‘Torchwood: Outside the Government, Beyond the Police….Past Traditional Gender Expectations’ : Finding my A Level Media Coursework from 2008/9

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As a broadcast fiction text of the 21st century displaying post modern elements, Torchwood reflects different attitudes regarding gender reception and those in relation to violence, an example of these being the effects on society being part of a 9/11 era.

From an audience perspective, each of the characters in Torchwood can be seen to conform to the typical character roles (Propp) as there is the hero, the villain, the donor and the false hero which are all identifiable through the paradigmatic choices of attire and narrative positions clearly defining how, on a surface interpretation, the audience are intended to receive them. Captain Jack Harkness conforms to the typical Proppian hero role of being a character that the audience will associate strongly with, evident via his position within the episode’s narrative. In ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’, for example, the primary focus is the return of Jack and his involvement with Captain John Hart, a character unknown to the audience but part of Jack’s past thus contributing to the audience’s perception of the hero’s mysterious nature. Mulvey suggests that male viewers ‘identify with the male protagonist’ and can be seen to admire his traits as well as receive pleasure from this identification in relation to the uses and gratifications. She says, in relation to audience reception of the character, the audience relates to the character roles regarding the gender of both themselves and the represented characters. For example, she claims that women frequently gaze at the centralized male character thus meaning that ‘women are denied a viewpoint of their own’. Evidently, the most centralised character throughout both series of Torchwood is Captain Jack thus conforming to this idea as it can be perceived that the producers used Jack in a sexualised manner via the use of the reversed male gaze to appeal to audience pleasures of sexual pleasures in relation to uses and gratifications. Not only this, but the hero is often represented as being a character who is admired and looked up to meaning that SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAthe producers have also allowed for audience identification of the hero role, possible leading to further audience pleasures.

In association with this, the promotional photographs of Torchwood released also illustrate Jack’s position in the hero role as he is placed at the forefront ahead of the remainder of the team as well as indicating that he is also the protagonist (Goffman). In Goffman’s terms, the protagonist is the leading character thus displaying a clear link to the hero and clearly summing up, from an external perspective, the role of Jack showing conformity to typical audience perceptions.  This in itself allows for rapid audience identification which may not only provide audience pleasures but also contributes to the development of the narrative as it enables people to identify the binary oppositions driving the narrative forward (Todorov)

Another way in which Jack conforms to the hero role is via his aesthetic appearance as he is represented as being strong, tall and masculine, common elements that are interpreted by the audience as being clear signifiers, especially when in comparison with the hero in other texts such as John Maclane in Die Hard 4.0.  In relation to this, the Great World War II coat connotes ideas of authority and formality which are qualities John Maclane and Angel from Angel also possess reinforcing the idea of masculinity and dominance as traditional and common hero traits (Tasker).

Nevertheless, Torchwood also displays some evidence of the subversion of the typical Proppian character roles such as Jack’s role as the hero. For example, in relation to a feminist approach, both his and the character of Ianto, who is often portrayed as the donor due to his position of helping the various characters in their ‘missions’, subvert expectations. In ‘Something Borrowed’, they are discussing the decision Ianto made when he was put in the position of purchasing an alternative wedding dress for Gwen [1] which is generally considered to be a role for a female. This shows their exhibition of traditionally feminine qualities therefore their reinforcement of the idea that gender is a behaviour as opposed to a biological trait (Butler) and ‘rather than being a fixed attribute, is a fluid variable.’ Not only does this act as a derivative of ideologies of sexuality in the contemporary society, it also provides gratifications for the audience by providing subversive expectations to what they would expect and contributing to the prevention of cliché. As well as achieving subversion via feminine behaviour, Torchwood also represents homosexuality through Jack’s character to do so. Unlike the traditional hero who is generally expected to be heterosexual desire the ’princess’, Jack has desires a male, Ianto Jones, for example being “Are you asking me on a date, sir?” from Ianto to which Jack replies “Maybe I am.”[2].

