Is Rose Tyler “fantastic” for our daughters?

 

The excitement in our household was palpable in the Spring of 2005 when Doctor Who returned to the BBC. My husband a life-long fan, me a fresh convert and our impressionable two-year old daughter—who we said had to watch it with us or go to bed. You always remember your first Doctor.  In the case of my daughter Christopher Eccleston came and went too quickly. Her Doctor will always be David Tennant, though she has embraced Matt Smith’s Time Lord incarnation. Rose Tyler will always be her first companion. And so I choose to place Rose first under my Feminist Fan Girl Icon Microscope because, like my daughter, Rose was my first companion.

Investigating the impact of Dr Who on the developing feminist consciousness of my daughters requires me to do some rather difficult things. I must first step outside of myself and re-connect with little Kate. I have to look at these female characters from a juvenile view point in order to truly assess the cultural communication taking place. I also need to place Dr Who in the context of other forces muscling in on this conversation, attempting to shape the characters of our children. All this I shall attempt whilst sticking to my previously established success criteria.

Does Rose embody a positive body image? I believe she does. She is not unreasonably skinny nor is she unattainably glamorous (excessive mascara notwithstanding). When I compare her with characters from the Disney Channel shows my daughters watch, Rose seems positively radical in her disregard for fashionable footwear and hair extensions. She does not appear interested in cultural standards of beauty, a fact emphasised on Rose’s first trip in the Tardis. At The End of the World, she meets Cassandra: “The Last Human”. “You’re not human,” says Rose to Cassandra. “You’ve had it all nipped and tucked and flattened till there’s nothing left. Anything human got chucked in the bin. You’re just skin, Cassandra. Lipstick and skin.” (The End of the World 2005) What a marvellously eloquent and witty comment, worthy of science fiction’s long tradition of exploring the extremes of human society in order to shine a laser beam on our foibles and follies. Even when enjoying the attentions of Captain Jack, The Doctor and Mickey, Rose never gives the impression her desirability is rooted in her body or in her ability to accessorise.

Does Rose use her intelligence and is she valued for it? First impression reports a negative on this issue. Rose is not a medic in training nor an accomplished reporter or a brilliant scientist. In the very first episode (Rose 2005) she loses her low status retail job and confesses to having no academic qualifications. However, her keen observation and deduction skills capture The Doctor’s attention right away.

Rose Tyler: Very clever, nice trick. Who were they then, students? Is this a student thing or what?
The Doctor: Why would they be students?
Rose Tyler: I dunno.
The Doctor: Well you said it, why students?
Rose Tyler: Cos… to get that many people dressed up and being silly… they gotta be students.
The Doctor: That makes sense. Well done!

Class plays an important role in determining the value of Rose’s intelligence. Marxist Feminist theory would say Rose has a high level of intelligence based on her relatively far out position in the concentric socio-political hierarchy since she is a working class woman of little education. She also possesses a great deal of emotional intelligence. Perhaps Nu Who has a theme of valuing alternative intelligence in its female characters, creating a dramatic balance to the Doctor’s supernaturally logical mind? While this is not the post for examining in detail the relationship between the Whopanions and the concept of Multiple Intelligence, it would be an intriguing topic to explore at some point.

But all this gets rather lost on the under-ten crowd.

To my daughters, Rose exemplifies a kind of homespun common sense intelligence throughout her travels with The Doctor, as does Donna’s character in Season Four. But is Rose truly valued for it? The honest answer is probably: Sometimes Sort Of. Obviously Rose is no Hermione Granger (the Feminist Fan Girl epitome of being valued for your intelligence), but she receives far more respect for her brain power than Lisa Simpson or Katniss Everdene. The Doctor himself vacillates between praising the alternative intellects of the women around him, while also making it clear that no one can possibly possess more wisdom and intelligence than the last timelord.

Does Rose sometimes “save the day”?  The answer to this is an unequivocal: Hell Yeah! From her first episode to her last, Rose’s stubborn courage saves the day over and over again—and she does not give up easily. She swings heroically on a rope, absorbs the heart of the Tardis, abandons her family to help save the world, convinces The Doctor to spare the life of a dying Dalek, infiltrates a Cyberman factory and risks everything to break through dimensions in order to save The Doctor and The World. She makes my childhood hero Princess Leia look like a bit of a wimp in comparison.

