Beware the female Doctor Who dares to challenge the status quo.

Lisa Annese
Topics Gender

First thing Monday morning I received an urgent text from a friend: "Have you heard about The Doctor?"

My friend is actually a medical doctor so she could have been referring to a professional matter, but I knew exactly what she meant. "Yes," I replied. "Isn't it wonderful?"

For those who are not avid Whoviansit must be said that the BBC television show 'Doctor Who' refers only to the title of the show. In the story, the title character is only ever referred to as 'The Doctor', a Time Lord and extra-terrestrial being from the planet Gallifrey who explores the universe in a legendary time machine, the T.A.R.D.I.S. To clarify for non-nerds, the TARDIS refers to Time and Relative Dimension in Space.

The very fact that the title is 'Doctor Who' is indicative of the changing nature of this protagonist. It is not called 'Doctor Him' or 'Doctor Who must only be a male doctor'. You see, 'Doctor Who' is actually a question and the BBC has now given us 13 different answers.

For those people who are not fans of the cult series, I really don't understand why so many of you are getting upset about a show you don't even watch.

And for those who are genuine Whovians, the entire premise of the show is based on the concept of bodily regeneration, when a physical injury appears to risk the life of the Doctor. Statistically speaking, after 12 incarnations in a male body, the probability of regeneration into a female body has to be pretty high.

Indeed, it was almost going to happen after the departure of the 11th Doctor, Matt Smith. Although anyone who has enjoyed the genius of Peter Capaldi could never doubt he was the absolute best choice for Doctor 12.

In the case of Capaldi, the transition from a youthful doctor (Smith) to a mature-aged one (Capaldi) barely ruffled a feather. Okay, it seems we are fine with age diversity in the regenerations of The Doctor.

But, some feathers were indeed ruffled when Jodie Whittaker was announced as the 13th and first female Doctor by the BBC after the Wimbledon final on Sunday evening in London.

On a lighter note, the announcement has spawned a series of memes and videos that have been incredibly funny. The best of these was done by 'SBS: The Feed' who created a video about a Doctor Who Helpline for devastated male fans.

But the reaction from some quarters to this reinvention has been overtly hostile, and I think reveals a level of discomfort with seeing women taking on roles traditionally held by men.

Breaking stereotypes and challenging established notions of power will always make uncomfortable those who benefit by maintaining the status quo. As with any change, however, there always has to be a first before there is a second, and then a critical mass that changes the norm.

When Joanne Rowling handed in her manuscript for 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone', her British publisher insisted on using her initials only. She did not have a middle name so borrowed the letter 'K' from her grandmother's name, Kathleen. The publishers thought that 'Harry Potter' was a book that would appeal to boys and they did not want them finding out that it had been written by a woman.

The success of the book soon outed J.K. Rowling's gender. The 'Harry Potter' series has gone on to become one of the most successful book series in publishing history. The publishers seriously underestimated young boys who didn't seem to care the books had been written by a woman. The book series appealed to a universal fan base not defined by gender, culture or age.

Likewise, the casting of Noma Dumezweni, a classically trained and, yes, a black actor, as Hermione Granger in the West End production of 'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child' that opened in mid-2016, was also met with controversy and accusations of 'political correctness gone mad'.

Noma went on to win a Lawrence Olivier award for her portrayal of the middle-aged Hermione, the show has been a critical success and continues to play to sold-out daily audiences. As a huge fan of the book series, I was lucky enough to get tickets to the play in London late last year and I was not disappointed.

Most of the people who deplore deviations from traditionally 'white' or traditionally 'male' heroes and heroines tend to also be majorly invested, even subconsciously, in preserving their role as the dominant group in the culture.

But this is not how art works, nor literature, television or film. As creative forces, they must carry on challenging stereotypes, telling stories through different eyes, showcasing diverse narratives and continuing to reflect and make commentary on what is going on in society.

I suspect that history will also show that, far from diminishing the appeal of Doctor Who, Jodie Whittaker's reign as the 13th Doctor will likely broaden the appeal of the show to include many more fans, especially children who will now being able to imagine themselves as a Time Lord rather than only ever being able to aspire to be a mere companion.

Lisa Annese

This blog first appeared on The Huffington Post Australia on 20 July 2017

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