“I’m a Doctor, not a Mrs!” — genderbent McCoy

Why is it that I can watch TV in the twenty-first century and still see female PhDs and medical doctors not addressed as “Dr?”

My friend used to make fun of me while we watched The West Wing, because every time the other characters addressed Abbey as “Mrs. Bartlet,” I would mutter, “Doctor.”  (To be fair, they did address this later—it turned out the campaign had decided to call her “Mrs.” for “likeability” reasons.[1]  But that was two seasons in, and gosh it pissed me right off, especially considering that even internally they all still called her “Mrs.”  Can I just say how happy I am that the news media always introduces Joe Biden and his wife as “Vice President and Doctor Biden?”)

But now I’m watching The Newsroom, which, awesome show, but dammit if Sorkin isn’t doing it again.  They constantly repeat on the show that Olivia Munn’s character has two PhDs—and yet she’s still somehow always “Miss Sabbith.”  WHAT.

(mild Newsroom spoilers below)

In fact, to add injury to insult, when her boss is tearing into her after she made a bad mistake, he calls her “girl”—to which she retorts, quite rightly, “Don’t call me girl, sir!”  Well, he keeps doing it until the end of the episode (I think it’s supposed to be funny), at which time he lets her out of the doghouse with the peace offering of calling her “Miss Sabbith” instead.


But it’s not just Aaron Sorkin (although Lord help me, and I do think The Newsroom is brilliant, but I’m starting to see patterns in how he writes his female characters . . . well, all his characters, but particularly the female ones).  It’s other shows as well.  For instance, The Big Bang Theory sends the main characters to a conference, and all of them have their names on name placards.  The male PhDs all have “Dr.” in front of their names . . . but neither of the women do.  Now, we find out later that one of them hadn’t received her PhD quite yet at this point, but we also find out at the same time that the other one had.  So WTF, Big Bang Theory?  If the writers just weren’t sure which of the women had graduated yet, why did they have to put “Dr.” on anyone’s nameplate?

Hey, here’s another one.  I’m not a regular follower of NCIS, but I seem to recall Abby Sciuto also has a PhD.  And yet whenever she’s referenced by title, it’s “Ms. Sciuto” . . . unlike (male) Dr. Mallard.

To be sure, most shows don’t do this.  Can you imagine Dr. Brennan, Dr. Hunt, Dr. Cuddy, Dr. Crusher, or Dr. Fraiser being addressed by anything other than their rightful professional titles?  Not a chance, right?  But then why are there shows where this happens?  What does it say that I was ecstatic to see that Dr. Blake on Eureka was never deprived her title, given that (white, male, non-PhD) Carter was the clear lead?[2]  And why am I able to name four modern shows off the top of my head in which this has actively bothered me?

  1. Because of course people prefer a woman to be defined by her relationship to her husband rather than by her own accomplishments, am I right?
  2. Eureka was wonderful for not depriving its female characters of their doctorates, no matter how young and adorable they were.

9 thoughts on ““I’m a Doctor, not a Mrs!” — genderbent McCoy

  1. -3

    Wow, I watch BBT and I never noticed that. I thought the women were referred to as “Dr.” as well for some reason. I must have changed things up in my mind…but yea, if I had a PhD, I’d be telling every fucking person to call me “Dr.”

    As it is, I have a Masters, so I’ve been telling people to call me “Master”. But nobody listens to me. >:-[

  2. Josh Cochran

    I generally like The Newsroom, but the more I watch it the more the behavior and treatment of its female characters bugs me. It feels like they’re always the butt of the joke or the ones doing something ridiculous. It would improve the show immensely if they’d treat the women as seriously as they do the men.

  3. slhuang Post author

    @-3: I think they’re inconsistent on BBT — sometimes they do call the women Dr., but that particular instance stuck in my mind ’cause it made me mad. And re: Master — hahaha, please tell me you’re a Doctor Who fan . . .

    @Josh: YES, agreed! Thank you; I was wondering if it was just me! I felt like he did it on The West Wing too, especially with CJ, and it bugged me then too.

