My problem with this type of argument is that it assumes that sexism is on some type of linear scale and it is constantly declining. In a macro sense, you might be able to make the argument that these situations are less frequent, less tolerated, or less institutionalized, but even this largely depends on the situation and context.
I’ll give you an example. I have recently heard two stories about sexism women have faced in STEM fields. The first woman was just starting her career as a software engineer, and while she was working in her office she was mistaken for a secretary. The second woman happened to be sitting near two executives at a major tech company as they casually discussed how they did not like to hire women because women are constantly getting pregnant.
One of these stories was my mother describing an incident she experienced at the beginning of her career. The other incident happened just a few days ago.
My biggest complaint about how sexism is presented in new Doctor Who is actually that almost all instances where companions have explicitly called out sexist attitudes have occurred in episodes where they have visited the past: Rose calling out Mr. Connolly’s sexist attitudes in 1950 (“The Idiot’s Lantern”), Martha calling out Shakespeare and Joan Redfern’s comments that women couldn’t be trained as doctors (“The Shakespeare Code”/”The Family of Blood”), Donna challenging Lucius’ sexist assumptions about female prophets (“The Fires of Pompeii”), and Amy calling out John Ridell’s assumption that handling guns is a job for men (“Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”).
Intentionally or not, these incidents tend to present sexism as a relic of a less enlightened past, rather than something that women face everyday in contemporary times.
Deciding to include sexist commentary is a narrative choice that must be made carefully. It can help set a scene, help define a character, or simply be used as an empowerment fantasy. We occasionally like to see the companions face sexist commentary because we like to see them call out the sexist bullshit that we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.
But sexist comments can be overdone, or simply be insulting if they aren’t called out or are promoted as “funny.” Recently, the Doctor has made a number of sexist comments about his companions that have not been called out for being sexist. Such as when the Doctor very strongly implied in “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” that he was putting the TARDIS on basic mode for Clara because she was a girl, and we all know girls can’t drive (har har har).
But if you’re looking for a hard and fast rule about when it is or isn’t appropriate to include discussions of sexism in Doctor Who, I really don’t have one for you. I’m not particularly bothered by any of the individual instances I listed above. I’m mostly bothered by the impression they create when viewed as a trend.
So, back to your question, I didn’t watch “Cold War” and think, “Yeah, this really needed more sexism.” I don’t see any particular narrative purpose for including sexist comments, especially not for any vague commitment to a questionable “historical accuracy.” There was sexism in the 1980s, but that doesn’t mean every man was a raging sexist and that Clara was guaranteed to encounter terrible sexist commentary.
I would actually be really interested in an episode which explored how women still face an alarming amount of sexism, and how a lot of it isn’t that different from the type of sexism women were facing decades ago. So, returning back to the STEM example, let’s imagine Clara kept her amazing technological abilities and travelled with the Doctor between the 1980s and the present day fighting an alien computer virus, or something like that. Most of the guys would probably welcome her skills fighting the virus, but there would be a few assholes, in the past and in the present, who would be completely sexist towards her. It would be a fascinating way to talk about how problems like this are never completely “solved,” but it’s still worth it to keep on fighting.
-> the issues with the second movie, since they were actually sort of a big deal? (compared to the first movie that was pretty damn perfect except for some lack of representation). Anyway, I love your blog and your DW analyses, keep up the good work! :)
Well, as you noted, my post wasn’t actually a review of HTTYD2. I happened to see the movie after a twitter conversation about the idea that the Doctor is the only positive role model for boys, and was inspired to begin my discussion of that idea by discussing Hiccup’s characterization.
If you’d like to read about the problems with Drago, check out “Why Is the Villain in Dragon 2 the Only Non-White Character?”
If you’d like to read about the problems with Valka, check out “We’re losing all our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome.”
EDIT: Okay, LOTS of pushback on the Trinity Syndrome article, which I guess I should’ve expected. I actually agree with all of your criticisms, and I was mostly recommending it in the sense of “If you’re interested in this conversation, this is a good place to start.” I should probably have concluded that sentence with: “And this is a good counter-criticism of that idea.”
I absolutely adore the How to Train Your Dragon franchise. Both movies are full of heart and have some of the most fascinating, nuanced, well developed characters I’ve ever seen in a movie targeted at children. Also, they have dragons. Really, they could’ve stopped after animating Toothless and I would’ve been happy.
But for those of us who are hyper aware of gender dynamics in media, HTTYD is an absolute delight. The entirety of the first movie was a subversion of gender tropes in media from start to finish. The movie showed us an egalitarian society where men and women were considered fully equal without making a big deal of it. Astrid was clearly the most best fighter of the group, but no comments were made within the movie about how she was exceptional or rare as a woman for this trait.
The relationship between Astrid and Hiccup also defied traditional gender dynamics in media. Astrid occupied the traditional male movie role: she was the strong fighter working to overcome her fears, develop her skills, and become the most powerful warrior in her village. It’s Hiccup’s job to teach her the value of empathy and compassion, and he ultimately encourages her to accept her village’s traditional enemies: dragons.
The second movie was equally as good as the first. Five years after the first movie ended, Hiccup is still viewed as an unconventional leader in his community. While everyone around him believes war with this movie’s villain, Drago Bludvist, is inevitable, he still attempts to negotiate for peace.
Drago is presented as a dark parallel to Hiccup. Both grew up viewing dragons as their enemy, and both have been hurt in various ways by dragons. But while Hiccup reacted with empathy, attempting to understand and befriend dragons, Drago reacted with violence. He dominates and controls them through aggression and brute force. Without giving too much away, Hiccup is ultimately able to defeat Drago by displaying the trust and love that he and Toothless have for each other.
