A Female #doctor13: Why the Controversy?

The 13th Doctor, Jodi Whittaker

When the BBC announced that Jodi Whittaker was to be the next Doctor in the infamous show Doctor Who, the internet quite literally exploded. No matter who people were, whether they had been fans from the beginning or had skipped Nine because he wasn’t as cute as David Tennant, everyone had an opinion about what it meant to have a female take the place of a man. Some believed it was just meant to be; that it had been an option that just hadn’t yet been explored. Others wrote off the show entirely, saying that it was the fault of politics and gender equality believers that the doctor was female. The polarization of the reaction to the decision was one that rocked the entire Whoniverse. Why?

Michelle Gomez as Missy

Let’s start with some Time Lord Regeneration 101. After all, there has to be something in the show that says a female doctor is possible, right? Right. When a Time Lord regenerates, they can regenerate into any gender. Male to Female. Female to Male. Male to Alien. Alien to Female. Any and all of the above are possibilities based on the ways in which the physical genetics of the Time Lords and the way they change during regeneration (more information). The first point that comes to mind that unequivocally pointed to the next Doctor being female (aside from some of Capaldi’s lines about the future being all female) was the Master’s regeneration into Missy. One of the first major gender changes in the Whoniverse, Missy’s change has been dubbed the most innovative thing Doctor Who writers have ever done. Additionally, The General also becomes female, saying that “it’s good to be back to normal.” The traditionalists may have grumbled a little bit, but the show went on, and just as the General proved a good help for the Doctor, Missy proved to be excellent, exciting, and dangerous opponent for the Doctor to face.

Now let’s consider the naysayers; the people who believe that the Doctor should be male. Period. Some people argue that because the Doctor has traditionally been male, the tradition should be kept up, and is only disrupted by the casting of a female actress. Some believe that the Whoniverse is losing an important male role model for little boys to look up to. Some are disgusted that the BBC would consider following the trend of gender equality and literally just chose Jodi Whittaker because she was female. Now, we have to remember that with every casting of a new Doctor comes negativity, yes. Some people didn’t like David Tennant because he was too pretty, or Matt Smith because he was too young, or Peter Capaldi because he was too old. Eventually, however, each and every actor who played the Doctor made his way into our hearts, and we more than likely shed a few tears when they eventually regenerated. The negativity that followed Whittaker’s casting, though, was something that rocked the internet in a way even the Whoniverse had never seen, to the point where Whittaker released a statement telling fans not to be intimidated by her gender.

A History of Doctor Who

Should that be necessary? Should an actor or actress have to justify her position in a show as big as this? We have to consider that for all the past Doctors, the BBC has chosen splendid, talented, and extraordinary actors who have each taken a part of the Doctor and made him their own. The consideration that Jodi Whittaker was, quite simply, the best person for the job doesn’t appear to have crossed anyone’s minds, which is mind-boggling. We have to have faith in the production company who has kept the Doctor crossing our screens for more than 50 years, and we have to remember that Doctor Who is a show that is known for daring change; after all, the regeneration of any on-screen character was unheard of before William Hartnell’s regeneration: people sat in front of their black screens in shock when the extent of what the BBC had done finally sunk in. The BBC is used to breaking down traditions and barriers, and is back again to remind fans not to get too comfortable in tradition, because, like a phoenix, traditions can always be reborn.

Trust in the Doctor means trust in the BBC and their casting choices

Seeing Jodi’s first moments on the screen evoked an emotion in many viewers that hadn’t been heard of since Hartnell’s regeneration: they were so shocked that they needed to let it sink in. Knowing that a female Doctor is coming and seeing a female Doctor are two different things; however, those first moments were so powerful that even the naysayers were willing to give her a chance and watch that first episode. Watching the new fall, hearing their first words, those are classic Doctor Who moments, moments that every fan looks forward to, and there was no exception in the case of Jodi Whittaker. She delivered her first lines fantastically (dare I say, oh, brilliantly?), and brought the fandom back into the usual cycle of excitement and grief that comes with letting one Doctor go and welcoming another into our hearts. Just because we’re still holding on to Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, and Peter Capaldi doesn’t mean we aren’t ready to welcome a new member into the Whovian family. The BBC has never let us down, and they won’t let us down this time: they believe in Jodi and her ability to be the Doctor; for that very reason, we should all believe in her too. It’s the least we can do for the newest addition to our (usually) kind, caring, and inclusive family.

