Women’s Bodies in Doctor Who

A Personal Struggle: Beth

I have struggled with body image my whole life. From being bullied as a child for my overweight figure, to eating problems and self hatred, the struggle has always been there. Body image in television and film has always favoured petite women with tiny waists, with any inch of fat on their bodies considered bad or disgusting. Doctor Who is no exception to this, and over the years has contributed to problems we face as women over what we should or shouldn’t look like.

Doctor Who, A contributor to society’s faults?

Let’s take a look at Doctor Who and its history with body image, as well as sexualisation of women and their status as companions…

Women in Doctor Who have always played major roles as companions, helpers to the Doctor and a relatable hook for people to watch the show. We’ve had intelligent, brave and funny counterparts to our hero since 1963, and not all of them have been victim to sexualisation or negative body image standards. Unfortunately though, there are questionable examples of how the show portrays companions, or how those in close contact interact with them. Could this negatively impact on women and girls of all ages?

Kezia’s take on Classic Who and Body Image

Leela – ‘for the dads’

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As her character is extremely fierce and a total step-up from screaming companions, watching Leela feels both progressive and regressive. Yes, she’s defending the Doctor, saving his life numerous times with her in-tune sense to danger as well as her knife… but she does this all whilst wearing variations of a leather bikini. Even now, people comment on how the viewing figures shot up and how much the dads and young boys loved her, which makes me feel a bit queasy. By speaking about how her body simply upped views, we completely discredit her character and how much of an impact Louise Jameson made on the show as an actress. At the time she was on the show, Louise received a letter from a young girl saying ‘Will you please put some clothes on?’ Even a young girl realises that the character is being more defined by her costume than by her performance.

Peri – ‘the amount you weigh’

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There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that Peri was a sexual object from her very first appearance in Doctor Who. By just her third scene she’s swimming in an itsy-bitsy bikini, and her body seems to make an impression before her personality. This theme continues throughout her time on the show, with her cleavage being as much part of her character as her voice. Despite her costume being overtly sexual, Peri herself isn’t openly sexually confident or says anything that would include that in her personality. In fact, she’s quite a reserved, quiet botanist. Of course, you can be quiet and wear sexy clothes but it lends itself more to the argument that the clothing was decided on for the male gaze rather than any character development. Even with her figure being flaunted everywhere, the sixth Doctor in Revelation of the Daleks insinuates she’s put on weight when he gives her a leg up over the wall and says ‘Drop you? I’ll be lucky if I can lift you, the amount you weigh.’ The yo-yo-ing in her being attractive or un-attractive enough for the show is completely tedious.

Sophie Aldred –  being told to lose weight for season 25

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“Sophie had a similar experience. She’d struggled with eating disorders as a young woman. After ‘Dragonfire’ aired, she was told to lose half a stone before the next season was filmed. She was so furious that she actually gained weight to spite them.”

-From the Gallifrey One Women’s panel, 2018.

New Who and body image; Beth and Kezia investigate 

Billie Piper/Rose Tyler – ‘it’s like living inside a bouncy castle’

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According to Billie Piper’s book Growing Pains, an eating disorder and problems with mental health are what led her to quit music and eventually pursue acting. She reports that when she started Doctor Who she was a size 12, the average size of a woman in the UK and the biggest size she’d been since looking after herself and eating properly.  But as she began series two of the show, her disorder came back with a vengeance as she shot to stardom.

There is dialogue on the show during her era that could be considered body shaming: Rose and Mickey’s conversation about Trisha, a woman he was dating whilst she was away Rose comments on as ‘big’, and he hits back that she’s ‘lost weight’ as if that defines her as a person. In School Reunion Mickey also polices Rose’s eating, saying ‘If I were you, I’d go easy on the chips’ in reference to winning the Doctor’s romantic affection. The fact of the matter is, these tiny mentions are not needed and equate weight with beauty. This theme of Rose’s weight is reinforced in New Earth when Cassandra in Rose’s body remarks that it’s ‘like living in a bouncy castle’.

On the other hand, there is much to be said about body image and representation in Russell’s era, with Rose and Donna being curvy, normal women and the inclusion of Martha, a woman of colour. Apart from the odd comment and the whole first episode of series four dedicated to weight and bodies, Russell did quite well with representation.

