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The Impossible Girl: ‘Doctor Who’ and the Glass Ceiling

The Impossible Girl: 'Doctor Who' and the Glass Ceiling

As we approach the premiere of Season 8 of Doctor Who and the debut of its dashing new star, Peter Capaldi, it’s perhaps time for another look at the debate about the possibility of a female doctor – and the show’s treatment of women in general, both on and offscreen.

It’s a subject that, to be honest, I’ve heretofore ignored, because I love Doctor Who beyond all reason, and I think it stands for a lot of smart and important and humanistic things. Feminist author Caitlin Moran said it best: “In a world where very little is a surprise, and everything is viewed with cynicism, Doctor Who is a genuine rarity. It represents one of the very few areas where adults become as unashamedly enthusiastic as children. It’s where children first experience the thrills and fears of adults, and where we never know the exact ending in advance. With its ballsy women, bisexual captains, working-class loquaciousness, scientific passion, and unremittingly pacifist dictum, it offers a release from the dispiritingly limited vision of most storytelling.”

So I’ve mostly given the show a pass on its run of solely white men. After all, for a white guy, the Doctor’s a really good one, and if stuffy old England insists on keeping him that way, well, I’ve got bigger, more misogynist fish to fry (plus Matt Smith was cute to a distracting degree). And I am really looking forward to seeing what Capaldi does with the part; he’s a fantastic actor and it looks like he’s going to put a more intense spin on it.

But the rhetoric surrounding Capaldi’s arrival has largely been about making changes to the show, which got me thinking — agreeing, rather, with those who’ve been saying it for years — there’d have been no better (or more obvious) way to shake it up than to cast a woman. Speaking at Wales’ Hay Festival in June, showrunner Steven Moffat discussed making Capaldi’s Doctor stand apart from his predecessors: “I just felt [this season] needs to be a bit more different now. It needs to be surprising again!” Fans who’ve been clamoring for a change of gender couldn’t be blamed for thinking, “Dude. Seriously?”

It’s hardly the first time in the show’s history that the subject has come up. When 1970s star Tom Baker was about to make his exit, he was reportedly asked what kind of guy was going to play the role next. “Well, you’re making an assumption that it’s going to be a man,” said Baker (I’m envisioning him saying it with that toothy grin and a wink, popping a Jelly Baby into his mouth). John Barrowman, who played Captain Jack Harkness on the show and went on to continue the part in Torchwood, sounded off on the gender stasis in 2011: “If Captain Jack can be an omnisexual time agent and an assistant to the Doctor, why can’t we have a female Doctor?”

Why indeed?

Over the course of Smith’s Eleventh Doctor’s character arc, it became clear that he’s a man (er, Time Lord) on the verge. As always, he was capable of being a hero to masses, but he was also plagued by a deep, internal struggle that manifested itself, time and again, as an identity crisis. (Cloying though it was, the question “Doctor who??” became a notable catchphrase during the show’s last couple of seasons.) What better way for the Doctor to reinvent himself – to get in touch with a different side of himself – than to regenerate as a woman? He, more than anyone, has a deep and centuries-old appreciation for women; his ass has been saved by them time and again, most recently when Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) sacrificed her life to save the Doctor’s timeline.

So why not make this non-human, two-hearted alien female for a change? Helen Mirren, at the top of many people’s lists of candidates for the part, has said, “It’s well over time to have a female Doctor.” Eighth Doctor Paul McGann has proposed Tilda Swinton for the role – another mind-blowingly excellent idea. (Peter Davison, whose Doctor I never particularly cared for, has been a lone stick in the mud, saying, “To have a female would be like having a female James Bond. It would be a rather odd thing.” Shh, nobody tell Davison that almost everyone now regards James Bond as an outdated icon with an amalgamation of stupid, sexist character traits. He did his time on the show, now let him rest.) Emma Watson and Kate Winslet were other popular names floated. I’d add Emma Thompson to that list. How about Gina Torres? Joanna Lumley, who actually played the Doctor in a Red Nose sketch once?

But it all comes back to Moffat, who has staunchly refused to be swayed by the increasingly loud chorus demanding a dame for a Doctor. “It will not happen that somebody sits down and says we must turn the Doctor into a woman. That is not how you cast the Doctor,” he has said, and, OK, rightly so: the casting shouldn’t be some sort of begrudging sci-fi affirmative action.