It’s important to remember that the Doctor will be a role model for young and old men and women across the world, no matter whether the Doctor is male or female. Just as young women wish to be like Sherlock Holmes, young men can absolutely look up to strong female characters like the 13th Doctor. Just as Eccleston, Tennant, Smith, and Capaldi have, Whittaker will take her spot as the Doctor with the same beliefs at heart that any previous Doctor has. The fact that the Doctor has a police box and a screwdriver instead of a fancy car and a gun won’t change, and neither will any of the fundamental beliefs that Doctor Who has stood on for over 50 years. The only change that we will see beyond the screen is the fact that the most capable person to exemplify the Doctor is a female instead of a male, which really shouldn’t be that difficult of a change to swallow. If it is indeed a problem of gender instead of capability, the very same re-evaluation of the way people conceive of the difference between men and women that has been sought for decades needs to once again be brought to the forefront of society.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Teressa

    The male nerd ego is so fragile and weak that the very idea of empathising with a female hero is somehow unmanly.

    • Toxic masculinity is indeed very pervasive. What surprised me most about the outrage at the announcement was that it was often coming from folks who don’t actually watch Doctor Who (not just the male nerd community). I wouldn’t try to say that only authentic (whatever that means) Whovians are entitled to an opinion, but perhaps they should have watched a couple of episodes before jumping on social media and saying that a woman can’t play the Doctor.

      • Blackcat130

        I would agree with this sentiment. We saw how the world reacted to the all-female Ghostbusters. The main criticism I always hear about the Ghostbusters remake was something about the gender politics and never really about the comedy or their acting.

    • I agree. The main reason there is so much controversy is because male fans can’t handle the fact that their gender no longer has all the power. They’re so used to the status quo.

  2. I really hope the next doctor has the mind of an eccentric science professor and the emotions of a Vulcan. No more interpersonal relationship drama please, TV is saturated with that soap opera drivel and stop the doctor travelling backwards in time while still stuck on Earth the past is boring, lets see futuristic civilizations.

  3. Jodie Whittaker was fantastic in “Venus” and “St Trinians”, versatile and able to play comic and tragic.

  4. I’m enormously pleased that she isn’t a household name in her own right already (in the way one of the other suggestions, Olivia Colman, is). IMHO when the “established” names have done it in Ecclestone and Capaldi they haven’t been able to mould and shape the role in the way they want as well as Smith and Tennant were able to.

    I don’t care what gender the actor is, but this decision will upset all the people who it is most fun to upset, so on that basis alone this is brilliant. The BBC reacting to the wants and desires of their audience, not its critics, something we need to see more of.

  5. Munjeera

    Female James Bond next!

  6. As always, I will reserve judgement until I’ve seen a few episodes.

  7. It’s about time the show evolved into something different. I suspect some may be disapointed or even angry, but this die-hard whovian is utterly delighted.

  8. Oma Cheney

    I find it bizarre that so many people will hate the idea of a female Doctor. Surely the sort of person who would balk at a female Doctor wouldn’t be able to get through an episode without whining about the show’s “virtue signalling” and “left-wing bias” etc?

  9. Else Grisham

    Science fiction is a progressive, forward-thinking medium.

  10. Lunsford

    She was great in Black Mirror too.

  11. Really pleased they’ve made this decision. And I’ll admit to not wanting a female doctor in the past.

    I’ve been mourning the departure of Capaldi but now… now I’m excited and intrueged as to just what the new doctor is going to be like.

  12. Why do grown ups get so carried away by Doctor Who?

    • Not all grown ups. As a kid, I told my friends in the 1970s I couldn’t watch it because it gave me nightmares. Which meant we did something else instead. The truth was, I couldn’t watch it because it was so boring, so completely impossible to relate to. I could never get the ‘but science fantasy is a great metaphor’ excuse. I just couldn’t relate to it at all. And the new version is no less unappealing.

