The Christopher Eccleston weeks
Welcome to Part Eight of my attempt to analyse the sexism in every Doctor Who story ever, using the Bechdel Test – and my wits. For a reminder of the rules, check the Intro here. Then, going by Doctor:
- William Hartnell
- Patrick Troughton
- Jon Pertwee
- Tom Baker
- Peter Davison
- Colin Baker
- Sylvester McCoy / Paul McGann
A quick reminder of the Test:
- It has to have two named female characters
- Who talk to each other
- About something besides a man.
Having now covered all of the classic series (and the Paul McGann interlude), it’s time to get up to date as we start to look at “Nu-Who”. This is where the idea for this series really began, with Rebecca Moore’s determined attempt to prove that Russell T Davies was more inclusive than arch-sexist Steven Moffat, as mentioned in the Intro.
I’m not going to do this by showrunner (yet), but continue by Doctor – though there’ll be a combined look at Doctors Nine and Ten after the Tennant post, if you want to assess RTD as a whole. In the mean time, as a nod to the new series tendency to harp on about the Doctor himself at often tedious length, I’m including a new check at the conclusion – how many stories that failed the Test might have passed if you don’t count the Doctor himself (a 900 year old non-human) as a “man”? There’s also a count of the trend that emerged for the Doctor to not actually resolve the plot himself, often leaving that to his companion (and sometimes other women). So, let’s take a bold stride into a new, hopefully less chauvinist era (though McCoy and Cartmel will be hard to beat)…
- Yes – Rose Tyler, Jackie Tyler, Caroline (Clive’s wife)
- Yes – Rose and Jackie talk several times
- Yes – Rose and Jackie talk about Rose’s job, how Jackie should go home from the shopping centre
Notes – Russell T Davies’ revival of the show puts the focus more squarely on the companion character (as it was in the beginning) and in addition gives her a personal life, meaning that the recurrent female characters don’t now necessarily travel about in the TARDIS (ie Jackie). This is also the first time an episode has actually been titled with the name of the major female character, and both Rose and Jackie get plenty of screen time – more than the Doctor, in fact.
So a huge improvement in gender balance from the classic show? Yes, to an extent, but there’s still only three female characters (including the lead), one of whom (Caroline) only gets two lines. And given how prominent Rose and Jackie are throughout, it’s surprising how infrequently they actually talk to each other. So yes, it’s better than the old show, but it still only passes the Test by virtue of two very brief conversations. And if you consider Jackie as a recurring character, there’s only one named guest female, about the ratio the classic series usually had.
The End of the World
- Yes – Rose Tyler, Lady Cassandra O’Brien, Jabe, Raffalo, Jackie Tyler
- Yes – Rose and Raffalo, Rose and Jackie, Rose and Cassandra, Jabe and Cassandra
- Yes – Rose and Raffalo talk about Raffalo’s job, Rose and Jackie talk on the phone about when she’s coming back, Rose and Cassandra discuss Cassandra’s human ‘purity’, Jabe and Cassandra briefly talk about Cassandra’s plan
Notes – a much better showing from the new era, this has more female characters than males for the first time since The Stones of Blood. All are well-drawn and have a part to play in the plot, and they interact frequently on many topics. Probably the most gender-balanced story the show’s ever done up to this point.
The Unquiet Dead
- Yes – Rose Tyler, Gwyneth, Mrs Peace
- Yes – Rose and Gwyneth talk on several occasions
- Yes – Rose and Gwyneth talk about Gwyneth’s job, her psychic powers
Notes – not as glowing a pass as the previous story, but given the 19th century setting, it’s understandable that there are fewer female characters. Mrs Peace (the dead woman at the beginning) doesn’t get any lines as such, but the Gelth themselves might be considered female (though they have no individual names). As if to make up for that, it is actually Rose and Gwyneth who resolve the plot and defeat the Gelth.
Aliens of London/ World War Three
- Yes – Rose Tyler, Jackie Tyler, Harriet Jones, Margaret Blaine, Dr Sato, Trinity Wells, Ru Chan
- Yes – Rose and Jackie in both parts; Rose and Harriet, Margaret and Harriet in part two
- Yes – Rose and Jackie talk about where Rose has been for the last year; Rose and Harriet talk about security protocols; Margaret and Harriet talk about the Slitheen plan
Notes – although the story of the farting alien invasion is hardly Russell’s finest hour, it does very well for female representation. In a large cast, roughly half the characters are female, and they interact a fair bit. Obviously Trinity Wells doesn’t interact with anyone, but she’s only ever seen on TV. However, she does go on to become a recurring character, as do Margaret Blaine, Harriet Jones and Dr Toshiko Sato (in Torchwood). So while the Slitheen themselves weren’t particularly memorable (however many times they came back), Russell’s skill at creating characters is evident here. And while three of the female characters went on to make return appearances, none of the males did (I’m not counting Mickey, who was already a recurring character).
