Little Boxes Will Make You Angry: Doctor Who and Transphobia
Guest contributor Michelle Kerry looks at trans-representation in Doctor Who.
I’d like to start off by saying that the name I’m writing under is a pseudonym. This is because (and however small the risk is, it is not one I can afford to take) if typing my real surname into a Google search were to bring up this article, it could endanger me. However, this is not the first time I have written for the site, my last article was The Snowmen: In Perspective on Christmas Eve 2013. So, it’s clear who I am to those of you who were here then, and if you weren’t I apologise for inflicting the last two sentences on you.
So then, a little background. Last year I came to the realisation that I was transgender and had been repressing this for a number of years. However, this article was actually in the works since before that realisation, as a result of certain moments in Doctor Who having left with me with a bad taste in the mouth.
This is going to focus on the modern era (including one episode of Torchwood, plus interviews regarding the show), because I am not aware of any transphobia in the Classic series (and even if there was, it is culturally irrelevant as up until the early 90s it was an acceptable view within the trans community that someone was not trans until they’d had sex reassignment surgery). Because this is a heavy issue, trigger warnings apply to those who are sensitive to mentions of transphobia and suicide. Oh, and to pre-emptively address any mention of: ‘stop reading too much into a television show’, I say this: media does not exist in a vacuum.
Russell T Davies
We start off with the man responsible for the revival of the programme, a man I hugely respect. However, he does seem to have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to transphobia, as evidenced by a character who first appears in The End of the World, Cassandra O’Brien. It is easy to miss that Cassandra is a trans woman, but it is there:
CASSANDRA: Soon, the sun will blossom into a red giant, and my home will die. That’s where I used to live, when I was a little boy, down there. Mummy and Daddy had a little house built into the side of the Los Angeles Crevice. I’d have such fun.
Now, onto how she’s portrayed as an offensive stereotype. Male to female trans people are generally stereotyped as obsessed with surgeries, with low, raspy voices and somehow ‘othered’ from the rest of humanity. Does Cassandra fit these stereotypes? In The End of the World at least, she is practically nothing but them; she’s not only had so many surgeries (she’s about to have her 709th!) that she’s lost her humanity; but her obsession with them is directly linked to her villainy:
DOCTOR: Sabotaging a ship while you’re still inside it? How stupid’s that?
CASSANDRA: I’d hoped to manufacture a hostage situation with myself as one of the victims. The compensation would have been enormous.
DOCTOR: Five billion years and it still comes down to money.
CASSANDRA: Do you think it’s cheap, looking like this? Flatness costs a fortune. I am the last human, Doctor. Me. Not that freaky little kid of yours.
Is she intentionally ‘othered’ from the rest of humanity? Well, yes, being told she’s just ‘lipstick and skin’ would cover that (not that Rose is wrong in saying it). As for the low, raspy voice, she’s voiced by Zoё Wanamaker, and while it is her natural voice (and she is not a trans woman), it is highly likely she was cast for this reason, to complete the stereotype, seeing as the role didn’t require any more than voice work.
If the point that Davies was trying to make was one satirising a modern obsession with beauty standards and thinness (which I do not dismiss, Rose saying she’d rather die than be like Cassandra is a beautiful moment, particularly when read in light of Billie Piper’s struggles with anorexia), it can be made without the line ‘when I was a little boy’. Changing boy to girl would completely eliminate anything offensive about her character. As a result, it comes across as a cheap joke at the expense of a community with a 41% suicide attempt rate, 10 times higher than the background rate (likely to be higher seeing as successful suicide attempts cannot be reported in a survey).
Cassandra is presented a lot more sympathetically in New Earth, but it doesn’t undo her initial appearance, though this is mainly because Davies appears to have completely forgotten that he wrote her as trans in the first place. Cassandra’s motivation for all of her surgeries appears to be that people stopped calling her beautiful. Unfortunately, Davies’ apparent forgetfulness of her initial characterisation leads to this disaster when she possesses the Doctor:
CASS-DOCTOR: Oh, my. This is different.
CASS-DOCTOR: Goodness me, I’m a man. Yum. So many parts. And hardly used. Oh, oh, two hearts! Oh, baby, I’m beating out a samba!
