Say what you want about the 2005 revival of Doctor Who, but at least we’ve come a long way. We might pick apart the show’s treatment of its female characters to death, but nowadays they’re given some agency and treated like people; they’re not just there to scream and play damsels in distress anymore, like in the classic series.
The above sentiment seems to be fairly common these days. Not just among Whovians who have never watched the classic series, but it’s also been perpetuated by media. Christopher Eccleston on BBC Breakfast Interview back in 2005, when asked about how the revival differs from the classic series talked about “the sexism of the underwritten female role”; on the BBC-sponsored documentary The Women of Doctor Who (that despite its title only touches upon female characters who have appeared on the show post-2005) the new series is praised for having made the companions into “proper characters”.
Even the show itself seems to echo this in Journey’s End, implying that Sarah Jane used to play a more passive role during her time on the TARDIS:
Davros: You were there on Skaro, at the very beginning of my creation.
Sarah Jane: Yeah, and I’ve learned how to fight since then.
This is a problematic view to hold.
Classic Who was without question sexist. Like all pop culture, it was a product of its time, which has meant very different things from 1963 to 1989; some eras have arguably been more progressive than others, but in the end we are all bound by the trappings of the time we live in. But sexism in fiction can appear in a variety of ways; the way women are characterized, the way women are presented visually and what role women play in the narrative are all different aspects interacting with one another. They make a whole, but they can be scrutinized individually and there can be a fair amount of dissonance between them.
Does it matter if the audience is told that Zoe is more intelligent than the Doctor (by the Doctor himself, no less) if several writers don’t utilize her abilities? Is Sarah Jane’s feminist opinions undermined by the fact that she screams? Is Leela less of a capable character because her outfit blatantly panders to the Male Gaze?
A character is defined as much by who they are as by what they do and what role they play in the narrative. There is no clear answer to the above questions; they all illustrate problematic aspects of the narrative as much as positive aspects of the characters themselves.
If there’s anything Doctor Who has always been very good at, it’s to create a varied cast of women. From Susan to Ace, each female companion has been given their own personalities, skills and weaknesses; they are not cardboard cut-outs that are simply placed on the show to ask questions and provide exposition, or move the plot along by being placed in mortal peril. They have all been “proper characters”, and the vast majority of them haven’t suffered from being underwritten. The emotional life of the characters and their development were not prioritized the same way they are today, true – that doesn’t mean these elements didn’t exist, that Classic Who couldn’t be emotionally intense or allow characters to grow with their experience.
Did they scream? Yes, most of them – and sometimes with good reason. Did they have to be saved? Yes, but they also did a significant amount of saving.
That Polly is rendered unconscious and held hostage in The Power of the Daleks doesn’t negate the fact that she single-handedly engineers a plan to capture and blackmail a redcoat in The Highlanders (with the help of another female character) that will prove vital to the plot later on. Jo Grant may be something of a klutz but her skills in escapism have got the Doctor out of a tight spot more than once. And whatever Russell T. Davies seems to think, Sarah Jane has been able to handle a rifle since 1976.
We live in a society where women and their contributions are constantly undermined and undervalued, and this is reflected not only in the way female characters are written, but in the way we treat and relate to them. Why do we choose to remember the female companions of the past as screaming damsels in distress, rather than the three-dimensional characters they actually were? By doing so we not only ignore the many examples of well-written female characters there were, but dismiss them as something to be ashamed of.
Conflating almost thirty years of female representation on public television into one stereotype and dubbing it “screaming women” is to dismiss thirty years of an extremely varied cast of companions.
It’s to write off more than a dozen female characters and their contribution to the show as unimportant.
Yes, Classic Who was sexist. So is New Who, and most shows on television, in one way or another.
This year, Doctor Who celebrates fifty years since it first aired. That’s fifty years’ worth of female characters; human and alien; from the past and from the future; upper-class and working class; scientists, warriors, delinquents, air hostesses. Not perfect, not perfectly written, but all with their own strengths and weaknesses.
It would be nice if we saw them all as a source of pride, rather than mistakes.
-Mathilda (writer for Feminist Doctor Who)