NuWho, poverty, and class: Or, the poor women are totally screwed

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.

In Doctor Who, Rose’s background is never swept under the rug, or made the butt of a joke. Even when Cassandra calls her a “chav” in “New Earth,” the show doesn’t align us with her opinion. Cassandra making negative comments on Rose’s appearance after she jumped out of her own body, a trampoline of skin, appears almost laughable. Further, she has always been depicted in the show as a snob. She is, after all, Lady Cassandra. Her classist remarks come off as petty, not observant. And I loved this about the show. Rose was poor and a heroine. She was depicted as bright, adventurous, and badass.

Unfortunately, as I watched Russell T. Davies era end, I noticed a pattern in the stories and outcomes of the poor vs. privileged companions in NuWho. And that pattern was not nice to the poor companions.

Rose lives in government-subsidized housing. She has an entry-level retail job in “Rose” (2005), and no higher education to speak of. She is stuck in a dead-end job, with a dead-end boyfriend, and not a lot of prospects for the future. Then the Doctor comes along. With his infinitely-large house, the TARDIS; his unlimited possibilities for travel and adventure; and his obliviousness about money.

That last bit always got to me. I think that the Doctor thought it was charming of him, how he never understood money. But I couldn’t find it charming at all, any more charming than I find rich people in the U.S. who say things like, “But $500,000 isn’t even that much money!” Not having to think about money is a privilege the Doctor shares with the upper class in Rose’s world. Not bothering to think about money and the effect it has on this race he claims to care so much about? That felt pretty cruel to me, as I watched him travel with a companion who was poor.

So Rose is saved from a bleak future by a Daddy Warbucks with a time machine.

Compare this with the story of Martha Jones. Martha has her own problems, being stuck in the middle of her parents’ bickering after a nasty divorce. But Martha is also in a position of extreme privilege. Her family clearly has significantly more money that Rose’s, and Martha can even afford to live alone. She is going to medical school, and loans are never really mentioned, even when she jets off with a time traveler. (That would be my first concern: Am I going to have bill collectors on me by the time I get back?) Martha doesn’t have to be saved by the Doctor, but that’s not just because she’s older or more mature than Rose. It’s because she doesn’t have too much to be saved from.

Donna’s story, on the other hand, is very similar to Rose’s, only Rose is 19 and Donna is played by 42-year-old Catherine Tate. Donna is living in a multi-generational home, for financial reasons. (We can tell this in part because Donna’s mother seems very unhappy with Donna living in the house, but never seriously suggests she moves out, probably because she knows that’s a financial impossibility.) Donna’s career looks like what Rose’s probably would have been 30 years in the future; she works a series of dead-end temp jobs, without much hope of a “real” career. Donna is smart, but we don’t hear about her having a college education. Her best hope of a normal, middle-class life is getting married to someone better off than herself.

Is it any wonder that both Rose and Donna say they will stay with the Doctor forever? I’ve heard fans say that this is out of character for Donna, because she isn’t young and in love. But Donna has as little to look forward to in her working-class life as Rose does. Of course they both want to stay with the Doctor; he represents a life unburdened with thankless and unfulfilling work, living paycheck to paycheck. It’s not just adventure that companions get to look forward to, it’s a life in which money doesn’t matter.

Being poor and on food stamps myself, I can see why Rose and Donna would jump at the chance to stay forever.

Unfortunately, neither of them get to stay forever. While I understand that has to be a production decision, I railed as a viewer against what I would term the “classed outcomes” of the companions in NuWho. I can’t include Amy in this analysis, because her ending is still up in the air, so let’s look at the other companions’ outcomes.

For Rose, the privilege the Doctor carries offers her a “happily ever after” ending. Her father returns (sort of), she gets the lover and partner she wanted (sort of), and is returned to her world (sort of) with new-found family wealth and influence. I would argue those “sort of”s are important, however. Rose is still trapped in an alternate dimension. I don’t know if we can gloss over that quickly just because her mom and best friend are with her. She doesn’t even officially exist in this world, so how can she thrive there? Is she going to be able to go to college without a birth certificate or ID? Is she going to be able to work? Are we supposed to believe her father’s money will smooth all that over? And this universe was supposed to be a dystopia, and now we’re to believe everything’s fine and awesome for her?

Rose’s dad is not really her dad; this man never even fathered a child, and had completely different experiences than her real one would have had, if he had lived. And Rose’s Doctor is not the Doctor. He is supposed to be an improvement, a man who can make a real life with her, but last time I checked, Rose wasn’t hankering for a white picket fence and children. She won’t get to live in the TARDIS again, or have time-traveling adventures, or get to help save the world. And none of that was a choice made by her.

