One early Friday afternoon in mid-February, six panelists convened at Gallifrey One (North America’s largest and oldest Doctor Who convention) to discuss the issues of gender-swapping in science fiction. While the discussion wasn't solely focused on Doctor Who, there was much to be said about the gender change of one of the Doctor's most enduring enemies, the Master.
The panelists for this lively discussion were:
Alyssa Franke - pop culture critic and founder of Whovian Feminism
Cindy Kalionzes - Doctor Who fan and cosplayer
Clarissa Ryan - writer and adjunct professor of English and ESL
Lindsay Share - cosplayer who specializes in gender-swapped costumes. Share wore a Bill (from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure) cosplay for the panel
Riley Silverman - comedian and writer
Deborah Stanish - co-host of the Verity! Doctor Who podcast, writer, and editor
You can already tell that the panel was going to be great considering this amazing group of ladies.
Stanish started by talking about an episode of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast which featured an interview with Loren Bouchard, the creator of Bob's Burgers. Bouchard talked about how the character of Tina Belcher was originally a boy but the executives at FOX didn't feel like he would be interesting to the audience. Bouchard then said that they used a "writer’s trick" to create a more interesting character:
"I've heard this before that writers can sometimes get stuck writing female characters, and one trick is to write it like it was a male character. It's just a weakness of writers; it's not a weakness of any gender. It's just writers are unimaginative like all of us. We fail sometimes to really find what's interesting about a person when we're trying to create them, and we got lucky."
Too many times in media, "male" is considered the default. In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, for example, Rey has the exact same story beats as Luke, and yet Rey is criticized for it and is called a Mary Sue. The only difference between Rey and Luke is their gender, and ideally, there's no sense in the change in perception between characters because of their gender.
Marginalized groups must always fight for representation, and often the dominant group gets upset when marginalized groups are depicted in media because they're so used to everything catering to them. In the case of something like Ghostbusters (2016), men were asked to identify with female characters, many of which had never had to do in their lives. Meanwhile, if you're a female sci-fi fan, you have had to accept and identify with the plethora of male protagonists prevalent in the genre.
Stanish compared the need for female fans wanting representation in sci-fi like a pie. Gatekeeping fans are worried that because female fans want a slice of the fandom pie, the entire pie will disappear, or the pie will not be as enjoyable. But female fans who wish for representation just want a little bit of that pie. The pie is still there, and the pie is big enough for everyone to enjoy.
(And at this moment in the panel, the entire audience began to crave pie.)
Ryan mentioned how male fans fear that female fans are going to take away their toys. When the Battlestar Galactica reboot came into being, the series caught some flack for recasting Starbuck as a female character, Kara Thrace. The original Starbuck was a hard-drinking, hard-gambling, cigar-smoking womanizer who was depicted as a cool hero. When Kara came along, Starbuck's original actor, Dirk Benedict, was very critical of the gender swap. Male Starbuck was considered a dashing hero, but Kara, who shared the exact same traits as her male predecessor, was viewed by some as a slut.
Silverman brought up that comics seem to do a little better in gender-swapping than television. Marvel's Spider-Gwen is a great character, and Marvel took what was essentially a fridged character (Gwen Stacy) and changed her story from the victim who died to further Peter Parker's man-pain to an awesome hero in her own right.
Share said that gender-swapping can be seen as gimmicky, which lessens the empowering aspect of it. There has to be a reason for the swapping to occur. If the story is enhanced by the gender-swap, then the gender-swap is needed and not just a gender switch for the sake of a gender switch. She said that Ripley from Alien is an excellent example of this. She was originally written as a male character, but then Sigourney Weaver was cast in the role, which added another layer to Ripley and opened the door to all kinds of great storytelling, i.e. the mother/caretaker role she takes on with Newt in Aliens.
