All the TARDIS Ladies

Before you settle down to digest your Christmas Dinner with the Doctor Who Special, you might like to consider how the show treats its female characters. Hope Dinsdale investigates

Hope Dinsdale, 22 December 2011

149649-low_res-doctor-who amy.jpg
Remember 2010? Remember when Amy Pond hit our screens as the new companion in Doctor Who? The camera panning sexily up her legs to reveal her in a police uniform?

I do. And I remember being both happy and appalled. The shot placed her firmly in the category of 'sex object': just a pair of legs and a sexy uniform. But I decided to try and look past this, focussing on what Amy was. A police woman. A strong female character: a woman with a career who contributes to the community. Excellent.

Ten minutes later the episode showed me how foolish I'd been to try and see the positive.

"I'm a kissogramme," Amy revealed, dramatically, "I go to parties and I kiss people, it's a laugh." The Doctor just looked on in horror.

The revelation that Amy used her sexuality and body to make money was a blow, when I had thought she was an inspiring police woman. But, again, I thought, maybe it's not all bad. Maybe being a kissogram is something Amy has chosen and wanted to do? However, Amy was shown to be embarrassed by her job, wishing she did something else.

This view of Amy's job was reinforced by the slut shaming that accompanied Amy's costume; a clear trend running through the episode. From the Doctor's disbelief at Amy's job to the knowing looks of the old lady as Amy desperately tried to cover up her profession.

The female characters are portrayed as strong women; they're brave and often save the day, but wouldn't it would be better if they had strong careers or at least some aspirations in life to accompany this?

On one hand, clearly Amy and her uniform were there to be sexualised. There for the male gaze. However, on the other, we got the message that it was somehow wrong for Amy to be dressing this way and that she was ashamed of it.

430335-low_res-doctor-who TARDIS.jpgIn Doctor Who there is often a lack of direction in life for the female leads. It's very disappointing to see character after character not have any aspirations. The female characters are portrayed as strong women; they're brave and often save the day, but wouldn't it would be better if they had careers or at least some aspirations in life to accompany this?

Of the recent companions only Martha had a career. She was a medical student with a clearly defined purpose in life and a brilliant set of attributes: brave, strong, caring, knowledgeable, hard working and loyal, though she also had flaws. Martha was a strong character, who was female, rather than a strong female character.

Unfortunately the writers chose to make Martha fall in love with the Doctor. This unrequited love eventually caused Martha to leave the show. Making her ultimately defined by her relationship to a man. This coming off the back of Rose's love for the Doctor, was an over-used trope that wasn't needed.

The ultimate achievement of Amy, Donna and Rose is getting a man

The sexualisation of the companion/Doctor relationship, connotes that the women cannot join the doctor just for the adventure of travelling in time, for the wonder and the mystery of it all. Instead they do it because of him not for themselves.

This trope was subverted and played for comedy to great effect during the Donna era. Donna and the Doctor were constantly reassuring people that they weren't dating. Donna was the one recent companion who did travel in the TARDIS for the sheer adventure of it.

However, Donna wasn't exempt from gaining gratification through men when it came to how the stories of the companions ended. The ultimate achievement of Amy, Donna and Rose was getting a man: married to Rory, engaged to Shaun and fobbed off with the alternate version of the tenth Doctor, respectively. Even Martha was unceremoniously stuck in a relationship with Mickey.

River's sexuality was one of her weapons and she was proud of it

And then there was River. There were many things the show got right about River, like Martha she could also be classified as strong character, female. River's sexuality was one of her weapons and she was proud of it; she used it to her advantage.

She was an older woman, something that was otherwise lacking in this series with tremendously young female leads. River was resourceful, intelligent and determined. She also had clearly defined careers goals and we saw her achieve them during the most recent series when she earned her PhD.

But her life and actions were defined by the Doctor. Her education, the fact that she became an archaeologist, her whole career path was driven by him, she wanted to track him through time. Ultimately, when she knew she'd never see him again, she sacrificed herself to save his life.

