The Bechdel Examination

I’m not entirely convinced that Doctor Who is a feminist program- But I really want to be. I vaguely feel that it is, but I’ve never really poked at the idea. Then I found myself raising my hand on Twitter to write for Doctor Her and now it seems rather necessary to decide my stance on the franchise. Feminism being famously subjective, I floundered a moment. How do I assign a pass or fail grade to my beloved show?

Happily, Alison Bechdel exists with her elegant method of analyzing pop culture. Her criteria, most often called The Bechdel Test, are these:

(1) it has to have at least two women in it, who

(2) who talk to each other, about

(3) something besides a man.

See Bechdel’s comic episode The Rule from Dykes to Watch Out For,  The Bechdel Test site with a list of movies, and The Bechdel Test for Women in Movies on feministfrequency.com.

This is where I get a little crazy:

Imma test every freaking episode.

I’m limiting myself to the reboot (NuWho) for completion’s sake- I don’t have access to the entire run. I’ll start with “Rose” and after that, because I care about your sanity, compile several episodes into each entry.

Of course, this also functions as a ruse to  justify hours and hours of Netflix time away from my husband and daughter, but don’t tell anyone.  All they need to know is Mama’s doing RESEARCH. Also: I’m assuming Timelord = Man Person, because I’m anticipating every possible detail will be scrutinized by the smartest fandom in history.

Somebody bring me some coffee*- I have a spreadsheet to design!

Image credits: promo shot from the BBC, magnifying glass by Auntie P under a Creative Commons license. Mad Photoshop skillz my own.

*I know I’m required by law to at least pretend to prefer tea, but I’m an Appalachian America and the only tea I drink is comically sweet and iced.

13 comments

  1. Kmasca says:

    Will you aggregate the results at the end of each series? It would cool to see if the pattern changes from year to year or crew to crew.

  2. daisybones says:

    Definitely- That’s a great idea. Fun with data!

  3. emily says:

    I can provide info from the Classic series. I’m going through and rewatching the whole thing for my dissertation. Best bet in the Classic series is most likely going to be the first Team TARDIS (Doctor, Susan, Ian, and Barbara) and the late Fourth Doctor’s/Early Fifth Doctor’s Team TARDIS (Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan, Adric). If you’re limiting the Two Women thing to billed stars of the episode. There are often female secondary characters. I’ll get back to you on this as I go …

  4. daisybones says:

    Emily, WOW that would be amazing! I’m glad there’s some interest in this. Can I email you to figure out the best way to team on this?

  5. Jose Jones says:

    I’m very interested to see the results, but a little doubtful that it will pass the test (so long as you’re counting the Doctor as a man. And remember that there are a couple of Time Lords = Woman people, too.

    I have always thought that Dr Who was definitely on the better side of things with respect to the portrayal of women, and am awaiting the regeneration of the Doctor as a woman.

  6. daisybones says:

    I’m actually pretty optimistic that most episodes will pass. What an adventure:)

  7. Ritch Ludlow says:

    One of the advantages of being a science fiction show is that there’s always some alien spaceship or virus or something or other for two women to have a quick chat about every now and again.

  8. Amy says:

    This should be really interesting! I know my friend lefaym took a similar look at series 1 – 4 a few years ago, with a particular spin on the kind of conversation the women were having, and you can see her take on the topic here if you like: http://lefaym.livejournal.com/18414.html

  9. Rose says:

    What dissertation requires watching all the episodes of Doctor Who? I’m genuinely curious and jealous.

  10. Brass Cupcake says:

    I’m a bit late to the party here, but I wanted to chime in because I was pondering the exact same experiment just a few days ago (though on a far more casual level). So bravo and Allons-y!

    > “How do I assign a pass or fail grade to my beloved show? … Happily, Alison Bechdel exists with her elegant method of analyzing pop culture.”

    I feel I should point out that the Bechdel test is not a test to gauge if a film is feminist or not. As Anita Sarkeesian explains in the video link you provicded, there are many films that pass the Bechdel test which are not feminist, and many films that don’t pass which are feminist.

    > “I’m not entirely convinced that Doctor Who is a feminist program”

    It may not always succeed, but the DW reboot repeatedly takes obvious feminist stands. (I can think of numerous examples — at least under the 9th and 10th Doctors, I’m sketchy about Eleven.) In addition it continually features women in positions of power and/or strength with its episodic characters. But what makes Doctor Who a feminist show for me is that it features a wide variety of women, in a variety of social/economic/professional positions, whose character is not dependent on sexuality or objectification, and the show grants even characters like servants and show girls dignity and intelligence.

    It can definitely be argued that it may not always offer feminist icons (a paragon of strong, powerful, intelligent, independent, outspoken women). And it can be argued that DW doesn’t always succeed in it’s feminist goals. However, I think we need to look beyond the Bechdel test when evaluating DW as feminist.

  11. daisybones says:

    Heya, Cupcake:) Thanks for the thorough feedback. I agree that the test certainly isn’t the only gauge or a comprehensive assessment. I’m using it as a jumping off point. I love numbers and going all data analysis on the show. I realize in my intro post it definitely does read like I think this is The Definitive Test for feminism. I don’t mean to treat it as such, but to me it’s a powerful set of questions. When I first encountered the idea, I was stunned by the simplicity of the test and shocked at how many movies and programs fail miserably.

    • Brass Cupcake says:

      Thanks for the followup, I appreciate the clarification. I think it’s wonderful that you’re applying the Bechdel Test to the show, as I’m quite curious myself how it stands up. The very structure of the show seems potentially problematic with regards to the Bechdel Test — having a titular male superhero means many of the female characters talk to each other about that man, particularly when dealing with the crisis-of-the-week.

      Looking forward to your future posts on the study.

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