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On Sexualizing Amy Pond
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The fifth season of the rebooted Doctor Who has introduced with much fanfare both a new character, Amy Pond, Companion to the Eleventh Doctor, and her legs. But the many remarks about her miniskirts (and moans that they are a topic of conversation at all) miss a larger point—the show has chosen to sexualize Amy in a variety of ways.

This is a deliberate decision on the part of the show’s creators, encompassing costume, character, dialogue, and plot choices. Rather then simply decry or dismiss these choices, I want to take a moment to examine them, and look at their effects.

I. Once Upon a Time: Meeting Amy Pond

We first meet the adult Amy through a reverse blazon—the camera pans slowly up her legs to show her in a police uniform with a notably short, tight skirt. This slow reveal of a body from the bottom up is a literary technique that pre-dates Chaucer and has become part of the vocabulary of film. It signals the sexualizing of the body it displays, and tells the audience that the figure in its gaze (usually female, but sometimes male) is meant to be sexually desirable.

In other words, it’s cinematic shorthand for “Whoa, babe here!” But it also signals the potential vulnerability of the sexualized body; a number of famous early film examples introduced a female character with this camera move just before she was raped. So our initial glimpse of “policewoman Amy” both establishes her authority—she has the Doctor handcuffed to a radiator, seated while she stands—and undercuts it.

The next few minutes make her sexualized police outfit critical to her initial interactions with the Doctor, who when encountering Amy serves as an audience stand-in. (It’s notably how much the Doctor is used as a point-of-view character vis-à-vis Amy.) In fact, her outfit fulfills a number of functions.

It sets up a series of clever (sometimes comic) reversals in her initial encounter with the Doctor, as he assumes she is a cop and learns this is only one of many lies she is telling; it introduces us to both Amy’s character and the central themes of the episode; and it later plays a key role in the actual plot. (This same episode also repeatedly uses the Doctor’s clothing for both plot and symbolism.)

Thanks to her costume, Amy first appears to be a policewoman to both Doctor and audience. But as the shortness of her skirt and a number of small verbal slips indicate, both soon learn that she is in fact a “kissogram,” and her sexually provocative outfit, designed for her sexual provocative job, is a costume she has deliberately assume to fool him into thinking she has more power than she does.

So Amy, we learn, is a quick-thinking young woman who can clobber a housebreaker with a cricket bat and convince him that she is a cop. But she also confesses her subterfuge when faced with an even greater threat, undermining the Doctor’s attempts to contain the situation. This leads to some wonderful dialogue and characterization of both Amy and the Doctor, and sets up their push-pull relationship, which is characterized (now and later) by less-than-smooth cooperation.

That also gives the climax in the hospital at the end of the first episode more power, as they at last succeed in working together to defeat the metamorph. Where a conscious Amy had repeatedly defied the Doctor’s orders not to go into the room where the metamorph lurks, her unconscious self does listen to him, changing the metamorph’s shape by changing her thinking.

The quirk in the smooth transition from defiant-Amy-who-gets-in-trouble to the Amy-who-obeys-the-Doctor-and-defeats-the-monster is that the one presupposes the other—Amy needed to disobey and see the metamorph to have the power to visualize it later.

We could say the same about Amy’s police outfit. Her kissogram outfit—apparently a sign of deceit and pretense to power she doesn’t have—is the key that allows her to get into the cordoned-off hospital in the first place. Once again, an apparent flaw works to her advantage.

What I like about Amy—and I will freely admit that I adore this character—is that unlike many female characters in film and television, she has real and serious flaws, and yet is allowed to triumph despite and perhaps because of those weaknesses. This is standard fare for male heroes, but still unusual for female supporting characters.

In a sense, her impractically short skirt is the first clue we get to a fundamental aspect of Amy’s character—she’s bright and able, but also a liar with a remarkable tendency toward self-sabotage—and it symbolizes her contradictory nature.

Her disguise also resonates with the themes of the episode. In the first place, it underlines (for both the Doctor and the audience) the gap between the innocent child Amelia and the adult Amy she has grown to be. (The fact that sexuality—or, more accurately, sexual attractiveness—is seen as a critical marker of the gap between childhood and maturity for women is of course highly problematic, though not new.)

