Doctor Who, Writing Female Characters, and Equality.

Jodie Whittaker in 13th Doctor announcement photo

Jodie Whittaker in 13th Doctor announcement photo

On the one hand, I can’t believe we need to have this discussion of how to write female protagonists and balance. On the other, since clearly we do need it, let’s have it.

With the announcement of the 13th Doctor as a female regeneration, the internet slightly exploded. I was actually at a fandom convention during the announcement and heard not only discussion of the announcement itself, but of reactions to the announcement.

We’re going to ignore those who were horrified to discover their Doctor now has girl cooties. They’re easy to ignore — or just borrow for humor, where they’re most useful. Anyway, the haters are vocal but seem to be a minority, or maybe I just have a better-curated network, and I don’t intend to waste blog space on that sort of thing.

But one repeated protest I heard repeatedly in several less-hysterical discussions was, now that the Doctor is a female, the male companions will be written down to idiocy so that she looks clever, and so everything will be less cool and the storytelling will suffer. I found myself saying or typing the same thing repeatedly, so let me just save time and put it here.

This is indeed a huge problem, only the problem is not the Doctor’s personal plumbing.

Healthy Balance

Let me jump years back to a far more serious situation than a fictional alien’s genitals. I had in my social network an unhealthy relationship which had progressed to what I considered abuse. I was trying to decide whether to intervene and, if so, how. It was the topic of concerned conversation one day between myself and a friend.

“I feel really bad for him, but I feel like it’s his fault,” she said. “A man is supposed to be in charge over the woman. This wouldn’t happen if he just kept her in her place.”

I was appalled, but I didn’t have the words in my shock to get through. What I should have said was this:

“Is the reason you don’t abuse your husband because he keeps you in your place?”

Because that is the clear implication of what she said. (Also, victim-blaming is a straight-up nope. A victim does not cause his own abuse. End of lecture.)

Obviously the correct answer to this question is that she refrains from abuse out of love and respect, not a strict hierarchy. That happens to be the same reason I don’t abuse my husband, and also why he doesn’t abuse me. Love and respect is therefore what is needed in a troubled relationship, not hierarchy.

Her solution to an unbalanced relationship was to unbalance it in the other direction. But one doesn’t have to be great at gymnastics or Jenga to realize imbalance cannot be successfully corrected with imbalance. Push a falling leg or block equally far in the other direction, it’s still going to fall. No, you fix imbalance with balance.

This is true of relationships, of gender or race relations and representation in media, and in writing characters. You don’t fix imbalance with imbalance.

Balancing Characters

Now jump to the 13th Doctor. Must there now be imbalance with her new gender? And if so, how should it be corrected?

In order to appear as strong, clever, funny, etc. as the “normal” [male] Doctor, the protest goes, a female Doctor’s co-stars will be handicapped so that she can stand out more, and that will harm the show. Yes, I agree, that would be a tragic turn of writing. But let’s look at the starting assumption, so inherently assumed that it’s not even mentioned as the starting point, that a female protagonist cannot be a strong, clever, funny, and generally complex character on her own.

Look, a character’s success or failure at being interesting is not related to gender (or race). Either you write a strong, complex, well-developed character, or you don’t. Gender (or race) is not personality.

You know what handicapping is in horse-racing, right? When one horse is better than another, they give him extra weight to carry, to even out the field’s competition. It’s more exciting for gambling, but it’s a lousy way to write fiction.

If your character needs another character to be handicapped to look good, then your character is lame. If you are even thinking of nerfing another character to bolster your first, you need to stop and go back to start. And we do know this, but the truth is often we’re just not used yet to writing female characters as “characters” and not “female characters.”

This question of complexity and balance comes up almost immediately with a female protagonist and somehow almost never comes up with a male hero. Read the following two sentences:

“Wonder Woman is incredibly strong and determined but they managed to keep her femininity as well!”


“Captain America is incredibly strong and determined but they managed to keep his masculinity as well!”

See how the first reads like a typical movie or book review, while the second is plainly stupid? That betrays our cultural assumptions both about the complexity of female characters and about femininity and masculinity. We assume, so deeply we barely notice it’s an assumption until it’s pointed out, that female characters may be less complex, and that feminine is a contrast to strong and determined.

Yet it clearly doesn’t have to be that way. Go ahead and tell Zoë Alleyne Washburne of Firefly that she isn’t a real woman. I’ll wait.

