Doctor He, She, or They? Changing Gender, and Language, in “Doctor Who”

Doctor He, She, or They? Changing Gender, and Language, in “Doctor Who”

Doctor He, She, or They? Changing Gender, and Language, in Doctor Who

Celebrating the power of speculative fiction to challenge our preconceptions.

Action figures sit cozily on a couch, Missy leaning against the Thirteenth Doctor.

Photo by Nata Luna Sans used under CC BY-NC 2.0.

By Michael G. McDunnah • January 16, 2019

On New Year’s Day the latest series of the venerable British TV show Doctor Who came to end. Since it premiered in 1963, Doctor Who has aired thirty-seven seasons—encompassing over 850 episodes—but this season was special in a number of ways. It was the first series for new executive producer and head writer Chris Chibnall. It was a series that featured unprecedented diversity in the supporting cast, the writer’s room, and the director’s chair. And most importantly, after fifty-five years and twelve previous lead actors, it was the first series to feature a woman (Jodie Whittaker) in the titular role of the Doctor.

Whittaker’s assumption of this iconic role creates a situation that is all but unique in serialized entertainment, and challenges us to reconsider our understanding of gender—and the language we use to discuss it—in fascinating ways.

Recasting the lead of Doctor Who is different from recasting the lead of any other TV show.

For the uninitiated, a few words of explanation may be necessary to understand why recasting the lead of Doctor Who is different from recasting the lead of any other TV show.

Doctor Who is the BBC’s flagship program, a major cultural and commercial institution in the U.K., and—particularly since the show was revived in 2005—an absurdly popular worldwide phenomenon. It is a science-fiction show centering on a time-traveling alien known only as “the Doctor,” a two-thousand-year-old Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. From week to week, the Doctor (usually accompanied by some human companions) roams around time and space in a blue box called the TARDIS, having adventures and helping people who need helping.

When Doctor Who premiered in November 1963, the Doctor was an eccentric and irascible old grandfather played by veteran actor William Hartnell. By 1966, however, it had become clear that Hartnell’s failing health could no longer stand up to the strenuous demands of the production schedule. Since Doctor Who had become far too popular and lucrative a program to simply cancel, it was necessary to find a replacement for Hartnell.

However, the BBC feared that the show’s viewers—predominantly children—might be confused, or even alienated, if they tuned in one week to discover some unfamiliar actor playing their beloved Doctor. The BBC felt that it needed to explain the change and realized that the show’s sci-fi premise provided the flexibility to do that.

The BBC stumbled upon one of the greatest and most useful gimmicks in television history: the concept of “regeneration.”

Thus the BBC stumbled upon one of the greatest and most useful gimmicks in television history: the concept of “regeneration.” Time Lords, viewers now learned, had the ability to regenerate a whole new body—and even acquire a slightly different personality—whenever they were mortally wounded. So in October 1966, viewers watched the dying Doctor regenerate, right before their eyes, from Hartnell into the show’s new star, Patrick Troughton.

A few years later, when Troughton decided to leave the show, the Doctor regenerated again, this time into Jon Pertwee. And so it went on, throughout the decades. Few shows survive the departure of their lead actor unscathed, but Doctor Who had stumbled upon a way to not only survive but thrive indefinitely, breathing new life into the series every few years without sacrificing one iota of continuity.

And so, in 2017, when it came time for the departure of Peter Capaldi, the twelfth actor to play the Doctor, viewers watched him regenerate into Jodie Whittaker, who became—in the parlance of the show—“the Thirteenth Doctor.” It was the first time the Doctor had ever regenerated as a woman.

The important thing to understand about all of this, for our purposes, is that there are not, really, thirteen Doctors: There has only ever been one Doctor, who has grown a new body twelve times. Jodie Whittaker is playing the exact same character as Hartnell, and Capaldi, and all the other actors in between, with the same mind, the same memories, the same basic nature. (It is accepted that the Doctor’s personality changes slightly with each rebirth—allowing each actor to bring their own particular interpretation to the role—but the Doctor is always fundamentally the same person.)

Viewers have always accepted, even embraced, the Doctor’s periodic changes of age, appearance, and personality. And—in part because the Doctor was always a White male who spoke as if he was from somewhere in the United Kingdom—none of the changes posed much of a challenge for how anyone spoke about the Doctor.

Whittaker’s casting . . . exposes and challenges the ways in which we think about, and discuss, both the character and our larger preconceptions about gender identity.

But Whittaker’s casting introduces an unprecedented wrinkle into the proceedings, one that exposes and challenges the ways in which we think about, and discuss, both the character and our larger preconceptions about gender identity.

