Review of Frankel’s Women in Doctor Who and The Women of Orphan Black

Review of Women in Doctor Who and The Women of Orphan Black by Valerie Estelle Frankel

Jeanne Hamming

Valerie Estelle Frankel. Women in Doctor Who: Damsels, Feminists and Monsters. McFarland, 2018. Paperback. 253 pp. $29.95. ISBN 9781476672229.

Valerie Estelle Frankel. The Women of Orphan Black: Faces of the Feminist Spectrum. McFarland, 2018. Paperback. 226 pp. $39.95. ISBN 9781476674124.

A quick Google search of Valerie Estelle Frankel paints a clear portrait of a prolific, detail-oriented independent scholar who has found her niche: pop-feminist analyses of pulp genres and cult science fiction and fantasy favorites—Doctor Who and Orphan Black, but also Outlander, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, True Blood, Wonder Woman. The list goes on. It’s clear that Frankel is a pop culture super-fan, which equips her with the enthusiasm, if not the academic bandwidth, to produce the meticulous compendia of observations that comprise the two volumes reviewed here. 

The Women of Doctor Who is a timely addition to critical work on the long-running series given that the 2018 season brings viewers a female doctor for the first time, played by actor Jodie Whittaker. Frankel’s review of human and non-human female characters in the series and its spin-offs (The Sarah Jane Adventures, Torchwood, Class, K9) is exhaustive, arranging Doctor Who’s treatment of women into broad categories: sweet girls, experts, bad ladies, tough girls, and outsiders. From there, Frankel further identifies female characters in the series by their established archetypes: sexy damsel, evil ice queen, trickster-seductress, and so on. While this convenient conceptual schema works well for a quick reference guide, it is less conducive to a deeper exploration of the critical issues surrounding gender, race, species or their intersections, including analysis of the recent trend to gender- and race-flip established characters and the implications, good or bad, of this particular cultural zeitgeist.

 Frankel’s encyclopedic approach works well to highlight the ways that, despite attempts to explore future and alternative worlds, female characters in the series remain firmly fixed as products of twentieth and twenty-first century attitudes that limit the depth and range of the roles women are expected to inhabit. Frankel offers an account of the evolution of women’s roles, from pubescent damsels like Susan in the first seasons, to more “competent” (read: contrary) women in the series’ reboot— e.g. Donna Noble and River Song. This trajectory is both fascinating as it charts the shifting history of feminism’s impact on popular culture, and distressing as you come to realize how little has changed in the past six decades, and how, as Frankel observes, these women remain “trapped within the patterns of their archetypes” (3). One consistently defining characteristic of the Doctor’s companions, Frankel points out, is their collective obligation to serve as his moral compass, to provide, in today’s parlance, invisible emotional labor. While his companions exist to nurture privately the Doctor’s better angel and steer him away from more destructive impulses, he remains free to play the public hero. This narrative through line is brought into starkest relief during the “War Doctor” arc when Billie Piper returns as both the specter of Rose Tyler and as “Bad Wolf,” a sentient weapon of mass destruction that, nonetheless, has a heart (Frankel, Doctor Who 167-168). 

In The Women of Orphan Black, Frankel organizes her analysis of the show around two intersecting histories: the evolution of feminism from first to fourth wave and how this history has been shaped by emerging bioethical issues, especially as they relate to the biopolitical battle over control of women’s bodies. Rich with excerpts and insights from the show’s creators, actors, and consultants, including the fascinating science advisor, Cosima Herter, on whom Cosima the clone is based, Frankel explores how the series deliberately engages in contemporary debates over reproductive rights, bodily autonomy, tensions between science and religion, gender, and globalization. Cleverly, Frankel shows how each female character in the series embodies various feminist waves, from the radical seventies feminism of Mrs. S, to Cosima as second wave feminist-lesbian, to Sarah as radical, “punk” feminist, to Mika/M.K., the elusive cyber-feminist whose hacktivism brings viewers’ attention to issues of disability, virtuality, and neurodiversity (M.K. is portrayed as being on the autism spectrum). Perhaps the most useful part of Frankel’s close look at Orphan Black is her exhaustive catalog of the series’ numerous “easter eggs,” from the literary references in each episode’s title to the allusions embedded in the show’s narrative. Frankel carefully teases to the surface allusions to Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, William Wordsworth, Aldous Huxley, Arthur Conan Doyle, Richard Dawkins, and Donna Haraway, among others, demonstrating how the show’s fast-paced adventure narrative is smartly informed by philosophical, scientific, and literary histories.

