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July 24, 2017 | by  | in TV | [ssba]

Doctor Who

So there we have it — Time Lords are genderfluid. It has been confirmed that Jodie Whittaker, a woman (gasp!), will take on the traditionally male role of the Doctor in Doctor Who once Peter Capaldi leaves the show.

I was first introduced to the show during its Russell T. Davies-led reboot in 2010 through family viewings with my sisters — and initially our dad, who had watched it as a kid. My interest piqued at some point during the Matt Smith era when, with Steven Moffat at the helm, the Doctor turned into a sonic screwdriver-brandishing Sherlock Holmes, and I was no longer swept along in the mystery but having events explained by the man himself in retrospect.

It is from this affectionate distance, and as a writer myself, that I’m interested in the media and online discussion of this casting choice. This latest change makes sense within the world of the story — why would a character who can move through universes and transcend their own body be restricted by something like gender?

The change is great in the sense that it foregrounds a female-bodied Time Lord as someone who has power, presence, and agency. There is also the potential for the change to be explained in a way that would (re)position the Time Lord as a genderfluid or genderqueer figure in pop culture — although it remains to be seen if the writers will do this.

However, here we have the actress — who said the role was important to her as a feminist — urging fans not to be “scared by [her] gender.” We also have the casting of a female lead being reported as though it is a daring choice. It is a first, yes, but it is not daring.

It is also deeply pragmatic. It offers the new head writer (Chris Chibnall of Broadchurch) a way to make his mark fairly immediately. It also responds to criticism that Doctor Who has become sexist, with only 57% of recent episodes passing the Bechdel Test in comparison to 89% in earlier reboot episodes. It responds to what the programme’s largely non-male fanbase has been wanting to see for years — that they can be the hero(ine) too and not just the helpmate.

Perhaps, most usefully, it is another popular springboard from which to consider how women and nonbinary folk fare across film and television. Critique leveled at this show is symptomatic of a wider industry in which we are frequently not in control of our own stories, or the financial beneficiaries of those stories as they are told.  

We need to support getting more women and gender diverse people into positions as directors, as producers, as writers before we can see real sea-change in storytelling. We can look to our own communities as well as to wider popular culture and be supportive of, and gentle with, those new voices who are trying to present more diversity and take risks. And as this happens, we should feel heartened by this small step across time and space.


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