In short, Hiccup and the entire HTTYD franchise challenge ideas about masculinity and femininity. Both men and women can be strong warriors, and both can be empathetic and gentle. Hiccup is a hero because he is thoughtful, intelligent, compassionate and kind, not because he is violent and aggressive.
All of this is a very long, roundabout way of saying that I don’t buy the argument that the Doctor should only ever be portrayed by a man because the Doctor is the only positive role model for boys.
The typical argument asserts that the Doctor “is the only non-violent ‘superhero’ male role model" because he solves his conflicts by being clever and kind, not by being violent or aggressive. I’ve always found this argument to be a bit perplexing. Sure, the Doctor is a wonderful role model in this regard. Steven Moffat (and yes, I do think he sometimes says wonderfully brilliant things), summed it up best when he said:
When they made this particular hero, they didn’t give him a gun, they gave him a screwdriver to fix things. They didn’t give him a tank or a warship or an x-wing fighter, they gave him a call box from which you can call for help. And the didn’t give him a superpower or pointy ears or a heat ray, they gave him an extra heart. They gave him two hearts.
These qualities make the Doctor exceptional, but not necessarily unique. Most of the media I grew up with featured a male protagonist whose strength came from compassion and love, and who defeated his enemies by being clever and kind instead of being violent. And this type of model is increasingly common.
One of my earliest childhood heroes was Luke Skywalker. I remember being stuck on a long camping trip as a kid with nothing but the original trilogy to entertain myself and watching those movies a dozen times each. I would play at being a Jedi at every new campground, waving around a tree branch like a lightsaber. But I remember being struck by the fact that in the end, it wasn’t Luke’s strength or skill with a lightsaber that made him a hero. He threw down his lightsaber, refused to fight, and was saved by his father’s love. His strength lay in his ability to empathize and love.
It wasn’t long after I started watching Star Wars that I began reading the Harry Potter novels. Harry rarely tried to solve his problems with violence, and when he did, it was always shown to be counterproductive and regrettable. He was ultimately able to defeat Voldemort not because he discovered a super powerful spell or became the best wizard ever, but because he understood the power of love better than Voldemort ever could. Harry cast a disarming spell, and Voldemort’s killing spell rebounded on himself. Voldemort was killed by his own act of violence.
Around the same time I was reading Harry Potter, I was watching Avatar: The Last Airbender. Aang was the most powerful kid in the world, the only person capable of bending all four elements. He spends the first three seasons mastering all of the bending styles in order to defeat the Fire Lord and save the world. But by the end of the last season, he begins to question whether it would be right to kill the Fire Lord, a man who committed genocide by killing Aang’s entire nation and plunged the world into a massive war. Aang solves this conflict creatively, refusing to kill the Fire Lord and instead learning an entirely new bending style to disarm him.
All of these characters had the ability and skill to solve their conflicts with violence, and they aren’t above fighting to defend themselves or others. Even the Doctor, who is held up as the ‘only nonviolent hero’ for boys, isn’t above using violence when there is no creative solution and his adversaries refuse to negotiate or back down ("No second chances. I’m that sort of a man").
But these heroes are more well known for their empathy, compassion, cleverness, and their desire to avoid resolving conflicts with violence. And they all share many traits in common with the Doctor. Hiccup is intensely curious about his world and is constantly trying to learn more. Luke tries to understand someone who most people assumed was fundamentally evil and gave him a chance to change himself. Aang is unironically enthusiastic about everything he encounters and isn’t afraid to show it, even if it makes him appear odd.
And Harry, who even years later is still in many ways the lonely boy in the cupboard under the stairs who would rather do whatever dangerous thing must be done alone, needs his friends. They keep him grounded, they keep him from brooding, and they encourage him to talk about what’s bothering him. He is better when they are around.
The Doctor is not the lone positive male role model for boys, he’s one of many.
I’m not convinced that letting a woman portray the Doctor would “take away” this positive role model for boys. First of all, her presence wouldn’t negate the impact of the twelve men who preceded her. And I think such a regeneration would do a lot to challenge ideas about gender in media. It would teach young boys that certain character traits and behaviors aren’t inherent to any gender, but are learned. It would teach them that they can look up to women as their role models, instead of shaming them for doing so.
So lets talk about how the Doctor does and does not defy traditional models of masculinity. Let’s talk about his value and importance as a character. Let’s talk about how the character of the Doctor can be a role model for little boys and little girls, regardless of gender. But let’s not hold the Doctor up as an ideal, dismiss and ignore other characters that don’t fit the traditional mold, and use this argument to derail conversations about whether the Doctor should ever be portrayed by a woman.
David Tennant fans might remember her as the director of The Decoy Bride and Casanova. Not much is known about the episode she will be directing, but it will apparently feature a fairly large cast of child actors.
Folkson joins Rachel Talalay as the second female director in Series 8. Prior to Folkson and Talalay joining Series 8, Doctor Who hadn’t had a female director since 2005. Doctor Who still has some work to do to increase diversity behind the scenes (female writers are still underrepresented), but Folkson and Talalay are welcome additions, and I’m truly excited to see their work!
This will be the first season of Doctor Who to feature the work of two female directors since 1983.
(Incidentally, the statement “Prior to Folkson and Talalay joining Series 8, Doctor Who hadn’t had a female director since 2005” is false, Hettie MacDonald directed “Blink,” Alice Troughton directed “The Doctor’s Daughter” and “Midnight”, and Catherine Morshead directed “Amy’s Choice” and “The Lodger”.)
Now that is a VERY interesting fact!
(Yes, I corrected that later. In my head I thought “Season 5, 2010,” and then I mixed up the numbers when I wrote them down. :P)