This post originally appeared in four parts on the feminist Doctor Who site, Doctor Her, from March to April 2012
Getting into Sharon’s Head
Doctor Who Weekly, latterly Doctor Who Magazine, was launched in 1979 offering comic strips, short fiction, posters and information about the show. Due to licensing problems not all the television characters could be included in its stories. New sidekicks were developed instead – and so started a separate genealogy of companions from the ones we’ve seen on screen.
Take Sharon, for instance. Twenty five years before Mickey Smith stepped foot on the TARDIS, Sharon was introduced in the comics as the first ongoing Black British companion.
She joined the Fourth Doctor in Doctor Who and the Star Beast, as an eighties teenager who finds an injured alien on her way home from school. The setting is Blackcastle: an English city of terraced streets, steel mills, and union disputes.
Incorporating a companion of colour, from an industrial town, was a departure for Doctor Who. Sharon was originally devised by Pat Mills, who in addition to creating the science fiction comic 2000 AD, had recently been working on Grange Hill spin-off comics. For the uninitiated, Grange Hill was a children’s TV series that aired on the BBC from 1978 to 2008. The school-set drama was popular in Britain for its realist approach and issue-led storylines. It also portrayed an array of working class characters; quite a rarity for seventies children’s programming. I raise this because Mills has since clarified that he wrote Sharon as a “Grange Hill type character,” which I take to mean a mildly irreverent school child with a background that would be recognisable to city dwelling, working class readers.
I have mixed feelings as to how successfully her personality is conveyed. Sharon has a pleasing affability, and phlegmatism, that offsets the cartoonishness of the villains. Admittedly she doesn’t always do a great deal, because she’s primarily a place holder for confused readers. So she asks questions—frequently—which give the Doctor a chance to explain what’s going on. But her youth makes this reactivity credible, and she does still get to save the day on at least one occasion.
On balance I like her. Yet from a feminist perspective, her storyline is marred by problems pertaining to the treatment of race, gender, and childhood. If you’re the sort who likes to avoid spoilers, this is where you should bow out.
Sharon appears in six comic strip stories, originally published between 1980 and 1981 (they were subsequently coloured and reissued in the Doctor Who Classics series): Doctor Who and the Star Beast, Doctor Who and the Dogs of Doom, Doctor Who and the Time Witch, Dragon’s Claw, The Collector, and Dreamers of Death. Her travels with the Doctor are initially accidental – but once on board, she’s in no hurry to get back, and the TARDIS doesn’t oblige the Doctor’s efforts to return her home. Near the end of her run, the Doctor’s attempts to mend a fault in the TARDIS instantaneously age Sharon by four years, propelling her into adulthood. Need I add, her clothing becomes considerably clingier in the process? Soon afterwards she disembarks at Unicepter IV, a farming world, to marry a man called Vernor Allen. She never returns to Earth.
Now throughout this, Sharon’s racial identity is scarcely mentioned. For the period, it is quite refreshing that her race should be incidental to the plot: she simply gets to have adventures. But choices about the wider cast of characters continue to imply that whiteness is the norm. Until the end of her storyline, Sharon doesn’t encounter one other black character. We never see her family, and this isn’t just a narrative aversion to domesticity, because we do see the home and family of Sharon’s white best friend. The other residents of Blackcastle are white, as are all the people Sharon encounters while travelling with the Doctor–excepting the characters in Dragon’s Claw, which is set in China. When Vernor, a second black character is finally incorporated—again, seemingly the sole black person in his community—Sharon announces her intentions for a “new life” with him almost immediately. (Yes, this does rather foreshadow the sudden and inappropriate pairing of Mickey and Martha).
It is not that their attraction is unbelievable. Vernor is handsome and personable. If there were more characters of colour throughout the comic, their relationship would be framed differently. As it stands, it is hard not to feel that Sharon’s departure with the only other black character is a reassurance that the comics will in the long term remain a white space.
Such a wince-inducing exit seems partly motivated by authorial discomfort. Half way through Sharon’s storyline, Steve Moore took over writing duties from Pat Mills. During a subsequent interview Moore stated some of the thinking behind her departure:
I inherited her, and I didn’t like her at all! To me, being a young girl rather than a grown-up assistant, that said ‘kids’ story’, and I really wasn’t interested in writing for kids. I just wanted to do well-wrought SF stories, where the invention would appeal to all ages, and besides that, I wasn’t sure I could really get into the head of a young black girl in order to write the character properly. So I just wanted to get rid of her, right from the start… but it’s a bit difficult to ‘safely dispose’ of a child character, as this certainly wasn’t the sort of series where I could have got her killed. So the first part of the process was to have her grow up… then when the readers had got used to that, I could find a legitimate reason to remove her… Having made her an adult, marrying her off was the quickest and simplest way of getting her out of there and still leaving everybody happy. Not that I have any objection to female characters (I’ve written quite a lot of them), but I just didn’t take to Sharon, and I was much more interested in doing stories about ideas, rather than the characters.
I have some sympathy with worrying about “getting into the head” of a character if the writer fears appropriating experiences. That is clearly not what is going on here (and I’m disappointed, because I enjoy other aspects of Steve Moore’s stories). Sharon gets a very raw deal: her two options for development are, apparently, death or marriage as the quickest means of getting her out of the way.
To be clear, I have no problems with companions getting married if it makes sense in terms of their character development. I do have a problem with treating marriage as the default outcome for a female companion, which Sharon’s exit smacks of. The marriage becomes doubly problematic because, experientially, Sharon is not an adult.
The use of the accelerated aging trope is irritating. It might have been cool to see Sharon at different life stages if this had been differently handled. But the effect of rapid aging on Sharon’s personality and emotional development is barely explored. The implication is that female adulthood is just a physical category: experience and identity are ignored. This aligns rather neatly with sociocultural representations of women as children in adult bodies, and with attempts to racially other people by infantilising them.
Although I was annoyed I’d hoped, on first reading, that her transformation was catering to child readers’ fantasies of suddenly possessing adult power. I still hope it had that effect for some readers. Unfortunately the above quote shows that wasn’t the intention, because the rationale is entirely focused on adult centric priorities. The reluctance to write a “kids’ story” might not seem strange if you’re only familiar with these stories through the Classics reissue. If you’re looking at the originals, it sounds bizarre. The letters page, and the rest of DWW/DWM content, make it very clear this is a children’s publication. Even acknowledging that there was an adult readership, why does appealing “to all ages” necessitate writing only about adults? Every one of us was once a child. It concerns me that this is simply reflective of an attitude that adult interests must always be prioritised above children’s: even in cultural forms that allegedly belong to childhood.
Despite all these reservations, the gaps in Sharon’s characterisation and history intrigue me. Just what was that family on Earth like if she was she so happy to leave them behind—and to do so at such a young age? What sort of person elopes with blithe insouciance, without at least letting her family know that she is alive and well? Someone should get into Sharon’s head. She seems ripe for reinvention to me.
Can Frobisher Lay an Egg?
One of the delights of Doctor Who comics is that they offer different creative opportunities from television. In 1984, Doctor Who Magazine introduced Frobisher: an alien companion who seemed tailor-made for the format. He belongs to a shape-shifting species, and habitually assumes the form of a wise-cracking penguin. Perhaps the TV programme could have rendered his characteristics well, but I doubt it, given the show’s record of dubious special effects. In the strips Frobisher becomes a very effective source of irony and visual gags. More covertly, his shape-shifting also raises interesting questions about the comics’ treatment of gender.
Frobisher features in forty-eight issues between 1984 and 1987, as a regular companion to the sixth and, briefly, the seventh Doctor. Occasionally he crops up in later comics, prose fiction and Big Finish audio stories too.
