A case for women Doctors

We need to talk about Doctor Who.

I know Doctor Who is everyone’s favorite sci-fi television show. I understand that it is the longest running television show and that it’s able to bridge generational gaps because of it. It is as iconic as Star Trek and more storied than Star Wars. I get that. And the modern remake has fueled a fire in the current generation and spawned toys and games to keep the obsession hot.

But Doctor Who suffers — and always has — from a fatal flaw. Rampant sexism.

The new series of Doctor Who kicked off this weekend with what looks to be a new companion — one who’s dark-skinned and lesbian. And while I’d love to use those things to applaud the show’s attempts to add diversity to television, I can’t.

Despite the ambiguity inherent in the titular character, there has never been a female Doctor. And, though at times there have been multiple travelers with the Doctor, there is always one “Companion” and she is always female.

Since the Peter Capaldi doctor, most of the romantic overtones between Doctor and Companion in the new series have been sidelined, but that doesn’t change the inherently straight, cisgendered nature of the relationship between Companion and Doctor. Adding a lesbian to the mix doesn’t change the fact that the show is still sexist.

Companion is a weird archetype, but it loosely translates to “sidekick” — even when the Companion’s story overtakes that of the Doctor himself — as it did with Clara. A sidekick can never be as important as the hero, and anyway the show isn’t called Clara Oswald — it’s called Doctor Who. No matter what the new showrunners do with the show, no matter what new characters and stories they tell, as long as the Doctor represents only half of the population.

The Doctor is a Time Lord and Time Lords can regenerate. When they do, they take on a new form and a new personality — which is a convenient retcon to explain when leading actors are unavailable to continue the role, and likely at least partially the reason for the show’s longevity. Despite the fact that Time Lords can regenerate to a different gender, that has never happened to the Doctor (though it did happen to the Time Lord known as the Master, sometime arch enemy of the Doctor, who’s currently calling herself Missy).

It’s been posited several times that Time Lords can regenerate only 12 times; Peter Capaldi marks the twelfth doctor. Unless the new showrunners add in some more convenient retcon (something that we can’t exactly put past them in a show like Doctor Who), that would mean that the Doctor is, was, and always will have been, male, an obvious gender imbalance that should put even hardcore fans up in arms. And if they do add convenient retcon to support Doctors beyond the twelfth? Anything other than a long string of female doctors (twelve to be precise) would still be perpetuating this inherent, latent sexism.

Let’s talk about Companions for a moment.

Why has there never been a male companion? In the early days the companion was very much like whatever uterus-bearing, nameless side character in the original Star Trek that Kirk ends up making eyes at — fodder for brief romantic interest and/or involvement and a reflective surface on which to display the Doctor’s genius and ingenuity. In the current incarnation, even during the brief period where Amy Pond‘s husband tags along on the adventure with the eleventh Doctor, the Companion has continued to be, invariably, female. And despite the fact that in the new series, we see the Doctor with a wisecracking bald guy helping him out — wisecracking bald guy is not the Companion. You know this intrinsically the first scene that the character Bill appears — ah, yes, new companion, you think as you see her walk onscreen for the first time. And then you start to wonder (or, I do, anyway) why the Doctor is only ever interested in traveling with women.

I have no problem if the Doctor is just heterosexual, but the current incarnation of the show goes to great lengths to explain how the Doctor/Companion relationship is not romantic, that the Doctor doesn’t want a romantic relationship with his Companion and that he already has a (albeit unusual, time-traveling) relationship with River Song. And that only works if we explore other relationship types as well, which we can’t if the Doctor is only male.

Doctor Who has many great things going for it. It’s also terribly formulaic. To be sure, that gives it some of its charm, but the male/female, Doctor/Companion dynamic — that has been a staple of the show since its inception — is one thing that needs to go. We need more diverse stories in television and in science fiction, in particular. We need stories told from the perspective of more than just straight white men. Give me the show about a time-and-space-traveling heroine and I will be there. Television in a lens through which we perceive the world around us and, as such, needs to reflect the diversity of the world around us, not the homogeneity of writers and producers making the shows.

Sex !== Gender

Feeling confessional and my Twitter rant this morning and the bathroom bill thing has gotten me riled up so I’m going to tell a story.

I wrote a paper while in college (16 years ago) for an independent study I did on gender. (You can still read it, if you like.) My independent study was a result of a personal exploration about gender and it was primarily through the lens of transpeople, because that’s where the real exploration and discovery of gender and what that means is happening. Cisgendered people (individuals who identify with the gender they were given at birth) don’t think about these things because, for the most part, it doesn’t apply to them, and to those people, gender is an easy binary thing.

Gender is not an easy binary thing.

But here’s the thing that I really wanted to highlight and the thing that I feel needs to be reiterated, particularly to the cisgendered people who obviously are responsible for the so-called “bathroom bills” that will put a legal impediment between transpeople entering the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity, is that gender is completely unrelated to sex and sexuality.

The nightmare scenario that organizations like the one described in the Mashable article in my rant portray is this: Transperson is secretly hiding in the bathroom of a gender that is other than the one on their birth certificate for the purpose of taking advantage of the cisgendered individuals visiting said bathroom. This scenario assumes two things, both of which are incorrect:

  1. That being transgendered is a choice, something that can be turned on and off. It isn’t.
  2. That being transgendered is equivalent to some form of “sexual deviancy”.

