Strong Female Characters

Strong Female Characters: Clara Oswald

For those of you that don’t know, Clara is the latest companion on the British television series, Doctor Who. The Doctor – a time-travelling alien who flies all around the universe in a disused phone box (just go with it) – is always accompanied by a human companion on his adventures, and Clara is the latest one to take the helm of the TARDIS. She’s been praised as a refreshingly down-to-earth character – particularly in the latest series, where there is no romantic relationship between her and the Doctor – and has been hailed as a role model for young girls everywhere.

But does she live up to her reputation? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!

 

1.       Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?

Clara’s been the Doctor’s companion for two series so far, and to answer this question properly, I’m going to be looking at the two series as separate entities.

In her first series, Clara is known as ‘The Impossible Girl’ because she has several different incarnations of herself – in various different points in time and space – that are all ostensibly the same person. From her very first appearance, she’s presented as a puzzle to be solved, and this seriously undercuts her agency as a character. The overall series arc revolves around the Doctor’s attempts to figure her out, and as Clara herself is largely unaware of this, she cannot participate in her own story. The show’s writer, Steven Moffat, actually admits this in an article here, so you guys can just take my opinion as fact while I bask in a lovely smug glow.

But in her second series, she doesn’t really fare much better. She spends most of both of her series getting dragged around by the Doctor, with very little input into where they go or what they do – it’s only when the Doctor is forcibly removed from the picture that she gets a chance to move the plot along for herself. She decides to stop travelling with the Doctor a few times, but always changes her mind in the next episode, usually after the Doctor has persuaded her. It’s pretty clear that the Doctor is the one who is in control of her destiny, not Clara.

SCORE SO FAR: 0

 

2.       Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?

Clara’s goals, beliefs and hobbies only come up when they are relevant to the plot. When she is first introduced, she tells the Doctor that she always wanted to travel, but due to family circumstances she had to cancel her plans. She carries around a book of ‘101 Places to See’ for an episode or two, but never actually asks the Doctor to take her to any of them. Similarly, at the beginning of her second series, we see that she has become a teacher, but she has never expressed any interest in teaching, or even mentioned that she has gone through the many years of training needed to qualify as a teacher at all.

She doesn’t really have any hobbies that are mentioned in the show, and her beliefs – while they are at least discussed – are pretty generic. She believes in doing the right thing, with a strong sense of emotional and moral responsibility, but this isn’t enough to redeem her, so I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 0

 

3.       Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?

Clara’s personality is relatively consistent. She’s very flirty, reasonably intelligent, “feisty” – but only in the sense that she picks fights with people without ever actually having to deal with the consequences – and very motherly. This isn’t really anything new in terms of companion’s personalities (or in Moffat’s female characters, for that matter) but it is at least consistent. The only thing worth mentioning is that when it comes to her “feisty” side, she suffers from some serious Bella Swan Syndrome. Other characters always talk about how feisty she is and how she never does what she’s told, yet SHE ALWAYS DOES WHAT SHE’S TOLD EVERY SINGLE TIME. The closest she ever gets to disobedience is a witty quip before she carries out her orders – that’s one hell of an informed personality.

She's so mean :( (image: tumblr.com)
She’s so mean 😦 (image: tumblr.com)

Her skills are where things get a little patchy. In the first series, it’s established that she’s bad with computers, yet after an encounter with what is essentially a walking wifi hotspot, she becomes a top hacker – but it’s science fiction, so that’s not too unreasonable an assumption to make for this kind of story. She’s consistently bad at cooking (especially soufflés) and consistently good with children. Where things get a little shakier is when details that should have been established much earlier on in the show – like her love for (and ability to memorise and quote) Marcus Aurelius, or her desire to become a teacher – are just casually dropped in to episodes simply when a writer wants to make a point. She certainly passes the personality round, but her skills need a bit more development for her to get full marks.

SCORE SO FAR: 0.5

 

4.       Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?

A young woman swept up on a series of adventures, travelling through time and space and fighting evil.

SCORE SO FAR: 1.5

 

5.       Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?