Errrrrr. Please tell me I’m not the only one who sees the problem here. A trans woman who has gone through the effort of transitioning is extremely unlikely to react positively to being in a man’s body, indeed, for a lot of us it’s our worst fear. I am willing though to put this down as accidental, even if the reason for the accident (forgetting you wrote a character as trans) isn’t the best. Again, the solution is the same one word would wipe two episodes of any problematic content. The only opposing point is that we’d lose a transgender character (which are rare on television), which can immediately be countered with the point that there is nothing positive that can be gained from having Cassandra be trans.
There are other things Davies has said that can be construed as being transphobic, including this quote from a 2008 interview with the Guardian:
“I am often tempted to say yes to that to placate everyone but, while I think kids will not have a problem with [a female Doctor], I think fathers will have a problem with it because they will then imagine they will have to describe sex changes to their children. I think fathers can describe sex changes to their children and I think they should and it’s part of the world, but I think it would simply introduce genitalia into family viewing. You’re not talking about actresses or style, you’re talking about genitalia, and a lot of parents would get embarrassed.”
Now, I’m trying my utmost to be fair here, and it does look as though Davies was trying to say something positive, but ended up horribly mangling it. The ‘I think it would simply introduce genitalia into family viewing’ is self-evidently the worst part. This is because it is based on the old stereotype that being transgender is all about the sex change. This is not true, plenty of transgender individuals are content to stop at Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), mainly because this is actually the largest part of the treatment. Davies could very easily have non-offensively made the same point by saying ‘I’d like to give people a female Doctor, but I think the Daily Mail would crucify me.’ This is a point that has also, I think, been disproved by Missy; I’m aware that complaints were made to Ofcom about Dark Water/Death in Heaven being too scary or too offensive with regard to the ‘the dead remain conscious’ concept; but as far as I know, no complaints were made along the lines of the Master having had a sex change.
Russell has at least attempted to recognise transgender individuals in a positive light once in 2008’s Midnight, so I will give him credit for that:
HOSTESS: Ladies and gentlemen, and variations thereupon, welcome on board the Crusader Fifty. If you would fasten your seatbelts, we’ll be leaving any moment. Doors.
The current showrunner has a generally pretty good track record on this subject, despite his reputation when subjected to social justice based critiques (which I mostly dispute, but that’s another matter). Moffat is on record as being surprised at the idea he is against a female Doctor as one of the first things he did as lead writer was to canonise the possibility of this actually happening:
DOCTOR: Legs. I’ve still got legs. Good. Arms. Hands. Ooo, fingers. Lots of fingers. Ears, yes. Eyes, two. Nose, I’ve had worse. Chin, blimey. Hair. I’m a girl! No. No. I’m not a girl. And still not ginger. And something else. Something important. I’m, I’m, I’m (Bang!) … Ha! Crashing!
He also greenlit Neil Gaiman’s lines in The Doctor’s Wife about the Time Lord known as the Corsair, who was known to have had a crossgender regeneration:
DOCTOR: The mark of the Corsair. 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. Ooo, she was a bad girl.
This was again reiterated in the Night of the Doctor when saying that because of Time Lord science being elevated on Karn, female was an option that could be chosen instead of the change being random, which would imply that female is an option when the change is random.
What is barely known though, is that Moffat initially wrote Lee McAvoy in Forest of the Dead as transgender, which is discussed on the podcast audio commentary. The “Lee” in the real world would have been an overweight woman, with only the stammer shared. This was cut for time however; as Moffat felt that he didn’t hadn’t done enough to set up the idea that you could look how you wanted in the Libraryverse; and there wasn’t room left in the running time to expand on that idea. This was in my view the correct decision, and; while a shame; I don’t think making a character transgender for the sake of tokenism is a good idea when it would have been to the story’s detriment.
Finally, Moffat followed up on the groundwork laid by himself and Gaiman with Missy, the Time Lady formerly known as the Master. I used to think, before realising I was trans, that I’d be opposed to the idea of a crossgender regeneration without accompanying gender dysphoria. Since realising I was trans and experiencing dysphoria for myself? Not so much! This makes logical sense, really, because if Time Lords can completely control their regenerations when they aren’t dying (Night, mentioned above, does not count against this for that reason), as implied by Romana in Destiny of the Daleks (no mentions of The Lying Old Witch in the Wardrobe please, there’s conflicting accounts in the expanded universe) I don’t see why they wouldn’t use up a regeneration purely to get rid of dysphoria if they experienced it. I would. Even if the change was completely random I’d probably risk it a couple of times.
