I am a recently converted Whovian who began watching Doctor Who this past summer. And while I had had friends for years tell me to watch Doctor Who, I never felt I had the time to sit down and watch a television series. I must thank my roommate who, over the summer, convinced me to watch this phenomenal series. But as much as I now love the show and am emotionally invested in the characters and story arcs, Doctor Who is not immune to participating in sexist tropes and practices.
For this post, let’s examine two particular moments in Doctor Who: at the end of Season 1 (9th Doctor) when the Doctor absorbs the time vortex out of Rose to save her life, and at the end of Season 4 (10th Doctor) when the Doctor takes the DoctorDonna’s memories to save her life.
To clarify, I know I am not an expert on Doctor Who. I have only seen the more recent Doctors, and even then I have only seen up to a few episodes into Season 5. All the same, I am not making an over-arching claim that Doctor Who is an entirely sexist program, nor am I claiming anything on the quality of the show. I am looking at two specific moments to identify a harmful trope against women.
For both Rose as the Bad Wolf and Donna as the DoctorDonna, the story line is, at its heart, the same. The female character has extraordinary powers, shines as the hero for a moment, and then the true hero of the show takes these powers away in order to save her life.
Let’s begin by analyzing Rose as the Bad Wolf:
On the surface, this is an incredibly empowering scene. The human female companion controls the action. She is the one to destroy the Emperor of the Daleks, save the Doctor and save the planet. But, as soon as the immediate danger of the Dalek Emperor has passed, the series shifts back to the Doctor. It is his story we’re meant to follow, not Rose’s. When he says, “It’s all my fault” we are brought back to the reality of a male dominated program: the hero saves the woman.
I’m examining the Doctor absorbing the time vortex from Rose because this is more than a simple hero saves the day plot devise. The woman gains too much power and too much knowledge. For her own good, it has to be taken from her. The Doctor is a Time Lord and therefore he has superior intelligence, superior stamina and pretty much superior everything and that, as audience members, we trust his opinion. If he says the time vortex is killing Rose, he is correct. He sacrifices himself to save her and the world continues to turns on, with the hero saving the woman.
The writers wrote themselves into a jam here. Although theoretically, they could have let Rose continue to be the Bad Wolf and travel with the Doctor as his equal (or potentially superior), the Doctor wouldn’t have regenerated and the classic formula of Doctor and Companion would have been ruined. In short, Rose gained power specifically to for it to be taken away after the defeat the villain. Her power surge, is only to serve the Doctor’s story arc. There is no room for a woman who has knowledge and power because, as the Doctor explains, it’s killing her. For her own good, the Doctor needs to take that power from her.
The same issue of too much power and knowledge being deadly for a woman occurs when Donna becomes the DoctorDonna and the Doctor wipes her memory:
Again, we have a female character in an incredibly powerful position, who gains knowledge and defeats evil. But, again this power is only temporary. She is not meant to hold onto it, as it is beyond her due. Now, I know some people may say that it is because she is human that this power was taken from her, not because of her gender, but television shows exist within a cultural context. It is not an accident that the man of the story is the alien of superior intelligence, wisdom and the like. It is not an accident that his companion is a human who needs to rely on the Doctor to save the day. The traditional power structure of the man knows best and female subservience is merely cloaked under the disguise of alien superiority.
This is an issue because it spreads the message that women cannot physically handle knowledge and power. It is too much for them. It is too great for them to exist holding onto such power. And for their own good, men need to keep them sheltered. If men do not then women will die as the result of over-reaching herself. The Doctor can possess immense knowledge. His female companion is along for the ride.
I do not say that what Rose and Donna do in the series is inconsequential or that their great deeds as the Bad Wolf and the DoctorDonna should be overlooked as a sexist scam. There is a strong possibility that the writers of Doctor Who are not even aware of the messages they are spreading to their audiences. But, they are spreading them all the same.
As much as I love the show and admire the Doctor as a character, it is not his job, or the job of any man (alien or otherwise) to strip a woman of power. The plot devise of “for her own good” does not hold up as legitimate when analyzed under a feminist lens.