It’s just been announced that on Sunday the BBC is going to announce the actor who will take over from Matt Smith as the next (twelfth) Doctor, so I thought I’d better get my thoughts in beforehand. In short: I’ll welcome anyone as the Doctor as long as they’re good. My main preferences are an accent from somewhere in the UK, and that after two younger Doctors in a row we get someone a bit older. (Despite what you may think, I’m not that fussed about the ginger thing.)
So if you’re wondering, yes, I think it’d be great to have a woman play the Doctor, or someone who’s not white. Very few people seem to have an issue with the latter change, but there’s a vocal group among fans who think the Doctor ought to remain a man. There’s nothing wrong with having this as a preference, but I’ve noticed that some people seem to express or feel it very…strongly, but can’t quite articulate why. I just listened to the Verity podcast episode about this very subject, where Erika was very “that’s just how I feel”. Now for many, this might be because it is just a gut feeling that they like the Doctor being a man for any number of reasons, and perhaps it does feel like defending that position sounds sexist which makes it difficult. But I think, for some people at least, there might be another reason.
Changing the Doctor’s gender and/or sex is different to just changing a male lead for a female one; this isn’t like casting a woman as Jane Bond, or making a TV series with a woman playing Sherlock Holmes (or, to fuel the fantasies, a lizard woman… 😉 In those scenarios it’s a new version of the character, one who has always been a woman; just like Joan Watson in Elementary (who, by the way, I think is great, since based on the few episodes I’ve seen it’s now another show on TV where a male and female protagonist don’t have a will they/won’t they relationship).
No; a big difference is, if the Twelfth Doctor were to be a woman, then the Doctor becomes a transgender character.
Now, I’m all for that. I’ll readily accept anyone as the Doctor, assuming they cast an actor who works in the role and that the current writing and production team stop putting sexist dickery into the show (I still can’t get over the “tight skirt” line at the end of Nightmare in Silver). But I think that, perhaps, this is a subconscious reason some people find this much more confronting than those other examples.
We’re socialised to believe that men and women are different, that only men should be “masculine” and women “feminine”, that sex and gender are linked, and that sex is biological and genetic and fixed. (Mike Krahulik’s recent Twitter controversy is a big example of someone not getting how this is false.) It can be argued that the Doctor doesn’t often display qualities associated with either gender role – indeed, he often used to be more like a child too young to be concerned with gender, though in new Who, he’s more like a little boy who’s absorbed some ideas about girls. But that doesn’t change the fact that for a mainstream audience, a person who changes gender is a much bigger deal than a new character who’s a woman. And, indeed, a bigger challenge for the production team to get right: should they play it as though it makes no difference to the character? (My instinct says yes, but then the Doctor in the new series is presented pretty firmly as a hetero dude, so that might be difficult.) If they should acknowledge the change, then how?
I hope that changes, and I see signs that it is, but I think that’s possibly a reason why some who oppose the idea feel so strongly about it, yet unable to articulate why. The young women (and young men – older fans like me, I think, still prefer to think of the Doctor as avuncular or fatherly) who think of the Doctor as a sex symbol might love having a female Doctor-like character, but may find it much more confronting (and I mean that, rather than confusing) to have their existing sex symbol transformed into a woman.
I should say I can also see other reasons why the Doctor maybe shouldn’t be turned into a woman. What does it say about women as leads in genre shows if they only time a character can be played by a woman, but not written as explicitly “female”, is when they take over a character traditionally played by a man? We’re not off the hook as a creative culture for making great and varied female characters in any case. Why isn’t someone making a show like Doctor Who (assuming you can do such a thing) with a female lead? (Hell, why isn’t someone making a show like Doctor Who period? There’s room for more non-traditional telefantasy, but all we get are serious sci-fi shows and variations on demon and ghost hunting.) Surely we should be doing that as well? And there’s some merit in the idea discussed in Verity that the Doctor is a great example of a male hero who doesn’t always act in a traditionally masculine way, shooting things and so on – though he does have the very traditional male role of escalating his response or hardening his personality because the bad guys do something to “his girl” Rose being the worst example in the new series. (Worth noting that they flip this with Amy; she hardens up or kicks things off to the next level because of things done to Rory, at least as often as bad things are done to her, which is what usually happens exclusively to female heroes.)
Anyway, food for thought. In a couple of days we’ll know which dude has the role – and I’m sure it’ll be a dude, which perhaps is for the best, given the current gender politics in the production team.