The Doctor's companions seem to play at being equal but we know ultimately it is the Doctor who calls the shots. And, as the Doctor is always male, there is a limited scope for female power in the show. Women are always relegated to 'helpers', a common stereotype.

Though I love Doctor Who dearly, I hope some day we can readdress the power imbalances in the show somewhat, by having a female Doctor.

Because why not? Wouldn't it be fascinating and exciting to follow a female Doctor's adventures in space and time?

(Editor's note: I vote for Tilda Swinton. And, apparently, Helen Mirren has thrown her hat into the ring.)

All images from BBC pictures.

Comments From You

Fantail // Posted 22 December 2011 at 21:52

Very interesting article. I love Doctor Who, but I hadn't really considered its female characters in this way before. I feel like Amy had much more of a character in season 5 -- she was bubbly and gutsy and yes, a bit saucy -- but in the most recent series she was painted as simply "Woman who loves Rory and the Doctor". I found it very dull being endlessly told how much she cares about them.

I think a female Doctor would be a great way to rejuvenate the show after what I feel was a lacklustre season. Tilda Swinton or Helen Mirren would be excellent -- or how about Helena Bonham Carter? I wonder if women would be loathe to take up the role, though, considering the immense pressure that would be on them to deliver a fantastic performance and the inevitable criticism that would follow. Not that I think they shouldn't!

I can't help but wonder if the female characters' tendency to focus on their love lives is characteristic of the sentimental, soppy tone of the show in general. I'd be interested to hear arguments against this view, but people are always falling in love in Doctor Who.

Also this is somewhat irrelevant, but I feel the need to challenge the assertion that Amy is there for "the male gaze". I'm a woman and I can't help but enjoy looking at her!

Gavin // Posted 24 December 2011 at 12:22

You make some good points but you're overlooking what for me is the most glaring fault. For years it's always been the Doctor and a much younger woman. Why does he have to have only one companion? Why does he only have female companions? There used to be robotic, male and non-Earthling companions. Seeing the Doctor stuck with just one young female companion after another caused me to drift away from the show for the last few years.

Becca // Posted 29 December 2011 at 12:50

Interesting article. I do think it's a pity that only Martha Jones is considered a "strong" character due to her profession as a doctor. Strong female role models (for me at least) transcend socio economic stereotypes. Not every woman chooses to define herself using her career, what about stay at home mums for a start?

To say that Martha has more strength as a character than Rose, Donna or Amy seems rather classist and narrow minded. Why? Because she earns more money and can impress people at dinner parties? I find her to be rather wet as she constantly fawns over the Doctor.

Doctor Who is great for including same sex couples and relationships. I love the fact that this is done in an unceremonious matter of fact way. Also, a spin off series with River as the main character would be fantastic!

Becca // Posted 29 December 2011 at 19:03

Interesting article. I do think it's a pity that only Martha Jones is considered a "strong" character due to her profession as a doctor. Strong female role models (for me at least) transcend socio economic stereotypes. Not every woman chooses to define herself using her career, what about stay at home mums for a start?

To say that Martha has more strength as a character than Rose, Donna or Amy seems rather classist and narrow minded. Why? Because she earns more money and can impress people at dinner parties? I find her to be rather wet as she constantly fawns over the Doctor.

Doctor Who is great for including same sex couples and relationships. I love the fact that this is done in an unceremonious matter of fact way. Also, a spin off series with River as the main character would be fantastic!

Clodia // Posted 30 December 2011 at 16:53

I drifted away from earlier series of Doctor Who (before Christopher Ecclestone and David Tennant) because I was tired of the stereotypical subservient female companions. I agree that a female incarnation of the Doctor is long overdue.

Sarah // Posted 05 January 2012 at 16:34

I respect this article, but I think allot has been overlooked here..

