If it had been Inspector Morse, I would have understood. Morse is a man, and he has the hang-ups and preoccupations of a man of his age and generation. If a woman actor were to take over the role, it would no longer be the same character. Unless you decided to introduce some sort of complicated plot rationale for the switch – Morse realises he’s suppressing his feminine side and ends up having a sex change… Morse’s Oxford turns out to be a computer simulation and Morse an avatar whose characteristics can be be chosen at will…- you might just as well give the woman detective a new name and start a new series.
But Dr Who? This is a character who is not even human, well-known for regenerating himself from time to time in an entirely new body. This is a show where ‘What’s the next regeneration going to be?’ is a long-established part of the fun. How can it be anything other than an entertaining new twist if he now regenerates as a she? It’s great that the number of famous shows with female protagonists has increased by one, and it’s lovely to see the delight of fans, such as my friend Una McCormack (see her wonderfully exultant piece here!), but, even if I leave all that completely aside and just look at this ‘professionally’ as someone who’s in the business of telling stories, it seems such an obviously fruitful move to make.
But I’m interested by the voices raised in anger and disappointment -The show has been ruined… This is no longer the Doctor… I can never watch it again… – and the underlying assumption about gender that these cries imply. I may be in minority here, but I actually don’t think they are all necessarily misogynistic (at least not in the strict sense of the word, which means ‘woman-hating’). What they do imply, though, is a belief in the existence of an absolute rift between the genders, as if male identity and female identity were not just a matter of being raised with a certain set of social expectations, or even a matter of having been born with a particular kind of body or body chemistry, but went all the way down to the very foundation of identity, wherever that might be, like letters through a stick of rock: The Doctor can change his face, his body, his personality, his apparent age, and still remain the Doctor, but if he changes gender he cannot be the same person.
It’s the same kind of worldview that leads certain religious people to insist that, even though God has no body, is prior to society and biology, makes all the rules, God can nevertheless be, in some way, immutably male. (And, in a sense, it’s a view that’s embedded even in our language. In most contexts, if you want to refer to a person with a pronoun, you have to choose he or she. I only got round that a couple of sentences ago by using the word ‘God’ twice!)
Why should this one characteristic among all others be so fundamental? Some species grow up male or female depending on the temperature, others change sex from male to female in the course of their lives, others again are both simultaneously. My own experience when writing a female character such as Angie Redlantern is that what I need to do is dive down to a point that is prior to male or female and then swim upwards again in a different direction. It’s a number of layers down, that point, but nothing like as deep as many seem to think.
I wonder what would have happened if it had been a change of race?