Jodie Whittaker is going to be the Thirteenth Doctor. We all know why this is a big deal—not just because the role is being taken up by yet another accomplished and talented actor, but because she will be the first woman to do it. I just have a small request to that effect:
Please don’t make the Doctor deal with sexism now that she’s a woman.
But sexism is a thing! the world cries. The past was sexist! The present is sexist! The future will likely be sexist since we’re nowhere near to solving these problems! This issue has and will continue to affect women, and shouldn’t Doctor Who do its best to reflect the real struggles that woman face now that the Doctor is female?
Here’s the thing… No. No, it shouldn’t.
Doctor Who has made attempts in the past to tackle sexism head-on. A few of the Doctor’s companions in the show’s original run were meant to combat stigmas outright: the Third Doctor’s companion Liz Shaw was a scientist, and such a no-nonsense one that she was quickly replaced by the more affable Jo Grant; Sarah Jane Smith was a journalist, who frequently challenged the Doctor and others that she met along the way as to her potential and capabilities. Within the show’s current run, the Doctor often changes his mind as to how concerned companions should be about sexism and social mores; the Ninth Doctor has Rose change her clothes in “The Unquiet Dead” over concern of her starting a riot in modern dress while they visit 1869 Cardiff, Wales. Later on, the Tenth Doctor explains away Rose’s short skirt and tights to Queen Victoria by insisting that she’s a feral child that he’s been chasing after in “Tooth and Claw.” The point is, these problems can and do crop up anywhere—but the show has never been consistent in how it’s chosen to handle sexism.
Because we’re in the midst of movements that are meant to shine a light on the disparity and abuse that women face day to day (Me Too, Time’s Up), it might be tempting for Doctor Who to comment on the times, to show that even our hero has to deal with more than the usual garbage once she’s facing life as a woman. There’s just one problem with that: It goes against all the central tenets that make up the Doctor as a character.
The Doctor is the thinking person’s hero, an agent of compassion and kindness, the one who solves problems with words and cleverness and understanding. And because the Doctor is so intelligent, the character rarely has difficulty walking into a room and assuming control over any given situation. Up until now, that ability has always been wielded by a white man—a fact that, depending on who the Doctor is assuming superiority over, can read as sexist, racist, or even outright imperialist in nature. (Indeed, there are readings of the show that support that notion very well.) But there’s another side to that coin, which is that the Doctor is specifically a wish-fulfillment fantasy for geeky people.
While none of us are likely to achieve super-strength any time soon, most nerds fancy that their greatest merit is knowing things. Geeks have always been known for their obsessive natures—the term “fan” literally comes from fanatic. The idea that knowledge and intelligence is essential to heroism is an idea borne out in many of the figures that geeks specifically relate to and adore, from Sherlock Holmes to Spock. But pointedly, those figures are often portrayed by and as cisgender, able-bodied white men. There are a few beloved characters that allow for deviation from that norm—Willow in Buffy, Felicity and Cisco in the Arrowverse, Barbara Gordon as Oracle in DC Comics—but they’re never the main deal. They are sidekicks and/or essential support to the main heroes. This is what makes Doctor Who different from most mainstream SFF narratives; the nerd is the hero. The nerd is the mythic archetype. The nerd is the universe’s legendary protagonist.
And for the very first time, that legend will be female.
Wish fulfillment is essential on a number of levels. It’s not just about the representation when all is said and done—while it’s important to see a broad array people inhabiting every role imaginable, how we treat those people also makes a difference. If the Doctor is a woman and we suddenly find that the denizens of the universe refuse to trust her out of hand because she’s no longer a man… well, then that’s not the Doctor. Or it is, but it’s the Doctor on a show that doesn’t remember why so many people adore its main character.
Women and girls deserve the same hero, who is permitted to act with the same authority and win the same trust that all the previous iterations were granted. If that is taken from her, then the show is breaking its contract with the viewers. The Doctor is free to be an incredible whirlwind of knowledge, change, and fierce caring… unless she’s a woman, and then people are free to get in her way because that’s how being a woman works. Sorry, ladies—the truth of your existence broke our imaginations. We can conceive of galaxies worth of peril, alien friends and foes, time travel and loops and paradoxes, but we couldn’t possibly fathom a universe in which a woman can go about her life being brilliant without someone “well actually”ing her.
Of course, the show might address sexism as it could affect a Time Lord/Lady, do it briefly and well, and then move on from it. If Chris Chibnall and Jodie Whittaker take that route, I wish them the best of luck and cross my fingers that they do it successfully. But regardless of whether or not the show chooses to handle that concept in a meaningful capacity, I will hope that it is a succinct and short conversation that doesn’t dominate the character and her tenure. Some of the fans of this show have waited over half a century to see this barrier leapt over. To give them something they have clamored for, and then sour the experience by dragging down one of genre’s most lively heroes for the sake of perceived relevance or realism, would be plain depressing.
The fact that we’re in such a harrowing period when it comes to addressing the treatment of women in professional settings (where new abusers are being outed nearly every week) makes this even more essential. Seeing the Doctor advocate for women should always be a part of the show’s makeup, but watching the Doctor herself be attacked, abused, or disbelieved for being female… it’s the kind of reflection we’re already seeing everywhere. Right now, women could use a few more champions. We could benefit from seeing a woman be the smartest/most capable/most helpful person in the room and getting respect for it. And frankly, men could stand to gain from that example, too.
Besides, Doctor Who is still a family show that is aimed at children and teenagers as much as adults. Many of the reactions to Thirteen’s reveal by the BBC were videos of little girls, their jaws dropped, their eyes large with possibility. After being taught to relate over and over to a man—or perhaps only his companions—the Doctor was a little bit closer. A little bit more like them. And every single one of those wide-eyed kids deserves to see a Doctor who can do all the things that the Doctor always does. They don’t need to see people claim that she can’t, or that she won’t, or that she has no power to do those things. Thirteen belongs to them, too.
We don’t always need science fiction and fantasy to teach us more about the horrors of the world we know. Sometimes we need these stories to show us how it can be done without fear, or malice, or pain. Sometimes we need a little utopia before crashing back down to Earth. So while I expect the next Doctor to run into her fair share of trouble, as that’s something she’s always been fond of, I’m still hoping that she’ll be able to find it without anyone being surprised that “a girl!” can do all that.