      Don’t get me wrong, I love a good drama series and I have tried hard with these things, but I’m hard-wired not to connect. And nor is my son, nor my husband. I think it’s probably Marmite. I think some people’s brains are open to it, and some aren’t. There were a couple of Star Trek episodes I thought were okay. I’d love someone to study these things and explain why I can’t connect with things like Dr Who.

  13. Juliann

    So, a more serious Doctor this time. Waller Bridge or Kris Marshall would have been a bit Matt Smithy for my liking. Great choice, have liked her since her debut in Venus. The Cybermen won’t know whats hit them. Bring it on!

  14. Friendster

    Why does everything have to have some deep socio-political meaning? It’s just a woman playing a leading role in a popular TV franchise. Hardly unusual these days, no?

  15. Georgeanna

    Would loved to have seen Tilda Swinton in the role. Probably too successful an actor now for it though.

  16. She’s worked with Chibnall plenty on Broadchurch and she’s been great in everything I’ve seen her in. Fingers crossed she gets well written episodes.

  17. The point is it gives insight into any gender can be hero and the always been gender fluid it’s just a shame it’s not Gillian Anderson she would of been awesome but I bet this actress shows her stuff as well – it quite an honour to be the first female Dr.

  18. Funny how some sci-fi fans will readily accept opening their minds to new planets, timelines, aliens, regenerations and possibilities…. but not a woman stepping into a telephone box.

  19. AlyssaTallent

    fantastic as for me)

  20. I am excited to see how she handles the character. I will admit that I wasn’t overly happy at first but I’m older, so cut me some slack. Plus I’m a huge fan of the last four doctors. I hope they have wonderful stories for her and that we don’t have the gender issue pounded down our throats with every line and story. I hope we get a lot of asides as her previous male incarnations learn about being female. Is anyone else wondering why the TARDIS ejected her so violently? That was troubling.

  21. Stephanie M.

    Nice article, and thanks for defending female characters as role models for males, and vice versa. Personally, I think the naysayers need to get over themselves.

  22. Sarai Mannolini-Winwood

    Such a great discussion and such an exciting time for television today. Every change we have that breaks the tradition of the white, male archetype as the dominant character in Western film and television is a step forward.
    Plus I am just really excited to see narratively where this goes!

  23. BallardianGorse

    There’s a long tradition of gun vs. frock in Doctor Who. Thankfully at long last, frock seems to have won.

  24. A wonderful post, well-written.

    Also, I think you made a great point about capability, and capability vs. gender…I suppose one could get into the debate of which men were capable vs what women were capable, but that point pushes away those who claim Jodi Whittaker was only chosen because she is a women – certainly a demeaning claim to her as an actress – and makes those who are against the casting think about what they’re REALLY mad about, and whether that’s fair or not.

  25. BarryMW

    The key problem I’ve always had with the rhetoric around a female Doctor (the possibility has been discussed online for years now) is the suggestion that all males nerd egos are as fragile as the worst amongst us. Why have little boys lost a role model? Why can’t a woman be a role-model for a pre-pubescent male? Why can’t a woman be a role-model for an adult male?
    Maybe I’m the outlier, but as a straight, white male who is happily married I grew up idolising characters like Ripley (finding the strength not to give up; Aliens), Faith (working for redemption for our mistakes; Buffy) and Scully (valuing evidence over belief; X-Files) just as much as I did any male hero.
    I can’t wait for a new Doctor. If I love the new regeneration or I hate it, I sincerely doubt it will have anything to do with the gender.

  26. I totally agree with your point about the public finding something to complain about with each announcement of another Doctor, whether it’s to do with age, appearance or audience awareness of the actor. While I have always been sad to see the lead actors go by the end of their tenure, the use of regeneration as a device gives the show a chance to evolve and explore different facets of The Doctor.

    Personally, I am excited to see what Jodi does with the role and hopefully the writing, direction and cast will support a brilliant new era of the show.

