University Study on Sexism In BBC’s Doctor Who (Infographic)

In April 2014, I completed a study, with several other students, for my Media Research Methods class, which we then entered into BYU-Idaho’s Research and Creative Works Conference. My group’s research took second place. Many have asked to see that, so here is the final report. 

IS DOCTOR WHO SEXIST-01 2

Is Doctor Who Sexist?

Back in 2010 Steven Moffat took over as head writer of the cult classic British Sci-Fi Doctor Who from Russell T. Davies. Davies had headed the reboot of the show back in 2005. When the switch happened many fans began voicing problems they were having with the new direction of the show. One of those problems was sexism, or at least that is what people were claiming. However some fans of Moffat said people were being overly sensitive and just couldn’t let go of the RTD era. So which side was right? We sat down and watched all of the episodes since the reboot to the departure of the Pond’s (excluding a couple specials) to figure out if there was a quantifiable answer to the claims that female character writing had taken a nose dive.

We conducted two major tests on all the companions since 2005 that had completed their tenure in the show. The first was a Bechdel Test, and then the second was speaking time.

The Bechdel Test was developed for films. To pass, a movie must have at least two women in it who talk to each other, about something besides a man. This was applied to each episode the specific companion was in. The companion scores ended up looking like this:

Bechdel Test:

Rose: 74% with 23/31 passed

Martha: 78% with 14/18 passed

Donna: 100% with 16/16 passed

Amy: 53% with 17/32 passed

*River: 57% with 8/12 passed

How it was determined if a conversation qualified:

Conversations were allowed to pass if they were not centered around a man but did briefly mention one. This was to allow for a companion to be able to mention the Doctor, for example if someone were asking where they were from they could say “Oh, I came here in a box with a man called the Doctor,” and then carried on. Or also perhaps two women discussing something where they may briefly mention their brother, employer, etc. If the mention of the man was removed from the conversation, the purpose of the conversation would still stand. An episode could also pass if the conversation(s) happened in the presence of/with a man as long as it was still between at least two women who were actually conversing with each other (i.e. more than one or two lines and was clearly directed at each other), and about something besides a man. However, conversations where two women were addressing the Doctor (or another man), and not really talking to or acknowledging each other, were not included. This was to allow for three (or more) way conversations, since the test did not say that a man/men observing/participating in the conversation with two or more women disqualified it. A simple address was not considered as a conversation. The women had to have more than a two line exchange. (See end of post for a full list of failed episodes.)

Next we measured the companion’s average speaking time per episode.

Companion Speaking Time:

Rose speaking time: 2:37

Martha speaking time: 3:15

Donna speaking time: 3:46

Amy speaking time: 2:35

*River speaking time: 3:06

Finally, we did a comparison between the numbers from Russell T. Davie’s era and Steven Moffat’s era.

RTD vs. Moffat

Number of episodes that failed the Bechdal test

89% (24/27) of the episodes written by RTD passed the Bechdel test with 78% (45/58) passing during his era.

57% (12/21) of  the episodes written by Steven Moffat passed the Bechdel test, with 58% (19/33) passing during his era.

Speaking time

Companion Speaking time went from 3:12 to 2:35 per episode, a19% decrease.
Female Speaking time went from 8:30 to 5:46 per episode, a 32% decrease.
Female Speaking roles went from 5.5 to 4.2 per episode, a 24% decrease.

But What About River Song?

Ironically, the woman who is often propped up as proof that Steven Moffat is, in fact, not a sexist was one of the worst in terms of the Bechdel test and overall independence of thought and character. While maintaining an average speaking time, the episodes she is in only pass the Bechdel Test 57% of the time, and she herself only passes 42% of the time. She also never passes it on her own after Series 5. It is also important to note that River’s “passes” barely scraped by this test. Her passing conversations were always around three or four lines of exchange total, limited to one per episode, and were always in the presence of/with the Doctor.

Personal Commentary

As I watched these episodes again with a fine tooth comb, I noticed many things that were not included with this study, as they were not quantifiable, which was the purpose of this research. One thing that struck me was the difference between Rose Tyler and River Song, and how the two writers dealt with the main love interest during their run. I came across the following post on Tumblr while I was conducting my analysis, and I think it pertains to this conversation.

