Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Training starts early

We've been watching a lot of new-millennium Doctor Who recently. Hey, this stuff is pretty frequently brilliant, you know? The Baronette, for reasons of a) employment and b) general good sense has been sticking to just Who proper, while out-of-work, no-sense me has been indulging additionally in the spinoffs--the self-consciously "adult" Torchwood and the for-kids Sarah Jane Adventures (RIP). At this point I've only made it through the first seasons of each, though we're on the third season of for-adults-really-but-kids-have-always-loved-it Who.

Anyway, the Whoniverse as a whole has always been pretty gentle. Torchwood pushes at that quite a bit (and often tries way too hard while it's at it), but there are far worse shows to grow up on than these. It's often violent and kid-scary (and, occasionally, verges on adult-scary), but the Doctor makes a point of never carrying weapons, and he respects life unless it unacceptably threatens other life, and occasionally drops some nice slogans.* And the whole thing has been pretty remarkably good in terms of women (regularly creating strong female characters who can think, frequently passing the Bechdel test without cheating, etc.), and race (though there are some slightly troubling patterns with its black characters, overall it's not too shabby--and it has a lot of them, relatively), and sexuality. In general, it is very seldom that I cringe while watching it, and when I do it's usually fairly minor things. Much better than you might expect from state TV**, in other words.

*Dalek Emperor: "What are you, Doctor? Killer or coward?"
The Doctor: "Coward. Every time."
That episode also contains the amazing line "You are tiny. I can see the whole of time and space, every single atom of your existence, and I divide them." Delivered brilliantly by the brilliant Billie Piper as the brilliant Rose Tyler.
**And there's a pair of words to chill the blood, am I right?

All of which makes it all the more...weird, when something goes icky. Like in the Torchwood episode where some startlingly vehement, and yet disturbingly casual, transphobia was put into the mouth of, of all characters, Captain Jack, the pansexual anything-goes-including-aliens open-minded man of the 51st century (though apparently I was the only person in the world bothered by that line--and no, I'm not linking to that After Elton post because I like it, but only because it starts with the quote I'm talking about).

Or like in the Sarah Jane Adventures episode I watched this morning that suddenly spewed out a prison rape joke:

It's the kind of thing that should be unbelievable. Sarah Jane is one of the gentlest characters in the entire gentle world of Doctor Who. It's in the middle of an episode with a decent, if a bit ham-handed, message about how awful it is to train young children for violence. And yet right here in the middle of this show for children, the threat of imprisonment and violence is treated lightly, as if it were funny. Unfortunately, it's not unbelievable. Because, you see, we all have to be trained from a very young age to lack all empathy, to separate humanity into good and bad, and to think that punishing the bad part is not only acceptable, but good, and not only good, but funny. What better way than by casually sticking this kind of thing into a show purportedly against violence?

I'm not saying that the episode's writer, Phil Gladwin, plotted and schemed his way to to sticking this line in. But as far as I can tell there's only two kinds of minds that could think a line like that is appropriate in any context, or, for the love of god, necessary in a fucking children's show*. The first is the kind that does have a deliberate interest in training empathy out of children so as to maintain the status quo. The second is the kind that has been so socialized that it does this unconsciously. In some ways it's almost worse that Gladwin is far more likely to be the second kind. It's in this way that this murderous culture of ours maintains itself.

*And I am most emphatically not one to be all "but think of the children." I think children can be trusted to handle far more than we usually let them. And I don't think they should be protected from information and knowledge about either sex or violence, since those are both integral parts of the reality they live in (one a much much better part than the other, of course). But it's exactly these kinds of messages that slip past the conscious level and become a sort of background radiation of what-we-think-is-acceptable, until it gets to the point where we have a whole society of what used to be human beings who can't be bothered to stop laughing uproariously at goddamn prison rape, let alone do anything to stop it.

A year and a half before that episode originally aired, there had apparently been a minor controversy about a Who episode that had a brief, throwaway, fairly subtle joke about oral sex between consenting adults. To my knowledge (and to google's, as far as I can tell), there was no such outcry about this.

