Doctor Who and its problematic message to girls

As you may know, I used to be a Doctor Who fan. I got into the original series when a friend hooked me up with some videos. Naturally, I was excited when the new series started back in 2005. I enjoyed the first season with some reservations and the second and the third, the Christmas specials and the spin-offs. But my enthusiasm dimmed gradually, until the day I realized that the Doctor presented on screen was no longer the character who had once ignited my love for the show. Even worse, I no longer even liked this Doctor character. So I stopped watching after the 2007 Christmas special (the one with Kylie Minogue). I still show the early seasons of the new series and the Sarah Jane Adventures spin-off to my students on occasion, but I am no longer a regular watcher.

Nonetheless, I still read recaps and reviews of the later seasons, probably hoping against hope that the show will return to what once attracted me to it. I also skimmed the reviews of the latest season, which debuted on Easter Saturday. Here is a review from the Guardian, another review, also from the Guardian and here is the review from Tor.com. The reviews obviously contain spoilers. As I mentioned yesterday, those reviews don’t exactly make me revise my opinion of Doctor Who.

This morning, I discussed the developments in the new Doctor Who season with a friend who is also a sometime fan and we both agreed that the reviews not only sound awful, but that one particular development is hugely problematic.

Spoilers for season 6 and for Doctor Who in general under the cut, so beware if you haven’t seen the season premiere yet and want to watch.

Aside from my issues with the characterization of the Doctor, my main problem with the new series is that there are only two paths open to women in the Doctor Who universe now. You can either marry (Donna, Martha, Amy, Jackie Tyler, Gwen from Torchwood) and pop out babies (Jackie, Amy, Gwen) or die (River Song (sort of), Reinette, Toshiko and Suzie Costello from Torchwood, the Kylie Minogue and Katherine Jenkins characters). And if you choose marriage over death, don’t even think of nabbing the Doctor or Captain Jack Harkness. Unless you are the super special Rose, who gets a Doctor clone or something like that (the recap honestly didn’t make much sense), you’ll only get a consolation prize. The best you can hope for is Mickey, who is at least attractive and a likable character (and I’d argue that Mickey and Martha were each other’s consolation prices, though I vastly preferred Mickey’s rebel fighter boyfriend), though you’re more likely to end up with someone like that obnoxious Rhys character from Torchwood, who is probably my most hated Doctor Who related character ever, beating out even the likes of Davros. The least they could have done for Gwen is pair her up with Owen with whom she had real chemistry.

Age is no protection from the Doctor Who marriage and babies curse, either. Jackie Tyler, already mother of an almost grown daughter, ended up marrying the alternate universe version of her deceased husband and pregnant. And the wonderful Sarah Jane Smith, who had successfully avoided getting married off in her last regular appearance in the old series, finds herself adoptive mother to a teenaged boy and even had to suffer through an episode called “The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith” in one of the latter seasons of The Sarah Jane Adventures.

There is the cliché that the original Doctor Who wrote out female companions by marrying them off random male characters they’d usually just met. However, only four – depending upon your point of view five – female companions were married off in all 26 years of the original series: Susan, the Doctor’s granddaughter and Vicki in the 1960s, Jo Grant and Leela in the 1970s. There is also Peri in the 1980s who either married a king on some alien planet or died, depending on whether you believe that the Master is telling the truth (yeah, fat chance of that) or lying. Susan’s and Jo’s romances are plausible, Vicki’s happens in an episode lost since the 1960s and is therefore difficult to comment upon and only Leela’s is not entirely plausible (she ends up marrying a timelord soldier). Meanwhile, plenty of companions left the TARDIS to go on with their lives (Sarah Jane, Barbara, Polly, Liz Shaw, Tegan, Zoe), to help troubled people on far-off planets (Nyssa, Romana) or to hook up with a space pirate (Mel). Compare that with the exits of today’s female companions. Pretty much every single one gets married. And they don’t even get alien kings or timelord soldiers, just mundane guys down at the pub. It’s even worse when you’re gay, by the way. Gays don’t get happy endings in the Doctor Who universe at all.

Now Amy, the most recent companion, got married to her boyfriend Rory at the end of season 5. I haven’t seen enough of the Rory character to comment on him, but plenty of people seem to like him. And now, according to the latest reviews, it apparently turns out that Amy is pregnant.

I find this development extremely problematic. As we know, Doctor Who has a huge viewership of children and teenagers, as does The Sarah Jane Adventures. Many of those young viewers are girls. And what message is Doctor Who sending those girls? You can have a few adventures, but forget about a career (only Martha, River Song and perhaps Gwen have something approaching a career) and living an awesome life (which the Doctor explicitly says to Rose at one point), because your ultimate fate is marriage to some mundane bloke and babies. Or death. You may dream of the Doctor or Jack Harkness, but in the end you’ll marry Rory or Rhys or some interchangeable bloke whose name no one remembers. Now there’s nothing wrong with the occasional marriage and babies ending, if the romance has been set up well. But there’s no other story for women in Doctor Who anymore. It’s no longer possible to go to Cambridge to research meteorites like Liz Shaw or go back to being an investigative journalist (and single) like Sarah Jane Smith. All you can do is get married and have kids somewhere down the line. Is this really the message we want to send young girls?