So, we must, as Moffat says, assume that gender is quite fluid on Gallifrey. This would make Time Lords an analogue for genderfluid people; though not a perfect one as assuming that Time Lords would have a the same gender binary as humans would simply end up being crass; and they only change gender at the time of regeneration. What is useful, and helpful to the trans community is how well her pronouns and name are handled after we find out who she is. Nobody misgenders her (the Doctor even refers to her childhood by the correct pronouns in the present, which is a triumph), apart from Osgood, twice (sort of). The first doesn’t count as she’s speculating who Missy was prior to regeneration, and the second is as a result of a moment of panic over what to call her while her life was being threatened. So, no suggestion that Osgood did anything wrong, though I have seen a delightful theory that Missy made the decision to kill Osgood because of Osgood misgendering her:
MISSY: Say something nice.
OSGOOD: Missy, the Master, whatever you call yourself, I promise, I’m much more useful to you alive.
MISSY: Oh, yeah, that’s true. That’s definitely true. That is a good point well made. I’m proud of you, sister. But did I mention bananas! Pop.
The way this was followed up with the Doctor’s quiet acceptance that he may (depending on the powers/showrunners that be) one day experience a crossgender regeneration himself is the icing on the cake:
CLARA: Yeah. Me and Danny. Me and Danny, we are going to be fine. Don’t you worry. You go home. Go home. Go be a king or something.
DOCTOR: Yeah, I might do that.
CLARA: Or queen, you know. Whatever.
DOCTOR: Yeah, queen, that would be good too.
He might be lying about returning to Gallifrey, but he’s sincere and somewhat intrigued by the idea of being a queen. This is the sort of thing that does wonders for acceptance.
Unfortunately, even Moffat doesn’t have a perfect record, as demonstrated by this bit of dialogue from The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe:
DOCTOR: She’s strong? She’s strong? (realizes) Stupid me! Stupid old Doctor! Do you get it, Cyril?
DOCTOR: Lily, you do, don’t you?
DOCTOR: Course you do! Think about it! Weak and strong, it’s a translation. Translated from the base code of nature itself. You and I, Cyril, we’re weak. But SHE’S female. More than female. She’s Mum. How else does life ever travel? The MOTHER ship!
The implications of this dialogue come dangerously close to saying that ‘women are strong because they can give birth’. Which is a bit of a problem as trans women, as current medical technology stands, cannot. Neither can the infertile. This is not transphobic, though it is cissexist. I’m inclined to think of it as being unconsciously so, and that this results from shoddily trying to shoehorn a feminist and an environmental aesop into the same episode, resulting in neither being adequately resolved. Indeed, the exploration of Amy Pond’s infertility in Asylum of the Daleks (whether you think it’s adequately explored or not) can be viewed as Moffat realising the problem with the message given in the previous episode.
There are those that view the Doctor’s statement ‘two genders is a bit further than he can count’ regarding Strax in The Snowmen is Moffat saying there are only two genders. This is self-evidently ludicrous (the joke is clearly that Strax can’t count) and Moffat has done me the courtesy of providing me with a handy rebuttal in his latest Production Notes column for Doctor Who Magazine, where he suggests that River got married ‘about 428 times, one for each gender’ (which is an exaggeration for comic effect in his typical style, but still an admission that there are more than two genders).
There is one last thing negative thing that Moffat contributed to, but that is one where I don’t think he’s particularly to blame, as is explained in the next section.
Ah yes. Old Toby (not to be confused with the finest weed in the Southfarthing, LOTR fans) does seem to have a bit of a problem with transphobia. You will notice that he’s the only non-showrunner in this article to get a section to himself (and because of what I’m about to discuss, among other things, I hope that sentence never becomes untrue). We need to start with his Torchwood episode Greeks Bearing Gifts in order to see why this is the case:
JACK: This what you’re looking for?