Donna’s fate is even worse. Donna forgets everything, and thus everything good that came from her experience with the Doctor–her growth and her friendship with him–is gone. She returns to her unhappy life and her temp jobs. She loses her zest for adventure. And in the end, the best we can hope for her is a happy marriage to someone richer than she.

Compare these fates to Martha’s. Martha returns to the security she always had. (I would argue that security is precisely why Martha can leave the Doctor, while Rose and Donna had to be forced out.) She gets her medical degree and has her choice of careers. She is in a position of power at UNIT when we see her again. And had she forgotten the Doctor, like Donna did? She still would have been fine. It would have been sad, but it wouldn’t have devastated her life. She would still have gotten her M.D. She would still have gotten a rewarding job. She still would have had her independence and security.

On one hand, I think that the fact that the poor companions get shafted in Doctor Who is the result of their being shafted in real life. How much can adventuring experience help you if you don’t already have the security of a good education and financial stability in real life? But on the other hand, Donna didn’t have to be the one to lose her memory. Rose didn’t have to be the one trapped in an alternate dimension. Martha didn’t have to be the one hired by UNIT. And yet.

For the Russell T. Davies era at least, the poor women are totally screwed.

29 comments

  1. Brass Cupcake says:

    Wow, lots to think about there. Many great insights on class differences in the show, some of which seem intended by the writers and some which appear to be the influence of real life privilege differences seeping in unnoticed.

    I have seen that DW addresses class differences many times. For example, in “The End of the World” they make a point of showing how the maintenance workers (the plumber) are invisible to the upper class patrons, to the point that they aren’t even allowed to speak unless given permission.

    I’m going to have to digest all of this for a bit. :)

  2. Kate Elmer says:

    The fact that Amy’s class position is never clearly referred to seems to be yet another example of her identity being denied as well. The girl is such an utter object! It’s so frustrating. All we know about her is that she waited, she experienced a childhood of mental difficulties as a result and she she makes a living by trying out different fetishes and snogging people. Who IS this woman really? You’re so spot on that class was an important issue under RTD and I accept that Moffat is not as interested in exploring this but if SF is there to, in part, make cultural commentary then he is missing a major trick.

    • I agree with everything you just said. I find the fact that Amy is so hard to pin down ridiculously frustrating.

      And I think if Moffat is interested in people, at all, he can’t just wash his hands of class issues.

    • Kmasca says:

      Her class position isn’t referred to, but I’ve never felt it was ambiguous. Houses of that size in Gloucestershire villages are not particularly cheap, for one thing; and even without that specificity, English villages are implicitly coded as middle class locales on TV (regardless of the demographic reality). I agree there’s a question over whether the programme should be engaging in explicit cultural commentary.

  3. This is really interesting stuff!

    I think the issue of class is also expressed (in some ways more clearly) through the mothers of the 3 female companions of that era, and their lives. Actually that IS interesting, because the poor mothers generally get a happier ending than their daughters do, while Martha’s mother is treated less kindly.

    Interesting as well to look at Mickey’s journey, as the only regular representation of a poor, low status man in the same era, though we miss out on his crucial transitions from ‘revolutionary on the run’ to ‘revolutionary heavily financed by Rose’s not-Dad,’ to ‘freelance alien assassin with middle-class wife’.

    Rose’s habit of talking to people in the underclasses of various time periods and recognising that they have shit jobs is a hugely valuable aspect she brought to Doctor Who – whereas the Doctor’s ‘treat everyone the same, act as if you own the place’ does reflect his massive privilege.

    I see Rose’s final fate as being more positive than you do, I think (though of course it was a massive writer convenience) and that she does, in the end, choose to return (though again, it’s what the Doctor would have chosen for her) but also because I think if she had stayed in “our” world and lost contact with her mother and new baby sibling, that would have been a greater tragedy long-term than staying with a Magical Pixie Man who actually probably couldn’t fulfil her romantic needs.

    Rose Tyler: Defending the Earth was almost a DW spin off! Even a failed pilot would probably have answered so many of our questions…

  4. Oh and just to add – Donna’s end is devastating, for so many reasons (not just her not remembering the Doctor and being a hero, but as you rightly point out, losing her sense of adventure), and it feels very sad that all the Doctor can fix about it is her financial situation. But kind of an interesting breakthrough that he realises that’s even something that’s a THING. Even if Wilf had to point it out to him with very big handwavy smoke signals.

