Steven Moffat has long been dogged by accusations of sexism, and new university research isn’t going to put those accusations to bed. Study author Rebecca Moore analyzed all modern Doctor Who episodes to see if they passed the Bechdel test, and Moffat’s pass rate was significantly lower than that of his predecessor, Russell T. Davies. The Bachdel test is named for comic book author Alison Bechdel and is pretty simple: Do two named female characters have a conversation that is not about a man? It is considered the minimum level of female involvement in a film or TV show. Only 12 of Moffatt’s 21 episodes pass the test.
Moffatt’s 57% pass rate is significantly lower than Davies’ 89% pass rate, which may prove the assertion that Moffatt is less interested in female characters and that the show has become increasingly sexist under his leadership. The study also broke down Bechdel test passage by companion, and Donna Noble’s episodes were the most inclusive of female characters. She passed the Bechdel test in 100% of her episodes, and she had an average of three minutes and 46 seconds of speaking time in her episodes. Contrast that with Amy Pond, who passed the test in only 53% of her episodes and averaged only two minutes and 35 seconds of speaking time. The researcher also notes that Rose Tyler’s pass rate, a decent 74%, would have been much higher were it not for the episodes Moffatt wrote while she was on the show.
You can see in the infographic below that by all measures, female involvement has declined since Moffatt took over showrunning duties. Moore’s analysis is particularly damning of the argument that strong female character River Song inoculates Moffatt from charges of sexism. From Moore’s research:
“Ironically, the woman who is often propped up as proof that Steven Moffat is, in fact, not a sexist was one of the worst in terms of the Bechdel test and overall independence of thought and character. While maintaining an average speaking time, the episodes she is in only pass the Bechdel Test 57% of the time, and she herself only passes 42% of the time. She also never passes it on her own after Series 5. It is also important to note that River’s 'passes' barely scraped by this test. Her passing conversations were always around three or four lines of exchange total, limited to one per episode, and were always in the presence of/with the Doctor.”
Does it matter that an internationally beloved show like Doctor Who is diminishing the role of female characters? I mean, it’s just a TV show, right? Culture — books, art, movies, and yes, television — drives social and political change. Individuals are shaped by the media they consume, and our society is shaped by individuals. So if their favorite TV show increasingly sends the message that female voices don’t matter, that is a really big deal. And Moffatt’s personal sexism matters because of his recent statement about whether there will ever be a female Doctor:
"A person will pop into the showrunner's head and they'll think. 'Oh, my God, what if it was that person?' And when that person is a woman, that's the day it will happen.”
If Moffatt only sees women as plot devices who exist to serve the needs of men, he is never going to imagine a woman as The Doctor. Maybe you don’t think a female Doctor is necessary, and maybe it isn’t. But a two hearted alien who charges through time and space saving planets and species and also happens to be a woman would be a powerful message that women are actors in their own right, not just companions for men.