Zoë Alleyne Washburne. 'Nuff said.

Zoë Alleyne Washburne. ‘Nuff said.

Wait, I get it. You think that’s a fictional example, that real life women are different from fictional badass women. Okay, let’s review a few strong and determined real-life women (and honestly they just need mentioned anyway, because I’ll never get around to including all of them in stories, and now’s as good a time as any).

  • Khutulun, a Mongolian warrior princess who could not be defeated by any man in the extremely badass Mongolian wrestling tournaments. That traditional open-chest wrestling vest is allegedly a tribute to her, letting opponents verify each is male.
  • Nancy Wake, a World War 2 journalist and spy who interviewed Hitler, strangled an SS sentry with her bare hands, and hit the top of a Gestapo “most wanted” list.
  • Policarpa Salavarrieta, a key agent in the revolution of Bolivia, who harangued her colonialist captors so fiercely they had to use drums to drown her out, and who refused to kneel for execution so that she had to be leaned against a stool to be shot.

“No, no, I don’t mean badass women who kill and harangue people. Haranguing is not feminine or ladylike. I mean feminine women, who nurture and care for others, who practice love and kindness!”

Sure! What about Edith Cavell, the nurse who famously treated soldiers from both sides during WW2 and emphasized, “Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hate in my heart”? Who insisted that she could not stop while lives could be saved, right up until she was executed by the Germans? How very nurturing, and determined, of her.

“Okay, but those are isolated examples. Individual women. It’s not like there are whole cadres of fierce women.”

Night Witches, the 588th Night Bomber Regiment

Night Witches, the 588th Night Bomber Regiment

You’ve surely heard of the Night Witches, right? The all-female Russian 588th Night Bomber Regiment who flew plywood-and-canvas planes on 30,000 missions to bomb Germany? In the dark, without radar? With no parachutes? They were so fearsomely effective that any German pilot who managed to down one automatically got the Iron Cross.

You get the idea. There is no shortage of examples of real-life strength and determination and complexity in females. (I’m not even addressing the much more local and mundane displays of strength and determination in getting through dirty diapers or fighting an unwelcome construction project in one’s neighborhood.) We shouldn’t be surprised by it in a female character.

So no, there’s absolutely no reason a female protagonist needs bland males around her in order to be interesting. If the side characters are more fascinating than the protagonist, the protagonist is out of balance, and we must correct it by balancing the protagonist, not flattening the fascinating side characters. Weakening the side characters does not strengthen the main character, it further weakens the cast.

Writing Women by Un-Writing Men

When I would point out this faulty assumption, suggesting that a well-written female protagonist did not need a handicapped cast of male characters, I was usually met with further protest. “Maybe she doesn’t, but it’ll be done that way. Look at how most television shows write the men into idiots so the women can look smart!”

Okay, first of all, if we’re going to complain about the wholesale idiotization of one gender for the enhanced portrayal of another, there are decades of dumb-female television scripts to address — but we’re not going to waste time criticizing the past, because we’re about a better future.

So I thought about it, I really did. What are the major modern television shows I’ve watched or heard of, and do they tend to man-mocking scripts? Lost? Dexter? Breaking Bad? Mad Men? The Sopranos? Sherlock? The West Wing? Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? Game of Thrones? The Wire? Downton Abbey? The Walking Dead? White Collar? No, I’m not really seeing a smart woman/dumb man trend here. What about the noted feminist ones, like Firefly and Agent Carter? Hm, still not seeing it.

“No, no, those shows aren’t like that. But others are. Sit-coms.”

Okay, I don’t watch a lot of sit-coms. Lemme think. Um, Big Bang Theory? I don’t think that’s about dumb men…. (In fact, it’s quite the opposite of a female-friendly show.)

“No, there are a lot of sit-coms which make fun of dumb men.”

Okay, let me think, what sit-coms have I seen… Not much, they’re not really my thing, just a few clips online. Oh! I remember one! Let’s go see how the women look smart and the men are dumb.

(Warning: this clip is acceptable for prime time viewing, but it ain’t high-brow humor.)

“There’s barely a male character in that clip; they didn’t have time to make fun of him.”

I’m sorry, it was just the first one I remembered. What else have I seen? Oh, a comedy sketch! And it has a topical Doctor Who reference! And specifically with a female lead, who should “win” because it’s her headlining spot!

