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?
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:
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.
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.
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.
(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:
“The Empty Child”
“The Parting of the Ways”
“The Girl in the Fireplace”
“Rise of the Cybermen”
“The Age of Steel”
“The Satan Pit”
“Daleks in Manhattan”
“Evolution of the Daleks”
“The Family of Blood”
“The Sound of Drums”
“The Eleventh Hour”
“The Hungry Earth”
“Vincent and the Doctor”
“A Christmas Carol”
“Day of the Moon”
“The Curse of the Black Spot”
“Let’s Kill Hitler”
“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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