Dabe Alan / Various
The time-traveling alien who must be a white, British male: the power of a female star in Doctor Who
'I feel like I already know how it ends. There's a golden light, open a TARDIS, put my arms out… and then I turn into a woman!'
That was Matt Smith’s answer to a question put to him during Comic-Con, as his time as the Doctor was coming to a close. This isn’t the first time the rumor of a female doctor had come up before the announcement that Peter Capaldi would be stepping into the role.
In fact, the rumor was that Dame Helen Mirren might be the next pilot of the TARDIS.
“I’m not going to be the first female Doctor Who, no, no, no, absolutely not, I absolutely wouldn’t contemplate that… but I do think it’s well over-time to have a female Doctor Who,” she said during a television interview. “I think a gay, black female Doctor Who would be the best of all.”
The very idea of a female doctor is met with howls of protest from many fans, who see the iconic character as four things above all else: Male, British, a character actor, and white. Capaldi is already changing the nature of the character in the modern series simply due to his advanced age.
Matt Smith is 30 years old, David Tennant, who is Scottish by the way, but let's not open that can of worms, was in his late 30s when he played the Doctor, and Christopher Eccleston was in his early 40s. Peter Capaldi is 55.
Still, the idea of a female Doctor isn’t out of the question. “It's absolutely narratively possible [that the Doctor could be a woman] and when it's the right decision, maybe we'll do it,” showrunner Steven Moffat said. “It didn't feel right to me, right now. I didn't feel enough people wanted it.” He also claimed many women weren't interested in a female Doctor.
I’ve talked to many fans of the show about this issue, and the resistance to the very idea of a female Doctor is interesting. Part of the draw of Doctor Who, outside of the character’s base instinct to help those who require it, is that anything can happen. It’s a playground for writers, as the Doctor is in control of a ship that can move through both space and time, and is in possession of the sonic screwdriver, a tool that can do whatever the plot requires of it.
The character can change his shape and personality periodically to suit new actors, allowing the show to run forever. While many fictional universes hold important MacGuffin’s, Doctor Who is a show made up entirely of MacGuffin’s. Anything can happen as long as that thing helps to tell a good story. Those are the rules.
Hell, the Doctor himself noted that it’s possible to become a woman. Listen to his reaction upon regenerating into Matt Smith:
Legs! I've still got legs!. Arms, hands. Fingers. Lots of fingers. Ears? Yes. Eyes: two. Nose… eh, I've had worse. Chin - blimey! Hair… I'm a girl! [checks Adam’s Apple] No! No! I'm not a girl! And still not ginger!
Just because the Doctor has yet to be a woman doesn’t mean the character can’t be, and the Doctor himself seemed to think it was a possibility in that moment. You can argue that certain things in canon suggest the Doctor is always male, and the die-hard fans certainly will, but there’s more than enough there to also say it’s possible. The argument of an always-male Doctor doesn’t hold a lot of water in the show’s universe; you can’t embrace the fantastic in every aspect of a show except for the character’s gender.
The importance of a female Doctor
There is no good reason there can't be a female actor playing the Doctor, and “because that's the way it has always been” does not count. I've read articles saying that young men need a positive role-model, as if there are enough strong, female lead characters to go around.
“Why is it so hard to conceive of a female Doctor, or a black Doctor? For the same reason that it’s so hard to conceive of a female president, or a black prime minister, or any world government or economic power not largely controlled by rich white men: because we cannot imagine it,” writer Laurie Penny stated. “Because we refuse to imagine it. Because the stories we tell ourselves and each other about power and history don’t often include women and non-white people in leading roles.”
She also doesn't think the role-model argument is valid. “Some fans argue that boys and men will be unable to relate to a Doctor who isn’t male. In fiction as in life, women and people of colour are expected to relate to the stories of white men and understand that we can never be the hero –but it never works the other way round,” Penny said. “To expect little white boys to look at a black time lady and imagine themselves fighting her battles would be unthinkable.”
I'm going to disagree with some aspects of that article, even through some of the sarcasm, because I can imagine a female Doctor, and I think it would be great. My own dream casting for the role would be Tilda Swinton, as you can tell from the header image I asked Dabe to put together for this article. The Doctor is only part of this story, and the real reason a female Doctor would be so interesting is due to the idea of the companion.
Allow me to explain.
A male Martha Jones
Walt Williams was the writer of Spec-Ops: The Line, one of the more subversive video games in the past few years. We bumped into each other at an awards ceremony during some event, and got to talking about Doctor Who. Williams said that the power of the character comes from the companions, not the Doctor himself.
It's hard to dream about being an immortal, time-traveling alien, but it's very easy to fantasize about such a being knocking on our door and asking us to come on an adventure. The stories are often told through the eyes of the humans who travel with the Doctor, and they're almost always female. You have Sarah Jane, Rose, Martha Jones… the question who was the “best” companion can almost get as heated as the argument about which Doctor you prefer.
The correct answers are, of course, Eccelston and Martha Jones, but I digress.
This is where you find the diversity that many, lesser shows lack. Doctor Who has featured openly gay heroes and companions of many different races, even if the quality of the companions is often uneven.
The show can fall into the Damsel in Distress trope from time to time, but you can point to just as many times the show gave us strong, able women as being part of the team. It's hard to argue that Doctor Who is a progressive show, but I don't think the premise itself is sexist, although some writers in the show's history have certainly struggled in this area.
It's fair to say that the Doctor is the hero, and is more often than not the subject of adoration on the part of the companion, if not outright love. Making the star of the show female, and then having male characters not only play second fiddle, but admire a character who can't possibly return the affection and is played non-sexually? That would be interesting, and possibly groundbreaking.
Doctor Who is more than a television show, it's an institution to science fiction fans around the world. Putting a woman in charge would be a powerful thing, but then having primarily male companions? That would be amazing. Young men have many heroes to look up to, but we're rarely given role-models that show us how to deal with powerful women in a non-sexual manner.
We treat women in power differently than we treat men. There is an ongoing argument about Hillary Clinton's age, for instance, although Reagan was 69 when he took the Presidency. When News Corps' Rebekah Brooks was under fire for the phone hacking schedule almost as many words were written about her hair as the allegations themselves. In our world, ask any video game developer, personality, or writer how quickly her gender comes up in attacks.
We learn how to act, and how to accept things, through our fiction, and we have a gigantic problem with women in authority. By creating a female Doctor, and then giving her interesting male companions and having them work together without falling mutually in love, having sex, or keeping her locked in the male gaze, we could begin to work through some of the issues our society has with women in authority.
It may seem silly to pin these hopes on pop culture, but remember that it took Star Trek to bring us one of the first scripted kisses on television. A female Doctor wouldn't just be fun, it would be important. It could be a way to teach young men how to treat powerful women with respect, a lesson that is rarely discussed… well, anywhere. We have a new Doctor, and he seems great so far, but next time?
I'll be hoping for the TARDIS to open, and a woman to step out.