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[Guest Post] Doctor Who: Feminist Icon?

2011 August 24

Doctor Who returns this Saturday for the second part of the sixth series it has enjoyed since re-launching in 2005. It’s a television programme that has inspired many – kids and adults alike – to a great deal of hoping, dreaming and far far greater fandom than they ever thought possible. It’s a show that escapes reality yet deals with the fantastic in a way that we can all relate to. And, yes, we’ve always liked it because of the crappy monsters and special effects. Whether or not you are a fan of the Doctor, you may now be wondering why he deserves a mention here. Well, let me tell you this…. I think that Doctor Who is very much a feminist show.

Dr Who series 5 title card - on a cloudy orange background the show's title is picked out in metallic-look sci-fi style lettering. In the centre of the screen the letters DW are styled and perspectived to look like the box-shape of the Doctor's ship, the TARDIS. Image via Wikipedia, shared under Creative CommonsAlthough the Doctor has, so far, always been male and his companions are most often female, the gender of these characters are somewhat irrelevant when it comes to Getting Things Done. The Doctor is no James Bond or Indiana Jones. He uses intellect, banter and good old-fashioned running away rather than weapons, strength or bravado. In addition, there is nothing to say that regeneration could not leave our Time Lord resembling a human female in the future. This did happen when Joanna Lumley briefly played the part for a Comic Relief spoof in 1999, and there is often speculation about which female actor would be best to play the part.

Having relatively little knowledge of the many original series of Doctor Who, due to my poor memory and loss of interest around the Colin Baker era, I thought I’d ask a dedicated fan for a second opinion on this theory. Nick from book blog A Pile of Leaves agreed that I was right about the irrelevant gender of the characters. “Often the Doctor is a paternal or pedagogic figure, but he’s also depicted as fallible, flaky, eccentric, irascible. The first Doctor was told off quite a bit by his stern schoolteacher companion Barbara, the second Doctor was never as clever as astrophysicist Zoe, and the Fourth went around with a Time Lady for a while who was constantly correcting him.”

The Doctor is simply a person, albeit an alien one, and so many of the usual tropes just won’t work here. He’s not ‘all knowing’, although he does a very good impression of that most of the time, and quite frequently he doesn’t have a plan. Most adventure stories have a hero who will always stay and fight, but the Doctor knows all too well when it’s time to simply give up and run away. Unlike most shows with a male and a female lead, none of the Doctors and companions have really had a romantic relationship until Rose Tyler, somewhat controversially, declared her love for David Tennant’s Doctor. The companions are usually just someone to hang around with, adding an extra layer of excitement and preventing the boredom of travelling alone. Occasionally they know a fair bit more than he does too.

Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane in the Noughties: a middle-aged, smiling caucasian woman with straight bangs and long dark hair, in a brown shirt. Image via Wikipedia, shared under Creative Commons licenceClearly, no discussion on why Doctor Who is a feminist television programme would be allowed without a mention of the wonderful investigative reporter Sarah-Jane Smith. When the character joined the show in 1973 she was added to give a topical splash of ‘Women’s Lib’, but it took a while for the writers to get the hang of exactly how best to do this. With the help of the actress who played her, the late Elisabeth Sladen, in Tom Baker’s second series as the Doctor Sarah-Jane became a strong, independent character who often worked things out for herself. The writers started to give her some of the lines that had been written for the Doctor and she became more of an equal partner to him, staying on the show for longer than most companions and also returning in 2006 for another adventure. Only the best companions get their own spin-off show, right?

Another excellent character who failed to conform to the annoyingly useless stereotype was Ace. Appearing right at the end of the original stretch of Doctor Who series in the 1980s, Ace, played by Sophie Aldred, had already learned to fend for herself on an alien planet before the Doctor even arrived and was far more tough thanAce: a young caucasian woman wearing a black bomber jacket covered in patches and badges. She is sitting in front of trees with her knee drawn up against her chest and is wearing black and red patterned tights. Image via Wikipedia, shared under Creative Commons licence he ever was. She battled the Daleks and the Cybermen, gaining confidence during her time in the TARDIS much like the brash Rose Tyler. These days, however, confidence is definitely not something that is lacking when it comes to female characters on the show. Since her arrival in 2010, Amy Pond has always been stubborn, determined and rarely doubts her own abilities. Karen Gillan, who plays her, may have dismissed the idea that Amy is a feminist character, but she most certainly has the ability to kick the patriarchy squarely in the balls. In contrast, her love-interest Rory is a caring and loyal nurse.

For anyone who likes their action-adventure stories to have a proper ballsy action hero, Doctor Who does now have one of those too. Of course, with this being Who, the character is no Jason Bourne. She was introduced in 2008 as a fearless professor and, due to also being a time traveller, River Song (Alex Kingston) not only knew the Doctor but had travelled with a future version of him, which meant that she now knew more than he did! River has seen and done enough to have a pretty good idea how to get out of most situations, and unlike the Doctor, she has no objection to using weapons to get her own way. Most definitely someone I would like to be around to help me out of trouble, but then again, so is the Doctor.

