It’s that time again—when the Doctor Who fandom explodes with theories and arguments over who will be the next actor to play Doctor Who’s titular role. Many people, including our own Lady Saika, have called for an injection of diversity into the role. I tend to agree; I’ve thrown my hat into the Idris Elba fangirl ring. One of the more contentious issues in the fandom is whether or not to cast a woman for the role. BBC has stated that they aren’t ruling out the possibility of a female Doctor. Some argue that the show needs to cast a woman as proof that we’ve moved beyond sexist stereotypes, that the Doctor’s reference to the multi-gendered regenerations of the Corsair (another Time Lord, long dead) in “The Doctor’s Wife” is proof enough that Time Lords can regenerate into Time Ladies. Some argue that the question is moot, that it shouldn’t matter whether a man or woman is cast, it should go to the actor with the best audition. I’m going to argue that the Doctor should remain a man.
Wait! Don’t go! Most of the arguments for why the Doctor should remain a man are pretty weak, if not sexist. They usually boil down to “It’s always been that way!” or “The Doctor is a man!” or “Women are companions, why do they need to be the Doctor too?” But I think I’ve stumbled upon an argument for why the Doctor should retain his maleness, rooted in feminist theology.
Feminist theology is incredibly complex. There is really no such thing as “all feminist theologians think…” unless you’re going to end that sentence with “…that women are important.” Every subtopic has a wide spectrum of positions upon it, so I can almost guarantee that if you find one feminist theologian arguing for a particular position, you’ll find another arguing the opposite. The maleness of Jesus Christ is no different. Elisabeth Johnson argues that the maleness of Jesus has been used to subjugated women throughout Christian history. Rosemary Radford Ruther argues that theology done by men exclusively makes maleness the norm and renders femaleness inferior. Whether or not women are even capable of “being made in the image and likeness of God” is a problem at least as old as Augustine (we’re talking fourth or fifth century CE). It seems like so many of the gender equality problems are rooted in Christ’s masculinity. So why would I argue that a masculine Jesus is a good thing? And what has this to do with the Doctor?
One important point of feminist theology (and its parent, liberation theology) is that Jesus transforms everything he comes into contact with. We see this quite literally in the New Testament story of the woman with hemorrhages reaching out to touch Jesus’ cloak and receiving an instant cure. Throughout his ministry, Jesus speaks of the powerful person being cast down and the humble receiving great rewards. He eats with the degenerates of society, not the wealthy and powerful. But if we want to go deeper, we should look at the most important symbol associated with Jesus—the cross. The cross was one of the most humiliating and gruesome means of execution. Historically, men and women were put on crosses, naked, near the city walls to serve as a cautionary tale for would-be law-breakers. Many would languish for days, exposed to the elements. It was one of the ultimate signs of weakness. But Jesus’ resurrection from the dead transforms the cross from an instrument of torture, execution, and humiliation into his means of strength, glory and power. Christians believe Jesus conquers death itself using the cross. By freely choosing to undergo death by crucifixion, Jesus sacrifices all of his power (he is God, after all) in order to save the world.
Who else do we know that sacrifices his power to save the world? That’s right, the Doctor. It’s pretty commonly accepted that the Doctor is a Jesus figure. Heck, lots of people even call David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor the “Jesus Doctor.” So what does this have to do with masculinity? Some feminist theologians argue that one reason why Jesus was male was because it was another form of power in society. Jesus’s thing is having power and giving it up. He insists on having dinner with the outcasts and sinners of society. He throws challenging, confusing messages at his followers at the height of his popularity (talking about others eating and drinking your body and blood tends to freak people out). He’s God and yet submits to death. And the Doctor, like Jesus, takes male stereotypes and transforms them, flipping them on their head.
Most of the time, the most popular male characters on television are usually some combination of violent, sexually aggressive, or stupid. This is especially true when you throw a female character into the mix. The intelligent wife has to humor her idiot husband. The beautiful woman is a prize for the sexually dominant man. Men commit violence either against or to save women. But the Doctor is different. He’s intelligent and resourceful, routinely outsmarting his foes. He abhors violence and guns, his deepest shame being a massive use of violence. He’s not sexually aggressive—women pursue him, not the other way around. The ultimate personification of masculinity most praised by our culture is James Bond—blowing people up, going after Bond girl after Bond girl, and grabbing his toys from Q’s lab. The Doctor uses diplomacy, forms real friendships with the pretty women, and makes his own toys. We already assume women are intelligent, sexually chaste peacemakers. It’s nothing new, and doesn’t challenge anything. Casting a woman as the Doctor would take away those important, paradigm-challenging messages from the show.
The Doctor is an important masculine figure that challenges stereotypes of what it means to be a powerful, praiseworthy man. He shows us that true power is giving it up in self-sacrifice. A female Doctor with a male companion wouldn’t have the same effect, because the companion is already in the “supporting character” role. As a supporting character, the companion doesn’t have as much power to start with. Casting women as companions and then showing them as powerful agents of change does more to subvert negative female stereotypes (the damsel in distress, etc) than casting a woman as the Doctor. They show us women who gain power by self-actualizing. If Steven Moffat wants to keep packaging sacrificial Jesus-Doctor messages with the show, the best thing he can do is to keep casting men as the Doctor. Preferably men of color (but that’s another post for another time).