Companion Tropes 4
Supergirl, Spider-Woman, She-Hulk, Batwoman, She-Ra, Little Miss Chatterbox, Mrs Potato Head, Romana.
OK, not quite the same thing, but on a fundamental level these are all distaff counterparts. The term refers to a particular kind of female character who is created as a female equivalent of an established male character.
The original meaning of “distaff” was a piece of wood that held a bundle of fibres such a wool, ready to be spun into yarn. As this was a job that was historically done by women, the word “distaff” became symbolic of women’s work, and that usage dates right back to Shakespeare and before. Language moves on, and eventually “distaff” came to be used to signify the female branch of a family. So “distaff counterpart”, the term that has come to be used for female versions of male characters, simply means “female counterpart”. They are commonly used for creating spinoffs, but where the two characters co-exist they can be related in some way (often brother and sister), or love interests.
Romana is clearly on the fringes of this category, to some extent, as very much a character in her own right rather than just a female Doctor. We have one of those now anyway, with the 13th Doctor becoming her very own distaff counterpart. But Romana is a Time Lady to the Doctor’s Time Lord, shares his intelligence and complete and utter fabulousness, and is even introduced to us in her second incarnation wearing his outfit:
That’s done as a joke, but her outfits are often quite Doctor-ish, particularly when Lalla Ward is playing the character. Take a look at what she wears in The Leisure Hive or State of Decay, for example, but the ultimate has to be Destiny of the Daleks. Her outfit for that story was deliberately designed as a female version of the Doctor’s costume, and you can see it in its full glory at the top of this article.
Note that this doesn’t happen all at once. The second Romana is far more of a distaff counterpart than the first. Initially, the Mary Tamm version of Romana is portrayed as much more of a distant and cold character, a challenge to the Doctor rather than an equivalent, but this changes over time, especially post-regeneration. Distaff counterparts are often identified by wearing a female version of their male counterpart’s costume, and the obvious thing happens with Romana: make a pink version. It borders on a fetish, but hey, it was the 1970s (just). And it could have been a lot worse. Gender-flipped outfits for distaff counterparts often go for much more feminine and revealing fabrics and shapes (the superhero genre is known for that approach), so what basically amounts to a pink version of the Doctor’s costume is at least wholesome in comparison with that sort of thing. But it still shouts out “female version” in the choice of colour, in a way that the Doctor himself doesn’t have to suffer. He doesn’t have to have a gender-specifying costume to get the point across that “look, this is a man”, in the same way that Romana wears pink to make the point “look, this is a distaff counterpart”. Is this kind of tactic insidious in its portrayal of women? Is Romana diminished by being a Doctor-in-pink?
Well, let’s look at some more of the evidence before we come to a conclusion about that, because there’s more to a distaff counterpart than the costume. Although they are commonly found in spinoffs, what happens when a distaff counterpart appears in the same show as her male equivalent? Generally there will be some kind of a relationship between them, commonly a brother/sister relationship, or a love interest. With Romana we get the slenderest of hints at the latter. Tom Baker and Lalla Ward were in a relationship behind the scenes, and that spills over to a certain extent to what happens on screen. In particular, it is hard to come away from watching City of Death without having been left with the impression of watching two people in love, having a lovely holiday together (while outwitting a spaghetti-headed monster). There is nothing specific in the scripts, but throughout their time together the Doctor and Romana do tend to compliment each other more than we are used to with other companions, after the initial banter between the Doctor and the first incarnation of Romana. When the characters of the Doctor and Romana were chosen to appear in advertisements for Prime Computers, somebody had clearly picked up on the vibe and saw an opportunity, with the advertisements telling the story of the Doctor and Romana falling in love and getting engaged. It might not be strictly relevant to the narrative of Doctor Who itself, but it is an interesting indication of how the subtext to their relationship was not going unnoticed at the time.
Note how subtle this is though, and therein lies the key to Romana’s success I think. It’s one of the reasons why we can safely answer the question of whether Romana is diminished by being the Doctor’s distaff counterpart in the negative. She is never quite defined solely by her relationship or equivalence to the Doctor. She doesn’t exist to be his love interest, or even his relative like Susan, nor is she merely defined by characteristics that mirror his, the pink costume in Destiny of the Daleks aside. In fact, she is often shown to be superior to the Doctor in intelligence and resourcefulness. At the very least she is more than a match for him. She exists, perhaps in isolation within any genre show, as a distaff counterpart that actually functions successfully without being a screamingly sexist writer’s tool. That’s what makes Romana one of the most interesting and successful companions Doctor Who has ever had. RP