There’s nothing I can say about my delight for the casting of Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor on Doctor Who that hasn’t already been said. For an alien creature that can canonically change genders with their various regenerations, it’s beyond time for the Doctor to be female after a string of a dozen males. For one of the biggest science-fiction works in the history of sci-fi television, it’s a cool move to put a woman behind the wheel of the TARDIS (doubly so in conjunction with a new showrunner finally replacing the increasingly odious Stephen Moffat). And, unsurprisingly, it’s brought out the worst in internet trolling.
The Doctor is a Man. No, the Doctor is a Time Lord. Why does it need to be Politically Correct? Well, the probability of a coin coming up heads a thirteenth time after 12 in a row is pretty unlikely (unless you’re in a Tom Stoppard play), so it’s really more about being Scientifically Correct. And the classic: they’ve ruined my childhood! Look, I know the show is about time travel, but you know that’s just pretend, right? The Doctor can’t really go back to the ’70s and erase all your childhood memories of the colourful scarf and the celery lapel and the bad special effects.
Most disappointingly, while former Doctor Colin Baker was delighted for the news, Peter Davison—who played one of my favourite former Doctors—lamented the fact that the casting of Whittaker meant one less role model for boys. Nothing about the criticism of Whittaker’s casting hit me hard until this, so much so that I’m still thinking and seething about it. I don’t care if some manbaby is going to stop watching because he can’t bear to think of a vagina driving the TARDIS. I don’t care if Daily Mail commenter John Brexit thinks it’s unrealistic for a time-and-space-traveling, regenerating alien to swap gender identities. But I do care about the idea that boys will struggle to look up to a female role model.
I could run through a not-so-brief list of fictional male characters I somehow managed to look up to as a kid, even though we didn’t share the same genitalia (as though I was thinking about what genitals Harry Potter had when I was eight… obviously that didn’t come until the discovery of fanfiction.net), but let me focus on one: when I was a kid, PBS used to broadcast old episodes of this fun, goofy sci-fi show about a guy and his friends who traveled through time and the universe in a phone booth. That guy was pretty cool, and I certainly didn’t enjoy his antics any less because I was a girl and he wasn’t.
What an insult to today’s little boys, to think that they are so simple as to only be able to relate to other males. Luckily, I think that we know better. If little boys weren’t just as excited about Wonder Woman and Rey from Star Wars as they were about Superman and Luke Skywalker, these movies wouldn’t be the phenomenons they were. That’s not to give all the credit to men, of course; women flocking to the cinema to see female protagonists played the main part in these films’ massive box office numbers. We all need role models, real and fictional, male and female, and a move toward a more equitable dispersement of characters we can look up to is always a step forward.
There’s this thing that happens when a woman takes a role of prominence, in fiction or in real life. They’re suddenly defined by their gender, that thing that makes them different. It happens with everyone who doesn’t match the status quo. The female this, the black that, the muslim those.
The weird thing about that when it comes to Doctor Who is that if that was the way it worked, if one attribute could override all other features, the show would have ended when William Hartnell’s run finished. Patrick Troughton looked nothing like Hartnell and his portrayal of the Second Doctor was unique to him and not simply an impression of the First. If changes in the Doctor’s appearance and personality haven’t been enough to alter their inherent Doctorness, then surely (obviously) what makes the Doctor the Doctor goes deeper than that, and changes in their gender won’t affect it either. If you can love the First Doctor and the Fifth and the Ninth, different as they may be, you can love the Thirteenth as well. I suspect that children don’t need this reminder half as much as adults.
So often I see men, especially online, asking how they can relate to women. Well, what they actually want to know is how they can date women, but they don’t realise that if they’re seeing women only as potential mates and not as people just like them, and realising that would do a lot to alleviate their romantic struggles. Maybe if they had grown up being able to look at Luke and Rey, Superman and Wonder Woman, the Fifth Doctor and the Thirteenth, they’d have learned that a whole lot earlier.
I’m confident that the youngest generation will be better than ours, in part because of the beautiful fictional universe that is out there for all of us. Little boys will get to grow up seeing women doing the things that they, too, love to do, and not grow up thinking of us as a whole different species (which, ironically, the Doctor—male or female—is). And little girls will get to grow up seeing their favourite fictional women brandishing lightsabers and saving the world and piloting a time machine and instead of a novelty it will be the norm. And I think we’ll all be the better for it. Stories matter, and there’s room in this wide universe of ours for so many stories to be told.