To anyone who doesn't understand, or doesn't believe in, the concept of the rape culture: voilà.


JM said...

Shit, I like the recent Who and haven't seen Sarah Jane or Torchwood. guess I'll pass on those.

Christopher M. said...

Oof. Ethan, Doctor Who is not, and never has been, "gentle." It's a show in which a human-seeming character repeatedly rushes in to defend the earth - which is to say, humans; which is to say, the audience; which is to say, the overwhelmingly white Anglo-American audience - from alien "monsters," which is to say, the Other, which is to say, nasty violent foreigners of malevolent intent. Its main character is often presented in the superficial trappings of a kind of counterculture, yes, but he's anything but: his purpose is to defend the status quo against outsiders, and to do so with the ultimate tool of the status quo, violence - even to the point of extermination and genocide (hell, the new series starts with the Doctor just having committed genocide twice! But don't worry, kids, he had a really good reason!)

Against the backdrop of the paranoid, violent xenophobia, there's the nationalism and imperialism. In the world of Doctor Who, it's been established that humans eventually go on to conquer a vast empire of their own - no different, really, from the rubber-monster conquerors the Doctor fights off every week, except that "we," of course, are the good guys.

The moral backwardsness of the show, when acknowledged, is often put down to its origin as a kids' show... but I think you'll find few kids' shows as eager to teach violence and fear of the other as this one.

Ethan said...

JM: Weeeeell, the SJA prison rape bit is a very very quick little throwaway and it really is the only objection I've had to the show so far, aside from its general Goosebumpsiness (though it's better than Goosebumps by miles and miles). Overall it's a decent show, with a few really exceptional episodes ("Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?" in particular is beautiful). Torchwood is more problematic (though again the bit I pointed out was really exceptionally awful in the overall context of the show), and in the first series not all that good to boot, but it has its interesting moments and I'm told it got better. Make of it what you will, but I really was pointing these things out because they were out of character, to show how insidious these notions are.

Christopher M.: Ah, well, there's that, too. I think there's enough complexity--and enough inconsistency--to the show, especially over its entire 50-odd year history, to make it almost like a rorschach test (keeping in mind that rorschach tests are silly frauds, mind you). I mean, for every Great and Bountiful Human Empire, there's an episode about how the British are ruthless murdering imperialists invading Scotland, say, or the very core nature of civilization itself being presented as the act of violence that it is. Or, to go back to the new series, there's Harriet Jones's decision to destroy the retreating Sycorax, treated as unutterable evil, or Torchwood's efforts to create a new British Empire, which the audience is supposed to think is ominous at best.

It's true that Who is generally guilty of the whole "if it looks ugly or just different, it's evil" syndrome, and really overall you're probably way more right than I am, but...well. I just like it, OK? Heh.

By the way, your construction of violence as "the ultimate weapon of the status quo" is something I'll probably have a lot more to say about soon, but for now I'll just say that I think it's far more complicated than that. Resistance is not the same thing as invasion.

Justin said...

"By the way, your construction of violence as "the ultimate weapon of the status quo" is something I'll probably have a lot more to say about soon, but for now I'll just say that I think it's far more complicated than that. Resistance is not the same thing as invasion."

I am trying to synthesize my thoughts on this subject so they are more coherent for others, but on this point, I think I finally have it nailed down.

I distinguish between two types of conflict. The first are conflicts whose settlement is based on physical confrontation, and predicated on fight or flight responses.

The second are conflicts of will, and should be predicated on voluntary participation or non-participation if we can all agree to pretend that we are truly equals.

Much of our world is structured around settling contests of will with physical fights. Even when the physical fight is just implicitly implied, such as depriving someone of income if they do not comply with a practice they do not agree with. (And those fights frequently escalate into actual physical fights, send in the Pinkertons.)

My point of view is that when someone tries to use their strength to settle contests of will as a matter of physical fight, then you have to do what you can to survive that, but you don't accept the premise they are trying to set. In that sense, whether you win or lose the fight, you have lost the war.

