Masculinity Without Men: The Sontarans and Relational Gender in “Doctor Who”

30 Apr

[F]or male-dominated society, man is the founding principle and woman the excluded opposite of this; and as long as such a distinction is tightly held in place the whole system can function effectively. […] Woman is not just an other in the sense of something beyond his ken, but an other intimately related to him as the image of what he is not, and therefore as an essential reminder of what he is. Man therefore needs this other even as he spurns it, is constrained to give a positive identity to what he regards as a no-thing. Not only is his own being parasitically dependent upon the woman, and upon the act of excluding and subordinating her, but one reason why such exclusion is necessary is because she may not be quite so other after all. Perhaps she stands as a sign of something in man himself which he needs to repress, expel beyond his own being, relegate a securely alien region beyond his own definitive limits. Perhaps what is outside is also somehow inside, what is alien also intimate–so that man needs to police the absolute frontier between the two realms as vigilantly as he does just because it may always be transgressed, has always been transgressed already, and is much less absolute than it appears.

– Terry Eagleton on deconstruction, in Literary Theory: An Introduction

Traditionally, one of the functions of the science-fiction/fantasy genre (or genres, if you prefer) has been to make the familiar strange: to give readers a new perspective on our own world by reconfiguring it. To that end, this post concerns the Sontarans, an alien species from the long-running British sci-fi television series Doctor Who. If you’re not familiar with Doctor Who, allow me to be the first to say: hello, and welcome to the internet. Doctor Who chronicles the episodic journeys of a time-traveling alien named The Doctor. Being  a sci-fi show with a very loose sense of continuity, it depicts a wide variety of fantastical planets and cultures, usually to allegorical effect. Case in point, the Sontarans, an aggressive, militaristic species of vaguely potato-shaped humanoids.

The Doctor refers to the Sontarans as “the greatest soldiers in the galaxy,” and he ought to know, having seen most of it. Having engaged in a war with another alien race known as the Rutan for some fifty-thousand years, theirs is an unsurprisingly martial culture that valorizes duty above all else. To some degree, we’ve seen their like in our own history. The Sontarans glorify not only killing, but dying in violence; they find acts of pity or compassion to be shameful; they fear being out-bred by their enemies and place great emphasis on controlling the technologies of reproduction; they consistently find foreign cultures to be contemptible and incomprehensible. In short, they seem to embody a weaponized, hierarchical form of masculinity often associated with warlords, military dictatorships, and totalitarian states.

What problematizes the perceived masculinity of the Sontarans, or any gender distinctions we might care to make, is that their species lacks the sexual dimorphism we’ve come to expect from intelligent species. They simply do not have sex, either as category or activity. Lacking the time or inclination for any kind of civilian life, and constantly in need of new cannon fodder, the Sontarans reproduce via cloning, in specialized hatcheries aboard warships or on suitable planets. On that basis, to what extent does it still make sense to refer to their culture as masculine? Can masculinity exist independently of the binary Eagleton detailed above, with neither the feminine (as attribute) or women (as entity)?

Perhaps a better question would be whether the binary is flexible enough to accommodate gendering an asexual species. While Eagleton describes this application of masculinity as being believed to have objective existence and absolute value, in practice, the only truly necessary quality it possesses is that of not being feminine (or, perhaps more accurately, being not-feminine). A man becomes masculine, so to speak, by standing next to someone more feminine than himself.

Joanna Bourke, writing in Rape: sex, violence, history, describes a number of scenarios in which this relational masculinity is asserted through violence, most commonly sexual in nature. This violence is highly contextual, and always bound up with identity. Among the more prominent of those identities is that of the soldier. Historically, the association is warfare with rape is so strong that it’s become conventional wisdom: “Women are set outside of culture, becoming merely the ‘bounty’ of war.” Gang rape, in particular, is uniquely common on the battlefield, in rituals of bonding and desensitization. Even the dead are frequent targets of sexual degradation.

The targets vary considerably–female and male, adult and child, living and dead–but they share an assertion of dominance through violence and humiliation that is specifically sexual in nature. What Bourke implies but never actually argues is that the assertion that gender precedes sex, that being a woman is one element, but by no means a deterministic one, of femininity. In the act of rape, the gender binary defines the rapist as masculine and the victim as feminine not because the former is a man and the latter a woman, but because that’s simply what “masculine” and “feminine” ultimately mean.

What, praytell, does this have to do with the Sontarans?

Despite their lack of concern about their own gender (or lack thereof), the Sontarans do find time to engage in old-fashioned misogyny. “Words are the weapon of womenfolk,” says one in response to the mocking of a doomed, disposable redshirt. “I must find you unfit.” Elsewhere, they express disgust with sexual reproduction itself. To a Sontaran, any sexually reproducing species is embarrassingly feminine; even their soldiers literally come out of women. In the absence of such women, the Sontarans have displaced the antipathy they might have shown towards women with an antipathy toward every other civilization they encounter: for all things not-Sontaran. As a result, this violent conquest is itself constitutive of existence and value as a Sontaran. Other species exist to be crushed; the Sontarans exist to crush them.

The kind of systemic, imperialist violence embraced by the militarized masculinity we see in the Sontarans is inherently gendered, even when you take sex out of the equation. When we learn from the Sontarans is that our ideas about sex, violence, power, and gender are so deeply intertwined that we can’t even fully imagine them being separate. In fantasy, we have an opportunity reality does not offer: to see the various elements of the social imaginary out of context, to understand the part by obscuring the whole.

Peter Rauch is an ex-academic looking for his next thing. He writes about media, philosophy, and gender issues at Undisciplined, and writes shorter things as @Wordbeast.

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One Response to “Masculinity Without Men: The Sontarans and Relational Gender in “Doctor Who””

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  1. Doctor Who Book Review "Shakedown" | Lez Get Real - May 11, 2014

    […] Masculinity Without Men: The Sontarans and Relational Gender in “Doctor Who” (masculinities101.com) […]

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