Sexism and Doctor Who: The Truth

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Is Moffat’s Doctor Who sexist? David Selby investigates.


Earlier today The Guardian published an article entitled ‘Has Doctor Who become more sexist?’ The critique, based on a recent study, evaluated the role of women within the context of individual episodes based on the ‘Bechdel test’, a technique whose name is derived from comic book author Alison Bechdel. The test measures the importance of men to the specific female characters by recording how many times female characters talk to one another about something other than men, thus the pass rate depends on the amount of conversations unrelated to men.

is-doctor-who-sexistAccording to the article, Russell T Davies had an 89% pass rate across his twenty-seven episodes whereas Moffat’s two series (up until the departure of Amy Pond) only received a score of 57% (twelve out of twenty-one episodes).

This is a shocking statistic, further supported by a companion-by-companion analysis where Amy Pond ranks last at 53%. The lowest a Davies companion collected was Rose Tyler at 74%. River Song barely passed the test.

Surely this is almost indisputable evidence of Moffat’s female characters’ necessity for male counterparts/’tutors’ and their mind-set revolving around the male characters of the series, unable to find other conversational points.

Moreover, it only takes a minimal amount of research to realise how dependent female characters are on males. Amy is frequently unable to make her own decisions and act independently. She’s indecisive and progressively heartless about the Flesh, requires the Doctor’s ‘comfort’ after her experience on the Byzantium and in The God Complex openly expresses how she is driven by her ‘faith’ in the Doctor; her expectation for him to save her which epitomises her role in his life – waiting for his next action.

The Doctor christens Clara ‘my Impossible Girl’ – note the possessive. Moffat subconsciously labels women as objects of men which perhaps suggests a deeply-engrained domineering mentality. Such values are medieval. Women need to act through their own choices, uninfluenced by men and unrestricted by the grip which men hold over them.

The Eleventh Doctor is the most sexist Doctor to date, making jabs about women and so far the only excuses I’ve seen have been muffled giggles and “Shut up I’m dying”. In fact, the Doctor goes as far in Let’s Kill Hitler as to suggest that River behaves irrationally because psychopathy makes sense purely because of her gender. This characterisation now borders on misogynistic, instilling fear in the audience simply because River is a psychopath and a woman.

I can fully understand why some people would stop watching the show. Moffat’s sexism is ostensibly incessant, often harmfully tactless and pushing the boundaries of TV prejudice. If he were to be removed from his position of authority I’m sure it would come as a relief to many who have been offended and disheartened by his thoughtless misogynistic dialogue and unprofessional conduct.

Many have become disillusioned by their favourite show, furious that it has sunk to such a low point. To many, Doctor Who is ruined.

If only those many would look deeper.

amy-pond-karen-gillan-series-5Indeed, part of Moffat’s era has been to establish the female characters as fleeting aspects of the male characters’ lives. But, in part at least, that’s the point. If anything, the case of Amelia Pond reflects poorly on the Doctor.

Amelia Pond is an intelligent girl – she’s bright, quick-witted and instantly likeable. Multifarious fairy-tales and fairy-tale-inspired fictional stories adapt the idea of an ‘adult’ influence over the life of a child. Whilst these themes touch on the idea of a divine enlightenment and a quintessentially ‘magical’ journey, Moffat depicts an alternate scenario where Amelia’s childhood dreams are crushed by ruined expectations and broken promises.

William Golding’s eminent classic novel Lord of the Flies is renowned for borrowing the narrative concept of R. M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island but adapting the thematic concept for a more brutally realistic moral foundation. Both depict the stories of boys marooned on exotic islands, but whilst The Coral Island explores the threats the boys encounter while stranded, Lord of the Flies presents the boys as the key threat, portraying a sense of gradual disorder and anarchy where political structure works for some time but immaturity and premature freedom corrupt their minds and unlock evil.

It seems I am digressing here but bear with me – the reason why Lord of the Flies always strikes me is because for all the notion of schoolboys running a society is surreal, the nature of their social structure is accurate. It’s one of the first cases in literature where the classic ‘child’s adventure’ gets a brutal, startling shot of realism.

I feel Moffat aims to do more or less the same with the fairy-tale genre. There’s no doubt in the fact that Series Five is intrinsically sold as a fairy-tale. It employs subjects of childhood, magical worlds, dark legends and mighty beasts (the Pandorica) with a transient hero who turns up at the scene, saves the day, brings peace and journeys on.

Part of the fairy-tale genre – and, I suppose, its essential charm – is how simply unlikely it is. It’s safe because the characters are secure, the themes and occurrences are child-friendly, misfortunes are represented in a comical tone, and – unless you’re reading Grimm – happy endings, or at least humorous endings, are mandatory.

The Doctor isn’t just the godlike fairy-tale figure. He’s the male figure, a charming, (unconventionally) attractive man who whisks the young female away from her humdrum life. But that’s where everything goes wrong. The Doctor makes a miscalculation and arrives twelve years late.

