Mansplainer #5: Why Whovians are Upset and Why It Matters

On August 4th, 2013, the salivating masses of fanatical Whovians tuned in to the much anticipated unveiling of the Twelfth Doctor. The announcement came in the form of a live broadcast televised special hosted by Zoë Ball. I, like many salivating fanatical Whovians, tuned in with equal measures of excitement and apprehention. You see, I’ve been a dovoted fan for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of watching Tom Baker episodes at my grandmother’s house (she had cable). And as a devoted fan, the revival of the series in 2005 has sparked a resurgence in my obsessive fandom. So you get the excitement. But then there’s the apprehension.

Steven Moffat is an undeniably talented writer. His episode “Blink” is one of my favourite episodes of any series, and an accomplished stand-alone horror film in its own right. Weeping Angels creep me the heck out, to the point that, as I will include a picture of one in this post, I will never look at this post again after it’s published. Go ahead, laugh at me. Then send me a picture of a Weeping Angel just to freak me out. You won’t be the first. So we know that Moffat is capable of great writing. He’s also capable of very problematic writing.

Caption goes here.

Still a better love story than Twilight

Since Moffat took over as show runner, we’ve seen a marked decline in the quality of representations of women on the show, and a stunning increase in the number of episodes that fail the Bechdel Test. The women have become increasingly tokenized and reduced to snappy labels often supplanting “woman” to favour “girl”, as is the case with “The Girl Who Waited” or “The Impossible Girl”. This relegation of female characters to shallow tropes and problematic representations (and the apparently inevitable story line of women sacrificing themselves for the benefit of The Doctor) was initially lost on me. When Matt Smith took the role of a younger and allegedly sexier Doctor, a clear marketing move to attract a younger audience, he did so in such an engaging and charasmatic way that I was entirely drawn in. Similarly, when Karen Gillen appeared in her sexygram police outfit as Amy Pond, it didn’t seem out of place after having immersed myself in the prime time programming style of Torchwood. It did not dawn on me until several years later that the joke in that scene was “See? Women can have strong and empowering jobs as police officers just like men. Ha ha! Just kidding! She’s a sex object.” This went largely over my head because in spite of the problems, and an entire lack of a back story, I really enjoyed watching Amy Pond. The performance was enticing and the dialogue rich. It was still good television, and it still felt like Doctor Who. I even didn’t notice that Rory’s character arc involved endlessly wallowing in the “friendzone” in the hopes that one day, she’d realize what kind of good catch he is. Unfortunately, this is somewhat typical of Moffat’s understanding of women and relationships.

My enjoyment of the show suffered immensly when Clara Oswald was brought on board as the Doctor’s companion. Don’t get me wrong. Jenna Coleman is fantastically talented. I loved her as Nina Oswin (“Souffle Girl”) in Asylum of the Daleks, and when the Doctor met her again in the Christmas special, she played the role with depth and agency. And then she [SPOILERS] died. Again. I mean, her fate in Asylum of the Daleks was cool, but in the special, it seemed like the Doctor just let her die. As though he could have saved her, but didn’t bother because something mysterious was going on and he was confident that he’d see her again. At least, if he wasn’t confident, the writers were.

doctor-who-clara-oswaldSo began the mystery of Clara, the “Impossible Girl” which would carry the second half of the seventh season. Or so we thought, because girls are people, and people have depth, and aren’t cardboard cutouts or plot devices. While Jenna Coleman held her own the first two times we’d seen her, there was nothing she could do to compensate for the lack of quality writing or consistent characterization she was handed. Sometimes she was dragged around by the Doctor just doing what he says, other times she was taking charge of an army. The Doctor seemed to have little consideration for her, her wellbeing, or even the wellbeing of the children that got dragged into danger with them. Something about this season just felt off. From the Doctor irresponsibly letting Clara face an Ice Warrior alone,Doctor Sex Assault to coercing her into following him to investigate ghosts that she was visibly terrified of (even though the Ice Warrior didn’t make her break a sweat), to sexually assaulting someone he knew was a lesbian. Each episode became more and more difficult to watch, as I could no longer turn a Voltairian blind eye towards the blatant misogyny that had taken over the show.

