While I was at Long Island Who this weekend, I had the pleasure of getting to spend some time with Deb Stanish. Deb is the co-editor of the Hugo nominated Chicks Unravel Time: Women Journey Through Every Season of Doctor Who and has also contributed essays to Whovian publications such as Chicks Dig Time Lords and Outside In. Deb’s writing tends to focus on the female experience in fandom, from the depiction of women on shows to the experience of being a fangirl. What follows is the transcript of our interview where we discuss everything from how we fell in love with Doctor Who to our favorite companions to women in Doctor Who in the Davies era versus the Moffat era. Enjoy!
(And buy her books, because they are excellent!)
KR: When did you start watching Doctor Who?
DS: I started watching in June 2005, right after Eccleston regenerated…because I had no interest, to be perfectly honest. It wasn’t something I grew up with, it was like the weird kid across the street liked Doctor Who. It just was weird, you know what I mean? I would bump into it every once in a while on PBS and my response was just “Yeah…no”. But then I had friends that I TRUSTED through another fandom who kept saying “No…you HAVE to watch this.” And finally I thought, these are people who I have had intelligent conversations and discourse with and I trust their opinions. So someone sent me “Rose” and I thought…it was alright.
KR: “Rose” was my first episode too. I’m a completeist, so I started at the beginning.
DS: Yes! And so the Doctor was talking to the Nestine Consciousness “I fought in the war, I was there” and I thought “This is interesting…there’s a bit of pathos there”. So a few days later, I watched the next episode…it was still just okay. And then the next…
KR: So what hooked you?
DS: “Father’s Day”. My husband was away on a business trip, it was late at night, the kids were all in bed…and I watched “Father’s Day” and I CRIED like an 8-year-old girl who didn’t get a pony for Christmas. And then my reaction was “Well, I can’t stop now, I HAVE to watch the next episode,” which, as you know, is “The Empty Child”.
KR: I rewatched that the other day!
DS: It’s SO Scary! And then I went to “The Doctor Dances” and it’s 2 o’clock in the morning…and at that point I was all in. And THEN in “Bad Wolf” when the Doctor is looking at Rose on the screen and he says that he is coming for her…I melted. At that point, I was thinking “This guy is DEAD sexy”. It’s not just an interesting character…it was the power and the raw energy. You couldn’t do anything but fan yourself. His regeneration RUINED me and I was like “Who the hell is this David Tennant guy?”. I do think it helped that you had this transitional character in Rose made the difference and she eased the way for all these new fans that had just had their world rocked by the regeneration.
KR: For me, I started watching when Community went on hiatus in its third season and I needed something new to watch, and because of the Inspector Spacetime connection, I went with Doctor Who. The first episode I ever watched LIVE was “Asylum of the Daleks”!
DS: WOW! You’re REALLY new…wet behind the ears!
KR: Yeah, I’m a baby Whovian! But I fell hard and fast, because that’s what I do. I’m a fangirl.
DS: We love deep and hard.
KR: I always joke that I have post traumatic stress from “Doomsday”. I’ve only watched it once. I literally threw my remote across the room and sobbed.
DS: I know! I hadn’t cried that hard in an episode since “Father’s Day”, it was so brutal. And especially as a shipper fangirl. I’ve always been a shipper of SOMETHING at some point.
KR: It’s one of the most epic love stories in all of television.
DS: I agree.
KR: I get very angry when people talk about the Rose/Doctor love story in a negative way. Or when they roll their eyes at me when I say “But I LOVE Rose and The Doctor.”
DS: I do too. I don’t necessarily think it was the HEALTHIEST of relationships towards the end, but it was definitely an intense and emotional relationship.
KR: I think that’s why a lot of women hooked into the show.
DS: It was a different emotional beat than classic Who had. Classic Who always had those intense relationships, but we watch television differently now. We’re looking for that…especially women in a post-Buffy world. That is as important element to the story as all the adventures. We want to see emotional vulnerability.
KR: As someone who came into the show with the new series and has now become a Whovian Academic (side note: Deb got quite bashful and laughed when I said that) who has been involved with books geared toward women that are considered very important to the fandom, I just want to thank you for sticking up for the fangirls.
