By Laleh Ahmad, intern 2015
Doctor Who is a British show that originally aired in 1963 and continues up until now. It’s a science-fiction show about a Time Lord called the Doctor, who time-travels in a ship called the TARDIS and teams up with a variety of companions to save civilizations, defeat alien foes, and right wrongs. It has amazing actors and special effects. It’s hilarious and thought-provoking and I never get tired of it. But there’s just one thing missing. And we know what that one thing is by asking one very simple question:
What does Steven Moffat, writer and producer of Doctor Who, fear most?
The answer: well-written women.
Let’s look at one character and two plot points to prove my case: Amy Pond, the Girl Who Waited, and Amy Pond, the human incubator.
Amy starts out as a great character, but she soon succumbs to Moffat’s unfortunate habit of writing women as moons orbiting around men, rather than a woman orbiting around her own world. In this case, the planet she’s drawn to is the Doctor. Amy is one more woman (of many) who inevitably falls for the Doctor’s charms and spends a substantial amount of her on-screen time thinking about him. She is married, so she can’t always be thinking about the Doctor. So … when her character isn’t revolving around the Doctor, it revolves around her husband. Tell me, when does Amy get to develop as a character on her own?
And then there’s the weird stasis pregnancy story arc. Amy doesn’t know she is pregnant, but the Doctor knows and doesn’t tell her. Turns out, she’s being used as an imprisoned womb to incubate a child. This is an obvious removal of female agency and choice. And it’s horrific.
Being alone and afraid when you’re about to give birth is a terrifying concept, one many women actually have to go through. Arguably, this sub-plot is not appropriate for a family show when treated so flippantly. What makes matters worse is that the show doesn’t explore the repercussions of this experience. Doctor Who could have deeply explored Amy’s feelings when her agency, her baby, and her ability to have more children are forcibly removed from her. This exploration could have mitigated the terrible mystical pregnancy trope. Instead, Moffat simply brushes aside this inner conflict by the next episode.
Moffat uses women as plot devices rather than characters to drive the story in Doctor Who. Amy is either reduced to a damsel in distress, “the girl who waited,” or a human incubator useful for one thing and one thing alone: producing a baby. Amy is reduced to a woman’s “traditional” gender role (thanks, patriarchy), and the writing reinforces that women are, in essence, baby-makers and nurturers. Of course, being a mother is a wonderful thing — but so is being a father. Nobody feels the need to confine men to that duty, so why should futuristic women have no role beyond motherhood?
It’s not just Amy — sexism is everywhere, no matter where you look, in the show. A Dalek, a metal alien only capable of destruction, develops a female conscience and spends her time cooking. Rory, Amy’s husband and one of the Doctor’s companions, jokes that being married to Amy is like being trapped inside a giant robot duplicate of her. The Doctor consistently mocks his companions’ physical appearances. Jenny, one of these companions, is sexually assaulted by the Doctor when he dips her down for a kiss, forcibly and without her will. It’s taken as a joke, and that’s unacceptable.
The point is, Doctor Who is very, very problematic. But because it has such a loyal fan base, no one is likely to call it out. Children watch this show. They take it to heart. Little boys look up to the Doctor. Little girls look up to all the female counterparts. Children who watch a show that reinforces traditional gender roles will assume that sexual assault is a joke. By seeing sexism on-screen, it’s easy for them to think it’s all okay — it’s in their favorite show.
Sexualizing women, reducing them to just mothers and wives, letting their interactions with men define them, creating damsel-in-distress tropes … What messages does this send?
This isn’t only a problem with Doctor Who. It happens in most movies, TV shows, songs — really, everywhere, and in all forms of media. There are very, very few TV shows that are beautifully feminist. (See: anything by Shonda Rhimes.)
Ideally, the media should be used to create a positive change, not condition us to blindly accept sexism, racism, ableism, or any other form of bigotry. But that’s not what we see at all most of the time. Even from a young age, children are exposed to Disney movies with hypersexualized female characters, or Pixar animated films — which has barely any movies passing the Bechdel test.
What do children learn from this media? How to accept sexism.
By the time kids watch shows like Doctor Who, they can’t question what’s wrong with it. Not everyone knows about media literacy or viewing media through a feminist lens. Accepting sexism leads to the perpetuation of it.
Maybe for whatever reason, sexism in the media doesn’t affect your life. But it does influence someone else’s. Maybe there’s a little girl who wants to be a scientist, but only sees male scientists on TV and comes to the sad conclusion that women just aren’t meant to be scientists. Perhaps there’s a little girl who wants to be a CEO, but is subtly told that people just don’t like female CEOs. Hell, maybe there’s a little boy who wants to be a stay-at-home dad, but never sees that dream represented in the media. In the words of ground-breaking astronaut Sally Ride, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
We live in the media age. Its messages creep into every corner of our lives and affect us every day. We need to make sure that the media’s daily influence is a positive one. This won’t be achieved by sitting around and saying, “Eh, it’s just a show. No big deal.” The solution is media literacy and the ability to analyze the messages the media sells us as normal.
We need to take a stand. That’s what it means to be a fan. I want to love Doctor Who, and I want to make sure that everyone watching it loves a healthy, family show. It’s important to be critical, because if you aren’t you’re essentially approving of sexist media.
I love a lot of problematic shows, and that’s okay. You don’t have to hate all parts of a show because certain parts are sexist or problematic. I like Doctor Who, even though I cringe sometimes while watching it. Its sexism doesn’t stop me from enjoying other aspects of it, like its phenomenal actors (Jenna Coleman is amazing.) But it’s important to call out the problematic aspects. That’s what it means to be a critical fan. That’s how change is going to happen.