It also fits with the reversal of expectations so key to the episode, in which things are seldom what they seem. Young Amelia first assumes the Doctor is a policeman, because his time machine is disguised as a police call box; in a neat symmetry, the Doctor first assumes the adult Amy to be police because she too is wearing a disguise. (Later in the series, Amy’s boyfriend Rory is also mistaken for a police officer, continuing the gag.)

The villain of the episode, Prisoner Zero, disguises itself in the appearance of others—mimicking their flesh and borrowing their bodies. The sexy Amy is the child Amelia; the Doctor is neither in the time he thinks he is (five minutes later), or the one in which Amy claims he is (six months later); victory lies not in sending the alien Atraxi off, but calling them back to ensure that they never return.

Even the setup of the larger arc-story, involving cracks in the universe, draws heavily on misapprehensions and concealed truths. We are left with the sense that the Doctor has a hidden motive for inviting Amy to travel with him in the TARDIS, and something mysterious about Amy herself. Even without a disguise, she is not what she seems, and her short police skirt is our first hint to that entire arc.

II. Short Skirts and Sex Workers

As the series goes on, it continues to display Amy’s legs and play out some of the same themes with her character. Amy spends the entire second episode in her (very shot) nightgown, a costume choice that highlights her vulnerability. The story casts her in a symbolic role, representating a frail and fallible humanity in contrast to the Doctor’s lonely alien strength (represented by the star-whale). Again, Amy’s redemption of the situation at the end symbolically redeems humanity (at least, British humanity/or Britain), and the idea that the human and the alien can live peacefully together in a symbiotic relationship. There’s a reason the episode closes with Amy and Eleven in a hug.

The third episode also shows us Amy in a very short skirt—her first appearance in ordinary clothes, presumably those the character has picked out for herself. Although this episode, less skillfully constructed, spends relatively little time on Amy, it does emphasize her romantic feelings toward the Doctor, and her self-knowledge about “fancying someone you shouldn’t” saves the Earth from exploding. Given this emphasis, it’s possible to read her chosen outfit as a flirtation.

Many other signals drive home the fact that Amy is an unapologetically sexual woman, such as her ogling of the naked Doctor as he changes clothes (although ostensibly sexualizing a male character, the camera lingers on Amy’s face, displaying her), and her propositioning him for a one-night stand on the eve of her wedding. It’s understood to be part of her personality; at the same time, it’s something the show has clearly chosen not only to write into her character, but to emphasize through costume, dialogue, and plot.

After all, Amy could have worn another disguise in the first episode; why a specifically sexualized one? The show leaves open (deliberately, I think) the option that she’s actually a stripper, and “kissogram” a kid-friendly version of the idea meant to bypass censors. In fact, I’d say the show (which has used this approach to sexual suggestive material before) encourages its adult watchers to make this reading, even if it’s not strictly true in canon.

So Amy is a white, economically privileged woman working in the upper echelons of the sex industry. (This is one of my least favorite tropes, because it’s part of a larger trend in which the experiences of women like Amy in the sex industry—which are easy for other white and economically privileged women to identify with—are presented as normative, and crowd out of the conversation the sex-industry experiences of those with less social privilege, with serious policy implications.)

We are never given any indications that Amy is working-class, or does this job for the money. She lives in a huge and beautiful if shabby house with twelve rooms and a vast garden; her aunt was able to pay for young Amelia to be treated by four different psychiatrists, despite apparently having only one income; and when the Doctor complains about her profession, she responds (somewhat defensively) with “It’s a laugh,” not “It’s a living.” By Amy’s own admission her job is a matter of entertainment, not economics. As such, viewers are encouraged to see it as a reflection of her personality, specifically of her overt heterosexuality.

What these means depends to some degree on your opinions of women who act out their sexuality and female sex workers—obviously not the same thing—and whether you think the show is tapping into negative stereotypes (hinting that being a kissogram is a dead-end job Amy wants to escape—perhaps even another example of her sabotaging herself) or trying to promote more positive images.