DS: I was an English major and I came into fandom very late as an adult and I found people talking about television shows in ways I had only seen people talk about literature. The community I was involved with were very female-centric and they were all BRILLIANT women…academics, attorneys who loved this property and this show and were willing to talk about in a way that wasn’t just “Oh this guy’s hot.” They were talking about the cultural references and the literary references and the emotional arcs and the mythology surrounding the show. So I started looking at television in the same way that I would look at critiquing literature. These are the stories of our time. These are the myths of our time. Television and movies are our cultural heritage right now. And I had a friend of mine from my days in the Buffy fandom was friends with an editor who had emailed her looking for female writers because all of a sudden there were all these girls who liked Doctor Who and they wanted those voices represented. So we got in touch and he asked me to write an essay, and that’s basically how it all got started with me thinking critically about Doctor Who. It’s a show that fascinates me in a way that no other does because it’s fifty years old. The social, political, and economic changes over 50 years…there is so much to delve into. The roles of women in society from 1963 to 2013…you can watch that evolution through the show.
KR: I loathe to use the word favorite…but do you have a favorite female companion?
DS: That’s really hard, because it almost depends on the day of the week you would ask me. There’s companions that fascinate me…that I keep thinking about a lot. The companion of my heart will always be Rose, because she was my first. I adore Jo Grant as a character because she was very maligned and given the challenge of “Ugh, it’s Jo…what can you say about her?” and I watch her and I think “You guys don’t GET this at all”. She was a woman who was a companion in the 70’s and had very clear expectations on what her role was and she had to work in that box…and yet she would smile at you and say “Yes Sir”…and then go do what she wanted to do. I love Jean Marsh, who played Sara Kingdom, a character in the lost episodes, who was the first bad-ass soldier companion in 1965. Those are companions who would be my top 3 right now…but that changes all the time. And then there’s Donna…DONNA! I mean COME ON.
KR: I always say DONNA NOBLE, MY QUEEN!
DS: Donna’s the girl I want to go out with and have drinks. She’s fantastic. And they were such GOOD friends.
KR: I always felt like Donna was a bit of a fangirl herself. Like the way she reacted when Ten finally found Rose again. She GOT it. And that segues into the problems I had with Martha Jones. I never felt like she understood the tie the Doctor had to Rose. Which, of course, I blame on the writing.
DS: But the Doctor did not TREAT her well at all and he gave her a lot of mixed signals. She’s a great character that had a shitty story. The one thing I love about Martha is she is the ONLY one who had her own agency out of all of Davies’ run. Davies wrote some brilliant women characters…but Rose and Donna’s choices were taken away from them. And it’s heartbreaking, especially what happens to Donna. Martha CHOSE to leave and I love that. Also, Davies wrote WOMEN characters, Moffat writes GIRLS. We have the “Girl Who Waited” and “The Impossible Girl”. With Davies it was “The Woman Who Walked the Earth”, “Rose Tyler, defender of the Earth”, and “Donna Noble: the Most Important Woman in the Universe”.
KR: It is the difference with Steven Moffat. Women vs. Girls. We want to see more WOMEN.
DS: Yes, I want to see more women. I want the companion to stop being the mystery. I hate the companion as the mystery story…because it “others” them as well as limits their contribution.
KR: Having just watched the McGann Movie, I really liked Grace Holloway as well, and I would have loved to have seen more of her. Grace chose NOT to go with him.
DS: Which was BOLD.
KR: AND she said “No, you come with me!” and my reaction to that was “Oooooooooohh, I like that.”
DS: That’s right! “You stay with me…you be MY companion! I’m a doctor! Come on!”
KR: It’s funny because I saw shades of Rose, Martha, and Donna in Grace.
DS: Russell Davies will freely admit that the new series was heavily influenced by the McGann movie…from the look, the production values, the pace of the storytelling. Without the television movie as that bridge between the classic series and the new series, I don’t know if you could have what we have today. You needed something and somebody to prep the ground before you could do this big drastic change. I have a deep affection for it…but it was trying to serve too many masters and 30 years of back story in 90 minutes. Which made what Russell Davies did with “Rose” all the more brilliant…because you could jump in having never seen Doctor Who and GET IT.