In relation to this, the actor who plays Jack, John Barrowman, is gay which is in direct opposition with the common employment of heterosexual actors to play the hero role, such as Bruce Willis in Die Hard 4.0 By doing this, the writer and creator of Torchwood Russell T Davies who is also homosexual, allows for audience identification with the character and creates ideologies of homosexuality being positive as opposed to the pre-modern media aversion of the use of gay and lesbian attitudes that would conflict with the mass audiences beliefs in association with the attitudes present in society within that era.

In order to fully understand the role of the hero, we must also observe the use of violence in Torchwood. There is a consistent use of violence used positively and negatively, dependent on the character roles. For example, when Jack uses violence the producers intend for the audience to perceive it as being positive as he has good intentions that will benefit and protect people via his heroic representation. However, if a character that has been established as the villain through previous actions in the narrative, uses violence then the intentions are that the audience will receive it as being negative. For example, in ‘Something Borrowed’, Jack arrives at the resolution with a gun which he proceeds to use to blow up the Nostrovite [3] that is threatening Gwen and, because she is rescued, it is viewed as positive and reinforces the hero’s dominance and strength. From an opposing view, such as from the Nostrovite’s perspective, this violence can be seen as being negative. This is because the Nostrovite’s aim was to regain its offspring impregnated within Gwen following the death of its mate, illustrating that its own intentions were to protect its family, a common ideology present in society. As a result of this, there is an indication that a decline of meta narratives is present as Jack can be seen as doing the right thing but also as not doing as he breaks up a family, conflicting with the societal 6520_1199669114336_6712349_nideologies.

From a Freudian perspective, the gun can be interpreted as being phallic and used by Jack to assert his masculinity, a hero trait expected by audiences. For example, prior to Jack’s rescue of Gwen, the male members of the team discover that the weapons that they were armed with were not good enough to defeat the alien to which Jack replies “We’re gonna need a bigger gun”. This clearly illustrates the threat of emasculation Jack is faced with as he faces the alien resulting in him using the larger gun to kill the threat, reassert his masculinity and defeat his own emasculation. This is a common factor that the majority of heroes are faced with in order for narrative progression and also conforms to the ideology present in society that ‘bigger is better’. As well as this, there is also a use of intertextuality of Jaws via this “We’re gonna need a bigger boat” which is needed to defeat the shark showing that the ideology has been in the society for a while, possibly contextually reflecting the threat to masculinity women posed as they move into the ‘social sphere’.

The use of violence within Torchwood reflects issues present in the contemporary society as a result of 9/11 and the ideologies present since then. For example, ideas from a social historical context due to the US war on terror, an example being the positive and negative violence representation, which can be interpreted as being a reflection of the current foreign affairs of the war in Iraq and conflict with America. The ideologies formed, can be seen via the villains representations such as Captain John Hart who, being aliens, are perceived as external threats evident from a post 9/11 and a post WWII society. Also, they are in constant conflict with Jack and the rest of the Torchwood team illustrating clear binary oppositions of good v. evil. The attire that John wears also defines his negative character as the producers have made the paradigmatic choice for him to wear red of which the audience may identify as having connotations of being dangerous. However, additionally to this his actions and his character also reflect the attitudes towards terrorism in the contemporary society. Terrorism is often perceived as being caused by extreme Muslims and foreigners whose ideological target is to ‘disregard the safety on combatants’[4] therefore by placing John Hart in the position of detonating explosive devices in various places around Cardiff, he can be seen to directly reflect the actions taken by Islamic terrorists like the London bombings on the 7th July 2005. Due to the fact that he is American, the audience may interpret this to illustrate the idea that, although defending against the threatening foreign attack, America in some way is to blame for the constant attacks and that they too could be considered to be terrorists in some way possibly via the current war affairs in which the US lead a coalition attack and can be seen to be a key contributor.  Another way in which, Torchwood can be seen to reflect the post 9/11 contemporary society is via the consistent conflict between Torchwood and the alien threats as Torchwood could be viewed by the audience as representing the US and British troops fighting against the aliens representing the terrorists.