- Yes – Rose Tyler, Diana Goddard, DeMaggio
- No – none of the female characters interact with each other
- No (see above)
Notes – Rob Shearman’s truly excellent reboot of the Daleks is a surprising failure for the Test. To be fair, it’s got a pretty small character roster anyway, and Goddard spends most of it in Van Statten’s office while Rose is running around the base away from the Dalek. And it’s Rose who saves the day (again) while the Doctor’s survivor guilt makes him lose perspective. Also Goddard is the one who wipes Van Statten’s memory. So basically, two of the female characters are the ones who save everyone; but this still fails the Test.
The Long Game
- Yes – Rose Tyler, Cathica, Suki
- Yes – Suki and Cathica; Rose and Cathica
- Yes – Suki and Cathica talk about floor 500; Rose and Cathica talk about the heating on Satellite Five
Notes – another pass for the Test, with Russell back on scripting duties. However, it doesn’t do as well for female representation as his last story, with only two named female guests, one of whom dies in rather short order. And none of them converse much with each other – both conversations listed above amount to no more than a few lines. At least once again, it’s a female character who saves the day, though in this case it’s Cathica rather than Rose. There’s also a dialogue nod to gender diversity when Cathica says, “ladies, gentlemen, multi-sex, undecided or robots…” You’d never have got that out of Robert Holmes.
- Yes – Rose Tyler, Jackie Tyler, Sarah, Bev, Suzie
- Yes – Jackie, Bev and Suzie outside the church; Jackie and Rose
- Yes – Jackie, Bev and Suzie talk about the ‘missing’ guests, Jackie and Rose talk about Jackie’s hair
Notes – Paul Cornell’s typically emotive script does very well by its female characters, all of whom are given depth and sympathy, however minor. And once again, it’s Rose who saves the day, after the Doctor has been deleted from time (though to be fair, she caused the whole situation in the first place).
The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances
- Yes – Rose Tyler, Nancy, Mrs Lloyd, Mrs Harcourt
- Yes – Nancy and Rose talk as they’re cutting the wire to the bomb site
- Yes – Nancy and Rose talk about the war, the future (naughty!)
Notes – before he was showrunner (and developed a reputation as an arch-sexist), Steven Moffat wrote this well-regarded story which does pass the Test, but only barely. Of the three female guest characters, only Nancy is given any depth; Mrs Lloyd only gets a few lines, and Mrs Harcourt is the hospital patient who pops up at the end to amuse us with the information that her leg has grown back. Also, if you want to look at the story as separate episodes, part one definitely fails the Test.
Having said that, in cold hindsight none of the characters in this are particularly well-served, with not much depth for anyone except Nancy and Jack Harkness. The others get hints as to their personalities, but not much more. Still, it passes the Test as a whole, and the well-drawn Nancy is very different from all the self-assured, impossibly witty and flirtatious Moffat heroines we’d get later. Oddly enough, in this story that role is filled by Captain Jack!
- Yes – Rose Tyler, Margaret Blaine, Cathy Salt
- Yes – Cathy interviews Margaret; Rose and Margaret exchange three lines towards the end
- Yes – Cathy and Margaret talk about the design of the nuclear reactor, and Cathy’s pregnancy (they do also talk about her boyfriend, but he’s not the sole topic of conversation); Rose and Margaret also talk about the reactor, and its imminent explosion
Notes – a nicely written, subtle character study that places the sole (female) survivor of the Slitheen in the limelight. Margaret’s a rounded, sympathetic character despite her ‘villain’ status, and the end of the story, contrived though it may be, is all about her redemption. She spends the lion’s share of the story talking to the Doctor, which doesn’t leave much room for interaction with other female characters; nevertheless, her ‘interview’ with Cathy early on in the story is poignant and well-written. Rose doesn’t get much screen time with Margaret, but that’s because she has a subplot of her own reconciling with Mickey. But that’s three female characters, and even the most minor one gets depth and a personality, so this does well.