For the record, as a longtime Doctor Who fan who has written extensively about the show, I wholeheartedly celebrated Whittaker’s casting as long overdue. After all, virtually no other long-running franchise could make such an exciting, canonical move towards inclusion with such a beloved and established character. (We may yet get a female James Bond, but barring some seriously implausible plotting, that character will not literally be a continuation of Daniel Craig’s version.) Doctor Who, on the other hand, could have cast a woman at any time: The mechanism to do so has been in place since 1966. (In fact, co-creator Sydney Newman proposed that the BBC cast a female Doctor as far back as the mid-’80s.)

Chibnall, to his credit, reportedly only accepted the position of showrunner on the condition that he could cast a woman as the Doctor. And in Whittaker, he chose a brilliant actor to play the part. Whatever my other quibbles with this past season—I wouldn’t be a Doctor Who fan if I didn’t have quibbles—I think Whittaker in this role has been an unqualified triumph. And outside of the darkest, most misogynistic corners of the show’s fandom, most fans and critics seem to agree.

So, yes, I celebrate Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor. Additionally—this is not a “but” but an “and”—as a cisgender male writer who endeavors (however imperfectly) to stay aware, conscious, and inclusive in my language, I have enjoyed thinking through some of the complicated issues suggested by the Doctor’s latest regeneration, without necessarily arriving at any definitive answers. This is what science fiction and fantasy can do for us like no other genre can: challenge our biases and preconceptions, provoke discussions and debate, and provide fascinating thought experiments that stretch the restrictions of our evolving language.

Is it actually accurate and appropriate to say that the Doctor is now a woman?

The first thorny question suggested by Whittaker’s casting is one that challenges the basic premise that anything has really changed at all: Is it actually accurate and appropriate to say that the Doctor is now a woman?

The most obvious answer, of course, is yes. Jodie Whittaker is a cisgender woman, and it is clear that she, Chibnall, and the other writers intend for us to accept that the Doctor is now a woman.

And the show has largely addressed this change in the most empowering way: by almost completely ignoring it. Throughout Whittaker’s first season, Chibnall and the other writers have treated the Doctor’s being a woman as no big deal, barely even waving at the issue in their scripts. They clearly decided that the best way to make the point that a woman can be a hero was by simply letting her get on with being a hero.

This, it seems to me, was precisely the right way to handle it. Though watched and enjoyed by all ages, Doctor Who is primarily a children’s show. In addition, the Doctor is a deliberately enigmatic character, whose inner life the show rarely seeks to explore. I don’t know that it would be possible, appropriate, or useful for the show to attempt to explicitly investigate some of the more complicated gender-related conundra suggested by Whittaker’s casting.

Nonetheless, as someone both obsessed with the pedantic minutiae of Doctor Who and interested in the ever-evolving nuances of conscious language, I find myself wondering: Is the Doctor now a woman?

If we understand gender as an identity, and not as a function of appearance or anatomy, then the question of the Doctor’s gender becomes fascinatingly complex.

I certainly do not presume to be qualified to define what makes someone a woman, and I recognize the shifting complexity of certain terms, like gender, that can mean different things to different people. For my purposes, I am using gender to refer to gender identity, not gender expression. If we understand gender as an identity, and not as a function of appearance or anatomy, then the question of the Doctor’s gender becomes fascinatingly complex. (And just to clarify, we know absolutely nothing about any Time Lord’s genitalia or reproductive system. Again, it’s a children’s show.) After all, the Doctor lived for thousands of years as a man, always identifying—as far as there’s any evidence in the text—as a man. Regeneration has been presented as a somewhat random process, so the Doctor’s regeneration into a female-appearing body was not a conscious choice, let alone a deliberate confirmation of the Doctor’s “true” gender identity (if such a thing even exists).

In fact, in Whittaker’s first adventure, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” the Doctor does not even realize she has a female appearance until it is pointed out to her by her new friend Yasmin (Mandip Gill):

DOCTOR: Why are you calling me “madam”?
YASMIN: Because you’re a woman.
DOCTOR: Am I? Does it suit me?
DOCTOR: Oh yeah, I remember. Sorry. Half an hour ago I was a white-haired Scotsman.

The issue is made more complex by the fact that, throughout this first season, the writers have occasionally seemed to undermine the Doctor’s new gender identity. “Come to Daddy—I mean, Mummy,” she corrects herself, in her second episode. In her third episode, when someone calls her “ma’am,” she says, “Still can’t get used to that.” These sorts of passing asides are often the only references made to her gender in an episode, and they could suggest that the Doctor might still think of herself as a man.

Is it actually appropriate to use feminine pronouns when referring to the Thirteenth Doctor?

I do not believe this was the intention; in fact, I think these sorts of hand waves are nothing but the writers’ attempts to humorously dismiss the issue’s importance. Nonetheless, they could be taken to support the position of certain fans who argue that the Doctor is inherently, intrinsically a male character.