In association with a social/historical context, technological advancements are also issues that affect the hero role within Torchwood. Chafetz, associated with feminist conflict theory, says that technological advances contribute to the change in gender stratification and this is evident within Torchwood. For example, she argues that ‘technology can alter strength requirements……..the capacity to work outside the home and domestic responsibilities’ meaning that jobs available to women increase when these increase. In Torchwood, the majority of the work is dependent on technology thus providing clear evidence that women have more of an opportunity to work there as seen through the characters of Gwen and Toshiko, Toshiko whom the team rely on to understand and control the technology. However, this dependence on technology also results in some issues reflective of the contemporary society such as the panic of technological failure and how easily it can be disabled – a risk to safety and security. For example, in Torchwood, Captain John Hart uses a piece of foreign technology to close down Torchwoods system preventing contact and putting their lives at risk.  Chafetz also says that ‘the successful mobilization of women generates a sense of threat’ which is evident in Torchwood. Despite this, Gwen remains a dominant part of the team ‘rebelling’ against traditional beliefs of women belonging in the ‘domestic sphere’ as opposed to the ‘professional sphere’. In some ways, Gwen can also be seen to take on the role of the hero, going against traditional expectations.

With Gwen as the hero, it is evident that she displays some elements of the hero such as the exhibition of strength not physically but mentally which can be seen in ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ as she had to take control of Torchwood when Jack left effectively emasculating him psychoanalytically and illustrating that she possess traits often associated with the traditional hero, such as leadership skills. She also offers to sacrifice herself to save the city proving her strength of character and masculine quality of heroics. However, psychoanalytically, Gwen can be perceived as suffering from ‘penis envy’ as she consistently uses a gun which can be interpreted as being a phallic symbol. What can alternatively be interpreted is her concealment of the weapon in her bouquet on her wedding day as this may signify her reluctance of admittance to her ‘penis envy’. As well as this, this can also reflect the idea she is hiding her need for masculinity and traditional idea of females being weak.

Related to the character of Gwen is her attitude towards marriage as traditionally, women were expected to want marriage and family whereas men would work for a living to provide for them.  Gunter claims that the representations of women portrayed them as finding domesticity important showing a contrast from the modern day women representations where many have moved into the ‘professional and social spheres’ with Gwen as opposed remaining in the ‘domestic sphere’. She does appear adamant to marry to reflecting the idea that family and marriage is important to her, conforming to the traditional women’s role. However, in ‘Adrift’ she argues that he job would get in the way when Rhys is asking her about starting a family, which shows how strong her position is within the ‘professional sphere’ and also demonstrates the effect that context has on the female representations.  By the 1960s onwards, second wave feminism was taking place and the woman’s societal role was significantly changing with females gradually moving from the ‘domestic sphere’ into the ‘professional and social spheres’ linking to Gwen’s position within the Torchwood team. Arguably, it can be said that her position is represented as being negative as  she appears to disregard what her family as within ‘Something Borrowed’ the audience also discovers that she hasn’t seen her parents for a while, thus meaning that Torchwood can be interpreted as reflecting the ideologies from the 1960s. Alternatively, McNeil argues that the female’s role in television within the 1970s was primarily used to show the position of the female in the role of the housewife and if were represented as being in a working role, they were indecisive and were considered to be the ‘black sheep’ with negative relationships. With Gwen, this can be seen to be a subverted idea as although in some respects her relationship with her husband Rhys is ‘strained’, she also enjoys some positive times alongside him and the rest of the Torchwood team. As well as this, a study carried out by McNeil revealed that men were also expected to be the key decision makers although Gwen proves to do so as well when it is revealed that she took control of Torchwood when Jack left for a while and continues to do so when he returns.  Overall this demonstrates the changes that have taken place in relation to the equality between men and women between the 1970s and the 2000s and contextually shows how the role of women has increased significantly within the ‘professional’ and ‘social spheres’.