Does Rose show spunky independence? Again, the answer has to be: Yes. All Whopanions show a certain level of spunky independence. If they simply did as they were told, the program’s narrative would lose a great deal of its dramatic conflict.  Rose is no exception.  When did she ever just “stay in the car”?

Does Rose strive to stay true to her beliefs? In the beginning, Rose does not really appear to have any beliefs. She comes across as a Little Girl Lost—dissatisfied with her career prospects, disaffected with her education, disinterested in her relationships. One thing she does appear to believe at the start is the dignity of working class women. She converses freely with maintenance worker Raffalo in The End of the World. In The Unquiet Dead 2005 she even attempts an East End London Chav’s version of Consciousness Raising with Victorian servant girl Gwyneth. However, as Rose was likely absent the day her College Life Skills course addressed the topic of Respect, she handles Gwyneth in a way that clearly shows an ironic lack of appreciation for the servant girl’s own intelligence.

Gwyneth: Don’t I get a say, miss?
Rose Tyler: Well, yeah… look… you don’t understand what’s going on.
Gwyneth: You would say that, miss, because that’s very clear inside your head, that you think I’m stupid.
Rose Tyler: That’s not fair!
Gwyneth: It’s true, though. Things might be very different where you’re from, but here and now I know my own mind.

These early attachments to working class women have more to do with Rose’s need to connect with familiar circumstances and people in the mad world she has thrown herself into than with promoting social equality. What Rose truly believes in is The Doctor. The same can be said of most Whopanions. Does she stay true to this belief? Every single time.

In the end, Rose Tyler passes my Feminist Fan Girl Icon test. She may not be an adult fan’s idea of a feminist character but, where our daughters are concerned, she presents a positive image. It was not until later in life that I associated the changes in Princess Leia’s character with the cultural backlash against second wave feminism. As a little girl, I thought she was incredibly brave and powerful. Adult Me has cultivated serious righteous indignation at the desexualisation of Velma, but kid me loved the fact that a smart girl always solved the mystery. So it is with Rose. Flawed though she may be, I believe she is a feminist force for good among the under tens.

Doctor Who quotations courtesy of Doctor Who Reference Guide.

12 comments

  1. Sarah PB says:

    Nicely balanced assessment, Kate. I came back to the whoniverse as Martha entered it, having grown up with Sarah-Jane as my first and still favorite companion, so I missed rose’s time completely and have never warmed to her since. But that puts her into a nice perspective four me, thanks!
    I can still remember how as an 8 or 9 year old seeing a plucky side kick along side the doctor made each adventure more thrilling.

    • Brass Cupcake says:

      I read an interview with David Tennent where he said you imprint on the first Doctor you encounter, and he then becomes “your” Doctor. I think the same can often be said of companions. I started with Rose so I wonder if that’s partly why I feel more connected with her over the others (aside from the points I mention in my other comment). Because frankly, Martha is amazing.

      I’ve been re-watching the reboot and it’s made me appreciate her character more. The woman is unflappable. She’s a fantastic action hero. She’s astounding in her dedication and courage.

      My favorite thing about Martha is that she provides a strong positive example of a woman recognizing her own needs for respect, happiness and reciprocal love in a romantic relationship. She leaves a relationship that isn’t fulfilling and has no future and does so in a mature healthy way. That is so very rare to see in television.

      • Brass Cupcake says:

        dammit. TennAnt, not Tennent. I should just change my username to “frequently misspeller.”

  2. Brass Cupcake says:

    BIG UPS to you for taking such care in evaluating the material your daughter watches and the characters she may come to view as role models. I like the criteria you’ve chosen to examine the character.

    You’ve already given many examples, but I just wanted to chime in to say that I believe Rose has many, many positive traits. (Which is NOT to say that Martha and Donna don’t also have wonderful traits.) She’s classically attractive but we don’t see her relying on her looks or trying to manipulate others with them. She stands up for human rights unequivocally, even when social pressure tries to dismiss her view. She illustrates that intelligence is not the same as education. She loves experiencing new places and cultures. She learns from examples of her own bias. She doesn’t fall to panic or paralysis when faced with a crisis. She adapts to the weird and terrifying quickly. She looks after others. She frequently saves the day or takes action because she feels it’s the right thing to do, not because she wants to impress The Doctor. She also has a sort of earthy and dry cheekiness that differs from the other reboot companions, and I think younger viewers appreciate that.

