I get it. No, really, I do. The idea of a female Doctor Who is an interesting thought experiment. Who would the companion be? Would a Time Lady brag of her escapades with the likes of Julius Caesar and Elvis? That sounds like fun. It really does.
But I really don’t think it should happen.
Here’s why: when I went to Denver’s Starfest in 2012, there was one little boy who came to the con in a different Dr. Who costume every day. Going all the way back to the Fourth. He couldn’t have been older than 11. And this year, there were even more little boys (and, yes, some girls) rocking their Dr. Who costumes, beaming gap-toothed grins as they pointed sonic screwdrivers at other Whovians, passing Daleks and the odd Cyberman.
My point is that Dr. Who is there for little boys who face a pretty grim selection of male role models on TV. Especially little boys, (like, I would hasten to guess, the one at the con) who are more mindful, sensitive, less physical than other boys. TV is a showcase of the worst expressions of masculinity, from misogynist douchebags (Don Draper, Daniel Tosh) to put-upon idiots (most sitcoms and cartoon dads). Even within the ever-growing “nerd culture” that is so well represented at places like Starfest, a pretty big contingent of male characters are hulking superheroes, up-armored soldiers and terrifying villains. In this swirl of violence, emotional illiteracy and unattainable physical standards, The Doctor is different. Yes, he’s supernatural, yes, he’s not actually human. And, I suppose you could argue that he’s an alien and his understanding of gender may transcend silly human binaries. But he represents a masculinity in which a man can think his way through situations he can’t just fight his way out of. He is complex in a world where men are cast in emotional black-and-white. He treats women with respect and care, and recognizes them as equals rather than damsels in distress. Yet, brilliantly, he does all of this without ever seeming like less of a “man.”
Of course I think there should be more positive female role models out there for young girls, who themselves face a dearth of complex, multifaced characters in both mainstream and comic/scifi/fantasy media. But Dr. Who, with his female companions, shows that women can be adventurers as well. The casting choices the show has made in regards to companions have broken from many standard “female” expectations for TV media. Companions have come from different ethnic backgrounds, different class backgrounds and different age groups than what little girls are typically shown on TV, and each one is equally as important to the doctor’s exploits. And, lest we forget, River Song… an intergalactic badass to give Ripley a run for her money. Would her character have had the same impact, had the roles been reversed, if a female Doctor had so beguiled a male River? Maybe. But I’m not sure.
I keep trying to think of what, exactly, from a feminist perspective, a female Doctor would accomplish. Would she show that women can go on adventures, too? The companions already show that. Would it prove that a female Doctor would bring something to the table that a male doctor couldn’t? Again, I think the companions already demonstrate that women can remedy the shortcomings of a male partner if needed. The show is already well beyond much of mainstream art and media when it comes to recognizing the strengths and contributions of women, and with the added bonus of demonstrating the sadly, still-radical notion that men and women can work together, platonically, to accomplish great things. It’s that dynamic that makes up the very emotional core of the show.
I guess one way to think of it is if they reversed the genders on other beloved characters. What about Wonder Man would be any different than, say, Superman? In her case, we’d just lose a solid female superhero and gain a pretty run-of-the-mill male one. I think the same could be said about the Doctor. I just don’t think there is enough to be gained by changing him to a her that it would be worth losing one of the few positive, emotionally nuanced, intellectual masculinities young boys are exposed to.
If that little boy from Starfest were my little boy, (and let’s face it… if hell froze over and I did have a son, that would absolutely be my little boy) I would hope that he would still love the Doctor just as much if he came back this time as a she. If the little girls who idolize The male Doctor are any indication, it shouldn’t be unacceptable for little boys to idolize a female one. But a part of me would be sad that my son had lost a man like the Doctor to look up to. The world needs more men like him.