Share mentioned her issue with the Ghostbusters reboot in that it did feel exceedingly gimmicky to her. The story wasn't really enhanced or changed by the adding of female comedians versus the original male actors. Franke did point out that director Paul Feig wanted to work with all those talented and funny SNL women and believed that the Ghostbusters franchise would be something he could convince a studio to support.
Circling back to Doctor Who, Stanish shared her frustration with River Song's story arc in the episode "The Angels Take Manhattan." River went from a gun-toting, snarky archaeologist/treasure hunter/criminal who would regularly escape her prison cell to go on adventures with the Doctor to literally the Angel in the House, the Victorian trope which suggests that the best women are the ones who stay at home and are completely subservient to men. It's as if the show was saying that bad boys are allowed but bad women aren't.
The panel then discussed that Doctor Who has already had a couple where the gender roles were reversed: Rory Williams and Amy Pond. Rory was a nurse, which is known as a predominantly female career, while Amy was the headstrong, domineering one in the relationship. Amy was even given a female-focused story arc which didn't lessen her character at all but actually enhanced it by making her more complex. Amy was allowed to grieve over her motherhood experience being stripped away from her, but that didn't take away from her character.
Kalionzes asked whether the transformation of the Master into a female character named Missy was considered gimmicky, and she argued that it isn't because making the character female gave the Master new facets which haven't been explored before.
Share initially wanted Missy to be the Rani, but she saw that the Master's gender change was testing the waters to see whether the audience would accept a female Doctor.
Silverman saw the Twelfth Doctor/Missy relationship as echoing the relationship that the Third Doctor had with Roger Delgado's version of the Master. It's the interaction between two siblings, with Missy being the annoying sister who hovers her fingers inches above the Doctor and keeps insisting "Does this bug you? I'm not touching you! Does this bug you?"
Stanish mentioned that there's now a level of sexual tension inherent between the Doctor and Missy that wasn't really that overt when the characters were both male. However, it could be because the audience's perception of their relationship as heteronormative and that aspect of their relationship is now more noticeable because Missy is female now.
Stanish also brought up that change is slow in front of the camera because change is slow behind the camera. There are terribly few female writers and directors working on Doctor Who, despite Steven Moffat claiming that they've tried and failed to find enough qualified women writers. And yet, looking at the Doctor Who spin-off Class, the BBC chose a showrunner who is primarily known for his novels and has never worked on a TV series before. What does that say about trying to find the 'right fit'?
The discussion eventually led to the suggestion of a female Doctor and how the Doctor's relationship with Missy might change if both characters were women. A portion of Doctor Who's audience is queerphobic and male viewers might not accept a same-sex relationship between women without fetishizing it and making it all about the sex. Perhaps the tension between Missy and a female Doctor might not be perceived as sexual since their relationship would be between two women instead of a man and woman.
Silverman mentioned how, as a trans woman, she saw Missy as a way to relate her own experiences to a piece of media that she loved. When the Master became Missy, Silverman equated it with how trans people choose their names for themselves, and she found it heartening to watch the Doctor refer to Missy with female pronouns, even when referencing events before Missy's "transition."
Franke shared some frustration about the Master's name change, however. The fact that Missy couldn't keep calling herself "the Master" felt like it lessened the character to some extent. She has taken on a diminutive name. It's like she can't be as powerful a presence anymore because she is now a woman. It was like how some fans on the Internet bemoaned the idea of a female Doctor and worried that the character now had to be called 'The Nurse.'
One audience comment which really stood out (and not just because the guy who shared it was cosplaying as the multi-colored and definitely hard to miss Sixth Doctor) pointed out that his childhood heroes growing up were Alice from Alice in Wonderland and Dorothy Gale. It was pointed out that all of Oz's rulers are female. Therefore it's not impossible for male fans to relate to female characters; it's just up to the fans to be more open-minded in what media they wish to enjoy.
It was made clear from the panel that gender-swapping characters isn't going to go away, and as long as the swap enhances the character in unexpected and interesting ways, gender-swapped characters will always be welcome and appreciated.