Doctor Who's new companion is gay. Now what?

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Apr 11, 2017

You may have heard (read: absolutely heard) that, as Peter Capaldi and Steven Moffat head into their final season on Doctor Who, they're being joined by a companion named Bill (played by Pearl Mackie) who will be the first full-time character on the show in over 50 years to be both a woman of color and gay.

We hear a lot of promises from TV execs, showrunners and marketers across social media these days saying representation is important to them. Truth is? Outside of Shondaland, those promises are seldom really made good upon. So the news of Bill's queerness is ultimately a little less "Great!" and a little more "Okay, so now what?"

That doesn't mean Bill being gay isn't important, though. Quite the contrary. And that's as good a place as any to start since a lot of people ARE questioning the importance of this news.

WHO CARES IF BILL IS GAY

On April 1, 6th Doctor Colin Baker retweeted this:

I don't care what sexuality The Doctor's new companion is. JUST MAKE BETTER PROGRAMMES!!!

— Rob Cope (@Rob_Cope) April 1, 2017

 

Obviously this "I care more about the quality of the episodes than I do about someone's sexuality on Doctor Who" is a pretty common sentiment. Or, perhaps better stated, it is a deeply-rooted enough sentiment that Colin Baker, whose 6th Doctor wore a rainbow coat with an adorable cat badge during one of the subtextually gayest periods in Doctor Who history, retweeted a random person saying how much he does not care about Bill being gay.

So, let's answer this question: who cares if Doctor Who's latest companion is a queer, brown woman?

Queer brown women who basically never see themselves reflected in mainstream media, probably.

Does that sound flip? Let me try this again. Who cares that Bill is gay?

Basically everyone.

Right now there are dozens of comments on our decently-shared article announcing Bill's sexuality, and that's just the ones that made it through the filter, to be really real with you.

Whether it's people writing about how excited they are to feel represented on a show they've loved for years, folks saying that Captain Jack and Ianto were already a gay, gay thing, or people citing Leviticus as proof that homosexuality is immoral -- every one of you cares at least a little.

And that's just Syfy Wire's little corner of the sky. We weren't first to drop that news, we were just one of the many who shared it. People are talking about this on every nerdy news site, every social media platform, whether they're happy or sad or claiming indifference; every one of those people cares for one reason or another.

From that point of view, I am personally filled with hope and dread in about equal measure. Okay, maybe a little more dread if we're being really, really, SUPER real today. And that's what this article is about. I don't need to prove that you care, because y'all (even you, Colin Baker) already proved that yourselves. And if you're not down to clown with us queer folk? Well, the thing that's most likely to change your mind in the long term is to witness genuine and authentic versions of our stories -- provided they are good ones. Bill's could be one of those. But she could just as easily not be. Which brings us to the dread ...

BURY YOUR GAYS AND MOFFAT

In 2016, 25 lesbian and bisexual women characters were killed off on television. You might remember us covering this when Lexa was killed off on The CW's post-apocalyptic drama The 100 last season (don't worry, we'll be revisiting that soon). The trope of queer folks being shuffled off the mortal coil far more so than any other character type in popular fiction is called "Bury Your Gays" and 2016 was the year the LGBTQIA community finally spoke out with (mostly) one voice and said "Not this time, homie."

Why is representation a big deal? That's a whole other article, but the short version is that to be represented well is to both feel acknowledged and for people who are different from you to feel like they are getting to know your experiences a teensy tiny bit better. And to tell stories where queer folks don't always get killed, where they get to have relationships that we *actually see* and just ... live? That reminds everyone that, yes, that's what real life actually is: queer ladies, femme, butch, genderqueer folks, whatever presentation/sexuality just doing their thing without getting shot, or killed by zombies, or getting shot, or suddenly being written off never to return, or getting shot. I hope y'all bought some bulletproof vests off Amazon or something, because damn.

These kinds of stories matter to most LGBTQIA folks, but it's especially huge for the gay babies out there who are just trying to figure their situation out and might feel admittedly pretty alone. School (high school, especially) is hard for almost everyone, and being gay can make adolescence infinitely harder. Bulletproof vest hard sometimes, even.