Like many companions, he has a life he wants to leave behind. At the outset he is a jaded gumshoe, working under his original name of Avan Tarklu. He intends to capture the Doctor and claim a substantial reward. Of course they end up travelling together instead. En route Tarklu adopts his new moniker and hints at the recent failure of his marriage. Although Peri accompanies them on several adventures, much of the time the Doctor and Frobisher travel alone, providing a rare instance of a long term male-male pairing in the TARDIS. Their interactions are fun, yet bring a few depressing implications; Frobisher’s friendship with the Doctor is closer to a buddy story than the father/child dynamic we normally see with female companions.
But is Frobisher male? I want to consider that more closely.
Over three years of strips, Frobisher metamorphosises into forms as varied as telephones and hamburgers, human beings and birds. He also periodically acquires a disease called monomorphia, where he is no longer able to change his form at will. Throughout these many transformations, Frobisher is framed as a male character. His gender identification is by no means clear from the dialogue (my suspicion is that the authors didn’t distinguish between identification and presentation in their thinking). But we are led to read him as male. When Frobisher wears clothing, it is always normatively masculine clothing. If he appears in humanoid form, he tends to adopt roles – like the gumshoe – that are culturally marked as masculine roles. And even when these markers are absent, the Doctor, and all the other characters, consistently refer to Frobisher as “him” and “he.”
Big Finish would later be willing to confront the possibility of shape-shifters changing gender; Frobisher’s wife Francine, for instance, temporarily presents as a man in The Maltese Penguin. The comics shy away from this idea. I suspect the authors were trying, with partial success, to uphold the gender binary. Categorising Frobisher as male within that binary is a conservative act: the majority of characters from the mid-eighties comics are also framed as male, with the implication that female characters are less interesting, compelling, or important. But the act is not wholly conservative. Consistently assigning one gender to a shape-shifting character has subversive potential, in queering associations between assigned gender and morphology.
The relative silence on Frobisher’s gender identification, rather than assigned gender, also gives us some freedom of interpretation. As a demonstration I want to look closely at a particular incident in the story Time Bomb, which was first published in issues 114 to 116 of Doctor Who Magazine. The story relates how a time cannon hits the TARDIS, propelling Frobisher and the Doctor into prehistoric Earth. Previously the cannon has been used by aliens called Hedrons to eliminate genetic imperfections in their species. The genetic waste is transported alongside Frobisher, and on arrival, he mistakes it for an egg he has laid in shock.
As a joke, this sequence makes me uneasy. The humour is premised on combined misogynist, ablist and transphobic assumptions (“Haha, childbirth is like incontinence! Haha, you can’t be male and give birth!”). But there is plenty of potential for resistant readings. It interests me that online references to the incident, like this one, suggest that Frobisher has misunderstood penguin physiology, as though his shape-shifting is a type of impersonation that can be held up to an external standard of accuracy. Can’t we instead wonder whether Frobisher identifies as male at all? Perhaps Frobisher doesn’t even present as male here, if we take that to mean appearing normatively masculine; as cartoon penguins go, Frobisher looks androgynous to me. Assuming Frobisher does identify as male, maybe his reaction is a sign he construes a fluid relationship between gender and physiology? Perhaps he knows he can lay eggs, even if he hasn’t this time? Might his understanding of what it means to be male encompass that capacity? Alternatively, perhaps laying an egg is incompatible with his gender identity, and the anger and anxiety he shows here is an expression of dysphoria? Certainly Frobisher has lots of moments of feeling trapped in a body that he wants to change.
Ideally, it wouldn’t be necessary to address unsatisfactory representations with resistant readings. I hope in later posts to discuss less problematic portrayals of queer characters.
But in the mean time: all the above questions make as much sense as Frobisher not understanding how penguins work; and they can be accommodated just as easily by the text.
The Coming Out of Izzy Sinclair
The Eighth Doctor’s arrival kickstarts an exciting period in Doctor Who Magazine. Old patterns are disrupted. This Doctor is fallible in ways that would have been unthinkable during the comic’s early days. We get numerous female companions with proper character arcs. And we begin to see slightly more space given to the characters’ sexuality. No doubt there’s a post to be written about the Doctor’s transition, in this incarnation, from asexual alien to half-human, heterosexual romantic. But for now, I want to focus on Izzy Sinclair—the Doctor’s companion from 1996 to 2003.
Izzy has geekish interests. She enters the story as a science-fiction-obsessed teenager from Hampshire, in England. After helping the Doctor fight off the Celestial Toymaker she eagerly accepts an invitation to join him in the TARDIS. Her presence makes the stories more knowing and intertextual: her speech is smattered with allusions to Star Trek, the X-Files, Iain Banks and Lovecraft. The pop culture references haven’t all dated well but serve a purpose for her character. Namely that, because she brings her own expectations of space and time travel, she is not a passive sounding board for the Doctor’s exposition. (This was definitely a problem with earlier female companions—I’m looking at you, Sharon).
However, Izzy hints that her SF love only partially accounts for running away with the Doctor. She is also trying to escape a range of identity issues which can no longer be ignored in her home life. These include her resentment at discovering she was adopted as a baby. Less explicitly, her closeness to a fellow TARDIS companion, Fey Truscott-Sade, demonstrates an unspoken attraction to women. Although Izzy intends to return to her family eventually, her plans are thwarted when, against her will, she swaps bodies with a genetically modified alien named Destrii. Izzy must adapt to living in a part human, part fish body, and is certain that her changed appearance will attract fear and hostility on Earth. (To be cynical for a moment, her figure still complies closely with the norm for comic book women. In fact her new swimming prowess grants lots of opportunities for looking at her breasts).
Gradually she comes to terms with her changed form. She continues to believe she will be rejected on Earth, and accepts she will not return home. It takes several stories, across a period of months, for her to reach this acceptance. Nevertheless Destrii turns up again and Izzy is happy to return to her original physical self. Restored to her own body, Izzy acknowledges her attraction to Fey by kissing her. A few panels later, she tells the Doctor she is ready to go home. He drops her off, hugs her goodbye, and she is reunited with her mother.
As a denouement to seven years in the TARDIS these final scenes are poignant. Izzy, unlike many of the eighties’ comic companions, gets a satisfying exit that resonates with her character development. However, there are a few problematic aspects to highlight in her storyline.
Although Fay and Izzy’s relationship has a sexual subtext long before they kiss, the allusions are veiled. Whisking Izzy home as soon as her orientation is acknowledged brings her into line with a wider cultural pattern, in which lesbian, gay and bisexual characters tend to be limited to coming out stories.
Additionally, Izzy’s bodily transformations are a problematic metaphor for the numerous ways in which she feels “different.” By endowing her with an alien form, the body swap literalises her sense of feeling alien in her family as an adopted daughter, and in society as a woman who is attracted to women. (There is also a brief attempt, in the 2001 story The Way of All Flesh, to draw parallels between her transformation and acquired disability.) What then are we to make of her regaining her old body? Anticipating hostility on Earth because of an alien appearance is a realistic fear; but it is solved in the story by simply swapping back again. Obviously this is a troubling “solution” when alien embodiment is positioned as a symbol for being gay or disabled.
My suspicion is that nervousness about presenting openly LGBT characters prompted this use of alien embodiment as a metaphor. Some of the artwork also panders to readers who might feel threatened by attempts to diversify Doctor Who’s range of characters. For instance, the body swap not only coincides with Izzy’s most intense attempts to accept herself, but with a sexualisation of her appearance, as though to assuage an implied heterosexual, male reader who might otherwise feel disturbed he has no place in the story. He gets to ogle her, and accordingly she is less threatening.
Before her transformation, Izzy already complies fairly closely with conventional beauty standards—she is white, slim, and youthful. Still, the way she is drawn doesn’t objectify her. Her clothing is recognisably high street garb, she seems to dress for practicality, and her posture is naturalistic. After her transformation, you see a lot more flesh, and not in a particularly sex positive way; she frequently becomes an object for looking at. (It doesn’t help that Destrii isn’t presented in a sex positive way either: she is more forthright about her desires than Izzy, but she is also presented as manipulative and emotionally damaged. Her character development, which is genuinely compelling, sometimes strays towards pathologising her sexual behaviour).