It’s the second thing that, I believe, is most harmful, but both are pretty terrible. So, let’s talk about that.

The idea that transgender is in any way related to sexual deviancy is predicated on the idea that gender is tied to sex and sexuality. Like sexuality, gender is a spectrum, not a binary, but that’s where the relationship ends. I think it’s safe to say that we have gotten to the point where most people are pretty aware of and to one degree or another can at least acknowledge the fact that who you have sex with is unrelated to your specific anatomy. But we still correlate the two, particularly when discussing the “sex” of a baby or person. It would be comical (and probably inappropriate) to respond to a official form you were filling out when asked “Sex:” to fill in “yes please” or to check the box of the gender with whom you have sex. It’s assumed that “sex” in this context means “gender”. And that’s where the relationship between the two can be confusing and why, in most cases I’m aware of, the question has been reworded from “Sex” to “Gender” which is more accurate.

Let me be clear: a man dressed as a woman to gain access to a women’s restroom for the purpose of attacking women is absolutely something that everyone should be concerned with. But anyone being attacked in any bathroom (or anywhere) for any reason is something that everyone should be concerned with. Women being attacked, sexually or otherwise, by men is something that everyone should be concerned with. Attacks on people of color is something that everyone should be concerned about. Attacks on queer people is something everyone should be concerned about. Attacks on transpeople is something everyone should be concerned about. The thing that’s different here is the idea that someone “snuck in” to some place they were not welcome and in all other contexts are not allowed. And the reason it’s such a hot topic is because bathrooms, in particular, are places where we make ourselves more vulnerable. But the case that Just Want Privacy is using to prove their point, doesn’t actually prove anything — it wasn’t a person who was transgendered attacking a cisgendered woman, it was a cisgendered man in a women’s bathroom attacking a cisgendered woman. Your argument is invalid.

Let’s back up a bit and look at the root of the problem which is the idea that gender is binary. Because that’s the crux of the bathroom issue. There are two bathrooms, one with an image depicting what’s assumed to be a man, but really just looks like a non-specific human, and one with an image depicting what’s assumed to be a woman — identified with the triangular shape that is intended to represent a skirt or a dress. Here’s a fun fact: men wear dresses and skirts. Women wear pants and leggings. And then there’s a whole host of people in between that are not accurately depicted by these two minimalist representations of humanity that we somehow have to shove ourselves into every time we enter a public restroom.

I went to a pretty liberal program at a university in Southern California — one that was afforded a fair bit of leniency in self-governance and independence from the rest of the university. And before I walked on campus, I was told that the bathrooms were non-gender-specific. And sure, at first, I thought that was kind of sexy. You know what’s not sexy? Going to the bathroom. And that’s what a gender neutral bathroom was. Just a bunch of people using the bathroom. Yes, there were showers in there. Yes, people of both genders used them. Never, in the three years I spent there, was there ever a problem with non-gendered bathrooms. It was just a thing that existed and everyone was fine with it (possibly after a little initial time getting used to it). So, I’m acutely aware that the real solution to this problem is not to check what’s under the skirt, but to remove the binary and normalize the idea that gender isn’t one.

My independent study on gender was the result of going through a period of gender dysphoria which largely came down to not accepting or identifying with the typical expectations our society has for what it means to be “male”. “Men” are supposed to be strong, fearless, courageous. They are the protector and the breadwinner. They are dominant and assertive. They can also be violent and angry. They can be abusers and assailants. They are predominantly responsible for the depressing statistics around the number of women who have been sexually assaulted some time in their lifetime. “If there’s a choice, and I have one, I don’t want to be associated with that” went the thinking.

The same year, I went to a conference at Occidental College with the on-campus GLBSU (Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Straight Union). One of the things that remains with me from that experience is a workshop/session/discussion about bisexuality, in which everyone in the room was asked to stand in a line, and place themselves on that line with where they put themselves in terms of attraction to members of the opposite gender — the idea being that sexuality is not binary, there is a spectrum and all of it is okay. We were then asked where we would have put ourselves a couple years ago. And where we think we might put ourselves in a couple years. Where you place yourself in that spectrum changes over time.

From my independent study, the thing that was reinforced over and over (besides that gender is not the same as sexuality) is that gender is also a spectrum. I’ve come to the point where I no longer believe in binaries unless I’m dealing with software. People don’t work in binaries. Nature doesn’t work in binaries. We talk about being “on the spectrum” when we’re talking about Autism — the idea that there’s no single, all-encompassing definition of Autism, it’s a range of different things in different intensities, and each individual experience is unique.

The idea that groups like Just Want Privacy want you to believe — that a transgendered woman is really just a sexually deviant man in a dress — is preposterous. And it’s extremely harmful. It’s harmful to those who identify as transgendered on an emotional level, but it’s also harmful in a very real, physical level, by playing on people’s fears, by positing the idea that they are “wrong” and can and should be “fixed” it fosters fear and hatred toward transgendered individuals. Bills like this create a culture a fear which cultivates violence towards those deemed socially unacceptable.

Transgendered women are women. Transgendered men are men. As long as gendered bathrooms still exist, you wouldn’t ask a woman to enter a men’s bathroom and you wouldn’t ask a man to enter a women’s bathroom. So please, stop doing it.