  27. I loved the idea that the producers wanted tpo bring in a female actor to challenge what we already think about the role. Having been a massive fan for many years , i have had a lot of people ask what i thnk and personally the best response i can come up with is ‘ The Doctor is an alien that might not have any concept as to what gender means on our planet, not to mention it is a fictional series that i love dearly and any ways they can get young girls feeling enpowered and young boys look up to a female role model is totally fine by me’

  28. maggieveach

    In this day and age it’s hard to choose an actress to be the lead simply because it will be seen as too feminist or catering to that base. Honestly I think The Doctor does not need a gender or age, The Doctor is simply who they are. I say: Geronimo!

  29. I’m so excited for this change. I love the idea that if I ever have a daughter, she can watch Dr Who and feel as though she can not only be a companion, but that if she wants to, and she works hard enough, she could be a Doctor!

  30. In this day and age, no one is likely to say anything along the lines of ‘I don’t like the casting of Jodie Whittaker because I hate women’ but more, as we’ve seen, ‘casting a woman as a lead role is political correctness gone mad.’ From where I’m sitting, this is just the fragile male ego rearing its ugly head at the thought of a woman playing a lead role. Also, as a diehard Whovian, I’ve never thought that The Doctor should have just one gender, so I think it makes completely sense that the BBC are changing it up in this way. I vaguely understand why some people are upset that young boys are losing a role model but actually, they aren’t: they already have twelve, plus many more in many different kinds of media!

  31. It’s such a rash thing to immediately dismiss Whittaker’s Doctor without even seeing her in a full episode. I’m sure the character will continue to be a role model for young children, regardless of their gender. I’m certainly looking forward to see what she brings to the character! The Doctor will always be the Doctor.

  32. SamanthaHD

    As a novice of Dr Who, I really enjoyed this article. At the time that this news of a female Dr Who was circling, I didn’t understand the outrage of it all. Especially when the Doctors change every season anyway. I just put it down to fans being terrified of change because they don’t trust producers to make the right decision or because there was some canon that meant it couldn’t be done. This article really clears up what people were thinking and it was easy to understand! I might even watch this season of Dr Who, I think!

  33. danderson

    This is definitely a very controversial topic and I can see the points for both sides. I thought of the example of James Bond. Even though different 007 movies had different actors they were all tough, fierce, and handsome men. Imagine if they one day broke that tradition with someone else. It would certainly cause an outrage. However with the way the world is changing, it is usually better for television series and any video production in general to try and be as fair as possible to all gender, sex, orientation, etc. I can see why they would add a woman doctor. It adds a unique change and possibly many female fans wanted to see that change. However there will always people on both sides and it is impossible to please everyone. Having an open mind however can do great things.

  34. I just hope Doctor Who never gets cancelled. Jodie would provide a new change that seems to have been predicted by River Song many times when she mentioned “her wife” and the time “there were two of him” (which had only happened once in modern who in the 50th anniversary). Also, the chemistry between Alex and Jodie would be great, if she is ever brought back again, of course.

  35. When I got the news the Dr would be played by a female, I wasn’t a fan of the idea.
    I think it is innovative for the writers to cast a female character, especially with the recent women empowerment movements occurring globally. It’s cool that they did this…


    I’m on the traditionalists side, and I’m sorry. But the Dr has been a male for many years and I’ve falling in love with his crazy-genius, disfunctional, damaged hero character. He’s beautiful but broken and I love that about his character. I’m just not sold about seeing these traits in the female Dr. It sounds harsh but I am a traditionalist.

  36. Matthew McBride

    Can you remove my ’13 Doctors’ image from your article, You did not ask to use it or gave credit to me. Cheers.

  37. I originally was shocked by the gender change because it has already been shown that the Doctor is married to River Song. I was curious to see how Jodi Whittaker as the Doctor would interact with her wife. I thought some of the reasons why people were upset was the idea of the Doctor now being a lesbian or bisexual and that rift of discovery that would need to be explained for the audience to understand. I think the writers decided early on to not touch on the issue for awhile. This wasn’t mentioned in your article at all so now I’m thinking it was just me who thought this.

  38. I don’t mind the doc being a woman, I mind how the writers just didn’t seem to bother writing good stories for her. Yes, we have a female Doctor. How novel. Now give her some stories worth remembering, please.
    It really does seem they don’t care enough about the actress to bother. ‘Oh,we have a female Doctor, thats enough innovation for the series.’

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