For the record, the show has made it clear that the Doctor’s people do recognize gender binaries. (The show used to refer to female Gallifreyans as Time Ladies, though that language is now obsolete; all members of the Doctor’s race are now referred to as Time Lords.) But it is far from clear whether each individual Time Lord has some essential, core gender identity, as some fans argue. (A thread on the Doctor Who wiki maintains that members of the Doctor’s race each have a “default gender” from which the occasional change is just a temporary and anomalous deviation. “The Doctor is a male Time Lord,” one user writes. “He just happens to have one female regeneration.”)

And doesn’t the thought experiment become more complex if we consider gender as a social construct? The Doctor’s regenerating into a female-appearing body, after all, does not change the Doctor’s brain or any of the Doctor’s memories. Nor does it change how, for two thousand years, the Doctor experienced male privilege. (Only one episode this season—Joy Wilkinson’s “The Witchfinders,” set in 17th-century England—even addressed the fact that the Doctor has now had to adjust to the loss of her male privilege. “Honestly,” she says, “if I was still a bloke, I could get on with the job and not have to waste time defending myself.” This was also—perhaps not coincidentally—the only episode of the season written solely by a woman.)

My subject here is ultimately language, so all of this brings us back to that first stylistic conundrum: Is it actually appropriate to use feminine pronouns when referring to the Thirteenth Doctor? If the Doctor were essentially a male Time Lord, who thought of himself as male, why would we not acknowledge and respect his gender identity, regardless of his outward appearance?

It is important—emotionally, culturally, symbolically—to acknowledge that the Doctor is now female.

One solution, of course, would be to settle on the singular they and them in referring to the Thirteenth Doctor. On the surface it’s reasonable, but it strikes me somehow as both skirting the issue and undermining the empowering intent of casting a female actor in the first place. (Personally, I would find it impossible to watch videos of young female fans reacting to Jodie Whittaker’s casting—squealing in joy, “The new Doctor is a girl!”—and then decide that the best approach is to speak of the Thirteenth Doctor as gender-neutral.) The Thirteenth Doctor is a woman now, and—though it’s not often important within the story—her gender is important in the larger societal context in which the show exists. It is important—emotionally, culturally, symbolically—to acknowledge that the Doctor is now female.

And as near as I can tell, everyone who writes about Doctor Who—and the vast majority of the fanbase—has accepted and embraced the Doctor’s new gender identity and happily employs feminine pronouns in referring to the Thirteenth Doctor. (So do the Doctor’s companions, for that matter.)

In this instance, perhaps, it is the sci-fi/fantasy nature of the program that allows us to err on the side of inclusivity and the show’s good intentions. The Doctor is an alien life-form, and we do not, really, understand very much about Time Lord culture, identity, or biology. I think we have to accept that the Doctor’s instantly changing into a woman is not the same situation it would be if Ia cisgender white male of the human variety—woke up in a female-appearing body. Yes, it is a leap to imagine that the Doctor identifies as a man one day and as a woman the next. But it is hardly the most difficult leap of logic Doctor Who has ever asked us to take.

So let’s agree that the Thirteenth Doctor is a woman—however new and novel that experience is to her—and examine some grayer areas of linguistic debate. Assuming we are using feminine pronouns to refer specifically to Whittaker’s Thirteenth Doctor, how should we refer in general terms to the gender-fluid character of the Doctor, encompassing all regenerations?

How should we refer in general terms to the gender-fluid character of the Doctor, encompassing all regenerations?

For fifty-five years, people have been able to refer to the character of the Doctor with masculine pronouns. The 1976 book The Making of Doctor Who, by former Who script editors Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke, says that the core characteristics of the Doctor—common to all regenerations—are that “He never gives in, and he never gives up . . . He is never cruel or cowardly.”

How would we rewrite that character description today? The fans who believe that the Doctor’s gender defaults to male—with Whittaker’s regeneration merely an anomaly—would argue that masculine pronouns are still appropriate in this situation.

(To be fair, there is evidence in the text to support this position. As that thread on the Doctor Who wiki points out, the 2015 episode “Hell Bent,” written by then-showrunner Steven Moffat, shows a Time Lord regenerating from male to female. “Oh, back to normal, am I?” she says. “The only time I’ve been a man, that last body.” The use of the word “normal” here could be taken to indicate that each Time Lord ultimately identifies as one gender or another, whatever body they are in.)

But I personally reject the notion that Time Lords have a default gender. It was a 2011 episode, “The Doctor’s Wife,” written by Neil Gaiman, that established as canon that Time Lords change genders. In that episode, the Eleventh Doctor is describing another Time Lord, the Corsair, and in doing so he switches fluidly between pronouns without a thought: “Fantastic bloke. He had that snake as a tattoo in every regeneration. Didn’t feel like himself unless he had the tattoo. Or herself, a couple of times. Oh, she was a bad girl.”

If ever there was a situation for which the singular they/them seemed tailor-made, it is this one.

