Is Doctor Who Bad for Women?


Lost is in reruns until tomorrow, which means I had an opportunity write a post of epic length about my latest sci-fi obsession.  This piece will cover seasons 1-4 and the first episode of season 5 of the 2005 Who series.  Unlike Fenzel’s excellent Who piece, which can be understood by the uninitiated, this piece is full of SPOILERS. If you haven’t caught up on seasons 1-4 yet, best ye stay out.  Everyone else: enjoy.


Doctor Who just started up again on BBC America* with a new season, a new show-runner, new cast, new TARDIS… a new everything.  My two word review of the season opener: “Molto bene.”

*PROTIP: Don’t watch it on BBC America.

Of course, not everyone had the same positive reaction I did.  Some didn’t like the new Doctor (incorrect), most hated the new theme song (so did I), and others were concerned that the plot was a retread of “Smith and Jones” and “The Girl in the Fireplace” (rightly so).  Mostly, there was a lot of conversation about Moffat’s decision to make Amy, the Eleventh Doc’s new Companion, a kissogram.  What’s a kissogram? you ask.  Well:

It’s a fair cop.

Yes, the Doctor’s new Companion, for all intents, is a stripper.  (Talk about sentences you never thought you would write!)  Naturally, questions arose, the main one being, “Is this sexist?”  Personally, I thought making Amy a kissogram was a pretty awesome choice that said more about her character and about her relationship to the Doctor than about the show’s feelings about women in general.  Still, the question is a fair one.  It’s like the old Zen koan, “Is Showgirls sexist?” On the one hand, you could read Showgirls as a criticism of the sex industry and how it destroys women.  On the other hand:


Anyway, according to some of the forums I read, not only was Amy’s character sexist, but Steven Moffat was sexist, and the new Doctor Who in general was sexist, and I thought, “Ooh, thems fightin’ words!”  Ah, but fightin’ words that led to a great question:

In general, is the new Doctor Who bad for women?

My answer: Possibly.

Part 1: Doctor Who: A wish-fulfillment fantasy for nerdy girls, or, In the World of Firefly, “Companion” Means Prostitute

Consider the following story.

Far away from here, but not too far, there’s a fairly average girl living a fairly average life.  She’s attractive enough, and she’s no idiot, but, for all intents, our heroine is a normal person with a normal family, normal friends, and a normal life.

And she hates it.

Lucky for her, it’s not going to last long.  Just then, who should arrive in her life but a supernatural mystery man who ushers her into a new, magical life she could not previously access.  Despite his attractive exterior, said mystery man is actually more than a hundred years old, and, for some unknown reason, he enjoys hanging out with this much younger woman and drawing her into potentially-fatal situations.  Our heroine loves it—loves him.  As their adventures continue, their relationship quickly evolves (devolves?) into a deep intimacy (disturbing co-dependence?).  Even so, our mystery man and heroine don’t actually have sex with each other.

Let’s play a game.  Name the mystery man.  Name the heroine.

Hum the theme song… now.

Okay: answer time!

Did you say the Ninth and Tenth Doctors?  Did you say Rose Tyler?  Yeah, those answers work, I guess.  But I wasn’t thinking of them.

I was thinking of Edward Cullen.  I was thinking of Bella Swan.

I was describing Twilight, people.  FRIGGING TWILIGHT.

This worries me.

Our sparkly doctors beat your sparkly vampires.

This worries me because most adults agree that Twilight fairly regressive when it comes to its views on gender and relationships.  Could it be that Doctor Who is just as bad?

Possibly.  Both Twilight and Who are stories of adolescent female wish fulfillment.  In male wish fulfillment fantasies, the reader gets to imagine himself leaving home and becoming part of a larger society or story: he becomes a leader of the rebellion, for example, or long-lost heir to the throne.  In the kind of female wish fulfillment fantasy represented by Twilight and Who, the reader/viewer gets to imagine herself leaving home not to join a larger society but to give up her responsibilities.  For once, she doesn’t have to worry about her family obligations or her job or protecting her virginity.  She doesn’t have to do much of anything, actually.  She just has to give herself over to the story and its hero and let them both take over.

[Somewhat-related aside: Interestingly, in this fantasy world, sex between the two main characters doesn’t actually occur—or, at least, not before marriage in the Twilight universe.  But that makes sense, doesn’t it?  This is an adolescent female fantasy.  This is the fantasy of a person who is both intrigued by and frightened of sexuality.]