All of these seems rather typical of television. Sexist tropes, problematic representation, regressive values. So why should we care? What sets Doctor Who apart from the rest of the drivel on television?

They're not sisters.

They’re not sisters.

Well, for one thing, as with much Sci-Fi, Doctor Who has a history of being socially progressive. Much like Star Trek, many of the stories in Doctor Who served as powerful (albeit campy) allegories about serious issues. The Doctor served as a role model who preferred non-violent resolution to conflict. He would favour diplomacy over killing and never carried a weapon. Whether discussing environmentalism, slavery, or eugenics and ethnic cleansing, the series has been unabashed in its forward thinking progressive agenda.

This legacy was honoured and carried forward when Russel T. Davies revived the series in 2005. From the start, Rose Tyler was presented as a brave character with agency and self-determination. The 9th Doctor spends his first couple of encounters with her telling her not to follow him or get close. Instead, knowing the risks (and after saving his ass), she makes the decision to accompany him on his journeys. This is a far cry from the 11th Doctor dragging Clara around like a puzzle he’s trying to figure out.

Mickey briefly joins in the adventuring becoming the first black character on the series to be a part-time traveling companion, and in Season 3, Martha Jones, a black woman (and a med student), joins the cast in a leading role as the Doctor’s companion. These steps forward are important, and not without precedent. In the series’ hiatus throughout the 90s, the Star Trek franchise made leaps and bounds with positive representation. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine presented a black Benjamin Sisko commanding a space station (eventually promoted to Captain when he received his own ship) in 1993, and Star Trek: Voyager gave us the Kathryn Hepburn-esque Captain Janeway in 1995. Janeway’s first officer, a Native American. This pushed the bar of representation, carrying the tradition set by the original series of normalizing people of different ethnicities and genders in regular jobs as with Uhura and Sulu. The 2005 Doctor Who had some catching up to do, and it appeared they were making the effort.

It’s no wonder that upon the announced regeneration, fans were promoting the idea that the Doctor could regenerate as a woman. Or a person of colour. Or both. After all, Neil Gaiman had made it canon that Timelords can switch sex when regenerating when he wrote a line of dialogue about the Corsair. The seed had been planted and the time is right.

Or so, it would have been right, had the show not taken a 180° shift from progressive to regressive, when Steven Moffat took over as show runner. If you’re not convinced that Moffat is at the root of the problem (or that there is a problem), consider that under Russel T. Davies, only about 1 in 5 episodes would fail the Bechdel test. Under Steven Moffat, that number has more than tripled. The last episode of Doctor Who written by a woman aired in 2008 (Moffat took over in 2009) and there haven’t been any women writing for the show since. And, Moffat has said this:

“There’s this issue you’re not allowed to discuss: that women are needy. Men can go for longer, more happily, without women. That’s the truth. We don’t, as little boys, play at being married – we try to avoid it for as long as possible. Meanwhile women are out there hunting for husbands. The world is vastly counted in favour of men at every level – except if you live in a civilised country and you’re sort of educated and middle-class, because then you’re almost certainly junior in your relationship and in a state of permanent, crippled apology. Your preferences are routinely mocked. There’s a huge, unfortunate lack of respect for anything male.”

To me, this explains everything. And further illustrates why Doctor Who needs radical change. And I’m far from the only one who thinks so. During the broadcast announcement of the 12th Doctor, Matt Smith let slip a male pronoun. Was the cat out of the bag? Was it a red herring? Who knew. Apparently, not Zoë Ball who made a point of saying that it would be awkward if a woman walked out and Smith had referred to her as “he”. In the 90 seconds leading up to the announcement, clips were compiled of people stating that the time was right for something different, that Doctor Who should go in a newer and bolder direction. Stephen Hawking said that he would like to see the Doctor played by a woman who is accompanied by a male companion. Myself, and presumably thousands of rabid Whovians on the edge of our seats thought, “This is it. This is what we’ve been waiting for.” I’d been hoping for Helen Mirren, although she’d already denied rumours of her casting, after she once expressed interest in the role. Moffat, was apparently aware of this as he followed Hawking’s appearance by saying he’d heard Mirren thought that a woman should play the role. “Well,” he continued “I’d like to see a man play The Queen.”