Bad Wolf / The Parting of the Ways
- Yes – Rose Tyler, Jackie Tyler, Lynda, Crosbie, Fitch, Colleen
- Yes – Rose and Jackie talk in part two
- No – they talk about the Doctor, and Rose’s Dad
Notes – RTD’s first big finale certainly delivers on the spectacle, but doesn’t do too well by its female characters. Yes, there’s quite a few, but Crosbie, Colleen and Fitch are little more than extras in the (now very dated) pop culture game show references. I’m going to be strict and say that, despite the guest ‘appearances’ from Davina McCall, Anne Robinsons and Trinny & Susannah, none of them count as “named female characters” – they’re robot replicas, so in fact genderless despite appearances.
Lynda is a very active character, but never interacts with any of the others; Jackie does turn up towards the end of part two, but she and Rose talk of nothing but the Doctor. There are also two very important female characters, plotwise, who don’t get actual names; the Controller is understandable, as her brain has been modified and wiped by the Daleks, but the female technician on floor 500 is fully human and very active in the plot – yet doesn’t get given a name. Only the second nu-Who story to actually fail the Bechdel Test.
NB – this would have passed the Test (barely) if you don’t count the Doctor as ”a man”.
Ninth Doctor summary
Total stories – 10 (counting the two-parters as single stories)
- Stories that pass all three Bechdel criteria – 8 / 80%
- Stories that only pass two Bechdel criteria – 1 / 10%
- Stories that only pass one Bechdel criteria – 1 / 10%
- Stories that fail all three Bechdel criteria – 0 / 0%
Stories that would have passed all three Bechdel criteria if the Doctor doesn’t count as “a man” – 1 / 10%
Total named female guest characters – 22
Total female companions (including recurring ‘good’ characters) – 3:
- Rose Tyler
- Jackie Tyler
- Harriet Jones
Villainous or minor recurring female characters – 3
- Lady Cassandra O’Brien
- Margaret Blaine
- Trinity Wells
NB – even though Trinity Wells, Lady Cassandra and Margaret Blaine do count as recurring characters, the former never interacts with any other character, and the latter two are villains (of sorts), so I’m counting them separately from ‘companions’.
Total female characters overall – 28
Average ratio of male to female characters – 1.25:1
Story with the largest number of female characters – Aliens of London / World War Three (Rose, Jackie and Harriet plus 4 named guests)
Stories where the plot is resolved by a female character rather than the Doctor: 6 / 60%
- Rose (Rose throws the ‘anti-plastic’ into the Nestene while the Doctor is restrained)
- The Unquiet Dead (Gwyneth closes the Rift the Gelth are coming through)
- Dalek (Rose’s influence convinces the Dalek to commit suicide)
- The Long Game (Cathica interfaces with Satellite Five’s heating system to destroy the Jagrafess)
- Father’s Day (Rose convinces her father that he has to die to reset history)
- Bad Wolf / The Parting of the Ways (Rose becomes ‘Bad Wolf’ and destroys the Daleks)
Female companion assessment
Tricky to do for the Ninth Doctor alone, as all his regular female characters carry on (and develop) in his successor’s era. So we’ll come back to this after the David Tennant post.
Sexism rating for the Ninth Doctor
Not bad, but not the huge leap into diversity some would have you believe. Overall, 20% of Eccleston’s stories fail the Test, placing him less successfully than Sylvester McCoy or even Colin Baker. On the plus side, more than half of his stories are resolved by a female character rather than the Doctor himself. And he has the most equal ratio of male to female characters so far, with the 1.25:1 figure making virtually equal representation for the genders.
Yet again, there’s the caveat that with such a small number of stories (only McGann has fewer), any failure at all looks magnified, and only two of Eccleston’s stories actually fail the Test. It’s also worth noting that this rather shows the limitations of the Test as a measure of inclusiveness in itself, as by pretty much any other measure, this is the most gender-inclusive era yet.