Like our pal Stokes, you can argue whether such female adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasies are good or bad for women, but I think we can all agree that the first season of Who fits snugly into this mold.  Rose’s life is boring and full of responsibilities—to her crappy job, to her mother, to her boring boyfriend—until she gets swept off her feet and into a TARDIS.

I think we can also agree that in Doctor Who’s season one and in Twilight, there are some strange, gendered power dynamics going on.  In Twilight, Edward gives orders; Bella takes them.  In Who, the Doctor orders; Rose cheerfully obeys.  Edward (the Doctor) fights; Bella (Rose) either acts as a help-mate or waits to be saved.  Edward (the Doctor) controls the tenor and direction of his relationship with Bella (Rose); Bella (Rose) dotes.  The only major difference there is that Edward is a bit (understatement) more sexually intense than Eccleston’s Doctor is.  When Edward controls his relationship with Bella, he makes it more obsessive—sneaking into your non-sexual girlfriend’s bedroom and watching her sleep tends to do that.  The Doctor, of course, does exactly the opposite: keep Rose at arm’s length.  But both guys decide when the relationship starts, when it will end, when sex will occur (if ever)… everything really.  These two relationships are clearly lopsided, and the power rests firmly in the hands of the men.

So, is the new Doctor Who sexist?  Yep.  Looks like it.

Yes, it is.

Wait, is it?

Well, possibly.

No.  No, absolutely not.  Never in a million years.


No, I refuse to believe that Doctor Who is sexist.  I don’t know about Twilight, but the new Who is far too clever for that.  No, for all their similarities, there is a difference between Twilight and Who: a major difference—a difference so enormous and so charged that it separates Twilight and Who into two universes that can never, ever touch.

ON PAGE TWO: My straw man meets its match.

Part 2: The Education of Rose Tyler

Don’t get me wrong: I love the new Who’s first series—Eccleston grew on me like whoa, and the end of “The Doctor Dances” probably merits a place on my list of “Best Things in the History of Ever.”  But the second series beats the first because that is when the show develops the big, huge, monumental thing that separates it from Twilight: self-awareness.  The first season introduced a relationship with little comment; the second season comments.  In order to avoid making this overly-long post overly-longer, I made some charts.


Click to embiggen.

As a point of comparison, here’s a pro and con chart for Edward Cullen, according to the Twilight series:

Many readers of Twilight will think of their own “cons”—for example, I don’t like my men pubescent and sparkly.  But those negatives don’t go on the list because they are not mentioned within the text.

I hope you can see the difference between the two charts.  Edward’s flaws are rarely acknowledged by Twilight, which makes sense when you consider the books’ narrator.  The new Who, on the other hand, seemingly spends half of its time reminding Rose (and us) of the Doctor’s pretty major flaws, lest she (and we) fall for him too deeply.

It doesn’t work, needless to say!  But let’s give Davies and co. points for trying.


By constantly commenting upon the negative aspects of  Rose and the Doctor’s relationship, season two sets up Rose’s story less as a Twilight counterpart and more as a sister to the film An Education.  I’m not going to spoil An Education for you if you haven’t seen it, but the moral of the story is something along these lines: “If, when you are around college age, an attractive, worldly older man asks you to travel around with him, be careful.  We’re not saying ‘don’t go’—after all, a trip with such a learned man will surely help you broaden your horizons, try new things, become independent of your parents, tear yourself off the rails society has set you on since birth, help you learn what you do and don’t want out of your next relationship: in other words, grow up a little.  If you’re lucky, you can use this opportunity to forge your own identity.  But you can find yourself getting wrapped up in the guy’s identity, too.  And, trust me, he’s not as perfect as he looks.”

Also, Carey Mulligan is totally in both of them!

Is this a feminist moral, a regressive one, or what?  I don’t know.  Both?  Neither?  It just sounds like life to me.  Young women change their life paths all the time to follow some guy.  Twilight suggests that this is a completely good thing—true love and all—while Law and Order: SVU says this story will always end in a rape-murder.  Doctor Who, like An Education, gives a more nuanced vision of this type of relationship, and I think a more realistic one.

NEXT UP: Gender + Religion = Even More Confusion.

