Tomorrow (Sunday) the world's going to find out who the next Doctor will be. And with that, a spirited debate that's been going on in fandom will probably wind down for a while:
"Should we allow for the possibility that the next Doctor could be a woman?"
At this point, almost every aspect of that question has been talked to death elsewhere (including other parts of my own DA page), and I don't want to retread it here (too much). But here's one of the most interesting (and increasingly common) arguments for why it shouldn't happen, and I want to focus on it for a few minutes. I'll quote it the way it was said by one commentator here:
"If you make him a woman you're taking away an amazing role model for young boys. There have always been great female role models in the form of the companions, but the doctor is one of the only role models boys have who uses his wits and heart to get through a situation, not his fists."
I've seen that stated quite a bit lately, almost to the point of becoming a meme. It's the most compelling argument I've seen for keeping the Doctor male- and I totally agree w/ the sentiment of what the Doctor can represent to boys. For a few seconds, I thought- "Well at least that's a constructive point." As opposed to some of the facepalm-worthy reasons some have expressed ("female actors can't be funny" or "women can't be Doctors- he'd have to be The Nurse" I shit you not, a real human being said that). But the more I thought about it... this better-sounding argument is just as biased. And when I mentioned it to my girlfriend, she didn't need a few seconds to come up with the obvious response:
"Oh, and girls DO have those role models? Really?"
If we're going to "think of the children" (the same rallying cry that.. sorry... holds marriage equality back, and so many other gender and sexuality issues) let's think of the other 50% as well, and not just dismiss them with a wave of the hand. What kind of role models are the companions for young girls? They're great, admirable, and mostly women- but they aren't the lead. They're second fiddle. Worse- disposable second fiddles who get to play for (at best) three years. They don't get to achieve the rich characterization that comes with 50 years of history. They don't get announced on live transatlantic telecasts. There's no "All the Companions Ever" action figure box set (in fact, the toymakers will drop the adage on you that most companions are "weak" in sales numbers, and thus will never be made at all). Many just become forgotten footnotes (some younger fans probably hear of "Vicki" and "Victoria" and assume it's the same person).
Little girls just might make an unfortunate conclusion from watching Doctor Who... and it might grow more quietly soul-deflating with each new companion: "The best you can do is grow up to support a brilliant man and keep him sane- and maybe get to solve smaller problems while he's busy with the big ones. But at the end of the day, you're expendable." Or as the all-too-short-lived Liz Shaw herself once put it... all the Doctor needs is someone to pass him the test tubes and tell him how brilliant he is. Harsh (and probably unfair) assessment, but who can blame Liz for having a short temper and taking off after one season. She was the lead scientific advisor to UNIT (a "Doctor" in her own right even) before the Doctor stole her job and demoted her to playing "assistant". There's probably some alternate universe where she was the star of her own DOOMWATCH type series , with the Brigadier playing sidekick as they saved the world from Autons and Silurians. Except they wouldn't have- they all would've ended up dead (or mostly dead- give the Big Finish audio story SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL a listen to find out how badly the world would have done without the Doctor to save it- or watch TURN LEFT for a more modern take). Apparently only the Doctor is brilliant and powerful enough to stop most alien menaces, no matter how much heart the companions have.
Yes, a few went on to world-saving careers of their own, but the only one that really graduated to being something truly like the Doctor in her own right was Romana. And at the moment she fully achieved that, she disappeared from the series, never to be seen again. Sarah Jane got a spinoff, but it never had a fraction of Doctor Who's budget or promotion. And when the admittedly irreplaceable Lis Sladen died, the show sadly went away. Apparently Sarah was a special case, not to be repeated- and no one questioned the only reason the show happened in the first place was the success of the "parent show".
Think about it this way. Name a LEADING part for a woman in "genre" fiction in recent sci-fi/ fantasy TV and film. Here's the list I came up with off the top of my head: Buffy Summers; Ellen Ripley; Sarah Connor; Lara Croft; Kate Beckinsale in UNDERWORLD; Milla Jovovich in RESIDENT EVIL... See the trend? All have to solve problems with violence. It's also worth noting that most of the above heroines are aimed at an age group well above that of the hypothetical children we're worried about here. It's conspicuous in many supporting characters too: Starbuck (herself a case of gender recasting); River from FIREFLY; and even River from Who (who, for all the "There's your female Time Lord" arguments, is noticeably more at ease with violence than the Doctor). And even one of those leading parts, Sarah Connor, ultimately is there just to protect precious little John Connor, the "true" savior of the human race (you ask me, Sarah did all the hard work- but the series ultimately regulates her to a supporting role in saving the world- and even killed her off and carried on). Not to mention it's always a "family unit" where Sarah is never the biggest ass-kicker- there's always a Kyle Reese, Ah-Nuld, or Cameron (an android girl, not a real one) to do the hardest hitting. Even Buffy and (in her most memorable outing) Ripley have a family unit of sorts to protect. Don't get me wrong- women kicking ass is awesome. Fierce "mama bears" rule. But girls never get to run off and see the Universe on their own, following their heart, doing whatever they please, being brilliant, and having a better way than violence. Why? I don't know for sure. It's a question worth asking, I think.
