Since the announcement of the 12th Doctor, the webs have been all aflutter with Doctor Who talk. As a Whovian, I – of course – have been following them. But the debate that seems to be holding a lot of attention at the moment is: “Why not a female Doctor this time around? And if not now – when?”
There is more than one thread on the Gallifrey Forums exploring this exact issue, and the hostile and loud ‘NO’ it raises from many quarters is as predictable as it is frustrating.
There are a lot of justifications offered for why not – and not just ‘why not now’, but ‘why not ever’. Some are based in tradition – “he’s always been male”; some in possessiveness – “make up your own female heroine if you want, the Doctor is OURS”. Others have no real justification outside of “because I don’t like the idea”. Others very overtly sexist: ‘a female Doctor would turn the series into a joke’ or a ‘female Doctor would just be a gimmick’. Proponents of a female Doctor are often accused of pushing a feminist agenda (apparently a bad thing), or trying to be politically correct. The idea of a female Doctor is greeted by a chorus of prophesising on how such a thing would be ‘catastrophic’, ‘untenable’, and the ‘ruin of the show’.
But one question above all grates for me. And that is: ‘Why do you even want a female Doctor?’
So… they asked. I answered. (No surprise).
Here is what I wrote in one of my posts:
Okay, let me break it down.
Narratively it is now established canon the The Doctor can change sexes. Can take on any face and body he likes. Up until now it’s always been white, male but it’s random isn’t it? (Correct me if I’m wrong). He doesn’t know what he’ll end up with. In fact, Matt’s doctor checked for an Adam’s apple didn’t he? So why – with that set up as a premise – wouldn’t the storytellers at some point explore a different colour and gender? The question isn’t why would he change to a woman. The question is why wouldn’t he? And the burden of argument is actually with those who want to keep the status quo. Examine yourselves ladies and gentlemen. I think you’ll find your own prejudice is standing in the way. In-story – it is possible and ought to be explored. The why aren’t we happy with a different lady Time Lord or character…. that isn’t even in the circle of what we’re discussing here. For me it isn’t about having a female Time Lord. It is about exploring the possibilities that exist narratively within the story for the protagonist of that story. The protectionist, no-he’s-ours-get-away impulses have no narrative justification.
I went further:
Let me break it down a little more.
We have been socialised as a community to identify primarily with male protagonists. Women learn from when they are girls to identify with male protagonists. Men do not have to learn this. It means that for many men, identification with a female protagonist is problematic. But what it also means is that many never learn to expand their ability to empathise with and see themselves in someone of a different gender. We are often told men don’t want to see stories about women. There is a lot of underlying misogyny and sexism in that. You can very honestly feel yourself to not be sexist and still hold this point of view. It doesn’t make it less sexist just because you don’t identify yourself as sexist.
It would show a maturity, growth and evolution for a show as iconic as Doctor Who to be able to explore a switch in gender for the main protagonist (which has been set up in-canon as narratively possible) and to do it well. Holding on to old patterns of identification is one thing. Closing yourself off completely to the possibility of having your mind opened, of even perhaps enjoying that thing you swear you’ll hate is quite another. It keeps us all trapped in old ways of looking at men and women. It keeps us trapped in old ways of looking at ourselves. A female Doctor would not only open up narrative possibilities that a male Doctor can’t, it would also provide fans of Doctor Who with an opportunity to expand and grow their minds. Why wouldn’t we embrace that? Why wouldn’t we want that? I have yet to hear a good reason (that isn’t basically indicative of personal limitations, biases, fears and hostility) for why the Doctor ought to never regenerate as a woman.
But really it comes down to this:
It is a very rare fictional world indeed where it has been set up in-canon as narratively possible for the protagonist to be able to change genders. Up until now the clever narrative trick has been to allow the protagonist to change faces – giving the show a longevity it would not have otherwise enjoyed. In fact, the only science fiction writer that I’m aware of who explores this kind of gender bending in her work is Ursula Le Guin (correct me if I’m wrong).
Doctor Who is one of the rare – if not the only – popular, iconic story currently on television where this gender switch (and all the story opportunities it opens up) is possible. AND it’s science fiction – a genre that allows, nay demands, brave storytelling and exploration of ‘what if’s’.
That’s story-manna-on-a-stick. It’s gift-wrapped-story-gold. Why on Earth would you not explore that? Why would you not be itching to make it happen?
If your answer is because some fans don’t like the idea of it or because some fans have personally unexamined sexist beliefs and attitudes that breed prejudice against the idea, then you shouldn’t be telling stories. Stories are places to explore, expand, challenge and invent. Stories are not places to be safe, cow-tow to the status-quo or entertain prejudice.
Steven Moffat – with the following quote – has shown he is not the man for the job:
“It’s absolutely narratively possible (that the Doctor could be a woman) and when it’s the right decision, maybe we’ll do it. It didn’t feel right to me, right now. I didn’t feel enough people wanted it. Oddly enough most people who said they were dead against it – and I know I’ll get into trouble for saying this – were women. (They were) saying, ‘No, no, don’t make him a woman!’”
And his tongue-in-cheek comment about allowing the Queen to be played by a man to Helen Mirren (who said she thinks the Doctor ought to be a black woman) demonstrates that he actually doesn’t really get what gold he has in his story, despite the fact that he acknowledges it’s narratively possible. So it won’t happen while he’s at the head of the show. Nor should it. Moffat is demonstrably bad at writing layered, 3-Dimensional, complex and authentic women. His trope is his own private anima-based fantasy mix of ‘ingenue’, ‘fiesty’, ‘sexy’ and ‘dominatrix’.
Neil Gaiman provides something of a narrative justification for not making the switch this round – one I’m not sure I completely agree with. But at least he has a sound narrative reason for it.
What I am now waiting for is a showrunner (man or woman) who is canny enough and brave enough to take the story where it can and at some point will be dying to go. As a writer, if I had created a world where a gender switch was possible, you better believe I would ride that freaking pony to the end of the road.
Frankly, they’ be idiots not to. At some point I hope the BBC and unconvinced Doctor Who fans realise that too.
Give me brave storytellers.
Just a thought.