And in the 2017 episode “World Enough and Time,” written by Moffat, Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor speaks of gender as if it were a subject of near indifference, even implying that he might have been a woman before. (Describing his friendship with yet another Time Lord, he says, “I think she was a man back then. I’m fairly sure that I was, too. It was a long time ago, though.”) At the end of her first episode, Whittaker’s Doctor, too, makes a deliberately ambiguous comment that suggests the Doctor may have had regenerations we just don’t know about. (“It’s been a long time since I bought women’s clothes,” she says.)

In the end, I feel it is incumbent upon us—whether we are considering the show’s in-universe narrative or its larger societal context—to respect the full spectrum of the Doctor’s identity. The Doctor, after all, has had at least thirteen forms, and at least one of them has been female: If ever there was a situation for which the singular they/them seemed tailor-made, it is this one. Thus, Caroline Siede at The A.V. Club writes about “the moment the Doctor invites a companion to travel with them.” That “moment” is common to all Doctors—to the experience of the Doctor in general—and so Siede employs the singular them.

But there is even a persuasive argument to be made that, as the character of the Doctor is now female, all general references to the Doctor should reflect her current gender. This seems to be the method employed by Rachel Leishman at The Mary Sue, who writes: “Most of the time, in recent years, the Daleks fear the Doctor instantly, knowing what she’s capable of.” The alien race known as the Daleks have been the Doctor’s mortal enemies since the second story back in 1963, but Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor had not yet encountered them prior to the episode Leishman is discussing. When she writes that sentence, Leishman uses she to refer to encounters between the Daleks and previous (male) Doctors.

How do we refer to a specific past incarnation of the Doctor, now that the Doctor herself is female?

This leads into yet another interesting question, one that occurs more frequently in writing about Doctor Who: How do we refer to a specific past incarnation of the Doctor, now that the Doctor herself is female? Masculine pronouns would seem to be the obvious answer, but—thinking the issue through—the conscious stylist stumbles over potential complexities. Consider, for example, these two sentences:

Laverne Cox graduated from the Alabama School of Fine Arts.
The Doctor was once president of Gallifrey.

Now, if we were to rewrite both sentences with pronouns, which pronouns would we use? It is generally accepted usage to say, of Cox, “She graduated from the Alabama School of Fine Arts,” even though Cox did not transition until later in life. So why would we not also say, of the Doctor, “She was president of Gallifrey”? After all, the Doctor herself would say, “was president of Gallifrey,” without needing to specify that it was her fourth regeneration (played by Tom Baker) who briefly held that office.

We come back to the unresolved (and probably unresolvable) question of the Doctor’s “essential” gender identity. We use feminine pronouns to refer to Cox’s earlier life because we understand that her transition was a confirmation of her gender identity: Cox was assigned male at birth but always felt female. We do not, however, have the same understanding of the Doctor, for Time Lords are not humans, and we cannot assume that regeneration is the same as transition.

At most, we can intuit that Time Lords are gender-fluid, equally comfortable existing as male or female. Therefore, we must be guided by context and by the desire for clarity. When I wrote above about specific scenes featuring the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors, I fell naturally into saying he; it would potentially have been very confusing to the reader to refer to Matt Smith’s or Peter Capaldi’s Doctor as she. But I would not hesitate to say of the Doctor, “She was once president of Gallifrey.” Because she was. Even though it was Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor who held that office, the experience is still part of the Thirteenth Doctor’s résumé.

Whittaker’s casting created unfortunate gaffes before her first season even aired.

All of this sounds logical, perhaps, but Whittaker’s casting created unfortunate gaffes before her first season even aired. Another item on the Doctor’s bio, for example, is that she is the wife, or at least the widow (it’s complicated), of a woman named River Song (Alex Kingston). It was the Eleventh Doctor that River married, but that doesn’t matter: River was no less the Doctor’s wife when she later encountered the Twelfth Doctor and the Tenth Doctor. (Like I said: It’s complicated.) It is, admittedly, unclear whether River could meet the Thirteenth Doctor. (Really, it’s seriously complicated.) But what is perfectly clear is that, if she did, River would still be the Doctor’s wife.

And yet, this simple truth led to one of the BBC’s more revealing mistakes in navigating the exciting new terrain of a female Doctor. This past July, BBC America’s official Twitter account for Doctor Who posted a convention photo of Whittaker and Kingston that was captioned, quite correctly, as “The Doctor and her wife.” But then, someone at BBC America must have developed cold feet about suggesting that the Doctor could be in what was now a same-sex relationship. A little while later, fans noticed that the original tweet had been deleted and replaced with one featuring a far more awkward caption: “Jodie Whittaker meets the Doctor’s wife, Alex Kingston.”

On the whole, Doctor Who has always skirted the entire question of the Doctor’s sexuality, but still: The nervousness implicit in that hasty caption change reveals that the BBC may not yet be completely comfortable with all the implications of the Doctor’s gender fluidity.

The final topic I want to raise here has to do with the language we use to talk about the Thirteenth Doctor’s personality, and the temptation—of which I confess I have been guilty—to describe it in a way that reinforces ingrained biases about gender roles.