The strength of Frankel’s contributions to discussions of Doctor Who and Orphan Black is more curatorial or archival, and one can imagine that this kind of work would make for good starting points to stoke the interests of high school students, undergraduates, or science fiction fans looking to enter mainstream conversations about representations of women and bioethics.

Review of Lothian’s Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility

Review of Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility by Alexis Lothian

Kristen Koopman

Alexis Lothian. Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility. New York UP, 2018. Paperback, 352 pages, $30.00. ISBN 9781479825851.

It would be easy for Old Futures to feel scattered, covering as it does a century’s worth of source material, three different forms of media, and theory ranging from traditional SF criticism to fan studies. Yet somehow Lothian not only pulls it off, but makes it seem effortless.

Lothian’s framing argument is that futures in science fiction have historically written out queerness in favor of timelines depending on implicit heterosexual reproduction, and that queer counterfuturisms instead nurture visions of new possibilities for science, technology, gender, and race. This argument is broken down into a series of roughly chronological case studies, following an introduction that covers the theoretical basis of the book: a chapter on eugenics and reproduction in feminist utopias, a chapter on gender’s relationship with violence and fascism in dystopias written between the two World Wars, a chapter on Afrofuturistic writings in response to eugenics, a chapter linking speculative pleasures to modes of estrangement, a chapter on the (sadly few) queer SF films that create new ways of engaging with the world, and a chapter on fanvidding and remix culture as responses to visions of the future. These chapters are interspersed with three shorter digressions that show how the theories and insights of the previous chapters may be applied to other works.

While Old Futures of course draws upon traditional SF criticism (including the obligatory explanation of why the author chose to use “speculative fiction,” its associated critiques, an expression of hope that the work won’t get pigeonholed into genre-studies, and so on), the breadth of its engagements is truly impressive, as is its depth. Each chapter provides precisely the background needed to understand the particular case studies without becoming repetitive, and so each chapter could easily stand alone. Nevertheless, the chronological organization and consistent throughline of queer futurity keeps the book as a whole from feeling disjointed.

The standout chapters are the first, “Utopian Interventions to the Reproduction of Empire,” and the last, “How to Remix the Future.” The first chapter deftly unpacks the implicit reliance of most futurisms on heterosexual reproduction, noting that visions of futures are frequently visions of worlds for future children. Although the utopias studied in the chapter are feminist, Lothian points out that feminism at the time was deeply tied to other political projects: definitions of scientific and technological progress with undercurrents of eugenics, colonial visions of European futures, and the relationship between the rhetoric of futurity and contemplation of the present. These themes set up a status quo that is then critiqued in the third chapter, although both chapters stand alone well. “Utopian Interventions to the Reproduction of Empire” may be of particular interest to scholars in the medical humanities or science studies, due to its careful illustration of the eugenic values embedded in its cases.

The sixth chapter, “How to Remix the Future,” discusses the role of remix culture in refashioning narratives in mass media to present alternative visions of queer futures and to critique implicitly regressive creative decisions by makers of media. Lothian suggests that fan remix practices (such as the case study of fanvidding) may constitute (or at least contribute to) critical fandom, which counters the view of fandom as unquestioning consumption of media in favor of resistive readings and refiguring narratives. Lothian’s case study of the Firefly fanvid “How Much Is that Geisha in the Window?” is a particularly well-done analysis that is a welcome addition to fan studies. 

Yet Lothian takes this engagement with fan studies a step further and describes her own process taking up the practice of fanvidding in order to make critical contributions to fandom (in this case, Battlestar Galactica). This not only shows that Lothian takes fandom seriously as a means of critically engaging with media, but hopefully marks a path for other scholars to follow in her footsteps. As Lothian notes, fan remix practices such as vidding may provide avenues for scholars to better articulate theories and criticism of media, particularly for marginalized people; this can be seen both in the critiques of gender and heteronormative desire that Lothian describes in her own work and the racial critique of Firefly that she analyzes.

Old Futures is not without its weaknesses. The introduction, by doing much of the theoretical work of the entire text, is dense and abstract compared to seeing the theory in practice in the following chapters. The good news is that in sequestering it all in one place, it frees the other chapters to read much more easily; however, when reading the whole book through, it may be disproportionately slow going. Many of the concepts highlighted in the introduction also simply make more sense when utilized in more concrete analysis later on, which may be an artifact of the book seemingly being the author’s dissertation adapted into a monograph.

