope of this column to be able to adequately conceptualize or fully typologize all the discursive nuances of postfeminist fatherhood on television, but I would like to highlight some of its dominant tropes. The diegetically apposite absence of mothers is one, and is apotheosised in the prevalence of the widowed single father as the paradigmatic male. This figure abounds in serial drama, and can be found in Everwood, Angel, 24, Numb3rs, Lost, Desperate Housewives, Six Feet Under, Ugly Betty, Prison Break, Battlestar Galactica, Fringe, Nip/Tuck and Harper’s Island to name only some. Down-shifted widowed single fatherhood was, of course, the springboard scenario of Everwood which ran for four seasons on the back of this set-up that saw bereaved neurosurgeon Andy Brown and his two children retreat to small town Colorado, and showcased paternalized postfeminist masculinity through what is now a stock character.

Everwood deals with single fathers

Everwood deals with single fathers

The matter-of-factness with which single fatherhood is sometimes articulated is also noteworthy. The circumstances that bring about a state of singlehood can go un-interrogated, be referenced glibly, or at the other end of the spectrum, laboured narrative contrivances (that usually involve the mother’s unlikely death) are conceived and deployed to explain and thence naturalize it, as in Angel where a partially humanized Darla stakes herself to save her unborn baby from her post-partum reversion to vampirism. Instances whereby fatherhood is depicted as troubling or problematic are lent pathos by what is shown as the tragedy of failed, inadequate or absent fatherhood as in The Wire, 24, Without a Trace and Battlestar Galactica, most of which provide the narrative impetus, context and circumstances to redeem their formerly inadequate fathers. For example, The Wire’s fourth season included representation of McNulty’s paternal transformation and rehabilitation, allowing for the recuperation of his fatherhood that was heretofore marked as inadequate due to his absence through workaholism, alcoholism and adultery, reminiscent of the paternal failings of Jack Malone in Without a Trace.

Fringe, Battlestar Galactica and Angel explore tactile paternalism

Fringe, Battlestar Galactica and Angel explore tactile paternalism

Compositional commonalities in the depiction of the tactile, increasingly emotional and ultimately redemptive paternalism of the single fathers in Fringe, Battlestar Galactica and Angel pictured here, all similarly thematically privilege fatherhood and its transformative, recuperative and redemptive possibilities.

These are but a few of the commonalities to be found in television representations of fatherhood, which themselves are indicative of a much broader trend in contemporary media culture. Beyond the serial drama, the paternalized discourses of masculinity on television have emerged in a number of other forms such as celebrity reality TV (Snoop Dogg’s Father Hood, Run’s House, Hogan Knows Best), sitcom (Two and a Half Men) and advertising (Patrick Dempsey’s current L’Oreal campaign). The role of fatherhood in contemporary cultural discourses of postfeminist masculinity would hence bear further and more detailed critical inquiry and debate.

Image Credits:
1. Paternal instinct in Everwood
2. Paternalizing characters in Angel, Six Feet Under and Nip/Tuck
3. Everwood deals with single fathers – Author’s screen capture
4. Fringe, Battlestar Galactica and Angel explore tactile paternalism

Please feel free to comment.