Friday, 8 November 2013

Zwarte Piet and other companions. By Keren David

First let me apologise it the following image offends you.

And now let me apologise if my previous apology offended you.

If you were offended by my first apology then you are almost certainly Dutch and will instantly recognise the picture as Sinterklaas -  Saint Nicholas -  parading through Amsterdam with Zwarte Piet ('Black Pete') his...well, how shall we describe him? His servant possibly, but generally, nowadays, referred to as his companion, helper or friend.   Remember those gollywog toys that you used to see on jam pots, in toy shops and in Enid Blyton books? They live on in Zwarte Piet -  or Pieten - hundreds of whom  accompany the Sint (as he is known) on his parade (they arrive by boat, supposedly from Spain), blacked up with afro wigs and bright red lips. In the sweet shops there are marzipan Piets, in department stores huge Piet models climb up and down ropes.

 When we first went to live in the Netherlands we found Zwarte Piet startling (and I have never forgotten the face of my friend from Boston when she visited me in the maternity ward of an Amsterdam hospital and bumped into a six foot Piet handing out presents to  children. 'They'll never believe this in America!' she shrieked, pulling out her camera). But gradually, we got used to him. Our children were growing up there, and Sinterklaas was an accessible bit of Dutch culture, with easy songs and cute customs  (you leave out your shoe overnight and Piet fills it with sweets and chocolate and takes the carrot you've left out for the Sint's horse).  We bought them Zwarte Piet hats - shiny satin and feather plumes -  but never blacked them up. And we didn't buy Zwarte Piet marzipan sweets either. My daughter called him Smart Piet. We loved him like the Dutch.

There are always rumblings of discontent in the Netherlands about Zwarte Piet, with black people complaining that he is an offensive image, but they are rarely taken very seriously, with most Dutch people -  liberal, sure, but white -  pointing out that he is a much-loved part of their culture, and besides, the blackness comes from the chimneys that he slides down to distribute sweets. This year the protests have got louder, with a UN committee criticising the custom.  The Dutch Prime Minister commented  "Black Piet, the name says it already. He's black. I can't change much about that." Social media pages in support of Piet drawing huge support for the old customs.

I thought of Zwarte Piet this week,when I considered a venerable British cultural figure. Doctor Who has been a part of the British childhood for fifty years. I cowered behind the sofa as the Daleks attacked in the 1970s and my children did the same thirty or so years later.

Like the Sint, the Doctor has always been white and male, and he has a younger, more naive companion. In  the Doctor's case the companion is nearly always a woman. There has been much talk about changing the Doctor's form each time he regenerates into another form -  could he be played by a black man? Could he be a woman? - but such a radical step has never been tried.  The Doctor is male, the companions are women. That's how it's always been.

  The BBC has form in repressing women's voices, as an excellent series on Radio Four revealed recently. Bosses were cautious and reluctant to hire women to read the news, because their voices were not considered to have sufficient authority. As late as 1973  the BBC issued a report about women in broadcasting  stating that "women's vulnerability to menopausal tension"would limit their careers. And forty years later it is still unacceptable for a woman to be considered as Doctor Who.  It's as though the Doctor's authority would disappear if he were to be reborn with the shape of Sandi Toksvig, say, or Sophie Okonedo.

The white maleness of the Doctor goes beyond the faces you see on the screen. There has not been a female scriptwriter on the show since 2007. Some of the books written to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary have been written by women (Jenny Colgan, Naomi Alderman) but the majority are by men. And a collection written by leading children's writers  appearing month by month throughout the year online and now collected together as a book -  has only two women writers - Richelle Mead, the US fantasy writer, and Malorie Blackman, our revered children's laureate.

 Now, all due respect to the fabulous male writers involved (Neil Gaiman, Philip Reeve, Michael Scott, Eoin Colfer, Alex Scarrow, Charlie Higson, Derek Landy and Patrick Ness) but really? Really? Nine to two? Only one British woman (alongside three Irish men)? What about Michelle Paver, Susan Cooper, Susan Price? How about Meg Rosoff, Sophie McKenzie, Theresa Breslin, Katherine Langrish, Gillian Philip?  Were they asked? Did they say no? How about J K Rowling? Is she high profile enough?  The writers chosen represent a 'Who's Who of children's literature,' according to the publishers, Puffin. Hang on, I thought women were well represented in children's literature. Clearly I was mistaken.