So much for my misgivings about the way Izzy’s sexuality is handled. This isn’t to minimise the importance of showing a same sex kiss in the TARDIS. I’m sure, too, that Izzy’s success as a companion—because she is a great companion—made introducing openly LGBT characters more feasible for the revived television programme.
Miranda, the Doctor’s Daughter
This post contains spoilers for Lance Parkin’s novel Father Time and the comic Miranda.
How might the adventures of a Time Lady differ from the Doctor’s? One answer to this question is offered by Miranda (2003), a comic devoted to the Doctor’s daughter.
My previous three posts focused on companions in Doctor Who Magazine. Miranda is a very different kettle of fish. The publication was launched independently, marketed at Buffy fans, and unlike the long-running DWM, expired before its fourth issue. (The reasons remain unclear, but this statement from publisher David Whittam suggests the cause may have been lack of funds). So the following critique comes with caveats. Miranda is an unfinished story, and can’t be judged in its entirety. Still, its relationship to Doctor Who raises some interesting questions from a feminist perspective.
The character Miranda was originally developed for Lance Parkin’s book Father Time (2001). I want to devote some attention to Father Time for contextual reasons. This well-written, unsettling, novel describes the Eighth Doctor adopting Miranda—a little girl with two hearts—and raising her on Earth. Although she is brought up to believe she is human, the Doctor knows that her birth father was a tyrannical Time Lord who was murdered in an uprising while she was still a baby. There are hints, never confirmed, that the tyrant may be a future regeneration of the Doctor. Until Miranda’s teens, she is unaware that she is both heiress to the universe and an assassination target for her father’s former slaves. In the mean time the Doctor does his utmost to keep her in material comfort, primarily by becoming a millionaire entrepreneur. He also articulates a depth of feeling for her that we rarely see expressed towards companions. Parkin describes the inspiration for the book as follows:
The Doctor can do all these fantastical things, but he’s not quite a full human being, he’s not quite emotionally literate. As I’ve said before, when I’m writing a Doctor Who book, I think of the most absurd non-Who like idea that I can, and try to get it to work. And the idea here was an image of the Doctor hugging a young girl, and saying ‘you’re my daughter, and I’ll always love you.’ It’s just not the sort of thing he does. So how did he get there? I was really worried about Miranda stealing the limelight, but in the end she’s a wonderful mirror for the Doctor – she really helps define him.
Parkin overstates the incongruity of the Doctor as paternal figure; after all, the First Doctor was introduced as a grandfather. However I agree that a Doctor who commits to “always loving” his daughter feels unfamiliar, for reasons nicely explored by Tansy in her posts on domesticity. The scenario suggests a permanent bond, or a personal tie placed before his public, itinerent, adventurer role. That’s quite a far cry from the mentor-like, but temporary relationships he often forms with young companions.
As Parkin claims, Miranda is a “mirror” for the Doctor; she possesses the same abilities, the same mannerisms… and the same class privileges. The domestic setting gives a new emphasis to the Doctor’s economic independence. His ability to cosset Miranda derives from material riches that are unavailable to other people in the book. Many of Miranda’s reported thoughts express a sense of superiority over her friends. This self-regard is focused on her extraterrestrial levels of intelligence and physical strength, but there is a clear class dimension to a young rich girl feeling innately superior. It is interesting to note that, unlike many companions, Miranda is not offered as a point of identification for readers–even though much of the story is related from her point of view. Instead she comes very close to functioning as a female equivalent to the Doctor. And while his love for her is moving, as a pair they regularly feel alienating and exclusionary. It is intriguing that the Doctor becomes harder to like as he ostensibly becomes more human by putting Miranda first.
If Miranda ceases to be a “mirror” for the Doctor, it is in the treatment of her sexuality. As a teenager she veers between feeling asexual and attempting to fit in with her peers by mimicking their sexual behaviour. Her asexuality is not maintained into adulthood. Rather, her indifference to sex is presented as a temporary adolescent confusion. Worryingly, her first genuine desire is for her would-be alien assassin, Ferran. The attraction partly derives from recognising him as an equal with powers comparable to her own (powers which her human boyfriend does not possess). That might be all well and good without the threat of murder. It troubles me that Miranda’s lust for a man who can match her becomes entwined with lust for a man who wants to kill her. By contrast, the Doctor pursues a quasi-romantic relationship with at least one human woman, seemingly at ease with the inequalities in his favour. There is little challenge to the idea that men should dominate women within the context of heterosexual relationships.
In the comic, also written by Parkin, much of the story’s peril derives from threats of (implicitly sexual) violence to Miranda, which include Ferran’s attempt to coerce their marriage. This is curious as the comic, in theory, has a female-friendly goal. Unlike Father Time, where Miranda is included to illuminate our understanding of the Doctor, the comic makes Miranda the protagonist and doesn’t refer to the Doctor at all. Parkin stated in 2002 that the strip aimed to provide “stories with aliens and robots and fast-paced action, but with a strong female central character” .
Yet the comic’s artwork, combined with certain narrative choices, make Miranda seem much more vulnerable here than in Father Time. She enters the story as a newcomer to space, ignorant of her ancestry; this tried and tested trope for getting readers up to speed with an alien world removes many of the privileges she possessed on Earth. Her physical strength no longer seems exceptional, and she knows less than everybody else. A more vulnerable Miranda would be fine, but isn’t really explored in terms of her feelings or reactions—a feature I’m willing to give a pass because we only have three issues to assess here. We can’t know how her character would have developed.
Miranda’s visual presentation is more problematic. All three issues of the comic are attractively drawn with dynamic panel layouts, but Miranda’s posture sometimes borders on the Escher-like contortions that have become so familiar to comics readers over the past decade. More generally, she’s drawn for the implied male reader’s titillation. In issue two, for instance, Ferran attempts to spy on her in the bath, resulting in illustrations like these (click to enlarge the picture):
Her dialogue regularly opens an ironic gap between her thoughts and the image, but that just strikes me as an attempt to have your cake and eat it. See, for instance, her comments on an attractive male acquaintance, while the focus of the panel is clearly on her own body:
So to come back to the question I asked at the start of this post: how might the adventures of a Time Lady differ from the Doctor’s? On the basis of Miranda, the likelihood of being sexually objectified is a lot greater. How depressing. The comic has so much potential that isn’t realised, partly because of its untimely end. I can heartily recommend Father Time, though.
Originally this paper was given at the Childlore and the Folklore of Childhood Conference, University of Worcester, March 2011
This paper focuses on fans’ responses to the 60s-set TV drama Mad Men. I take social media platforms as my source material to examine speculations regarding the child character Sally Draper. I’m particularly interested in the idea that she will one day rebel against her mother by becoming an acolyte of Charles Manson. My analysis will show how such speculations have both a horizontal relationship with mass media discourses, and a vertical relationship with persecuted heroine tales. Folkloric constructions of girlhood, sexuality and violence thus converge with pop culture portrayals of Manson’s followers. The resultant narrative serves purposes that seem quite distinct from the programme’s own. First, Sally’s imagined future functions as a cautionary tale to mothers. Second, by foregrounding expressions of concern for Sally’s well-being, fans can voice ambivalence towards women’s social and political empowerment. Crucially, they can do that without attracting disapproval from other fans. In both cases, the future that fans propose for Sally provides an intriguing counterpoint to Mad Men’s thematic concern with gender and power.
