His Dark Materials season 2 episode 5, a feminist analysis

It feels very appropriate to write a feminist analysis of what is probably the most explicit feminist episode of this season of His Dark Materials! Just as I’ve done previous weeks, I will split this text into three parts: general thoughts, feminist thoughts, and dusty thoughts. The two first sections will contain spoilers for all the main His Dark Materials books, while the last one will contain spoilers for the companion books too, including The Book of Dust.

General thoughts

A major theme in this episode was the contrast between worlds, Will’s world on the one hand and Lyra’s world on the other. I found the way Boreal described it in the beginning of the episode quite telling, in Will’s world there is less faith but more consumerism and double the corruption. This world might be less overtly controlled by ideology than Lyra’s world, but it’s no less entrenched in it, just in different ways. Like Boreal says, it’s a culture of consumerism, a world controlled by money essentially. When we cut back to The Magisterium later, we see a somewhat different world view, where religion is used to legitimate power, and Father Graves is arrested due to ostensibly not being faithful. It seems as if Cardinal MacPhail really tries to crack down on dissidents. I also want to note that the people in the meeting with him are concerned about what information the witches will bring back with them from the new world they’ve travelled through. For a governing body that tries their best to limit the access to information and knowledge, especially for women, this must be concerning indeed. I’ll return to this later on!

One part of the episode that I feel like I have to mention, if only briefly, is the scene where Lyra, Pan, and Will run into Angelica, Paula, and Tulio. The scene of the two sisters grieving the life their brother could’ve had is absolutely heartbreaking, and shows the very real human costs of the structural problems I discussed in last week’s analysis. I talked then about how the very structure of Cittàgazze’s society is so deeply flawed and unequal, and in this episode we clearly see how it rips families apart. All the actors in that scene did an amazing job too, it was brilliantly acted and so very sad to watch.

On another sad note, a very interesting, if tragic, part of this episode is Mrs Coulter’s relationship to her daemon. She can obviously not simply be extra far away from him, but seems to be able to completely separate, similarly to the witches. It seems as if this is hurting at least him though, with him being visibly upset when she leaves him behind to go visit Mary Malone. As I argued in my analysis of the third episode this season, one way of understanding this separation between Mrs Coulter and her soul is that it’s been her way of dealing with childhood trauma. I wonder if this is why she’s so interested in Dust, daemons, and the change that occurs with puberty. In the episode it’s shown that she’s very intrigued when learning that in Cittàgazze, the spectres only attack adults, which is in line with what she says in The Subtle Knife when learning of this:

‘What? I must know about this, Carlo,’ said the woman, and Will could hear her passionate impatience. ‘This is at the heart of everything, this difference between children and adults! It contains the entire mystery of Dust!’ (Pullman 2011, 199)

Now, obviously Mrs Coulter also has a scientific curiosity and interest in this matter, but I wonder if it’s also influenced by her own experience.

Related to this, the fight scene between Lyra and her mum was amazing and heart-breaking. Seeing Lyra becoming a bit more like her mother, the toxic side of her, like this was so sad, and my heart broke for her. The moment afterwards, when she’s talking to Will was also beautiful and sad. I loved how Lyra said that she didn’t want to be like her parents, but rather like Ma Costa and Lee, and how Will then said that she didn’t have to be like anyone else but could just be herself. Beautiful! We also get a lot of good moments with another one of Lyra’s mentors, Mary, in this episode. Mary is told that she needs to play the serpent, which will essentially mean giving Lyra access to forbidden ideas and knowledge. The Magisterium would quite obviously not want this sort of thing to happen, which is why they do their best to limit women’s access to education (as Mrs Coulter mentions in the episode). I talked more about The Magisterium’s fear of strong women and femininity in this essay.

Feminist thoughts

Continuing on with the theme of women lacking access to education, a lot of what Mrs Coulter brought up in this episode about the lack of rights for women in her world reminded me of some of the early feminist writing from our world. One of the perhaps most famous of such writings is A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft, published in 1792. In that text she argued against the idea that women are by nature less rational and intelligent, and for education for women. She argues that we cannot compare intellect and ability to reason between groups who have such different starting points:

I am continuing to avoid any direct comparison between the two sexes collectively; I do frankly acknowledge the inferiority of woman according to the present appearance of things. And I insist that men have increased that inferiority until women are almost sunk below the standard of rational creatures. Let their faculties have room to unfold, and their virtues to gain strength, and then determine where the whole sex must stand in the intellectual scale. (…) If women are really capable of acting like rational creatures, let them not be treated like slaves, or like lower animals who depend on the reason of man when they associate with him. Instead, develop their minds, give them the salutary, sublime curb of principle, and let them attain conscious dignity by feeling that they depend only on God. (Wollstonecraft 1792, 24)

Essentially, she argues, that if women had access to the same education as men, they would have opportunity to show that they’re not the lowly animals that they were treated as a lot of the time. Women, just as men, should depend only on God, not on men. For the 18th century this was of course quite revolutionary, and definitely a text The Magisterium should read. Now, education and academia are hardly equal even today in our world, but there are at least fewer formal obstacles than in Lyra’s world where Mrs Coulter could apparently not gain a doctorate because of her gender. Now, this is not entirely consistent with the books where we see several female doctors, including dame Hannah Relf who is a doctor and runs St Sophia’s collage. Said collage is a women’s collage however, which seems to indicate that Lyra’s world is still far from being equal.

