Disappearing Women of Doctor Who


Spoilers for everything up to The Name of the Doctor.

Since watching the wonderful series finale ,’The Name of the Doctor,’ I’ve been thinking a lot about Clara: who she is, and what implications the episode (and indeed the whole arc of the seventh series) has for her character. In doing so, I’ve stumbled across a bit of a theme that shows itself particularly in this series. I’ve nicknamed it the ‘disappearing women’ phenomenon.

What do I mean by disappearing women? I mean women who tend to lose themselves rather than find themselves on their travels with the Doctor – most commonly, women who realise that actually, their whole life has come to rotate around the Doctor, literally and metaphorically. For some women, this manifests as a loss of agency over their bodies and actions – for others, a loss of the greater part of their identity. This trend is one I’ve found more in recent companions, but it can be seen back through the series of new Who as well. For this post I’ll be considering how each of our companions fits into this picture, from Rose through Martha and Donna, to River Song, Amy and Clara, who probably best exemplifies this pattern.

Rose Tyler works in a shop and lives with her mother, inhabiting that in-between space where she isn’t quite sure where her life is going. Her reasons for leaving with the Doctor are relatable and her character development is fleshed-out and meaningful. She has the advantage of setting the tone for what a companion is meant to be about – experiencing the universe, realising that life can take you wherever you want to go, broadening your perspective on life. Rose has a family and a history, vulnerabilities and strengths that make her relatable to us. After she and the Doctor part ways, she manages to continue her life using her new experiences, even if it is focused around eventually getting back to the Doctor in The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End. (And, well, let’s just say that the romance doesn’t play out the way I would have liked it to, with 10.2 feeling like such a huge cop out.)

Rose in Journey's End.
Rose in Journey’s End.

Martha starts out as the star-struck traveler, falling for the Doctor and soon devoting her life to him and supporting him for long periods of time on more than one occasion – as a maid in Human Nature and The Family of Blood, as the breadwinner in Blink, traveling the world alone in The Sound of Drums and The Last of the Time Lords. For the time of her run, her life does come to be defined by the Doctor, but her concern for her family and her profession still can be seen strongly throughout, and in the end, Martha makes the decision to ‘get out’, leaving the Doctor on her own accord to build her own life.

Out of all the companions, Martha seems to get the most out of her time with the Doctor and has the most agency post-traveling: her desire to pursue her profession has strengthened, her ties to her family mean more to her than they ever did, and she’s become more confident in herself. Rose comes second, because she finds direction in her life due to the Doctor, even if her emotional attachment drives a significant part of her later character development.

Interestingly enough, Donna, who possibly maintains the most personal autonomy and agency out of the RTD-era companions, meets with the worst end to her character. As the reward for helping save the world, so to speak, every memory of her travels with the Doctor is erased, along with all the character development she experienced throughout series four. She suffers the ultimate loss of agency, ending up just as lost as she was before she ever met the Doctor. Again and again, it is emphasised that she is the most important woman in the universe. As it turns out, that means saving the world but losing all agency in the process.

Donna has her memories wiped by the Doctor.
Donna has her memories wiped by the Doctor.

Loss of personal agency can also be found in Amy’s storyline, the most obvious instance being her pregnancy in series six. Actual-Amy spends almost the whole first half of the series as an unconscious, pregnant captive, with no control over her body or what will happen to her. Flesh-Amy is consistently denied knowledge, and thus control, over her own body by the Doctor, who doesn’t even see fit to tell her that she is (or isn’t) pregnant. After giving birth, Amy is again denied access to her own child, and we never really get to see the emotional consequences of this, bar a brief scene in Asylum of the Daleks.

Interestingly enough, when the Doctor is denied knowledge of what is going on around him in The Impossible Astronaut, he gets angry and frustrated that he is being manipulated: ‘don’t play games with me. Don’t ever think you’re capable of that.’ Yet when the tables are reversed, female companions are just expected to put their faith in the Doctor, to follow his judgement calls, to put up with their loss of control over their bodies and minds.

