Who’s That Girl? … Doctor Who’s Gender Revolution

On 16 July 2017, history was made: the first female Doctor Who was announced. But why should we care that a woman is now going to play the role of a shape-shifting, time travelling, two-hearted alien? 

There have been other strong female scientists in sci-fi. You can cite the later Star Trek franchises, or Dana Scully in The X-Files. But the role of the Doctor is iconic in a different way: because of the programme’s longevity; because Doctor Who is part of British popular culture and has a cult following around the world; and because it is intended as family viewing, albeit from behind the sofa. And this family viewing was always deliberately intended to influence both boys and girls.

Doctor Who was created back in 1963 as an educational programme, a vehicle to introduce scientific concepts to children. Although science fiction is, in reality, barely on nodding terms with actual science, over the years Doctor Who has succeeded in exploring such concepts right up until the present day. They’ve had stories based on the damage pesticides can do to the environment, organ transplantation, cloning, endoparasitology, tachyons, evolutionary biology, entropy, mathematical recursion, nanotechnology, quantum mechanics … If it hadn’t been for one early writer’s interest in virus mutation, the Daleks wouldn’t have been created!

Back in the 60s, a lot of thought was given to the Doctor as a role model. With a generation of children growing up without grandfathers because of the Second World War, the BBC decided to provide that grandfather, a firm but fair authority figure. In turn, he was balanced by his young, enquiring granddaughter. You could argue that it’s taken more than 50 years for the show’s producers to repeat that same consideration – the influence that casting will have on the show’s audience.

Not that the show hasn’t touched on diversity in science from early on. For example, in the 1968 episode ‘Web of Fear’, when asked “What’s a girl like you doing in a job like this?” the character Anne Travers responds: “Well, when I was a little girl I thought I’d like to be a scientist, so I became a scientist.” Great line!

And companions have played their part: it wasn’t long ago that the Doctor was accompanied by a doctor, with Martha Jones interrupting her ultimately successful medical degree to travel in the Tardis.  And it must be mentioned that even before the most recent companion – gay, black and working-class Bill Potts – there was the “omnisexual” Captain Jack Harkness, who blasted in to the first series of the relaunched Doctor Who and became a regular member of the ‘Whoniverse’ for the next six years, even earning his own spin-off series in Torchwood.

A study by Lindy A. Orthia and Rachel Morgain (Australian National University) concluded that, despite some exceptions, Doctor Who has increasingly striven for gender balance among its scientific characters. And in the last couple of series, there seems to have been preparation for this ultimate balance, including the Doctor’s nemesis The Master regenerating as a woman.

It’s been gratifying to see that, in general, reaction to Jodie Whittaker’s casting has been extremely positive, with families excited that now their daughters as well as their sons have such a positive scientific role model. Girls too can explore time and relative dimensions in space; and how many of them will go on to do so in real life as a result?

If nothing else, now any young woman can take up a screwdriver, sonic or otherwise, and won’t be afraid to use it.

Charlotte Price (BIO School Manager) 

Further reading

Lindy A. Orthia and Rachel Morgain, ‘The Gendered Culture of Scientific Competence: A Study of Scientist Characters in Doctor Who 1963-2013’

Lindy A. Orthia and Rachel Morgain, ‘Ahead of its time: Doctor Who’s 56 inspiring female scientists’


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