JACK: Friend of mine. Let’s call him Vincent, that was his name after all. Regular guy, girlfriend, likes his sport, likes a beer. He starts acting a little strange, a little distracted. Suddenly he disappears for a couple of months. He comes back, and we’ve got to start calling him Vanessa. Since then I’ve always been a little nervous when a friend behaves out of character. I’m sorry, we haven’t been introduced. Jack Harkness. My guess is you’re not from around these parts. Now this? This is incredible. You know what it is?
Everything about this is awful. Firstly, Whithouse has always in my view had a problem with writing characters out of character, but he’s never done it this egregiously. It’s so ridiculous to see such an accepting, omnisexual man from the 51st century who claims to have been pregnant at least once (and if he is the Face of Boe, definitely will be in the future, according to The Long Game) bitching about having to follow the Gender Recognition Act 2004 and misgendering his “friend”.
Secondly, if Moffat’s dealing with Missy is the kind of thing that promotes acceptance, the idea that transgender individuals are ‘strange’ and something to be nervous of is exactly the kind of thing that contributes to the alienation of trans people from society. Similarly; the misgendering and begrudging tone of ‘we’ve got to start calling him Vanessa’ is exactly the denial of identity (ie: you’re not and never will be a “real” woman) that contributes to so many suicides; and was definitely a factor in one recent and very widely publicised suicide.
Thirdly, there is no defence of this quote that can be made. It requires an understanding of gender identity to make the satire, so there is no way that Whithouse can get away with this on claims of ignorance. He consciously makes the decision to not even disguise the fact that he’s mocking the idea.
Lastly, someone really should have picked this up and some point and taken Whithouse to task over it, but as I don’t know whether who of executive producers Davies and Julie Gardner, lead writer Chris Chibnall or script editor Helen Raynor would be responsible for this, I will apportion them each an equal amount of blame and move on.
Now, there’s the matter of Susan the horse from A Town Called Mercy:
DOCTOR: Can I borrow your horse, please? It’s official Marshal business.
PREACHER: He’s called Joshua. It’s from the Bible. It means the Deliverer.
DOCTOR: No, he isn’t. I speak horse. He’s called Susan, and he wants you to respect his life choices.
If I may don my barrister’s wig for a moment and become Michelle Kerry QC, it is a possible defence that Susan may be a non-binary gendered horse with a traditionally female name and male pronouns. However, that would only be the case if the accused was previously of good character. In light of Greeks Bearing Gifts it is clear that Mr. Whithouse was not previously a man of good character, and indeed was actually a bit of an arse. Therefore, we can dismiss this defence as implausible. Even if we accepted that defence, it would still leave us with the the implication of being transgender being a life choice, which is frankly a bit… eurgh.
The best thing that can be said for the joke is that it’s a lot more subtle version of the satire from Greeks Bearing Gifts, in that it’s not immediately noticeable. I didn’t actually get it until I had a nuanced understanding of gender identity, and even then managed to miss it (this may be the only time an episode being desperately dull has ever worked in its favour) on at least one other repeat viewing. This is probably why it wasn’t picked up by Moffat. Indeed, seeing as people who like to not read or ignore the title card when it suits their purposes have blamed the line on Moffat (while some credited things they liked to Whithouse); Moffat may have read the criticisms and gained a nuanced understanding of gender identity; leading to his faultless handling of Missy.
There is a further problem with a horse being used to satirise the transgender community, which is that a common argument among those who contend that the idea of transsexuality is simply a mental illness (they are yet to respond to how the only treatment for that illness that alleviates symptoms thereof is transitioning) is that they can just declare themselves to be an animal and say that this is equally as valid as what trans people experience. Again, in his understanding of gender identity, there is no way that Whithouse cannot have known this, therefore I can only assume it was done deliberately.
The point of satire is to use it to address the faults of the people above you, such as politicians. If you’re using it to repeatedly punch down at a marginalised community simply because they don’t fit into the neat little cisgender (someone whose gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth) boxes society expects them to, then this suggests something very unsavoury about you as a person. This is why I feel wholly justified in calling Toby Whithouse a transphobe.
To conclude, it is clear that in the revived series that transgender people have not been presented particularly well. However, the programme’s handling of this during the Moffat era has seen a marked improvement (although with a couple of blips), with Missy in particular being a huge positive. Hopefully the show will continue to improve on this front, and Toby Whithouse is allowed nowhere near Missy in his Series 9 episodes.