Finally, we have Clara, who seems to exist in series seven (pre-finale) predominantly as a puzzling occurrence and a problem which the Doctor must solve. We as the audience don’t even know what’s going on with her, because we meet her all out of order, like we do River Song. The first two times we see her she dies saving the Doctor, but we know little else about her. Eventually, in The Name of the Doctor, we find out that Clara was just an ordinary girl to start off with: but then she stepped into the Doctor’s timeline and scattered a thousand copies of herself into his past and future, always saving him. This if course raises some serious questions about the agency of all the scattered Claras – do they only exist for the purpose of eventually saving him? It would seem so. In Asylum of the Daleks, Oswin-Clara crashes into the Asylum and is turned into a Dalek (again, losing all control over her body and most of her mind) so that she can save Eleven. In The Snowmen she saves Eleven again, and again it seems that her mission has been fulfilled, and she dies. Do all these Claras have any real control over their lives?

Clara-the-companion also doesn’t seem to be a very fleshed out character. Her role as female companion is compounded by the fact that she is a nanny – a perfectly legitimate job in itself, but one that ties in all-too-neatly with the stereotypical way that women are depicted in Doctor Who on the whole. She doesn’t seem to know how the internet works, she likes making souffles, she doesn’t like ghosts, and like Amy, she has no family. But apart from that, she seems to always be conveniently what an episode’s plot needs: a hacker in The Bells of St John, a military leader in Nightmare in Silver, etc. In the end, however, the long Clara travels with the Doctor, the less she knows who she is – culminating in her stepping into the timestream and then stumbling around in the dark, with no idea who or where or how she is. As Clara says in her voice over:

I don’t know where I am. It’s like I’m breaking into a million different pieces and there’s only one thing I remember. I have to save The Doctor. He always looks different. Sometimes, I think I’m everywhere at once, running every second, just to save him. Doctor? But he never hears me. Almost never. Having blown into this world on a leaf, I’m still blowing. I don’t think I’ll ever learn. I’m Clara Oswald. I’m the Impossible Girl. I was born to save The Doctor.

Clara is literally defined by the Doctor. She doesn’t know who she is or what her role is, but she knows that she was born to save him. She ends the series knowing less about herself than when she started. In a way, that’s really interesting, and has the potential for some great questions and discoveries about fate, self-determinism, what is means to be human. I hope that series eight goes on to explore some of those things, to say ‘look, here’s a girl who is a blank slate – let’s make something of her! Let’s help her figure out who she is, other than just a plot device to save the Doctor.’

Clara: just a puzzle to be figured out?
Clara: just a puzzle to be figured out?

In a way, this has already happened in the form of River Song. She represents both the epitome and the antithesis to the idea of the disappearing woman in Doctor Who. Like Clara, she quite literally defines the Doctor and exists around him. Her early life revolves solely around the Doctor, up until the Wedding of River Song in her timeline. But after this we see River becoming much more independent and starting to live her own life alongside the Doctor. Perhaps the strongest part of their relationship is that they live two different lives, yet know that they can depend on each other to be there when needed. River’s shackles to the Doctor become literal shackles through her time in prison, but at the same time, her metaphorical shackles break and she is freer than she was before. I’d like the same to happen with Clara – that she finds who she is without the Doctor, and manages to be her own person while also being a companion.

Where does this leave us? The tendency for the women of Doctor Who to become defined by the Doctor is unfortunate, but highlight the fact that the show is based on an intrinsically sexist framework. It’s about a male Doctor and his female companions (we do have the occasional male as well, in Jack and Rory, but they are usually not branded or distinguished as ‘The Companion’), who run away with him to see the stars and provide him with company and human connection. They assist, they sometimes save him, they sometimes save others. But in the end, they are always companions, used to define the Doctor, sometimes more than they are allowed to be characters in their own right. They exist in a stereotypical female role of helper, listener, carer while the Doctor is often running around doing the active science-fiction stuff, as this blog post points out.