Another point alluded to in the episode is how Mrs Coulter was not able to be a mother (especially of a child conceived out of wedlock) at the same time as having a career. This shows that, as feminists have argued for ages, for any sort of emancipation of women to actually occur, change must occur on several levels. Formal rights (to vote, to study, to work etc) is not enough. One issue that much focus has been put is specifically the family, and how women should not be burdened with the whole responsibility of childrearing and housekeeping (eg. Myrdal & Myrdal 1934; Moberg 1961; Mitchell 1966)(see note on the Myrdals at the end of this text). Juliet Mitchell put it quite clearly when she argued that for equality to actually be reached structural change must happen on the following levels: production (the labour market, economic equality), reproduction (reproductive rights/justice), childrearing, and sexuality. This perspective unfortunately neglects to consider other social structures, such as race, and how that impacts women. As for instance Angela Davis rightly points out, for black women for instance the path to equality and justice is much longer, something white feminists have rarely acknowledged (1981). But for Mrs Coulter, a white woman, Mitchell’s theory works quite well. We can see that she does not have equality on the production side (not access to education nor ability to rise the top of The Magisterium due to her gender), seemingly no support in childrearing, and she’s stigmatised due to her sexual “missteps”. That last part could possibly be connected to reproduction too, one would imagine that in a more equal society she would have had more support with this unexpected pregnancy. I imagine contraceptives and abortions are hard to come by in Mrs Coulter’s world as well, even if it’s unclear if she would elect to have an abortion even if she could get a safe one. The way the episode portrays it, is that she wants to be a mother to Lyra, but she also wants to have a career and power. One does wonder how her life might have been different if she had lived in a society where that would’ve been possible.

Another point I want to discuss is the different approaches to science Mrs Coulter and Mary Malone has. In the episode Mary asks Mrs Coulter about her describing herself as an experimental theologian, saying: “Where would you say theology comes into science?” and Mrs Coulter responding, “Where does it not?” (19:15 min). Now, at first blush this might seem like another example of the differences between worlds, and how The Magisterium is involved in everything in Lyra’s world. But I think it also raises a bit of a flaw in Mary’s worldview, that is how she tends to divide everything into religion or science. Lyra and Mary discuss a similar point in The Subtle Knife, with Lyra saying:

‘But what I want to know is, why do people in my world hate it? Dust, I mean, Shadows. Dark matter. They want to destroy it. They think it’s evil. But I think what they do is evil. I’ve seen them do it. So what is it, Shadows? Is it good or evil, or what?

Dr Malone rubbed her face and made her cheeks even redder than they were.

‘Everything about this is embarrassing,’ she said. ‘D’you know how embarrassing it is to mention good and evil in a scientific laboratory? Have you any idea? One of the reasons I became a scientist was not to have to think about this kind of thing.’

 ‘You got to think about it,’ said Lyra severely. ‘You can’t investigate Shadows, Dust, whatever it is, without thinking about that kind of thing, good and evil and such.’ (Pullman 2011, 96)

As Lyra points out, if you don’t think about good and evil when doing science, you could end up doing the sort of science that The Magisterium is up to. Now, Mary seems to be aware of ethnics to the degree that she doesn’t want her research to end up with the military. What she doesn’t seem to consider though is how things like religion, philosophy, politics, and ideologies in general can never truly be separate from science. Since we as human live in a society filled with these ideologies and are impacted by them, we can never fully separate ourselves from them when conducting scientific research. This is something that a lot of feminist critique of science has focused on, and here I’ll just quote researcher Lynda Birke because she puts it really well:

Not surprisingly, then, one major area of feminist critique pf science has focused on objectivity. Science, the story goes, epitomises the pursuit of objective truth, the exercise of supreme rationality; it seeks to tell the truth about the world out there. But we can challenge this tale, insisting that what scientists produce is culturally and socially embedded. That is not to say that the knowledge of science is pure social construction; for many of us taking part in those challenges, what needs to be understood is how our understandings, and their social embeddedness, relate to the world ‘out there’ that we seek to describe, and vice versa. As feminist philosopher of science Sandra Harding has argued (1991), no one can completely distance themselves from their social and cultural context (…) Meanwhile, denial of human agency in science, and insistence on what Donna Haraway has called the ‘god’s eye view’ of the world (Haraway 1991c), predominate. Things get done in scientific reports: no one, it seems, actually does them. Like other scientists, I had to learn how to write like that, to remove myself from active participation, to emphasise reductionist conclusions and omit the messier details. And that god’s eyes view was protective: it at least meant that I did not overtly have to admit what I well knew- that my feminist interests were involved in my choice of research topics (see Birke 1995). Science is never disinterested: it is just written up as though it is. (Birke 2000, 14)

