Female heroism, male template and The Woman Who Fell to Earth (2018)

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Here’s the thing: we’ve never had a female Doctor before.

I know. Thank you, Captain Obvious. But let me explain.

There was a time when female heroes were rare. Particularly rare on TV and in films. I’m a child of the 70s, so I remember those days well. But things have changed.

These days, it’s not hard to find female heroes in popular culture, and film and TV is helping break down tired old stereotypes. Everything from police procedural dramas to super hero blockbusters have female leads. It’s not groundbreaking or even unusual to see female-led drama. Often, these women take on heroic tasks which were traditionally the sole province of men. So we see women who can fight. Women who can solve mysteries. Women who can fix things. Women who can be funny.

But even with female heroism being commonplace, watching Jodie Whittaker take on the role of the Doctor is a revelation. And it’s not because the show suddenly has a female lead being smart. Or being brave. Or being funny. It’s because we at last have a female lead being all of these things at once.

This story reminded me what a multifaceted character the Doctor is. That’s not so rare, if you’re thinking about blokes in fiction. Male heroes are, for some reason, allowed to be many things at once. The Doctor, Indiana Jones, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Spider-Man, Luke Skywalker, Starlord… you can find male poly-heroes everywhere. But female heroes tend to be specialists. Geniuses, warriors, adventurers and clowns – take your choice of one.

So we’ve seen plenty of female heroes, but we’ve never had a female Doctor before. That’s why Whittaker’s not just an innovation for Doctor Who but for popular culture as a whole. It’s why her Doctor feels so brilliantly new and necessary.

***

So exactly who is a female Doctor meant to be?

I know! Not so Captain Obvious now, right?

Showrunner Chris Chibnall has taken the sensible decision to underplay the Doctor’s gender change. It’s a move intended, I suspect, to position the essential Doctorness of the character as unchanged, regardless of whether she’s played by a man or a woman. And to show that the series functions in the same way, whether it has a male or female Doctor. There’s no need to continually reference the gender change and do so would patronise everyone involved. (Still, it makes me wonder how Steven Moffat would have handled it. Do you think we would have got through her first season without a boob joke? I can’t imagine it).

But the deliberate effort to present an image of, “business as usual, regardless whether it’s him or her” leaves a couple of questions unanswered. Should the thirteenth Doctor be essentially the same character as her male predecessors, or should she take this opportunity to be a distinctly female Doctor? Should she be a female variant on an established template, or should create a whole new template? And if our first ever female Doctor just behaves like all the men who came before her, then exactly what is new?

To offer some examples: as Series 11 has played out, some have voiced a wish for the Doctor to be more assertive and confrontational. Some have wanted her to stand up to the villains more frequently and more forcefully. Some have wanted moments of righteous anger. Why? Because these are all things previous Doctors have done.

So in one sense, it’s perfectly reasonable to want the thirteenth Doctor to get to do all the things male Doctors have done, particularly if things like taking down a villain or losing your rag at a particularly despicable person are seen as characteristically Doctorly things to do. We want her to do everything the various hes could.

But on the other hand, it seems perverse to want our first female Doctor to behave just like all the men we’ve seen before. Shouldn’t we expect, if not relish, seeing her approach problems differently to her male counterparts? Shouldn’t we see the strength in this?

Perhaps what we’re discovering is that there’s a set of things we expect every Doctor to be able to do – and to get the chance to do. Blow up a Dalek. Talk down a villain. Punch the neutron flow and reverse the polarity of a racist. If we didn’t see a female Doctor do these essentially Doctorish things, she’d feel inauthentic.

But every time she does something different to her predecessors, every time she takes a subtler approach, or lets her companions take the spotlight or plays a moment with unexpected empathy, we seem to be asking why she’s not acting like a male Doctor. And that feels weird to me. If Chibnall had cast a man as the thirteenth Doctor, would we be questioning his every variation from the Doctorly norm? Would we more readily accept each idiosyncrasy as an innovation on a standard template, rather than questioning if he should be more like what’s come before?

We will never know. But I fear this will haunt Whittaker’s time as the Doctor. This tug-of-war between being the same and being different.

***

Funnily enough, concerns about the thirteenth Doctor’s passivity, her lack of confrontational exchanges and so on date from after The Woman Who Fell to Earth. Here she does face up to the big bad. And she does get to do the full gamut of Doctory traits (save a moment of sudden, unexpected anger) and with moments of steely determination, plus welding stuff. And she gets to jump off a crane, in a big moment of physicality. She’s Doctor af.

But she is showing us new elements to our favourite character too. She latches on to the first set of people she sees and adopts them as her “fam”. She takes an almost parental interest in Ryan (Tosin Cole), and a BFF relationship with Yaz (Mandip Gill). We start to see hints of the relentlessly enthusiastic fun-seeker she’ll shortly become. Her sparking new mind is constantly on the edge of distraction. She’s more interested in running mental rings around her opponents than blowing them up. And perhaps more so than any Doctor before her, she wants to connect with the people around her and to engage with humanity.

“We can evolve while still staying true to who we are,” the Doctor says as she finally regains her sense of self.  “We can honour who we’ve been and choose who we want to be next.” If she gets the space to do just that, we really will have an extraordinary Doctor to travel with over the next few seasons.

So sayeth Captain Obvious again.

LINK TO The Lie of the Land: Neither story features the TARDIS.

NEXT TIME… How is it you can be such a stupid, stubborn, irrational and thoroughly objectionable old idiot?! It’s dinner for two with The Two Doctors.

2 thoughts on “Female heroism, male template and The Woman Who Fell to Earth (2018)”

  1. Growing up in the 1970s, I adored Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman (and her alter ego Diana Prince), as well as Lindsay Wagner’s Bionic Woman / Jaime Sommers and Erin Gray’s Colonel Wilma Deering. I like to think I grew up with the idea that women were every bit as capable as men.

    In my late teens I discovered the Gothic soap opera “Dark Shadows” (1966-1971). Over the years, I’ve been increasingly impressed at how groundbreaking a character Dr. Julia Hoffman was, and why she was a role model to so many of the young women who watched the show.

    1. Thanks for commenting, John! I’ve never seen Dark Shadows, but Wonder Woman (both the 70s and more recent versions) are a good example of what I mean. Strong, capable, kickass women… but not the charismatic polymath that the Doctor is.

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