How sexist is Doctor Who? – The Intro…

“Have you never heard of female emancipation, Brigadier?” – Liz Shaw
There’s nothing ‘only’ about being a girl.” – Sarah Jane Smith
You will do as the Doctor says or I will cut out your heart!” – Leela


With the TV shows I usually review all on summer breaks right now, I found myself a little short of something to keep me disciplined enough to produce regular blog posts. Then I remembered a recent article I’d read in that the official journal of the gender wars, The Guardian, that reported a study claiming to prove that, under Steven Moffat, Doctor Who was measurably more sexist than it had been under Russell T Davies.


Now, I’ve read many opinion pieces over the last few years making this assertion, but they were all pretty subjective – I chimed in with a more general opinion myself, here. But this was the first time I’d come across anyone claiming to have quantifiable evidence that Moffat was more inherently sexist than Russell T Davies. And it also occurred to me that Doctor Who has been running far longer than from 2005 to today – it actually started way back in 1963, and has changed format and style on numerous occasions over the years. Surely, a more instructive study would be to analyse every era of the show, from 1963 right up to the present day, rather than (apparently) utilising a crude measure to score points against a writer whose work you dislike compared to his predecessor?

Bechdel Test
Dykes to Watch Out For, the original strip from which the Test derives

The crude measure in question, used to quantify the level of sexism, is the Bechdel Test. For those unfamiliar with this, it’s a feminist staple used to illustrate the inherent male bias in most fictional media, based on three pretty simple criteria that, in a gender balanced story, should mostly be easy to meet:

1. It has to have two named female characters
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man.

The Test has been (fairly) criticised for being a very blunt tool, prone to picking up false positives. A commonly quoted example of a respected movie that fails on all three counts is The Shawshank Redemption – set in a male prison from the 1940s to the 1960s, it would have been patently unrealistic and tokenistic if it did have any female characters in it. Alison Bechdel, the originator of the Test, is a feminist cartoonist, and the Test has its origins in one of her comic strips; I doubt she ever expected it to become such a universal yardstick.

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel

And yet, although there are notable examples of the Test not really being applicable, in general terms it is worth taking account of. You wouldn’t actually expect Doctor Who to do that well at it – it’s a show that was formulated in the 1960s, with the then standard format of a male lead accompanied by a female sidekick – not, originally, the Doctor himself, but Ian Chesterton. The Doctor was intended, originally, to have been a mysterious, Gandalf-style figure, with Ian and Barbara as audience identification figures. It was only later that the show took the title character to the level of central figure, and established the now notorious perception that his ‘companions’ were vacuous young ladies prone to screaming, twisting their ankles and needing to be rescued.

“I am woman, hear me roar.”

And yet, in some ways, the original ‘classic’ series of Doctor Who might do better than what’s become known as ‘Nu-Who’. The revival of the show in 2005 changed the format to a more modern style of drama, introducing personal lives for the Doctor’s female companions which included romantic relationships – not to mention the recasting of the Doctor himself into a (possibly) available romantic interest for them. In that kind of format, there’s surely a far greater risk of failing the Bechdel Test (as Sex and the City frequently does) because the female characters talk about nothing but men?

So, I thought a rather more comprehensive study would be to check every Doctor Who story since 1963. Could it be, for example, that the David Tennant era was actually more sexist (according to the Bechdel Test) than the William Hartnell era?

Doctors 1 and 10 had rather different attitudes to their companions…

So, I’ve been going through every story, and applying the Test to them. These are the rules I’m applying:

  • · Only televised stories from the show proper – no books, no Big Finish plays, no webisodes, no Comic Relief/Children in Need specials
  • · The criterion for “talking to each other” can’t simply be two lines where one female character says something (anything), the other responds in kind, and no other interaction occurs. At a bare minimum, one female character must say something to another, the second respond, and the first respond to that. In my view, even that’s a pretty generous version of “talking to each other”, but it’s what I’m applying.
  • · The Test to be applied by story rather than by episode, as generally accepted by canon. So Nu-Who two-parters count as one story, Trial of a Time Lord counts as four stories, etc
  • · The Test will be taken at its word – “named female characters” means just that. So, for example, the Inquisitor in Trial of a Time Lord won’t count – that’s a title, not a name.

