The Argument to be Made for a Female Doctor

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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.

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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.

 

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Doctor Who: The casting of the 12th white leading male is not the problem, it’s a symptom.

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The 12th doctor was announced this past Sunday and he’s Peter Capaldi, a Scottish actor best known for his role on the BBC show The Thick of It.  My frame personal of reference for him was his other appearances in the whoniverse, in the season 4 episode “The Fires of Pompeii,” and a role I honestly don’t remember very well from the Torchwood special, “Children of Earth.”  He seems like a perfectly natural choice for The Doctor, and since they don’t choose just anyone for these roles and he’s a veteran thespian, I’m sure he’ll be wonderful.

That said, there’s been a lot of talk about the casting of yet another white male in a role that could be played by anyone in the world.  The doctor’s gender or skin color is not the most pressing issue in the current Doctor Who series, and if I were performing a social justice triage on Doctor Who, I wouldn’t start with the doctor himself, not at least the actor playing him, anyway, I would start with the writing.

Now I am a serious fanatic when it comes to the Russell T. Davies years, so I must acknowledge that that level of fanaticism comes with some temporary blindness but I would say that it was one of the most pure and undiluted attempts at social justice on television that I had seen so far.  So maybe I’m spoiled.  But I don’t think anyone will be shutting me down anymore when I talk about Steven Moffat, and that is the reason I find myself a little pleased in the wake of the announcement that may in the end up blowing up in the show runner’s face.

There’s a pretty complete rundown of Moffat’s public examples of blatant sexism on the tumblr Feminist Whoniverse, but I am just talking here about a few of the highlights.  The most clear examples of Moffat’s attitude come from an interview he did in 2004 with The Scotsman, right after he got his writing job for Doctor Who.

“There’s this issue you’re not allowed to discuss: that women are needy. Men can go for longer, more happily, without women. That’s the truth. We don’t, as little boys, play at being married – we try to avoid it for as long as possible. Meanwhile women are out there hunting for husbands.”

This isn’t just sexist, it shows a truly depressing lack of understanding for gender roles in the first place.  When he’s not generalizing about women, he’s talking about what he’s “not allowed” to discuss because apparently he’s so very oppressed that he’s not allowed to say things that might offend someone.  Unless, you know, he’s being interviewed by a magazine.  He goes on to expand on his perceived oppression.

“Well, the world is vastly counted in favour of men at every level – except if you live in a civilised country and you’re sort of educated and middle-class, because then you’re almost certainly junior in your relationship and in a state of permanent, crippled apology. Your preferences are routinely mocked. There’s a huge, unfortunate lack of respect for anything male.”

This quote 100% explains how he writes all the relationships in his series and why no matter how earnest or heartfelt they try to be, they are constantly hamstrung by Moffat’s cynicism.  Examples, the fact that The Doctor and River have no chemistry, the fact that after all they’ve been through Rory magically has no idea what he means to Amy.  This flawed idea of how the world actually literally works deeply affects the directions his series goes in, and is most definitely the main factor in The Doctor being transformed into some sort of weapon-wielding, walking-away-from-explosions-holding-a-fainting-girl action-movie star.

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Now the defense usually given to these two snippets is that they were such a long time ago (2004), so hey, let’s scoot on into the future, shall we?

“You have to hand it to the Doctor for dumping a slightly needy girlfriend by palming her off on a copy of himself. He tried leaving her in a parallel universe, and that didn’t work.” (2008)

I can’t tell whether he’s purposefully or honestly misunderstanding the relationship between Rose and 10 here, but either way it’s really foolish and honestly pretty disrespectful to more than the characters.  It’s disrespectful to the writers who carefully crafted a relationship that redefined expectations for the way the Doctor would interact with his companions for a generation.  Defining Rose as a “slightly needy girlfriend” minimizes her role and minimizes the contribution that Billie Piper made to breathing new life into the series, and characterizing the sacrifice 10 makes in parting with Rose as “palming her off” cheapens the sacrifice and the emotional weight of the moment.  What kind of man can the Doctor possibly be, by the way, that he wouldn’t be able to break up with a girl except sending her off to a different universe?  Moffat’s approach to these stories isn’t problematic just because he habitually demeans the female characters, this sort of writing about gender is equally disrespectful toward the men he writes.  He doesn’t draw the line at fictional characters, however, when asked about Karen Gillian, he seemed delighted to objectify her, as well.

“And I thought, ‘well she’s really good. It’s just a shame she’s so wee and dumpy…When she was about to come through to the auditions I nipped out for a minute and I saw Karen walking on the corridor towards me and I realised she was 5’11, slim and gorgeous and I thought ‘Oh, oh that’ll probably work’.”(2010)

But all of this mounting evidence can for the most part be excused by apologists because it’s in the past, and Moffat has been watching his mouth lately to a certain degree, but during the announcement-special in a pre-taped interview, he responded to the folks who were hoping for a female doctor as such:

“I like that Helen Mirren has been saying we should have a female doctor, and to go on record I think it’s time that the queen was played by a man.” (5 DAYS AGO.)

He then went on to dig an even deeper hole, as is his habit, by letting everyone know that he was hearing from women that they didn’t WANT a doctor, which is hilarious mostly because Moffat seems to believe that women are incapable of sexism, but Jill Pantozzi over at The Mary Sue responded in what has been the most eloquent article written on the subject so far.

 “Although many fans (men or women, and even myself) didn’t want a female Doctor for 12, some of those fans didn’t want one simply because they were horrified at how Moffat would write such a character, not that they didn’t want one full-stop.”

And this is really what it comes down to; I have read around and I agree most with the articles that are ready to chuck out Moffat but feel just fine about Capaldi taking on the role. The battle cry against Moffat may on the whole have more to do with the way the writing has declined than Moffat’s brazen disregard for anything approaching social justice, but Moffat’s stance on his female characters, and really his male ones, has been a source of annoyance and frustration for fans for a long time.  A blogger on zap2it.com pulled a few punches on the whole “is Moffat a sexist” question, but ultimately pointed out what many are observing, that Moffat’s casting was indeed focused on criteria that is completely outdated, and that that isn’t just bad for women, it’s bad for the creative direction of the series itself.

“The issue is NOT that Moffat didn’t cast a woman (or a non-Caucasian of either gender). It’s that the thought of casting one NEVER SEEMED TO ENTER INTO THE EQUATION. It’s as ludicrous to him that a woman would be the Doctor as a man would portray The Queen. Both represent a type of drag performance that might be amusing but certainly not authentic. And given that science fiction/fantasy is a place where “what if” and “why not” have their safest homes, it’s disheartening to see limitations put on a show that is, by its design, utterly limitless.”

While it’s entirely true that socially we shouldn’t put up with this kind of behavior from any public figure, the fact that Moffat is or the thin argument that he might not be a sexist is far beside the point.  The point being that his perspective and the way that he writes is negatively affecting the show as a whole.  This is a point on which there are fewer and fewer dissenters as time goes by.  The New York Times published an opinion piece by YA author Jennifer Finney Boylan  on the subject, RogerEbert.com ran an article with the title, “Steven Moffat: Destroyer of Hopes and Dreams,” and the last two seasons have seen a growing negative backlash from Who fans of all kinds.   After this announcement and accompanying remarks, I would be very surprised if Moffat’s run lasts more than another year.   The concern that draws is whether or not Doctor Who will survive him, at least in the immediate future, or if this disaster is running headlong toward another extended hiatus.