Is Doctor Who sexist? It’s a question that pops up every so often and it has a relatively difficult answer. For the next few weeks, I will run a series of posts on gender, sex and sexism in Doctor Who. This week: the female companions in pre-1989 serials.
Are the Doctor’s female companions treated in a sexist manner? Well, yes, and no.
A common complaint is that Steven Moffat brings a sexist perspective to his writing of female characters (even if Karen Gillan denies it). Two days ago, incidentally, saw the publication of this brilliant post which discusses whether Steven Moffat’s female characters have a different pass rate on the Bechdel test than Moffat’s predecessor Russell T. Davies’ characters.
Conclusion: they do, Moffat’s female character pass the test significantly less often. Obviously there are some methodological issues with the study, but its conclusions are still very interesting, and I would love to see it extended to include pre-1989 episodes.
With regards to the sexist treatment of female characters, certainly Amy Pond’s flirting with herself is blatant fanservice, though not more so than Peri Brown’s bikini, or all of Leela’s outfit, or, even further back, Zoe Heriot’s sparkly-cat-suited bum on a TARDIS console.
What is different between female pre-1989 and post-2005 companions, however, is that pre-1989 companions had/have a life of their own outside the TARDIS. Among others, the Doctor travelled with a history teacher, a maths genius (and no, I don’t mean Adric), a journalist, a warrior, a flight attendant, and a chemistry whiz. His companion in the 1996 film was a heart surgeon. True, these jobs did not feature particularly heavily, but every so often the companions were called upon for the particular skills their jobs would have involved.
Post-2005, however, we’ve seen a shop girl, a temp, and whatever the hell a kissogram is – worthwhile jobs, I’m sure, but truth be told on a slightly different level in terms of ‘female role model’ than, say, a holder of multiple degrees working at Cambridge. Martha, of course, was a lovely exception in this regard in being a med student – and she scored a good 78% in the study.
There’s Clara, who per The Day of the Doctor has taken up a teaching position and who isn’t covered by the study – so there may be hope left. Post-2005 companion do have a life outside the TARDIS, but this life is largely defined by their families rather than their jobs – which seems actually almost Victorian.
So how is this for the pre-1989 serials?
Of course, here too one must divide by era. I would love to rate each companions by Bechdel test pass rate, but currently (unfortunately) haven’t the time to watch all 155 serials – so instead I’ll rely on brief descriptions of each female companion’s actions during her time with the Doctor.
The First Doctor has a habit of addressing two of his companions, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, as respectively “Chesterton” (or any variation thereupon) and “my dear” or “Barbara” (and yes, there are exceptions). Is this sexist? Well, yes, because it’s a distinction made based on the sexes of these characters. It’s fairly likely this was written like that because in the 1960s such distinctions in addressing others were perfectly normal, but that hardly excuses it.
Susan didn’t do much more than scream, Katarina and Sara Kingdom were short-lived companions (although Sara was a highly competent space security service agent), Dodo a bit forgettable. But then sailor Ben and very competent secretary Polly come along, all Swinging Sixties, with Polly often calling Ben and eighteenth century Scotsman Jamie out when they were being particularly patronising to her.
The Second Doctor’s first female companion after Polly, Victoria, seemed to have the ‘scream’-function again, but Zoe Heriot actually beat the Doctor in a mathematics test in The Krotons.
The Third Doctor’s companion Jo Grant dressed in ridiculously short dresses (The Wife in Space comments at least twice on the colour of her pants). On the other hand, however, but Jo was preceded by the aforementioned multi-graduate Dr Elizabeth ‘Liz’ Shaw from Cambridge, and succeeded by feminist journalist Sarah Jane Smith. Jo herself, actually, every so often made a ‘women’s lib’ comment. She eventually left the Doctor because she fell in love with an activist scientist, becoming an activist herself and travelling the world. In short, yes, she did leave the Doctor for a man, but did so because it promised her a life she would be willing to give up travelling with the Doctor for.