But given the gender breakdown on Moffat’s primary crew, this does beg the question of whether he’s simply unready to open the show up to the female perspective, period.

There have been no female writers on Who since Moffat took over the show, and that depressing trend continues this season. Also, no female directors since Season 5 – until recently, when it was announced that this season’s two-part finale will be directed by a woman. And not just any woman, but the director of Tank Girl, about whose star I recently rhapsodized. Rachel Talalay has understandably not held forth at great length about the show’s lack of gender diversity, though she has disclosed – so likably! – that “I said to Steven Moffat, ‘If I was to read the Internet, I would believe you only hired me because you were pressured to hire a woman.'” (He replied — tersely, I imagine — “I think they need to know I hired you because of your reel and your material and what we believed you would bring to it.”) The tenth episode will be directed by another woman, Sheree Folkson.

So maybe this is the beginning of a promising new age for Who.

Still, Moffat’s reticence on this subject is a curious thing, because so much of the ethos of the show is about equality – albeit with more of an emphasis on species than gender. One of the things I like best about Who is that, when there’s is a monster (and there is usually a monster), the Doctor comes to it with the attitude of trying to figure out what it wants, and how to help it get that without hurting anyone. Of course, sometimes this still results in monster-dispatching, but his first impulse — unlike almost every other adventure show with antagonists — is that everyone’s got a fundamental right to exist, and a valid perspective.

So I’m not sure how this squares with Moffat’s aversion to working with half the population. Maybe he just likes the ladies better when they’re time machines in disguise.

The eighth season of Doctor Who will debut August 23 on BBC America. Watch the trailer below.

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If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Just because you CAN have a female doctor….doesn’t mean you should. Leave well enough alone. The female characters in the series are strong enough without being the main character


The Doctor is a man, and we must all accept that, if he regenerated into a woman we must all accept that too, however, the Doctor is male because of his subconscious, he is Scottish now because the last person he "saw" was Amy Pond for instance, the Doctor’s gender identity is male because this is what is in his subconscious,all people should accept this
no matter how much they stand for a point, you are who you are, and no one has the right to change that.

J.Smith _ yes my real name

I have been waiting decades for a female doctor and agree that if he really wanted female writers that he could find them. Clara’s role recently has been very boring and 2 dimensional.


I hate to break it to all of the naysayers but it IS possible for the Doctor to be a Timelady. if you haven't already watched "The Night of the Doctor" it's a short that was released right before the 50th anniversary. It is considered cannon. The Doctor was given a choice to become a woman.


A female "doctor" wouldn't be too much of a stretch, she wouldn't even have to be the doctor per say… Tennant's term as the doctor, he did have a daughter that for all intents and purposes is still M.I.A…. I mean Sarah Jane, Captain Jack, and even ol' K-9 had their own spin-offs. Why not have her in hers taking up after her father?


When they cast a man as Wonder Woman, we'll talk. Seriously, though, the problem I have with a female Doctor is the fact that this means that Romana, the female Time Lord who to date has been played by three beautiful women: the late Mary Tamm, Lalla Ward, and most recently in audio dramas by Buffy veteran Juliet Landau, could one day be played by Ron Jeremy. It destroys any emotional involvement one has with the character. This also goes for The Rani and Susan, two other Time Lords featured in the show. Kate O'Mara played the Rani and the role was recently recast for audio since her death. Carole Ann Ford was a teen idol when she played Susan. There is no glass ceiling. The Doctor is a male character, end of story. There are LGBT elements in Time Lord society, and the one Time Lord who changed genders, The Corsair, is clearly depicted in spin-off works as being LGBT, with an emphasis on the T. If they want to do the gender change thing, then after Jenna leaves the series they should cast someone as the Corsair and have him/her regenerate after a season.


Do you remember what've happened to Thor?:)


Give me a break! Dr. Who is a man and there is no reason other than political correctness to "change" Dr. Who into a woman!