Many fans have seized on Amy as a feminist figure of sexual liberation. There’s definitely room for this reading, which connects Amy’s self-confidant sexuality to her capability. But her sexually-forward persona can also be read as a symptom of damage, as the show makes clear at once that Amy—even as a child—has baggage about being abandoned, presumably related to the deaths of her parents and neglect by her aunt.

Her interactions with the Doctor only intensify this, and as the show continues we see that Amy wants more than anything to have someone she can always rely on—she tries hard to push the Doctor into this mold, and her appeals to him to “make it all better” in moments of loss suggest a child seeking a parent substitute—and at the same time, doesn’t believe it can happen. She seizes on people hard and then pushes them away.

Nowhere is this more evident than in her decision to marry Rory, a nebbishy young nurse who radiates normality, at age 21 and stay in her small village. At first this choice seems at first to fly in the face of all that we’ve seen of her character. But as time goes on we see the parallels with her actions on various adventures, and come to understand that Amy on the one hand craves stability, and one the other tends to sabotage it, apparently out of fear that it will disappear on terms less her own.

Even when her relationship with Rory stabilizes, the jokes Amy makes to defuse the tension of dangerous situations (“You’re so clingy!” and “Other way, idiot!”) minimize or mock his devotion to her, as if his obvious love frightens her. At the same time, we see she’s comfortable expressing affection for Rory in gestures that don’t require words—wearing her engagement ring, and affectionate touches. (We later find Amy’s mother has the same dynamic with her husband.)

Because of these factors, I wouldn’t personally characterize Amy as confidant in her sexuality, which for me means knowing what you want and going for it. Amy’s response when the Doctor asks about her job is defensive; her introduction of Rory as her boyfriend is half-hearted; she claims to want no-strings-attached-sex but chooses the worst possible candidate for an uncomplicated one-night stand; and much of her early attraction to the Doctor seems rooted in the fact that he will never take her up on her offer. (Even more so when she publically offers him a kiss, or more, at her wedding—both the situation and her own knowledge of the Doctor ensure he’ll turn her down.)

While she is obviously not sexually conservative, I believe Amy is genuinely confused about what and who and the kind of life she wants, and acts accordingly. Frankly, that’s a lot easier for me to identify with.

III. Fanservice and Fan Reactions

When I began this piece I anticipated reactions that would tell me I was making a mountain out of a molehill, and that Amy’s short skirts were simply there to titillate straight male viewers, nothing more.

On a Doylist level, this is certainly true—the character Amy wears short skirts because the show creators want to show off the actress’s legs to the audience, and use sexual interest in scantily-clad women to keep people watching the show. That doesn’t diminish the fact that having made this choice, the show creators have linked it Amy’s characterization and plots to her outfits.

But there is more to say about this act of fanservice—displaying an actress sexually to attract viewers. While undoubtedly a lot of female viewers enjoy watching Amy’s body—either because they find her sexually attractive or identify with her overt sexuality—the decision to display it is rooted in sexism.

Specifically, in the idea that women exist for sexual consumption, visual or otherwise. In the case of Doctor Who, this larger cultural trend—present in any show—is intensified by the fact that the show centers on a more powerful male character and that Amy, as his Companion, necessarily plays a supporting role. Moreover, it’s not an ensemble show and no other female character has her main-cast status, giving Amy disproportionate emphasis as its chief representation of women.

There have been strong reactions, both positive and negative, to both Amy herself and the decision to sexualize her. These latter conversations speak to larger divides about sexism and feminism that often play out over generational lines.

One of the major tools of sexism is that the system accords younger women a certain type of sexual power—which fanservice exemplifies—limits them to that role, and then takes it away from them as they age. Many of the voices in this debate effectively ignore the privilege their (comparative) youth gives them, and the views of those with negative experiences of objectification. At the same time, some voices critical of Amy have indulged in slut-shaming, which is another way that sexism divides women (into the simplistic and unhelpful categories of “good” and “bad”) to play them against each other.

This may seem obvious, but criticizing Moffat and his team for making the choice to sexualize a female character is not the same as criticizing the female character for acting in an overtly sexual manner. The former is a critique of institutional sexism, whether one agrees with it or not; the latter is enforcing sexist standards of female behavior. All of us interested in Amy and the representation of female characters should bear this in mind.

