Time and Relative Aesthetics in Space

I need to make one thing clear: I don’t hate Doctor Who. It’s actually one of my favourite shows – my favourite current show, as a matter of fact, the only one I bother to watch live.

I love Doctor Who. If I didn’t, I probably wouldn’t keep on being disappointed.

I’ve written before about misogyny in the show (and, in that particular case, how it backfires on men). Other viewers have commented on more problematic undertones that play out in the adventures of our favourite Time Lord. During a conversation on Twitter (my go-to place for procrastination), I read a tweet that struck a chord:

I’d picked up on the same thing. It’s well-known that Capaldi vetoed any flirting between his Doctor and Clara (and thank the Papal Mainframe for that!) Sadly, instead of taking this opportunity to create something like the fun and genuine friendship between Ten and Donna, the writers seem to have decided that the only way to show ‘not flirting’ is by having the Doctor repeatedly insulting Clara’s looks. Obviously, the writers are not saying that Clara is ugly. That’s the joke (to stretch the term ‘joke’ to its absolute limits). The Doctor, by saying these things about as strikingly beautiful a woman as Jenna Coleman, is showing himself up as an eccentric alien with a near-total detachment from humanity. The problem is, the ‘joke’ (sorry, I can’t write it without the inverted commas, for fear it’ll slide off the screen in embarrassment) doesn’t work – or rather, it doesn’t work in the way it’s intended.

Misogyny creates some pretty big ripples in time, space and society. Beautiful women still get ripped to shreds over their appearances (see: the guy who wrote a piece about Scarlett Johansson ‘looking like hell’ because she had a smidge of cellulite). Beautiful women are still hurt by these jabs (see: former Doctor Who companion Billie Piper, who battled bulimia as a teenager after articles called her fat). And then there are the beautiful women who, despite their looks, have been marginalised by mainstream, Eurocentric, cissexist beauty standards. Women like Lupita Nyong’o, who revealed that she prayed for light skin as a child. Women like Janet Mock and Laverne Cox, who face transmisogyny and racism on a daily basis (even from self-proclaimed ‘feminists’).

Because of these contexts, calling a beautiful woman ugly doesn’t take a jab at misogyny – it reinforces it. Beautiful women are reminded that their pretty privilege is conditional, and has a lifespan that even Rory wouldn’t envy. A wrinkle, a hair or a bulge could make it all come crashing down.

And women who don’t fit that narrow frame of ‘beautiful’ – well, we’re told, in almost everything we see, read and watch, that we might as well not even bother. As someone with an appearance as forgettable as a Silence’s (if not quite so dessicated) – someone who celebrated getting glasses because it meant there was actually a point to my face – these messages are a punch in the gut. Imagine a lifetime of being told, in every film, show and advert, ‘you’re only worthy if you’re pretty’ – and then, on top of that, being told ‘and even pretty isn’t good enough’.

Of course, if you’re a woman, you don’t have to imagine. Neither do non-binary people, whose appearances are policed in a million ways, some of which overlap with women, and some of which are a whole other galaxy of bigotry and hurt.

And yes, I know that Doctor Who also has a history of poking fun at the appearances of male characters. Yes, I remember the ‘jokes’ (sorry) about Darvill’s nose, Smith’s jaw, Capaldi’s grey hair and bushy eyebrows. Yes, I know that men are bombarded with images of idealised male figures that make them feel ugly and inadequate (I know exactly how that feels, because it happens to women too, except multiplied by approximately a googolplex).

But here’s the difference. Men who aren’t beautiful still get to be heroes, far more often than women who aren’t beautiful. Men who aren’t beautiful aren’t invariably made the butt of the joke. And men who are beautiful are never joked or jibed about in the way that beautiful women so often are.

Imagine if the Doctor was travelling with Thor. (C’mon, you know it would be awesome).


Imagine if the Doctor continually made comments about Chris Hemsworth looking weedy, or asked him “What’s wrong with your teeth? Why are they all in a straight line like that?”, or called on a spindly-armed alien to do some heavy lifting “because Blondie over there won’t be able to manage it on his own.”

Okay, it wouldn’t be very funny. (Although it knocks ‘Clara’s so ugly!’ out of the park). And it would definitely reinforce rigid stereotypes of masculinity; stereotypes which cause just as much harm to men as their equivalents do to women. But both of those things are moot, because this particular ‘joke’ wouldn’t be made. Making fun of an attractive man’s looks is so alien to our society (no pun intended…well, maybe a little) that it just doesn’t happen in media. Making fun of an attractive woman’s looks, though…well, that happens every day, because all women are fair game.

Come on, Doctor Who. You have the whole of time and space to play with. Get past the surfaces of your characters, prove they’re bigger on the inside, and show us who they really are.


Alice’s YA novel Spider Circus, which owes more than a little to Doctor Who, can be found at Amazon and Smashwords. She is the writer and co-creator of the webcomic Footloose, and rambles about food and feminism on Twitter and Facebook.


About Alice Nuttall

Alice Nuttall is a caffeine-guzzling knitter who divides her time between Oxford and the various worlds in her head. She is the author of a YA fantasy novel, Spider Circus, and three webcomics, Footloose, Cherry, and Black Market Magic, as well as several short stories.
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