Torchwood: Gwen Cooper

As a fan of both procedural dramas and a sci-fi geek, Torchwood is practically the perfect show for me. And it comes with the super duper bonus of a lead character who is female and manages to be both strong and feminine without falling into any stereotype that I recognize. Yay!

In the beginning, Gwen Cooper is police officer who stumbles onto the secret of Torchwood (a secret organization that investigates alien technology and contact with Earth) by accident. Except it wasn’t really an accident- she saw the team showing up and after being told to leave the crime scene for no good reason and seeing they were up to something odd, she managed to see what was happening. Armed with only the names of Torchwood (which no one knows anything about) and Captain Jack Harkness (the only one on record died in 1941) she manages to track down their hidden offices and finds out what they were really doing. After having her memory wiped, she finds them again. They’re currently investigating a glove that has the ability to resurrect the dead for a minute or two, but the team was focused on figuring out how the glove worked and none of them seemed particularly interested in using it to track down the serial killer that was terrorizing Cardiff. These two things show the reasons that she will turn out to be so valuable- clearly she has the training of a police officer, the ability to work evidence that seems incidental into a coherent whole; but she also has the empathy to see the people involved and their importance as individuals without being blinded by the fantastic things they see every day.

The first quality isn’t one that’s usually given to women in procedurals but it’s not impressive that she can do these things because she’s a woman, but because she is unique to this setting. The rest of the team includes a time-traveller, a computer genius, doctors, and support guru- the ability to see the randomness of humanity and make it clear isn’t easy, and being trained to deal with people the way she has been is invaluable. The empathetic role does fall under the purview of the typical female character but Gwen is not trapped in that role by a soft heart, although she has one, it’s a general interest in humanity. When the team investigates something that turns out to have been caused by humans, not aliens, it’s not sympathy that makes her stop Jack from killing the leader but a desire to know why and how they could have done such things. That curiosity is definitely a trait I can get behind.

Despite being the conscience of the team, Gwen’s not a pushover. She can chase down a suspect with the best of them, is willing to use force, sticks to her convictions even when everybody with far more experience thinks she’s bonkers. Kindness and strength in one person. Kindness as strength. Gwen’s not a perfect person, but she’s a darn near perfect character.

Comments

  1. says

    She’s a mess sexually, though. She claims to love her boyfriend with whom she lives, but falls into bed with her antagonistic and sexist coworker at the earliest opportunity? I really like Rhys too, I think that character gets the short end of the stick in that particular plotline. And granted, Owen sort of evolves from stereotypical sexist bastard to somewhat 3-dimensional, but that was still no reason for Gwen to screw around with him. What would really have been unique would have been a happily committed character who stayed faithful despite everything Torchwood threw at her.

  2. karmakaze says

    I also enjoyed that when a foot chase came up, Gwen won, because that used to be her job. It was none of this “men run faster”, but “the former beat cop will be better at running down a suspect.”

  3. says

    She’s a mess sexually, though. She claims to love her boyfriend with whom she lives, but falls into bed with her antagonistic and sexist coworker at the earliest opportunity?

    Are you saying this makes her a bad character, or just condemning the behavior generally?

    Because the characterization of a woman as someone who sleeps around can go either way: when she’s inadequately explored, you get the sense her sex life is only there to titillate those in the audience who find her sexy. Also, when it turns out “She just needed the Right Man”, that’s a repugnant trope. But it can also be written rather subversively.

  4. Gategrrl says

    Gwen…oh my, Gwen, the Sam Carter of the Dr Who/Torchwood universe. It doesn’t matter how many times she’s screwed up, or how often, or with whom, she comes up smelling like roses. She also shares with Sam Carter the distinction of being a secondary type character (to me) in the way she was designed, in a lead position, hogging storylines even from the named lead character. Part of that was the requirements of Torchwood to leave Jack Harkness’s mystery a mystery to a Dr Who episode that was filmed after the first season of Torchwood was over…but still.

    Her similarities: the producers appear to be in love with the character (like Rose on Dr Who)
    Most of the spotlight is focused on her, with various lip-service exceptions on an episode to episode basis.
    She can do no wrong.
    She has a screwed up personal life.
    She will help others, but it all goes back to what’s best for Gwen (ie, Rhys’ mindwipe at the end, when he finds out about her and Owen)

    I started out feeling meh about Gwen, but then got progressively tired of her as the first season unspun.

  5. MaggieCat says

    She’s a mess sexually, though. She claims to love her boyfriend with whom she lives, but falls into bed with her antagonistic and sexist coworker at the earliest opportunity? I really like Rhys too, I think that character gets the short end of the stick in that particular plotline.

