Doctor Who and Gender

**SPOILERS (ending of Season 4)**

I had written in my first post about Dr Who that I wasn’t sure how much of the excitement I felt was New TV Show infatuation. Time will tell, of course, but I do think I’ve been seeing reasons to support my new-found love (as well as the usual problems that women always face when looking for media that doesn’t marginalize them). Some of the reasons for this love has to do with the female characters (especially Donna, I’ll admit), and some of it has to do with the humour and the quirkiness of the main character, and all of the other things that I wrote about in my first post.

On the DVD of the first season there was an interview with Christopher Eccleston about becoming the new Doctor. He starts off by saying that one of the first things the writer(s) of the show wanted to do was get rid of the sexism of the old one. That they recognized how under-written the female characters were and wanted to do that differently. And he actually used the word “sexist.” People so often will try and find some other word, any other word, than sexist or misogynistic. So much so that it’s actually kind of weird hearing people use it outside of feminist gatherings. While I’ve only seen 3 episodes of Season 1 and about 7 or 8 episodes of Season 4, I’ve found so far that their attempt to not be sexist has had some success, at least (what happens to Donna notwithstanding).

This is one of the things that I’m liking about the reboot: it’s not the Doctor saving the woman all the time, although he does do that fairly often. She sometimes saves him: Rose saves his life in the pilot, Martha saves him in at least one episode, Donna apparently saves him earlier in their relationship. I also like how his female companions help him resolve dilemmas, like how Donna solves some riddle due to her Super Temp powers, or kicks down the locked door when the villains are after them because the Doctor’s screwdriver isn’t doing much. Okay, I loved that last one! She sighs impatiently and says something to the effect of “oh get out of the way.” 😀 Ha! So far, the women aren’t bimbos, helpless and squealing (well, not all the time). At least one of them actually looks like a regular person, not a fashion model. Of course, both of the women who played Rose and Martha are quite pretty and slim in a typical way. I can’t comment too much with regards to Martha because I’ve only seen her in that two-part story from Season 4, but Rose so far, while very pretty, is also dressed in baggy jeans, a loose zippered hoodie and sneakers. Not exactly sexed up. She just looks like a regular person. Very refreshing.

There definitely seems to be more of an equal footing between this recent reincarnation of the Doctor and his female companions, even given the Doctor’s advanced age, experience and IQ/awareness. Not completely equal, but definitely more equal. You can see the writers are trying to not be sexist or otherwise exclusionary, or are sometimes aware of how much the female companion falls into the “plucky sidekick girl” trope. Case in point, in Season 4 the Doctor refers to Donna as his “plucky companion” and she practically sneers at him “Plucky?! I’ll ‘pluck’ you, mate.” Ha! I love Donna.

dr-who-series4-promo-catherine-tate-donna1

Another thing that Eccleston mentioned in that interview was that they had done away with the Doctor’s know-it-all, paternalistic behaviour towards his human companions. As the old series is but a dim memory, I can’t say how well they’ve succeeded in this regard. Based only on what I’ve seen so far, however, I would agree that they don’t have much of that at all. The Doctor actually depends on Donna’s intelligence and perceptions fairly regularly (“come on, Donna! Think!” cries the Doctor, as they’re trying to save the world). I’ve really been enjoying the Doctor’s fallibility and Donna’s strength. They both have strengths and weaknesses, and, working together they make a really good team. I haven’t seen enough of Rose (and certainly not Martha) to know how much that is true with them as well, but I’m hopeful.

I think it is a reflection on how things have changed in the last 30 years that the writer’s of a tv show would a) be aware of sexism, b) recognize it in an older show, and c) try to do things differently. It seems to me that it has become standard in some respects to have female characters that are strong and are more on an equal footing to the male characters. Remembering old Bond films for example, yuck, compared to the more recent incarnations. Of course, it is also true that women continue to be sexually exploited in film and are repeatedly relegated to sidekick or victim or plot point. If they even show up in the film at all (looking [sadly] at you, Pixar). As I’ve said before, with feminism it’s not always either/or but rather both/and. Bond may be paired with a female character that is strong and intelligent, but she’ll still likely either be in a bikini or need rescuing in the end (er, or both!). In fact, I would argue that the stronger and more kick-ass the female character, the more likely you’ll see her sexed up and in ridiculous shoes.

Which is another reason why I love Donna. Did I mention that I love Donna? She’s strong and intelligent, and most definitely not sexed up. She really goes against that trend. And, you know, thinking on eloriane’s and my recent Doctor Who posts, this makes the way her character ends up all the more upsetting. It’s not just that she’s no longer going to be the companion, but that the woman that seems most like the Doctor’s equal (even calling herself that in an alternate Good-bye scene) gets the worst ending. Going back to being a regular old temp. Being stripped of not only her super brain, but her memories and confidence in herself that she obtained while traveling with the Doctor.

So while the creators of the new Doctor Who seem to have the beginnings of a feminist awareness, they still seem to drop the ball in some ways. Much like the rest of the world, for marginalized peoples of all stripes it’s usually two steps forwards and one step back. I do try to not be satisfied with crumbs, as just once I would really like to have a whole slice of pie. Tantalizingly, Doctor Who at times seems to offer this. I’m still annoyed that at the last moment they took it away.

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2 Responses to Doctor Who and Gender

  1. eloriane says:

    Oh man, why can I never remember? Do Not Read The YouTube Comments. Ever. That Means You. It’s like the number one rule to remain sane on the internet, and yet I always forget.

    Anyway, the comments on that deleted scene are driving me bonkers. The consensus seems to be that it’s great that Rose gets even more of a personally-tailored heaven (which I thought was OK but a bit much; I was glad they cut it…especially since the human Doctor needed to be in the parallel world primarily because he was too dangerous to be left roaming. A Tardis kinda defeats the point.) BUT that it was terrible Donna ever thought of being the Doctor’s equal!

    “They should have still put in the the ‘giving of tardis’ part but i’m not too sure about the equal thing… Nice to know they’ll have a tardis though.”

    “that sucked!!! just what he needs an equal!!!

    the doctor does not and will never have an equal thankyou very much!”

    IDIOTS!

    Also apparently Rose got the “wrong” Doctor and this is all very tragic…wtf? I mean, Rose certainly acted that way, which bugged me. They have the same memories, up until like two hours ago, Rose. The only difference is that the human one can love you. It is as if the entire universe has conspired to give you the happiest of all possible endings, and yet it is not enough! Meanwhile Donna (like, apparently, the human Doctor) is not worth bothering about.

    Aughh this still drives me crazy.

    I’d address your other ideas too but I have to either say nothing, or say 2,000 words…and I need to sleep. (Man I love this show!)

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