Which Companion is the Best Feminist Role Model for my Daughters? The start of an on-going research project

"Not hiding behind the sofa!"

From its inception Dr Who has marketed itself as a family program. Family programming has a responsibility to nurture the hearts and minds of the younger generation. From a feminist perspective, this obligation includes challenging, neutralising or at least balancing culturally enforced gender roles.
I remember vividly the fictional women and girls who helped shape my character as a child. Lucy Pevensie taught me the importance of standing up for what you believe. Princess Leia showed me women could be leaders of men. Velma demonstrated to me the value of using intelligence in solving problems. But what are my daughters learning from the women of Dr Who? What life lessons do the companions have to offer them? Are they role models worthy of the feminist geeks I hope my girls are becoming?
I propose we slide Whopanions under the feminist microscope to see if they are worthy of the title: Feminist Fan Girl (and I do mean girl) Icon. Such rigorous examination will naturally require clear criteria for investigation. So, what makes someone a Feminist Fan Girl Icon?
I have compiled a short list of “Success Criteria” (my Deputy Head Teacher would be so proud to know I am using her favourite phrase). It is a list of characteristics I wish for my daughters. It is a list of characteristics I remember being impressed with when girls and women exhibited them in fiction. It is a list to change the world!
1) She must embody a positive body image. (This could also read: “she shalt not contribute to the fascist cult of beauty bitches”, but I wanted to keep this list positive.)
2) She must use her intelligence and be valued for it.
3) She must sometimes “save the day”.
4) She must show spunky independence.
5) She must strive to stay true to her beliefs. (I thought of making this one: “she must strive to stay true to herself, but part of the interest of a female character is the shifting nature of how she sees herself, so I changed it.)
So there you have it. The Criteria have been set. Let the experimentation begin!

 

Thanks to Sarah Andrea Royce for advice on terminology of gender roles v gender identity.  I still think the term “gender role” sounds hopelessly old fashioned and dull but I bend to the wisdom of sensitivity and political accuracy. 

20 comments

  1. I remember as a girl ADORING Leela. She was a kick-ass warrior woman before there were any others of that trope in existence on TV. I’m not sure she demonstrated intelligence, but she was certainly spunky and inquisitive. Rather like a large dog in personality, in fact. She didn’t worry about what men thought of her, good or bad. She knew who she was loyal to, and would gleefully off any enemies.

    I also remember loathing Peri.

  2. This is brilliant! I’m excited to see how this unfolds. We’re thinking along the same lines- I’m embarking on a Bechdel test of the entire NuWho series. Rock on with the examinations!

  3. Chloe Hardy says:

    Sarah Jane Smith – hands down.

    1. She was never overtly offering a ‘body on a plate’, in fact her her frankly bizarre outfits often gave the opposite impression (I’m thinking Hand of Fear Andy Pandy suit!)
    2. Her journalistic background made her ask why, why, why constantly (see 4 & 5)
    3. Saving the day became her stock in trade in Sarah Jane Adventures
    4. Sarah Jane was never shy of questioning the Doctor’s decisions and offering an alternative opinion
    5. Genesis of the Daleks – Sarah Jane has very strong views about whether the Doctor should destroy the Daleks while he has the chance (like Harriet Jones and the Sycorax ship, I think she always stood by that)

    Beyond your success criteria, she inspired me as a girl growing up in Ealing in the late 70s and early 80s. I wanted to be a journalist like Sarah Jane and told anyone who would listen. In the end I became a campaigner – I was impatient to make a difference just like she did.

  4. [...] Doctor Her’s first post is Which Companion is the Best Feminist Role Model for my Daughters? The start of an on-going research …. [...]

  5. ascendingpig says:

    For New Who this shouldn’t even be a point of contention. Every female companion has had a huge set of personal problems that she wouldn’t have gotten over if not for the Doctor’s intervention, has been trapped in a dead-end career they were unsatisfied with and would have stayed in it, and has had to be magically turned into the glitter princess most important person in the universe in order to justify her partner status.

    All save one, and that one is Martha Jones. She would have been fine in her life without the doctor, graduating from med school into a promising career. She didn’t need the TARDIS or the doctor to use magic to turn her into someone capable of accomplishing what she does in the season finale. People complain about the unrequited romance subplot, but how many ladies WOULDN’T get a serious crush on Ten while traveling with him?

    • ascendingpig says:

      (And I forgot to mention, she challenges the Doctor’s moniker because she doubts he’s earned it! How’s that for sticking by your principles?)

    • Tracey says:

      how many ladies WOULDN’T get a serious crush on Ten while traveling with him?

      i sure as hell wouldn’t. When you can make friends with an alien AND explore time and space with that alien, who needs romance? You’ve already got friendship and adventure. That’s much more interesting than a love story!

      • ascendingpig says:

        Come on, it’s not about thinking of your own life as a love story as opposed to an adventure. It’s about wanting a life that’s an adventure or a life that’s an adventure where you get to shag the cute guy you’re adventuring with.

  6. Kate says:

    I love the Bechdel test, thanks for linking that. Very pithy and to the point. I have fond memories of reading Dykes to Watch Out For.

  7. Sarah SPB says:

    I would have to say Sarah-Jane for the reasons already given , Martha and Donna.

    Yes Donna had personality issues to start with (and, tragically, to end with), but as a role model for what life experience can do to broaden your experience, what a compassionate (and humorous) character she was.

    She showed how women and men CAN be great mates without a sexual undercurrent and how someone can stand up for her beliefs against a (fairly) supreme being like the Doctor when she thinks he’s making a mistake I think she’s pretty awesome. ‘Worlds will still be singing her name’, love your grandard and all of the great stuff – how true. River Song’s pretty awesome too!