I’ll begin by providing some contextual information, before going on to define my terms. In August 1969, a range of murders was orchestrated by a man called Charles Manson with the intent of aggravating racial tensions in the US. He claimed to have been inspired by the Beatles song Helter Skelter. At the time he was the leader of a commune in California known as “the Family” which would, retrospectively, become implicated in moral panics regarding Satanic cults. The killings were conducted by members of this commune, who were predominantly young women. Manson instructed five members known as Linda Kasabian, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkle, Leslie Van Houten, and Tex Watson to select murder victims at random. Most notoriously, they murdered the actress Sharon Tate, who was also the heavily pregnant wife of the director Roman Polanski. Manson, Atkins, Krenwinkle and Watson were all tried and convicted the following year, while remaining members of the Family shaved their heads and camped outside the courthouse. In the subsequent press coverage, female members of the Family were given the soubriquet of “Manson girls.” All of these events took place a little later than the period Mad Men is concerned with: to date, the programme has been set in the years 1960 to 1965. For those unfamiliar with the programme, it’s an American series set in a New York advertising agency. Three characters are of particular interest to us here: the philandering ad exec Don Draper, his isolated wife Betty, and most importantly Sally, who was introduced as their six year old daughter when the programme first aired in 2007. Throughout the first three seasons Sally is written and performed as a reactive character. Her role is to respond, albeit in compelling fashion, to the domestic strife of her parents. In the fourth, and most recent season, Sally’s distress at her parents’ divorce becomes the main focus in the Drapers’ domestic scenes. I provide this information for context, but as I hope will become clear, much of the material I’ll be examining takes the programme’s plotlines as little more than a point of departure.
Over the programme’s four year life span, a wide range of websites have emerged catering to audience interest in both plot developments and production. Their success has been in fostering communities of fans for whom online discussion becomes part of the weekly ritual of watching the show. I use the word “fan” to mean a person who has an ongoing affective relationship with a text, that is expressed in a community context. I borrow this definition from Jonathan Gray, who argues that fan material is paratextual in its simultaneous distinction from, and effects upon, the “main” text. The following analysis thus treats fan comments as a valuable paratext.2 Communities of fans3 may construct meanings that diverge widely from the programme’s apparent content. By eschewing the primacy of the “main” text we can examine fans’ commentary for what it reveals about wider sociocultural discourses, rather than judge particular perspectives as misinterpretations. This approach allows us to see how meaning is produced not only between the singular fan and text, but through the interaction of community members sharing cultural knowledge.
It was as a fan, rather than a scholar that I first noticed a trend in online commentary of predicting criminal futures for the programme’s child characters. For instance, fans would joke that Sally’s brother showed signs of becoming a burglar, or would argue that the neighbour’s son Glen exhibited the behaviour of a stalker. The most specific of these predictions focused on Sally, and the idea that she could become a Manson Girl. Two things furthered my interest. It seemed incongruous to me that the appellation was used with sympathy, or even approval given the brutality of the Manson murders. Additionally, it seemed such an outlandish suggestion, that I wondered whether my cultural position as a British fan had led me to miss a related subtext in the programme for Americans. For the purposes of this paper, and to determine what the phrase “Manson girl” signified in the context of online discussions about Sally, I created a corpus for analysis by the following means. I used three general search engines to identify any web content containing the string “sally” AND “draper” AND “manson.” Google, Yahoo and Bing returned a combined total of 120 results, which I then checked individually for any sentence connecting Sally’s future with the Manson murders. Duplications and false results were removed. Where the target sentence comprised a reply to preceding comments, or had been succeeded by further discussion, the full chain was categorised as a conversation and included for analysis.
This provided a corpus of forty-two separate conversations. The exchanges were dispersed across twenty eight different websites. Forty-two conversations represents a small proportion of the total online material concerned with Mad Men; yet the pattern of dispersal suggests that the Manson Girl image informs fans’ discussion on a wide range of platforms. There were three platform types. The first comprised blogs dedicated entirely to the Mad Men. The second comprised fan activities on social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter. The third comprised interactive subsections of news and entertainment sites. We might thus conclude that the Manson Girl comprises a marginal image only in the quantitative sense. Its presence on both high-profile and niche-interest platforms means it is very likely to be encountered by Mad Men fans who seek online discussion as one of the show’s pleasures.
All sentences in the corpus were coded. First, deductively: I noted whether the sentence referred to a character other than Sally; whether it referred to programme content; and whether it referred to extradiegetic people, places or events. Inductive coding was then used to record which characters, content and extradiegetic references had been made. Finally I used the coding table to extrapolate common features across conversations in the corpus. I will summarise the findings under the following headings: media resonances and folklore resonances. My conclusions will focus on what the effects of that convergence are.
Nearly three quarters of the comments were published between July and October 2010. This corresponds with the airing period for Mad Men’s fourth season on the American cable network AMC. Earlier, scattered references to Manson are dated from September 2009 onwards, corresponding to the latter episodes of Season Three. To some extent this pattern reflects changes in the programme’s treatment of Sally. At I mentioned at the beginning, Sally’s screentime increased substantially in Season Four, so we might expect to see her attract more attention in this period. There is not, however, anything in her Season Four storylines to account for the specificity of the Manson Girl image.
Pertinently, the same period saw a considerable media focus on the fortieth anniversary of the Manson Family’s most notorious crime. Factual programming (Dorsey), made-for-television movies (Rawles) and coverage in publications such as Newsweek (Watson) testified to a resurgence of media interest leading up to August 2009. The death of Susan Atkins on 27th September, ensured the Manson Girl was visible in news bulletins. And there were more insidious reminders between September and the following July, in news reports of Roman Polanski’s house arrest for unlawful sex with a thirteen year old girl. Over the same period, Youtube uploads including a reference to Charles Manson increased by sixty per cent. Within this interrelated discourse, Mad Men’s indications that Sally emotional damage from her upbringing are amplified into an imagined future where she is murderously violent.
The nature of those general indications is far from clear. Only 18 conversations in the corpus make any specific references to programme content. Three refer to Sally cutting her hair, and two refer to her masturbating in public. Another three comments refer to Betty’s alarmed reaction to Sally’s masturbation, she tells Sally that she will quote “cut her fingers off” unquote. The implication is that Sally will become a Manson Girl as a form of sexual rebellion. In each of these cases Sally’s links to Manson Girl media images are discernible but oblique. The most persuasive example of Sally’s incipient criminality is the very first fan comment in the sample, The incident is taken from a Season Three episode called The Fog. Betty and Don are told that Sally has physically attacked one of her classmates. A three-second shot of Sally with blood on her cheek interpolates the scene where her teacher describes the attack. The shot prompted this speculation from a fan: “We’re damned if we didn’t think we saw Sally’s blood-streaked face flash on the screen for an almost imperceptible moment… Nah… But hey, does the Manson Family have a minimum age for membership?” This shot is quite atypical of Mad Men’s cinematography; because it is full-face and taken in close up. The composition evokes mug shots and the “piece to camera” narrative techniques of documentary, as well as the bloody imagery favoured by a Macbeth-era Polanski. The same episode was concerned with Betty going into labour with her youngest child, and the depiction of her at her most heavily pregnant facilitates comparisons with Sharon Tate. There are thus thematic and stylistic reasons why fans might connect this image to the Manson Murders. Yet surprisingly, this plot point does not surface again in the rest of the corpus.