The news of how Bury Your Gays was no longer gonna fly with fans after 2016's epic massacre may be out there, but 2017 is still early days yet. How effective the outcry against Bury Your Gays has been (and continues to be) is unknown. Queer Rome wasn't built in a day, et cetera, et cetera.

Which brings us to Steven Moffat. His track record with women, gay or otherwise, has been problematic. I know. You probably hate that word. But what I mean is that, for the most part, Steven Moffat has basically been writing the same quirky bisexual lady over and over again who totally dated a girl that one time but mostly just likes men now (especially the Doctor) and he's been writing her ever since he took over Doctor Who in 2010. No shade to bisexual characters or real-life people (hi, I'm one of those), but that's not ideal when what you're looking for is diversity.

I'm going to call out one very specific piece of Moffat's writing, which you may have heard about before. First, just as a primer, keep in mind that Doctor Who's previous showrunner was out, gay man, Russell T Davies. Davies featured LGBTQIA characters in some capacity frequently during his time running Doctor Who. So it was a stark contrast when Moffat had no gay characters in his first series of Who in 2005.

Another thing to keep in mind is that, at this point, Steven Moffat was on Twitter. Have you been to the Twitter dot com? It is a site of somewhat vocal people, you might say. And so Moffat may have been @-ed by one or two or a hundred thousand people saying "Where the gays at, Moff?" And Moffat was not a fan of this, something he did not take any pains to cover up, especially when he straight up quit Twitter.

But in Moffat's second season running Who, there was a scene that for most people (myself included) felt like a pretty specific jab at those fans who were bummed at the lack of queer representation. In the episode, "A Good Man Goes to War," Moffat wrote a gay male couple talking with this character, Lorna Bucket, and, well, here's the transcript:

Thin One: Hello, I'm the Thin One. This is my husband. He's the Fat One.
Lorna Bucket: Don't you have names?
Fat One: We're the Thin Fat Gay Married Anglican Marines. Why would we need names as well?

I can't promise you I know for a fact that this was Steven Moffat throwing up deuces at LGBT fans of Doctor Who, but it sure did come across that way. Moffat gave us two gay men, but he didn't give them names or any other really discernible characteristics. And he also killed them. And that was ... unkind, I would say.

So, it can be a little hard to be a queer Doctor Who fan *and* put total trust in Steven Moffat's ability and willingness to thoughtfully portray gay characters. Add to that 2016's Bury Your Gays fiasco and, while it's certainly cool that Bill exists at all, there's still fair cause to have some concern over how she'll be portrayed.

BILL: A HOW (NOT-TO) GUIDE

Yes, the show's production for Moffat and Capaldi's final season is done. Yes, I wish we had known about Bill being gay sooner so this conversation among LGBTQIA fans (many of whom are writers themselves) could've happened sooner. But here we are, and there are some things that still should be said. And there are also things that could potentially still be changed in post-production. Here are a few thoughts about Bill and her representation on Doctor Who:

1. Don't Kill Bill - Geddit? It's a movie title! Hard to believe I don't write for Doctor Who already, isn't it? So, it's been a well-established rumor that, since Chris Chibnall will be taking the reigns of Doctor Who after this season, Bill will likely be a single season companion. And there are only so many ways you can write out a companion forever. Amy and Rory are dead. Clara is *technically* dead, Danny is dead, River Song is dead, and that brings us to Bill.

The Bury Your Gays thing is deeply unsettling, especially after 2016's culling of the queers. It may very well sound silly to you, dear reader, but for many that was a genuinely painful experience made more stressful by a new president who has been pretty clear that he does not value gay lives very much. And what I would say to Moffat and his team if I could is be aware of the time and space in which you are telling your stories. Right now killing the first-ever black gay woman on Doctor Who would genuinely hurt people. And I don't believe anyone working for Doctor Who wants that.