*stunned silence*

Ladies, gentlemen, multi-sex, undecided or robot… we present you with the Twelfth Doctor… upholding the status quo… another white man.


The announcement and the way that they built it up could not have been a bigger “fuck you” to fans. It was the joke of Amy Pond dressed like a cop all over again, on a larger and more insulting scale.

They deliberately played with our anticipation, hopes, and expectations, all to have a laugh at our expense. A man to play the Queen? Why don’t we take it a step further and bring back the good old days when women weren’t allowed on stage in theatre and all roles were played by men, because all this “equality” thing is tiresome, isn’t it.

Doctor Who has had 50 years of regenerations as white males. That’s 50 years of positive role models for white men, which is a good thing for sure, but white men aren’t the only ones in need of positive role models. They have plenty. And role models are important. Television has been shown to increase the self-esteem of children white boys. Let’s spread some of that self-esteem around, shall we?

Martin Luther King Jr. understood the importance of representation on Television. When Nichelle Nicols contemplated quitting Star Trek after one season (to pursue her dream of a career on broadway), King talked her out of it with the following speech:

“STOP! You cannot! You cannot leave this show! Do you not understand what you are doing?! You are the first non-stereotypical role in television! Of intelligence, and of a woman and a woman of color?! That you are playing a role that is not about your color! That this role could be played by anyone? This is not a black role. This is not a female role! A blue eyed blond or a pointed ear green person could take this role! Nichelle, for the first time, not only our little children and people can look on and see themselves, but people who don’t look like us, people who don’t look like us, from all over the world, for the first time, the first time on television, they can see us, as we should be! As intelligent, brilliant, people! People in roles other than slick tap dancers, and maids, which are all wonderful in their own ways, but for the first time we have a woman, a WOMAN, who represents us and not in menial jobs, and you PROVE it, this man [Gene Rodenberry] proves and establishes a precedent that validates what we are marching for because three hundred years from today there we are, and there you are, in all our glory and all your glory! And you CANNOT leave!”

King understood that television could make a difference. That science fiction, in its visionary futurism could construct idealistic worlds that break conventions, defy outdated constraints, and effect positive change in the here and now. That a mere campy sci-fi show could be a bastion of morality and social justice in a world overwrought with oppression, prejudice, and bigotry. You know, how Doctor Who should be.



6 responses to “Mansplainer #5: Why Whovians are Upset and Why It Matters

  1. I get where you’re coming from. I really do. I was hoping and praying for a non-white-male casting as much as anyone else — actually, I’m still holding onto a small, slender hope that everything is going to be really weird come Christmas and somehow Capaldi is more of a smokescreen. So I get it. Misogyny and sexism can ruin a book, a movie, an episode or era of tv for me. Feminism is a cause dear to my heart, and I love analysising fiction. I like Rose and Donna, Harriet Jones, Mickey, Jack Harkness. I love Martha Jones. So I ask to imagine the pain it causes me to read this; imagine someone dismissing Rose as a psychopathic damsel, Martha as a lovelorn puppy and Donna as a 2-dimensional shrew, all in the name of feminism. That’s what it feels like.

    Please try to think through things yourself before you write them, because there are so many empty cliches circulating people have said a thousand times without realising that they don’t make sense. Case in point: the woman/girl thing is *hilarious*, because what it does is compare Donna’s “Most Important Woman” moniker to those of two people 20 years younger than her. Rose and Martha are frequently called girls. (The Woman Who Walked the Earth is a fan creation; no one uses it on the show) River is called a woman. There’s literally nothing in it.
    –It did not dawn on me until several years later that the joke in that scene was “See? Women can have strong and empowering jobs as police officers just like men. Ha ha! Just kidding! She’s a sex object.”– No, that… that’s not true. You just made that up. We know she’s becomes an author and publisher in later life, there’s no excuse for this at all.
    — in spite of the problems, and an entire lack of a back story,– we see her parents, boyfriend and husband, best friend, acquaintances, aunt, various childhoods; we know favourite subject at school, that she played hockey and liked her cat Biggles, disliked a woman with an annoying dog; no, of course, it’s not backstory unless… I legit can’t tell what your criteria is here.
    –Rory’s character arc involved endlessly wallowing in the “friendzone” in the hopes that one day, she’d realize what kind of good catch he is.– This is *hilariously* wrong, because Rory is introduced as Amy’s (sort of) boyfriend, and then fiance, which precludes a ‘friendzone’ situation. (Hate that term) Rory’s arc revolves around growing up, becoming less insecure, and… well he’s mostly just there to represent home to Amy, so he doesn’t get that much of an arc, but he does get more capable at Adventuring and stuff. Also also, she loves him. Even when she can’t say it.