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(Just for the record, I am neither of those users.)

I think when it comes to giving women love interests in fiction, you have to let them maintain their own independence of thought. This keeps them from simply becoming a sex object or plot device. Rose (and Martha and Donna) had that in spades. While both Rose and River had their share of arguments with The Doctor, how they handled them was drastically different. Rose argued when she had moral issue with his choices, stood her ground, defended others, and overall became the moral compass of their relationship. River rarely if ever, disagreed on issues or principles. If asked to do something she disagreed with she would just yell, “I hate you,” and then do it. Her mentality toward The Doctor can be summed up with a conversation she has with Amy in series 6. The Doctor has left them with instructions Amy does not want to do, but River tells her, “We’re going to as The Doctor’s friends always do. As they’re told.” I think I just heard Rose, Martha, Donna, Romana, and Sarah Jane slap you. When it comes to River Song, it seems that audiences were fooled into thinking she was a strong female character because of her propensity toward violence, and some admittedly excellent monologues.

I think there is a discussion to be had here though. I think Rose probably should have had more speaking time, but then again maybe people who are quiet may not be oppressed. Writing a variety of women is important, and there may be times you want to write a girl who doesn’t say much. That’s ok. I simply think that its important to make sure women have their voices heard, and at the same time avoid the “Strong Female Character” stereotypes. I suppose the most important thing would be to simply write people. I think Moffat struggles with this in general, but especially when writing any sort of romantic female character. (Fun fact, Rose’s Bechdel test score would have been in the 80’s were it not for the episodes Moffat wrote during her run.)

I got asked a lot of questions while presenting this about this research confining women to only one type of character to be seen as good. I was very happy that these questions came! For one, it meant many people knew that a variety of women should be represented. However, the purpose of this was to study trends. Yes, there may be outlier episodes where it’s only the companion and The Doctor, and will there for not pass the Bechdel test, but this research allows us to see where the overall show is going. Writing a woman who doesn’t talk as much is fine, but when it becomes an overall trend to have all of the female characters failing the Bechdel Test and not speaking, that is when it becomes a problem. If you truly were writing a diverse group of women, those outliers wouldn’t matter.

Of course there’s a lot to be said outside of what I’ve mentioned above about the data and it’s implications. This was just one of the meant things I noticed as I rewatched the show. But what do you think? I’d love to hear all of your insights, so feel free to blow up that comment section!

I don’t think this will end the sexism debate. I realize I attempted to quantify something that is largely opinion based, and there will be some who will prefer Amy’s 2:35 to Donna’s 3:46, and say more isn’t better. Some will make excuses for episodes not passing the Bechdel Test, and all that’s fine. I acknowledge the limitations of this study. When it comes right down to it though, these are the numbers if you want them. But your thoughts are your own, so do with this as you will.

Episodes that failed the Bechdal Test:

“Father’s Day”

“The Empty Child”

“The Parting of the Ways”

“The Girl in the Fireplace”

“Rise of the Cybermen”

“The Age of Steel”

“The Satan Pit”

“Doomsday”

“Daleks in Manhattan”

“Evolution of the Daleks”

“The Family of Blood”

“The Sound of Drums”

“The Eleventh Hour”

“Amy’s Choice”

“The Hungry Earth”

“Vincent and the Doctor”

“The Lodger”

“A Christmas Carol”

“Day of the Moon”

“The Curse of the Black Spot”

“Let’s Kill Hitler”

“Night Terrors”

“Closing Time”

“The Wedding of River Song”

“Asylum of the Daleks”

“A Town Called Mercy”

“The Angels Take Manhattan”

Excluded episode: The Girl Who Waited. I couldn’t decided whether or not it was a pass or fail, so you can go decide.

*As River Song was never a full time companion, her averages were not incorporated into the overall numbers, such as “Average companion speaking time.”

If you would like to hear an interview I gave on the topic, go check out this episode of 2MTL!