Part Three: The Gospel According to Martha Jones

Here’s the other big difference between Who and Twilight.  Edward isn’t all that different from any other teenage boy in the world, so when he bosses Bella around, and she takes it, it grates.  Because, seriously, she does not have to follow him around like a puppy-dog or risk destroying space-time.  On the other hand, when the Doctor bosses his female Companions around, you can’t really blame them for obeying.  Dude’s a nine-hundred-year-old super-genius who lives in a time machine.  What, are you not going to listen to him when he says, “Reverse the polarity?”  Please.  Edward Cullen is a teenage boy who drinks blood sometimes; the Doctor is two steps away from a god.

The third season’s constant references to the Doctor’s pseudo-godhood puts a whole new spin on the show’s gender dynamics.  In my head, there’s another epically-long post waiting to be written about Who’s feelings about spirituality and science and faith and logic, but let’s cut to the chase: Doctor Who is not about Jesus or God or Christianity but it is most definitely a Gospel.  It is a televised Bible written by a gay atheist about the dual gods of science and faith in humanity.  Season three is secretly called the Gospel According to Martha Jones.  For the first twelve episodes she acts as the savior’s disciple, and in the thirteenth episode, she spreads the Word—the Word being “Doctor.”

Jesus pose, WHAT?!

Let’s say that, like Jesus, you happen to be part-god and part-man.  It’s tricky, ‘cause you have to keep a balance.  Try to scoot too far over to the “god” side and you become a crazy-evil sumbitch.  Yet, if you give up that god side entirely, humanity is doomed.

So how do you strike that balance?  Well, if your name happens to be Jesus, you hang out with humans a lot.  Call ‘em disciples, call ‘em Companions—same diff.  In recent years, the Doctor has taken to hanging out with only one Companion at a time, typically a woman.  The Companion is a disciple, a friend, but never an object of romantic love or sexual desire.  I’m going to go so far as to say that each Companion fills the role of the Virgin Mary or a non-sexual Mary Magdalene to the Doctor’s Christ.  The man’s half-god, but the Companion-Apostle keeps him anchored to humanity and to the Earth.  (And, as far as the Doctor knows, his Companions really are virgins.)

If the Companion represents the Doctor’s Virgin, does he also get a whore?  Well, sorta.  In season three, we see a lot of scary, sexualized female villains: the hot spider-mama in “The Runaway Bride” (who interestingly mocks Donna for not being married); the sexy young witch from “The Shakespeare Code”; and, most obviously, the Master’s bizarro-Companion, Lucy Saxon.  And, although she’s not sexualized like the others, we also get an anti-Madonna in the figure of Francine Jones, Martha’s pain-in-the-ass mother who sells the Doctor out to the Master and ends up getting completely screwed for her efforts.

In theory, then, you could probably write a post about how the new Who, Shakespeare-style, surrounds its fascinating male lead with a bunch of sweet Companion-virgins and evil villain-whores.  But that argument would A) require you to overlook the more complicated psychologies of the Doctor’s female Companions and B) require you to overlook season three’s “Human Nature/Family of Blood” two-parter—a story I like to call “The Last Temptation of the Doctor.”

This will surely last.

As in the film “The Last Temptation of the Christ,” “Human Nature/Family of Blood” shows a god-figure being tempted by his human side and visions of a normal life with a woman.  In “Human Nature,” we see the temporarily-human and memory-less Doctor falling head over heels for Joan Redfern, a character who is neither virgin nor prostitute, and yet a little of both.  In other words, she’s an adult woman.  At the end of the episode, “John Smith” is asked to choose between Joan and Martha, between his human life and his god’s life, between love and duty.  Most intriguingly, the episode explicitly frames this choice in sexual terms: Son of Mine demands that John choose either his “maid” or his “matron.”  Technically, the word “maid” refers to the fact that Martha is literally pretending to be a maid (with a feather duster and all), and “matron” refers to the fact that Joan is literally a school nurse, but the sex-oriented double-meaning is very evident.

This episode is merely one example that proves that Who is not a simple story of a Jesus figure surrounded by a series of evil whores and one virgin Companion but a story of a Jesus-figure given a series of near-impossible choices that have to do with women, sex, and mortality (which are, of course, interrelated concepts):

OPTION 1: Completely give up the human side, the virginal Companion/Disciple, and the would-be wife.  This option is a non-starter; we get the impression that without “the love of a good woman,” the Tenth Doctor simply go mad.  (Which kind of happens in The Waters of Mars, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.)  Long story short, without Companions around instead of this

we’d have to deal with this guy all the time:

Bad idea for all parties, I think.

