Film & Television Opinion

Sex, Gender and the Thirteenth Doctor

The casting of Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor has predictably caused a venting of fury, and mocking of the furious. It’s sad, because it should have been a cause for excitement at casting such a talented actor.

I’m one of the few people in the UK not to have seen either Broadchurch or Downton Abbey, but I’ve been a fan of Whittaker since seeing her in Attack the Block and Venus. Her performance in Venus is probably one of my favourite ever performances – as a young, chavvy girl she has a weird quasi-romantic relationship with an elderly actor, played by Peter O’Toole. At various times Whittaker’s Jessie is warm-hearted, funny, sympathetic and vulnerable, exploitative, emotionally indifferent and tender. Taking aside the question of her sex, Whittaker is clearly qualified for the role. While there were justifiable questions around the lesser-known Matt Smith when he was cast, Whittaker clearly has the CV to take a major role like The Doctor, and I’m excited to see what she’ll bring – probably more so than any of the new era of Doctors.

Sex and Gender

A small note – I’m using the pronouns he and his to refer to The Doctor between the First Doctor and the Twelfth Doctor, as I get the impression that this is how he sees himself. I’m using she/they and her/their for the Thirteenth Doctor, as this seems most logical until we get to know a bit about she/they see her/themself – it could be that the Thirteenth Doctor fully embraces being a woman, or self-defines as somewhere more in-between.

Sex and gender are different things. According to the World Health Organisation

Sex refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women. Gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.”

Given that it’s the WHO’s statement, that’s as close to an internationally defined medical community definition of scientific fact on sex and gender as we’re going to get. Sex is the biological differences between people – roughly 1 in 1500 newborn babies are intersex, the other 1499 are clear-cut male or female. Leaving aside the fictional biology of the Timelords for now (I’ll come back to it) the existence of so many intersex people shows that sex is not as clean a dividing line as conservatives and reactionaries would like us to think. And gender is far, far messier.

Are high heels feminine or masculine? Most people would say feminine, but this hasn’t always been the case. In the 15th century Persian equesterians would commonly wear high heels, a fashion that they brought to Europe. Both Louis XIV of France and Charles II of England, Scotland and Ireland have been painted wearing high heels. In a sense it’s more logical for men to wear high heels than women, as they exaggerate height, which is a biological trait found more in men than women.

Similarly, makeup is “socially constructed” as being feminine in the 21st century western world, but this wasn’t always the case. Alexander the Great wore makeup, as did his rival King Darius. Eyeliner seems to have been common for ancient Egyptian men, and eighteenth century men (and women) show signs of lead poisoning from makeup. While the modern use of makeup like ‘guyliner’ is partially down to the transgressive quality of blurring gender roles, it’s normal for men to embrace the ‘feminine’ act of wearing makeup in pretty large modern subcultures.

Louis XIV of France by Hyacinthe Rigaud
High heels and pale white stockings. So manly! / Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1701


Who is The Doctor?

At one point the Doctor had always been played by William Hartnell, but that doesn’t mean that casting someone who wasn’t William Hartnell as the Second Doctor was an inherently terrible idea. The key question is whether the incoming actor can nail the key aspects to the character.

Like James Bond, The Doctor’s character has varied dramatically over the years, but within boundaries. Across his various incarnations he’s consistently been a philosopher-explorer-fighter, who prefers to use ideas to blunt force to defeat his enemies. He seeks peace and co-existence, but is more than prepared to kill in defence. He’s skeptical of authority, and tends, for various reasons, not to be taken seriously by authority figures – and often by his enemies. Over the years The Doctor has accepted strong women like River Song, Missy and Romana as his intellectual equals, so appears to have no sexist preconceptions. He may well be asexual – his relationship with River Song appears more rooted in intellect and adventure than lust, which seems compatible with real-world asexuality. While the Tenth Doctor was married to Queen Elizabeth I, I don’t think the show really explored how that relationship functioned. If you were to list the character traits, there isn’t really a good reason why that character can’t be played by a woman.