    She made a mistake. I can totally see how having this insane job that you can’t even talk about with your boyfriend would eventually make you nuts unless you can find someone to talk to, and cutting yourself off from that much of the relationship falling over into other areas. I love Rhys, but he thinks the things she’s around every day are mass hallucinations- that doesn’t really pave the way for an honest relationship, although Gwen does take him for granted for a lot of the season. That’s part of the point of keeping her who she is: Jack reminds her how important it is to keep a hold on her real life, but the season shows her falling into the same traps everyone else has- cutting herself off from non-Torchwood people- until it bites her in the ass at the end. Hopefully she realizes that and course corrects. I don’t think he’s getting a worse deal than the 9,000 cop wives on television shows that we only see when the show needs a home scene as filler. If anything, he’s a better developed since I have a clue to his personality.

    And while I do see Owen as antagonistic and a huge jerk, I don’t really think he’s sexist. There hasn’t been any evidence that I recall of him thinking less of women just because they are women- he’s an ass to everyone, regardless of gender, race, or species. He’s definitely promiscuous and has no morals about going after women (I’m thinking of that spray in “Everything Changes”) but he doesn’t have any scruples where men are concerned either. He’s a very unpleasant person, but it isn’t directed at anyone in particular. The one thing he has going for him is the one thing Gwen is looking for at that point- someone she can talk to about Torchwood, who isn’t going to sugarcoat anything because she’s a colleague or the new girl.

  6. MaggieCat says

    She also shares with Sam Carter the distinction of being a secondary type character (to me) in the way she was designed, in a lead position, hogging storylines even from the named lead character. Part of that was the requirements of Torchwood to leave Jack Harkness’s mystery a mystery to a Dr Who episode that was filmed after the first season of Torchwood was over…but still.

    I guess I don’t see it this way because I don’t think she’s a secondary type of character. I do think she’s the Torchwood analogue to Rose at the beginning of Doctor Who. But that’s a good thing in my opinion, because Jack wouldn’t work as a sole leading character. He works great as the brilliant-bordering-on-omniscient leader, but he’s too much of a cypher and frankly really annoying in large doses due to his inability to be honest with anyone on the team 99% of the time. (It’s not such a problem on Doctor Who since the Doctor will always be the resident smartypants there, but it could have destroyed the show here.) Even in an episode where Toshiko has telepathic abilities we get nothing from him, and the audience needs a character to connect with emotionally. Gwen is that character.

  7. Gategrrl says

    I think there are several other characters that are capable of being connected with emotionally; they just weren’t given the star-of-every-episode treatment that Gwen was. In fact, they’re ALL cyphers, pretty much, when it comes to motivation and caring, except for Gwen.

    Let’s just say that as the season went on, I grew less interested and attached to her character; her plummet into despair and affairs just didn’t click with me, nor was she particularly enjoyable to watch. A Jiminy Cricket who never changes her chirpy tune gets really really boring.

  8. MaggieCat says

    I think this just may be a point where mileage varies widely- while I love Tosh and Ianto, and think Owen is at least interesting most of the time, they do read as secondary type characters to me, so I’m not really surprised when each of them got about one episode apiece out of only 13 total as the central character. And again, I think the fact that they’re a bit on the cryptic side is a matter of design for the moment- Gwen was brought in partly because they’d all become complacent in their interactions with these things and clearer perspective was needed.

    But I can see where you’re coming from (although I never watched Stargate so I’m less likely to see that comparison) and part of it is fine *to me* because she’s new and still finding her way. If they’re still keeping her as the optimistic novice without any progress in a season or two, that may very well change my opinion. For now, looking at this one season as a whole, she’s still on my short list of favorite television characters.

  9. Bastet says

    I totally agree with you, Gategrrl. Gwen has always rubbed me the wrong way.

    And Owen might not be sexist, but he is a rapist. That’s a pretty tough thing to get past, for me.

  10. says

    I don’t think the two concepts are at all at odds in real life, but frequently it’s an either/or proposition on television in my opinion.

    If I understand you, I think what you’re describing is that it seems TPTB behind shows rarely grasp that a woman does not need to have multiple personality disorder to have a squeeful day at the mall, then gun down a bad guy the next day at work. Just like a male character can conceivably have a squeeful day watching sport on TV with his buddies one day, then go hunt bad guys the next.

    “Cognitive dissonance” is exactly what I get the feeling TPTB are suffering from when they try to imagine a woman – one single woman – doing both types of things.

  11. MaggieCat says

    What I mean is that she can act in ways that are typically portrayed as “girly”- coming home slightly giddy after a day of shopping with a girlfriend, wearing makeup to work, gossiping at the office, etc- without that causing any sort of cognitive dissonance when she helps gun down a cyberwoman or chases down a suspect and beats her male colleagues in the footrace.

