Is Doctor Who sexist? It’s a question that pops up every so often and it has a relatively difficult answer. For the next few weeks, I will run a series of posts on gender, sex and sexism in Doctor Who. This week: whether the Doctor could ever be of a different sex and have a different gender identity?
Concerns about sexism in Doctor Who often go for an obvious target: the Doctor himself. Or, more clearly, the question of whether the Doctor should ever be played by a female actor.
Discussions of this go back to at least (apparently) the 1980s, as the following passage from the biography of Patrick Troughton marks:
“During the summer of 1986 it seems that he could have been contacted by Sydney Newman regarding the possibility of taking over the role of Doctor Who for a short ‘caretaker’ period – possibly one season. […] In a letter to [then-BBC controller Michael Grade], Newman urged the controller to temporarily reintroduce Patrick Troughton to steady the TARDIS and pave the way for the most radical change in the show’s 23-year history – that at a later stage Doctor Who should be metamorphosed into a woman.” (Michael Troughton, Patrick Troughton: The Biography of the Second Doctor Who, 2011: p. 283)
Den of Geek ran an article about it in April 2012. Fifth Doctor Peter Davison apparently told Daily Mail in November of last year that the Doctor shouldn’t really be a woman (although, you know, it *is* Daily Mail). The blog for the upcoming ‘Politics and Law of Doctor Who’-symposium at Westminster ran a post about it just three weeks ago (and the programme for the actual symposium has at least two papers on gender and sex in Doctor Who) – around the same time I was having a discussion about it with some of my fellow postgrads in the pub about whether the Doctor should always be male.
Changing sex is certainly possible for the Doctor within the parameters of the story; The Doctor’s Wife mentions a Time Lord, the Corsair, who apparently had both male and female regenerations. The Sisterhood of Karn offered the Doctor the choice to regenerate: “Man or woman?”*. There is also the female Doctor of Joanna Lumley in The Curse of Fatal Death (which is magnificent despite, or perhaps because of, it being a spoof).
Romana manages to try on a whole set of forms (although all humanoid) in Destiny of the Daleks, all varying in, among other things, height and external appearance**. Certainly, if bodies can be so easily manipulated by Time Lords***, it should indeed be perfectly possible for them to manipulate a set of genitalia.
Staying within the realm of diegetic limits and possibilities for the Doctor to change sex, the question becomes whether he’d want to. The Doctor has had male regenerations for what, two millenniums now (depending on how long he spent on Trenzalore). Sex and gender appear relatively stable (and both strangely dichotomous for a technologically advanced alien society – on Gallifrey, men are simply males and women are simply females, apparently. WhovianFeminism on Tumblr had a post on that earlier this week which may be worth having a quick look at.) within Gallifreyan society: as far as we know, all regenerations of the Master have been male, too, as were all regenerations of Borusa, while the Doctor Who-wiki suggests that in the expanded universe, the regenerations of Romana were all female. The Doctor may, quite simply, just self-identify as male.
Furthermore, especially pre-1989, many of the societies the Doctor encounter(ed/s) (we/a)re (faintly) patriarchal and/or male-led and/or exclusively male. In very practical terms, it’s probably easier to swoop in, appropriate a position of authority and save the day without also having to deal with the extra, even if minor, hurdles of certain sex and gender-based expectations of weakness and/or incapability.
Extra-diegetically, the discussion changes. Would it help gender and sex equality if there was a female regeneration of the Doctor? Perhaps. Would it work? Theoretically, this shouldn’t even be a question because, you know, males and females should be regarded equally. Practically, males and females are both perceived differently and written for differently, so there would most likely be some tonal changes in the show, which may or may not work. However, the show has always been about change, and the Lambert-era has a different tone from the Hinchcliffe-era, which differs from the Nathan-Turner-era, and the Davies-era, and Moffat, et cetera et cetera ad infinitum. It could work, it could not. If no one risks it, no one will know.
Would the Doctor still be recognisable as the Doctor?
Ah. Would he?
But then, is Patrick Troughton’s Doctor the same Doctor as William Hartnell’s Doctor? (answer: yes, just a different facet of the same persona).