A sexist framework doesn’t mean that individual characters are always visibly sexist, or that they can’t have feminist moments or sometimes act in feminist ways. It means that sexist expectations and ways of thinking overshadow the show, affecting us on a subconscious level. If you want an example of this is reverse, look at Buffy the Vampire Slayer – the framework or premise of the show is consciously feminist, but that doesn’t stop individual episodes, characters or actions being problematic at times.

In Doctor Who, the tendency of female companions (especially recent ones) to somehow disappear, to lose agency over their bodies and action, and to become defined by the Doctor betrays the sexist underpinnings of the show. Sometimes it manages to deal with that in a satisfying way, other times it doesn’t. I guess that’s part of loving a problematic show. And for Clara, there’s still room to grow – I look forward to seeing if she will.

16 thoughts on “Disappearing Women of Doctor Who

  1. I’d give your article more credibility if you had included River in your list. She’s probably the worst of the bunch. She was conceived, born and brainwashed into killing the Doctor, and despite her eventually breaking out of The Silence’s control, The Doctor still treated her like crap and allowed her to fade away like a ghost. In my opinion, River is the character that suffers from a lack of character development the most. She was literally born with no self control and she died with little to no self control. It’s one of the reasons why I’m glad the show is finally done with her. She’s such a downer…

    1. I’m not sure if you read the whole post, but I do talk about River, in the paragraph under the picture of Clara. However, in my reading of her, River starts out as a plot device created for the purpose of killing the Doctor, with no real agency of her own, but then actually develops into something more, someone who is on an equal level to him, sharing some of his adventures but still living her own life. Next time, please make sure you read the whole post before jumping in with a snide comment on my credibility.

  2. Interesting article! Agency and self-determination is extremely important to me (to the extent that I am terrified of having to have a general anaethsetic; the thought of waking up to find my body has been messed with while I was just switched off is completely horrifying) and this has been a tendency I’ve been increasingly uncomfortable with. I find Donna’s story particularly distressing because in the end, she chose to keep her memories and die from them, and the Doctor took away from her the right to make that choice. There’s traditionally been a paternalistic culture among actual doctors to make the right decision for the patient’s own good, and recent decades have seen an increasing backlash against this idea and emphasis on making sure that patients can make an informed decision and that doctors must abide by that decision, no matter how silly they think it is. To me, this whole scene mirrored that very concept, and I found it pretty disturbing that the Doctor would remove someone’s free will like that, particularly when he’s often intervened in favour of giving people more power over their own circumstances.

    Interestingly, although old!Who was much more blatently sexist in many ways, reflecting the times it was written, I found a lot of the companions’ stories, particularly their endings, to grant them a lot more agency. For example: Nyssa leaves the Doctor to go and cure a diesease, essentially becoming a doctor herself; Romana chose to remain in E-Space to help a race there; Mel left to pursue her own adventures; Liz left because she was sick of being a sidekick and wanted to do scientific research. Of course, others were less so (Jamie and Zoe spring immediately to mind, or Peri), and to be fair to New Who, it’s had fewer assistants so far – I really hope the trend towards favouring dramatic angst doesn’t result in every single departure being an unwilling one. I was somewhat disappointed with Amy and Rory, actually, because they’d been preparing them for making a decision to move on and find their own thing for a while, which would have been a great end to their arc, especially after the bit where they decide to travel together at the end of season 5; but when it came to it the writers didn’t go with that option.

    My personal favourite Doctor/Companion relationship is actuall 7 and Ace. I felt much more that the Doctor was acting as Ace’s mentor, pushing her towards growing, figuring things out herself, dealing with her issues. Ace’s story was very much a story about Ace, and not about the Doctor, and I felt she really grew during her time with the Doctor. To me, that’s how it should be.

    Like you I’m curious to see where Clara’s story goes. I read her as someone who was always a bit unsatisfied and curious and wanting to explore and see the world, but perhaps didn’t quite have the courage to just do so, so perhaps now that she’s finally been talked into doing what she really wanted to do, she’ll figure herself out. I hope so!