Errors don’t come naturally to glorious male figures that are flawless in their actions. No, the Doctor’s magnetism and charisma instantly comes across as a façade. Not once is he presented as a typically masculine ‘saviour’, but as a mad man in a box who ruins peoples’ lives by pretending to be the ‘perfect’ legend he isn’t. Moffat takes the idealistic concept of a fairy-tale yet removes idealism, which ends up reflecting on both genders.

god-complex-ameliaThis lends a new perspective to The God Complex because it’s the Doctor who’s been in the wrong this time, deceiving Amy in the same way he has deceived many companions in the past. I think the notion of the Doctor being an authoritative and influential figure over his female companions isn’t a dig at the female compulsion to be overruled, but instead the male nature to highlight superciliously that they should overrule and that women do need to have a male figure in their lives – hence why Rory sees through the Doctor’s façade, because he sees the Doctor for who he really is.

In other words, Moffat grounds the fairy-tale narrative in astounding realism – the magic-man isn’t who he says he is. You could say that this aspect of the storyline is actually sexist to males – but you won’t, because Moffat’s a male, and of course that doesn’t make sense (or does it?).

Amy makes mistakes because she feels she ‘needs’ the male figure in her life, yet when she settles with a man who she treats as her equal – and, in cases, her possession (which puts an end to the idea that Moffat objectifies women, because it’s Amy who has her boys and gets to choose between them in episode titled just for her), she develops as a character and becomes a stronger individual, correcting the Doctor for his mistakes when she realises that she has as much right to paint herself as the heroine with the moral high-ground as he does to act as the typical Western male hero, turning up in Mercy, riding out on horseback and finding a characteristically masculine ‘brawn over brain’ alternative. Again, this appears as misandry rather than misogyny.

I don’t intend to deny that Amy is in part flawed (flawed doesn’t mean badly-characterised – it means intricate), and during her earlier days does rely upon the male characters to ‘rescue’ her. But this is an individual character-flaw that happens to coincide with gender, similarly to how every time the Doctor considers violence you could complain that he is being pulled down to a sexist stereotype.

In the same way that the Doctor titles Clara ‘my Impossible Girl’ (and we’ll get onto Clara in a minute), River uses a number of endearing but predominantly masculinity-humbling terms to address the Doctor such as ‘Sweetie’ and ‘Pretty Boy’. Queen Elizabeth even explicitly states that arrogance typifies the male sex.

I won’t go into analysing these instances because they very possibly are sexist. But Moffat cannot be both a supporter of leading group-hate and reverse discrimination… can he?

No. He can’t hold both viewpoints, but frankly, even if he did, how on Earth would we, an audience to a television show written by him and produced by a board of executives, be able to prove it anyway? Moffat could write a male companion who openly hates women and resorts to misogynistic name-calling and discrimination every week but we still wouldn’t be justified in calling the show-runner himself a sexist. Steven Moffat is a writer and nowhere is it stated in the rules of basic storytelling that your characters have to be a reflection of your own views and predispositions. Characters are unique entities, separate from their creators and a writer cannot be held responsible for the characters’ viewpoints (in most cases – but I won’t overcomplicate this).

the-bells-of-saint-john-pics-batch portraits (1)If the show-runner was called Stephanie Moffat, she’d almost definitely be disparaged for her characterisation of the Doctor as a man reliant upon the brave and brilliant Clara Oswald. Clara is not at any point shown to have gone on a personal journey of discovery, but instead to have changed the Doctor into a better man. It’s a marking-point in Doctor Who history where the companion isn’t even remotely reliant on the Doctor, but where her personal decisions and her own, independent judgement has led him to changing some of his biggest decisions. Thanks to Clara, the Doctor saved his own people. Thanks to Clara, the show can go on until the Doctor has used up his next regeneration cycle. Clara shows arguably more intuition and wisdom in one half-series and two specials than the Doctor has for most of the last fifty years.

What I’m trying to say is that people will interpret stories based on their own views and twist them based on what they want to see. I see them as being written by a man who is neutral to men and women whilst others choose to see it another way. In the end, no one can honestly judge Steven Moffat’s own views without being completely condescending unless they actually know him personally. Even interview personalities are a poor representation of what someone is really like; Steven Moffat is one of the most humble men ever to work for the BBC and writes in fear of what people will think of him. I don’t think for one moment that he’d focus on openly degrading women, but instead in producing a script which everyone will love. (Source – unnamed close friend of Steven Moffat.)

It might even be worth mentioning that the Bechdel test isn’t the most accurate measure of sexism. If a show is about a male protagonist and frequently features a male villain, the exchanges between the female characters are hardly going to be about coffee shops, holiday destinations and loan companies. I’d add that if anyone wants to conduct the same test on the Doctor over the course of the New Series to see how much he references his female companions, I’d be open to having a read.

The only other aspect of the argument I’ll address is probably the most ridiculous – Moffat’s desire not to have a female Doctor. I am one of the most ardent feminists I know but I could think of fewer worse things than a woman taking over the role of an inherently male character. It’s not sexism, but awareness of the fact that gender plays a massive part in who a person is, and switching something like that would just be too momentous a change in a character who has been the same for fifty long years (and it would switch the ‘smart male role model’ setup). I’d rather Moffat made his decisions based on what is best for the character rather than what will either shock the audience or endanger an old formula by trying to be ‘politically correct’.

In conclusion, I’ll happily read and possibly agree with any article entitledWhy Steven Moffat writes sexist characters’, but there’s not a scrap of evidence I’ve yet seen which suggests that Steven Moffat is, to any degree, a sexist man – he’s just a writer who can construct a range of fascinating, complex and in many cases flawed characters, both male and female, without trying to make each and every one perfect and ‘appropriate’ beyond the lengths of realism.