Doctor Who On Feminism

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Title: Doctor Who On Feminism
Creator: Martin Wiggins
Date(s): 1981, 1982
Medium: print
Fandom: Doctor Who
External Links:
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Doctor Who On Feminism is a one-page essay by Martin Wiggins.

the essay as it appears in Dimension Four, illos by Val Verse

It was originally published in 1981 in Fendahl, a UK fanzine.

The essay was reprinted in 1982 with the author’s permission [1] in the US zine, Dimension Four #1 where it was accompanied by line drawings by Vale Verse portraying two of the female characters mentioned in the essay: Sarah Jane Smith and Leela.

A fan's comments about the essay in Dimension Four stated that it was “very close to scholarly, as you consider Martin Wiggin’s essays.”[2]

The essay is part of a broader discussion taking place in fandom on the role of women in fandom, feminism, and how women were being - and should be - depicted in popular culture.

The views presented by the author - along with those who commented on the essay - may no longer reflect their current views or opinions.

Context Within the Zine, "Dimension Four"

The essay was one of several by Wiggins that were reprinted in Dimension Four with authorial permission. Others were “Capital Punishment in Doctor Who,” “Doctor Who On War,” “Doctor Who On Law,” “Doctor Who On Patriotism," "Doctor Who On Ecology.”

Context Within Doctor Who Fandom

Doctor Who fandom hasn't always been, and sometimes still isn't, friendly to female fans. Leslie McMurtry, the editor of The Terrible Zodin zine, estimates that male fans outnumbered female fans around three to one during the classic series' run.[3]

A fan in 2009 observed at a public Doctor Who gathering that she “saw that the 5:1 male-female ratio of Who Who fans held true…” [4]

A female fan wrote in 2009:

At the risk of sounding like an old timer… —back in the dim and distant ‘80s—fandom was very much a boys’ club with women regarded as an endangered species to be feared and only approached in packs. There was nothing more likely to bring the JukeBox at the FitzroyTavern scraping to a halt than a woman in a Tom Baker T-shirt strolling in and offering the barman a jelly baby. [5]

As a long running, contemporary TV series in active production spanning decades, Doctor Who fandom is uniquely positioned to reflect the shifts in popular culture's depiction of women and showcase the various waves of feminist theories.

In recent years, Doctor Who’s characters and scripts have been reevaluated and repositioned in context of these waves, specifically the second vs third waves of feminism.[6]

The second wave of feminism focused on political and social equality, rejecting gender stereotypes of women as housewives and providing sex and free labor to men. In this context, the episodes of Doctor Who that aired in the 1970s featured female characters advocating for the kinds of political and social equality that is often labeled “second wave feminism."

The third wave of feminism which arose in the 1990s, argued that women should embrace the freedom to choose their own paths - effective feminism requires supporting women who choose traditional roles as well as those who choose to live outside of tradition. It acknowledges that women have different experiences, come from different economic and social backgrounds and therefore should have the freedom to make different choices.[7]

In 2015, Whovian FeminismTumblr explored the episode “The Time Monster” using a third wave feminism perspective that fondly looked back on the second wave feminism depicted in 1970s Doctor Who episodes:

The 70’s era of Doctor Who is a messed up set of feminist contradictions. There are explicit references to women’s liberation, passionate feminist speeches, and triumphant moments where women get to call out condescending men. This era of Doctor Who is probably the most vocally feminist period in the show’s history. Yet it still relies heavily on regressive gender stereotypes and sexist tropes....And sure, this era may not be a paragon of feminist pop culture, but I can’t help but appreciate how vocal each one of the Doctor’s companions is about their feminism. [8]

Unlike Star Trek and other media fandoms where fanzine publications were written and published mainly by women, Doctor Who’s initial fanzine era - which began in the UK in the 1970s- was more predominantly written by men. In contrast, North American fanzines published in the 1980s like Dimension Four were most often written by women. [9].

Without access to surviving copies of the UK fanzine Fendahl where the essay was originally published, it is difficult to gauge how the essay was received in UK Doctor Who fandom. The essay’s cautious reception in Dimension Four may be a reflection of changes taking place in the United States Doctor Who fanzine world in the 1980s.

Limited access to Doctor Who episodes in the United States until the 1980s also meant that North American fanzine publications with its stronger female presence remained under-represented in comparison to the longer history of UK fanzine publications with a more male-dominated perspective. That, and the lack of online access and difficulties of international communication meant that substantive discussions about feminism in Doctor Who were limited and fragmented.