I’m not saying that the programme fulfills every feminist want and need, as it’s still chock full of cliches and stereotypes in places, but this is a story where the parts could theoretically be played by anyone. River Song could be Nathan Fillion and the Doctor could be Helena Bonham Carter. How great would that be? In a Saturday night television schedule where little girls are shown that singing well and looking pretty can make you a star, isn’t it nice that they also have a show to watch where a gang of intergalactic misfits can win via the strategic application of a bit of thinking? There’s more to life than X Factor. Choose Who.

Lori Smith is a rant-lite feminist who enjoys turning her thoughts into word form and then throwing them at the internet to see what sticks. She does this on a weekly basis for BitchBuzz, managed a bit at The F-Word under her Sunday name and dumps the remaining stuff on her blog, Rarely Wears Lipstick.

16 Responses leave one →
  1. August 24, 2011

    Well said, Lori! I think Doctor Who has had some dodgy companions but I think on the whole it does work well as a feminist show. As you rightly pointed out, the Doctor’s first companion, Barbara, is awesome. It’s amazing to watch those episodes now and see how even then there were intelligent, independent women on our screens to inspire us. Barbara is fearless – she follows Susan home to find out what’s going on and she ropes Ian in too, and she throws herself into each and every adventure. Watch ‘The Aztecs’ or ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’ to see a modern feminist at work. The same can be said for the third Doctor’s first companion, Dr Liz Shaw. She’s often forgotten about, but here was a woman who left the Doctor to focus on her own work – she’s too intelligent for him.

    Doctor Who is full of amazing female characters and I’m so glad you talked about Ace. I think she’s often forgotten about because of the (relative) unpopularity of the McCoy years. Ace is always her own woman in a way that Rose or Martha never are, I think.

    So, in short, yay! And get hold of The Aztecs. It’s fantastic.

    • August 24, 2011

      The Aztecs story has been recommended to me recently by someone else too. I think I need to hunt down a copy of that asap!

  2. August 24, 2011

    Oh, Ace! Ace is amazing! <3

    Plus, as mentioned elsewhere - this is probably the moment to own up that in difficult times, I think to myself 'channel your inner River Song.' I just have to think it to find myself walking taller :)

    • Miranda permalink*
      August 24, 2011

      Alex Kingston has real gravitas, I think- she played Boudicca in a TV one-off a decade ago! She was the only good thing in it, but she’s only got better and better.

      (Think she was Moll Flanders, too!)

      • August 24, 2011

        She was indeed Moll Flanders – again, the best thing about the show…

  3. Fin Snarey permalink
    August 24, 2011

    Ace job! Dr Who is still the best family show ever made and provides excellent fictional role-models for children and adults alike (although I did want the Master’s beard when I was ten). It has always had good female characters (both heroes and villains) over the years compared to the other rubbish on Saturday nights. As you rightfully point out, little has changed here.

  4. August 24, 2011

    New Who suffered early on in feminist terms due to RTD, who sadly turned out to be a muddled, hypocritical, anti-science, chauvenistic, fat hating, genocide supporting one trick pony. But now the Moff has taken over everything, including female roles, has improved massively.

    Amy and River really show up the weaknesses in Rose and Donna’s characters and arcs, and by contrast show that even Martha was not handled anywhere near as well as she could have been or deserved.

    • August 24, 2011


      “New Who suffered early on in feminist terms due to RTD, who sadly turned out to be a muddled, hypocritical, anti-science, chauvenistic, fat hating, genocide supporting one trick pony. ”

      I don’t know you, but I think I love you.

      • August 24, 2011

        I do agree, however… without him, would Who have made it back onto oour screens at all?

        • September 5, 2011

          “And that is what grieves me the most…”

  5. Stu_N permalink
    August 24, 2011

    Great post, Lori. If you think Sarah Jane was good, you should check out the Third Doctor’s first companion, Dr Elizabeth Shaw, who saved the world through brains and bloody-mindedness regularly during her one and only season.

    FWIW, I don’t think RTD was antiscience. He’s just a dreadful scifi writer who didn’t think Who was a scifi show.

    • September 8, 2011

      He was anti-science in that waaay too many of his plots were of the “WHAT HAS SCIENCE DONE?!?!?!?!?!?!” disaster formula.

      Case in point: the utterly vile episode which kicked off Tennant’s disastrous tenure, where the cat nuns (women doing men’s work) did medical research on bodies specially cultured to not be truly alive to suffer, but they were arbitrarily granted souls (signified by the ability to speak english), by RTD because medical research is, by default, evil. The female authority figure also turned out to be evil for no real reason too, as per usual.

  6. Stephen B permalink
    August 24, 2011

    Aaaaah all this talk of RTD vs Moffat has reminded me that PRESS GANG existed!

    Okay, I feel old now, but it was *awesome*. And contained, if I remember right, not only extremely feminist-friendly characters, but young people being consistently treated as adults and some properly gripping storylines. This is why I never doubted the writing on the latest series of Who, I have deep ingrained childhood love of Moffat scripts :)

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