    –I loved her as Nina (“Souffle Girl”) in Asylum of the Daleks– this was the point at which I realised this was going to be painful, because her name was *Oswin*. If you can’t get the facts, how can I trust your opinion on the subjective things?

    –it seemed like the Doctor just let her die.– What, with the pained looks and begging the universe to be kind? What?
    –the Doctor irresponsibly letting Clara face an Ice Warrior alone– *let* her? He was the only person against it.
    –to coercing her into following him to investigate ghosts that she was visibly terrified of– She asked him to dare her. She was scared, but wanted to be the kind of person who would do it. (more on this later) And she really wasn’t terrified either.
    –(even though the Ice Warrior didn’t make her break a sweat)– She was scared. So scared by the end that she sung, when earlier she’d been too proud to.
    –to sexually assaulting someone he knew was a lesbian– I’m *pretty sure* it’s Matt Smith in that picture. Steven Moffat is shorter and has black curly hair. Also, if you examine the credits carefully you’ll see that “Mark Gatiss” is not a pseudonym for “Steven Moffat”. And you were complaining about Moffat, no?
    On the Bechdel test: ugh, that information is hideously inaccurate. For example, in The Eleventh Hour Amy talks to Mrs Angelo about her jobs, but TEH is listed as a zero.
    On the ‘needy’ quote: Moffat has said that that was a misquote, that he was describing the viewpoint of a character in a show. (The most repellent character) Judging by how he wrote Amy and Rory, I am greatly inclined to agree with him.

    The RTD companions were: Rose “The Doctor won’t stop travelling, so I can’t” Tyler, whose life consisted of self-described “nothing”, travelling with the Doctor, and searching for the Doctor; Mickey, continually put down compared to the white main characters; Martha, continually put down compared to the white previous main character; Jack, pansexual described as “wrong”; and Donna, for whom being mind-raped by the Doctor was a chance for the show to wallow in *his* tragedy. This is the backdrop on which Clara appears. Clara, who has 8 episodes and yet a characterisation of breathtaking complexity and consistency.
    I’ll start with you: “Sometimes she was dragged around by the Doctor just doing what he says, other times she was taking charge of an army.” Funny thing is, taking charge of said army was also doing what he said… The key concept for Clara is conventionality; she wants to and tries quite hard hard to do what she’s ‘supposed’ to do. This is is expressed in many ways. There’s Cold War: she mocks singing because a Russian submarine is not like Pinocchio, wants to know if she did okay talking to Skaldak, says it “went about as bad as it could have done, but that wasn’t my fault.” (Notice too that her fear only overcomes her at the end, when Skaldak is on the ship: when the situation is completely out of her control. Other than that it just makes her pale faced and preoccupied, slow to react) There’s Hide, where she draws strength from the Doctor expecting her to be brave. (Where the mask cracks a little, and she’s willing to put others at risk to get what she wants) There’s Journey (ttCotT) where she cries “Good guys do not have zombie creatures! Rule one, basic storytelling!” There’s Nightmare in Silver, where the Doctor tells her to find somewhere defensible and not to let them blow up the planet, and approximately half her orders are repeating one of the two; where she never questions that wearing a badge puts her in charge. (She picks the castle, as any reader of high fantasy would) There are moments when it’s hard to tell what proportion of her motivation is natural and what is affected: encouraging Merry Gallell is probably more of the former; staying with the Maitlands an even mix; saying there’s no point him telling her it’s too dangerous is, I think, more on the side of acting as ‘a companion’ should. If you get the impression that Clara is a generic companion, well. That’s exactly what she wants you to think.
    But there’s more to her than just doing what’s expected. Her long-held desire to travel, the thread of selfishness, her quiet grief over her mother, her kindness and intelligence and wonder. Her best moments come when she sets aside convention, when she acts outside the paradigm that’s been set up. Bells of Saint John: “it’s not the security, it’s the people”. Rings of Akhaten: everyone is feeding the planet memories, but she gives it potential. Crimson Horror: forget screwdriver, I’ve got a chair! Her best moment in Nightmare in Silver is deciding to electrify the moat, a wholly unique idea. I think her arc will see her move towards being far less conventional; think of Victorian!Clara, based on the Clara at her oldest so far, defying Victorian society and conventions to pursue her own interests.