Disclosure: I do not in any part own BBC’s Doctor Who. The photos used in the infograpic do not belong to me. This study and it’s contents are copyrighted by Rebecca Moore, and are not associated with Brigham Young University Idaho beyond what was disclosed in the opening paragraph. BYUI does not own or have responsibility for this research. I received no funding or any sort of monetary compensation from them.  

Credit to other group members: Joseph Struhs (@Joseph_Struhs), Tyler Minetto, Joseph Meldrum, Zak Ison

NOTE TO COMMENTERS:  Due to the recent popularity of this post, there are many comments coming in, and I will most likely not be able to read them all in depth and respond.

To address a few issues though, I am aware the Bechdel test has flaws, as do our other methods. This was simply to study trends between authors. However, I don’t think the whole thing should be dismissed simply because of issues with one part. All of the information is statically significant and a good starting point. I’ve seen many suggestions for expansion or improvement that are very good. I probably will not be expanding this though, simply because I do not have the time. If you wish to sit down and do hours of analysis, feel free. And, as a note to those who say I have too much time on my hands or some other such nonsense, I was in a Media Research Methods class. I had to choose media to research for my final to pass it. It wan’t just for fun. Analytics is an important skill for my industry. I saw an issue being brought up by others, and I attempted to quantify it.

Beyond any of that, please try and refrain from hostility against your fellow commenters. 

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673 thoughts on “University Study on Sexism In BBC’s Doctor Who (Infographic)

  1. Peoples of the internet, please attend carefully. The message that follows is vital to the future of you all.
    If you want to post a complaint about the above study, first read the article through properly, and then, taking into account how low the Bechdel Test sets its bar, and how easy it should be to achieve a pass, ask yourself why you personally believe that women should not be treated with fairness and equality in Doctor Who?

    If you still feel you have a grievance to air, then go ahead and post, however:

    1/ Please do not complain about the overall accuracy of the test, as this argument has been made many times before, and on every occasion the assertion has been proved false.

    2/ Please do not state that the show is called Doctor Who and this therefore means it’s perfectly reasonable for all the female characters to blather on about him incessantly to the exclusion of all else, as again, this argument has been made countless times before, and has always been shot down.

    3/ Please refrain from saying that the Bechdel Test cannot be used as the final arbiter to determine sexism, because no sensible person has ever suggested that it can be. The Bechdel Test is a tool for identifying trends, that is all.

    4/ Please do not adopt an outraged tone and then misrepresent various aspects of the study to build a straw-man argument, as it will only make you look stupid.

    5/ Please refrain from using the reductive argument “if you don’t like it, don’t watch it,” because that’s just stubbornly ignoring the issue and sweeping it under the carpet.

    6/ Please do not expect that your objections to the study, or the Bechdel Test in general, will carry any more weight just because you’re female, or for that matter, a male poster pretending to be female. For an oppressive system to exist also requires participation from both sides of the equation.

  2. Reblogged this on The Underground Mother Road and commented:
    I have long stated that Amy Pond was my least favorite of the companions, much to my chagrin of the few Whovians I know. I look at this study as some proof that perhaps there was something about the way her character was written, and therefore portrayed, that never sat right with me. #9 and 10 were my doctors. I suffered through #11 and it took me some time to warm up to his zany character who appealed more to my two pre-teens (at the time). I love this show, and have followed it for years. This study perhaps helps to explain the dischord I still feel for the Clara Oswald character and my love of #12 (god bless maturity) and the troublesome nature of Moffat story arcs. Granted, my current academic work does not take me into the interesting realms of being able to study Doctor Who as it applies to social/cultural norms, so I live vicariously through the experiences of others. Good post this one…

  3. Pingback: Doctor Who: 'The Caretaker' episode review (27 Sep, 2014) | Revealed Tech - Latest Technology News Portal

    • “Who the fuck even has time to find out bullshit like this… It’s so desperate lol”

      LOL. What a loser! If you read the article, then by your own admission, you’re a hypocrite, and if you didn’t read it, it means you don’t know what you’re talking about.

