The Doctor-Donna - the closest we'll come to a female Doctor Who?

Forget Pseudo-Science: Why Doctor Who *Isn’t* Sexist

Oh dear. Another ugly brute rears its head. It’s been claimed, once more, that Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who is sexist. The clickbait this time is the pseudo-scientific Bechdel test.

Movies (or in this case, TV shows) pass the test, named after a cartoonist who first set out the rules in a strip called Dykes to Watch Out For, if they feature two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. And since there have been claims that Moffat’s writing is sexist, a Media Methods Research class in the USA assessed the writer’s era as showrunner against that of previous showrunner, Russell T. Davies.

[pullquote align=”right”] Doctor Who isn’t a story of sex. It’s a story of people.[/pullquote]They put each female companion to the test, as well as coming up with average speaking time, and then put the two eras of the show beside one another. The results were that yes, Doctor Who is now sexist.

The BBC denied this, of course, rolling out executive, Faith Penhale, who said, “The BBC refute claims that Doctor Who is a sexist show under Steven Moffat, strong female lead characters are at the heart of his writing. The BBC is hugely appreciative of all of Steven’s work.”

They refute the claim because it is nonsense.

Please note, the following criticisms of the test are not directed at the author of the infographic, Rebecca Moore; I’ve explored her blog and found her to be a clever and excellent writer. This is a defence of the show that I love – but it’s also a concern that goes deeper than that (which I shall explore further on). Moore, too, acknowledges the limitations of the Bechdel test, realising that she “attempted to quantify something that is largely opinion based.”

As a test of sexism in Doctor Who, I feel the test is massively flawed – but also, it seems massively flawed as a test of sexism all together.

What does the Bechdal test say about women talking to other women about women, or men talking to men about women? The Bechdel test disregards the latter entirely, perhaps unintentionally taking the sexist stance that only women can be victims of sexism. I can look past that however; it was conceived as an assessment of how female characters are written.

Jack Harkness and Rose Tyler dance.But then, what if the women don’t talk about men, but they do talk about shoes or shopping? What if they talk about another woman in a derogative manner, thus exhibiting another stereotype? And what does it matter, as long as their dialogue is true to the character?

My problem may be that the Bechdel test boils everyone down to their gender, not view them as individuals.

The infograph (shared below) compares Donna Noble to Amy Pond, but we’re all products of interactions and relationships we have. When one character is the Doctor, an impossible time traveller who’s also a genius, it’s tough not to talk about him. He’d be the elephant in the room. The two are just very different characters; that’s all. Donna was arguably created as a reaction against the Rose Tyler-type companion, who fawns on the Doctor; introduced in The Runaway Bride, she was a stark contrast to Rose, but when she returned for Series 4, she was a stronger person – again, the opposite of the companion during the previous series, Martha Jones. Amy couldn’t be the same sort of person as Donna.

It simply wouldn’t have worked. We might as well have Donna again. (And yes, I do love them both.) Amy’s a companion who is influenced by the Doctor at an early age: she thinks about him as we may think of an imaginary friend.

Is Doctor Who sexist? This infographic says "yes"; we say "no"

Donna is brilliant, but there’s a notable difference between her debut in The Runaway Bride and Partners in Crime. That difference is the Doctor. It’s made more explicit in Journey’s End when, forced to forget the Doctor, she reverts back to the Donna we met in her first Christmas adventure. She is defined by her relationship with the Doctor as much as Amy because he opened her mind – but that’s the same of all companions, female or male! Even Adric! (Okay, maybe not Adric.)

[pullquote align=”right”] There’s a notable difference between the Donnas of The Runaway Bride and Partners in Crime. That difference is the Doctor, and puts into question whether the Bechdel test can be applied to Doctor Who at all.[/pullquote]A further flaw of any test for sexism is that it all depends on who the audience is and what they think a strong female looks and acts like. A prime example of this is Madge Arwell in The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe. Many argue that a strong person is a career-focussed woman, yet Madge displays everything that should make her strong – she’s even capable of doing something the Doctor can’t. Motherhood makes people stronger (as, indeed, does fatherhood). “Hampered” by both motherhood and the time in which she lives – yet another problem with applying gender complaints to Doctor Who – she doesn’t have a career to speak of.

Yes, it all comes down to perspective. To me, all nuWho companions are strong leads, including both Amy and Clara (fairly omitted from the Bechdel test study). The latter is a more scared companion, but remains strong in my eyes because she still does what needs to be done and stands by the Doctor, despite her fears, and maintains a questioning mind.

Amy’s Choice is an episode that failed the Bechdal test. Should this be viewed as an example of Doctor Who being sexist then? No, because it matters that the Doctor and Rory refuse to make the big decision solely as Amy can’t. They rely on her and trust her completely.

As a writer, this sort of thing concerns me, but it should concern anyone who doesn’t want unnecessary restrictions invisibly imposed on them. I maintain that freedom of speech is an illusion; one enforced not only by governments but also by its people, however well-intentioned.

Goodbye MarthaI am certainly not saying I want to upset anyone. In fact, complete freedom of speech would be a scary thing. As someone who rereads Fahrenheit 451 every year, though, the fact that censorship is so widespread troubles me greatly, particularly unequal equality: that, to me, is a less-clichéd way of saying, ‘double standards.’

A bigger trouble, though, is unintentional offense, and this, I believe, is where Steven Moffat comes in. I do not believe him to be at all sexist. However, many think that he is. Any offense caused by Moffat is likely unintentional, but the negativity, spite and bitterness aimed at him is definitely intended. That such negativity likely forced him off Twitter is unacceptable. As Moffat notes in the latest issue of Doctor Who Magazine: “sometimes, in my paranoia and embarrassment, I wonder if I’m just making everybody cross all the time.”

[pullquote align=right]As a test of sexism in Doctor Who, the Bechdel test is massively flawed – but also, it seems massively flawed as a test of sexism all together.[/pullquote]My concern, when it boils down to it, is having to please everyone instead of simply writing characters.

I really wish this “Doctor Who is sexist” thing would stop. But the fact is, it won’t. No matter who is in charge. Media will always offend someone.

If all writers caved in to pressures, the world would be a very odd, impossible place. Imagine if Tom MacRae had thought about the Bechdel test; The Girl Who Waited, a beautiful, memorable and heartbreaking episode, would be a very different beast. TV would be far more mind-numbing if everyone panicked about offense. I refuse, as do many writers, to write by prescription.

Really, this issue shouldn’t have been addressed by anyone official: it merely appears to validate a matter of opinion.

Your thoughts below, please – and yes, I expect at least one person to point out that this article was written by a man!


When he’s not watching television, reading books ‘n’ Marvel comics, listening to The Killers, and obsessing over script ideas, Philip Bates (Kasterborous' former Editor) pretends to be a freelance writer. He enjoys collecting everything. He is the co-founder of The Doctor Who Companion:

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