I would be against casting a woman as James Bond, as Bond is a character who engages with traditional constructions of masculinity. He’s a very sexual, very lust-driven character, who often uses his physical strength to overpower enemies, and who once sent a woman away with the instruction “Run along now, man talk.” The original script for Alien had all the characters given gender-neutral names. Given that The Doctor broadly seems asexual and rarely uses physical force to defeat his enemies, it’s possible to imagine a female Doctor working for previous years’ scripts without the need to change very much. By contrast, casting a woman as Bond throws off a number of key parts to how the character works. Would a female Bond wear a suit – with it’s connotations of power and social armour – or a cocktail dress? Would she take a role protecting male victims of her arch-enemy, and would she find these victims attractive? While it’s possible (and potentially interesting) to imagine this character working, it’d mean making enough significant changes that the resulting property wouldn’t be Bond as we know it. I don’t see the same problem with The Doctor.

A scriptwriter may well see the protagonist of their film or TV series as a man in their own mind. But if a female actor is the best auditionee, it makes sense to give them the role rather than casting an inferior actor in order to cling to the creator’s preconceptions. The Doctor is a role who has changed and evolved over the years. If anything, the Thirteen Doctor as a woman is a far less radical interpretation of the character than John Hurt’s War Doctor – a warrior who set aside his ideals to take part in a great Time War against the Daleks.


Deeper Theories of Gender

High heels and makeup are superficial examples to show the artificial nature of socially constructed gender roles, but the social values we teach each other about gender are more important. In 1929’s Womanliness as Masquerade Joan Riviere wrote of gender being a self-reinforcing set of values. Riviere wrote of one of her case studies that “the exhibition in public of her intellectual proficiency, which was itself carried through successfully” caused her anxiety afterward. Riviere’s interpretation was that the case study had transgressed the socially acceptable limits laid out for her, and expected punishment or disapproval from “father-figures” in her life afterwards. Riviere viewed femininity and masculinity as artificial but self-reinforcing ideologies, with the reality and performance of gender being indistinguishable. Luce Irigaray built on this, arguing that in performing gender roles we’re acting out ‘scripts’ that we observed earlier in our lives.

When people talk about the importance of representation and strong female characters this is the reason why – to provide girls and young women with ‘scripts’ that they can cast their future selves into, to make success and personal fulfillment seem realistic and achievable goals, building a sense of self-belief to see them through the times when the world doesn’t work as it ideally ought to.

Daily Mail commenters may disagree, but personally I think British audiences are ready to embrace ideas which were cutting edge in the 1930s.


Gallifreyan Biology

In 1966 with William Hartnell unwell and needing to retire from playing The Doctor, producers looked at their alternatives. They considered simply recasting without an in-universe explanation. But there was the fear of young members of the audience not accepting the replacement actor, and perhaps even thinking that the new actor was meant to be an imposter. Eventually producers settled on the biologically nonsensical but suitably fantastical idea of saying that Gallifreyans periodically ‘regenerate’ into new bodies with new personalities.

Science fiction often isn’t very scientifically accurate, and while it’s nice to have scientific accuracy, it’s not that important. There’s an anecdote that, at a Star Trek convention, a writer was asked how the bussard collectors work. (Bussard collectors are at the front of the warp nacelles, and convert asteroids into hydrogen for the engines.) The writer’s reply was that “They work very well.”

In fiction, story is more important than science. Always. Gallifreyan regeneration is more fantasy than science, which means accepting the scientific nonsense as a condition of the fiction, and exploring the character implications. The Doctor has seen numerous friends come and go, and has seen his body and personality shift rapidly in a matter of moments. He’s become physically taller or shorter, even appearing older than before regenerating. If the audience is able to accept this is possible, then ironically there’s more real-world evidence to support changes in sex than other aspects of regeneration.

For the first four years of the show it wasn’t mentioned that Gallifreyans can regenerate when near death, but when the idea was introduced it retrospectively became something that The Doctor was always aware of. Until the last decade or so it wasn’t mentioned that Gallifreyans can regenerate across sexes, but The General and The Master/Missy have both done this. If viewers are willing to accept the idea that for this alien race it’s possible to alter the height, hair, voice, heal wounds and shoot out vast quantities of energy from their arms as they do so, then they should be able to accept that Gallifreyans can do something that a clownfish can do. If the reactionaries can’t handle this, then there problem is not that Doctor Who  has a lack of science, but that they don’t like stories which have women at their centre.