  3. “She (Donna) suffers the ultimate loss of agency, ending up just as lost as she was before she ever met the Doctor. Again and again, it is emphasised that she is the most important woman in the universe. As it turns out, that means saving the world but losing all agency in the process.”

    I’m a big fan of seasons three and four, but haven’t liked the series much recently. While I agree with the quote above, for me the big difference between the way Donna was handled and the more recent loss of agency among companions is that Donna was presented as a tragedy. She learned and grew and became a better person, and in the end it was all stripped away from her– and we were meant to grieve about it. The Doctor cried, and so did we. It was undeniably tragic. But with River, for example, the show doesn’t seem to suggest there’s anything wrong with her de-evolution from strong, independent woman to woman-whose-life-centers-around-the-Doctor. If anything, it’s presented as romantic and heartwarming. This is why I have much more of a problem with the Moffat era than with the RTD era.

  4. I’m glad that you acknowledged that River did start out completely wrapped up in the Doctor. But her character grows and develops. She has her own adventures, and she doesn’t even agree to stay with the Doctor full-time when asked. And for those who loved her strong, independent character in Silence of the Library and Forest of the Dead–that’s her all grown up. That’s her after she’s grown and matured and evolved. We just see it out of order, so it seems jarring and makes it look like she’s devolved. I won’t say that her character arc has been handled perfectly–it hasn’t, of course. There are problems. But it isn’t quite as bad as I’ve seen some people claim.

  5. I think you gloss over a lot of the more problematic aspects of the RTD era companion’s stories. Like Rose: “The Doctor’s never going to stop travelling, so I can’t.” There’s not a word on the show to say that her tragedy in Doomsday is losing the life she loves, the travelling and saving the world: just the Doctor.

    1. I won’t deny that Rose’s life seems to be dominated by her feelings for the Doctor (like pretty much every other standard romantic relationship on TV). I’m trying to stay away from the RTD vs Moffat thing though, because both writers have their strengths and weaknesses!

  6. This is something that happened quite a bit in the Classic series as well. A new companion might get a strong opening story, only for the identity established to wither away back to “generic companion.” Leela, in particular, suffers this fate: a mighty warrior who is smart — in the sense of being open-minded and more than capable of learning new things — becomes an idiot child and ends up married off to a Gallifreyan guard (she used to kill guards, because guards were bad.)

    Sarah Jane, feminist journalist, becomes a screamer, possessed and drugged left, right, and center, and dumped when it’s time to go — only Lis Sladen kept the character interesting, because the writing surely didn’t. Peri is short for “peril monkey,” a role first established by the Doctor’s granddaughter.

    The character with the greatest agency, Romana, is also somewhat erased: she becomes Doctorish. She finds herself only by acquiring the tropes of the Doctor himself.

    And it wasn’t just women, either. Adric, the “artful dodger,” is killed off because the actor playing him could barely act, not that he had much material to work with. Harry Sullivan, a naval officer and doctor in his own right, is reduced to bumbling idiot. Ian Chesterton, a first companion, doesn’t even have an identity — he’s a schoolteacher cum action hero, with no backstory at all.

    But it wasn’t all dire. Turlough finds himself, is “revealed” and returns to his homeworld a braver and wiser man. Ace gets the best treatment, as the Doctor whirls her through much of her own history, making peace with the traumas that forged who she was in the first place.

  7. Hmm. I do have strong feelings about Clara. I suppose she is coming back for the Special? Anyway, great piece, thanks 🙂

  8. I started watching the Docter Who series only recently and I must say, I hadn’t really deepened the subject as you have here. A really great piece you have here, which I’m going to reblog, not only so I can re-read it easily, but because I think you’ve really done a great job analyzing the women in Docter Who…and I’d agree that River is very much the individualist!

    1. Thanks! Believe me, even this seems like a very cursory treatment of women in Doctor Who, in order to do it properly I’d have to write a thesis or something. But I’m glad you liked it enough to reblog. 🙂

  9. Interesting…I think Clara will grow, but maybe not like Rose and Martha did. Perhaps she was not born to “be of this earth” but to be a like a mother to the Doctor, always looking out for him.

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