We may need to look for a less direct relationship between programme content and fans’ observations. Jeff Sconce observes that the United States’ fascination with Manson Girls is fuelled by twinned discourses of “hypersexualisation and infantilisation” (217). It therefore seems relevant that references to Manson Girls take off in web discussions during a period of increasing emphasis in the show on Sally’s resemblance to Betty. The resemblance is created through visual echoes in blocking, the performers’ shared mannerisms, and similarities in clothing; the clearest examples occur in the Season Four episodes Blowing Smoke and Tomorrowland, wherein Betty and Sally wear similar plaid cupcake dresses, and, in moments of distress, retreat to adopt similar poses on Sally’s bed. The similarities between them are not used solely to convey Sally’s maturation; they are also intended as a critique of gender politics. Mad Men’s head screenwriter, Matthew Weiner, argues that Betty’s frustration with her social role is closely related to an enculturated childishness. He suggests that the idealisation of a “child-woman” creates a double bind, whereby attaining ideal womanhood simultaneously curtails Betty’s autonomy. Despite Don’s complaints that Betty acts like a child, his interests are served by restricting her autonomy: he forbids certain clothing choices, discusses her therapy sessions with her psychiatrist without her permission, and benefits from her limited recourse to abortion and divorce. While Weiner presents Betty’s infantilisation as symptomatic of gendered power disparities, fans’ treatment of Sally as a Manson Girl deploys a fluid construction of girlhood that expresses, rather than interrogates, confused ideologies of gender and youth. For if Weiner emphasises Betty’s childlike qualities, the fans in my corpus imbue Sally’s childlike behaviors with a maturity she does not yet possess. Predicting Sally will become a Manson Girl is, in itself, an effacement of boundaries between the girl and the woman. If the programme goes on to cover the events of 1969, Sally will still be only fourteen, and several years younger than the adult women tried for Sharon Tate’s murder. The ease with which fans efface this boundary is no doubt influenced by the nature of the media attention given to Kiernan Shipka, the eleven year old actress who plays Sally. In May 2010, Interview magazine ran a photoshoot of Shipka alongside the teen actresses Chloë Grace Moretz and Nicola Peltz (Jansson). Dressed in haute couture and four inch heels, Shipka is posed to suggest a maturity beyond her years: unsmiling, semi-pouting. We might recall that this interview appeared when coverage of Polanski’s house arrest was at its peak: the rationale for his release frequently saw discourses around the sexualisation of children united with the Manson murders in a single, if complex, narrative.
In trying to understand the Manson Girl’s potency, media resonances have some explanatory power. But we are still left with a number of unanswered questions. Many of the comments are gleeful in their pronouncements that Sally will become a murderer, while claiming to be concerned for her well-being. Why should this be? In the next section I will consider recurrent structural and tonal features in the corpus, and their relationship to folklore.
Common elements across conversations in the corpus were: Don acting as a benevolent, but absent father; Betty ill-treating Sally; Sally fleeing to Woodstock or Haight Ashbury; Sally meeting Charles Manson; and Sally punishing Betty either by shaming or murdering her. These features can be related fruitfully to persecuted heroine tales such as Cinderella – much more fruitfully, it seems to me, than to the facts of the Manson murders, or contemporaneous plot developments in Mad Men, because the commentaries in the corpus play very fast and loose with both those areas of ostensible influence.
There are two characteristics of the corpus that I’d like to draw particular attention to. First, Manson is spoken of both as loving protector (i.e. a substitute for Cinderella’s prince), and as a supernatural aid (i.e., a substitute for the Fairy Godmother). The nature of aid is related to satan-worship. It is this category of comments that is most explicitly tongue in cheek: the commenters seem aware that this is unlikely to happen in the programme, and they find the incongruity amusing. However, Manson is an interesting substitution for Cinderella’s prince, whether or not he’s there as a joke: because he is simultaneously a figure of protest, patriarchy and deviance.
The idea of Sally as “shoeless” comes up repeatedly in the corpus, and this seems a useful example of a motif where both folkloric and pop culture resonances are implicated: it echoes media portrayals of the Manson Girl as “dirty hippies”, as well as Cinderella. Significantly, Sally remains unshod: the marriage that the shoes symbolises is absent from the corpus. The corpus deviates from the expected story development at this point because the punishment Sally exacts is partly comprised by sexual transgression. When commenters remark that Sally’s behaviour will “serve Betty right”, they veer between suggesting Betty will be killed by Sally, and suggesting Betty will be embarrassed by Sally’s perceived promiscuity.
But what purpose is served by conflating Sally Draper, Cinderella and the Manson Girl? I think part of the answer lies in the tonal characteristics of the corpus. Why are so many of the comments almost gleeful in their pronouncement that Sally could become a “mommy killer”, in the words of one commenter? Crucially, reconfiguring Sally and Betty’s storylines as a variant of Cinderella allows violence to be meted out towards Betty, while appearing to be on the side of the just. A different methodology would be needed to explore fan motivations, rather than just detect patterns, so this is a tentative hypothesis: but hostility towards Betty seems central to the appeal of imagining Sally as both persecuted heroine and murderer. Typically comments in the corpus omit Don’s actions, and dismiss Betty’s justified unhappiness as an individual shortcoming, rather than the product of gendered oppression. Foregrounding concern for Sally renders this dismissal defensible to fellow fans of a socio-politically liberal show. A show with, no less, explicit allegiances to second wave feminism.
Matt Weiner, has expressed incomprehension at the levels of hostility directed towards Betty. During a magazine interview he provided last autumn, he remarked:
The question of Betty Draper’s motherhood is very peculiar to me. Because we were all raised by women like this. And I know it’s easy to hate her and think she seems childish and impulsive. We’re all here because of women like that. We’ll see how those kids turn out. They could end up being TV writers. (Scholl)
The effect of Weiner’s comment is to distance speculations on Sally’s future from diegetic content and to emphasise their origins in a fan-generated paratext. But I wonder if he misjudges the positioning of his audience. Not all Mad Men’s fans were “raised by women like this”; Nielsen ratings indicate that the majority of fans are aged under fifty, and with regard to my corpus, we can assume some further skewing downwards because of the sites’ own demographic segmentation. If this is the case, rather than identifying with Sally, fans may be regulating expectations of mothers in their own generation. The most common criticism in the corpus levied at Betty, perhaps unexpectedly, is that Sally watches too much television – in fact, if we continue to read the fans’ account as a Cinderella story, the television seems to figure as a transmuted hearth. Repeatedly banishing your child to watch television may seem negligent parenting, but it scarcely seems to deserve capital punishment, especially if Weiner’s feeling Sally might be a TV writer bears out. The most obvious way to make sense of the fans’ extreme reaction is to treat it as a warning to disaffected mothers.
At the time of writing, it seems likely that further series of Mad Men will incorporate the reverberations of the Manson Murders, just as they have incorporated other iconic events of the 1960s – including the Cuban Missile Crisis and the assassination of John F Kennedy. But if Sally’s emotional turmoil is shown to develop into murderous aggression, the meaning made by fans will reflect their own ideological agendas. Certainly, the meanings currently invested in Sally’s future show a willingness to redeploy the motifs of both folklore and popular culture for the fans’ own purposes, quite independently of Weiner or AMC’s approval.
2. Gérard Genette’s work on “paratexts” is primarily concerned with authorised material at the threshold of texts. However media convergence has made the distinctions between authorised and audience-created material both less clear and less useful; I have therefore followed Gray (20) in regarding audience-created material as paratextual.
3. Though I use the term “viewers” here to make a general point, the rest of the paper will be specifically concerned with fans. This restriction arose from an inductive approach to the material. Audiences can, of course, include passive and even actively hostile viewers. However, tonally, all of the online references to Sally as Manson Girl suggested a certain investment in her character, and appeared to be made from a position of fan engagement.
4. Both Lynette Fromme and Susan Atkins were members of the Manson Family. Fromme, who was also known by the alias “Squeaky”, was not charged for the murder of Tate and the LaBiancas, but was later convicted for an assassination attempt on President Gerald Ford. Atkins was an unsuccessful defendant in the Tate/LaBianca trial. She remained in prison until her death of natural causes.
5. The Tragedy of Macbeth was the first film Polanski directed after the Manson Family’s murder of his wife Sharon Tate. On its release the critic Pauline Kael drew comparisons between the violent death of Lady MacDuff and Tate’s death; she later commented, “The movie that shocked me the most deeply, the one I really could barely deal with in print was Polanski’s Macbeth. The murder of Lady Macduff, the torn bodies scattered around, the pieces of children’s bodies, like a chicken yard, the knives constantly going into flesh had me shaking afterward.” (31).