Clara actually makes a lot of decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life, particularly when she’s travelling with the Twelfth Doctor, who she has never been romantically interested in. Her love life does factor into her decisions, but not in a disproportionately large way, so I’m giving her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

6.       Does she develop over the course of the story?

Clara’s character doesn’t really develop at all over the course of her two series. She’s pretty much static, despite everything she goes through. As this includes sacrificing her entire existence to save the Doctor, having to protect several children from various alien beasties, and the untimely death of her boyfriend, her lack of development really rings hollow. The only one she really appears to feel the effects of is the death of her boyfriend – the others she just takes in her stride, leaving no real effect on her personality. Not only does this stop her from developing as a character, it really undermines the sacrifices she makes, so I’m withholding the point.

Here's hoping her aim is just as bad (image: literallydarling.com)
Here’s hoping her aim is just as bad (image: literallydarling.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

7.       Does she have a weakness?

Clara is consistently shown to be a compulsive liar, and this seriously affects her relationships with other characters (most notably, her boyfriend). It isn’t really explored to its fullest extent, but it is a serious and persistent flaw that repeatedly holds her back.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

8.       Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?

Clara’s ability to influence the plot is a little bit complicated. I touched on this earlier, so apologies if I repeat myself.

In her first series, Clara is ‘The Impossible Girl’. She’s a puzzle that the Doctor wants to solve, and what this means is that it’s very easy for her to stand completely still and let the plot happen around her. She influences the plot just by being alive, and as I’ve already discussed in previous reviews, that doesn’t count as agency. In both of her series, she spends most of the episodes getting dragged around by the Doctor. She does occasionally get to choose where they go, but not often – mostly, the Doctor’s the one driving the TARDIS.

She does get moments of agency throughout both of her series, but these all happen when the Doctor is either off-screen or incapacitated. This is where she demonstrates the intelligence and bravery she’s rumoured to have, but crucially, she’s never once allowed to out-shine the Doctor. What’s more, in some of her more significant moments – such as when she persuades the Doctor to try and save Gallifrey, or when she has to beg the other Time Lords to save the Doctor – rely on her pleading with other characters to do what she wants, rather than actually doing something herself. By only allowing her to influence the plot when the Doctor is unable – or unwilling – to do so, her agency is seriously undermined, and it becomes pretty clear that she only has an impact when the writers allow it.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

9.       How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

In a lot of ways, Clara is pretty much the stereotypical young woman. She’s flirty, kind, good with children – all traits traditionally associated with women of her age – but she’s also intelligent and unafraid of picking fights (even though they never actually come to anything).

The unfortunate implications really start to pile up when you look at how she relates to the Doctor. When she first meets him she has no goals and is vaguely dissatisfied with her life, and she’s very quick to drop everything and run off with him. There’s nothing that really ties her to her human existence – unlike the other companions, who were all shown to have pretty strong relationships with their families, Clara doesn’t interact with hers outside of the Christmas specials. This might not seem like much, but it ties into a lot of stereotypes about how women’s lives only really become significant when they meet ‘that special someone’ – in Clara’s case, this is true, as she’s clearly unhappy with her situation, and she does nothing to change it until Matt Smith and his chin show up. To a certain extent, this continues throughout her time with the Doctor, as when she’s unhappy with his behaviour, she rarely puts her foot down – and when she does, her decisions never last longer than an episode.

She puts up with a hell of a lot from him. (image: giphy.com)
She puts up with a hell of a lot from him. (image: giphy.com)

What’s even more worrying is the way she functions when she interacts with Peter Capaldi’s Doctor. The plot actively prevents her from out-shining both the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors except in one area – emotional intelligence. She essentially functions as the Doctor’s moral compass, telling him what is and what isn’t acceptable behaviour – something which the Doctor’s previous incarnations never needed. She’s basically become a more attractive version of Jiminy Cricket.

In reducing her to the role of the Doctor’s conscience – and in making most of the meaningful interactions in her life centre around the Doctor – what this implies is that she can’t have a satisfying or fulfilling existence without the Doctor’s presence in her life. When you apply this thinking to men and women, everyone loses: men in their being denied any kind of emotional intelligence, and women in their being denied any kind of independence. Basically, just don’t do it.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

10.   How does she relate to other female characters?

Clara’s relationships with other female characters are all kind of generic. She’s usually nice to other female characters (unless they’re clearly introduced as the villain), but she doesn’t really interact with a singular female character often enough to really develop a strong, realistic relationship with them. The closest she comes is with Madame Vastra and Jenny, and she seems to get along with them relatively well – although this is really because they are friends of the Doctor. When the Doctor is out of the picture at the start of Clara’s second series, the strain in their interactions becomes immediately visible, and even though part of this is down to their disapproval of Clara’s behaviour, a much more significant part of this is down to the fact that they clearly just don’t know how to talk to her.

