Monday, November 27, 2006

aliens, bisexuals and stereotypes, oh my!

I have a whole list of topics to blog about, including the Reclaim the Night march I went on this weekend. Instead, I’m going to rant about a TV show. Torchwood is a spin-off of the British sci-fi show, Doctor Who. It was promoted as the ‘grown-up’ version of what is essentially a family show, and a lot was made of the fact that Jack Harkness, the lead character is ‘omnisexual’ (in contrast to the Doctor, who is generally considered asexual). Both shows come from Russell T Davies, the man behind the (original) UK version of Queer as Folk, and the two newest series of Who have been criticised for their gay-heavy content. So far, so diverse? I wish.

Anything from here on in can be considered a spoiler to the latest episode of Torchwood, Greeks Bearing Gifts (written by Toby Whithouse). You have been warned. Episode seven aired yesterday and, if you count a rather homoerotic instance of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, all the main characters have had same-sex experiences. The show is made up of three men and two women, and the way their potential bisexuality is portrayed differs radically.

• In the first episode, laddish medic Owen is shown hitting on a woman in a bar who isn’t remotely interested. But not a problem! For Owen has brought his very own date rape drug bag of tricks, in the form of a pheromone spray. One squirt of his magic love juice (sorry, couldn’t resist) and she’s all over him. Her boyfriend has a problem with this, as one would, and starts to kick off on Owen. So he simply sprays some pheromones at boyfriend, and they wander off into the sunset for a non-consensual threesome.

• In the next episode, a woman is possessed by an alien who feeds off the human orgasm. Just typing this is making me realise how much crack this show is on, but bear with me. At some point, Gwen Cooper, the new recruit to the Torchwood team, gets locked in the cell with her. Now Gwen used to be a policeman in Cardiff, which is the capital city of Wales. Most capital cities have their fair share of bad guys, and one would imagine that a basic part of police training isDon’t Get Locked Into A Cell With The Villain (Especially If The Villain Is An Alien And It’s Your First Day On The Job Working For A Covert Government Organisation). However, Gwen was obviously off the day they covered that in cop school, and ends up in a lesbian liplock with Sex Alien Girl. The rest of the team watch this on CCTV, drooling, until someone points out that Sex Alien Girl reduces her lovers not so much to jelly as to a pile of ash on the floor. They reluctantly tear themselves away from Policewomen Gone Wild and go to her rescue. But it’s OK, Sex Alien Girl can’t get real satisfaction from women so Gwen can live to mess up another day.

The next few episodes are irritating, but not as objectionable as the ones I’m focussing on. The receptionist has been keeping his half-robot ex in the basement until he can find a cure for being a robot, and polygamous, commitment-phobic time-traveller Jack meets up with his old (as in, grandmother-old) war-time girlfriend to fight fairies – the winged kind, that is – and angsts about the life they could have had if he hadn’t gone to run around the universe flirting with everyone he meets. Oh, and Gwen the SuperCop gets shoved into a tree by Drug Rape Owen, who grinds against her and makes her admit that she wants him, wants him bad.

• Which leads me to last night’s episode. See, Toshiko Sato is the resident geek girl who has never gotten over kissing Owen a year ago. In fact, she hasn’t kissed anyone since (pay attention, this is A Theme in Toby Whithouse’s writing). Honestly, with his sexual powers, it’s a wonder he even needs to use pheromone date rape aerosols . Tosh was as intrigued as anyone by Gwen the SuperCop’s girl-on-girl action, but is feeling a little bit betrayed by her New Best Friend shagging her crush when said NBF KNOWS she really likes Owen. So she goes to a bar, gets picked up by a cute blonde lesbian and starts spilling the secrets of Torchwood. Cute Blonde lesbian kisses her and gives her a pretty necklace that allows Tosh to hear everyone’s thoughts. Then they do sex, and Tosh freaks out – either because she slept with a woman or because now someone other than Owen has kissed her. To cut a long story short, Gwen the SuperCop thinks Tosh can’t dress for shit, Drug Rape Owen thinks she’s annoying, and Cute Blonde Lesbian is actually an evil alien who was using Tosh to get to Torchwood. Jack sends her back to her home planet with some alien technology he fixed, and consoles Tosh by patting her suggestively on her thigh.

Not forgetting, of course, Jack’s line about not trusting people when they started acting distracted and unlike themselves – one time his friend Vincent did that, vanished for six months, and when he came back had ‘started calling himself Vanessa’. Be careful, kids! If your friends are acting quiet and moody, they might have a sex change!

I expected better from a show that markets itself as gay-friendly. Not gratuitous lesbianism, not cheap shots at transpeople, and not the kind of sloppy, retrogressive characterisation that is only a problem if you have breasts.

In Doctor Who, the female sidekicks have a reputation of screaming lots and falling over. I’d argue that this is mostly unearned, but any effort to have a sassy 21st century companion is to be applauded. And in the first series, it works. Rose Tyler is from a crappy estate, with a crappy job and a rubbish boyfriend who will eventually prove himself to be a hero and make me cry, dammit. Since her mother has never warned her about getting into time machines with strange men, she becomes the latest assistant to the Doctor, a rather angsty chap who has just ended a war on his home planet by killing everyone, and now bitches about being lonely. Rose kicks ass. She functions as the audience in a way - gaping at the cool special effects and asking the kind of stupid questions we’d ask if we were whisked into time and space by Christopher Eccleston. She even saves the day once or twice. But by the second season, she’s clingy, co-dependent and talking about mortgages. And when they run into Sarah Jane Smith*, one of the Doctor’s previous sidekicks, boy do her hackles rise.

