Doctor Who has been in my life since I was eight years old when I first watched Rose in 2005. As I started to struggle with gender identity and finally realised I was transgender around the time Matt Smith became the Doctor, the show became an escape. Then it introduced the concept of gender swapping regenerations which it expanded on over the years till the culmination of the Thirteenth Doctor, and it helped me understand myself better.
After dealing with his own identity crisis, the Twelfth Doctor says, ‘…you look at me, and you can’t see me’ and it immediately clicked. It allowed me to articulate my feelings about how it hurt to be misgendered, to feel like and know you’re a girl but have everyone look at you and think and refer to you as a boy. Not too long afterwards I began my gender transition.
It’s July 16th, 2017 and my heart is beating fast. I’m nervously refreshing Twitter in anticipation of the announcement of the Thirteenth Doctor. I didn’t particularly want to know, but as a British person I knew that it’d spoiled as soon as I set foot out the door, so I decided to take the initiative. As the mysterious figure pulled their hood down to reveal Jodie Whittaker, I’m filled with wonder and joy and at the back of my mind; envy.
I was envious because while the Doctor gets to regenerate into a woman in an instant, painlessly and without incident, I’m not so lucky. Instead of a remarkable transformation, my ‘transition’ has been a slow, frustrating, expensive process.
It’s December 25th, 2017. My eyes are wet after Peter Capaldi gives his beautiful and sad final speech, each long pause he gives makes me think ‘this it, she’s a-coming’. Like a lot of Doctor Who fans, I was apprehensive about how the regeneration would be handled. Would Chris Chibnall take a The Curse of Fatal Death type approach and make quips, or go another route and just not mention probably the biggest change in the show’s history. Then I went from crying to smiling in the space of a minute when they took the third option, having the Doctor be ecstatic, with that big grin and just two simple words. Not only was it just so perfectly crafted but as a trans woman, I felt I could relate to her feelings of excitement.
Despite the challenges of transitioning and having to deal with gender dysphoria, which for those that don’t know is a sense of discomfort as a result of your biological sex not matching your gender identity, trans people can sometimes experience the opposite: gender euphoria. Which is joy at seeing yourself as your real self in a mirror or a TARDIS monitor for example. Having the Doctor be thrilled seeing herself is such a powerful thing to see as someone who’s struggled with accepting their body.
While I think one possible reading of Thirteenth Doctor regeneration is that she is transgender, it is perhaps overanalysis two words and a smile. But regeneration in the new series always has been about how the Doctor approaches the construction of their self and their identity. Having the Doctor be the same person even if they express themselves in different ways in a different body is an excellent parallel for trans people’s lives.
As much as I want Thirteen to be a woman, I’d love in future for the show to explore the whole diverse and beautiful spectrum of identities. By having the Doctor referring to themselves as a man when in a male body and as a woman when in a female body can serve to reinforce cisnormative gender assumptions. For example, in regards to other Time Lords (like Missy), does her newfound empathy and acceptance of femininity support the notion of biological essentialism which argues that the differences between men and women come from nature? Having the Doctor rejecting binary pronouns and identity would make perfect sense for their character, seeing as actual human beings are already challenging binaries let’s have the Doctor break some more ‘rules’. They’re nothing if not a rebel.
Doctor Who can often be an escape from something, from harsh realities. But that also means it’s an escape to something as well – to a place where gender and its associated stereotypes are irrelevant and where if you want to be a woman, you can. Regeneration isn’t just a convenient excuse to change actor, it’s a statement and a promise: Anyone can be the Doctor. That’s such a powerful message for trans people to hear, especially relevant in a media environment that is nearly devoid of any other stories that can even relate to trans experiences like Doctor Who has shown. The fact that young trans people can take inspiration from the new Doctor shows how important this show is, how significant this change is but also shows how much more work we need to do.
Written by Emma, who you can follow on Twitter here.
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