    I don’t think the two concepts are at all at odds in real life, but frequently it’s an either/or proposition on television in my opinion. Where a character either falls into the stereotype of the ‘weak shallow girl’ who ends up needing to be sheltered or someone who fulfills every awful stereotype that certain portions of the audience like to perpetuate about women who choose not to spend their time on that sort of thing. (And who also frequently, gets branded “the feminist”. Last time I checked your stance on feminism had nothing to do with your stance on mascara, but there’s probably a reason I’m not in charge.)

    Now that I think about it, that is questionably phrased. This is why I probably shouldn’t do my editing at 5.30 in the morning.

  12. MaggieCat says

    That’s what I was trying to say. I’m getting quite tired of female lead characters who have to be humourless and completely focussed on their work all of the time if they’re going to be perceived as competent, while male characters are allowed to have interests outside of work and still be great at their serious jobs. Oh no, she made a joke/asked about someone’s personal life/went shopping! Clearly she’s going to get everyone killed through her carelessness and frivolity!

    It’s one of those things where I honestly can’t figure out where TPTB are coming from- do they really think that women have fewer dimensions than men, or do they think the audience is so stupid that they’ve never been able to perceive those same layers in the many women they must have come across in their lifetimes and so expect their female characters to fit neatly into shallow boxes?

  13. SunlessNick says

    Also, when it turns out “She just needed the Right Man”, that’s a repugnant trope. But it can also be written rather subversively. - BetaCandy

    The sense I got from her sleeping with Owen was needing to sleep with someone to whom she didn’t have to lie. (And for what it’s worth, I also thought that was going on with Owen a bit). Of course, they then did lie to each other, denying that any emotional need was being met.

    He’s definitely promiscuous and has no morals about going after women (I’m thinking of that spray in “Everything Changes”) but he doesn’t have any scruples where men are concerned either. - MaggieCat

    Such as that spray in “Everything Changes.”

    It doesn’t matter how many times she’s screwed up, or how often, or with whom, she comes up smelling like roses. - Gategrrl

    One difference between Gwen and Sam is that Gwen shares the stage with other characters who have screwed up at least as badly (like Ianto keeping a half-Cyber convert in the basement).

    She also shares with Sam Carter the distinction of being a secondary type character (to me) in the way she was designed, in a lead position, hogging storylines even from the named lead character.

    Well put – that is an issue I had with the series – though I’m wondering if that had something to do with how hard the advertising pushed Jack (ie, was the scripting goal to keep Jack as a mysterious figure in the background, and the advertisers didn’t twig that? I don’t know).

    I agree that the same issue arises with Rose though; perhaps one reason why I like Martha more than her (and indeed Toshi more than Gwen).

    And maybe a weakness with Russel T Davies: Gwen as focus of Torchwood, Rose as focus of Doctor Who, Judy as focus of the Second Coming (as opposed to the new Messiah). Though I notice that I’ve just found fault with three female characters being given prominence over three male ones, so maybe I should look harder at that.

    If they’re still keeping her as the optimistic novice without any progress in a season or two, that may very well change my opinion. - MaggieCat

    Mine too. She’s now done a number of questionable things, both tactically and morally, and they’d better count in the future.

    I’m getting quite tired of female lead characters who have to be humourless and completely focussed on their work all of the time if they’re going to be perceived as competent, while male characters are allowed to have interests outside of work and still be great at their serious jobs.

    In Torchwood, we get a male and female of that type, in that neither Jack nor Toshi (and to a lesser extent it goes for Ianto and Owen too) – but in both cases, the exclusive focus on work is painted as a depressing thing.

    And Owen might not be sexist, but he is a rapist. That’s a pretty tough thing to get past, for me. - Bastet

    Isn’t it just.

  14. says

    Also, when it turns out “She just needed the Right Man”, that’s a repugnant trope. But it can also be written rather subversively.

    I didn’t phrase this well. I meant that the general idea of a woman who sleeps around can be subversive, if it’s characterization and it’s not all about the men, somehow. The “She just needed the Right Man” trope is repugnant no matter what you do. Even if it could be written well, I doubt we would get it, we’re so programmed to think, “Oh, here we go again.”

  15. Gategrrl says

    I do hear that Martha is moving over to Torchwood, and that makes me glad. She’s Been There: she’s Done That; she’s used to the unpredictability; she resourceful; and, like Owen, she’s a doctor (in training, if not in fact).

    I wonder if they’re going to get rid of Owen and reduce Gwen’s role. That would make me happy. I’d miss Owen, even though he’s a real fuck-up in every sense of the word, he is one of the best developed characters on the show. I would like more focus on Ianto and Toshi.

