If I ever meet Russel T. Davies, the first thing I will say to him is “Thank you, so much, for Harriet Jones.”
As a college student currently focusing my studies on women in politics, nothing made me happier than when Harriet Jones strode on screen in Series One, flashing her badge and telling anyone who would listen that she was “Harriet Jones, MP from Flydale North.” Aliens just crash landed in the Thames? Forget that, she’s got a policy agenda that needs fulfilling. The Prime Minister and most of the cabinet has been killed? Well, looks like its up to her to stand up and take charge of the situation. The country is in chaos? Better form a new coalition and lead Britain into the Golden Age.
Harriet Jones was not only a compelling character with a fascinating story arc, she also defied many conventional stereotypes about female politicians. She was caring and compassionate, taking the time to learn the names of everyone working for her and willing to sacrifice herself to save Rose, but she could be equally ruthless, especially when it came to her decision to destroy the fleeing Sycorax ship. She is interested in issues that are traditionally assumed to be “women’s” issues, such as healthcare and education, but she was equally capable of handling complex negotiations and making military decisions. Best of all, even after being deposed by the Doctor, she stands by her opinions and beliefs, not because she is obstinate or stubborn but because she has thought deeply about the issue and analyzed the situation at hand and come to her own conclusion. There was no magical thought transformation to make her opinions align with the Doctor’s, and she didn’t worship the Doctor so thoroughly that she was willing to put aside her own beliefs for him. I can’t thank Davies enough for creating a character which defies conventions without becoming a cliché, and remains consistent in her characterization, even if this puts her in opposition to the Doctor.
Of course, as soon as I’m finished hugging Davies for creating Harriet Jones, I’m going to slap him across the face for the manner in which she was deposed by the Doctor. We’ll leave aside the issues of state sovereignty, pre-emptive strikes, and self-determination that factor into Harriet Jones’ decision to destroy the Sycorax ship (and believe me, I could write an entire blog dedicated to that one clip), but whether it was right or wrong, the Doctor decides that he has to depose Harriet Jones for her actions, and brings down her government with six words:
His six words bring about a wave of criticism on Harriet Jones, not on the basis of how she reacted to the Sycorax invasion of London, or even on the basis of all the reforms she brought about during her term (referred to even by the Doctor as ‘The Golden Age’ of Britain), but on the basis of her appearance. Presumably in the show this is meant to inspire a sort of “Health Crisis” where she is suddenly considered to be unfit for the job, but let’s be clear, she’s being judged on the basis of her appearance. Her physical state did not change during the course of the episode, and a physician’s check up would’ve proven that. And the Doctor deliberately targets her appearance:
Don’t you think she looks tired?
Politicians are questioned about their health constantly, especially older ones, but there is no denying that women face this criticism on an especially sexist level that focuses primarily on their appearance.
A real world counterpart for Harriet Jones would be Hillary Clinton (to be honest, I have a headcannon that if they existed in the same universe, they’d be total badass BFFs). When Hillary Clinton ran in the Democratic Primary in 2008, she faced an incredible amount of criticism based on her appearance. Commentators focused on every single line and wrinkle on her face; radio jockeys asked whether Americans could stand the sight of a woman president becoming "older before their eyes on a daily basis" and whether her aging appearance would directly correlate to declining poll numbers; even in 2013, when after 4 years serving as Secretary of State she retired and published a website featuring a flattering picture of herself, the very first comments about this website focused on whether Clinton had gotten a face lift because, apparently, she looked too good.
In this clip from the Miss Representation trailer, a Fox News host describes one unflattering picture of Clinton taken during the 2008 race and describes Clinton as looking 92 years old and “haggard”; obviously this woman is not fit for office.
In my headcannon, I imagine every month or so Hillary and Harriet would get together for coffee and discuss the latest international crisis they had to deal with and all the sexist crap that they put up with.
"I’ve been working to form a coalition to stop Qaddafi’s massacre in Libya and I’ve been in an airplane for a week straight," Hillary would say with a sigh. "But I come home and all people can do is complain that I don’t spend enough time on my hair."
Harriet would nod knowingly. “Don’t get me started. I looked a tad stressed after an alien invasion, and my government collapsed and was replaced by some young attractive man named Saxon. Of course, we all know how that turned out. Tell me, how is one supposed to look during an alien invasion?”
Barack Obama served for President of the United States for four years and very visibly aged. Hillary Clinton served as Secretary of State for four years and also visibly aged. Only one faces snide jokes about their appearance and faces questions about whether they are fit to continue working. That is sexism.
Harriet Jones was many things: a caring daughter, a tough politician, and ultimately a leader who faced a terrible decision. But in the end, despite everything she said and did, she was reduced to her appearance, and on this basis alone she was brought down. That is sexism.
Yet despite it all, Hillary Clinton and Harriet Jones keep working. Hillary Clinton is expected to run for President in 2016. Harriet Jones continued to work behind the scenes with various projects and eventually gave her life to help defend the planet. In the end, she is probably a greater inspiration to women because of what the writers did to her. She taught us that sexism comes from everywhere, even from the people we admire the most, and that we must continue to work in spite of it. But she also serves as a cautionary tale: if we want more women in elected office, we must continue to call out sexism wherever and whenever we see it. As Hillary Clinton knows, this type of sexism isn’t confined to the world of fiction.
So thank you, Harriet Jones, former Prime Minister.