Additionally, the chapter on SF film lacks the thematic cohesion of previous chapters. This may be because the films, in Lothian’s analysis, are more focused on futurity, speculation, and politics than the traditional tropes of science fiction. While I have no objection to an expansive definition of SF, it is telling that Lothian’s analysis largely hinges on the depictions of the future in its two case studies (Jubilee and Born in Flames). The analysis is insightful in unpacking the futures depicted on-screen, but the tools of SF criticism that have been used in previous chapters are absent here, and I remain unconvinced that this analysis looks at these films as SF. Lothian does note that there is not exactly an abundance of queer SF film, but nevertheless, this is likely to be the chapter that is least useful to those looking for SF criticism.

Overall, Lothian has constructed an admirable volume that I have already begun recommending to colleagues. This is her first book, and it bodes well; I look forward to seeing what Lothian does next.

Articulating the Terror of Obstetric Violence

SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 1

Symposium: Medical Humanities and the Fantastic

Articulating the Terror of Obstetric Violence in Carmen María Machado’s “The Husband Stitch”

Lucía López
University of Salamanca

Ever since I read Charlotte Perkins Gilman “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) as an undergraduate student of English literature, I have been attracted to representations of the interactions of vulnerable bodies with what I call “the medical establishment” by which I mean state sanctioned clinical practice, that which follows mainstream discourse and does not consider other understandings of health but the Western one. Gilman’s text firmly aligns with this examination of mainstream medicine through the lens of literature, since the author depicts a “resting cure” popularized by Silas Weir Mitchell, a famous physician at the time, which consisted in enforced seclusion and bed rest for patients diagnosed with nervous conditions such as hysteria or neurasthenia. Perkins Gilman herself had been subjected to this cure, which she believed damaging and, in an effort to warn against its dangers, she denounced the extremely oppressive and confining prescriptions patients were forced to follow. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” said prescriptions involve extreme confinement and prohibition of almost any social interaction or mental exercise, which seem to drive the protagonist to madness rather than to cure her, and the narration masterfully reflects the increasing claustrophobia and loss of touch with reality provoking an increasing unease in the reader that may well end in terror. 

Although the protagonist’s progressive illness is disquieting on its own, I argue that a good part of the terror that Gilman’s story provokes in the reader emanates from the fact that the protagonist’s husband, who is also a doctor, is the one who takes the role of care giver and enforces the limiting “resting” cure. Thus, the narrator is doubly betrayed, first by the medical establishment that pathologizes her disinterest in the domestic as a nervous condition, and second, by her husband, who prioritizes medical prescription over his partner’s explicit desires. 

The protagonist’s betrayal by those who should have her best interests at heart may seem outdated by contemporary Western standards; after all, we live in a time where feminism has drastically changed the power dynamics of marriages and the medical institutions securely stand on scientific grounds that should not allow for abuses of power. Although the forced vulnerability of Gilman’s protagonist is evocative and vaguely terrifying for a contemporary female reader, that terror should be far removed from our personal experience. However, contemporary women’s writing is still very much concerned with how gender bias and misogyny infiltrate clinical practice to the detriment of female patients: many recently published memoirs of sickness such us Abby Norman’s Ask Me About My Uterus (2018), Sonya Huber’s Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Other Essays from a Nervous System (2017) or Porochista Khakpour’s Sick: A Memoir (2018) certainly express the many frustrations and potential pitfalls of navigating the medical system as a woman. Although these memoirs deal explicitly with the encounters of female embodiment and the medical establishment, it is again a short story—Carmen María Machado’s “The Husband Stitch”—which talks back to “The Yellow Wallpaper” by covering the protagonist’s medical experience with a layer of terror, highlighting the betrayal of a medical establishment that is depicted as caring more for gender performativity than the wellbeing of the patient, and a husband whose obsession with taking ownership of his wife’s body leads to doom. 