Matthew Hoffman

Dear Ms. Stewart,
Doctor Who has no glass ceiling. I disagree with the premise of your article, and I feel strongly that you are coming from a position of bad logic. You have made an assumption that is, frankly, wrong. I mean no disrespect at all, but I must raise my voice against your position here. Your false assumption is that – for some unexplainable reason – the Doctor MUST some day be cast as a woman, so why not do it as soon as possible. This is wrong.
I am a small-time blogger and freelance writer, and I've written about this several times. I'll include links below for those who are interested, but for people in a rush, here's my argument. Ready?
Doctor Who has no glass ceiling. It has character integrity. In other words, the Doctor has never been cast as a woman because he isn't a woman. He is Peter Pan. You would destroy the integrity of the character if you miscast him as a female. It would make as much sense to cast a woman in the role of Napoleon or Abraham Lincoln or 50 Cent as it would to make such a destructive change to Doctor Who.
I am not a writer for the show. I have no control over their choices, so perhaps the day will come where someone chooses to cast a woman. Mr. Moffat – for all his faults and foibles – has not yet made this mistake. I hope nobody does.
Please read my blog for a more detailed argument, where I'm not as restricted by space.
Seems you can't post any links. Grrr!
Bond, Jamie Bond, or The Doctor Wears A Dress at Technospiritualist dot com


Up next, a male Wonder Woman!!


No one has mentioned that the tenth doctor created a female daughter in the episode "The Doctor's Daughter." She was thought to have died, but regenerated and flew off the planet in a space craft. The Doctor Who series hasn't picked up on that since… in essence, you have a female time lord of sorts.


In "The Curse of the Fatal Death" the doctor became a woman, although it was a special made just for charity.

As for loving beyond all reason, I hope this doctor is better than the previous one, and that the writers decide if this is a show for adolescents or adults. I'm tired of the "love solves everything" and "we need ratings – bring out the Daleks or dinosaurs…" Oh wait – too late – the two commercials I've seen already have both. Pathetic.


"After all, for a white guy, the Doctor's a really good one"…Was this blatant racist comment really necessary?


While I would support a female Doctor, I always thought they were stuck with a male story-wise and scientifically, since while he can re-generate every cell in his body upon death, what he cannot do is spontaneously generate an added chromosome. I wonder if anyone thought of this?

This article is retardis

The Doctor suddenly becoming female would be a novelty that would quickly wear off. The character would no longer be the same. The Doctor is a He. Always has been, and hopefully always will be. There is no reason to change the gender of someone who has been male since 1963. It adds nothing to the character and, I predict, would be a show killer. Women have always played an important role in Doctor Who. They are kick-butt, kind, and caring. They come and they go. Sometimes they are timelord women. But the Doctor is male.

Sir Farts A Lot

"But it all comes back to Moffat, who has staunchly refused to be swayed by the increasingly loud chorus demanding a dame for a Doctor"

There is no "loud chorus" outside of the lunatic tumblr / jizzobel / reddit crowd.

Literally no-one wants this except for crazy people.

Daniel Strange

Re: Moffat's 'curious reticence on the subject' –

Speaking at Trinity College, Dublin, March 1, 2013, he said: "I don't know why [so few female writers work on 'Doctor Who']. We chase both sexes. There are many [female writers]. I think a female voice would be fantastic. But we're getting no luck there. I have a folder of women. They all said no!"

As a producer who has experienced firsthand how difficult it is to staff a show well, I'm inclined to take him at his word. Lack of interest from the people you want, lack of availability, no-compete clauses, inability to agree on contracts, salaries, etc — there are all sorts of reasons why even powerful people can't always get their ideal staff. That's a reality of production, sadly. So I'm wary of ascribing conscious or even unconscious bias to him on that front.


I couldn't disagree more about your comment, "lack of gender diversity". I think the show has done an amazing job with diversity on so many levels. The show has had females play time lords, River and Romana come to mind. I love that Captain Jack Harkness is a bi-sexual male. I love that River and Romana are time lord ladies. I love that Jinny and Madame Vastra are lovers. And…. I love that the Doctor is who he is, a male. Seems to me the show is doing a rather kick-ass job already with gender diversity. In a world where men have so few role models, like the Doctor to look up to, as a different option from the stereotypical male lead, I am very thankful that he is around. Had he changed into a woman when I was growing up watching Tom Baker, it would have ruined that role model for me. The Doctor made me realize that it's ok to be different and….. male.

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