Jodie Whittaker and ‘Doctorishness’

Not all criticism of Series 11 is sexist. (Although by god when it is sexist you can smell it a mile off.) Absolutists aside, I’ve seen plenty of sensible critique.

But that doesn’t mean assumptions about gender aren’t a factor. For me, The Thirteenth Doctor is as iconically the Doctor as any we’ve seen. So when people who are not (obviously) sexist say they feel Jodie Whittaker’s female Doctor lacks eccentricity and gravitas, that she’s not ‘Doctorish’, I do wonder what expectations are at play, and to what extent those expectations are rooted in gender. There are still strong, unspoken cultural taboos against women being funny or authoritative. It can be done brilliantly and yet still read as ‘off’ because it subverts expectations.

There’s a further layer of expectation to overcome. It’s perfectly possible for a woman to act precisely like a male hero: the arse-kicking, wise-cracking “strong female character” who holds her own in a man’s world by behaving like a male stereotype. It’s an assertive female character we do see slightly more often in drama. But when women are strong in a different way from men I think we arguably find more resistance. The Thirteenth Doctor is certainly not above the egoism and speechifying of past Doctors, but I wonder if there’s a tendency to undervalue her particular style of quirkiness and moral indignation because it’s often expressed in a less bombastic way.

I’ve seen some saying the Thirteenth Doctor hasn’t had her ‘big Doctor moment’. I’d argue she’s had loads. It’s just that Whittaker doesn’t grandstand. She foregrounds the Doctor’s sincerity, urgency and a sense of searching inside herself. ‘Big Doctor moments’ needn’t involving standing on Stonehenge with a microphone.

It’s different from recent Doctors, but by no means unprecedented. It reminds me of Peter Capaldi’s speech in ‘Thin Ice’ about the value of a human life; underplayed in a searching way that seems almost confessional. It reminds me too of Matt Smith’s marvellous “we’re all stories in the end” speech.

I’m conscious that there’s a risk of pigeon-holing the first ever female Doctor Who as “the empathetic one”. Whittaker is a quixotic bundle of energy and personality, it’s just that she’s also very grounded. For me her performance is of a piece with the general change in tone that the show has undergone this year, to a less grandiose, more personal style. I’d go so far as to say we’d have seen some of her more self-effacing traits in a male Thirteenth Doctor because it feels so organic to the new era.

And I like this vision of Doctor; this human, real, vulnerable hero who still triumphs through wit and determination. I like it in male Doctors too: Peter Davison’s breathless sense of not being entirely in control; Patrick Troughton’s fallibility and indignation. Again these are not new traits in the Thirteenth Doctor, only the emphasis has shifted. What’s different is that male actors are allowed to subvert male stereotypes without having to prove their credentials. Whittaker, at least to some, does have something to prove. Despite the striking variety of performances that have come before her in the role, she can’t just be the Doctor and make the Doctor her own. She also has to measure up to expectations; to be funny in the right way, authoritative in the right way. To be at the more arse-kicking, wise-cracking end of the Doctor’s personality. And I think it’s worth questioning where our gut feeling about that “right” way comes from, whether we’d be holding a male actor to those same expectations, or whether we’re letting unexamined assumptions get in the way.

Jodie Whittaker is a great Doctor. She’s silly and quirky and funny. She’s passionate and indomitable and loyal. She’s a champion of what’s right, a righter of wrongs. She’s every bit the Doctor, and she’s every bit herself.

2 thoughts on “Jodie Whittaker and ‘Doctorishness’

  1. I’ve been watching Dr. Who since the very beginning and am an ardent Whovian; your words are choice, and I thank you for writing them.


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