Amy Pond – ‘the legs’

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Amy Pond was sexualised from the second she appeared onscreen as an adult and announces her job as a kissogram. The first shot of her is a pan up her legs, objectifying her for the male gaze from the get-go. Fair enough, a gal’s gotta do what she’s gotta do to make a living, but in a show like Doctor Who it feels very out of place. Steven Moffat himself has said that it was her beauty and tall, petite figure that contributed to Karen Gillan being cast: “I saw Karen walking on the corridor towards me and I realised she was 5’11, slim and gorgeous and I thought ‘Oh, oh that’ll probably work.'”. Her legs are consistently mentioned even after she leaves the TARDIS (she’s simply referred to by the Doctor as ‘the legs’ in Day of The Moon), which feels massively degrading considering her many great attributes and contributions to adventures.

Clara Oswald – ‘squeezed into a skirt a little bit too tight’

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Clara Oswald is a particularly recent and prominent example of sexualisation of women and how body image is perceived today. From the moment she stepped on the TARDIS, the Eleventh Doctor couldn’t help but comment on her body. Moments such as slapping her butt with a towel and commenting on how her skirt is ‘just a little bit too tight’ come to mind when thinking about the pair and make for uncomfortable viewing. These scenes are obviously written as jokes, but don’t come across particularly funny to most women watching.

Even the Twelfth Doctor, who seemingly has no sexual interest in her, makes a comment on her hips and body shames her in Into The Dalek – ‘Any remarks about my hips will not be appreciated.’ ‘Ach, your hips are fine. You’re built like a man.’. If Clara Oswald is built like a man, what kind of message does this send to anyone larger than a size 8? As well as this, the fact that Jenna was cast based somewhat on her looks as well as her acting is saddening in itself.

River Song – ‘I need to weigh myself’

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You would think, with the most well-known regeneration of River Song being the fabulous Alex Kingston, we wouldn’t have to worry about body shaming. A woman who’s confident in her own skin head to toe right? But in Let’s Kill Hitler, as Mel is about to regenerate, she shuts down Rory by saying ‘Oh shut up Dad. I’m focusing on a dress size.’ If that didn’t leave us with our jaws hanging open at how outrageous the line is, as soon as she’s in her new body the first thing she exclaims is ‘Excuse me you lot, I need to weigh myself’. Is that really the first thing we should be hearing onscreen from the first woman to regenerate ever on television? Sure, whenever the Doctor has regenerated he’s commented on his appearance, but never his weight. It’s shocking that these lines were allowed to be in the show, and to presume that a woman’s first thought is her dress size. Not. Cool.

Bill Potts – ‘I fatted her’

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The most recent case of body shaming in the show came in The Pilot when Bill talks about a character she served chips to. She specifically says ‘I fatted her’ and goes on to say that in life it is ‘beauty or chips’. Why can’t we have both? Why can’t curvy people enjoy chips and still be beautiful? Why must we shame what a person eats, or how big their body size is? The messaging is unsettling in a family show where younger girls watching may think they look wrong or what they’re eating is wrong. It is worth a mention however, that Dorothy Koomson fixes this brilliantly in her short story, Bill and the Three Jackets, all about body positivity and loving yourself for who you are! You can read this fab story in the Day She Saved The Doctor anthology book.

Doctor Who and its contribution to a woman’s struggle (Beth):

Representation of women of all sizes and colours has not been great in the show, and consistently having astonishingly beautiful companions with unachievable body standards is not only hard for the audience to relate to, but contributes to the societal problems with how young women perceive themselves. I cannot stress enough how important it is to end body shaming comments and extreme sexualisation in a family show like Doctor Who. Going through my late teens while Clara Oswald was travelling on the TARDIS, I have distinct painful memories of over-exercising and under-eating to try and achieve a body just like hers. I would work out for hours staring at a poster of her and The Doctor on my wall, hoping that one day I would be as worthy and beautiful as her. This is not to say that we shouldn’t have beautiful companions, just that we should have representation of normal people. People of all sizes, colours, heights, abilities. People who make us feel like we are enough.

We’d love to hear your thoughts, opinions and stories on this subject. Tweet us @thetimeladies_!

This topic can be a little sensitive, and we’re always open to private messages on Twitter or an email in our inbox (thetimeladies@yahoo.com) if it is something you’re struggling with.