As Lorna Jowett points out, writing for Critical Studies in Television (all emphases are hers):

Some of those commenting seem to be searching for the right terms to describe this shift and finding it difficult to avoid stereotyped language. Piers Wenger, the controller of BBC Drama noted, “Jodie is not just a talented actor but she has a bold and brilliant vision for her Doctor. She aced it in her audition both technically and with the powerful female life force she brings to the role.”

What, precisely, is a female life-force? How exactly do we recognize it, and how do we distinguish it from a male life-force? Is life-force really something that exists—or needs to be described—on a gender spectrum?

Did becoming a woman fundamentally alter the Doctor’s nature?

It is easy to poke fun at network executives as they awkwardly navigate the tricky linguistic terrain they now find themselves within. But Wenger’s suggestion of a “female life force” actually gets at an important question: Did becoming a woman fundamentally alter the Doctor’s nature? Does her new gender identity shape her new personality so that she is now somehow thinking and behaving more “like a woman”?

As I mentioned above, it is accepted canon that the Doctor’s personality changes a little with each regeneration. Though the Doctor’s essential characteristics remain the same—“never give up, never cruel or cowardly,” etc.—each Doctor has always had their own style and manner. (Capaldi’s Doctor was noticeably grumpier and more brusque than his two immediate predecessors, for example.)

But the Thirteenth Doctor’s style is very different from that of most of her predecessors. Though the Thirteenth Doctor is unquestionably still a preternaturally powerful genius, Whittaker plays her as less of an insufferable know-it-all than almost any previous Doctor. She does not (as most previous Doctors have done) bully with her intellect or authority, or try to make the humans she travels with feel inadequate. (She is—and here, gendered language creeps into the conversation—much less patronizing than almost any previous incarnation.) The Thirteenth Doctor seems more prone to listen than her predecessors, less certain of her own rightness, and quicker to recognize and apologize when she is wrong. And she is far less distant and emotionally unavailable. (“This Doctor seems to genuinely wear her heart on her sleeve,” Siede writes.) It is a telling detail, too, that whereas previous Doctors called the humans who traveled with them “assistants” or “companions,” the Thirteenth Doctor calls hers “friends,” or even “fam,” meaning “family.” Such an atmosphere of totally equal footing and openly mutual affection is all but unprecedented on Doctor Who.

The Thirteenth Doctor, in short, is modeling what would stereotypically be considered a more “feminine” leadership style, which raises interesting questions. Is Chibnall intentionally writing the Doctor differently because she’s a woman? Does he mean for us to understand that changing genders changed the very personality of the Doctor?

There is evidence in the text to suggest that Doctor Who thinks that men and women—or at least male and female Time Lords—have essentially different natures. As I mentioned above, the 2015 episode “Hell Bent” shows a Time Lord turn back into a woman after experiencing her first regeneration as a man. “Dear Lord, how do you cope with all that ego?” she immediately asks a male Time Lord. Again, we can dismiss this as a quick joke inserted by writer Steven Moffat, but it suggests that being male did change her personality, reinforcing an underlying assumption running throughout Doctor Who that men and women are fundamentally different.

Doctor Who has trafficked in stereotypical gender roles from the beginning.

For a more substantive example, we can consider yet another Time Lord: the Master. Between 1971 and 2014, seven male actors played the Master as an evil nemesis, the Moriarty to the Doctor’s Holmes. But it was not until 2014, after the Master had regenerated as a woman (Michelle Gomez) calling herself Missy—short for Mistress—that the possibility of the Master’s redemption was suddenly on the table. In Capaldi’s final year, the Doctor undertook a season-long quest to rehabilitate Missy. Though Missy never completely stopped being sinister, in the end she chose to join forces with the Doctor and even died—symbolically?—doing battle with a male version of herself. The implication seemed to be that becoming a woman had somehow made the Master kinder, nobler, more compassionate and empathetic.

And in a larger sense, Doctor Who has trafficked in stereotypical gender roles from the beginning. Prior to the Chibnall/Whittaker era, the Doctor had always been a man, and the vast majority of the human “assistants” or “companions” were women. Since the Doctor is, by design, an ancient, preternaturally capable, intellectually superior hero and authority figure, the power dynamics of any relationship they have with a normal human will always be uneven. (The Doctor’s dynamic with any human tends to be leader and follower, magician and assistant, teacher and pupil, rescuer and rescued.) However, since the Doctor was always male, and the companions were almost always female, the power dynamics in the TARDIS tended to be uneven along blatant gender lines.

And though the Doctor was conceived, in many respects, as an admirably nontraditional male hero—they do not believe in solving problems through violence, for example—the Doctor’s female companions frequently adhered to stereotypical gender roles in their narrative function. With rare exceptions, they tended to be young and relatively inexperienced women, but even when they were highly skilled professionals—scientist, journalist, doctor—their value to the Doctor was primarily that they provided companionship and humanity. They were often positioned as softening influences on the Doctor: serving as emotional counterpoints to the Doctor’s sometimes callous intellect, keeping the Doctor’s ego in check, and tempering the Doctor’s more aggressive tendencies.

