Feminism in Time and Space, Part Three: Doctor Who and Repetitive Women
So, this is the last part in my blog series about Doctor Who and all things feminism-related. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and thanks for reading along! This week, I’ll be looking at the fallacy of the strong female character in Doctor Who.
For starters, I find the phrase “strong female character” a bit…ugh in itself. Because it suggests that a strong female character is something notable and different, which isn’t wrong, but still kind of depressing to think about. I can’t remember the last time someone referred to a “strong male character”, because it’s just a given that a show will have solid roles for it’s men more often than not. And, more and more often, that phrase has come to mean a very specific thing- a woman who seems superfically powerful but actually has very little else going on underneath. But still, in all the diatribes I’ve read and heard about Moffat’s era of Doctor Who and how it isn’t, in any way, at all sexist, many people make reference to this concept, arguing that Steven Moffat has filled his series with powerful and significant women characters.
And to some extent, that’s certainly true. Women have a constant presence on the show, whether as assistants (Clara, Amy) or as recurring characters (River Song, Madame Vastra). And that’s great. But lot of the women on Doctor Who seem to fall very squarely into the trap of creating female characters who basically echo each other.
Let’s start with a look at the three most significant women in Moffat’s run- River Song, Clara Oswald, and Amy Pond. River Song encountered the Doctor as a child, fell in love with him, and pursued him through time and space until they got married. Clara Oswald encountered the Doctor as a child, took off with the Doctor as an adult, and jumped into his time stream to scatter herself all through his many lives. Amy Pond encountered the Doctor as a child, became obsessed with him after he vanished, then fell in love with him when he eventually returned for her. Not to mention the newly-introduced Ashildr, from this series, is brought back to life by the Doctor as a child and every time she encounters him begs him to take her on adventures with him. Are you seeing a theme here? Because I’m seeing a theme here.
Despite the fact that Amy, Clara and River seem outwardly different (let’s ignore the fact that they’re all saucy, quippy, flirty, etc), their personalities revolve around one man. For all these women, their entire lives have revolved around the Doctor, and their stories just don’t exist outside of him. Even in a couple of standalone episodes- notably the Girl in the Fireplace- the female characters meet the Doctor as a child then spend the rest of their lives pining for him. Compare this to the Davies years, where Martha actually left the Doctor and pursued her own life when she realized her feelings for him were hurting her, and it seems worryingly repetitive.
And speaking of worryingly repetitive, remember that episode with the tightly-attired, usually older, ruthless woman who turns out to be using her non-threatening exterior to mask inner evilness? Oh, sorry, I should be clear- I was talking about Ms Delphox in Time Heist. Or was it Miss Kizlet in Bells of Saint John? Maybe I meant Madame Kovarian. Or Madam Gillyflower in The Crimson Horror. Sorry, no, Missy. I’m not saying that there haven’t been repetitive male character tropes either, but this one seems a particularly telling one to bash over the head, especially when you consider that it also turned up in some of Moffat’s other work (Jekyll and Sherlock.
What I’m trying to get across here is that, yes, while Doctor Who does feature women in lots of different roles doing different things, when you strip away the exterior, what’s going on underneath is extremely repetitive. I can appreciate, to an extent, what the show is doing with it’s women now, I think it’s fair to ask for a little bit more variety. And I’m not just talking about keeping the Daleks out of just one series.