FINAL SCORE: 4.5/10

 

Clara is a bit of a difficult character. When I first started watching her series, I thought she might pass my test, but once you really analyse her character it becomes clear that she doesn’t have anywhere near the same amount of agency that the Doctor’s previous companions had. While she does have some realistic weaknesses and isn’t totally focussed around her love life, her character doesn’t really develop, leans on some outdated stereotypes and doesn’t have much of an impact on the plot unless the Doctor isn’t there. She has moments where she’s pretty convincing, but it’s pretty clear that the writers simply aren’t paying attention to her character development.

Next week, I’ll be looking at one of my childhood favourites, Star Wars. Princess Leia, I’m coming for you.

7 thoughts on “Strong Female Characters: Clara Oswald”

  1. Great stuff!
    How about Tiffany Aching? Nanny Ogg? Granny Weatherwax? Agnes Nitt? One of the things I love about Pratchett are his female characters.

  2. Hey! This was pretty good, but you should definitely check out the latest season and maybe consider redoing this for her? She changed immensely in this past season. Her character was further developed, and she in a way started becoming like the Doctor. She might just pass your test now!

    1. Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it!

      My general policy is not to look at characters I’ve done before, because I have a limited amount of time I can dedicate to this blog. But if she changed as much as you say, perhaps I should revisit that!

  3. I have to respectfully disagree with a couple of things in your article. Firstly Clara does not just drop everything and run off with the Doctor. When he first asks her to travel with him she tells him to come back and ask her in a week. When she does decide to travel with him it seems quite clear that she does so at her own convenience. In one episode we even learn that she has been using the TARDIS to avoid being late, missing TV shows and cooking dinner. The second is that ‘she rarely puts her foot down with the Doctor’. On the contrary she often complained about his behaviour and slapped him for behaving in ways she didn’t like. She was supposed to be a articulate, clever woman but most of the time when she had a problem with him she just screamed insults/slapped him or was just amazingly patronising. I suspect that Clara was a character written by a sexist man who was trying to be less sexist but failed.

    1. That’s fair enough. I might not have done a great job of articulating it but what I was trying to convey that Clara never seemed like a real person with her own life and opinions – everything ended up revolving around the Doctor. Once I realised that she always felt kind of secondary.

      Also, your last sentence is spot on!

  4. I respect your opinions but they seem to be completely misinformed. Clara is a Marmite character. Either you love her or you hate her. But your assessment of Clara is completely misjudged.

    You have mentioned a couple of times that Clara is not allowed to outshine the Doctor.
    The entire Doctor Who fandom will definitely disagree with you.

    A major complaint of Series 8 was that Clara took focus away from the Doctor as everything became centered around her (her bossy, control freak persona got all the attention and the new Doctor was not allowed to develop properly).
    And even if your gripe may be genuine about Clara not being allowed to outshine the Doctor, the show is called “Doctor Who”, NOT “Companion Who”. Therefore, “outshining someone” CANNOT be looked at from a gender perspective. It is about position.
    Whoever the Doctor is, at the end of the day, the focus is supposed to be on them. Plain and simple. “Doctor” Who, you see…

    Anyway…considering that the Doctor became secondary in Series 8, “Clara Who” became a running joke in the fandom. So much so that the opening credits of the episode “Death in Heaven” (Episode 12 of Series 8) show Jenna Coleman’s name appearing before Peter Capaldi’s name, and her face appears in the opening credits shot when it is supposed to be Peter Capaldi’s face.

    By the way, why do you want her to outshine the Doctor? Gender and desired female supremacy aside…is there any other reason?

    Why can’t the Doctor and Clara be equals – as it happened in Series 9? I am not sure if you have seen Series 9…if you haven’t, your misinformed opinions have forced me to reveal this spoiler about Series 9 – Clara has complete agency in her own death and in her exit from the TARDIS. She leaves on her own terms.