As Birke points out here, as humans we can’t just turn off our interests and values when doing science. In fact, looking through history it becomes very clear how science has been used for great evils even under disguise of objectivity (see for instance this essay of mine). Even less overtly evil things have been labelled as objective science, when in fact it’s clearly influenced by for instance assumptions about for instance gender and race. One such example is that researchers have noted that medical research often uses male patients, which skews results (Grahm & Lykke 2015, 80). In the case of heart disease research, this has led to researchers missing differences in symptoms between men and women, leading to treatment not working optimally. This topic is something I talk about even more in this essay where I argue that it is necessary to talk about politics even when talking about fiction, because these ideologies and structures are everywhere. So, in conclusion, Mary might want to think that she can leave religion, good and evil, etc out of science, but it’ll probably always be there. Better to deal with it than ignore it. This can perhaps also be seen as a connection to what Boreal talks about in the beginning of the episode, that Mary’s world is a culture of consumerism, not faith, but with twice as much corruption. Even if influences like faith/religion isn’t as overt in this world as in Lyra’s world, this is still a world of corruption, which surely influences science and academia as well.

Dusty thoughts

The last thing I wanted to discuss in this analysis of episode five is the parallels between Mrs Coulter’s relationship to her daemon here, and Lyra and Pan’s relationship in The Secret Commonwealth (Pullman 2019). There Lyra and Pan suffers from being able to separate, and it severely strains their relationship. Furthermore, Lyra also poses as a witch at times when she’s apart from Pan, a bit similar to how Mrs Coulter compares herself to a witch in this episode. This season has really made me think of these parallels a lot more, it’s very interesting! But, like I’ve said before, I hope Lyra and Pan can reconcile unlike their mother and her daemon.


Davis, Angela. 1981. Women, Race and Class. New York: Vintage books.

Birke, Lynda. 2000. Feminism and the biological body. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Grahm, Jessica & Nina Lykke. 2015. “Ontologi och epistemologi i feministiskt tänkande”, in Feministiskt tänkande och sociologi: Teorier, begrepp och tillämpningar, eds Hedenius, Anna, Sofia Björk & Oksana Shmulyar Gréen, 77-95. Lund: Studentlitteratur.

Mitchell, Juliet. 1966/1996. “Kvinnorna: Den längsta revolutionen.” In Kvinnopolitiska nyckeltexter, eds. Essevald, Johanna & Lisbeth Larsson, 184-193. Lund: Studentlitteratur. [this is a translation of Mitchell’s article Women: The Longest Revolution]

Moberg, Eva. 1961/1996. “Kvinnans villkorliga frigivelse.” In Kvinnopolitiska nyckeltexter, eds. Essevald, Johanna & Lisbeth Larsson, 164-173. Lund: Studentlitteratur.

**Myrdal, Alva & Gunnar Myrdal. 1934/1996. “Kris i befolkningsfrågan.” In Kvinnopolitiska nyckeltexter, eds. Essevald, Johanna & Lisbeth Larsson, 136-144. Lund: Studentlitteratur.

Pullman, Philip. 2011. The Subtle Knife. London: Scholastic.

Pullman, Philip. 2019. The Secret Commonwealth. London: Penguin Books.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. 1792. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. Available online: https://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/wollstonecraft1792.pdf

**I want to make a note on Alva and Gunnar Myrdal, and my referencing of them in this text. Alva Myrdal was a Swedish sociologist, politician, and diplomat who among other things was prominent in the disarmament movement, for which she received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1982. Her husband Gunnar Myrdal was a sociologist and economist, who in turn received a nobel prize in economic science. His work studying race relations in the US was very influential in the US Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v Board of Education. I can recommend reading more about both Alva and Gunnar, they were involved in a lot of interesting work. Their text that I’m referencing here, Kris i befolkningsfrågan (”Crisis in the Population Question”), was very influential and important in Swedish welfare politics, for instance when it came to gender equality and equal access to daycare. That’s why I reference it here, to show that this is a topic that’s been discussed for a long time. However, I cannot in good conscious neglect to mention that this book also expresses support for eugenic ideas about how the Swedish race could be improved if those of lesser stock were not allowed to reproduce. The Myrdals actively supported sterilisation programs in this book. Here’s an article discussing the double legacy of this book, Kris i Befolkningsfrågan.

2 reaktioner på ”His Dark Materials season 2 episode 5, a feminist analysis

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  2. Pingback: Navigating geographies of fear- themes of disability and queerness in The Secret Commonwealth – Lo the Lynx


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