So, hey. If Bill does die at the end of this season and someone out there who could reshoot the finale is reading, I would say please change that. Doctor Who companions used to leave the TARDIS of their own free will all the time. Some of them even got married. Oh! Could Bill get married, maybe? Live on future Mars with her amazing alien wife, even? Just throwing it out there. That would be very cool. Moving on.

2. The hair - this is getting away from the Bill's sexual identity, but this marks the first time in Doctor Who where a black woman regular has had an afro. And that's great; I'm definitely not trying to throw any shade about Bill's hair or her style which looks quirky and fun so far. But I would be remiss if I didn't point out the tendency for white folks to make jokes, well-intentioned or not, about black women's hair. It never ends well, in my experience. I feel a little uncomfortable talking about this topic at all since I am not a black woman, but having seen very many tweet threads, Facebook posts, Instagram stories and having black women in my life who have a lot to say on this topic, I do feel confident saying that those jokes can be hurtful and so white people who are unaware of black women's experiences should probably avoid making them.

The main reason I bring this up is because Capaldi's Doctor has often been written as being weirdly critical of Clara's appearance. He says he doesn't care what she looks like, but he says really insulting things about how Clara looks. I have not encountered anyone who has ever said they loved that aspect of the 12th Doctor, but I have encountered a lot of people who really disliked it a great deal.

And, again, from experience, I feel confident saying black women super do not like white people commenting on their hair. Like, at all. So, again, if someone out there in camp Who is listening and, if there's jokes like that, I would say please consider leaving those on the cutting room floor. If they even exist. They may not. This is all speculation. I'm just covering the bases.

3. Gay people have sexual chemistry with others - Looking at some other shows, I have noticed that dealing with gay women's sexuality can tricky for many writers. Supergirl, for example, really seems to want to get it right, but they often leave their gay couple, Alex and Maggie, at just one peck on the lips per episode. We don't get to see a lot of romantic chemistry there. And it's important that we do. People express their queerness in a lot of ways: in their taste in music, in their fashion sense, in their expression of gender, but at some point sexuality does boil down to sex.

I know Doctor Who is a family show, but if Rose and Martha and Jack and Donna and Amy and River and Clara can all have romantic and sexual chemistry with people, then we should see that in Bill's characterization, too.

There's this other time travel show called Legends of Tomorrow. I feel like Doctor Who writers would find at least one of the characters very familiar somehow. AnySwayze, Sara Lance on that show is bisexual (but mostly into women) and it is not uncommon for her to hook up with a warrior princess or a nurse or whomever. It's not perfect, but at least we're aware that Sara is actually attracted to other women and sometimes enjoys doing something about it. And Sara also has a lot of character depth, too. It's just that some of that depth is sexual. And what I would say is that if Legends of Tomorrow can make it happen (no offense, Legends), I know Doctor Who can do it, too.

4. Have queer, brown women write/check your work - I saved the most important thing for last. So Doctor Who is crafting this very gay black woman, Bill, right? And fiction is fiction, I know, and part of the wonder of it is that you get this opportunity to write all sorts of people. But there are just some experiences which cannot be completely understood second hand. With that in mind, again, if you're out there, Moff, I hope you or anyone else on your team has had the foresight to have queer women of color in the room to both write and take a look at your writing. Because I think that's the biggest guarantee anyone can ever have to tell a character like Bill's story authentically and with respect.

TO SUM UP

People care about Bill being a black, queer woman because there really aren't a lot of black, queer women in science fiction. So, it really is important for Team Who to get Bill right. Millions of people will be watching -- some of them will be looking to feel like they and their experiences are being respected and told with honesty, some of them don't know anyone like Bill and this will be their chance to learn.

Bill is important, even if people say they don't care about her for a million different reasons. We care. We care I think especially when we say we don't. That's sort of human nature. "I DON'T CARE" has been code for "I'm scared that I care about things because it makes me vulnerable" since time immemorial. So, for all the millions of people shouting that THEY DON'T CARE THAT BILL IS GAY, let's acknowledge what they really mean and make sure Bill is a companion for the ages.