So, is Chibnall and Whittaker’s more nurturing, egalitarian, emotionally supportive version of the Doctor a bug or a feature?

This was particularly true in the modern era. Previous showrunners Russell T. Davies and Moffat both consciously developed this dynamic, exploring the darker sides of the Doctor and setting up the female characters to act as the Doctor’s emotional tether and conscience. (“Find someone,” companion Donna Noble [Catherine Tate] told the Tenth Doctor once, after witnessing some near-genocidal behavior. “Because, sometimes, I think you need someone to stop you.”)

This traditional Doctor-companion dynamic catered to problematic gender-role expectations: Men are aggressive, women are passive; men are intellectual, women are emotional; men are confrontational, women are peacemakers. As Allie Long observes:

Women are well aware of how we’re disproportionately tasked with emotional labor. We all have anecdotes of being forced to cater to the male ego, shouldering the emotional burdens of others without being asked, and being painted as a “bitch” when we don’t live up to our hostess-with-the-mostest stereotype even though we never gave any indication that we were willing or able to do so. Because, obviously, for women, nurturing is just natural.

So, is Chibnall and Whittaker’s more nurturing, egalitarian, emotionally supportive version of the Doctor a bug or a feature? To be honest, I haven’t quite been able to decide. Certainly, many of the changes are welcome. Doctor Who is primarily a show for children, and it is nice to have it not only feature a female in a leadership role but also demonstrate that there are more compassionate ways to lead than through superiority and intimidation.

Not everyone is on board with these changes, by the way, and many critiques read as if the absence of what could reasonably be called the Doctor’s toxic masculinity was exactly the problem with this latest season. “Chibnall had stripped Whittaker’s Doctor of her male predecessors’ egotism, vanity, and philosophical ramblings and replaced them with a depiction of women/femininity that was desperately dull and so last century,” writes Jim Shelley of the Daily Mail, in his review of Whittaker’s first episode. Meanwhile, in The Guardian, podcaster Cameron Reilly laments that Chibnall’s version of the Doctor is no longer a “psychopath” but instead “a kinder, gentler, touchy-feely, kid-friendly Doctor.” Reilly goes on to explain that he is sitting out this era of Doctor Who, because this Doctor “doesn’t talk or act like the Doctor I have been watching since I was a child. She is full of self-doubt, is indecisive and wants a hug. That’s not my Doctor.”

The trap lies first in ascribing essential characteristics to certain genders at all, and then in assuming that any exhibition of those characteristics is necessarily attributable to gender.

The changes these commenters bemoan are exactly the changes I most appreciate about Whittaker’s portrayal of the Doctor. At the same time, however, I sometimes find myself concerned that by changing the Doctor’s gender and making her a more compassionate, nurturing character, Chibnall has doubled down on a limited (and limiting) concept of gender roles. Why, after all, couldn’t a female regeneration of the Doctor be every bit as aggressive, imperious, and emotionally distant as a male one?

The answer, of course, is that one could; this one just doesn’t happen to be. The trap lies first in ascribing essential characteristics to certain genders at all, and then in assuming that any exhibition of those characteristics is necessarily attributable to gender.

And what I’ve realized is that this wouldn’t even be a discussion if Whittaker weren’t a woman. The Tenth Doctor, for example, was very different from the Ninth in several ways. He was more refined in manner, friendlier, more affectionate, and much more romantically inclined. (The show had never before acknowledged even the possibility of a romantic relationship between the Doctor and their companions, but companions Rose [Billie Piper] and Martha [Freema Agyeman] were both openly in love with the Tenth Doctor. And with Rose, at least, that love seemed to be requited, though never acted upon.)

My point is, had the Tenth Doctor been played by a woman, pundits might inevitably have been tempted to attribute some of these characteristics to gender stereotypes. (Oh, the Doctor becomes a woman, and now it’s all about romance.) But because a man (David Tennant) played the Tenth Doctor, those character traits were accepted as just that: Tennant was allowed to construct his Doctor as a character, not as a representative of his gender. Whittaker—and what we hope will be the long line of women who play the Doctor after her—should have the same freedom.

By all means, say the Thirteenth Doctor is a kinder, gentler, and more emotionally open Time Lord, but don’t reduce her Doctor to a gender.

I suspect I’m trying to split some annoyingly fine hairs here, and I confess that my own thinking about all of this is an ongoing process. But one firm conclusion I’ve come to, in my own writing, is to resist the urge to attribute anything about Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor to her gender. By all means, say the Thirteenth Doctor is a kinder, gentler, and more emotionally open Time Lord, but don’t reduce her Doctor to a gender, or reinforce harmful gender stereotypes by describing traits like kindness, gentility, and emotional openness as inherently feminine.

