Seeing a female Doctor on Doctor Who makes girls feel like they can become anything they want, according to a new study from BBC America.
However the study, published last month, also found that girls overwhelmingly feel that there are still not enough female role models in film and television – and that both boys and girls would like to see more.
Superpowering Girls: Female Representation in the Sci-Fi/Superhero Genre is the first in a series of studies to be conducted by BBC America and the Women’s Media Center focusing on the impact of representation on youth aged 5-19.
Both boys and girls aged 10-19 and the parents of those aged 5-9 completed an online survey carried out late last summer, with a total of 2,431 respondents. Every demographic group surveyed expressed a desire for more female superheroes, as well as more people on screen who look like them.
Why Is Representation So Important?
One of the study’s major findings is that teenage girls are significantly less likely than boys to describe themselves as ‘confident‘, ‘brave‘ and ‘heard‘.
This gender ‘confidence gap’ was found to have a knock-on effect on career aspirations amongst teens, with only one-third of girls wanting to pursue a STEM career (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) compared to over half of boys.
In addition, one in three teens believe that girls have fewer opportunities than boys to be leaders, thus exacerbating the confidence gap further amongst adolescents.
So How Does Representation Help?
Girls seeing female role models onscreen can help to bridge the confidence gap. A massive 90% of girls surveyed said that female sci-fi/superheroes are positive role models, and girls overwhelmingly agreed that their favourite female characters made them feel ‘strong’, ‘inspired’ and ‘confident’.
The study also found that watching female sci-fi/superheroes made girls feel more empowered than watching male sci-fi/superheroes did for boys, with girls – particularly from ethnic minorities – strongly agreeing that female role models on screen made them feel that they could achieve anything they put their minds to.
This particularly held true when girls were specifically asked about the new Doctor, Jodie Whittaker – the first female incarnation of the Time Lord in the show’s history. With a significant 81% of girls agreeing that Whittaker’s casting made them feel that they could become anything they want, it’s clear that the impact of a female Doctor reaches far beyond the show itself.
Are Current Levels Of Representation Enough?
Whittaker’s record-breaking debut as the Doctor, as well as the major box office successes of superhero films Wonder Woman and Black Panther, have made great strides in the journey towards increased representation. However, the study indicates much more needs to be done before girls and those from minority ethnic backgrounds feel they are adequately represented onscreen.
Two-thirds of girls said that there were not enough role models or other strong, relatable characters of their gender, compared to approximately a third of boys quizzed about male characters and role models in film and TV.
However, it’s not just girls who want to see more female characters in film and TV. Whilst boys’ favourite sci-fi/superheroes are predominantly male – such as Batman and Spiderman – two-thirds of boys surveyed said that they enjoy watching female sci-fi/superheroes just as much as male ones.
This extended to the Thirteenth Doctor, whose casting had recently been announced at the time of the survey. Although girls were three times more excited than boys about the new Doctor being a woman, both girls (85%) and boys (71%) said that a female Doctor would be just as exciting to watch as a male Doctor.
Whittaker’s casting seemed to strike more of a chord amongst girls, however, with three-quarters agreeing that a female Doctor is long overdue, and that they can relate to a female Doctor more.
This chimed with the general finding that the favourite sci-fi/superheroes in all demographic groups are the ones that look like them – and that all the groups wanted to see more of them. With Batman the #1 superhero amongst boys, girls named Wonder Woman – currently enjoying a revival due to Gal Gadot’s portrayal – as their favourite sci/fi superhero. Scoring high among African Americans, meanwhile, was Black Panther – mentioned by 28% of African Americans against 6% of others surveyed.
“If You Can’t See Her, You Can’t Be Her”
The study confirms that onscreen representation can have a positive impact on a child’s confidence and overall self-image, bridging the confidence gap and influencing future career plans and choices.
‘Galaxy Of Women‘ is a new initiative from BBC America aiming to spotlight the diverse range of women on the network, including Jodie Whittaker’s trailblazing Doctor. It aspires to change the way women in media are perceived and experienced, representing and connecting with audiences, and inspiring them to break barriers of their own.
The new initiative sees BBC America in an alliance with Women’s Media Center, an organisation which aims to ensure that women’s realities are covered and their voices are heard.
The President of the Women’s Media Center, Julie Burton, said of the report: “At this time of enormous, sweeping, social change, it’s important that television and film provide an abundance of roles and role models for diverse girls and young women. We know that representation matters, as evidenced by this report. Our research found that female sci-fi and superhero characters help bridge the confidence gap for girls, making them feel strong, brave, confident, inspired, positive, and motivated.”
Sarah Barnett, President of BBC America adds: “If you can’t see her, you can’t be her. It’s time to expand what gets seen, and we hope this report will contribute to sparking change in the stories we see on screen. With greater representation of female heroes in the sci-fi and superhero genre, we can help superpower the next generation of women.”
Check out the full study – with even more fascinating findings – via the Women’s Media Center.
Doctor Who Series 11 continues on Sunday 4th November with The Tsuranga Conundrum, starring Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor, Mandip Gill as Yaz, Tosin Cole as Ryan and Bradley Walsh as Graham. The Tsuranga Conundrum is written by Chris Chibnall and directed by Jennifer Perrott.