Thursday, June 19, 2014

Feminist Doctor Who, Part 1: Rose Tyler

I’m a Whovian, which means that I’m a member of the Doctor Who fandom. Doctor Who, the smash BBC hit that was named the longest-running science fiction television show by Guinness World Records, was revived in 2005 after over a decade of hiatus. Throughout the classic show and modern revival, the Doctor travels in his TARDIS spaceship through time and space with companions, saving small cities as well as the entire universe from disaster. Many feminist Whovians have analyzed the Doctor and his companions’ representations of gender, race, and sexuality; in this series, I give some of my own interpretations.

Rose Tyler, played by Billie Piper, is the Doctor’s first companion in the modern series, traveling with him in every episode in Series 1 and 2. She is arguably one of the most controversial companions, generating a huge range of opinions among Doctor Who fans.

Many Whovians are negative about Rose. Some claim that she is a Mary Sue, or an over-idealized projection of the author (in this case, Doctor Who writer Russell T. Davies) who can do no wrong. Others feel that Rose lacks evolution as a character, and many bemoan what they feel was a downhill turn that the plot took when she and the Doctor fell in love. In their essay in the collection Chicks Dig Time Lords, academics Shoshana Magnet and Robert Smith? criticize Rose for falling into the gendered roles of mother, maiden, and damsel in distress, as she takes on a nurturing role with the Doctor, becomes his love interest, and depends on him to save her, respectively.

Personally, Rose is one of my favorite companions, and I can’t see eye to eye with people who don’t like her. I genuinely don’t think that she is remotely like a Mary Sue, since she possesses legitimate flaws; for example, she shows selfishness when she leaves her mother and long-time boyfriend to travel with the Doctor after one chance meeting. The Mary Sue allegation is often the product of misogynistic attitudes, as it is rarely leveled at male characters, and I think that people who call Rose a Mary Sue are just falling into that sexist trap. Whovians who bash Rose often call her a Mary Sue and chav in the same breath, which implies that fans’ dislike of Rose and their desire to dismiss her stems from classism.

But when Whovians call Rose a chav, they misunderstand her. The whole point is that Rose is supposed to be an average person - she “don’t got no A-levels, no job, no future,” as she says about herself in the first episode, “Rose.” She’s just a 19-year-old working class shop girl with few opportunities for advancement, a bad dye job, and too much make up. And yet, she saves the universe on several occasions, both with and without the Doctor. Traveling in the TARDIS alongside the Doctor and learning what she is capable of helps Rose find purpose, giving her confidence in her abilities. This self-assurance enables her to save the word singlehandedly in the Series 1 finale “The Parting of the Ways.”

I really do believe that Rose is a dynamic character who develops as the seasons progress. I don’t understand why people feel that her character suffers when she becomes the Doctor’s love interest; on the contrary, I feel that their relationship enriches Rose’s character. Yes, she is inconsolable after her separation from the Doctor at the end of Series 2, but would you not be incredibly depressed if you were abruptly taken from your loved one? Her mourning does not mean that she did not develop as a character. Indeed, the fact that she loses him while she’s helping save the world shows that she progressed from the girl she was in “Rose,” who said that she didn’t have a future. By making the decision to travel with the Doctor and learning from her experiences with him, she gives herself a future.

Is Rose a feminist character? I think so. As a teenager, Rose holds particular influence over younger viewers, but the messages she imparts are applicable to women of any age group. She shows us that you can be a BAMF who saves the world and still get the guy; you don’t need to stifle yourself or dumb yourself down to be attractive. Rose’s humble origins as a shop girl, an everyday person, show us that you don’t have to be born special or extraordinary to become that way. She encourages us to take agency over our own lives, make our own decisions, and have fun while doing it.


  1. Agreed - Rose definitely did evolve.

    By the way, suspect that Davies only decided to create the romantic connection once the chemistry between Billie Piper and David Tennant became evident. It would have never worked between Rose and Christopher Eccleston's 9th Doctor.

    So I agree that the romance didn't diminish her, except in one particular scene, and that's their goodbye scene on the beach of Bad Wolf Bay in the other reality where Rose and her Family ended up.

    In that scene, the Doctor appears in a holographic projection that is being sent across the inter dimensional barrier by putting the Tardis in orbit around a neutron star. So it's clear that the Doctor cares deeply for Rose, since he goes to such extraordinary measures to be able to say goodbye properly.

    Yet somehow, the way the scene was played seemed to infantilize Rose. The Doctor seems somber and grown up, while Rose, like a little girl, was brought there by her parents, and when the Doctor says there's no way for them to really be together, she blubbers and protests "but I LOVE you!" While the scene definitely packed an emotional punch, it was marred by the above.

    Interestingly, where Rose really became a badass was after her regular run on the show was over, in episodes like Turn Left and The Stolen Earth.

    1. You're probably right about the goodbye scene, but I was too hysterical to notice it. :P (As I said, I'm a huge Rose fangirl and thought I was going to drown in my own tears when that happened.)

    2. "By the way, suspect that Davies only decided to create the romantic connection once the chemistry between Billie Piper and David Tennant became evident. It would have never worked between Rose and Christopher Eccleston's 9th Doctor"... that's not true and is the reason there's an age discrepancy for Rose in several of the s1 scripts. Davies decided to age her up from 16 to 19 because of her romantic chemistry with Eccleston. Billie Piper, Eccleston, director Euros Lyn and even Steven Moffat discuss this romance in both DW Confidential as well as DW Magazine.

  2. A great feminist role model companion was Martha, even though no one else seemed to like her.

    Rose was a department store clerk. Donna was a secretary. Amy was a kiss-o-gram girl, for god's sake. Clara was a nanny.

    Martha was a doctor - a professional with a serious job.

    1. I liked Martha! But have no fear, I shall be discussing all of the companions' feminist merits in future posts.

    2. :-)

      Unfortunately, she didn't make the top 10 list