Russell T Davies has been variously credited with reinventing British sci-fi and not being able to write women. It’s hard not to think that the two are connected. He’s openly gay, as quite a few of the actors, production staff and writers seem to be, and he’s not afraid of letting it show in his scripts. This is great, it’s hard not to be happy about a cult show being reinvented by someone who isn’t afraid to bring the gay, to question the heterocentric attitudes of mainstream media. But it stops there. Female sexuality is constantly portrayed as either problematic or titillating, whereas male sexuality, even when it’s threatening, is applauded. I have no problem with shades of grey, with protagonists who aren’t necessarily the good guys, but I don’t want Crazy/Evil lesbians there to boost ratings, I don't want women fighting over men, and I don’t want misogynistic characters labelled heroes.

*Ah, Sarah Jane. In the 70s, she was a time-travelling journalist and women’s libber, bringing feminism to medieval England and far-flung planets. In 2006, she’s never quite gotten over the Doctor and is not impressed to have been replaced by a bottle-blonde chav with no A-Levels.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Take Back The Night 2

Another post, so soon? This is mostly a quick update - a few pieces of news and details of next week's Reclaim The Night march in London. Again, it's about rape. I wish I didn't have to blog about this and I wish I didn't have to get angry. Which is a round about way of saying I wish rape didn't happen, or that at least the victims were treated with some respect.

- Happy news first. Well, sort of. Pakistan's national assembly has voted to amend rape laws. As I understand it, they will no longer take place in Sharia courts - which demand four witnesses to the rape - but in civil courts, making it easier to prpsecute. Small victory, but it's a start. Statistics on the BBC website suggest that in Pakistan, a woman is raped every two hours, and gang-raped every eight hours.

- A report for the Association of Chief Police Officers suggests that drugs such as Rohypnol are far less frequently used in rape cases than is commonly supposed. The front cover of this morning's Metro claimed 'Drug rape a myth'. Thanks for that biassed reporting, then. Regardless of the Rohypnol statistics, my real problem with the report was the inevitable blame that fell on the victims when they had been drinking. No change there, then.

- Reclaim The Night rally, London, 25th November:

In Britain there are an estimated 47,000 rapes every year. And each year, an estimated 300,000 women are sexually assaulted (British Crime Survey 2001). Yet Britain's rape conviction rate is at its lowest ever, at just 5.3%.

In the workplace, one in two women are sexually harassed. Now more than ever, women must come together to say 'no' to violence against women.

Reclaim The Night
Saturday 25 November
Assemble 6pm at Trafalgar Square
8pm mixed rally at University of London Union, Malet Street

Because, strange as it may sound, I do in fact have the right to walk home from the bus after dark - and in the winter, it's always after dark - without being raped.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Take Back the Night

"When a woman's crying like that? She isn't having any fun."

- Thelma & Louise

Lately, I've been thinking about false rape allegations. Cheery thought, yes? Partly it's been triggered by a recent episode of Veronica Mars (apologies for the spoiler, there...) and partly by the increasing accounts in my arch-nemesis, the Daily Mail, of women who, and I quote, 'cry rape'. That in itself is a problematic term - the implication is that, like the boy who cried wolf, the only real punishment is to rape her. I've heard people say that, people whose opinions I would normally trust, and it makes me spitting mad.

It's no secret that getting rape to even reach the courts is difficult, especially when the perpetrator was an acquaintance or when the victim was under the influence of drugs or alchohol. And it's no secret that even when a case is brought to the courts, the prosecution rate is disturbingly low.

I want to know on what grounds these women are seen to be 'crying rape'. Was the case dismissed because of lack of evidence, because it was her word against his? And no, I'm not discounting the idea that some women do falsify sexual abuse allegations. But the number of women who do that in no way equals the number of rape cases that go unpunished. In the most recent case - I'm not linking to the article I read, it's bad enough I even click on the damn webpage in order to get my sometimes daily free fix of what the other side are saying - the woman (who was 16 at the time) stuck to her story, although there were the occasional discrepancies.

I'm concerned that increasing prosecutions for women who are supposedly fabricating sexual assault will result in a significant drop in reported rapes. What's the point if you'll only be punished for telling the truth? For me, and perhaps this is a personal thing, one of the worst claims that can be made is that a woman had consensual sex only to change her mind afterwards. By 'afterwards', do we really mean 'during'? Or do so many women walk away from a sexual encounter feeling somehow wrong about it but reluctant to call it rape just because they decided at the last minute they didn't want to after all/didn't want to do a particular thing and got either verbally or physically coerced into it?

I know a lot of women who either wouldn't or haven't wanted to make a big deal out of it. And when the right-wing media jump on women whose claims have been unheard or whose cases have been unsuccessful, can we really blame them?

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