When I put the question to one fan (a woman, interestingly) who was using the same "boys role model" argument, all she could come up with was Hermione Granger (I didn't have the heart to remind her that the series is called HARRY POTTER). But she went on to say that there were plenty of other women role models outside of sci-fi and fantasy... which is when I really got sad for the whole thing. And while she said those role models were "countless", the two she cited were Jane Eyre and Maria Von Trapp- two women who, however strong, independent, and admirable they might be... "win" their story by ending up as married mothers. Again- that's great for them. But we're back to the same kind of problem- women don't get the options male characters do- it almost always ends with settling down. Running off in their own TARDIS (even the Jackson Lake hot air balloon kind) would be unthinkably selfish. It's also worth noting that the two names the woman picked out of a hat are definitely not modern examples. The only exception I can think of in recent times is Merida in BRAVE. So that's one (thank god). But as far as sci-fi goes, the closest person I could think of is Captain Janeway in STAR TREK: VOYAGER. But even there, Janeway was ultimately just the top component of a crew- she has to rely on Tuvok, Torres, Tom Paris, etc to get things done. And again, she's tied to a family (in multiple senses)- she doesn't get to fly off in Voyager on her own and have fun like the Doctor (as in Who, not the hologram) does. And in the JJ Abrams age, that universe has been rebooted with a "regenerated" James T. Kirk, where essentially only 4 women got to appear in significant speaking roles over the course of two films. And as many other folks pointed out, 3 of them had to appear in their underwear for no discernible storytelling purpose, two didn't survive the first film (google "women in refrigerators" for more on that phenomenon), and all four were defined primarily by their sexual or familial relationship to a more important male cast member (seriously- what the hell?).
But credit to non-Abrams Star Trek for putting a powerful woman in the driver's seat in 1995, while it's still being hotly debated as even a possibility in Who. Trek also was way ahead on the gender-swapping alien issue, with Dax in DS9. Why did they do either? Were they being "progressive"? "Socially relevant"? Or (as some detractors call such moves) "politically correct" and "pandering"? Maybe any of those. But maybe it was also just because, after 30 years, the showrunners wanted to try something that was a little new. Because good storytellers don't tell the same story forever.
And that's the thing. For me, the many "political" benefits of a woman in the part of the Doctor are just icing on the cake. The real reason to potentially do it is to tell some new stories (hard to do, after 800 episodes). Time Lords can swap gender- it's canon. The Doctor's only alive now b/c he absorbed all of River's regeneration energy- that's canon. So there's a perfectly good reason for the possibility of it "within universe". But the truth is that a good writer could think of a million reasons to change fundamental aspects of the show for the sake of trying something new (regeneration, the concept of Time Lords, the UNIT era, and Doctor-y romance of any kind were all potential shark jumps in their time- now they're part of the show's DNA). That's probably why Matt Smith, Paul Cornell, Neil Gaiman, Jessica Hynes, Russell T. Davies and a lot of other Who alumni have said a female Doctor should at least be allowed as a possibility. Moff himself has spoken favorably of the idea (he even asked for a show of hands once at a Q&A session as to who thought it was a good idea- you know on some level, he's at least considered it). It's probably going to happen sooner or later. The talk about it gets stronger with each recasting- I don't remember anything even remotely like the pitch of this debate when Tennant was leaving. Interestingly, at that point the big question was COULD the Doctor be black- and even though it didn't come to pass (for the Doctor at least), that already seems a laughably quaint question now.
Tomorrow the debate will be moot again, one way or the other. And as much as I like the idea of Ruth Wilson or Sophie Okonedo as the Doctor, I'll be punching the air if it's an actor like Peter Capaldi- because he's a badass and he'll be friggin' amazing. Tomorrow there's a real possibility that anyone could step out on that stage, and that makes this the most exciting new Doctor ever.
But next time, if someone's saying this series that can go anywhere and do anything is only allowed to go one way, forever... making every casting announcement 50% less exciting... never even allowing for the possibility... ask why. And when you do... think of the children.