Rankings of Bechdel failures by Doctor (so far):
- Jon Pertwee – 54.2%
- Tom Baker – 43.9%
- Patrick Troughton – 33.3%
- William Hartnell – 31 %
- Peter Davison – 30%
- Christopher Eccleston – 20%
- Colin Baker – 18.8%
- Sylvester McCoy – 8.3%
Next Monday, a much bigger post, as the Tenth Doctor has nearly four times as many stories as the Ninth. Will the fangirls’ (and quite a few fanboys’) beloved David Tennant continue Russell T Davies’ good work? Watch this space…
7 thoughts on “How sexist is Doctor Who?–Part Eight”
Thanks for doing this! I found this post because someone linked to it on Tumblr. The Bechdel Test has its limitations; it doesn’t measure how important or active the female characters are, just how much they talk, so I’m glad you included other comments. I would also give Series 1 and RTD points for including women in non-traditional roles, like Raffalo the plumber, Harriet Jones the MP, and Margaret Blaine the mayor (even though she’s actually a Slitheen).
Another excellent installment, however, I think you’ve made a mistake concerning the episode “Dalek.” You’ve given it a fail, but this very brief (and easy to miss) exchange between DeMaggio and Rose, should give it a pass:
ROSE: Come with us. You can’t stop it.
DEMAGGIO: Someone’s got to try.
Actually, I’ve just checked your introduction page, and I see you don’t count a two line exchange as an actual conversation, which makes is a much stricker application of the Bechdel Test than the one applied by Rebecca Moore in her study. Looks like you’re going to be giving Moffat one hell of a pounding.
You’re not wrong Alan – even though I like Moffat!
Aside from “Dalek” the only other difference between your study and the one done by Rebecca Moore is the fact that you give “Father’s Day” a pass, and she doesn’t.
Okay, first the “Jackie, Bev and Suzie outside the church” scene:
BEV: Now, that’s what I call a meringue.
SUZIE: Listen, Stuart’s dad said he’d go round the block, cos there’s people missing.
SARAH: How do you mean, missing?
BEV: There’s no Dave, no Sunita, no Bea.
SUZIE: There’s no one from the Lamb and Flag.
SARAH: Oh, my train’s detached again. I knew I should’ve used Velcro.
JACKIE: I’m here. Stop your bellyaching. Take Rose a sec, will you?
(Jackie hands over a baby in a carry cot.)
BEV: Oh, ain’t she pretty?
JACKIE: She’s a little madam, that’s what she is. Oh, I need more hands. Where’s her useless article of a dad got to?
Moore doesn’t count this scene because Bev appears to be repeating to Suzie something told to her by Stuart’s dad. Also, Sarah’s train has come loose during the wait caused (in part) by Stuart’s dad driving round the block, and Jackie’s stated reason for why she has to hand Rose to Bev is because “her useless article of a dad” is missing.
Strictly speaking, you should change point three from “Yes – Jackie, Bev and Suzie talk about the ‘missing’ guests,” to read “Yes – Jackie and Bev talk about Rose,” because that’s the only sequential three line conversation between two women that takes place in this scene.
Next, the “Jackie and Rose talk about Jackie’s hair” scene:
JACKIE: Oh, wonderful. Here he is, the accident waiting to happen. You’d be late for your own funeral and it nearly was!
PETE: No damage done.
JACKIE: And who’s this? What’re you looking at with your mouth open?
ROSE: Your hair.
ROSE: I’ve never seen it like. I mean, it’s lovely. Your hair’s lovely. And that baby you’re holding. That would be your baby.
JACKIE: Another one of yours, is she?
PETE: She saved my life!
Here I’d say that Moore excludes the exchange because it doesn’t appear to be a genuine conversation between Rose and Jackie. Rose may say “Your hair” in response to Jackie’s question, but this is more of an exclamation than a proper reply, and the same appears to be true for Jackie’s rather surprised “What?!”
Yes, those are both debatable examples from Father’s Day. You’re quite right about the first exchange – the only three lines between two female characters relate specifically to Rose rather than the missing guests. The second exchange, though, I very much read as being between Jackie and Rose, though not entirely about Jackie’s hair; it’s more of a comical moment as Rose tries to come up with a response initially, then backtracks. Yes, it’s not much of a “conversation”, but it qualifies better than the three lines between Tegan and Susan that gave The Five Doctors a pass. Occasionally I’m a bit lenient, I guess 🙂
“it’s more of a comical moment as Rose tries to come up with a response initially.”
I read the scene differently. It strikes me that what Rose is looking at is indeed Jackie’s hair and that Rose saying “Your hair” is a genuine reaction. The fact we have to go to the level of nitpicking a meaning out of an exchange that’s meant intentionally to be ambiguous, just shows how even self-styled feminist Paul Cornell is locked into the format of writing female characters whose lives ostensibly revolve around men.
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