As s. e. smith at this ain’t living says about the character of Kurt on Glee:

I think it’s dangerous to criticise a gay character for being flamboyant in a way that argues that gay men shouldn’t be flamboyant, but I also think it’s valid to criticise characterisations like Kurt’s because of what they represent.
I would echo this. It’s dangerous to criticize Amy’s sexuality in a way that argues women shouldn’t be overtly sexual, but it’s also valid to criticize characterizations like hers because of what they represent—to wit, that women must be overtly sexual and sexually attractive to deserve our gaze in media.

This pervasive idea holds that no matter what other talents and attributes a woman has, she must be beautiful and attractive at all times—that the latter is her primarily function. As such, it’s more important that Amy show her legs than be able to use them—hence the many scenes in which she runs and must then hike her very tight skirt down.

IV. Final Thoughts: Happily Ever After?

Amy only begins wearing pants (admittedly very tight ones) in the last three episodes, including the final two-parter that closes the season and her arc. This might be a practical decision so she can ride a horse in one scene—but Amy’s short skirts have never been compatible with the physical activity required of her before.

In fact, revealing the truth about Amy—which in the story involves her embracing her memories, openly acknowledging her losses rather than avoiding them—paradoxically involves covering more of her body. She in fact wears pants as she begins the process of remembering Rory, opening herself up to painful memories and starting to integrate her fragmented life.

We end with a more mature Amy who is better able to hold onto the people she cares for—both the Doctor and Rory—rather than pushing them away. Her more integrated self not only brings the Doctor back, but follows him when he slips out, and makes the decision to go adventuring with him again jointly with Rory, a clear revision of her first takeoff in the TARDIS. At the same time, the show gives her a number of sexually suggestive lines that assure us Amy hasn’t changed too much.

It remains to be seen what Amy’s further adventures will bring, whether she will continue to be unapologetic about her sexuality while retaining her newfound maturity, or whether the show will trade on the old and negative associations of sexual women. Amy at least seems eager to begin.

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This is an awesome post. Don't really have much to add except yes, this:
his may seem obvious, but criticizing Moffat and his team for making the choice to sexualize a female character is not the same as criticizing the female character for acting in an overtly sexual manner. The former is a critique of institutional sexism, whether one agrees with it or not; the latter is enforcing sexist standards of female behavior.
Because it should be obvious but - as someone who was standing on the sidelines and only barely saw some of the conversation about this point - I felt it was getting lost. And I think there's even a quote somewhere about how Moffat was concerned, casting Amy, with fuckability in a way he wasn't when Matt Smith was cast as Eleven.

Edited at 2010-07-02 04:27 pm (UTC)

Hey thanks! And thanks for reading.

I too felt that point was getting lost, and was a bit mystified by it; it seems an odd one to lose. Although I gather that there is some heavy baggage in Who fandom around female characters, and I find this often moves conversations in directions that seem bizarre to me as a newcomer.

That tidbit on Moffat's casting choices makes me sigh, but doesn't surprise me. As you can tell from this piece, I really love Amy as a character, but I don't entirely trust the man in charge of her development.

Terrific review! Thank you so much for sharing this. I particularly this point:

It’s dangerous to criticize Amy’s sexuality in a way that argues women shouldn’t be overtly sexual, but it’s also valid to criticize characterizations like hers because of what they represent—to wit, that women must be overtly sexual and sexually attractive to deserve our gaze in media.

Well said.

Thank you so much for reading it!

That's a really key point for me, one I think we can't afford to forget--we all lose when we let these traps dictate our conversation.

(here via giandujakiss)
i don't really have anything to add right now, i just wanted to say that i really love this post. wonderful!

Thank you so much! Praise is very much appreciated.

(here via giandujakiss)
This is fantastic meta--thank you for taking it on.