However, the marriage and now pregnancy of the Amy character have an added dimension of problematicness. Because Amy is very young. The actress is 22 or 23, the character probably even younger. In Western Europe, 22 is an extremely young age to marry and have children. Especially since Amy doesn’t seem to have much formal education (though she is smart – all Doctor Who companions are) nor a career. She apparently works as a kissogram/stripper when she takes off with the Doctor. A kissogram/stripper who gets married and is pregnant at 22 – Is this really a role model for young girls?

What makes this even more troubling is that the UK has the highest teen pregnancy rate in Western Europe and it still keeps on rising in spite of very liberal laws regarding contraception and abortion. And yes, I know that the Daily Mail is not exactly reliable, but theirs was the most recent article on teen pregnancy in the UK I found.

Now I have seen several British dramas who address the teen pregnancy issue. Hollyoaks had a teen pregnancy and relationship storyline that was very well handled IMO. Single Father, an excellent contemporary drama starring former Doctor David Tennant, touched on the issue. There’s also a teenage mom-to-be in the second season finale of Misfits who hooks up with one of the lead characters. But while there is a bit of a fairy tale feeling to the Misfits teen pregnancy storyline – it was a Christmas episode and the plight of the homeless pregnant teenager mirrors that of Joseph and pregnant Mary unable to find a room at the inn – I still didn’t find it as troublesome as the Doctor Who pregnancy plot, even though Amy is married, not homeless and barely out of her teens.

The original Doctor Who used to have many awesome female characters who had a variety of fates and storylines, so why can’t the new series not look beyond heterosexual marriage and parenthood?

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10 Responses to Doctor Who and its problematic message to girls

  1. Matt says:

    Good point there really.
    Shame about the girl exits. But the girl roles… They’re much stronger people now – they have a greater role, and are a lot more useful. Looking at the language change, and context change, I’d say things for the girls are looking up. Just need better exits I suppose… !

    • Cora says:

      I agree that today’s Doctor Who companions are a lot better drawn than those in the old series. A lot of the old series companions were cyphers with very little in the way of characterization and backstory. Meanwhile, today’s companions have lives and histories and families.

      Perhaps this deeper characterization even lies at the root of the exit problem. In the old series, we knew very little about the companions, so nobody much cared if they just went back to doing whatever vaguely defined thing they had been doing before meeting the Doctor. But now that the companions are much more fully realized characters and have families, backstory, etc…, they need some kind of closure. And since families and relationships have become much more important in new Who, that closure often takes the shape of a married with children happily ever after.

      Which wouldn’t even be a problem, if it didn’t happen to every female companion. Never mind that some of those happily ever after coupled endings were a bit WTF. I mean, Mickey and Martha, the marriage of the dumped and disappointed? Donna marries some random guy and all the development she experienced has been undone by timelord mind wipe? The Gwen and Rhys relationship that was already in the process of breaking up in the very first episode of Torchwood and only got worse over the course of season 1 is suddenly turned into the happiest marriage ever? Some of these endings make even Leela and the timelord guard seem plausible.

      There are plenty of happy endings in the universe, so why does Doctor Who only show us one version over and over again.

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  6. hi, that’s a nice post. i hope you will continue to do this :)

  7. SG2000 says:

    Okay, I would be more inclined to maybe try and see the validity of this if you actually still watched the show, but since you apparently don’t need to have actually seen the show up to the current continuity and yet are still able to dissect it’s motives, I am skeptical. Recaps don’t count, and neither do reviews. Sorry.

    And as long as I’m here, I might as well say: For Doctor Who, at least, I always thought the marriages were meant to depict a loving and stable relationship–as in, “yeah, that Doctor guy might be cool, but he’s never going to settle down, and he’ll always be able to replace you. You deserve better than that, and you ought to find someone who is willing to make sacrifices for you and knows the meaning of “give and take” if you want a lasting, healthy relationship.” I don’t know, maybe that’s just me, but that seems like a pretty sane, positive attitude toward *any* relationship, let alone marriage. I can’t claim to have an opinion on Torchwood, as I’ve only seen the first season (I liked Rhys, though, or what I saw of him, and pretty much hated Owen), or on the Sarah Jane Adventures, which I have never seen, but I thought Doctor Who always did a pretty good job of showing that you needed to choose your partner wisely and not solely based on your emotions.

  8. justme says:

    There’s nothing wrong with getting married and having kids. Why do you think that’s a bad thing? I got married at 21, but I wanted to even younger. Had my first son at 26 after 2 miscarriages and still feel that was too old to have my first. Had my 3rd at 34, way too old. Been married 15 years. Have a 2 year degree, and almost a bachelor’s degree until I decided I didn’t want to do that anymore. I’m happy in life. Kids are great. I just feel that I should have gotten married even earlier and had kids younger. I don’t have the energy or patience that I did when I was younger. My cousin got married at 18, had her first of 4 kids at 19. Her youngest is now 13. She’s been married 20 years now. What’s wrong with that? Should no one get married? Or have kids? Far better than sleeping around and having multiple partners.

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