    Coming back to this article, another criticism of Clara from you is unfair. Once a companion joins the TARDIS, their life ends up revolving around the Doctor (whether they like it or not) because they are completely involved in the adventures and they like travelling. And this can take a dangerous turn because they forget who they are.

    Amongst all companions, Clara is the one who tried to maintain a normal life (by sticking to her day job) whilst also travelling with the Doctor. I hope you have seen the episode “The Caretaker” where her day job and Doctor life clash together. And yet you say that beyond the Doctor, she has nothing else about her?!!

    Even if Clara’s life revolves around the Doctor (as per your opinion), why single out her for it? It has happened with previous companions as well.

    1. What about Rose going missing one full year, sidelining her boyfriend completely, and developing feelings for the Doctor? Even her own mother had remarked just how much she had changed because of the constant travelling with the Doctor.

    2. What about Martha developing feelings for the Doctor despite being a smart medical student? And she even felt jealous that the Doctor kept talking about Rose all the time.

    3. What about Donna realising just how important she is, only when she travelled with Doctor?

    4. What about Amy having to visit therapists in childhood because she kept waiting for her raggedy Doctor?

    One more thing. You say that Clara serves as a moral compass to the Doctor (and you project that as a complaint!). Isn’t *that* supposed to be the actual role of a companion??! I mean…

    The companion’s primary job is to become the Doctor’s moral conscience, to ensure that he is NEVER lonely. And considering you project it as a complaint with Clara, previous companions have served as the Doctor’s moral conscience too..

    1. What about Rose making sure the Ninth Doctor got over his utter hatred of Daleks?

    2. What about Donna wanting the Doctor to save someone from the Pompeii volcano when he refused to save anybody?

    3. Please watch the episode “A Town Called Mercy” where Amy becomes the Doctor’s conscience keeper.

    Question – Why is it so necessary for the companion to become the Doctor’s moral conscience keeper?

    Without the companion, the Doctor might become too big-headed for his own good (The Waters of Mars), or he might become too cold and ruthless (A Town Called Mercy) or, he might turn into a monster (Hell Bent).

    You have expressed your opinions but you have criticized Clara for those very same things that previous companions also did.

    Also considering previous events of the show…it feels like your opinions are misjudged and misinformed. I have devoured every episode of Doctor Who. I know exactly how things proceeded with the previous Companions.

    1. OK, so there’s a couple of points I’d like to pick up from your comment.

      1. Please don’t suggest that I am “misinformed”. In order to write this blog post I watched the same episodes that you did, I just came away with a different opinion. Our opinions may be different but they are equally valid.

      2. You’re probably right to suggest that if I’d looked at other companions I would have run into a lot of the same problems. However, as I didn’t do a blog post on another companion this didn’t come up.

      3. As for companions being the Doctor’s moral conscience, I do think that this is a bit dated. Most of the Doctor’s companions tend to be female, and when they’re constantly being used as his emotional support and moral compass this ties into a lot of stereotypes about women – i.e. that they are “supposed” to take care of men, that they are more in touch with their emotions. This also does a real disservice to the Doctor’s character, as in previous series (Russell T Davies’, for example) he was much more emotionally stable and didn’t need a companion to teach him the basics of right and wrong.

      4. When it comes to Clara’s relationship with the Doctor, they are never equals. The viewer is left in no doubt that he is better than her at most things, and most of the time he’s cast in the role of the superior partner. But this does a real disservice to Clara as it doesn’t acknowledge that their strengths and weaknesses are different, and the Doctor is capable of learning just as much from her as she is from him.

      Most of the problems with Clara as a character are not unique to her. They are a symptom of Steven Moffat’s writing, in particular his treatment of female characters. This is widely discussed in the Doctor Who fan community, and I read some very interesting articles on this topic by Whovians when writing this blog post. If you’d be interested in reading some I can probably dig out some links but you’ll have to bear with me – I did write this post five years ago after all!

      We’re probably never going to see eye to eye on this but I hope that you can respect my opinion in the same way that I respect yours. It’s always nice to hear from someone who put such a lot of thought into something I’ve written, even if we don’t agree.

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