9 Replies to “Women’s Bodies in Doctor Who”

  1. Applying extremely SJW thoughts from 2018 to TV episodes made 30-40 years ago will, 99% of the time, result in a “win” for you. Yes, TV was different then and, yes, it doesn’t jive with what you want… so you… win? To my mind, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. Of course it was different then. Heck, even today, actresses are put in sexy costumes in all manner of entertainment. Scarlett Johansson’s outfits in the Marvel films are as skin-tight and sexy as can be and there’s a reason for that, ie: men – and even some women – quite enjoy looking at her. It’s not actually the crime you seem to want it to be. Dropping weight for roles is also very common even today, for men and women, due to that old – but true – adage that the camera adds pounds. It does. A lot of these actors are actually quite small and lean when you meet them in real life; precisely so they look normally proportioned when on camera. Again, not a crime. In closing, I think it’s a shame you can’t watch 30-40 year old TV without trying to find something modern to be offended by in it. Some fans just enjoy the stories. I seriously recommend you dwell on that, in a genuine offer to see the show for what it is; entertainment. Not something to tear down.

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    1. But they’re not. It’s them trying to make their favourite show better, by saying what some of the stuff is wrong and this is how to improve. Being a fan isn’t just mindlessly praising the show, it’s about giving it ways to improve, to ensure it can become better at everything it does or tries to do and representation of women is part of that. Women shouldn’t be sexualised just for men and have that be a large focus of them. No. Children watch this show and are impressionable. Doctor Who needs to be better, and this comes from a fan who wants to see it improve.

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    2. I don’t think that you point that this piece isn’t valid because it’s “Applying extremely SJW thoughts from 2018 to TV episodes made 30-40 years ago” is correct. I’ve been a Who fan for over 40 years, For me, the concerns raised by this article are not a question of modern standards being applied to old episodes, as a lot of this discourse was going on back then. The fact that Leela and Peri were there as solely “eye candy” and not as full developed characters, was a common criticism at the time. Look at how Peri was dressed in “Trial of a Time Lord.” They put her in much less revealing outfits as a direct response to criticism that Nicola was being presented as the “totty.”
      Even if your point was valid, and as I’ve said, I don’t think it is, surely that doesn’t mean that the changing treatment of women’s bodies in Who isn’t an interesting topic in itself? The fact it’s just “entertainment” doesn’t mean that it’s any less indicative of changing social trends.t.

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  2. I’m a bit more laid back about this kind of thing – like Amy being called ‘the legs’ and the Doctor giving Clara a flirty ‘slap’ when pretending to be her boyfriend. It’s all about context. I don’t consider Mel saying ‘I’m focussing on a dress size’ to be too bad as it’s merely a reflection of what a lot of women DO concern themselves with – though of course most of us know these aren’t defining factors of who we are as individuals. I do however recognise the harm such dialogue can have on impressionable young viewers. The example with Rose was especially dodgy. An interesting read!

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    1. Thank you for your feedback! Yes, everyone takes these things differently so its very interesting to talk about. Thanks for reading!

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      1. You’re welcome! I hope I don’t cause any offence to anyone here! I totally understand why others may have stronger views on these current social issues 🙂

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  3. I was a teenager in the late 70’s when Leela was the 4th Doctor”s Companion. My dad, who was a big sci-fi fan, I think enjoyed Doctor Who at least partly because of Leela’s
    skimpy outfit. However, I started watching Doctor Who because he was watching it and thus a lifelong Who fan was born. So I owe my DW fanship
    to him. Thank you Dad!

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  4. I’m 100% in favor of a variety of shapes, colors, and ages among companions! Donna has pushed the envelope the most so far and I’m hoping for more like her in the future.

    I did have a problem with the sexualization of 11’s companions in particular… it just didn’t seem appropriate for the show. I’m also sorry to learn that Billie Piper’s health problems came back as a result of her work on DW. I came to the show as an adult so I don’t have any sense of what a young person watching these characters might transfer to themselves; I do think it’s an important consideration for modern television.

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  5. Interesting read. I started watching Dr Who in the seventies and then went on to watch as many of the older episodes as possible.
    If you look at the original companions, Barbara, Ian and Susan, they were normal looking people. Also Barbara and Ian were older.
    Some of the first, second and third Doctors companions did wear short skirts, although that was the fashion at the time.
    Jo Grant as well as mini skirts wore trousers as well. Sarah Janes costumes were mostly trousers, mid length dresses.
    And both Romano’s wore rather longish dresses and trousers.
    Would be interesting to look at all companions, classic and new Dr Who and see what their charactors were like, what costumes they wore, make up, hairstyles etc.
    I have a feeling that would take some time and a lot of Dr Who viewing.

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