One thing I have noticed about this season is how many middle-aged women there are. In the US tv I'm used to seeing, all women are either early/mid 20s (with a few elderly women and the occasional woman in her 30s cast to play a mother). Whereas in Doctor Who, half the episodes have a woman of that "awkward" in-between stage between what we consider fuckable and what we consider grandmotherly. The actress who plays Liz10 is in her 40s, but has clandestine adventures and wears cool motorcycle boots. The actress who plays Roseanna in Vampires of Venice is in her 40s, and though she's a mother she's also presented as being very attractive indeed. Nasreen in the Hungry Earth two-parter is in her late 40s, but seeks adventure and finds love--two things no woman over the age of 25 is allowed to do in US television.

And then, of course, there's River Song. Morally ambiguous, eminently competent, unapologetic about her personality, her past, her actions. When we first see her she's dolled up and gorgeous in a vampish sort of way (despite being in her late 40s!)--and as soon as she's accomplished what she wanted with that appearance, she discards it. (Those incredible high heeled shoes, which are designed to proclaim to all the world that the wearer has wealth and no need or ability to walk, are immediately hung up on the TARDIS the instant she doesn't need them as signals any longer.) Through the rest of her episodes, she is either clearly presenting a facade through her dress and makeup (as in her attempt to get a Time Vortex Manipulator in The Pandorica Opens) or is dressed eminently practically.

Although Amy is one of the two main characters, I was pleased to see so many other female characters--and none of them are presented in the same overtly sexual way as Amy. Not even the other young women, as in The Lodger, where the woman wears hoodies and jeans. To me, this signals that Amy's clothing really is at least partly meant as characterization. In another show (I'm looking at you, Supernatural!), a woman with cleavage and tight jeans is the default--on Doctor Who, it's a purposefully made exception to the rule.

Thank you! Or you're welcome. Either way, appreciated!

Yes, the positive representations of middle-aged women--even positive representations of their sexuality--are really noteworthy and I think great. Calapine has a good piece about it ( I am especially fond of Liz Ten and Nasreen and still hoping they come back.

And River...well, River is currently my favorite DW character ever. Ever. I like her so much it's embarrassing.

I really like your points about her and the others' outfits, btw. The show really does a lot of characterization through clothing and calling attention to the same (think how often Amy's short skirt for Rio is commented in the Silurian two-parter, or the Doctor makes a reference to bow ties--or fezzes, for that matter).

I definitely agree that Amy's clothes are presented as part of her characterization and personality; that's part of what's so interesting about her for me. It's rare that we get to see a show explore the personality of an overtly sexual woman in depth, rather than just presenting highly sexualized young women as the default for womanhood. (I hadn't even thought about comparisons to other shows like you mention--it's an excellent point.)

You're not the first one to bring this up, but I have to admit I really have problems with the equation of "kissogram" and "stripper" - they are not the same by a long shot, and I don't necessarily follow the idea that the writers sneakily wanted to establish Amy as working in the sex industry. Kissogram works pretty well if you consider the rest of her presentation - it is at the same time titillating and innocent, since nothing happens but a kiss.

One of the major tools of sexism is that the system accords younger women a certain type of sexual power—which fanservice exemplifies—limits them to that role, and then takes it away from them as they age.

What do you make in this context of River Song? Alex Kingston is 47 and the character doesn't strike me as younger, yet she is heavily sexualized. I'd say the same goes to a degree for Liz Ten, who certainly has an action heroine sex appeal with her guns and her costume. (I'm not saying you're wrong, I truly want to know how you integrate these characters in that paradigm. Do they subvert it, or do they add to it in different ways?)

Ha, my braincrush on you continues apace.

This is fantastic; thank you so much for putting this all together and sharing it. It's not easy to find meta that tackles this issue in a balanced way, to criticize the gender choices on the show wrt societal context, rather than tearing down the character herself. As obvious as that DOES seem, as you say. And you've tied it to her characterization in a way that makes sense to me. I agree her clothing carries a LOT of symbols in the show, even unrelated to sex - her red hooded top in the angel two-parter as she moves through the forest is very striking imagery (notably paired with a short skirt, haha - symbolism for Amelia and Amy in one handy outfit).

One of the major tools of sexism is that the system accords younger women a certain type of sexual power—which fanservice exemplifies—limits them to that role, and then takes it away from them as they age.