    Look, why is this casting as worse than every other time it’s been a white guy? In the RTD era we had two white guys as the Doctor. Overall the pattern sucks, but why exactly is this one casting worse? In the entire expanded universe there have been over 30 actors playing the Doctor, including a grand total of one (1) black man, two (2) white women, and zero (0) women of colour. One of those women, by the by, was in The Curse of Fatal Death. By Steven Moffat.

    One more thing. The Queen *will* be played by a man: the next three people in the line of succession are all male. Which puts rather a different spin on that comment, doesn’t it?

    • Thanks for your awesome and thorough reply. I really appreciate it. I don’t think I have time immediately to address everything in it, so I’ll just respond to a few quick things now, and write you something more thorough later.

      First off, good catch on “Nina”. The inclusion was the result of bad google-fu on my part. “Nina” is a name mentioned in the episode, but indeed, Coleman was playing Oswin. I’ve edited the post to reflect this change.

      I’m sorry that my take on Clara caused you pain. I loved Rose, Martha, and Donna as well (and I was particularly fond of Amy as well) and can imagine having them dissected in front of me in ways I disagree with. Personally, I felt pain when watching the Clara episodes and feeling distaste at the representation and having a hard time latching on to something of a consistent character in her. And I’m not the only one to feel this hurt. I don’t pretend to speak for others, but most of what I put in this post stemmed from conversations I’ve had with friends while the show was airing. Personally, I’d love for me reading of it to be completely wrong and Clara to show us some depth and agency in the new season.

      Yes, that picture is of Matt Smith. He’s dipping Jenny Smith and planting a non-consensual kiss on her lips, after we she slaps him, and it’s played up for laughs. I was not amused when I saw that, and some of my friends had much worse things to say. I’m not sure, where in that paragraph, it was implied that Steven Moffat was the one committing sexual assault, as I was listing things the Doctor had done. And yes, Gatiss wrote it, but was Moffat not still show runner?

      Regarding Rory, the “friendzone” (I don’t like the term either) comment is in reference to his back story. As kids, Rory was only ever interested in Amy and showed it by being a devoted friend and playing with her, and never showing any interest in other girls. Because of this, Amy thought he was gay, until Mels points out to her that he fancies her. He had absolutely been friendzoned up until that point.

      This casting is worse than previous casting, in my view, because other aspects of representation on the show have gotten worse since RTD left. As I mentioned in the post, had the characterizations remained strong and positive or deep, then I think many of us wouldn’t have cared that another white male was cast in the role, as we’d get our fill of a representative protagonist. It matters because the show has gotten worse, and this is a solid step that many are advocating that could make it better. Of course, after the announcement, some had pointed out that we’d dodged the bullet of a female Doctor written by Moffat. It’s worse than the previous casting because when they made the announcement, they took the decision to make a joke about the prospect of the Doctor being a woman. They took something that fans deeply care about, and played it up for laughs. It was cruel and furthers the point that the fans are right.

      And spot on about the Queen being played by a man. With a few exceptions, the British monarchy has mostly been ruled by men, and it wouldn’t surprise me of Moffat would like to keep it that way.

      • –And spot on about the Queen being played by a man. With a few exceptions, the British monarchy has mostly been ruled by men, and it wouldn’t surprise me of Moffat would like to keep it that way.–
        Mmkay. This is how much you misinterpreted what *I* said. What I meant was, he set up an equivalency between the two. “If the Doctor is played by a woman, the Monarch will be played by a man.” + the monarch is a role that will be played by a man = ___. (I have to admit that even I’ve noticed I’m inferring Shenanigans from every stray detail, like “not doing auditions is exactly what you’d do if he wasn’t really going to be the Doctor!” etc.) So you see why, well, I think should terminate this conversation. That sort of gap in perspective is rarely bridged.

