Sexism in the TARDIS: Doctor Who’s Woman Problem (Part One Of Two)
There are nights where I think about packing a suitcase and sitting in my backyard Amelia Pond style, waiting for the all-familiar whooshing sound and a madman in a blue box to appear. I don’t think I’m alone in this, but hey, maybe.
But when I thought about all the women who have encountered The Doctor since the series reboot began in 2005, the more I realized how crappy this would turn out for me. There is some serious sexism in the TARDIS.
In the first of this two-part series, I unpack the The Doctor’s problematic relationships with Rose, Martha and Donna.
When Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) first meets The Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston), he is hardened by The Time War and the destruction of his own people by his own hand. He is alone and he knows it. He is angry and he is dangerous. So what saves him? Love of course. Okay, fine. It’s a tired concept but fine.
Rose saves The Ninth Doctor’s life by injecting herself into the entire universe across time, thereby turning herself into Bad Wolf (something I still can’t entirely figure out, but whatever). Except by doing so she’s suffused with the time vortex and going to die. Silly bish. So The Doctor kisses her. Awww. Wait no, he kisses her to remove the time vortex to save her life and then he dies the hero. Typical.
But don’t fret, the melodrama continues with The Tenth Doctor! In fact, the love story with Rose gets fully explored, culminating in Rose being left in an alternate world living in sin with an alternate Doctor. It’s science fiction people, go with it. (P.S. David Tennant is every bit of brilliant that Whovians expound him to be.)
Okay so, Rose is gone. The Doctor regenerated into Barty Crouch Jr. already but we could get a strong female character to look up to. No more love story right? Well….
Cue Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), a medical student from an upper class family, who could be considered The Doctor’s first black companion if you don’t count Mickey Smith (Noel Clarke), Rose’s boyfriend/ex-boyfriend who sometimes travelled with them. Either way, diversity FTW.
I like Martha a lot. She kicks ass, she’s a strong character and she’s relatable. Unlike Rose, she chooses to travel with The Doctor because it seems like fun, not because she needs guidance or an education. Martha’s character also allows the show to touch on issues of racism and sexism. And pretty soon, Martha will be a doctor, although not THE Doctor. Still, she seems like the independent female role model we’ve been waiting for.
Oh, except she’s in love with The Doctor.
The Doctor, still smoldering over losing Rose, isn’t having any of it, which leads to a handful of cringeworthy moments where Martha’s unrequited love slaps her in the face. It’s a true disappointment when compared with how important her character is in helping The Doctor defeat The Master. Ah but see, I said it already. She assists The Doctor.
In a somewhat surprising twist Martha chooses to leave The Doctor all on her own, so that she can complete med school and be with her family. Get it girl. Oh, and also so she can get over The Doctor. C’mon.
And so, Catherine Tate was dropped back into our laps again. She first popped up as Donna Noble in a truly crap Christmas special and annoyed everyone so much that the sheer thought of an entire season with her was enough to make you want to stop watching the show. Oh, except SHE IS BRILLIANT AND YOU DIDN’T.
Donna is the absolute perfect companion for so many reasons. She’s hilarious. She gives no effs. She’s sassy and orders The Doctor around. Her grandfather is the most adorable old man on the planet. Also: SHE ISN’T IN LOVE WITH THE DOCTOR. AT ALL. NOT ONE SINGLE BIT.
Over the course of their time together, Donna changes The Doctor for the better. She doesn’t heal him with love. She slaps him in the face with the truth until he makes the right choices. We find out that if Donna hadn’t “turned left” and met The Doctor, he would be dead and the universe would be destroyed. It’s a new kind of power balance that culminates with The Doctor-Donna. Once again, Donna saves the universe and The Doctor by taking in the totality of The Doctor’s knowledge. In a way, she becomes The Doctor.
Unfortunately her mind can’t handle the power and The Doctor is forced to wipe her memory in order to save her life. She cannot remember The Doctor, their travels or any of the things she accomplished or else her mind will burn up and she will die. It is one of the most gut wrenching goodbyes I have ever seen. I wept like a newborn.
But in the cold light of day, this is incredibly disturbing. Donna was completely stripped of her empowerment. We’re told that The Ood will sing of her for eternity, but it just seems like a cheap tradeoff. Donna can never remember how powerful she truly is. Worst of all, we’re shown how carefree and happy she is. As if she’s better off not remembering.
Cue those tears.
– Tune in next week, when our beloved Doctor regenerates into the adorable Matt Smith and whisks away another companion. Oh yes, and the sexism continues.