    Amy, mehhh not so much!

    • MadGastronomer says:

      Plus, she’s heavier and older than the other NewWho companions, showing that you don’t have to be skinny and under 25 to be awesome.

  8. Cal says:

    How about Liz Shaw, holder of multiple PhDs from Oxford and Cambridge, all-around scientific expert and first scientific advisor to UNIT?

    1) She must embody a positive body image. (This could also read: “she shalt not contribute to the fascist cult of beauty bitches”, but I wanted to keep this list positive.)

    Liz wore mini-skirts and false eyelashes (it was the Seventies, after all!) when she wanted to. She also wore caving overalls and hard hats when the occasion required it. She was never eyed off or sexually menaced by either a villain or an ally, and she never wasted time flirting with anybody.

    2) She must use her intelligence and be valued for it.

    See the point about being the first scientific advisor for UNIT. The Brigadier head-hunted her out of academia because he needed someone with her resume. Liz frequently contributes to solving the scientific mysteries and puzzles of the plot, and she and the Doctor connect in her first story at the moment when she realises he’s not a flake and he realises that she can well and truly keep up with him.

    3) She must sometimes “save the day”.

    She doesn’t do so all on her own that I remember, but she frequently gets subsets of day-saving that she handles alone.

    4) She must show spunky independence.

    In the scene in which we are introduced to Liz, she is mocking the Brigadier unmercifully for his ‘little green men’ talk, and that attitude doesn’t go away. She snaps back at anyone who talks down to her, rolls her eyes and jabs the doctor when he whines about taking his shots, explains science with added snark to various UNIT personnel and one-off characters, and if she gets kidnapped or held prisoner, she runs the hell away, even in high-heeled boots.

    5) She must strive to stay true to her beliefs. (I thought of making this one: “she must strive to stay true to herself, but part of the interest of a female character is the shifting nature of how she sees herself, so I changed it.)

    Liz is one of the companions who walks away from the Doctor. And she doesn’t do it because she’s fallen in love or grown tired of the violence; she does it because once he’s got himself settled into UNIT he doesn’t need an equal or an assistant, he needs – and I quote – ‘somebody to hold his test tubes and tell him how brilliant he is’, and that’s not a good use of Liz’s time and talents, so she waves goodbye and heads off back to Cambridge to do her own, equally important, work on her own terms.

    I do love Liz!

  9. Blarkon says:

    Ace.

    Nuff said.

  10. Jennie says:

    What a great blog:)

    I think that Nyssa would be a good candidate.

    1, With the exception of Terminus, her costumes haven’t been too revealing. When I was younger, I really liked her Traken outfits.

    2, Strong scientific knowledge displayed in Keeper of Traken ect… How about the Visitation where she built a device to see of the Terrelptil’s robot? The Doctor relies on her to build the Zero Cabinet and to implement the TARDIS room jettison in Castrovalva. He seems to get on more with her then Tegan because she understands what he’s talking about and doesn’t ask endless questions!

    3, Destroyed Terrelptil robot. (Mentioned above.)

    4, Stood up to the Gallifreyan High Council in Arc of Infinity. Use of Ion Bonder in Keeper of Traken.

    5, Her reason for leaving the Doctor in Terminus. To help others. She struggled against being a vampire and harming others once turned in Goth Opera.

    Bear in mind also, Nyssa lost her family and her home planet, thanks to the Master who looks like her Father. In a noisy, argumentative TARDIS, she was often the calming voice of reason.

    • Tracey says:

      I loved Nyssa’s reason for leaving. The Doctor had saved the day, as usual, but she saw that, in the long run, this wasn’t going to help the people who were suffering from a terrible plague. And she knew that helping them was going to take years and would be anything but easy…and she did it anyway.

      Lyricwritesprose wrote a marvelous fanfic about what happened with Nyssa:

      Inspiration

      To quote Calufrax, the comm which recced it:

      This is a wonderful, uplifting fic that is full of marvelous ingredients. First off, it’s an amazing piece of world-building, with a very well-drawn original character. Second, Martha gets to use her medical skills to help combat a plague. Third, Nyssa, a companion of the Fifth Doctor, gets an important mention. But best of all, it’s a fic about heroism, just as Doctor Who is a show about heroism. The Doctor swoops in, fixes things, and leaves, but others stay and slog, and become heroes by dint of their endurance. As made plain in this fic, these latter types of heroes can be the most inspiring of all.

      (This is the kind of story I wish would be filmed as an episode, and which never seems to be.)

  11. Jennie says:

    That was meant to be “see off” the android in The Visitation. Ahem!

  12. anon says:

    Well, but Dr. River Song actually is a new time lord (so disappointed they cut off the chance for the series to continue through her, by destroying all of her extra regenerations). She is incredibly competent on her own, and really the only character who is considered an equal of the doctor.

    I also love the doctor Donna, who is actually a companion.

  13. James says:

    Barbara. In Edge of Destruction, she tells the Doctor where to get off inno unceertain terms and in doing so starts the process of him turning into the hero he is now. Also, in The Aztecs, she poses as a god and does a pretty good job of it.

  14. katec says:

    Surely Romana 2 fulfils all the criteria? She was my idol! Supersmart, argued with the Doctor (but not to a tedious degree — looking at you, Tegan Jovanka) and was clearly his equal in the day-saving department. How much did I love her pink version of the Doctor’s outfit, complete with long cream scarf?

  15. [...] 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. [...]

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