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is Doctor Who sexist?

Becca A. Moore, a student at Brigham Young University, is sharing the results of a study she did with several other students for a media-research class that attempted to quantify just how sexist Doctor Who is, via the Bechdel Test and other measures. This is just a part of the infographic her group created to summarize their results:

dwsexist

Click over to Moore’s blog to see the full infographic as well as a detailed explanation of the study’s conclusions.

Basically, the numbers — as far as such things can be quantified, and Moore deals with potential objections to the numbers — back up the feeling that many fans have had: that the show has gotten markedly more sexist and less inclusive of fully rounded female characters since Steven Moffat took over as showrunner from Russell T. Davies. This includes the diminution of River Song as a character in Moffat era. And this is quite interesting:

Fun fact, Rose’s Bechdel test score would have been in the 80′s were it not for the episodes Moffat wrote during her run.

*grrrr*

And Moore nails the overarching problem with the women in the Moffat era:

I think when it comes to giving women love interests in fiction, you have to let them maintain their own independence of thought. This keeps them from simply becoming a sex object or plot device. Rose (and Martha and Donna) had that in spades. While both Rose and River had their share of arguments with The Doctor, how they handled them was drastically different. Rose argued when she had moral issue with his choices, stood her ground, defended others, and overall became the moral compass of their relationship. River rarely if ever, disagreed on issues or principles. If asked to do something she disagreed with she would just yell, “I hate you,” and then do it. Her mentality toward The Doctor can be summed up with a conversation she has with Amy in series 6. The Doctor has left them with instructions Amy does not want to do, but River tells her, “We’re going to as The Doctor’s friends always do. As they’re told.” I think I just heard Rose, Martha, Donna, Romana, and Sarah Jane slap you. When it comes to River Song, it seems that audiences were fooled into thinking she was a strong female character because of her propensity toward violence, and some admittedly excellent monologues.

Bingo.

Thanks to Allen and Anne-Kari for the heads-up.


  • Jim Mann

    The problem is that that line by River quoted above really needs context. It relates to the Doctor’s supposed death, and River making sure that things are carried out the way they have to be carried out.

    As for “When it comes to River Song, it seems that audiences were fooled into thinking she was a strong female character because of her propensity toward violence, and some admittedly excellent monologues.” — How about the fact that she is very intelligent and is able to work both on her own and along with the Doctor in figuring things out? (She infiltrates the Byzantium to find out what’s hiding in the hold. She fixes the teleport and saves Amy in Flesh and Stone. Etc.) The quote seems like a deliberate overstatement by the author to make the case.

    On strong female characters: Amy was often a stronger character than Martha was. She several times stood up to the Doctor in ways that Martha rarely would. (Though Donna remains my favorite companion, and no companion except maybe Romana ever pushed the Doctor quite like she did.)

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    Whatever the context of that one particular line of dialogue, it does represent in general how River became a less than independent character. And more of an adjunct to the Doctor instead of an interesting person in her own right.

  • Thomas Scott Estes

    I am male, and I am still interested in River, and Amy, and Donna, and Martha. Not so much Rose.
    The thing is, I generally like the Moffat episodes more. I don’t know if that is because I have some sexism. But I really enjoy the arcs through season 5 and 6.
    And to be really fair, even with Amy’s 53% score, Dr. Who is doing better than lots of other shows.
    I wonder how they quantified “Blink” because while Martha doesn’t do much Sally Sparrow does.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    Are you kidding about “Blink”? It’s about two women who have an adventure that has nothing to do with supporting a man’s adventure!

    None of this is about whether you are “interested” in River or Amy or Donna or Martha. It’s about whether they are depicted as fully rounded human beings.

  • bronxbee

    “Blink” one of the best S/F stories — ever. DW or any other show.

  • bronxbee

    Exactly! a lot of the complaints about Moffat’s downsizing River’s independence and sass comes from the fact that when we first meet her, she’s an archeologist leading an expedition on her own, able to summon the Doctor to help *her* at her command… and she was smart enough, independent enough and cool enough to sacrifice her own life… all the rigermarole that came after (including what i always find to be the ultra-creepy storyline about River being amy’s child, and having some regenerative powers) reduces River to being someone at the Doctor’s beck and call, instead of someone so intelligent, so interesting, so independent that she was able to have adventures with the Doctor AND on her own. moffatt <>… well, that’s all… moffatt.

  • Jurgan

    The only real problem with “Blink” sexism-wise is the creepy “romantic stalking.” “Are you going to stop following me?” “Probably not.” And then they get married. Fortunately it’s a side point to the main story.

  • Jurgan

    I compare to Indiana Jones. In the good Indy movies, you see him as both an academic and an adventurer. You can buy him as both smart and strong. River only seemed like an academic in her first episode. Every other time, you only see her in the middle of intense action sequences. Maybe Moffat thinks those are the exciting parts, but I find it makes her much more one-dimensional.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    It’s not about academia versus adventure, but self-determination and independence versus being an adjunct to some other character whose life is deemed by the story to be more important.

