One Saturday morning this past June, I was unassumingly checking my Facebook feed when it – full of nerds, bless – exploded with the news that Peter Capaldi’s Doctor would be followed by a woman. Gasp, shock, horror, delight, etc.!
I’d been checked out of Doctor Who for a while – Steven Moffat had jumped the shark a while back, several times – and while there had always been rumors of the fannish what if variety floating around when it came to a female Doctor, there had never been any apparent interest in actually addressing that question.
Doctor Who, for the laypeople reading this, is a British sci-fi television series that happens to (generally) be very good. It’s run something like 40 seasons over 50 years, and is a national treasure in Britain beloved of all ages, classes, and genders. It’s still something of a nerdy pastime for anglophiles in the States, but in Britain, Doctor Who is very much in the vernacular.
The concept is both simple and brilliant: the Doctor, an alien, is capable of “regeneration” – he doesn’t die, only changes out bodies. Convenient from a showrunning perspective, eh? And through 12 of these regenerations, the Doctor has been male.
Boom, along comes Jodie Whittaker. The (British) world exploded. This hilarious person collected some choice comments Daily Mail readers wrote in and framed them as episode titles, featuring gems such as “Nobody wants a TARDIS full of bras”, “Political correctness should not exist in space”, and “Time travel is for men and men only”.
These comments are really funny, but they’re also a little bit disquieting – firstly, because it is 100% too late to prevent a TARDIS full of bras (the TARDIS has been bra-full since at least the 1960s) and secondly, because really?
Presumably for the writers helming Doctor Who, answering the question of Can the Doctor be a woman was less fueled by sexism than logistics, which I totally understand. How do you correctly deal with a character who has lived all his life as a man who suddenly finds himself inhabiting a female body? To what degree does he assume traditional femininity and/or identify as a woman? To what degree are the writers obliged to explore gender constructs versus taking advantage of the obvious jokes?
But also – when you have the chance to have mythical Tiresias explore the infinite possibilities of time and space, why the heck wouldn’t you? I mean, what a metaphor: how much more will the Doctor be able to see and appreciate? How much will her worldview change? How much will it affect ours through the fourth wall?
And for the record, I’m definitely looking forward to those endless obvious jokes – the Doctor unexpectedly shifting genders would be the gift that keeps on giving for any writer, never mind a practiced screenwriter running Doctor Who. But if I put myself into the shoes of someone who isn’t looking forward to the what-do-you-do-with-these jokes in the inevitable post-regeneration wardrobe sequence (among many, many others depending on how pointed the writers want to get), I guess I can understand why the unexpected femaleness of the Doctor isn’t the most welcome thing in the world.
What I understand less, even in those shoes, is that it’s not an objection to a shift in the gender paradigm that’s holding folks up – it’s just your ordinary garden variety of sexism.
Which makes me so sad – again, because really? It’s not even the idea of gender fluidity that bothers you? It’s just the same same impulse that’s held us back from having female superhero movies other than this year’s Wonder Woman? The same sexism that balks at a female Ghostbusters team (yes I understand there were other valid criticisms of the move)? That, according to this list, has given us just thirty-six female action heroes in the last thirty years – over half of whom by my rough estimate were either playing sexy sidekick or token female ensemble character to the male, actual protagonist?
I totally reserve the right to not like Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who, or Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor. But for the love of God, if you’re freaked out because of the show’s inevitable shift to a time-space continuum seen through female eyes, because you have already decided that the Doctor has lost his authority in his impending femaleness, or because the Doctor is now going to have to deal with things like bras and (presumably) pads and tampons –
Settle in, already. This is taking nothing away from you. This is taking nothing away from the spirit of the show – if anything, it’s potentially leveled it way up. And if nothing else, rest easy in this knowledge: Tiresias always transforms back into his original male form after his time as a woman. You’ll get the Doctor back male in the next several regenerations, I am supremely confident of that.
But in the meantime – let’s settle in for the magic and surprises and challenges this show has opened for itself, for us, and for our intrepid hero the Doctor, getting ready to open her brand new and ancient eyes for the thirteenth first time.
Just what might she see?