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Making ‘Doctor Who’ A Woman Is Cliché, Not Groundbreaking


The universe is still echoing with the news that the 13th Doctor in the iconic British scifi show “Doctor Who” will be a woman. But as declared, “It was always unlikely that the Doctor would continue to be white and male, especially as the BBC has committed itself to greater diversity on its programmes.” By way of a woman doctor, the article asserts with just a hint of triumph, “the time travel show has firmly moved into the 21st Century.”

Yet this move isn’t exactly earth-shattering. It’s hardly even controversial. What’s jammed up the screwdrivers of fans critical of the move, I believe, isn’t the female Doctor herself so much as yet another female lead on television. They’re against radical change, in favor of preservation and nostalgia. Indeed, Will Howells, writer for Doctor Who magazine, said, “I don’t think it’s a risky choice at all.”

Of course not. No one involved in or close to show business would consider it a risky move. Peter Capaldi, the 12th Doctor, had been calling for the sex change, as have former co-stars Karen Gillan and Billie Piper. Writer and producer Steven Moffat had apparently been “laying the groundwork” for this for years (a possible allusion to the Doctor’s daughter in series four?). In contrast to the much more ridiculous view that James Bond should be played by a woman, this is a no-brainer for a character that regenerates into a new person every few years.

Since ‘Buffy,’ We’ve Seen A Pattern In Female Roles

The Doctor’s transition epitomizes the problem with television’s relationship to what it calls “feminism”—that is, creating hundreds of kickass female leads that are supremely strong, fierce, fast, and clever. The BBC piece went on to state the obvious: “Strong female-led stories have been successful on the big and small screen in recent years, in films ranging from The Hunger Games and Star Wars to Wonder Woman, and in TV series like Game of Thrones.”

One can probably trace the archetype of the strong female heroine back to Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” which was designed to do everything feminist fans say the 13th Doctor will accomplish, 20 years later. By all counts Whedon succeeded: The show ran seven full seasons and Buffy is a feminist icon. She even appeared in “Black Ops: Zombies” some 10-odd years after Sarah Michelle Gellar debuted as “the slayer” (seriously).

But the feminist refrains echo endlessly, because whatever came before is inexplicably irrelevant when some super-brave producer that’s so not looking to cash in decides to crush the patriarchy: The future is female! We can’t have male leads forever! Break the glass ceiling! Women can be strong!

My beef with the 13th Doctor isn’t that Jodie Whittaker is taking over the role. I believe the Doctor, being a timelord and presumably not bound by the human binary, is a flexible enough role to accommodate and even thrive as a female. Whittaker seems perfectly capable, and the writers are perfectly capable, because, again, they’re completely accustomed to writing and watching female leads.

Rather, my frustration derives from the fact that the Doctor was not just acceptable but laudable the way he always has been. At least since the reboot in ‘05, he’s never been macho and never acted to demean, repress, or obscure women and their power. From Rose Tyler to Clara Oswald, all the Doctor’s companions have been strong, independent, witty, brave, and kind. From the perspective of someone who doesn’t spend her days obsessing over gender representation, there was nothing that needed fixing or rebooting with such a significant change as moving the Doctor from male to female. To insist this change was necessary suggests that this isn’t about empowering women so much as tearing down men (but maybe I’m just not woke to the struggle).

We Have Plenty Of Strong Female Leads On TV

But progress from the gender progressive view never ceases. We’ll never progress far enough. Producers, writers, and actors haven’t just bought into that idea, they’re heavily invested in it. And why shouldn’t they be? “The Hunger Games” series was a blockbuster. We’ve had female leads in the “Star Wars” mega franchise with “The Force Awakens” and “Rogue One”; “Game of Thrones” has sucked in nearly every adult in the nation, and we’ve had countless other female leads in “Orange is the New Black,” “iZombie,” “The 100,” “The Shannara Chronicles,” “Shadowhunters,” “Continuum,” “Haven,” “Quantico,” “Supergirl”… just click through your Netflix home page and watch the titles stack up.

So you can imagine my incredulity when I read Kristi Stone Hamrick’s piece titled,  “Game of Thrones Depicts Women Who are Strong without Pretending to be Men,” in which she praises GoT for its array of “strong” female leads: heart-breakers, throne-takers, and warrior daughters “who could inspire Amazons.” Hamrick asserts that “These women’s talents and drive makes [sic] them compelling.”

That may be the case, but to say that GoT’s creator “may be the ultimate feminist today” because “He has created a world in which women advance to the throne because they have the right, the talent, and the drive to win,” gives him a bit too much credit as a mover and shaker in fiction. George R.R. Martin’s first book published just a year before “Buffy’s” debut, and his subsequent work, assuming Hamrick’s characterization is accurate, follows a common trope of female empowerment rising in prominence over the last two decades in fiction. What’s more, “Game of Thrones” airs contemporaneously with “The 100,” in which women rule tribes, form alliances, assassinate opponents, are fueled by their loss and fight for their people. Sound familiar?

The abilities and strengths of these badass female characters easily spin off into jaw-dropping impossibility, something others have treated in depth; I cannot speak for the characters in GoT, but Octavia from “The 100” is a prime example of how writers of the archetypal badass female can exasperate an otherwise very generous audience when it comes to what is “possible” in the show’s world.

In Season Four, Octavia has knife and spear-throwing abilities that rival Wonder Woman’s, after practicing for only three years. She throws a spear all the way through the back of someone’s skull from across the room, which not even a strong male can do. Later, she is stabbed through the abdomen, falls 30-odd feet into a ravine face down into a river, then survives to climb onto her horse and ride back to camp. Then she recovers and bests a series of warriors, most of them men, in a fight to the death. Seriously.

TV Doesn’t Offer Us Enough Valiant, Good Men

This gross misrepresentation of women’s physical abilities (or “women pretending to be men”) bombards us from the big and small screens alike, but producers churning out these uber-strong sexy female leads are surfing behind the crest of the wave. Eventually it will run out, as audiences begin to tire on the “badass female” and realize the TV drama genre is deficient in good male leads, like the Doctor.

It’s past time for an uptick in heroic male protagonists (superheroes notwithstanding). We don’t need more angsty anti-heroes like Walter White and Dexter and Don Draper; we need more good guys. Strong yet compassionate, not perfect but with some semblance of moral composure, like Hiro from “Heroes,” or Jamie from “Blue Bloods.”  They might be more idealistic than today’s cynical audience, but fans love them because they are noble and chivalrous, much like the Doctor.

Our society has experienced a rise in fatherlessness, unemployed men, and ineligible bachelors in real life. Since all of us who regularly consume TV are some milder version of Abed from “Community”we are raised, instructed and comforted by TV—what attracts us in entertainment reflects not just our idealism and our view of human nature, but what we crave in human relationships. The scores of beautiful female leads appeal visually and idealistically, but the charm will wear off; we are already beginning to see it in fans balking the 13th Doctor.

Feminists have it wrong if they peg critical Whovians as misogynistic or “scared” (as Whittaker encourages us not to be) when they’re just as likely to be “Buffy” fans. We’re not talking “Gamergate” here. Can you blame a fan (particularly an American one) for seeing a female Doctor as piling on the feminist bandwagon, in a fiction scape already saturated with “empowered” female leads? It’s a betrayal not just of tradition, but of a good man, in favor of a “new” woman who’s part of an archetype almost as old and stale as the inside of a Dalek.