Friday, 7 September 2018

Suzanne says… when gender becomes a tricky notion

Earlier this week, I read a tweet about the title of Series 13’s first episode. The author was pointing out that since the notion of gender was irrelevant in Doctor Who, a title like “The woman who fell to Earth” might be considered a bit awkward. I found this statement quite interesting and therefore I decided to explore this whole gender issue with a fresh eye and share my findings with you.

It all started when the Twelfth Doctor regenerated into the Thirteenth Doctor. Not only did his face change, but so did also his body.

"No biggie," as Nardole would probably say. But the whole Whoniverse reacted to this regeneration like it never had before. It was a huge change, one that couldn’t possibly go unnoticed. The Thirteenth Doctor now has the appearance of a woman, and soon a need for clarification was needed, which kind of spoiled that equality symbol Doctor Who was trying to implement. Once you start explaining and justifying why the Doctor could/may/will be a woman, you’re basically saying that men and women aren’t equals. You’re saying that because the Doctor has a female body, this needs explaining. Wrong message. It’s like explaining why women should be paid the same amount of money that a man for doing the same job. To me, equality means "no questions asked", whether it’s fair or it’s not.

Everybody knew that Time Lord might regenerate in either a male or a female body. We already experienced it with the General and the Master. Even Neil Gaiman introduced the idea in The Doctor’s Wife with the mention of the Corsair having been a woman on occasion. So why is it such a big deal if the Doctor looks like a woman now?

It became a big deal because of the "Doctor Who is not about gender" speeches. At that moment, pretty much everyone lost context.

Doctor Who is the story of an alien, right? But a story told by humans who would as such react as humans. We feel a need to label things, to turn them into facts and rules. So when an alien comes on Earth looking like an ordinary human male, we assume that this alien has a gender. Mind you, he even has a granddaughter and then a daughter! He can also get married. So to us, he is pretty much like an ordinary human, and it’s quite common to see him being mistaken for one (with some nasty consequences, as the Seventh Doctor could testify). He might look human, but he is not. He is really not. The two hearts might have given it away already. I would go even as far as writing that Zygons are less alien than the Doctor!

Time Lords are oblivious to gender change, or so it would seem if you remember what Missy says to the Master in The Doctor Falls:
"Am I a woman now?"
This would back up the "gender is irrelevant" argument. But it’s not that simple, because some quotes and scenes tend to contradict this. Missy emphasising on being called a "Time Lady" for starters, but then, as Valerie Estelle Frankel pointed out in The significance of Missy: a look at gender flips in Doctor Who Series 8 and 9:

"It’s also disturbing that Missy, having gender-flipped, falls desperately in love with the Doctor, like many of the companions. Certainly, the Doctor is central in the Master’s life — the childhood friend he’s always measured himself against. But smooching? On some level this suggests that being female means falling romantically for the Doctor, succumbing to emotion rather than playing out rational, chess-like plots against him."
And then, still in The Doctor Falls, there is this scene strongly suggesting that the Master is aroused by Missy - which is wrong on many levels - but the bottom line is that it proves that Time Lords have a notion of gender. Maybe it’s not as clearly defined as ours, maybe they don’t experience it just like we do (remember that kiss Missy gives to Twelve, and how shocked he looked?), but still it doesn’t help Whovians to unite over the 13th Doctor. Think about it this way: it is already hard to unite Classic Who lovers with New Who lovers, now we are about to add male Doctor lovers versus female Doctor lovers.


And now there is another point to be discussed: the audience’s expectations. Because of the gender change, it is obvious that the 13th Doctor will have to be very convincing, which means that the audience will expect more of Series 11 than it did for previous series. And that’s another blow to equality because, let’s face it, should some episodes be weaker than the previous series, voices will raise, saying it’s because the Doctor is a woman, not because the storyline is weak. I’m just imagining the stress and pressure Chris Chibnall might feel as series 11 air date approaches (it’s October 7th!) and I don’t envy him right now.

But let’s go back to that tweet and to the first episode’s title: The woman Who Fell to Earth. From a Time Lord perspective, and if we consider that gender is irrelevant, this title is weird at best, very clumsy at worse. "The Gallifreyan who fell to Earth" might have been a better choice. Here is an even cleverer one: "The Alien who fell to Earth".

Remember what I wrote earlier: Doctor Who is a story told by humans. Now imagine that you’re enjoying a late night on your terrace and someone falls from the sky to crash in your garden. First thing you’ll do is check on what is going on. What would you see?

A woman who fell to Earth.