As Deb and I wrapped up our interview, she looked at her watch and said that she had a panel she was moderating ab0ut “Fangirl” not being a dirty word, and she bemoaned the fact that she was going solo as far as moderating. “I’ll moderate it with you,” I said, half kidding. “Yes! You SHOULD,” she exclaimed. “You ARE a living and breathing fangirl, after all!”
And that’s the story of how I ended up on a panel at my very first Doctor Who convention.
The idea for this panel originated from Deb being on social media right after the announcement of Peter Capaldi as the 12th Doctor and how a faction of the fandom reacted by saying “Maybe this will finally get rid of the fangirls.”, which she found incredibly offensive. Why were they specifically attacking fangirls? Just because they perceived that because Capaldi was older and in their eyes “Not Hot” (um, those people who DON’T think he is attractive are wrong) , they expected the female fans to turn their backs on the show? ESPECIALLY the young female fans. Why were they not telling the “fanboys” to settle down? In short, it is because suddenly the word fangirl has become a derogatory term.
There is a definite concept of what a fangirl is to the haters and it is the screaming, crying, only in it because he is hot kind of fan. And YES…there are those types of girls out there. There are the girls who scream and cry when their favorite doesn’t win American Idol or yes, when Peter Capaldi was announced as the 12th Doctor. There will always be fans that have bad reactions to change, and that is not exclusively tied to women and girls. Just look at the recent backlash against the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman. And fan backlash is certainly not foreign to the Doctor Who fandom either. There was a massive outcry when “embyro” Matt Smith was cast. And yet…none of that backlash was directed at fangirls. Deb likened it to a mode of “gatekeeping” within the Whovian fandom. While it’s not as divided as before, there are still factions of fans that cling to the classic days and having been through the period where Doctor Who was off the air and they were keeping the fandom alive…and then there was an influx of fans with the new series that essentially resulted in a section of the Classic Fans becoming Hipsters…because they loved Doctor Who before it was cool.
What’s important, Deb stressed during the panel, was that with the young fans, the so-called “obnoxious fangirls”…this is likely their first experience with fandom. Think back to when you discovered the television show or movie or book you love the most. Didn’t you have the SAME unbridled enthusiasm as those “crazy fangirls”? I would wager your answer would be yes. And we should nurture that enthusiasm…because those fans will become the ones who will be speaking on panels at Doctor Who conventions 20 years from now.
We also spent time discussing what being a fangirl means to us. For me, being a fangirl means LOVE. It means enthusiasm and unbridled joy at loving something so much you can’t help but have it overwhelm you at times. I’ve ALWAYS been a fangirl, but it wasn’t until I fully embraced it that I felt truly myself. To quote Abed Nadir, I just like liking things. And that’s never going to change and I am at a point in my life where I own that completely. And there’s nothing wrong with it. Deb made an excellent point when she said that she took offense to someone once saying she’s a fan who is a girl, not a fangirl, because she didn’t react in the way that the person who said that to her percieved a fangirl to be. “No,” she told her friend. “I identify as a fangirl. That’s who I am.” And being a fangirl doesn’t make you silly. Deb used Sherlock as an example. “I can discuss the Arthur Conan Doyle canon until I am blue in the face. I can discuss the nuances of the shows and the performances. But also, sometimes I just want to sit down and see Benedict Cumberbatch’s cheekbones. And there is nothing wrong with that.”
“Nerds like us are allowed to be unironically enthusiastic about stuff… Nerds are allowed to love stuff, like jump-up-and-down-in-the-chair-can’t-control-yourself love it. Hank, when people call people nerds, mostly what they’re saying is ‘you like stuff.’ Which is just not a good insult at all. Like, ‘you are too enthusiastic about the miracle of human consciousness’.”
My name is Kim. I’m 34 almost 35 and I am a fangirl. And I couldn’t be prouder to call myself that.