    David Tennant’s era is the only time we actually see him stealing money (from the ATM) and using time travel to create money from investments – sure he may have done it in previous incarnations but I’m pretty sure this is the only time we see him do it.

    • Deb Stanish says:

      >>>it feels very sad that all the Doctor can fix about it is her financial situation.

      It’s the Time Lord’s version of cab fare on the nightstand. Insulting and borderline degrading. What’s worse is that she starts as she ends: A woman whose dreams and aspirations are stitched into the seams of a white dress.

      I can’t help thinking how differently would we have all felt if we had seen The Doctor nudging her toward a rewarding career or occupation in which her happiness was based on her own accomplishments.

      Money is easy, responsibility and accountability on the other hand…but that’s never been The Doctor’s suit, has it?

    • AmandaonMaui says:

      I agree that Donna would likely get more satisfaction out of a job that she loves than just from cold hard cash. Yet, this money also lets her feel stability, and it gives her the option to go out and explore the world like she explored the universe in the TARDIS.

  5. Ritch Ludlow says:

    Interesting, well done.

  6. k reads says:

    What the Doctor did to Donna was just heartbreaking… and also pissed me the fuck off. She was never given the choice; the Doctor made it for her. I know, I know she would have died but still, it should have been *her* decision. Not one made by some man who thinks he knows better – even if he is the Doctor. So Donna gets to live but she has lost everything that made her life worth living. Maybe she should have turned right, instead.

    • I agree so hard. I don’t care that she was about to die, because she knew that, and she told him no, don’t anyway. He should have respected her decision. She knew that dying would be better than forgetting everything and going back to the way her life was. UGH. It annoyed me to no end that the show didn’t align us with Donna in that moment, and show us how this was yet another way in which the Doctor’s arrogance led him to ignore the decisions of others.

      • James says:

        Yes, I hated that moment too. It was just the attitude of “It may be your life, but I know better what you should do with it” coupled with the fact that all the changes in Donna are down to her knowing the Doctor. The Doctor giveth, the Doctor taketh away. Not nice.

        Something I’m interested in waiting for. In Forest of the Dead, River tells the Doctor very firmly that he’s not to go back ad change any aspect of her lie. I do wonder whether he’s going to respect what she told him or not. It’s already been disappointing to find out that so much of who River is has come once again from her meeting the Doctor. It’d be even more so if he decides that he knows better than her how her life should go.

        • James says:

          That should read “In Forest of the Dead, River tells the Doctor very firmly that he’s not to go back and change any aspect of her life.”

          Sorry for the typos. It’s a new computer. Well, that’s my excuse anyway.

  7. tree_and_leaf says:

    This is a great post, though there’s one point about Martha that I think you’re missing cultural context for:

    loans are never really mentioned, even when she jets off with a time traveler. (That would be my first concern: Am I going to have bill collectors on me by the time I get back?)

    That isn’t really an indication of massive privilege, just how UK student loan repayments work; they are done through the income tax system and don’t kick off till you reach a certain threshold (and Martha is a student and therefore not anywhere near the threshold). Debt collectors are not an issue for that type of debt, it functions more like a graduate tax. Neither is her “going to medical school” – which is in itself not really a UK concept – it’s not more expensive than doing any other kind of degree.

    I’m less sure what’s going on with her living situation, though – actually having a flat on your own as a student would be unusual even if you were wealthy. I think I assumed that it was a flatshare but the other members just weren’t there, but I’d have to rewatch to work out if that’s true or if I’m misremembering.

    • Going to college, in any way, is a function of privilege, and one Martha has over Rose and Donna. And is medical school not longer in the UK than a regular four-year degree? I mentioned medical school not just because it would be perhaps more expensive, but because it suggests high levels of academic achievement, something correlated with wealth. Medical school is more competetive than other degrees, yes? Which would mean Martha went to good schools, and likely didn’t have to work to subsidize her studies. She is, in fact, the only companion who we don’t see with a job in the real world.

      As far as I can tell, Martha lives alone. I believe the writers wanted us to believe her more independent than Rose, and living alone was one of the ways they tried to illustrate that.

      • Kmasca says:

        A standard medical degree is five years long in England. The NHS pays tuition fees for the fifth year, and offers an additional means tested bursary for living costs. Theoretically that places them on a par with the cost of a four year degree (although many English degrees are only three years in length).

        More generally, yes, admission to degrees in medicine is highly competitive, and tuition fees wouldn’t be the only barrier for people from poorer backgrounds.