OPTION 2: Strike a balance between the human side and the god side.  Keep the virginal Companion, but lose the wife.  This is the option the Doctor chooses, but it clearly has its drawbacks: no sex, no true love, no children, no mortality.  He can save the Earth but never be part of it.  He’s always a visitor, an alien.  And since Gallifrey was destroyed, that means he’s always alone.

OPTION 3: Completely give up the god side and the virginal Companion/Disciple; become a human and get married.  Get the wife, get the sex, get the love, get the children, get the mortality.  Become a true part of the real, physical, human world.  This is the option and temptation proposed in “Family of Blood”; the Doctor rejects it.

OPTION 4: Instead of being half-god and half-human, try to be full god and full human at the same time.  Use the godlike TARDIS to take over the Universe.  At the same time, indulge your human side by boning your Companion.  This is the option the Master chooses in the season three finale, and it’s shown to be really icky.  The Master managed to take a Companion-Virgin and make her into a true prostitute, a woman who let him live out his sexual fantasies in exchange for her life.

Somewhat-related musical interlude!

The Master may like Option 4, but the Doctor never considers it for one of two reasons.  Either he’s sublimated his sexuality so thoroughly that it is physically impossible for him to look at his Companions “that way,” or he’s incredibly aware that the lopsided power dynamics would make boning a Companion super-creepy.  Either way, Option 4 is off the table.  For now.

NEXT UP: Doctors are from Mars, Donnas are from Venus?

Part Four: The Yin and Yang of the Doctor-Donna

Hold the Jesus phone for a sec.  Let’s take a moment to inspect Donna Noble.


Thank god for season four, because if Davies et. al had offered up yet another “Companion with a crush” story, I think we’d all scratch our eyes out.  Where the first three seasons of the new series told the tales of two lopsided relationships, the fourth season was the story of two kinda-equals who complemented each other in a very yin-yangish way.  Oh, look!  A chart!

I think we can agree on most of these points.  (If not, please criticize below in the comments.)  I am not saying, of course, that the Doctor is never warm, or that Donna doesn’t have any darkness in her—that’s what the dots inside the yin-yang are for.  The Doctor and Donna make such a great team because they bring out in the other what they already have in themselves.  With the Doctor around, Donna gains some confidence, uses her super-temp logic to solve some episodes, and learns to make some tough “big picture” decisions.  Donna, more than any other Companion, keeps the Doctor grounded in the here and now, gives him an earful when he starts getting too coldly utilitarian, cuts him down to size when his ego gets too large, and gives him hugs after he’s mind-raped and almost killed by an angry mob.

(There’s also some indication throughout this season that the Doctor and Donna don’t only represent themselves and their conflicting philosophies but that they also represent a metaphorical “father-mother” pairing.  The entire season focuses on surrogate parenthood: “Partners in Crime” is about an intergalactic nanny; “The Fires of Pompeii” sees Donna becoming a symbolic “mother” to a Pompeiian family; “The Unicorn and the Wasp” features an abandoned child; “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead” shows Donna raising a false, computer-generated family; “The Doctor’s Daughter” is self-explanatory.  In this season we also see a lot of Donna’s mother, who is presented as a shrew who takes her own inferiority complex and bitterness and grief out on her daughter.  This focus on the family becomes nearly explicit in “The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End” two-parter, where the Doctor is implied to be the father of his “Children of Time,” meaning all of his past Companions.  It’s also implied, more subtly, that Donna represents the mother to the Doctor’s father.)

The Doctor-Donna idea reaches its final, climactic form in the season finale when Donna literally becomes half-Doctor and a Doctor clone is made with some Donna mixed in.  It turns out to be a pretty good mix, for a time: hybrid vigor allowed Donna to temporarily be smarter than the Doctor, because her human emotions and creativity gave her ideas that logic alone couldn’t provide, and Clone Doctor, while not perfect, had enough humanity to finally settle down and allow himself to enjoy a happy, domestic life.

The show doesn’t allow Doctor-Donna to last, sadly, and the separation leaves both parties in a shambles.  Left without memories of her time with the Doctor, Donna reverts to her old shrill self: a woman with so little self-confidence and interest in the rest of the world that she spends most of her days viciously gossiping about celebrities.  Left without Donna’s tempering influence, the Doctor goes to Mars and goes a little nutso.