That doesn't mean you don't fight back for your survival, but you can't consider the matter resolved until they agree to discuss things as equals. That means you don't hold grudges, even when they do shit that is unacceptable, because you don't accept the premise that any fight at all was an acceptable medium to resolve the dispute. Such as when the strike breaks, and management renegotiates terms.

In this sense, I am a pacifist who is willing to use violence in self-defense. I am willing to fight now to win or lose another day.

Quin said...

Hey Ethan-- not to play "prison rape apologist" or anything, but I honestly don't see that the Sarah Jane moment is specifically about prison rape. And even if it is, it's debatable that it's meant to be funny-- Elisabeth Sladen certainly wasn't playing it for laughs, though I guess the other actor was trying for comedy with his response.

That said, I guess it's possible that I've so internalized the normalcy of prison rape humor it's not even appearing on my radar when it's directly pointed out to me. I have been being educated by television for a long time, after all!

And 100% with you on the trans-phobia.

I guess you've already committed yourself to watching the rest of Torchwood, but I gotta warn you-- it's pretty tough going until the 3rd season. When all of a sudden the quality improves so much as to seem like a completely different show. If I had it to do over again, I would rather I had just watched the pilot, then reduced the remaining 23 hours of my life it took to watch the first two seasons to 15 minutes of reading season recaps on Wikipedia. There are a (very) few good ideas in there here and there, but they're almost uniformly ruined by the awful execution. Life's too rich to waste on bad TV. Heck, it's too rich to waste on good TV, but we all have our vices...

BDR said...

I've never watched in whatever version, but Planet LOVES it and watches it all the time. I don't know if it means anything, but it is by far the most cacaphonous show I've ever heard.

Hope you post some stuff you like from the Jensen you're reading.

Also, I think your spam word just propositioned me.

Ethan said...

Justin--I admit I haven't read your recent massive posts yet--a bit much for me to computer-read with my limited attention span. I thought I might print up the last batch at some point and read them off-line, at which point I might have more to say. Anyway, like I said, I should be discussing violence soon, but it seems like the broad outlines match up with my recent views fairly well.

Quin--I thought about putting something about doubting it even was a prison rape joke in the post, and you're right that it's not explicit by any means. But I'm not aware of any other meaning for the fairly standard phrasing "Men like you don't do well in prison." Particularly because the man was accused of a crime related to children, which in other popular culture artifacts (particularly the various Law and Orders and other procedurals) tends to be tied pretty explicitly to what is considered a just punishment of rape in prison. So I'm pretty sure it's about prison rape. Calling it a "joke" is more of an iffy judgment call, but between the guy's face (like you mention) and the "all right all right all right" it plays like a joke to me regardless of Sladen's delivery.

Thanks for the Torchwood advice, and I have a feeling I'm going to agree with you, but as you guessed I'm not going to take it, haha. As you say, we all have our vices.

BDR: Cacaphonous, huh? Certainly true at times, and the combination of that, the fast-talking, the broad spectrum of accents, and the abysmal-as-ever British television sound design makes it awfully difficult to follow the dialogue at times. Worth it.

I will be posting at least quotes from the Jensen (I have about ten or fifteen page numbers written down for that purpose), and hope to be discussing at least some of them. The violence stuff I keep mentioning is part of that.

I apologize for the impertinent behavior of my spam words.

Anonymous said...


Skinners aren't raped in prison. They are mutilated. Ears cut off. Faces notched. Noses cut. Or they're put to death.


Ethan said...


Anonymous said...

Statistically, it is young inmates who are raped, not any particular class of offenders. It's not punitive, in the same way as treatment dealt to skinners, child killers and child abusers is expressly punitive.

Prison rape follows the same basic patterns as other categories of rape. A disparate power relationship is established by sexual violation.

When it comes to skinners and other offenders against children, the prison population doesn't react by attempting to create an unequal power relationship. It reacts by trying to maim and kill, which is why so many offenders against children serve out their sentences in protective custody.


Ethan said...

J, I was talking about jokes on TV, not the reality of prisons. The jokes on TV tend to be about rape, which is why I focused on rape in the post, though it is I guess possible that here it was just a more general threat of intense violence of any kind, in which case my larger point (summed up in the post title) still stands.