        Which clearly is why I’m going to continue to reply anyway. Because lol@being sensible, amirite?

        –I felt pain when watching the Clara episodes and feeling distaste at the representation and having a hard time latching on to something of a consistent character in her.– I guess part of the thorough response would be your disagreement on my take on her, because otherwise, well, there is a very consistent character in her. Genre savvy, concerned with conventionality, but also genuinely kind and yearning to explore, tolerating rather than embracing the danger–which you might well be thinking is true of every companion but isn’t of Amy. (In Beast Below she literally says, “One little girl crying… so?” I love that Amy Pond gets to not be The Conscience, not easily connect with strangers, but still have friends and family who love her. And she’s definitely embracing the dangers.)

        — and Clara to show us some depth and agency in the new season.– She has. Agency, then, as I’ve talked about the former before. She controls when and for how long she travels with the Doctor in a way that is utterly unprecedented – oh, wait, totally preceded by River Song. But pre-Moffat!Who, unprecedented. That’s the most major decision she has to make, how to arrange her life to get what she wants without neglecting her chosen responsibilities. What else are we looking for? The Name of the Doctor gives her time to find out exactly what jumping into the Doctor’s timestream would entail, the benefits and risks. The knowledge she has is substantially greater even compared to Rose in TPotW, let alone Donna in JE, the most obvious comparison.

        –He’s dipping Jenny Smith and planting a non-consensual kiss on her lips, after we she slaps him, and it’s played up for laughs.– It’s also played as something neither wanted nor appreciated, as opposed to in, say, New Earth. Where it’s apparently fine because it’s Billie Piper, eh?
        –Gatiss wrote it, but was Moffat not still show runner?– You’re writing an article about how since Moffat took over the show has become more sexist and therefore not casting a woman as Doctor was unconscionable. And here you have predictably taken the point of view that everything is ascribable to Moffat as showrunner. It is funny how no one ever brings up the other showrunners in the same way, but I digress. To quote one Phil Sandifer on this, “Even if Smith didn’t [throw in the kiss], I’m assuming that Moffat did not grab Gatiss’s script, throw in a kiss, and then mail it off to Saul Metzstein.”

        –the “friendzone” comment is in reference to his back story. He had absolutely been friendzoned up until that point.– Right, in the one montage of clips in one episode lasting about 3 minutes. ‘Kay. Because that’s what *I* mean when I refer to something as a character arc, or endless. ‘Kay. But the friendzone thing is coming entirely from you. The concept involves an expectation of something more, and Rory spends a large period of time assuming Amy is about to come to her senses and dump him. (Growing out of this insecurity is, as I mentioned, part of his character arc.)

        And now I finally get to the point. XD
        –other aspects of representation on the show have gotten worse since RTD left.– The representation of class has, but that’s not what you’re talking about. (In case you’re wondering, I think Moff!Who is much better on age, disability and somewhat gender, RTD!Who is better on class, both are reasonable on GSMs and bad in different ways on race.)
        –had the characterizations remained strong and positive or deep– they have. :P
        –some had pointed out that we’d dodged the bullet of a female Doctor written by Moffat.– Oh, really? What, did they say the Doctor would suddenly become obsessed with clothes and makeup like, uh, none of them? What about ‘too emotional and reckless’, as if it’s possible for the Doctor to be more reckless and emotional than he is currently. (Female Doctor written by *Whithouse*, on the other hand…)
        –we’d get our fill of a representative protagonist– Rose, Martha and Donna were equal protagonists? I… seriously? But even if you consider them the protagonist of their time, companions leave. They always leave. The protagonist of the show can only be the one who persists. If your desire for a female protagonist is dependent on the quality of the main characters, if you don’t think 10 should have been played by a woman, or 8, or that someone should have listened to Tom Baker when he suggested it for his replacement, then what exactly do you expect?

      • Oh, I should probably mention that I’m still quietly deluding myself that it’s possible that Capaldi’s casting is a lie/smokescreen and we’re getting a female doctor anyway. Just quietly.

    • Sorry, I didn’t see your comment until now. Keep deluding yourself about Capaldi and *somebody* just might get some of his friends together and create a Doctor Who radio play featuring a female doctor.

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