I’m going to explain, as precisely as possible, whether/how each story meets or fails all three of the Bechdel criteria; but in addition to that, I’m going to comment with notes as to the less quantifiable aspects of how the story represents women. The original study quoted by the Guardian delves into this at some length; it’s necessarily more subjective, but makes some very interesting and (in my view) valid points. For example, it probably is fair to say that Steven Moffat frequently treats his female characters as plot devices first and characters second. But then (in my view), it would also be fair to say that he frequently does that with all his characters, regardless of gender.


Of course, it’s easy to find anti-female bias in Doctor Who, and with good reason. It’s a show created in the 60s, primarily by men (though it had the BBC’s first female producer), with a male lead character (though we now know that could change), and female ‘sidekicks’ – much like The Avengers, in fact. And yet, even though I was expecting to find a lack of gender balance, applying the Bechdel Test (and a couple of other factors) threw it into very sharp relief. The show often has very sketchy characterisation, but I hadn’t realised how few of its characters over the years have been women – in general, apart from the regulars, there was usually only one female character per story. Sometimes not even that.


Of course, there are a multitude of Doctor Who stories, far too many to fit into one blog post without it massively exceeding even my own usually wordy style. So I’m going to post my results Doctor by Doctor, with a summary of each Doctor’s gender balance at the end. The exception will have to be poor old Paul McGann, with his one story, which I’ll add as an addendum to the Sylvester McCoy post. I’m starting (logically enough) with William Hartnell, and I’ll post that simultaneously with this intro – it can be found here. I’ll follow up with a post each week, then a conclusion comparing what I have (or haven’t) been able to quantify.

I may not be the first to do this; I didn’t want to see anyone else’s attempts before writing my own notes on each story’s gender balance. But I’ve been crunching the data according to a variety of factors, and the final post, for all you statistics freaks, will sum up Bechdel failures and female representation in a number of ways – by Doctor, by producer, by script editor, by writer, and even by the story’s main villain. I’ll compare all of these as proportionally as I can to try and answer the question – just how sexist is Doctor Who?

4 thoughts on “How sexist is Doctor Who? – The Intro…”

  1. Great stuff Simon, though I think you should count The Inquistor. It’s a bit like saying The Doctor isn’t a proper character because he uses a title and not his name. Similarly, I presume The Rani is a title and not the character’s name (otherwise it’s a bit odd in the use of the definitive article). I appreciate this rule for characters in more domestic dramas, as ‘cashier’, ‘cleaner’ on the credits list doesn’t make a drama less sexist because they’re played by women. But having a female Time Lord lead the trial does feel a more representative of women, given the relative scaricity of female characters on Gallifrey and it appears to be a Time Lord custom to use a non de plume. (Plus it’s a powerful, central role.)

    Love to Barry, by the way.


    1. Thanks Mike! Belated response: I know it seems harsh, but I’m going to take the Test at its word, and only count names rather than titles. It’s a fair point about the Rani, which I’ve addressed in my notes for her stories; there’s also a good argument, as you say, that the Doctor himself can’t count as a ‘named character’. In fact, this seems to have been a central plot of Steven Moffat’s recent run, and the semantics of the issue very much delved into in the dialogue – is ‘Doctor’ all the name he needs?

      I am actually totting up the number of named male characters too, for a check of gender ratios, and in the interests of fairness, I’m excluding male characters under the same criteria. So I actually am excluding the Doctor himself (whatever Steven Moffat may say), and the Master (including his many aliases). So that should redress the balance a little:)


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