Six Smart Women Discussing Doctor Who


The Bechdel Test:  Where two women talk to each other about something other than a man. 

In this week’s podcast the conversations regarding the Bechdel Test surprised me a bit and I think we got a bit off track as to whether the conversation between Clara and Emma was probable as opposed to appropriate.  As I said, I tend to give Doctor Who a bit of a pass when it comes to this particular gender bias test simply because the companion is our entre to the Doctor and is often the one people turn to for an explanation as to what in the hell is going on with this mad man in a box.

But in this instance, I was bothered and still am.  Perhaps it is a generational or social context issue but I still stand by my claim that a woman’s opening gambit in MOST conversations with another woman isn’t who they fancy.  Typically, it’s irrelevant and usually the least interesting thing about a person.  However, I will concede that it is a probable conversation as my cohosts claim.

The real issue for me is, was it appropriate?  Clara and Emma were not sitting in a bar having a bit of girl talk over a glass of Pinot Noir, they were in a haunted house, on a stormy night in 1974, being scared spitless by a ghost.  Is that REALLY the most interesting thing that’s going to pop up in conversation?  I realize Clara was trying to calm and distract Emma but there were so many other things they could have talked about that didn’t include the ghost or her romantic interests.  Do I need to make a list?  Because I could.

So let’s tackle this from a storytelling perspective.  We already knew that Emma had feelings for the Professor and they were going nowhere.  The beautiful scene where Emma reaches for his fingers and he pulls away, hesitating slightly was packed with emotion.  We feel Emma’s longing, we know she wants to push the relationship forward and it is Professor Palmer who is pulling back.  It makes sense to explore that further but why put the burden on the female character – did Emma tell us anything new in her conversation with Clara?  Not at all.

Now flip this to the scene in the dark room where the Doctor is quizzing Professor Palmer.  We get all sorts of meaty backstory – a broken man whose war record has been hidden from sight, suffering from near crippling survivors guilt.  Sink your teeth into that manpain for it is delicious!  How hard would it have been to slip in a question, a half question even:  “So, Miss Grayling?”  He wouldn’t have even had to answer, Dougray Scott could have just looked at the Doctor with a broken expression, a slight shake of his head and we’d understand he doesn’t feel he deserves love.

But that didn’t happen.  We found out all sorts of interesting things about Professor Palmer but all we know about Emma is that she is an Empath In Love.  Do you know what makes this sting a little bit more?  Emma was the entire purpose of the trip.  According to the story being told, she was the most important element and she was merely a tool both in the storytelling and meta sense:  she was a tool to open the portal, a tool to move the “romantic” story line along and a tool to read Clara.

So why fuss over one conversation in a story that I otherwise really, really enjoyed?  Because it is the type of conversation between women that we’ve become so used to seeing on film we don’t even notice it any more. But it is, overwhelmingly, the type of conversation we ONLY see between women.  Watch carefully the next time you see two female characters on screen – what aspect of the plot are they being used to push forward?  Is it the emotional or romantic story or is it everything, anything else?  Do you want to guess how often the Bechdel test fails?  The problem with this casual, insidious gender bias is that it narrows the scope of female characters, reducing them to tools as opposed to fully actualized characters.  If there is any place we can shake up these assigned gender roles it should be in science fiction, particularly Doctor Who, where absolutely anything goes.  The disappointment is when it goes down all too familiar paths.


Comments on: "Deb’s Last Word – Episode 11" (7)

  1. Elvis Omar said:

    Here’s what I got out of the exchange between Clara and Emma: Even empaths aren’t certain about things when the feelings they pick up on are directly related to their own emotional state. Whatever you think about the relative clunkiness of the opening of that conversation between those characters, it is interesting and revealing to have Emma state her own awareness of that aspect of meta-sensory empathy. It brings in a level of uncertainty and limits what her “powers” can accomplish.

    On your broader question (with the proviso that I am male): I would prefer to see fictional females behave and interact like real women, and I hope writers continue to grow more sensitive to avoid gender stereotyping as they create characters and stories. Not all women make their opening conversation with a stranger about their romantic interests, obviously. In this case, I think it genuinely served the story, by allowing the viewer to know that Clara is aware of the theme at the heart of this story: the relationship between Emma and Alec.

    I’m not about to second guess your opinion that it fails the Bechdel test. Perhaps it does, but perhaps you might take some comfort in knowing the exchange does serve the story, while also making both women seem (in my opinion) reasonable, friendly, and supportive of one another. With tongue slightly in cheek, I’d ask you to contrast this exchange from Hide with, say, the character of Toberman from The Tomb of the Cybermen. For that comparison to be equivalent, we’d need to see Clara cracking her bubblegum, wearing pig tails and a poodle skirt, and saying things like “Gosh Emma, that Professor Palmer sure is dreamy.” Even Dodo wasn’t that much of a cartoon. Clara and Emma rang true to me as realistic—though obviously unique—people.