The YA author James Dawson brought up the topic on Twitter this week, writing:

So only 2 out of 11 of the Doctor Who 50th short stories were written by women. That’s actually a bit shoddy.

Fellow author Jane McLoughlin shot back her reply:

Yes, but I'm sure women assisted the male writers or acted as companions...

 I'd like to see a black or female Sinterklaas. I'd like the next Doctor Who to be something different -  it could be a Dalek, if they don't think a woman would be suitable. I want to challenge our traditional cultural assumptions about who is in authority and who is a helper. And I'd like to see commissioning editors thinking beyond male writers, however dazzling their talent!


Zoë Marriott said...

Well said.

Elen C said...

I'm currently thinking a lot about how children experience culture.
I think it's still facilitated by women (most editors, librarians, teachers, and, indeed writers, being women). But that all these women are more likely to see men as being the most authoritative voices (as you suggest).

But there are people who think the opposite, as per this article (which I am still mulling over)

Joan Lennon said...

Yes. Thank you for saying it so well.

Katherine Langrish said...

To be fair, I don't know if my historical fantasies, so far, would have jogged anyone's mind when thinking of Dr Who (though my forthcoming one might, but even Dr Who editors can't read the future). But Susan Price would have been an excellent choice. Or Celia Rees.or Geraldine McCaughrean.

Kathleen Jones said...


Catherine Butler said...

Excellent post.

Ieteke said...

Nicely said! I also wrote about Sinterklaas in my blog with the same image!!!

John Dougherty said...

Kath, I think as a writer of historical fantasy you'd be perfect for a story about a time machine!

And what about Frances Hardinge? She'd do an awesome Who, I reckon!

Andrew said...

I never watch Dr Who nowadays, and I feel that it should have been
axed long ago, with the repeats consigned to Channel Dave.

I've worked on numerous TV and film productions as an extra, or background artist in BBC speak.
Casualty, Afterlife, Gavin and Stacey, Lark Rise to Candleford,
Persuasion, The Duchess, The Other Boleyn Girl..., and the rest.

Very few female directors, with the exception of 3rd AD (Assistant Director), the next step up from runner for the media studies graduates.

Very few women on camera crews.
Just about every other job... make-up, costume, casting, actors, production executives....,loads of women.

Also, as far as I'm aware, there are plenty of women in senior BBC line-management.

For me, Dr Who is and always has been a blokey series, for male people. In much the same
way, though less exaggeratedly so.., as Top Gear. Little surprise to me that there have been
few female writers on it.

Seems to me that a dated series, whose concept is, yes, 50 years old... , has been seized upon to make a wider point. A valid one..?

Susan Price said...

Great post! And thanks for the mention, Karen and Kath, but even if I'd been asked (I wasn't) I don't want to write Dr Who!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Heavens, from Zwarte Piet to Dr Who in a few lines! :-) I forwarded this post to a (female)friend of mine who has written for at least one Dr Who anthology and there's Kate Orman too, off the top of my head, probably more.

There's no doubt the series was originally intended for geeky teenage boys. But I'm old enough to remember drooling over Ian, the Doctor's first - and not last - male companion(my hormones must have been kicking in early, as I was a child at the time). Off the top of my head - and there were more - there were Stephen, Ben, Jamie, Adric, that guy who started off trying to kill the Doctor(forgotten his name)and, in more recent years, Mickey(briefly)and Rory and Jack. The female companions have become stronger and more interesting over the years and who can forget that scene where Sarah and Rose compare notes on the Doctor and laugh just as he's entering the room?
And Romana's first appearance, where she points out that she did a lot better than he did in Time Lord exams? I have no doubt that if his companions were all male, people would be complaining that he should have more women in his adventures. :(

And I'm sorry, but I just can't see the Doctor as a woman, if only because even an alien male from Gallifrey would have X and Y chromosomes, no matter how many times he regenerated. I would prefer to have a new series about a female Time Lord than try to mess with this one.

That said, there was the comedy special with Rowan Atkinson in which the Doctor regenerated into Joanna Lumley, so it's sort of happened already. ;-)