“Adrastos”. “Mad Men Thread: It’s a motorcycle with doors.” [Post]. First Draft. [Weblog]. 24 Aug. 2010. Web. 18 Dec. 2010. <http://www.first-draft.com/2010/08/mad-men-thread-its-a-motorcycle-with-doors.html>
___ “Mad Men Open Thread: Christmas In August”. [Post]. First Draft. [Weblog]. 3 Aug. 2010. Web. 18 Dec. 2010. <http://www.first-draft.com/2010/08/mad-men-open-thread-christmas-in-august.html>
“Bluebonnet”. “I wish…” [Forum comment]. 24 Aug. 2010. Mad Men. [Forum thread]. 28 Jul. 2008. Gossip Rocks. [Forum]. Web. 18 Dec. 2010. < http://www.gossiprocks.com/forum/television-movies/mad-men-page44-77721.html#post2222899>
Collins, Jane. “Man Men: Pitch Dark But Not Pitch Perfect.” The Flaming Nose TV Blog 8 Sep. 2009. Web. 18 Dec. 2010.
Faith, Karlene. The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten: Life Beyond the Cult. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 2001. Print.
Genette, Gérard. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Print.
Gray, Jonathan. Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers and Other Media Paratexts. New York: New York University Press, 2010. Print.
“insomniac506”. “Well firstly…” [Weblog comment]. 9 Sep. 2010. Mad Men: Season Four Episode One. [Post.] Will Dean. Notes from the Breakroom. [Weblog]. The Guardian. 8 Sep. 2010. Web. 18 Dec. 2010. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/tvandradioblog/2010/sep/08/man-men-season-four-episode-one?showallcomments=true#comment-7609522>
___ “And so…” [Weblog comment]. 1 Dec. 2010. Mad Men: Season Four Episode Thirteen. [Post.] Will Dean. Notes from the Breakroom. [Weblog]. The Guardian. 1 Dec. 2010. Web. 18 Dec. 2010.<http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/2010/dec/01/mad-men-season-4-episode-13?showallcomments=true#comment-8608958>
“kdiddy”. “Mad Men Open Thread: Christmas Comes But Once a Year.” [Post]. MamaPop. [Weblog]. 2 Aug. 2010. Web. 18 Dec. 2010. <http://www.mamapop.com/2010/08/mad-men-open-thread-christmas-year.html>
Lisanti, Mark. “Mad Men Power Rankings, Week Five.’” [Post]. An Alan Smithee Column. [Weblog]. Movieline. 14 Sep. 2009. Web. 18 Dec. 2010. <http://www.movieline.com/2009/09/mad-men-power-rankings-week-five-youre-an-honest-guy-i-can-tell.php>
Jansson, Mikael. “Forever Young.” Interview. May 2010. Print.
Kael, Pauline and Will Brantley. Conversations with Pauline Kael. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1996. Print.
Mad Men. Prod. Matthew Weiner. Perf. Kiernan Shipka. Seasons One to Four. Fifty Two episodes. American Movie Classics. AMC. 19 Jul-18 Oct. 2007; 27 Jul-26 Oct. 2008; 16 Aug-8 Nov. 2009; 25 Jul-17 Oct 2010). Television.
Manson. Dir. Neil Rawles. Cineflix. The History Channel. 9 Aug. 2009. Television.
Ryan, Maureen. “Wild about Mad Men: A Talk with Creator Matthew Weiner.” Chicago Tribune. 15 Oct. 2007. Web. 18 Dec. 2010.
“SCDP”. “I’ve never…” [Weblog comment]. 26 Jul. 2010. I Hate Betty Draper. [Post]. Kevin Levine. By Kevin Levine. [Weblog]. 26 Jul. 2010. Web. 18 Dec. 2010. < http://kenlevine.blogspot.com/2010/07/i-hate-betty-draper.html?showComment=1280161613383#c5683678827068563334>
Sconce, Jeffrey. “XXX Love and Kisses from Charlie.” Swinging Single: Representing Sexuality in the 1960s. Eds. Hilary Radnor and Moya Luckett. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, 1999. 207-223. Print.
Scholl, Diana. “Mad Men Creator Matthew Weiner Explains Last Night’s Finale, Defends Betty Draper.” Vulture. 18 Oct. 2010. Web. 18 Dec. 2010.
Smith, Megan. “Creepy Sally Draper.” [Weblog comment]. 28 Jul. 2010. Mad Men Returns: Who is Don Draper? (Spoilers). [Post] Megan Smith. Blogher. [Weblog]. 26 Jul. 2010. Web. 18 Dec. 2010. < http://www.blogher.com/mad-men-returns-who-don-draper-spoilers#comment-205926>
Stengel, Rob. “Calling it…”. [Status Update]. 2010. Twitter. 22 Aug. 2010. Web. 18 Dec. 2010. <http://www.twitter.com>
“Teresa”. “Betty’s treatment…” [Weblog comment]. 7 Sep. 2009. Mad Monday — Season 3, Episode 4: The Arrangements. [Post]. Jake Tapper. Political Punch. [Weblog]. ABC News. Web. 18 Dec. 2010. <http://blogs.abcnews.com/politicalpunch/2009/09/mad-monday-season-3-episode-4-the-arrangements-.html>
The Six Degrees of Helter Skelter. Dir. Mike Dorsey. Wri. Scott Michaels. Echo Home Bridge Entertainment. 2007. DVD.
Watson, Tom. “The Manson Murders at 40: Helter Skelter Author Vincent Bugliosi Looks Back.” Newsweek 1 Aug. 2009. Web. 18 Dec. 2010.
“Z. Vasquez”. “I don’t…” [Forum comment]. 25 Sep. 2009. Mad Men Season 3. [Forum Thread] 21 Sep. 2009. Chud [Forum]. Web. 18 Dec. 2010. <http://www.chud.com/community/forum/thread/115959/mad-men-season-3/250#post_2705139>
This conference paper was originally given at Fear and Safety In Children’s Literature, IRSCL, Brisbane June 2011. The paper expands on comments made in this post:
Tottie Learns the Consolations of Philosophy
This paper focuses on The Dolls’ House, a British book for children published in 1947. I contend that the text is a consolationary novel. My argument is that Godden applies the topoi of medieval consolatio to the social instabilities of post-war Britain, and that she does so with didactic intent. By adopting this strategy, Godden demonstrates an interest in medieval forms that was shared by a range of writers for children in the years following the second world war.
Before proceeding any further, I will define my terms. When I use the term “consolatio”, I refer to a particular literary genre with the following features: a character in the text experiences a loss, a “wise” guide counsels them using a range of stock arguments or consolations, and the implied reader is then educated in turn. I follow Moses Hadas in categorising the three principal arguments thusly. The first argument is that all must die; the second is that lamentation is futile; and the third is that, it is best to rationally accept all pain eases with time (Hadas 253). The genre has classical antecedents, and includes examples such as Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations and the Dream of Scipio. However it is the Medieval use of consolatio that interests me here. Between the fifth and fifteenth centuries AD, the consolatio form was imbued with neoplatonic Christian imagery. I refer here, particularly, to the idea that the transitory, small goodnesses we may encounter are metonymic of God’s perfect and enduring essence; and that we might parry the pain of external loss by a focusing on the internal pursuit of faith and virtue. The most relevant use of this idea can be found in the sixth century text The Consolation of Philosophy, which was written by the Roman consul Boethius. The text proved to be profoundly influential, on writers as varied as Thomas Acquinas and Geoffrey Chaucer, as well as a wealth of anonymous elegiac and devotional verse such as The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and The Dream of the Rood. In the paper that follows, I will argue that Boethius may also illuminate our reading of The Dolls’ House.
In the late nineteen-forties and throughout the fifties, numerous writers for children were seeking inspiration in the medieval period. J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis applied their knowledge of medieval epic and romance to fantasy fiction; Henry Treece, Cynthia Harnett, Rhoda Power, and Rosemary Sutcliffe took the middle ages as a setting for historical novels; while Dorothy Hosford, Ian Serrailer and Roger Lancelyn Green, were amongst those retelling stories from the middle ages for a young audience. Flo Keyes argues that the attraction of high medieval images, namely those of the romance genre, lies in their power to assuage anxiety in a time of social upheaval, and we may account for it’s post war appeal in this way. However, Rumer Godden appears to pursue a slightly different strategy. She draws on consolatio and elegy rather than romance, epic, or history. A sense of continuity is still evoked for the implied reader, but the likelihood of change in the future is also addressed.