In “The Husband Stitch,” published in her debut collection Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen María Machado evokes the potential dangers of the intimacy of marriage and the embodied vulnerability of giving birth and weaves a fabric of terror that speaks to its contemporary reader in the same way The Yellow Wallpaper does: addressing through figurative language and literary representation a fear well rooted in the readers’ close reality. Ann Radcliffe’s definition of terror as a feeling that expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life” (150) accompanied by “uncertainty and obscurity” (151), which is the vehicle to the sublime in its capacity to evoke danger and excite the imagination seems poignantly close to what Machado accomplishes in her writing: by highlighting the implicit threat in the commonplace, her text forces the reader to reimagine said threats upon the everyday that lies outside the pages of the book, very different from the experience of horror, described by Radcliffe as a cheaper version of the emotion, its “effect, though sudden and strong, is also transient” (150). In Laura Kremmel’s comprehensive chapter on Medical Horror in the new Palgrave Handbook to Horror Literature, the author considers this type of literature to “provoke the fear associated with the human body and mind’s vulnerabilities” (313). However, she points out that it is not only the “fears of the body as a threat to itself” that this subgenre draws from, but also and more prominently, “the fears of the larger medical institutions and authorities that claim absolute power over the body in their promise to care for and cure it” (314). That this promise goes unfulfilled is implicit, and thus “healing becomes exploitation, experimentation, and terrorization for a goal that circumvents the benefit of the individual patient” (314). This is what happens both in “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “The Husband Stitch,” where the medical establishment takes ownership of the female body and pathologizes what is seen as a failure to acquiesce with normative gender performance within the bounds of marriage, disregarding women’s explicit decisions regarding their bodies’ performances and medicalizing dissent. 

In her Survey of Medical Horror Kremmel distinguishes between horror of “what can happen to the body (injury, illness, or death) and horror of what can be done to treat the body” (315), and I argue that is in this latter category, that the terror of the medical experience emerges from. The very real potential vulnerability to an implicit threat that the reader feels very close to their experience resonates with Radcliffe’s understanding of terror, rather than horror, and although Kremmel does not stop to make a distinction between the two, her nuanced commentary regarding the imaginative potential of the immediate experience to instill fear in the reader, certainly aligns her vision with what Radcliffe wrote about. According to Kremmel, medical terrors that promise “an inherent relevance and imminence . . . The familiarity of medical spaces and the fears that already reside in them make patients, even potential patients, vulnerable to a medical manifestation of horror tropes” (323). In the case of Machado’s short story, it is the familiar terror of obstetric violence that provokes the reader. In a complex and nuanced short story, the author evokes the absolute vulnerability in the most intimate of physical spaces and the potential for damage it posits when we are faced with an unscrupulous clinician.

Machado’s protagonist claims at the beginning of her tale that “[e]veryone knows these stories—that is, everyone tells them, even if they don’t know them—but no one ever believes them” (5). That certainly seems to be the case with the husband stitch (the procedure, not the story); as Jane Dykema states in a much-read article in Electric Literature, a quick internet search of the term will demonstrate that there is “no entry in Wikipedia, nothing in WebMD. Instead there are pages and pages of message board entries and forum discussions on pregnancy websites.” The existence of this procedure is rarely acknowledged by medical professionals, as seen by the absence of studies or official records. Consisting of an extra stitch given after a vaginal birth to tighten the vagina of the patient after there has been either a natural tear or an episiotomy, its objective is the increased sexual pleasure of a male partner and often carries with it the accompanying pain of the patient. Despite the lack of records, as Carrie Murphy states in another article on the topic, this time in the site Healthline, “the proof is in women’s words. Or sometimes, it’s sewn into their bodies.” The thousands of personal testimonies that seem to have been unearthed after the publication of the story by Machado give testament to that: the husband stitch is not a myth, but an unrecorded, unofficial and unsanctioned medical practice where stereotyped gender performativity takes precedence over the well-being of the patient. In Machado’s story, it is the protagonist’s husband who asks the doctor while she is under the haze of a powerful sedative: “How much to get that extra stitch?” . . . “You offer that, right?” (16). And despite the patient’s lack of explicit consent, or ability to consent at all, since she is under sedation, she is given the extra stitch rumored to recreate a tightness comparable to that of a virgin. When she wakes up, the protagonist is “all sewn up” “Nice and tight, everyone’s happy . . . You’re going to need to rest for a while” (17), she is told by the doctor.

In her harrowing memoir about dealing with endometriosis, Abby Norman expresses her frustration with her doctors, who repeatedly dismiss her statements that she is absolutely decided to sacrifice her fertility if it will alleviate her pain:

I can only assume that doctors don’t feel comfortable taking a woman’s word for it when she says she’s not concerned about her fertility . . . I was slowly figuring out that not only was my pain going to be disbelieved, but it was never going to take precedence.

(Norman, Kindle Position 690-693)

Precedence, in this case, over fertility, or over her partner’s sexual pleasure, as is the case in Machado’s story. Both Norman and Machado highlight in their writing instances were the medical establishment fails to make the female body the interested party. In Norman’s experience, as well as in Machado’s story, the performativity of the female body in accordance to stereotypical gender norms, as a mother or as a lover, takes precedence over the patient’s expressed desires. Women’s agency is overruled by the doctors’ perception of what her body ought to do.