    Really the only area I see continually criticized of Rose is in the area of romance. Fans complain that she was too emotional in her attachment to The Doctor, that she was too whiny about losing him, or that she put her personal romantic feelings above the larger good. While I would have been happier if the writers kept the Rose-Doctor relationship platonic, I feel that aspect of Rose’s character can lead to some beneficial discussion (particularly with young girls).

    Who doesn’t know a smart, talented woman who makes poor choices in romance, or loses herself in her relationships? People are complex. Being independent in one aspect of life doesn’t necessarily translate to all aspects. So Rose can provide an opportunity to talk to young girls about how to have a healthy relationship, that isn’t idealized with self-sacrificing passion.

    I also think it’s very important to consider Rose’s actions in the context of her age. She’s only 19. She does extraordinary things for being so young, and handles them far better than most adults would have at her age. In addition, at her age it’s completely believable that she would be swept off her feet (and perhaps left ungrounded) by a dashing, adventurous, worldly older man. Again, who doesn’t know of a woman who has been in that situation? And again, this offers an opportunity for discussing healthy relationships with young girls.

    BTW, if you are interested in other shows that present positive and varied examples of women, along with positive relationships between women, I suggest Warehouse 13 and Eureka. Those are of course not geared toward toddler-age children, but both do feature positive girls in their teens.

  3. Kate Elmer says:

    I think you might have something there because I do have a real fondness for Rose and I still miss Christopher Eccleston. I totally agree that Rose is more of an action hero than any other companion bar Leela. I sometimes wonder what became of her mate Shareen.

    • It’s interesting isn’t it that we often hear about the friends of companions, but rarely see them – it would be cool to see a companion who instead of being surrounded by a family they have to explain things to, have a community of friends to deal with the Doctor.

      I would have liked to see Shareen too, especially in the context of Rose’s missing year (and Mickey’s year of hell when people thought he had murdered her, often glossed over).

      I kind of love Donna’s frenemy Nerys, though!

  4. I think Rose is a great role model, though I do prefer her in Season One to Season Two, because she has stronger stories in it – rewatching Season Two recently, though, there was a lot less smug & slushiness than I recalled.

    Worth noting as well (and I think this is true for all the RTD companions except possibly Donna who is my complete favourite) that Rose becomes even more of a hero without the Doctor than she is with him – in the time between Doomsday and her return in Season 4, she has gained in knowledge, experience and confidence. Also a big gun!

    I dislike it when discussions of “strong” female characters begin and end only with those women who emulate traditional male action heroics, but Rose’s return is pretty damn kickass, and is a nice development from her more casual heroics in “Rose”. She has taken what she learned from her time with the Doctor, and turned it into something completely her own. It’s one of the things about New Who that I like most, the way that we check back on the companions and see how they’re getting on.

    (Jack, Mickey and Martha also develop extreme character, confidence and leadership ability in their time away from the Doctor, and Donna’s lack of the same is for specific (HORRIBLE) plot reasons)

  5. Ritch Ludlow says:

    Thanks for this post! There’s a lot of Rose hate out there, and not a lot of good criticism of her.

  6. Sally Odgers says:

    What I liked about Rose was that she was the epitome of the “ordinary girl” who nevertheless managed to be brave and sensible when necessary. She was quite believable. Mind you, classic companions often had that same quality; Jo and Sarah, for example, were “normal” girls/women, as, earlier on, was Barbara.

  7. [...] Kate’s great post on Rose Tyler reminded me of my own love affair with Rose. Rose gets a lot of flack in the fan community (mostly because she had the gall to be loved by the Doctor), but for me, she was revolutionary. I had never before seen a show that featured a working-class young woman as its heroine. When I was growing up poor, the best representation I got was Roseanne. [...]

  8. Jc says:

    My god she’s an awful human being. The way she treated Mickey is just….gaaahhh!! Can’t get over it. And her stupidity…hands down the worst companion ever. Nothing against Billie mind you, just the way her character is written – such fail.

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