I will summarise the novel’s plot so that we might examine in greater detail its relationship to the consolatio genre. The protagonist is Tottie, a hundred year old wooden doll. The narrator explains that Tottie has been passed down several generations into the hands of two children called Emily and Charlotte. She is inherited with a needlework sampler of the same age. The children select a range of second hand dolls to become Tottie’s adoptive family: Mr Plantaganet is her adoptive father, Birdie her adoptive mother, and Apple her adoptive brother. The dolls possess consciousness, but their feelings, thoughts and movements are invisible to their owners. To begin with, the dolls are housed in a damp and insecure shoe box, to the particular distress of Mr Plantagenet. Fortunately they are able to retrieve a dollshouse Tottie remembers living in during the nineteenth century. They spend a brief period of living there contentedly. Their new found security is disturbed by the arrival of Marchpane, who is also bequeathed as an heirloom to Emily and Charlotte. Emily asserts that Marchpane should be the new mistress of the dolls’ house and the new mother to baby Apple. The rest of Tottie’s family remain in the house, but are relegated to the position of servants. They comply until Marchpane deliberately endangers Apple’s life by allowing him to play with a lit candle. Birdie intervenes and is burnt to ash in the process. When the children find Birdie’s remains, Charlotte telepathically senses the cause, and convinces Emily to donate Marchpane to a museum. Ownership of the house is restored to Mr Plantagenet.
There are a range of historically specific resonances in this narrative pertaining to memory, fear and safety. In the second chapter we are told that “More than anything in the world Mr Plantagenet wanted a home” (16). His longing for a safer place to live replicates the experience of many contemporaneous Britons. In the year Godden was writing, heavy bombing and the wartime suspension of building programmes had left England and Wales with a housing shortfall of 750,000. The narrator connects the Plantagenets’ situation to Britain’s accommodation crisis by remarking “the shortage of dolls’ houses was acute.” The connection is then made more explicit when we are informed that “the Plantagenets were as uncomfortable as anyone in London.” More obliquely, the dolls’ search is evocative not only of bombed out civilians, but of the racially-othered refugee: for instance Charlotte and Emily look on the dolls as an inscrutable, secretive people (82), and their actions suggest the dolls must be made to assimilate by their paternalistic hosts (11). This is particularly the case for Mr Plantagenet, Birdie and Apple: Emily uses their recent arrival as justification for capriciously changing their familial and occupational roles. There are overtures that both Mr Plantaganet and Birdie bear emotional scars that Tottie’s relatively stable history have spared her. The book only briefly states that Birdie “was not quite right in the head” (13), but the causes of Mr Plantagenet’s ongoing anxieties and insecurities are explored at length.
Indeed, if we read this book as a consolationary text, Mr Plantagenet is positioned as the character in search of solace. The most traumatic example of loss in the story is Birdie’s death, but Mr Plantagenet has earlier causes for his distress which are signalled from the book’s very first chapter. The narrator extols the reader to, “Listen to the story of Mr Plantagenet… for a long while he was hurt and abused and lost” (11). His mistreatment by his original owners includes the feeding of his foot to a pet dog and his subsequent incarceration in a cupboard, where the narrator states “he lay for weeks and months and might have lain for years” (12). The after-effects of this experience are manifest in his wish for a permanent home, which he expresses more forcefully than any of the other characters, and his dwelling on traumatic memories. The dark, crowded conditions of the shoebox reawakens his memory of incarceration in the toy cupboard; his repeated refrain becomes “It doesn’t feel safe!” (18). He speculates that a new home would allow him forget his former incarceration, and muses aloud: “No more dark toy cupboards. No more dark at all” (32). The arrival of the dolls’ house partly ameliorates his fears, but he remains dogged by the notion their safety is temporary: “Suppose it isn’t our home after all?” he asks his wife.”Suppose we have made a mistake? They couldn’t take it away from us, could they, Birdie?” He immediately regrets voicing his fears to Birdie, who is surprised and alarmed by his questions. Despite being nominally young, it falls to Tottie to assuage the concerns of both her parents. The ongoing impact of Mr Plantagenet’s traumatic memories is partly conveyed by his dependence upon her. The narrator states:
He could still not quite believe he was Mr Plantagenet. He was still easily made afraid, afraid of being hurt or abused again. Really you might have thought that Tottie was the father and he was the child; but there are real fathers like that. (12-13)
If Mr Plantagenet fulfils the consolatio role of a character seeking solace, then this suggestion that Tottie is the father in their relationship contributes to her positioning as a “wise guide.” The ways in which she reprimands, reassures and advises Mr Plantagenet comply with consolationary topoi, as I will now show.
Let us begin with the argument that “all must die.” When Birdie dies, Tottie confirms to Mr Plantagenet that “Everything [passes], from trees to dolls” (138). The implied reader has already been prepared for this message for some time. As early as the novel’s second page, it is made clear that Tottie’s original owners are dead. There are repeated allusions to Tottie’s heirloom status, including her knowledge that she may one day be owned by Charlotte’s grandchildren (90). This narrative assumes the inevitability of every generation passing. As I mentioned earlier, Tottie is inherited alongside a needlework sampler. Significantly, the sampler’s motto refers to the certainty of death. The verse stitched upon it states: “Fain am I to work these nosegays…Content, please God, my time on earth to dwell, Till death shall claim me and I say farewell” (48). Because the sampler has accompanied Tottie throughout the previous century, she is positioned as the bearer of its Christian message of living virtuously in the expectation of death. Conversely, Marchpane’s self-serving lack of solemnity on what it means to die signals that she is dangerous. Marchpane’s remark, with a yawn, that “people don’t last”, (110) is the first indicator to Mr Plantagenet of her callousness.
If we return to Tottie’s comment that “everything passes”, her reference to trees rewards closer attention. Throughout this novel reference is repeatedly made to Tottie drawing strength from the trees. In the first example of this, the narrator states that Tottie “liked to think sometimes of the tree of whose wood she was made, of its strength and of the sap that ran through it and made it bud and put out leaves every spring and summer, that kept it standing through the winter storms and wind. ‘A little, a very little of that tree is in me,’ said Tottie. ‘I am a little of that tree’” (10). (endquote) At times when she must act virtuously or bravely, she reminds herself that she, like the trees, is made from “good strong wood” (38). The idea that Tottie comprises a little of her originating tree resonates with the neoplatonic image, central to the consolatio of Boethius, that the earthly experience of goodness is metonymic of God’s goodness. This resonance is strengthened when we consider how early medieval poems such as Elene and The Dream of the Rood imagined that trees share an affinity with Christ because the cross on which he died was fashioned from wood. Tottie’s reference to the passing of “trees” can therefore be simultaneously be read as a reminder of Christ’s mortality, of her own mortality, and of the relationship between her own goodness and that of God.
Let us now examine the second consolationary argument – that lamentation is futile. Mr. Plantagenet’s preoccupation with owning a house that lasts, and his fear of the family’s fragmentation, is repeatedly challenged by Tottie. The argument that “lamentation is futile” underlies a number of her admonishments towards him. She frequently addresses him in imperatives that suggest, once more, he is the infant to her parent: “Stop saying “Oh dear,” (38) she tells him when he fears the house is lost; “Don’t bleat” (38) she instructs when he panics at their impotence; and “Don’t waste time hating” (114) she advises him when Marchpane appropriates their home. Intriguingly, she advises him instead to make “wishes” – even though the narrator states that “wishing showed no sign of changing anything” (114). Though Tottie’s recommendation seems at least as futile as lamentation, it becomes contiguous with her philosophy if we read “wishes” as a proxy for prayer. They then become emblematic of a successful, internal pursuit of faith, rather than the unsuccessful pursuit of external rewards. This interpretation is leant support by the descriptions of Tottie’s interior world during her attempts to wish. The narrator comments how “every knot and grain of her seemed to harden”, and how Tottie reminds herself that “she came from a tree” (38). Because of the aforementioned Christian associations of what it means to “come from a tree,” Tottie’s sensory response suggests that wishing is a spiritual experience, and that wishing is indeed analogous to prayer. The text’s implicitly Christian response to traumatic memory, fear and suffering becomes explicit in the description of Mr Plantagenet’s response to Christmas morning. As they listen to the carols and Christmas hymns that travel from the street outside, Mr Plantagenet is remembering the dark toy cupboard, and finds a consolatory power in these sung prayers. “I like Prince of Peace,” he muses, before proceeding to say, “I know about peace now.” (92).