Leaving the Doctor as a free choice – like Liz and Victoria had done before her – is completely different from leaving the Doctor because you’re sucked into a different universe (Rose), you shouldn’t remember (Donna), because you’re sucked back in time (Amy), or because you die for him (River). Again Martha is the exception here, leaving the Doctor with a simple “see you around” and walking out of the blue box.
Sarah Jane was dropped in Aberdeen (not Croydon) when the Fourth Doctor was recalled to Gallifrey, but Leela, whose warrior skills saved the Doctor from more than just once, decided to stay behind on Gallifrey after she met the guard Andred.
Romanadvoratrelundar, a Time Lord with higher Academy grades than, and the same, but often better developed, skills as the Doctor, decided to stay behind in E-Space to help the people there (the expanded universe has her eventually return to Gallifrey to become President).
Nyssa, specialising in bio-electronics and again with a mind to rival the Doctor’s, began travelling with the Doctor after her planet was destroyed and her father killed by the Master, and eventually decided to stay on the space station Terminus to bring order to chaos. Her friend Tegan Jovanka, a flight attendant, walked out on the Doctor twice. Once because he had finally managed to get her back to Heathrow (although her departure here wasn’t entirely voluntary), and once because she decided the travelling with the Doctor was just no longer fun.
All this seeming feminist progress seems somewhat undone by the character of Peri Brown, whose outfit consisted mainly of tight shorts and tighter tied shirts, and who eventually married warrior king Yrcanos. Her successor Mel Bush wasn’t much better, ostensibly being a computer programmer but being more obsessed with being in shape than anything else.
But Ace – Ace’s chemistry skill built bombs that could take out Daleks and Cyberships alike, and she once beat up a Dalek with a baseball bat. And the Doctor’s one-off companion in the 1996 TV film was a heart surgeon who roughly understood the TARDIS’s spatial physics and basic technology – even though the film only passes the Bechdel test if Grace discussing the Doctor’s x-rays with an unnamed female character counts as a valid conversation topic.
So yeah, pre-1989 companions were treated in somewhat sexist fashion, dressing in tight and/or revealing clothes (“for the Dads”), but they were more than the simple audience surrogate companions nowadays seem to be – they quite often had real functions in the stories, based on the skills they would have had given their ostensible real world roles. Rather than, say, an almost deus ex machina function gained through absorbing the Vortex, or a Time Lord consciousness, or by being scattered through time.
The distinction is simple: the latter functions are created because they are thrust upon the characters. The latter characters are acted upon, becoming instruments, rather than being independent agents whose skills exists because these characters have gone to the effort of obtaining those skills.
In that sense, then, post-2005 Doctor Who seems more sexist than pre-1989, with the 1970s and early 1980s – coinciding, in fact, with Second Wave Feminism – treating the female companions relatively well. And they’re not constantly fawning over the Doctor. However, it must also be noted that the relative lack of female secondary and tertiary characters of the pre-1989 era makes it more difficult for these companions to actually pass the Bechdel test.
Obviously, this short exploration has uncountably many more methodological issues than the referenced study and may well have been coloured by my own selective memory, but certainly indicates that it could be very interesting to replicate the Bechdel pass rate study for the pre-1989 era – and if anyone’s interested in doing that, I’d love to join the research group.
UPDATE: Over the weekend, I decided to get started on rating the pre-1989 episodes. As I currently only have access to fully surviving serials at home, I went by these alone for rating the First Doctor’s era. I rated by serial – so as soon as a serial (which ranges between 2 and 12 25-minute episodes) passed, I went on to the next. These are my results (between brackets what the percentage is if the partially and non-surviving serials all do not pass):
Susan – 100% (86%)
Barbara – 100% (86%)
Vicki – 86% (60%)
Dodo – 100% (50%)
Polly – 67% (50%)
First Doctor – 91% (59%)
Verity Lambert as producer – 94% (82%)
I’ll continue with the Second Doctor’s era asap.
Next week: should the Doctor have a female regeneration?