      • tree_and_leaf says:

        Martha undoubtedly went to a “better” school than Rose, if nothing else because of growing up in a more middle class area. That said, she’s obviously a higher achiever than her brother or sister, so it’s not all down to family situation. There’s nothing to suggest she went to a private school, and I’d tend to assume she didn’t. We don’t know what university she went to, but it’s certainly not Oxford or Cambridge – presumably one of the London ones, which are very good universities, but not the most stereotypically privileged ones out there. No, she probably isn’t working during term; most medical students don’t, as far as I know, because they don’t have time, but it is perfectly possible to manage on the student loan without working during term.

        I’m not trying to argue that Martha doesn’t have a degree of privilege that Rose doesn’t, though it’s complicated by the question of race, which hasn’t been addressed at all. But not all British doctors come from upper middle class backgrounds, and while Martha is obviously from higher up the income and education scale than Rose, it’s left quite vague where in the broad swathe of the middle class the Joneses should be located.

        • It definitely is complicated by race. A middle class Black woman experiences her privilege and oppression differently than a White one. We definitely see this talked about in Doctor Who, particularly in the Shakespeare episode in “Family of Blood”/”Human Nature.”

          I agree that Martha can easily be placed in the middle class, but she doesn’t have to be rich to live in a totally different world than Rose.

  8. Deb Stanish says:

    Fantastic post. This is a nice contrast to the idea that there is not only a tinge of classism in their outcomes but also a sense of being rewarded/punished for their choices. The companions that chose to “pledge their troth” to The Doctor suffered while the companion that walked away was, well, not rewarded but certainly not punished in the way the Rose and Donna were.

    >>>>>he represents a life unburdened with thankless and unfulfilling work, living paycheck to paycheck. It’s not just adventure that companions get to look forward to, it’s a life in which money doesn’t matter.

    It’s not only money that doesn’t matter, it’s also a life in which grinding, mundane domesticity seems to be magically taken care of. There are no meals to prepare, bathrooms to clean, linens to wash… Whether this can be chalked up to TARDIS Magic or writer indifference is up for debate but it offers a degree of freedom that only the very privileged can afford.

    • Brass Cupcake says:

      – “It’s not only money that doesn’t matter, it’s also a life in which grinding, mundane domesticity seems to be magically taken care of. There are no meals to prepare, bathrooms to clean, linens to wash… ”

      Nice observation. And that also seems to tie in with the class issue. Wealthier people can afford gadgets that make domestic tasks easier, equipment that makes the tasks nicer, and sometimes staff to do these tasks for them (maid, personal assistant). Mundane domesticity occupies much of your life when you are economically challenged, which creates even more of a reason to want to escape it.

    • Nightsky says:

      I think what the writers are after is that Gallifrey is a post-scarcity society. How that interacts with issues of class and privilege is, IMHO, a monumentally interesting question that I think hasn’t really been addressed in SF. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but the only works I can think of offhand that really address the effects that god-tech has on lower societo-economic classes are Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age” and Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Windup Girl”.)

  9. Worth adding as well that it’s quite nice that of all the companions who did get more of a middle class background, they chose to do that with the one who was a woman of colour.

    Could be worth looking at class issues to do with the standalone companions, too – I think part of the reason that Christina is quite off putting as a character is because of the combination of the posh accent combined with her criminal nature – it was a companion idea left over for the 80′s and clashes horribly with the more modern interpretation of what a companion is, because of the combination of her privilege and her lack of morality.

    (I still kind of wish he had let her go to prison & given her the flying bus once she’d served her time, though at the same time it is hugely hypocritical of him to disapprove of her)

    Meanwhile, Astrid, who is poor and in a service job, and who only gets to see a way out of her life with the magic ticket the Doctor offers, ends up bulldozing her way off a cliff into eternity…

    • “Worth adding as well that it’s quite nice that of all the companions who did get more of a middle class background, they chose to do that with the one who was a woman of colour.”

      I do like that they did that, and I like that they also don’t ignore race when it comes to Martha. (Though it would be nice if TV stopped ignoring race when it comes to White characters too.)

      “Could be worth looking at class issues to do with the standalone companions, too.”

      Oh, that’s a great idea; I think you inspired a new post! I’ll post in the comments when I get to writing and publishing it. :)

  10. [...] it’s far more about the adventure than it is about the Doctor specifically. As Courtney noted in her post about poverty and the companions, the financial freedom is a pretty major carrot offered by the Doctor, [...]

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