We’ve seen this story before throughout the ages.  Men and women are different in clear, binary ways—one’s the yin, the other’s the yang—but they need each other, too.  The underlying assumption is that women by themselves are too emotional and weak-willed to get anything done, which is why they need men to run the planet.  At the same time, those men need the love of a good woman like Joan Redfern and Donna Noble to round out their rougher edges, especially by softening their supposedly-sharper intellects.  This idea can be seen in “Midnight,” a story explicitly about how cleverness without compassion can lead to disaster.  Tellingly, this episode barely features Donna at all.  If the compassionate mother figure were around, the Doctor wouldn’t have gotten himself into that kind of dire trouble.

Reducing men and women in this fashion is pretty sexist any way you slice it.  And yet, it doesn’t bother me all that much in Doctor Who’s season four.  Again, that probably has to do with the fact that Donna and especially the Doctor are so well-drawn in this season that I never got a “Men Are from Gallifrey, Women Are from Earth” kind of vibe.  Instead, I got a “This is What Donna is Like, and This is What the Doctor is Like” vibe.  Their genders seemed mostly incidental to me.

My reaction to season four also has a lot to do with the re-imagining of Martha Jones.  This season finds her completely over her crush on the Doctor, and she’s become the badass Spock we always suspected she could be.  With her somewhat cold but efficient intelligence, Dr. Jones throws a wrench into the “men are intelligent but evil/women are compassionate but weak” dichotomy.  (Though you could make an argument that this is still sexist, seeing as Martha couldn’t fully realize her badass potential until she was trained by the Doctor.  But, ehhhhh, I don’t know.  I think the fact that she was left to fend for herself as a resistance fighter during the Year That Never Was had a lot more to do with it.)

ON THE LAST PAGE: We discuss the writings of Steven Moffat, and conclusions.

Part 5: Little Moffat’s Misses

My knowledge of Steven Moffat comes solely from Who, along with one episode of Coupling, which I found amusing in that “boy, are men and women different!” sort of way.  His episodes in Who’s first four seasons were the big highlights, although I must admit I found “Blink” a bit overrated and “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead” a bit underrated by the fans.

Fans around the Internet have recently been coming out against Moffat as a sexist, though I think some of those arguments are a bit much.  Yes, Sally Sparrow is a fairly passive, undeveloped character, but so is every other non-Doctor person in that episode, male or female.  Nancy from “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances” is a badass as far as young women in the 1940s go, and I completely do not get where the Internet’s hatred of River Song comes from.  A middle-aged female Indiana Jones?  Yes, please.

There are, however, two decent ways to make an argument that Steven Moffat’s episodes are sexist.

ARGUMENT 1: Some of Moffat’s episodes literally objectify women.  “The Girl in the Fireplace” morphs Madame de Pompadour into a spaceship, “Silence in the Library” makes Donna into a statue, and “The Forest of the Dead” reveals that Cal is a computer.  I’ve only seen the first episode of season five so far, so don’t spoil me, bro—but I got a strong feeling that the duck pond without ducks is actually part of Amy Pond, somehow, or that she’s part of it.  Is this literal objectification misogynistic?  I really don’t know.  If you have any insights, please explain in the comments.

ARGUMENT 2: Happy endings for women in Moffat’s world seem to involve either motherhood, true heterosexual love, or both.  “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances” only gets its happy ending after Nancy admits she’s the empty child’s mother.  The thwarted happy ending of “The Girl in the Fireplace” would have shown Reinette ending up with the Doctor, her one true love.  “Blink” ends with Sally Sparrow paired off with Nightingale.  River Song’s (somewhat creepy) happy ending involves her becoming a mother to some cyber-children in a Matrix-heaven.  Hmm.  I’d have thought her personal heaven would involve archaeology?

So is Moffat sexist?  I’d say no, but it’s a close call.  I’m going to withhold judgment until I see more from him.  What do you think?

River is as confused as you are.


Four seasons down, and a new season’s begun, and I think I can finally answer the original question.  Is Doctor Who sexist?  No, I don’t think so.  For a show supposedly for children, it sure has a lot to say about gender dynamics, romance, and sex, and in theory, some of these ideas appear misogynistic or overly reductive on the surface.  For me, though, the execution saves it.

But, hey, this may just be an epically-long rationalization based on the fact that Who, with its focus on science and geekiness and silly pop culture references, is a better adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasy for me than Twilight is.  In other words:





I realize I’m not well.

So, what do you think about gender issues in Doctor Who?  Sound off in the comments section below!  (But try not to spoil episodes that haven’t been aired in the U.S. yet.  This means season 5 episodes 1-3 are fair game; anything past that’s off-limits.  Cool?  Cool.)