Also, just fyi, the guy in the episode's actual crime was kidnapping teenagers and sending them to another planet to fight a war for the benefit of a race of like praying mantis things in evening wear, not sure what the stats are on how that kind of offender is treated in prison.

Also: "skinner"? Even google barely knows what that means.

Jack Crow said...


Sorry. That was me, posting from my son's lap top. I'm breaking my self imposed dickheadedness because I unfortunately have some experience in the field (amateur), working with guys who experienced it while in prison (as a male rape victim, I'd occasionally speak with men about my own story).

I didn't mean to imply that the joke isn't routinely construed precisely to assert the content above. Just that it's inaccurate. The prison rape dynamic is far more insidious, in fact. And illustrates rape culture in full: it is about gender, masculinity, power and domination:

According to Daniel Lockwood (1978), there are "aggressors" for prison sexual assault, and there are "targets," otherwise known as "Fags" (natural homosexuals), "Queens" (flaunting transsexual), "Kids" (submissive, young sex-slaves), or "Punks" (resistant males that put up a fight at first but who eventually submits). Target-prisoners are "physically slight, young, white," and generally "nonviolent," often experiencing higher rates of psychological distress and attempted suicide in prison. Criminal history is otherwise very similar to non-targets. Target inmates are first victimized early in their sentences, usually within 16 weeks of initial confinement. When a target is raped on the first or second day of his sentence, there is a high possibility that he will become a sex-slave in the long-term, a process referred to as "turning out" an inmate.

Physical appearance is essential in determining the target of a rape, as it is often used as a yardstick for assessing how "successful" a rape attempt will be. In all cases, the younger, smaller-built inmates are targeted more easily, or those appearing most feminine. White inmates are targeted more than Blacks, because race is used a method of rationalizing one's violent domination, as in the case of minority-cultured inmates who feel that their oppression should become someone else's. In addition, there is greater solidarity among racial minorities in prison than there is among White majorities, meaning that Blacks, Hispanics, and Chicanos, for example, will "look out for their own" more often than Whites will.

Targets can often provoke violence preceding or during the commission of the rape by engaging in behaviours characteristic of "victim-precipitated homicide." In this case, targets rationalize their resistance by arguing that they are not homosexual, and prefer to appear "tough" or masculine. Many targets are repulsed at the thought of homosexual intercourse, while at the same time believe there are few acceptable options at their disposal. Following rapes, psychological crises are common in about 30% of victims. These include suicidal thoughts, anxiety, fear, depression, hopelessness, extreme suspicion, and isolation. There is also a fear of being stigmatized by other inmates as homosexual. Some targets adapt by joining "cliques," for purposes of protection, solidarity, and comfort.

A "skinner" is someone convicted of a "skin crime." I don't know if it's a term in wide use nationally, but both a room mate and a neighbor were prison guards, and that's how they referred to people convicted of sex, or skin, crimes.

[Sorry I didn't sign it "Jack," at first. My second appt today was canceled, I came back home sooner than I thought. I didn't want to give a false impression, since my password protected name obviously links to my der guegler account. Again, sorry. Wasn't trying to deceive.]

Justin said...

Ethan, if you could wait just a bit.
I am organizing/revising. Then I am going to get a table of contents together to organize my thoughts. I also need to clarify a lot of my terms, I was playing so fast and loose that I need to revise heavily.

I should have it within the week.

JM said...

My question regarding both Dr. Who and Derrick Jensen is how can you enjoy a fantasy show after reading the giant tome of rather nilihistic rants against civilization. I mean, the author detests hope, isn't that one of things needed to rip it all up and start again?

Christopher: I agree with Ethan. For every churchill episode, there's one lambasting upper class Italian royalty for being vampires or one that celebrates the talent of a rural, desperate Van Gogh.

Richard said...

Weird, Jenny. Your reference to "hope" indicates some actual familiarity with Jensen's works, yet your spelling-challenged characterization of them as "nilihistic rants" implies otherwise. What's a reader to conclude?