The Argument to be Made for a Female Doctor


For those uninitiated, Doctor Who is a British Sci Fi series first launched in 1963 with little besides love, cardboard, and fishing line and ran with growing popularity for the next 26 years. It was recently revived in 2005 as a continuation of the original plot line. When compared to American media, it is nearest in spirit to Star Trek, an unnaturally long-running science fiction series that more or less invented and defined fan culture for a country.  It crosses media barriers with books, comics, a mid-eighties movie and numerous radio shows, has seen outrageous numbers of viewers in the UK, and as of today is unarguably Britain’s most popular television export.

The premise of this show is a time-traveling humanoid alien being who travels time and space with his generally human companions in his cleverly disguised spaceship/time machine.  What makes the doctor so special and adored is surely a question for history to answer and fans to bicker about, but one of the things that gives the series so much longevity is The Doctor’s ability to regenerate.  Regeneration is an affectation of The Doctor’s species, called time lords, all of whom possess a binary vascular system and the ability to cheat death by “regenerating” their cell tissue into a new form.  That new form comes with a new face, and conveniently, a new actor to play the role until the next time The Doctor “dies.”

The news these last two weeks has been the announcement of the 12th actor to play the most significant roles in British science fiction, and one of the most prominent roles in the current science fiction landscape in general.  As context may suggest, I don’t consider this a trivial decision.  Many people, myself included, expressed a sense of disappointment at the news that this actor was, like every single actor to play the doctor before him, white and male, especially considering the significant fan campaigns to have the current production team on the series cast its nets more widely when searching for this figurehead of science fiction television.

I reacted by writing a post that reiterated my lack of support for the current writing team on the series, with special attention to Steven Moffat, the current head writer.  Though my argument was largely based on the detriment that Moffat was doing to the general writing of the series, it was largely received by what I can only assume are folks with very low reading comprehension as a demand for an actress to be cast in the role.  I quoted Jill Pantozzi over at The Mary Sue in that article when she said something to the effect of; many female fans don’t want to see what scary sexist shit Moffat would do with a female doctor.

I can wait for a female doctor, I can wait for a POC doctor, I am concerned that the series will not survive Moffat’s decisions, but all my preferences are beside the point.  The fact is that I have yet to hear an objection to this plot point that isn’t couched in misogyny.

  • First of all, it’s canon. 

The first Neil-Gaiman-written episode titled “The Doctor’s Wife,” confirms the possibility of changing genders between regenerations.  If you don’t know this, and you’re still providing false-equivalencies like this one:

“What? Dr. Who has always been a male character. Would you accept Jane Austen books changing their leading women characters to men? Accusing Dr Who of being racist and sexist but yet you wouldn’t allow a black man to play the role of ‘Emma”. Tumblr Feminism strikes again. Smh”

Then you need to brush up on your knowledge. I don’t think being a fan requires knowing every single fact about something you love, but being a well-informed citizen means not barreling into arguments without any real ammunition to back you up.  From Neil Gaiman:

“I was the one who wrote the line about the Corsair changing gender on regeneration, in “The Doctor’s Wife” after all, and made it canon that Time Lords can absolutely change gender when they regenerate”

  • Gender-essentialism is all but dead. 

Numerous modern studies in the fields of sociology and psychology are proving that the differences between men and women that we have typically held to be true are the result of limited and biased science.  This is one of the first things you realize when you begin to actually study gender, that differences in behavior and psychology in terms of gender are largely socially created and more often than not used as an excuse to further oppress and discriminate against women and people who fall outside the straight/white/masculine norm.  It’s also the root of plenty of femmephobia (the systematic undervaluing and dismissing of traits and values typically coded “feminine”), homophobia, and transphobia, because people behaving outside the commonly-held parameters of their assigned gender can be othered and regarded as unnatural.

If The Doctor really has visited our more-evolved and more scientifically advanced future, gender essentialism should be a trivial archaic idea for him the same way sexual orientation is, and eventually the writers of this show will have to acknowledge that in The Doctor’s utopia male and female are interchangeable values of nearly infinite variation.  The Kinsey-scale for gender is on its way.

  • Representation matters.


There’s one possible role on Doctor Who for women and girls, and that role is always secondary to The Doctor.  In Moffat’s universe, they can be obsessed with The Doctor, in love with The Doctor, or have their fate and existence completely dependent on The Doctor.  The Doctor is always, and has historically been, a benevolent-if-impatient patriarch, handing out instructions as a doctor to his nurse and giving his companions only enough information to get by.

It has been argued that this is not because his companions are female, but because they are human, and in-context that’s an excellent point to be made.  The Doctor isn’t prone to sexism in any way that’s been revealed, but he does often treat humans as inferior regardless of gender, at least he is very often frustrated by their limitations.  The gender-hierarchy represented on screen, however, is painfully familiar to a history of sexism and will need to tread lighter and lighter as progress marches on and viewers become smarter.  A decades-old series is bound to come up against this question, and the way that that series answers it is a deciding factor in its longevity.

The Doctor can have any face that can be imagined, unless we’re actually to believe that time lords are actually all Caucasian, and yet every single time he rolls the dice, he comes up with something that is in practical terms pretty similar to what he had the last time around.  Either the doctor is doomed to a complete lack of variation, or assuming he has some level of control over his regeneration process either in a conscious or unconscious fashion, The Doctor prefers his current skin-color and gender.  Now you can write that off to the fuddy-duddyness of the character, but it must be interpreted that if that is the case, the show itself feels that there is something superior about maleness and whiteness.

  • We’ve got no way to be sure we’re getting the best person for the job.

What does the casting call or casting list look like for the new doctor these days?  According to Steven Moffat, he says there was ONE name on his list this time around, which makes me wonder how many people he thinks that the UK contains. (62.74 million, as of 2011) So out of 62 million people, there’s no person better qualified than this one man?  Clearly that’s not a question that Moffat bothered to ask, if he’s to be believed about his casting process.  Gaiman says that a black actor was offered the role of The Doctor, but turned it down.  His sound bite on that isn’t specific as to which doctor that was, but regardless I’m pretty certain the case is not  that the United Kingdom has ONE representative black actor and once you query him, you’re pretty much out of luck.

And this may be rather naive on my part, but when do we start to hold the white male actors that are cast in these leading roles accountable?  Peter Capaldi is not hurting for work, and had a line of white and male actors said “no thanks,” would we just not have a new doctor?  Obviously not, casting directors would be forced to think outside the race-and-gender box.  How far does the responsibility as allies extend for these actors, really?  The question of casting off privilege affects the majority of us.

It’s entirely possible that the very best person who could have played the 12th doctor is a white man, it’s entirely possible that that person is Peter Capaldi, but unfortunately we’ll never know for sure.