Finally, because of Doctor Who fandom origin as a British TV show, cultural differences may have impacted how the essay was received; the editor of the Dimension Four zine warns its American readers that “what we Americans believe to be misspellings of certain words Martin Wiggins' DOCTOR WHO ON are actually the British spellings . These things entirely relative, you know.“

Some Topics Discussed in the Essay

  • The Doctor’s female companions are often seen as "stooges,” aka underlings/assistants, so writers try to bypass this by having them parrot feminist beliefs: "One problem with the Doctor's female companions is that they can become stooges. One of Malcolm Hulke's more common gambits to avoid this was to make them profess a form of feminism.”
  • Feminism often focuses on language, and Jo Grant’s [10] "growing feeling of independence from the Doctor is symbolised in her insinuation that the English language is part of a conspiracy against womanhood, repeatedly insisting that people abandon a perfectly legitimate nuance of the word 'man' and substitute 'human being'."
  • The author states that women rejecting the traditional female roles should create new roles instead of usurping "traditional masculine" roles. [11] where Sarah Jane's [12] choice to wear male clothing instead of contemporary female clothing is an example of women usurping male roles.
  • The author states that there is no conflict between the sexes in our society.
  • The author holds up a medieval servant as an example of the 'wise women' who 'know their own place'. [13]
  • The medieval aristocratic social structure is also used to illustrate the argument that although men have the "monopoly on the use of force", intelligent women have feminine tools such as "female cunning." This enables them to become "first-rate political schemers." [14]
  • Feminism is a "distorted perception of society" because it confuses the natural desire to be independent and self-sufficient with a desire to be free of "male domination." [15]
  • Self-sufficiency is not possible in modern society - we all need help from time to time. Even Drahva, the feminist utopia shown on Doctor Who, one where men are enslaved and used as breeding stock, is a place where feminists would always be dissatisfied because they still would need help to succeed.
  • The author points to many other intelligent women characters who do not "waste time complaining of female subservience to men" instead "get on with looking after themselves."
  • Wiggins concludes with "Feminists, in 'Dr. Who' at least, are straining at shackles of their own forging."

Fan Comments

Martin Wiggins' articles were intelligent and enlightening, but I must reply to his article on feminism as it seems to me his perception is a bit distorted. The point that Sarah argues about being equal, while Leela just goes ahead and assumes she is, is well made—however, the background of the two women is quite different. Sarah was trying to compete in the career world of the present-day (more-or-less) Earth, where even if a woman comes in assuming equality she doesn't always find equal opportunities. And to a modern woman not yet used to time travelling not even sure quite what's going on, the separation of the sexes to the extent it occurred in medieval society would be shocking. Also I think neither Sarah, nor most of the women I know, no matter how strong they are on feminism, would consider Drahva a "feminist paradise". Of course, feminists often take things a few steps too far, or just assume that the road to true freedom is being able to do what men do—but a slight overreaction is certainly justified when you consider how long and to what extent women have been (yes!) oppressed. In an ideal world—and hopefully in our own future—we will all just assume equality, as Leela does. Enough lecture... [16]

Further Reading


  1. ^ I thank Simon & Frank Danes, editors of FENDAHL, as well as Martin Wiggins for permission to reprint a portion of these thought-provoking essays.” – from the editorial of Dimension Four #1
  2. ^ from a letter of comment by Mark A. Caldera in Dimension Four #2
  3. ^ How Fanzines Helped Put Doctor Who Fans in Charge of Doctor Who by Nolan Feeney, published in The Atlantic on December 24, 2013
  4. ^ by Leslie McMurtry, from “One Fan, Two Fan, Girl Fan, Who Fan on the Fringes of Swansea Regenerations,” from The Terrible Zodin #5
  5. ^ "When Geeks Collide," by Karen Dunn, from the zine The Terrible Zodin #5 (Winter 2009), online here
  6. ^ The waves of feminism, and why people keep fighting over them, explained by Constance Grady published by Vox (2018)
  7. ^ TV Tropes, Useful Notes / Feminism (accessed May 10, 2024.
  8. ^ Whovian Feminism Reviews: “The Time Monster” (2015)
  9. ^ See Do it yourself: women, fanzines, and Doctor Who (2013)
  10. ^ "The Green Death" (19 May to 23 June 1973)
  11. ^ Sarah Jane Smith in the episode “The Time Monster” (20 May to 24 June 1972)
  12. ^ The episode he mentions, however, actually featured a different companion - Jo Grant. He may have been referring to the 1973 episode “The Time Warrior”. In the VCR era, before consumers could record and replay episodes, fans relied on memory for plot, characters and episode titles.
  13. ^ Meg, a kitchen servant from the episode, “The Time Warrior” (15 December 1973 to 5 January 1974).
  14. ^ Lady Eleanor, a noble woman in the episode, “The Time Warrior” (15 December 1973 to 5 January 1974).
  15. ^ Sarah Jane Smith in the episode “The Time Warrior” (15 December 1973 to 5 January 1974).
  16. ^ from a letter of comment by Cathy Siemann in Dimension Four #2