  4. -3

    Hmm, OT, but why the hell is my name appearing as -3!?

    Oh, and unfortunately, nope, I don’t watch Dr. Who. Mike’s been trying to make me watch it, but blergh.

  5. slhuang Post author

    @-3: Oh, the fact that you don’t watch Doctor Who makes it even funnier. See, the MC is the Doctor, and his archnemesis is the Master . . . it totally makes sense in context . . .

    (Btw, I hate Rose and love David Tennant, so if you can’t get into the new series I’d start with “Smith and Jones” (first ep of series 3) or “The Shakespeare Code” (early series 3). I watched series 3 and then went back and watched 2 and then 1.)

    And I have no idea WTF is up with your username. I tried to go in and change it and it told me usernames can’t be changed. I have to redo the commenting anyway because kk can’t seem to get it to work and she wants to come join the party! I’ve been meaning to do it for a while anyway; I was super spam-paranoid when I got started blogging, but I don’t want to be preventing people from commenting! But now I’m afraid I’ll mess up my regular commenters’ accounts. Ack! It’s possible I’m overthinking this.

    Edit: Oh! I just added “Putputt” as a nickname; see if that works. (Is that what you would want?)

  6. Layla Lawlor

    I started to say that I wonder if it could be a sort of fundamental confusion on the part of non-PhD-holding TV writers that “Doctor” applies beyond the category of medicine, since they rarely (if ever?) seem to do this with medical doctors — even on older shows, female medical doctors seem to get the title they’re due.

    (We had a running joke about the doctor/Doctor thing after my husband got his PhD. “Trust me, ma’am. I’m a doctor.” A doctor of computer science, to be specific …)

    But no, because the examples you cite give the lie to that, especially the completely egregious Big Bang Theory one. And that’s a REALLY good point about NCIS which had never even occurred to me.

  7. slhuang Post author

    Yeah, this is something that’s been bothering me on TV for a while. In fact, I’m almost certain there are examples I didn’t think of, because I feel like I see it aaaaall the time! Grr. (I think about how offended my dad used to get when people called him “Mr” — which was TOTALLY out of line on his part, oh my gosh, ten-year-old me was always like, “Dad, how could my friends POSSIBLY know you have a PhD, that’s SILLY!” — and now all I can think is, “Be glad you aren’t a woman, Dad.”)

    (We had a running joke about the doctor/Doctor thing after my husband got his PhD. “Trust me, ma’am. I’m a doctor.” A doctor of computer science, to be specific …)

    *snerk* Oh, my friends and I totally do that, too, and I never get tired of it! Is it bad that this is one of the reasons I want to go back and get that math PhD someday? ;)

  8. Kaz

    Wow! That’s… bad. There’s an argument to make as to whether to use “Dr.” in everyday life if you’re a PhD and not a medical doctor (I’m close to finishing my own and have been mulling over whether to start ticking “Dr.” on forms when I do for a while), but if so that applies equally to men and women. If male PhDs get their title, so should female PhDs!

    And it’s a pretty widespread problem. My father is a professor and my mother has a PhD. Moreover, my mother kept her surname on marriage. And still, so many letters they receive are addressed to “Professor and Mrs. [hisname].” (Well, Germany, so it’s actually “Herr Professor Doktor und Frau [hisname]” – y’know, to make the fact that he gets all his titles really obvious.) So many phone calls for Frau [hisname]. I always get so indignant on her behalf.

    If the writers just weren’t sure which of the women had graduated yet, why did they have to put “Dr.” on anyone’s nameplate?

    Especially because it’s ridiculously unnecessary to do so in the first place. I am pretty sure most of the conferences I go to just have the names and institutions on the nametags. I helped with registration at the last one, so I know for a fact that didn’t have titles!

  9. slhuang Post author

    @Kaz — Oh wow. I believe it, though. (I’ve also known female PhD’s who would get letters assuming they were male . . . ugh.)

    I totally think you should start going by “Dr,” by the way — you put all that work into it, might as well claim the title! ;) And congrats!

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