When there were murmurs of a shake-up to coincide with the exit of Steven Moffat as Doctor Who’s showrunner, I was skeptical. Maybe I’m cynical, but I didn’t see a person of color or a woman or anything “out of the ordinary” suddenly becoming a part of the fifty year canon of the show. Yeah, the companions have gotten more interesting and the show has used more inclusive language, but it’s like twelve white dudes. I mean, I know Joanna Lumley played The Female Doctor during a charity spoof, but that ain’t canon. Or is it? I can never keep track.
I also wasn’t sure I wanted a inarguably canon female Doctor anyway. I didn’t want the fanfare, the blowback, the backlash. In my daily life in the technical side of the film and television industry, I get enough of that. Selfishly, I wanted an escape.
Then the announcement came last weekend that Jodie Whittaker would become the thirteenth doctor and I found myself pretty excited. But I also have a little bit of hesitation. I have many hopes for what this Doctor will bring us in terms of representation and storytelling, but I fear the pressure that will be ascribed to the first woman in the role. Of course it should be notable and celebrated. But it’s just so hard to be the only woman in the room.
As a woman in a male-dominated industry, I live the only-woman-in-the-room experience every day. In post production, only 20% of editors are women. In my part of post — tech and engineering — that number drops significantly. Women all over the tech industries are used to dealing with the challenge of being a minority. They have to fight assumptions about their reproductive plans. They’re passed over for jobs because their names are too feminine. They’re mansplained technologies they invented. They can’t be too forceful without being labeled “bossy”. They must work on their careers from a different angle, not seeming to overstep arbitrary boundaries before their time. As they climb the employment pipeline, they’re promoted less and less often. Numerous studies and an avalanche of anecdotal evidence back up these experiences.
They must perform at a higher level than the men around them to be considered equal. That’s a tall order for the Thirteenth Doctor who enters a rich canon full of beautiful, compelling stories — led by white men with women in assistant roles.
Despite this mounting hesitation, I have a lot of hopes for the new Doctor.
I hope the gender of the Thirteenth Doctor will give the writers a whole new set of possibilities for a character that has otherwise been so thoroughly explored.
The symbol of a female Doctor alone is exciting to many people, but what’s truly thrilling and interesting to me is the potential for the character. For five decades, we’ve explored the world of The Doctor through a man’s eyes, often (but not always) with a female companion only as a foil. For all those years, any part of the experience of being female was mostly defined by and reactive to The Doctor’s choices. Flipping things around with a woman at the helm of the TARDIS opens up a whole new set of potential storytelling options — which is pretty important when you’ve got like a billion episodes of a character’s story behind you. I’m excited about what could be to come for this character, and how the filmmakers may choose to — or not choose to — explore gender, femininity and the experience of being a woman.
But I also hope the Thirteenth Doctor not to be defined only by her stereotypical woman-ness.
The cheap thing to do would be to make this Doctor all about being female. The worst thing that could happen is constant cheap shots about manicures and that time of the month. I truly can’t imagine such blatant poor writing coming from the showrunner of Broadchurch, but I hope the core writing team can keep others in check and prevent them from delving too deeply into what society has told them about being a woman. Can or should The Doctor care about stereotypically feminine things? Sure, of course. Women do all the time and that’s a part of what makes us us. But to define her simply by such a rudimentary understanding of being a woman is more than disrespectful, it’s just plain bad storytelling.
I hope girls see they too can explore time and space alone, not relegated to being girlfriends and wives and companions but rather the bold ancient alien behind the wheel.
Female representation is so incredibly important for the future of storytelling and the future of innovation in all kinds of industries. In the film and television industry, we have a major lack of women — many are interested, but few successfully navigate the boy’s club and are allowed in the room at all. According to numerous studies, when we allow diverse perspectives to converge, the result is always better. Teams work better. Products are better. The experience of the team working on the product is improved. But most of all, the girls and young women out there looking at the possibilities that life offers them need to see women in what have been traditionally male-dominated roles. When they see women in these roles, they will know they can make it too. And maybe they’ll be able to stay in the employment pipeline a little longer, outlasting many of those challenges and criticisms. When more women make it to places of power, they’ll allow more women inside— for example, a recent study showed that productions with at least one female director led to a significant increase in the number of women working on the project.
This all starts when we’re girls. It all starts with Rey and Wonder Woman and the Thirteenth Doctor, and it grows from there.
But I also hope boys see this too.
Equally important to female representation for girls is female representation for boys. Change is slow, and male-dominated industries will continue to be that way for years to come. Boys are seeing Rey and Diana and the Thirteenth Doctor standing side by side with their male superheroes and adventurers. For very young boys, this will be normal. Consider a world where choosing a female version of anything is completely and utterly normal and not worth mentioning — that’s what these young boys may experience.
And as they grow up, their experience as young men will be changed. They may respect women more and understand how rape culture affects us all. They will take women seriously and stop making assumptions about them. They will see women with less and less implicit bias, and that will make the world more inclusive for everyone. Being the only woman in the room will be rare, and if it happens there will be no pressure associated.
I hope Jodie Whittaker has the time of her life playing The Doctor.
But I also know she’ll have to walk the tight rope all women walk in male-dominated industries.
It’s a tough thing being the only woman in the room, but someone has to be first to break that glass ceiling. Let’s just go ahead and fly the TARDIS right through it.