  16. MaggieCat says

    that is an issue I had with the series – though I’m wondering if that had something to do with how hard the advertising pushed Jack (ie, was the scripting goal to keep Jack as a mysterious figure in the background, and the advertisers didn’t twig that? I don’t know).

    I agree that the same issue arises with Rose though; perhaps one reason why I like Martha more than her (and indeed Toshi more than Gwen).

    And maybe a weakness with Russel T Davies: Gwen as focus of Torchwood, Rose as focus of Doctor Who, Judy as focus of the Second Coming (as opposed to the new Messiah). Though I notice that I’ve just found fault with three female characters being given prominence over three male ones, so maybe I should look harder at that.

    It wouldn’t be the first time the promotional material was at odds with a show’s intent. I don’t know if you pay any attention to Heroes, but if you look at the articles about this season, you’d think they’d scrapped 96% of the characters and made the show all about Kristen Bell’s new character. She’s supposed to be there for 13 episodes (max), and has only had 4 minutes of screentime 7 episodes into the season. And I can see where the poor people writing about Torchwood might have gotten confused, especially considering what happened with Suzie. Captain Jack’s the bigger name, so we’ll promote it using him.

    But maybe I’m looking at it differently since I’m not in a place to actually see any of the advertising. I only started watching Doctor Who because I’m a huge fan of Christoper Eccleston, and had only the most basic knowledge what was going on so I needed Rose to be asking lots of questions. I heard about the Torchwood spinoff as “Captain Jack is now working with a group studying alien presence on Earth, and the actress who played Gwyneth is playing a cop who’s just starting there” so I expected Gwen to be in the front. Again- I needed questions, since I’m just now starting on season 2 of Who and had no clue who the Cybermen were. And like I said before, Jack as a lead character might have gotten me to try watching the show, but I doubt I would have loved it as much because Jack? Can be very annoying. And Barrowman, much as I love him, has a tendency to mug for the camera more than I can tolerate in large doses.

    I’m starting to wonder if this is Davies’ way of subverting the system- we’ll get the big, larger than life male hero… but we won’t really spend that much time investigating them, because that guy is always mysterious and frustrating and refuses to give a straight answer to a simple question. So we’ll spend lots and lots of time developing this lovely capable woman over here. Can’t say I disagree with it, if so.

  17. MaggieCat says

    I do hear that Martha is moving over to Torchwood, and that makes me glad. She’s Been There: she’s Done That; she’s used to the unpredictability; she resourceful; and, like Owen, she’s a doctor (in training, if not in fact).

    Toshiko is a doctor too, isn’t she? Since I’m only up to “The Age of Steel” in Doctor Who, I haven’t gotten to Martha yet, but from what I’ve heard she seems nice. If they want to keep a revolving cast member in the new kid position, that seems like a fine idea. But I thought she was only coming in for a few episodes, and then going back to the fourth series of Doctor Who midway through?

  18. SunlessNick says

    Yes, Martha will be returning to Doctor Who after a stint in Torchwood (and hopefully won’t be pining after impossible Doctor-love any more).

    Toshiko, I believe, has PhDs, but isn’t first anf foremost a medical doctor. She and Owen have most of their skills in common, but she’s best at the electronics and he’s best at the bio.

    I’m starting to wonder if this is Davies’ way of subverting the system- we’ll get the big, larger than life male hero… but we won’t really spend that much time investigating them, because that guy is always mysterious and frustrating and refuses to give a straight answer to a simple question. So we’ll spend lots and lots of time developing this lovely capable woman over here. Can’t say I disagree with it, if so.

    Hm. Interesting thought.

    If you’re a big Christopher Eccleston fan, you might be interested to learn that he plays the new Messiah I mentioned in the Second Coming.

  19. MaggieCat says

    I knew that, but I haven’t managed to get my hands on a copy of it yet. *sigh* (And I still haven’t seen Jude because frankly the book broke my soul and I’m betting that having CE and Kate Winslet in the roles isn’t exactly going to help that situation. Bad fan!)

    Toshiko, I believe, has PhDs, but isn’t first anf foremost a medical doctor. She and Owen have most of their skills in common, but she’s best at the electronics and he’s best at the bio.

    Yeah, her primary function is computer genius, but I was responding to Martha being “a doctor (in training, if not in fact)”, since Tosh was the one at Albion for the autopsy in “Aliens of London” and being the one to determine cause of death in “Small Worlds”.

    Eh, SW wasn’t really a mysterious cause of death and AoL was a different series, so I’ll just categorize it with the ending to “New Earth” in the ‘tracks nicely emotionally, but makes no sense’ file. ;-)

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