This is a MOUTHFUL, thank you for pointing it out so clearly. Like the previous commenter I have consistently been impressed by the older females on the show. River especially might be an example of an older female character who hasn't been stripped of sexual power. But as you say, it's not an ensemble show so Amy gets the most focus in terms of the show's overall treatment of women and it's important to unpack that in terms of fan response and characterization.

Edited at 2010-07-02 06:46 pm (UTC)

I enjoyed reading this - great food for thought.

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Hey, thanks for adding! People who come back with things to add long after something is posted warm the cockles of my heart!

Yeah, I realize that the equivalence is iffy and really can be dangerous, and for the record I personally am not in favor of collapsing the many levels of the sex work industry, because this leads to Bad Things (not least phone sex workers claiming they know what's best for women who work the streets).

But I had a similar reaction--I was confused by the kiss-o-gram title and when I went online discovered many people had instantly interpreted it as stripper. So I think it's a case of the writers knowing just how far they could go and relying on their audience to fill in the subtext. Not like they don't do that with other things...

You should know that I originally tried to write this in a way that wouldn't spoil people because I was specifically thinking of you. Alas, I couldn't pull it off--various spoilers were too important to Amy's character. Sorry to tempt you away from your promise!

So glad you appreciate that point; it seems to have resonated with many people.

I think you will love Amy, especially since you understand this flaw and the behavior it prompts; a lot of fans seemed honestly confused by it. I actually think there's a case to be made for the parallels between Amy and Arthur from Merlin, and the fact that large sections of fandom have celebrated the latter and castigated the former is a sad commentary on the importance of gender to fan reactions.

Very interesting, and convincing. Noted and logged.

This may seem obvious, but criticizing Moffat and his team for making the choice to sexualize a female character is not the same as criticizing the female character for acting in an overtly sexual manner. The former is a critique of institutional sexism, whether one agrees with it or not; the latter is enforcing sexist standards of female behavior. All of us interested in Amy and the representation of female characters should bear this in mind.

Great point, and well put.

I very much like this, and find I'm in agreement with most of it - I say "most" because I actually haven't gotten to the last three episodes yet, so I can't speak to her wardrobe change, though I'll take your word for it for now.

Hey, belated thanks! Would love to know what you think once you've seen the last few episodes.

And an even more belated reply, because I only got around to watching the last episode a few days ago!

Moving on from episode 8, what really struck me as present in clothing choice for Amy was the combination of sexuality and childishness. (I think childish is the word I want.) Going back to her giant billowy nightgown / nightshirt - which is absolutely something a child would wear - in the second episode, moving forward to her ever-present scarf which seemed less of a necessity and more of an affectation that a child would put on. Her fingerless gloves, and her often quizzical looks aimed at The Doctor, her long hair and her very long coat that she could hide in - a lot of her outer clothing held a childish whimsy that her miniskirts and tight tops did not. (Though I did notice that she rarely showed cleavage. Amy was much more likely to show leg than chest).

I think the costumers wanted us to remember Amy's origin story as a buildup to 512 and the finale, where we actually go back to see Amy as a child, as well as her room and all the childlike/childhood memories her room and her mind contained. To me, Amy was a strong mix of child and sexualized adult, which seemed about right for someone in her situation.

Oooh, this was very interesting and a pleasure to read. (Also, I recced it on my lj; I hope you don't mind.)

I'm very curious about your thoughts on River Song, especially since you've said that she's your favorite character. Do you find that her pretty/sexy clothes feel more like they come from her own agency or that they're just tools that she uses and discards as needed?

I was just discussing Amy Pond's short skirts with a friend today and found this link on tvtropes. Thanks, hopefully my re-watch of season 5 will go better this time :) Not that my problems with it were just Amy, but maybe looking at Amy will help me get through some of the stuff I didn't like. And noticing all the older women. That I shall very much enjoy.

Great article. Just one minor point that may have led to an error in your reasoning: In the UK, it is possible to have psychological treatment, especially for children, on the NHS. The quality of treatment is highly random based on where you live, and it's not easy to get a consultation, but it is possible.

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