(This trap, incidentally, seems to me adjacent to the one Peter Davison, who played the Fifth Doctor, fell into when he commented on Whittaker’s casting. While praising Whittaker as an actor, he said, “If I feel any doubts, it’s the loss of a role model for boys, who I think Doctor Who is vitally important for.” Davison was somewhat unfairly vilified for this comment, as I believe I understand what he meant: There are too few male heroes who exemplify the traits of intellect and nonviolent confrontation the way the Doctor does. But Davison’s mistake was in implying that Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor can’t be a role model to everyone: male, female, and nonbinary alike.)

As I hope I’ve indicated, I do not pretend to have comprehensive answers to all the issues raised here, and I do not presume that these are the only issues that could be raised. The uniquely changeable nature of Doctor Who’s main character means that the show will always inspire new and difficult discussions. For example, it is worth noting that the Doctor has always been White. There have been many calls for the Doctor to be played by a person of color, and it is an inevitable and overdue development. But such a change will come with its own complex issues of identity. Does looking like a member of an oppressed race or culture automatically provide membership in those communities after enjoying several thousand years of White privilege? Would the differences in how a non-White Doctor would be perceived alter, in turn, the way they would perceive themselves and relate to the world around them? How much do these issues even apply, or matter, to an alien life-form? These are questions for another time and—one hopes—more qualified people to explore.

So I suspect that these speculations are just a few tips poking through the surface of a vast ocean of icebergs. But I appreciate and celebrate the fact that Doctor Who—and speculative fiction in general—can not only change to become more inclusively empowering but, in the process, inspire difficult, even unanswerable questions that tease out our preconceptions and challenge the shifting limits of our language. That’s not a bad side effect of enjoying an inventive, wondrous, deeply silly sci-fi show.

A black-and-white photo of Michael in glasses and a button-down shirt, looking into the camera while leaning on his elbow and propping his chin up.

Michael G. McDunnah writes about film and television at The Unaffiliated Critic and (with his wife, Nakea) co-hosts The Unenthusiastic Critic podcast.


“Themself” Is a Perfectly Cromulent Word

“Themself” Is a Perfectly Cromulent Word

Themself Is a Perfectly Cromulent Word

Watching language change in action.

Superimposed on an out-of-focus image of glitter is the text "'Themself' (like 'yourself') may be used to signal the singular antecedent (though some people will prefer 'themselves').—CMOS 17, 5.48"

By Sarah Grey • April 3, 2017


Each of the hundreds of copyeditors who gathered in sunny St. Petersburg, Florida, last week for the annual ACES: The Society for Editing conference was girding themself for some changes to the rules.

It’s an ACES tradition for The Associated Press to hold its annual press conference announcing what’s changed in each year’s new edition of the AP Stylebook. Many ACES editors have been pressing AP—whose guide is regarded by most U.S. newsrooms as the style “bible”—to allow use of they as a singular personal pronoun for people of nonbinary gender and those who prefer a gender-neutral pronoun. It’s a limited and conditional acceptance and AP still advises writing around it if possible, but its inclusion in the 2017 AP Stylebook is no doubt a step forward. The announcement brought cheers from the language professionals in the room. After the American Dialect Society declared singular they its 2015 Word of the Year, the feeling in the room could be summed up as “It’s about time.”

The Chicago Manual will allow themself to be used as a reflexive singular pronoun.

This year, though, AP was outdone by The Chicago Manual of Style, which announced the publication of its 17th edition at ACES. CMOS, as it’s affectionately called, has been a touchstone for book publishing and academic writing since 1906. While CMOS still cautions that “the use of singular they in place of a generic he or she is not recommended for formal prose,” it is allowing the nonbinary-gender sense as a personal pronoun.

But Chicago has taken this change a step further: Carol Fisher Saller, editor of CMOS’s Online Q&A, announced that the Chicago Manual will allow themself to be used as a reflexive singular pronoun.

This is a big deal for grammarians and the LGBTQ community alike. Themself has been considered nonstandard for hundreds of years; try to write about it and you’re likely to find Word or your phone autocorrecting it to themselves. Yet there’s no question that it’s needed and that it provides greater clarity as well as respect.

We are of course used to themselves for plural referents:

The dancers pour glitter on themselves.

Then there’s the generic gender-neutral referent:

Each dancer pours glitter on themselves.

This is considered standard, but it’s a bit odd, isn’t it? After all, barring past lives and alter egos, each dancer probably only has one self. As a result, although English teachers and style manuals frown on it, it’s quite common for English speakers to use the singular form here:

Each dancer pours glitter on themself.

Recorded instances of this usage, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, date back to the 1450s.