As usual, the fandom provides the most eloquent (if not in words, then certainly in images) answers to this question – femme!cosplay: female interpretations of male characters. I did one last November (and my friend did a somewhat looser interpretation; we did not for a moment consider that we may have been dressing like anything other than the Second and Eleventh Doctors). There are plenty of others out there doing it, too. There’s actually a Tumblr dedicated to it. Undeniably, all these people are play-acting the Doctor even while ignoring or reversing his gender/sex. So yes, there are numerous people out there for whom the Doctor is still the Doctor even if the Doctor were female (or any other gender or sex).
Would audiences accept a female or non-male Doctor?
Doctor Who‘s audience is increasingly female, and this may partially be attributable to the good looks and charms of the last two Doctors, David Tennant and Matt Smith. The favourite era of at least two of my (female) Whovian friends is that of the Ninth Doctor era for Christopher Eccleston-related reasons. My two favourite Doctors are the Second and the Fifth, and that’s not just because Patrick Troughton and Peter Davison respectively were and are superb actors and not just because I find both regenerations the most sympathetic thus far (though naturally acting proficiency and character sympathy still play important roles). Attraction to (the actor(s) playing) the Doctor may well have been a factor in Doctor Who’s current global popularity (as well as some of the really good stories and production values). Given the (thankfully minor) ‘backlash’ (insofar this word suffices, which it doesn’t because it’s too dramatic to indicate the actual [diminutive] scale) within a certain contingent of the fandom (though certainly not all of this contingent!) after the casting of Peter Capaldi (some younger (female) fans complained that he is “too old” – ageists!), producers may in the future well be wary of casting someone to whom female viewers aren’t attracted – such as a woman. Similarly, some male fans may simply not accept a female Doctor.
I’m not saying (wouldn’t dream of it!) casting a woman would lead to a loss of (female) fans – and in fact, there would probably also be (female) fans gained – but the possibility of it will probably be kept in mind by producers. After all, Doctor Who has a gigantic global audience. The BBC may not be too commercial in Britain, but it certainly is on a global scale, and Doctor Who is an important asset in its international portfolio.
Of course, in the end this remains something many Whovians think differently about. For some, the Doctor can only ever be male; for others, there has to be at least one female regeneration, and for again others the Doctor’s sex or gender doesn’t really matter that much. I, personally, would welcome a non-male Doctor in the same way that I welcomed the news of Peter Capaldi’s casting for the next regeneration: hopeful and cheery (and very curious!), but I don’t care nearly as much about the Doctor’s gender or sex as I do about him/her/them/it being played by someone not just capable but brilliant.
That said, it would be lovely to see a non-white and/or non-male Doctor for a change.
BECHDEL TEST SCORES PRE-1989 WHO THUS FAR:
For fully surviving serials, with each serial passing receiving 100% and each serial being weighted for its number of episodes. Percentages if non-fully surviving episodes all do not pass for the First and Second Doctor in (brackets).
First Doctor 91% (59%) – Verity Lambert as producer gets 94% (82%)
Susan 100% (86%)
Barbara 100% (86%)
Vicki 86% (60%)
Dodo 100% (50%)
Polly 67% (50%)
Polly 67% (50%)
Victoria 100% (39%)
*I find it interesting that the Doctor’s choice to regenerate into a warrior still results in a male regeneration. Extra-diegetically, well, the Doctor is male and in European thought, warriors generally are also male. Diegetically, however – the potion was prepared by the Sisterhood of Karn. Them being a sisterhood, surely their norm for a warrior is female – unless the potion left it to the Doctor to decide the sex of his new regeneration.
**which pre-empts some concerns of fans of post-2005 Who – even before the Sixth Doctor wore the face of Chancellery Guard Commander Maxil, Romana decided to regenerate to wear the face of Princess Astra. So, honestly, the Twelfth Doctor having the same face as a Pompeian and a bureaucrat is hardly cause for freaking out.
***yes, I am aware of discussions in the fandom and the expanded universe which say that generally Romana’s appearance is more malleable for a number of reasons. Point still stands.