Let us turn to the third consolationary argument. Like Boethius and writers of the medieval form of consolatio in general, Tottie’s suggestion that “everything passes” encompasses the idea that worldly pain, too, will eventually lessen in time. This third argument is invoked in the last chapter, during an exchange with Mr Plantagenet that suggests some time has elapsed since Birdie’s death. The narration makes clear that the dolls have established a new routine: Mr Plantagenet goes to work in the children’s toy post office, and Tottie keeps house. While sitting before the evening fire Mr Plantagenet quietly ruminates on the bad times that have been left behind. Tottie’s response implies that the time to grieve has ended. “[The bad times] come and pass, so let us be happy now,” Tottie tells him. The chapter concludes with a description of Birdie’s belongings still taking a place amongst their cherished possessions in the dolls’ house, conveying a continuity of history for their family, and the implication they can be looked upon without pain.
So far, we have considered how Mr Plantagenet is a character in search of solace; and how Tottie occupies the role of Wise Guide. Now we must turn to the third key role in the consolatio form: that of the implied reader requiring education. There are several didactic devices in the text that position the reader as the recipient of adult guidance. The narrator directly addresses the reader to make moral points. For example the account of Mr Plantagenet’s abuse is preceded by a warning that dolls are powerless to the whims of children and that, quote, “If you have any dolls, you should remember that” (11). Yet there is also a subversive strand in the positioning of the implied reader. The children referred to in the story include Tottie and Apple, as well as the human children Emily, Charlotte, the child of a museum caretaker and Mr Plantagenet’s unnamed abusers. Only Apple receives any guidance from an adult character; and that guidance is overtly dangerous; Marchpane leads him to commit risky, and ultimately fatal, acts. The text therefore constructs a world in which children are unable to trust the adults around them, in which they may be burdened with the emotional instability of their parents, and in which, as a consequence, they are also burdened with high levels of responsibility. This burden is depicted as particularly acute for Emily, who makes most of the decisions regarding the dolls’ welfare. When Mr Plantagenet laments Emily’s poor decisions, Tottie defends her by saying: “Think if you were… walking on a road by yourself, and there were not any signposts…Sometimes you must make a mistake” (114). Tottie, is of course, also walking on a road unaided by her nominal parents. Consolationary works typically invite the reader to identify with the character in search of solace; but this book’s disjoint between the didactic adult voice of the narrator and the unreliability of diegetic adult characters means the implied reader has no singular point of identification. Are they to identify with Mr Plantagenet, who listens to Tottie as the reader is extolled to listen to the narrator? Or are they to identify with the children in the text, whose only guides are unreliable? In either case, the conventional didacticism of the narrator is belied by Godden’s subversive suggestion adults can not be relied upon. In this context, Tottie is a stoic model for an implied reader who, like herself and like Emily, is burdened by excessive responsibility.
Before closing, I will briefly consider the adaptation of The Dolls’ House, which was televised in 1983 by the animator Oliver Postgate and re-titled Tottie. The changes made by Postgate reflect the historical specificity of the source material. For instance less time was dedicated to Mr Plantagenet’s wish to forget his trauma in the toy cupboard. Instead Postgate’s adaptation reflected his own vocal opposition of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. He thus emphasised the class-based power Marchpane wields over the other dolls; Mr Plantagenet’s wish to work; and Tottie’s reimbursement for participating in an exhibition (which the book was at pains to depict as a charitable act). The worldly strife experienced by the dolls was no longer rooted in post war poverty and memories of trauma; rather, it was rooted in the mass unemployment and strikes experienced by Britain in 1983. Nevertheless, the basic consolationary structure, and many of the neoplatonic images were retained, which rather supports Keyes’ belief that medieval tropes have been repurposed and reappropriated at times of social anxiety and upheaval.
In conclusion, the appeal of neo-medievalism in post-war Britain may have been its perceived potential to give young readers a reassuring sense of historical continuity. But by adopting the consolatio genre in particular, Godden offers children a philosophical framework for also accepting the inevitability of change.
Hadas, Moses. A History of Latin Literature. Columbia University Press, 1952
Keyes, Flo. The Literature of Hope in the Middle Ages and Today: Connections in Medieval Romance, Modern Fantasy, and Science Fiction. McFarland, 2006
I have a short story, The Boy from Chalk Street, in BCU’s anthology of new writing. The collection is called Extremus and it also contains pieces from Birmingham’s Poet Laureate, Roy McFarlane and Impress Prize Winner Edmund Bealby-Wright. You can order it from good bookshops or purchase online here.
You can still buy The Spiral Path, which contains my short story A Theft, here.
And, if you’re curious about what happened to Sindy’s Kitchen, you can also check out my second blog about dollshouses and miniatures: smallthingsmakemehappy.com
Day 30 – the Big Finish! My favourite song has been the same for years, has already featured in the list and there’s no point repeating it here. Instead I’ve picked Folk Song Oblivion, because I was listening to the Phantom Band a lot last Winter, and it is therefore the closest to requirements.
After a month of blogging my musical memories I’m in two minds about the whole meme business. Web visits are higher this month – mostly driven by people googling category headings – which makes the staggering lack of conversation a little odd.
I liked having some externally imposed limitations, but the stark binary of “loving” and “hating” songs also got on my nerves about halfway through the month. With a bit more latitude I’d have subbed some of the later categories for these I think…
Your Recurrent Earworm: 99 Problems. Which is disabled on Youtube, and thus unlinked to, but that doesn’t matter – because I can still hear it going ROUND and ROUND my head most days of the week.
Favourite Song to Include the Word “Library”: French Navy by Camera Obscura.
Song by a Popstrel who Really Deserved to have a Better Career: I Will be There. I loved Rachel Stevens’ last album, but commercially it tanked.
An Innocent Enough Song that Terrified You as a Child: It Started with a Kiss. I thought it was about a lady who’d lost her memory in a horrific accident.
A Song on your iPod with Dodgy Gender Politics: Wishin’ and Hopin’, and about a million others.
First Pop Song You Ever Remember Hearing: Manic Monday.
Song by an Artist you Otherwise Like that Leaves You Completely Aghast: Let’s Make a Baby by Billy Paul
My last three years of primary school were spent at a convent. Each afternoon I’d go home with a friend, because my parents both worked until half five. We’d take off our straw boaters, drink a cup of tea, eat a chocolate digestive, and play some Barbie (life isn’t so different these days, to be honest).
Unwittingly, I was also absorbing the hit parade of the 50s and 60s. Her mother usually had the radio on, tuned in to one of those nostalgia stations with a dubious DJ (almost certainly Les Ross). Last weekend my husband and I speculated, with some disquiet, whether 6music is the equivalent for our age group.
I very nearly picked The Flamingos’ I Only Have Eyes for You here, which is one of my favourite songs. But at the last minute I decided on The Shirelles’ Baby it’s You, which my mother also had on vinyl.
Alice was doing the rounds a couple of years ago, but I still find it hypnotic to watch and listen to. Partly because the loveliness of the vocal is much more obvious here than in the Disney film. And partly because the whole thing looks like it would be ridiculously hard to put together.