Recorded instances of this usage, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, date back to the 1450s, and the OED records a staggering 174 different spelling variants (from þeʒʒm sellfenn to thame-selvin to thayme selff). Here’s one from 1489, from William Caxton’s Foure Sonnes of Aymon:

Eche of theym sholde . . . make theymselfe redy.

Though themselves came into favor in the late 1500s as English slowly began to standardize, there’s an unbroken string of recorded instances up through the twentieth century, such as this one from the June 1905 issue of Outlook magazine:

Every one at breakfast, she added, in an awed voice, ‘had a finger-bowl to themself’.

Today, the American Heritage Dictionary records two senses of themself, the generic singular and a substitute for the plural:

  1. Informal Himself or herself. Used as a gender-neutral reflexive pronoun: “Relationships are hard, but all the work is worth it, unless the person you’re with has totally let themself go” (John Metz).
  2. Nonstandard Themselves: “I was telling Bubber how he and my uncles owns the whole place themself” (Carson McCullers).

A usage of the gender-nonbinary personal pronoun, on the other hand, would be:

Chris pours glitter on themself. They have been a dancer all their life.

That’s not included in AHD’s current definition, but executive editor Steve Kleinedler says that sense of themself is currently under review. American Heritage Dictionary added the gender-nonbinary sense of singular they in 2016. Dictionary entries for oblique cases of pronouns usually refer to the main entry for the pronoun (themselves and themself refer to the entry for they; myself and me refer to I), but because number agreement isn’t straightforward in this case, Kleinedler says that clarification will likely be added in upcoming updates.

Editors, who are on the front lines of language change, tend to respond more quickly to the needs of their readers and writers.

Some argue that themselves should work as a singular personal pronoun, despite the number agreement; after all, they are is perfectly common with singular referents and poses no more problem than you are does. However, the s ending of themselves makes it an especially conspicuous plural: It stands out, and that’s confusing (as evidenced by the many speakers who avoid it and use themself for singular referents).

Look up themself in a recent usage manual such as Garner’s Modern English Usage (fourth edition), Fowler’s Modern English Usage (third edition), or the Canadian Department of Justice’s Legistics style guide, and you’re likely to see something along the lines of “This isn’t standard yet—but ask us again in ten or twenty years.”

Such hedging is common in the world of “official” usage guides; everyone waits for someone else to make the call, until editors begin shrugging their shoulders and allowing it into print. There’s a bit of a catch-22 here: While editors rely on dictionaries and usage guides to determine what they should publish, dictionaries and usage guides change based on how language is used in edited, published prose. Editors, who are on the front lines of language change, tend to respond more quickly to the needs of their readers and writers.

“Now that it’s there, more people will use it . . . and that’s what lexicographers track.”—Steve Kleinedler, American Heritage Dictionary

A major style manual like the Chicago Manual making the call to allow themself, then, carries enormous weight. Not only is it a mark of acceptance into formal English, but, as Kleinedler points out, “Now that it’s there, more people will use it, which will give us more and more published evidence of use, and that’s what lexicographers track.”

The science-fiction / fantasy / speculative-fiction world is at the forefront of a systematic effort to put gender-neutral language, alternative pronouns (not only they/their but se/ser, xe/xir, and other neologisms) into print. C.B. Lee (@author_cblee on Twitter), a California-based writer of young-adult speculative fiction, uses the singular they, themself, and other alternative pronouns in her work and says that her publisher and editorial team at Duet, the young-adult imprint of the independent Interlude Press, have been nothing but supportive. “They’ve really only queried me when there was a question about whether the meaning was singular or plural,” Lee says. “We ended up changing an instance of themself to they in my book Not Your Sidekick, but only because it really was plural.” The sequel, Not Your Villain (due out in October 2017), uses themself several times. The queer SFF comic anthology Beyond (Beyond Press, 2015) set out to “reflect and celebrate the many facets of gender and sexuality,” with language to match, and additional anthologies now in the works will add even more recorded instances for the lexicographers to weigh.

Because SFF and speculative fiction spend so much time envisioning other worlds, alien societies, and far-future possibilities, gender-neutral language is absolutely crucial for them: Binary gender, after all, is a social construction that isn’t even universal among human beings, let alone other Earth species, so why assume it would exist throughout the galaxy? Surely there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in the English language.

Advances in language help us imagine other ways of being.

Advances in language help us imagine other ways of being. But we don’t need to look to other worlds for that. Nonbinary, genderqueer, agender, and gender-neutral people right here on Earth are writing, editing, and asking other writers and editors to broaden their vocabularies in ways that acknowledge and respect a broad spectrum of gender identities. The Chicago Manual’s decision to endorse that goal is a major step forward in that process.

Sarah is smiling at the camera, wearing a black top with loose folds.Sarah Grey is an editor, writer, and trainer of editors. She is the owner of Grey Editing and the 2016 recipient of the ACES Robinson Prize. She has written on language for Conscious Style Guide, Copyediting, Salvage, Bitch, Lucky Peach, and more. |