    • Thank you for the link, however, if you’d bothered to read Wiki article yourself you would have come across this: “To be successful, a straw man argument requires that the audience be ignorant or uninformed of the original argument.” And so, as the issues my comment concerns has been clearly outlined in the article above, you’ll see that your reference to a straw man argument is in itself fallacious.

  4. This is very interesting, thank you for posting it. While I’ve been watching Dr Who since Troughton days, I gave up during it’s nadir in the 80s, and now dip in and out. The discussion, and often resistance, regarding a female doctor is telling. Peter Davison is reputed to be very anti the idea, saying that a woman might be able to be the ‘mad genius,’ but would she be vulnerable? That caught my attention: why would the vulnerability of a female doctor be any kind of issue? Did anyone ask if Peter Capaldi would be vulnerable?

    Another thing that is interesting is the way choices for the female doctor (i.e Helen Mirren, Joanna Lumley, Tilda Swinton) are often beautiful woman. No-one suggests that the Doctor needs to be handsome. There’s not only sexism but a lack of self awareness about it, and the situation hasn’t been helped by Moffat’s inability to write female characters with any depth. He can make them funny, he can make them endearing, but principally they are types rather than individuals. Doubtless he could write a great female doctor …if he could get his head around it. So could RTB. It’s just perception and audience fear. For sci-fi fans, Whovians are notoriously traditional.

    Are viewers prepared for female adventurers being heroes? Being scientists? Being disconnected to the values we place on women?

    Here’s hoping.

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  10. I guess I’m more surprised that there are that many episodes with two women as I often think of the Doctor and the companion more or less alone together. Of course, there was Rose’s mother, but it speaks to extras having meaningful conversations with the companions instead of just the doctor. That is especially true when it comes to Donna. I actually think it would be helpful to describe the natures of the conversations which also combats some of the complaints about the Bechdel test by putting substance behind the test. Anyway, I’m glad you put some substance behind what bothered me about Pond.

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  12. Hello,
    I think this study is really interesting and I agree with most of it. You handled it very well.
    Nevertheless, I do believe “Doomsday” pass the Bechdel test as Jackie Tyler and Yvonne Hartman share a conversation about the cybermen:
    [Jackie: What happens in there? What's upgrating mean? What do they do?
    Yvonne: I think they... They remove the brain... Sorry, hum. I think they remove the brain, and put it in a suit or armour. It's what these things are... They're us.
    Cyberman: Next.
    Jackie: This is your fault! You and your Torchwood! You killed us all!
    Yvonne: I did my duty! For Queen and country! I did my duty. I did my duty. Oh God, I did my duty.]
    Okay, so maybe it’s not really long but I would count it as passing the test.

    Your study is really great, I’ll show it so someone who doesn’t understand why I have problems with Moffat’s writing.

  13. Something that wasn’t mentioned in the article and I haven’t seen mentioned in the comments is that the Bechdel Test was not designed by an academic, but by a cartoonist. I doubt Allison Bechdel thought anyone would or should use it in an academic study. Whether or not it’s flawed is beside the point; it’s the application that’s the problem. If you try to paint your ceiling with a screwdriver, it’s not the screwdriver that’s flawed.

    Failing the Bechdel Test does not automatically make a work of fiction sexist. Take Flatline, the most recent Doctor Who episode at the time of this comment. Besides Clara, the only female character featured was Missy, who had a brief conversation with herself. Jamie Mathieson wrote a story that happened not to involve a conversation between two women. On its own that doesn’t make him a woman-hating jerk. More importantly, it doesn’t negate the fact that Clara kicked some serious ass in that episode. You could argue that she was a bit eager for the Doctor’s approval at the end, but that just demonstrates that sexist/not sexist is a false dichotomy when it comes to TV.

    It’s reductive to define sexism by a 30 year old cartoon, but this study is flawed in other ways, too. The worth of “companion speaking time” as a measure of girlpoweriness seems predicated either on it being “the length of time the writers deigned to allow the female characters to speak” or that a woman’s worth can be judged by how much she speaks.

  14. Pingback: Hostility to the Bechdel Test is as Easy to Grasp as the Test Itself | JC Bernthal

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