Anemone_purple_anemonefish by Nick Hobgood 2005-05-28
If Nemo can change sex, maybe a near-immortal alien race can as well. / Nick Hobgood, Wikimedia Commons


Role Models

For all it’s positive qualities the original Star Wars franchise has a tiny number of female parts – Princess Leia being one of two named female characters to appear in the original trilogy. (On a similar note, Lando Calrissian is the only non-white human.) A natural part of engaging with fiction is to mentally place ourselves in the characters’ viewpoint, which is easier (especially for young viewers and readers) when that character is superficially similar to ourselves. Young boys have a range of positive role models, from the cocky pirate to the eager farm boy to the wise ex-soldier with magic powers. Leia is an excellent character, but only one character. The addition of Jyn Erso and Rey to the franchise (and to an extent Padme Amidala before them) opens up more role models for young women, more potential ‘scripts’ for them to follow. Whereas for decades boys watching Star Wars have had the option to pretend to be Han Solo or Luke Skywalker, young girls will now have the option of pretending to be Jyn Erso or Rey. There’s always the option of going across sex boundaries of course, and I remember a female friend pretending to be Wolverine when we were kids. But this potentially seeds the subconscious message that there’s some fundamental conflict between being a dynamic adventurer and being female.

This apparent assumption that the characters driving the plot should be male is deep and broad. Despite it’s utopian politics, only one of the six Star Trek incarnations has been led by a woman. (The upcoming seventh will blur the lines slightly, with a male captain, but a female character expected to be the centre of the story).
Over the years the action of the main Law and Order franchise has mainly been driven by men. On the trial side, all three prosecutors were male, and while there were more female than male assistants as prosecutor (six from seven) and one female boss (out of five) it was always a male character driving the action. On the police side Anita van Buren was by far the longest serving of the two supervising officers, but almost almost all the investigating detectives (eight from nine) were male.
There is the risk that powerful women who don’t drive the action themselves but supervises the protagonist become less a dynamic driver of the story and more of a motherly figure, offering guidance to the protagonist who is more of a natural audience viewpoint character. During the Pierce Brosnan Bond years Judi Dench’s M often had the air of a disappointed mother in her interactions with Bond – a trait which was commented on more overtly in Skyfall.
When people are inspired by fiction and want to emulate the characters, it tends to be the protagonists – the ones driving the story – who are the most inspirational. More people will be excited by the thought of being the super-spy who saves the world or the detective who solves the mystery than by being the person who sits behind a desk and gives them their orders.

This is an assumption that’s gradually changing – for instance in The Walking Dead, where Carol and Michonne are two of the most compelling characters. Along with the increased number of female characters in Star Wars and the Thirteenth Doctor being female, we’re currently going through an interesting social change. But it’s a change from a situation where nearly all major protagonists of major fiction in the western world were white men to a situation where well over half of all major protagonists are white men. Of course moving in this direction provokes whining from reactionary men, annoyed that they aren’t being pandered to as strongly as they once would have been. Tough.


Conversational Touchstones

If The Doctor struggles with her/their new body, it could be a good metaphor for both transsexuality and puberty. If The Doctor is more disappointed at not being ginger than she/they are shocked at being female then that sends out the message that a person’s sex isn’t a big deal.

In Moranifesto Caitlin Moran argued that the 2007 introduction of the charismatic Captain Jack Harkness to Doctor Who played a part in normalising homosexuality just a little bit more. She argues that this probably lead to more children growing up wanting to be a character who happened to be gay and seeing being gay as perfectly normal. She argues that it may even have had a small impact, by subtly shifting a generation’s attitudes, on the 2013 Same-sex Marriage Act.