  2. Thanks, Debs, for making the distinction between this being a probable or an appropriate conversation. I was delaying outside work this morning listening to Verity, almost jumping up and down on the spot with frustration that your conversation (quite understandably) vacillated between the two.

    I’m with you. Whether or not I bought the likelihood of this conversation happening, I was pretty miffed that the Professor got a rich back story while Emma – surely an even more unusual individual – remained little more than a narrative convenience.

    That it’s not accompanied by the more in-your-face sexism described by Elvis perhaps makes it even more insidious. A shame in an an episode that I otherwise enjoyed. You’d think Moffat would start to pick up on this stuff, since he’s got so much flack for it over the last couple of years.

    Ooh – glad to have got that off my chest!

  3. YES. All this…. yes.

  4. Mark Pursglove said:

    This thought provoking topic is one of the reasons I love Verity!

    I wasn’t aware of the bechdel test ! I suddenly realised Media is the only way I know what women talk about between themselves. If I am in a conversation with multiple women there is always a man there, even if its just me ! I can understand why you might need tests like this !

    Having said that I didn’t notice the gender bias in Clara and Emma’s conversation, I thought of it as just Clara being deliberately forward by asking the question !

    But You are absolutely right that Emma was criminally under used as a character, I know time was tight for a single episode, but she was the whole point the doctor came !

    However broader point that gender bias is disappointingly common feature of writing is a good one.

    I downloaded a few classic episodes to watch with my daughter, and some of the female companions are really not the best ! Poor Jo Grant in the Green Death. In her actions she seems brave and capable but everyone speaks to her like she’s a bit dim !

    Peri ? I can’t even remember her doing anything apart from poisoning herself with spectrox and flouncing about !

    And poor Martha Jones, she was great in Gridlock and then seemed to be doomed as some sort of unrequited rebound, religating the character to being Rose Mk II.

    I would love to listen to the Verity! Crew chatting about companions in general, Classic vs New, Favourites, best development / arc, best / worst story, would an individual male companion work ?, who would your dream team be ?

    Anyway thanks again for the education and the entertainment, keep it up !

  5. Hi Deb!

    I was going to defend the Clara-Emma conversation but you know, I’m not going to because everything you say in this post is absolutely right.

    It didn’t bother me that the only real Clara-Emma conversation was about boys because it did feel like it advanced the love story subplot in way that anything else might not have – but you are completely correct that the Professor got heaps more backstory than Emma did about what he was getting out of this current situation.

    In the same way, it didn’t bother me about there being no women but Clara in the Cold War episode because, submarine. But Liz was absolutely right to point that out too.

    Because the whole point of the Bechdel Test is to point out these things, and how often media only allows women to talk to each other in stories when advancing the plot of the men around them. This is systematic, and goes as far as scriptwriters being told that two women talking to each other about anything not to do with men is BAD WRITING.

    I’d have to watch again to see if the episode passes the Bechdel Test at all – I suspect that it does a bit because of the conversation we see between Emma & her time travelling descendant at the end (though actually the Doctor does most of the talking…).

    Certainly that particular scene between Clara and Emma would not be enough to pass the test.

    That doesn’t mean the scene was bad or unnecessary of course – plenty of films fail to pass the Bechdel Test and remain awesome. The point is not to twist the test around and pretend a piece of media passes it because you like it anyway. The Bechdel Test is there to help us spot problematic patterns in the TV, films & comics that we love.

    • Elvis Omar said:

      ^^^ THIS! ^^^
      Thank you Tansy for articulating what I kind of have been thinking about this topic, but didn’t have the right words to express properly, because I just couldn’t get it all to make sense in my head. The conversation is worth having. And to echo what Mark above said: Discussions like this are why I listen to Verity! Thank you all. No matter what I might say, I am definitely trying to listen with an open mind.

  6. Just piping in to agree here. The question of whether that conversation is appropriate is a very different one from whether it’s probable. While I definitely feel it’s probable, I’m much more on the fence about whether it’s appropriate–especially given the flipside conversation between the Doctor and the professor. When looking at both halves there, I’m much less happy with that interaction.

    I still like the scene and feel it’s necessary because it explains why Emma can’t tell for sure how the professor feels about her. (That’s something I was wondering about and that probably couldn’t be revealed in a convo between the dudes.) But I completely agree that we could have gotten *some* of this from the fellas or at the very least, something *more* about Emma. She was so neat and well-played. I do wish we’d’ve gotten more of her.

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