Yeah, that didn’t exactly turn out as a man-bashing women-always-win poster example of smart-woman-dumb-man writing.

“No, no! I mean American sit-coms. They write dumb men.”

Ah. So instead of “most modern television shows have dumbed-down male characters to make women look good,” you actually mean “one genre in American television has dumbed-down male characters, so that will necessarily determine a different genre in British television.” Okay. But now that we’re getting to an actual point of concern, let’s talk about it.

Except I can’t really comment. I don’t follow modern American sit-coms, so I honestly don’t know if they really are mostly about smart women mocking dumb men, and I’m not interested in watching a half-dozen randomized episodes for research. I suspect it’s not as prevalent as protested, that it’s more notable cases of smart women and dumb men standing out over the less notable smart women and smart men or the outdated-but-well-documented smart men and dumb women, but maybe I’m wrong and most of modern American comedy really is about men written exactly like women of the 50s, 60s, and 70s shows. And 80s shows. And 90s shows. And….

Let’s go ahead and say it is, for the sake of argument. If the pendulum has swung too far, that’s wrong. Imbalance is not solved by imbalance, and we’ve talked before about how feminism is not about writing men as villains. As I said above, cutting down one character or type to bolster another is just bad writing. If this is happening, I suspect it’s because writers are taking the long-established formula of sit-coms — putting inept people into situations they can’t handle and letting them embarrass themselves or get embarrassed by others — and have simply swapped genders. It’s lazy, but it’s a formula which has paid off for decades. If we want it changed, we stop making it pay. Done.

That means turning off the show you don’t like which bashes men, rather than bashing shows which feature women. You don’t fix imbalance with imbalance.

And then stop worrying about the Doctor’s gender resulting in the emasculation and idiotization of the show’s male cast.

  • Because Doctor Who isn’t an American sit-com, it’s a British space-fantasy drama, so a “but American sit-coms are written badly!” argument just doesn’t apply.
  • Because the writers of Doctor Who have done a great job so far of being inclusive without insulting anyone else — remember when they made all the white characters really dumb so they could enhance Martha and Bill and other minority characters? me neither — so there’s no grounds to think they should suddenly lose the ability now.
  • Because a female can be competent without dumbing down a male colleague.
  • Because we modern feminists don’t tolerate sexism in any form. Right? Right.

Now, what were those other protests?

“It’s not canonical for the Doctor to be female.”

Actually, it’s canonical that Time Lords can change gender upon regeneration, and we’ve seen it quite recently. Next?

“This is a sudden change!”

A female Doctor has been in discussion for decades. (See The Curse of Fatal Death for a non-canonical reference.) There have been gimme-level script hints for quite a while. It’s not a surprise. Next?

“It’s agenda-driven, just to please the SJWs!” or “It’s just to push a feminist agenda!”

First, it’s the duty of art to engage with culture, so yes, most everything is agenda-driven. We often really only notice though when it’s not our agenda. Casting a male actor after so much discussion of a female actor would also have been a statement.

Second, what “feminist agenda” are we afraid of, actually? The idea that a woman can be a strong, quirky, and clever protagonist? Not new, and there have been plenty of strong, quirky, and clever females on the show already. Showing the Doctor running around and having adventures instead of having babies? The Doctor has been running around and having adventures instead of babies for decades. Nothing has changed. Next?

“I don’t like it.”

Hey, finally, a true statement! And actually, I’m fine with that. You don’t have to like it. I don’t have to like it. I don’t know yet if I do like it. Remember, disliking the new Doctor is a Doctor Who tradition, dating back nearly the whole length of the show.

Maybe you’ll keep a favorite past Doctor — mine’s Ten — or maybe the new one will become your new favorite. Who can say? (Ha, ha, I kill me.) Anyway, it’s perfectly legitimate to simply dislike the change, and I’m not going to even try to convince you that you should feel otherwise. Feelings are real and preferences are fine. It’s just justifying those feelings with silly protests like “but it’s not true to the series!” or “a woman can’t be both strong and funny!” or “it means men are debased!” that’s wrong.

To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t rooting for a female Doctor. If I’d been asked, which I of course wasn’t, I probably would have voted for a male POC Doctor, which still would have engaged with a major current social issue in Britain but may have been less disruptive to the fanbase. But BBC didn’t play it safe, and now we have a female Doctor. And judging by the response, I think it’s probably one of the best things that could have happened to us.