  • Jurgan

    Oh, I know that’s the main point. I was just sounding off on a personal pet peeve. But I think they’re related. In Library, River had a career of her own, and I could imagine her struggling to make tenure, for example. Her academic pursuits were a driving motivation. Now it seems more like a romantic comedy lead’s career- it’s an accessory whose main purpose is to bring her into contact with the male lead.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Gah, internet infographics. May they die the horrible, out-of-context death they deserve. And quick.

    And no amount dialog-time or Bechdel testing is going to forgive Russel Davies for what he did to Donna Noble.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    There’s a lot of head cannon built up around River. It’s tough to beat head cannon.

  • Thomas Scott Estes

    What I meant about Blink was how it was quantified for Martha, as the only person she speaks to in the episode is the Doctor.
    What I was trying to get at is there is more to an interesting and dynamic character than if they talk to another character of the same sex about a specific topic. I think the Bechdel test is very limited in its approach.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    We’re not getting into a discussion of the limits and necessity of the Bechdel Test again — we’ve done it before.

    And you would appear to be missing the point about “Blink”: the Doctor and Martha barely appear. They are not the protagonists of that episode.

  • http://www.kingnewbs.com/ KingNewbs

    I am male, and I am still interested in River, and Amy, and Donna, and Martha. Not so much Rose . . . I don’t know if that is because I have some sexism.

    Yes, it is. But admitting you have a problem is the first step toward building a more positive future for yourself and for those around you.

  • http://www.kingnewbs.com/ KingNewbs

    Well, but don’t forget it was those pursuits of academia and her independent actions that lead directly to her death in that very episode.

    So be careful, ladies! Is the message.

  • Tonio Kruger

    “LeFou, I’ve been thinking….”

    “A dangerous habit…”

    “I know.”

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Wait, what two women? “Blink” is about Sally Sparrow. Her friend gets sent back in time in the first 5 minutes, after a Bechdel Test passing conversation about “sad is happy for deep people”, and only sends a letter. Martha (along with the Doctor, as you noted) makes essentially a cameo appearance. Sally’s brother and the cop are the only other characters.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Martha also talks to the cop and to the autocue/Sally, but in both cases she talks about the Doctor.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    Sally and her friend share an adventure part of the way, and then they each have their own adventure. We don’t see as much of the friend’s, but her letter makes her a big character nevertheless. The episode isn’t as much the friend’s story as it is Sally’s, but the friend’s story couldn’t be removed without the overall story collapsing.

  • http://users.ecs.soton.ac.uk/lac lescarr

    I have found my opinion changing on this recently. I really wanted River to be a strong independent character, and I could just about make the evidence fit. But, although the constraint of the Doctor Who universe is that he’s always going to be the main character and all the other characters have to serve that purpose, that doesn’t mean that they have to serve him.

    River on the other hand is born, bred and groomed for the express purpose of killing the Doctor and then she becomes infatuated with him. She may be a sassy female character but she must surely be emotionally damaged goods. What we see hopefully means that she eventually matures to face down her “much worse day” and she becomes a successful, independent academic who is able to act independently heroically when the doctor no longer recognises her. Or perhaps she just kills herself because the purpose of her life just ended. *shudder*

    Amy is perhaps the example of what happens in a similar situation – what happens when a child gets her head messed up by bonding to the Doctor. At least she got to leave, eventually.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Kathy (I had to look it up) appears in the first 10 minutes of the story*, then is almost never even mentioned again. We never learn anything about her other than she’s Sally’s friend and Larry’s sister. (I’d like to think that if my sister vanished and I was told I’d never see her again I’d be a bit more put out about it than Larry is, but then that’s a very, very low bar.) Oh, and that she didn’t die horribly, and in fact lived happily ever after in early 20th century Ireland.** The only thing about her that matters is that she gets attacked by the Angels and sends a message to Sally. She exists to move Sally’s story forward. Sally can’t even consider trying to get the Doctor to save Kathy, because if he does, then she won’t write that letter to Sally, nor have a grandson to deliver it, in which case Sally gets attacked by the Angels, and no one saves the Doctor. Also, Kathy is no more important to the story than Larry or Billy. In fact, Billy has an almost identical character arc, and serves an almost identical story function, as Kathy.

    What I’m saying is, yours is a generous interpretation to say that “Blink” is about two women.

    * I haven’t gone back and watched rewatched it to see exactly when Sally reads the letter, which marks the end of Kathy. But I don’t think I’m off by more than 3 or 4 minutes, in either direction.

    ** Which is an interesting thing about the Weeping Angels – their menace isn’t at all about what the do to the characters. Basically, it’s hugely inconvenient. I often read complaints about how their goals and tactics get retconned later, but I’m not surprised. Making them straight up killers makes their menace a little easier to express to the audience, rather than just a series of jump scares.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    Okay, fine. But “Blink” is still about Sally!

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Yes, i’s absolutely Sally’s story! The Doctor is a minor character in “Blink”.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Given the recent news stories about early 20th century Ireland, it seems a bit much for Moffat to claim that Kathy lived happily ever after. But I suppose he could have put her in a worse situation — say, on board the Lusitania or the Titanic

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    She didn’t end up in Ireland.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Oh, right.

    That shows how long it has been since I had seen the episode in question. And how literally I interpret other people’s posts…