Another contributor to the establishing and maintenance of Propp’s character roles is the use of the post modern element intertextuality. Torchwood uses the intertextuality aspect with Captain John Hart, as the actor portraying him, James Marsters, also played ‘Spike’ in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel from which Torchwood can be seen to derive a considerable amount of its narratives. The creator, writer and executive producer of Torchwood, has himself said that both of these texts were a huge influence on the production due to the narrative and characters and from an audience perspective distinctive parallels can be drawn. For example, the Angel episode ‘Expecting’ can be seen to be reflected in the Torchwood episode ‘Something Borrowed’ due to the fact that they have a similar narrative structure showing not only intertextuality but also labelling Torchwood as being a pastiche of Angel highlighted by the casting of James Marsters which can be seen to give the audience a ‘knowing wink’ highlighting the programmes awareness of the pastiche elements. Due to the fact that Marsters played a villainous vampire character in BTVS and Angel, the audience may, if they recognise him, transfer their perception of the Spike, onto their perception of the character of John Hart immediately placing him into the negative villain role.

Parallel to the hero in Torchwood, Angel the hero in Angel can also be seen to both conform and subvert typical audience expectations of the role in effect creating audience pleasures from the separation of what they believe. A distinctive example of the conformity is his dominant role in the narrative illustrated clearly by the title Angel which immediately indicates to the audience that he is the ‘hero’ or if not the protagonist as Jack is. As well as this, his aesthetic appearance also contributes to his heroic position as, similar to Jack he is tall, strong and masculine conforming to what the hero is believed to look like. He also takes up the position of being the ‘lone wolf’ within the narrative as on many occasions he chooses to be alone and often isolates himself which in some respects is what the hero of Die Hard 4.0is but in others Angel isolates himself as opposed to forcibly being isolated illustrating conformity and subversion to the lone wolf trait. Another example of Angel being the hero is his heterosexual relationship with Buffy, unlike Jack who also displays relationship qualities alongside Ianto, thus indicating his acceptance of expectations.

However, to a greater extent than Jack, Angel clearly illustrates a decline of meta narratives. In Strinati’s terms, meta narratives ‘are read by communities and used to understand reality’, an example being binary oppositions between good and evil. As an exception to this, Angel can be seen to merge both good and evil via his character and personality thus resulting in the audiences’ unknowingness of what to depend on.  This is because initially, Angel being a good vampire is an exception to the mass’ perception of vampires traditionally being evil despite there being an increase in the idea that they can be good, for example in Twilight in which the vampire family are integrated successfully within the society and drink animal blood as opposed to humans.However, another side to his personality reveals him as Angelus, an ‘evil’ vampire resulting in the audience being unsure on what to believe in and effectively take sides with when looking at his use of violence due to the fact that in some ways Angel may be using it positively to rescue or negatively to kill maliciously thus personifying the binary oppositions. In relation to this subversion, his name ‘Angel’ also carries feminine connotations along with his personality of taking things personally and worrying which are traits associated with the female, which indicates that although he shows a degree of subversion of the hero, there is also some conformity of Jack’s role.

Torchwood does conform and subvert typical conventions of the roles of the hero and the villain and parallels can be drawn between that and the issues present in the contemporary society being a part of a post 9/11 era seen through the representation of the villains. This provides pleasures for the audience both through the subversion of their expectations and conforming to what they expect as well as the avoidance of generic cliché.


[1] Gwen was forced to wear a new wedding dress following her literal alien pregnancy

[2] An example from the episode ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’

[3] An alien who tries to kill Gwen to get its offspring which has been impregnated within Gwen by its dead mate.

[4] Thalif Deen. Politics U.N Member States Struggle to Define Terrorism, Inter Press Service, 25 July 2005

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