Considering that women make up half of the population, there are surprisingly few ongoing dramatic and action franchises led by women. It seems that Rey will be the main protagonist for the latest trilogy of Star Wars films, and the same with Star Trek: Discovery’s Michael Rainsford. But beyond these, The Hunger Games and Bones, you’ve got to go quite far back to find long-running mainstream franchises in which a woman is the undisputed main protagonist, rather than at least sharing the lead role. Probably Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Star Trek: Voyager or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. By comparison there’ve been male leads in the Die Hard, James Bond, Jason Bourne, Mission Impossible, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, X-Men, Batman, Spider-Man…

Whether you view Professor X or Wolverine as the main protagonist of the X-Men films, and whether you view Iron Man or Captain America as the main protagonist of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, both are not just male-led, but with multiple male leads. This isn’t a deliberate snub to women of course – it’s simply that these franchises (and the decades old comic books which inspired them) saw male leadership as the natural default. In Irigaray’s terminology, it was the ‘script’ that they followed. Given that what makes Professor X  and Iron Man special is their telepathy and armour respectively, there’s no reason why these characters couldn’t be female.

The Thirteen Doctor will almost certainly tip the scales back a little, normalising the idea of a woman driving an adventure forwards. But depending on how the character’s handled, it’s possible that she/they will go further. Depending on how the Twelfth Doctor’s regeneration into the Thirteenth Doctor is handled, it may well help a transsexual kid who feels like they’re in the ‘wrong’ body to understand their feelings, and to explain them to family members.

The Thirteen Doctor could also be a useful touchstone when discussing artificial barriers around gender – arguably it makes sense to seperate the sexes in sport which is based on physical performance, but not in acting awards. The key going forward should not be whether we give in to the whining of reactionaries, but what kind of better world we build going forward. The Thirteenth Doctor could be useful when discussing which differences are logical and based in sex, and which are arbitrary and based in constructions of gender.
The Doctor’s New Perspective

It’s likely that at some point Thirteen will be surprised at how differently people act towards her/them as a woman. Germaine Greer has made the controversial argument that transgender women aren’t women, because, even when physically female they lack the experiences of having gender-based ‘scripts’ enforced on them. For instance earlier this year a story of a male and female co-worker switching email signatures and being treated differently went viral. The male partner, Martin Schneider, was shocked by how condescending customers were, while Nicole Hallberg found herself being more immediately trusted when she signed with a male name. Similarly, in a discussion a few years back I can remember being shocked when women who’d worked in bar jobs said that being felt up by drunk customers was a relatively common thing, which had happened to them all. It can still be shocking to men how different the experience of being a woman is.

As a white male apparent human with the ability to be understood in any language, The Doctor has been able to pose as an authority figure in most of the historic eras he’s visited. But that won’t be the same for Thirteen. She/they may well find that at times her/their male companion is deferred to over her/them because that fits in with the values of the era they’ve travelled to. Schneider and Hallberg’s experience is a good example of what’s referred to as ‘male privilege’. The argument is not that men have everything easy, but that women have extra layers of difficulty on top of what men have to deal with. The Thirteenth Doctor’s experiences will be a chance to dramatise this for an audience of millions.

Jodie_Whittaker by Ibsan73 2014-12-08
The Doctor will see you soon. / Ibsan73, Wikimedia Commons

What’s New?

With any long-running franchise, it’s important to add in new elements to refresh the style, to prevent it feeling repetitive. Star Trek‘s second franchise – The Next Generation – was set a century after the first in a more peaceful galaxy, with more of an emphasis on diplomacy than violence. Deep Space Nine was set on a space station, allowing the show to delve deeper into a smaller number of alien races, rather than fly off after a single encounter. Voyager had the ship isolated and far from home.  Although having many overlapping ideas and values, each show took a different approach.

Doctor Who’s regenerations have had a similar effect. The Third Doctor’s time in exile on Earth and the Ninth Doctor dealing with the memory of what he’d done to end the Time War were slightly bigger deviations from the classic formula.

I can’t understand people who are angry at the announcement of such an excellent actor, just because she’s female – there are still plenty of action-adventure franchises with male protagonists driving the action, if that’s really so important to them.  The Doctor has typically whisked his companions away from their humdrum lives for a sense of adventure, told them that the universe is dangerous, but encouraged them to throw themselves fully into the experience, and to see new and unbelievable things. Doctor Who as a franchise is all about being open-minded, forward-looking, searching out and embracing  new experiences. Acknowledging danger and being ready to run, but embracing the new with open arms and a big grin are key to what the show is.

Sex, Gender and the Thirteenth Doctor v3

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s