Most of the companions fall in love with the doctor, this is an ongoing theme, but what follow this in each case is that all the companions use their experiences and travels with the Doctor to learn more about themselves and make their own strong independent choices once they leave the doctors side, they are not shown as victims or as submissives, quite the opposite! Each female companion of recent has been shown to be important role in saving the universe and to be more powerful than they ever imagined, this makes them an extremely positive role models!

Also what about Sarah Jane!?!? One of the original companions, who was such an amazing strong character that she was brought back into the new series and given her own spin off show as both a defender of the universe and an amazing mother, how cool is that, and how is that not an amazing female role model??

The Tardis is considered to be female, and not just because it is a machine and a ship and blokes like to refer to them as 'she' (which is partly sexist and partly I like to think due to the parallel of the complexities of modern inventions and the female mind). For those that don't know the Tardis has been shown throughout Doctor Who history to have its own soul and personality (this is Sci Fi after all!).

The Tardis has been shown to be the Doctors original companion, his relationship with the Tardis is unusually complex and emotional. The Tardis has been shown to be exceptionally independent and more intelligent than the Doctor, but has also looked after the Doctor, over ruled him and almost controlled him throughout the history of Doctor Who.

This relationship was explored in the episode 'The Doctors Wife' where the 'soul' of the Tardis found it's way into human female form and the Tardis and the Doctor get to further explore their relationship and it is concluded that the Tardis has always ultimately been in control of the Doctor.

So I feel that the Tardis is THE ultimate female role model within Doctor Who!


Galia // Posted 14 April 2012 at 03:59

Regarding Amy's first job, the first episode focuses how that short encounter we saw just a moment ago has taken over her entire life. Part of it is that she is doing some rubbish degregading job that she's not proud of (she keeps it a secret.. hence her aunt - or whoever that woman was - asking if she was a policewoman or a nurse or a nun. She has been hiding her actual job title from her)

It's very easy for someone with Karen's looks to "fall" into a job like this (have you seen Karen's comedy work? A lot of legs and other body parts showed there, and not enough talent was shown through even though the little that did was fantastic) so if Amy's a wreck from being labelled as emotionally unstable (She has an imaginary friend. She bit the shrinks that claimed he wasn't real) it's very easy to fall into that.

"In Doctor Who there is often a lack of direction in life for the female leads" - I disagree. The show has a lack of direction in life for COMPANIONS TO BE, it's just that most of them have been women. Rory had no direction in life - he was fired in 5x01 and he was pretty much a doormat until he walked into the TARDIS; Wilfred (if he counts) doesn't have much going on other than watching the skies and hoping to see the Doctor. That guy from series 1 "Dalek" / "The Long Game" (if he counts) was doing pretty decently actually but his workplace was destroyed right before joining the TARDIS and other than that he was living in his mommy's house, so he's not that hot career wise, just a smart intern.

So every person dedicating their life to travelling in the TARDIS didn't have much to lose in the first place.

Amy had her wedding to lose, but she still went and did what she wanted, even if it'll cost her the ties society binds people with in marriage.


Regarding the women's final achievement always being a man, what happened with Jack in the end? If we ignore Torchwood (because I never saw it :) ) The Doctor helped him get a date. Last time he sees him and he makes sure he's got a man by his side. Maybe it's just the "trope" where everybody, regardless of gender, must be partnered up in the end.. and we just had more female characters we care about.
I don't like that "trope", but it's not necessarily chauvinist if it happens to the guys too.
And Donna's mother stayed single. Can't recall any other women right now.

And I agree that River, while being totally awesome, dedicates her whole life to a guy (and in 6x13 - SPOILERS - her brave initiative turns out to be redundant and almost destroys everything. That whole "as we/she's told" theme in episode 1 and 13 is kind of annoying)


(I'm a woman BTW, and obviously, a feminist)
(And a big DW fan. Despite any criticism I wrote here, I love the show. Nothing is perfect and these are just imperfections I live with. Plus, it's still a LOT more feminist than most other shows and movies)

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About the author

Hope Dinsdale

Hope Dinsdale is a third year university student studying English literature and Journalism. She spends most of her time wishing she could just read books for a living.

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