The enforced silence of women’s voices is another topic that Machado addresses in her powerful story. In stage directions, the reader is introduced to the narrator by being told that her voice should be performed “as a child, high-pitched, forgettable; as a woman, the same. . . ALL OTHER WOMEN: interchangeable with my own” (3). Intermingled with the protagonist’s life story, Machado weaves a fabric of open-ended old wives’ tales, urban legends and folktales in which women are punished for behaving outside the norm: “I have heard all of the stories about girls like me, and I am unafraid to make more of them” (7), claims the narrator as a young woman discovering sex with her future husband. However, as in the classic horror stories that we find in the text, sins have punishments in Machado’s story. In “The Husband Stitch,” which is a rewriting of the classic horror tale “The Green Ribbon,” known by most in Alvin Schwartz’s retelling in the young readers’ collection In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories, the husband is increasingly insistent and aggressive in his attempt to uncover the mystery of the green ribbon worn by his wife. Although we are first presented with an idyllic picture of the couple’s story, where they seem to fall passionately in love, their courtship, marriage and life together is marred by the husband’s continuous attempts to untangle the ribbon that his wife wears around her neck. His greed in wanting to take complete ownership and control of his wife’s body against her will, first by asking the doctor for the extra stitch, then by unraveling the ribbon, is punished with the horror of a decapitated head at the end of the story. For the unnamed narrator, who has freely rejoiced herself in her lust, the punishment is death. As Lorna Piatti-Farnell explains in her review of children’s fairytales, “bodily violence constructs the apogee of the educational lesson in the story and is seemingly justified by the receivers’ previous ill conduct and greed” (99). In this case, the female protagonist’s enjoyment of her lust is punished twice, first by the extra stitch, who reportedly may cause severe pain for the woman when attempting penetration, and secondly by her death at the hands of her untrusting husband, whose greed brings doom to the couple.

In conclusion, “The Husband Stitch” weaves several threads of terror by introducing storytelling as a powerful force that shapes our lives. Fantasy mediates uncertainty and allows Machado to recreate the embodied terror and intimate betrayal of obstetric violence by rewriting the threatening half whispered rumors of not consensual postpartum intervention into a gory children’s story of beheading. She creates a tale where the perpetrator of such violence is not an unnamed monster but “not a bad man at all. To describe him as evil or wicked or corrupted would be a deep disservice to him” (30). “He is not a bad man, and that, I realize suddenly, is the root of my hurt,” (30) the narrator says in the moments before her death. The terror of this story that we would prefer not to believe emerges from the frivolity with which the protagonist’s agency over her own body is overruled by husband and doctor, otherwise caring and functional men, normal men. Casual misogyny and how it infiltrates every layer of reality, even those we believe are protected behind the walls of scientific objectivity, is the terror of this story.

Lucía López is a MA student of the University of Salamanca, where she will begin her doctoral studies in September. She has been dedicated since her undergraduate thesis to studying the intersection of medical humanities and fantasy, science fiction and postcolonial literatures, attempting to draw attention to the behavior of the medical field towards those relegated to the fringes of society. She was awarded a prize for outstanding academic performance for her project “Marginal Bodies in Science Fiction,” recently presented at the (Post)Colonial Health Conference in Leeds and is currently researching the works of Indigenous author Lee Maracle.


Dykema, Jane. “What I Don’t Tell My Students About ‘The Husband Stitch.’” Electric Literature, 10 Oct. 2017,

Kremmel, Laura. “‘And Send Her Well-Dos’d to the Grave’: Literary Medical Horror.” The Handbook to Horror Literature, edited by Corstorphine and Kremmel, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Machado, Carmen Maria. “The Husband Stitch.” Her Body and Other Parties. Serpent’s Tail, 2017.

Murphy, Carrie. “The Husband Stitch Isn’t Just a Horrifying Childbirth Myth.” Healthline, 24 January 2018,

Norman, Abby. Ask Me About My Uterus: A Quest to Make Doctors Believe in Women’s Pain. Bold Type Books, 2018.

Perkins Gilman, Charlotte. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps, edited by Peter Straub, The Library of America, 2009, pp. 131-47.

Piatti-Farnell, Lorna. “Blood Flows Freely: The Horror of Classic Fairy Tales.” The Handbook to Horror Literature, edited by Corstorphine and Kremmel, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Radcliffe, Ann. “On the Supernatural in Poetry.” The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal, vol. 16, no. 1, 1826, pp. 145-152.

Schwartz, Alvin. “The Green Ribbon.” In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories, HarperCollins Children’s Books, 1984.