SCARVES AND CELERY: Extra Post – On Bill Potts, Sexuality in Doctor Who, and Fandom Reactions

A few days ago, it was recently announced that Bill Potts, the new companion for series 10 of Doctor Who, will be gay. This is, as far as we’re concerned, a very good thing. And plenty of fans, LGBT and straight, agree.

Christel Dee, host of the Doctor Who fan show, tweeted:

“It means so much see someone like me in my favourite TV show. Representation is so important.”

Similarly, tumblr blogger and prominent fan critic Whovian Feminism, had the following response to the news:

“There’s going to be someone on screen like me in Doctor Who that loves women. My heart is going to burst with joy.”

These are just a couple of the many overjoyed reactions that have been seen all across fandom in the last few days. There has, meanwhile, been a more critical strand of response to the news (beyond the inevitable overt homophobia, which really isn’t worth dignifying with a response). It’s not one that I agree with, obviously, but it’s a response that’s worth analyzing, and placing in the context of fandom today, the history of Doctor Who as a show, and the way these things intersect to demonstrate some things worth understanding about sexuality, and the way we as a culture respond to different expressions of sexuality.

This more critical response is best exemplified by, of all people, the sixth Doctor himself Colin Baker, and his following tweet in response to the news:

“Anybody else remember when a companion’s sexuality was irrelevant? They could have been LGBT or any other letter? Who cares? Their business.”

The first somewhat baffling notion from Colin Baker’s tweet is the idea the companion’s sexuality is “their business”. That would apply if they were real people, but they’re, y’know, fictional. We can’t invade on their privacy. Heck, as Bill’s sexuality will inform her characterisation a little, and provide hopefully positive representation to LGBT viewers, it kind of is the audience’s business.

The other notion raised in Baker’s tweet that seems worth examining is the claim that there was a time when the “companion’s sexuality was irrelevant”. Because, well, it seems to me there was never a time when that was the case. Examinations of sexuality may have been more understated in the classic Series, but the romantic and sexual interests of the companions are still acknowledged (in a form that’s appropriate for a family show) and used as part of their characterisation throughout the run of the classic series. In the show’s second serial, “The Daleks”, Barbara forms a romantic bond with a Thal. Susan, in the first companion departure, is left by the Doctor so that she can marry the man she’s fallen in love with. On a couple of occasions, Jamie flirts with Victoria, and on one occasion asks her (I think it’s Victoria, but may be Zoe) if she could see herself wearing more revealing clothing. Sexist, yes, but it’s the kind of moment that makes Jamie’s sexuality and sexual interests part of his characterisation. Fast forwarding through the rest of Classic Who, Jo and Ace both have multiple love interests over the course of their time on the show (including, of course, Ace’s f/f romances to counterpoint her more explicit m/f romances), with their sexual and romantic development forming a significant part of their characterisation. Other companions, such as Leela and Peri, also have stories that end in marriage. In short, most eras of the classic run examine the sexual and romantic interests of the companions to a certain degree. So why, in the eyes of certain fans, are these considered “irrelevant” and unobtrusive compared to Bill’s sexual and romantic interests? It seems to me that, while there’s (mostly) not overt homophobia involved in the reactions, there is a noticeable element of heteronormativity. With the exception of Ace’s subtextual f/f romances, all of the examples listed above depict heterosexuality, and as a result, they are considered unobtrusive, not a big deal. However, when a character is depicted as having a same sex romance, suddenly the show is making a “big deal” out of sexuality, even if the only noticeable way the show’s depiction of sexuality has changed is that it is now depicting a same sex romance instead of a male-female romance.

And even when the classic series wasn’t strictly focused on the sexuality of the companions, it still made, in Colin Baker’s words, a “big deal” out of sexuality. Take, for example, the “For the Dads” moments thrown in throughout the series’ run, the way that Leela was depicted as a savage inconveniently skimpy clothing who also happened to be perfectly smooth skinned (even though Louise Jameson wanted to play the part with unshaved legs and arms, because she understandably felt that would seem more authentic), or Peri wearing into a two piece bikini in Planet of Fire for no particularly clear narrative reason. Things like this were not so much about depicting the sexuality of the companions, as exploiting their sexuality for the benefit of the (presumed) straight male audience. Then, of course, there’s the infamous 80s “No Hanky Panky in the TARDIS” rule. I’ve long been of the opinion that evangelical chastity culture is just as obsessed with sex as sex positive culture, just in a different way, and in its own way, this attitude has echoes of that. By refusing to let even the slightest hint of romance be a part of the main character’s characterisation, JNT was making a big deal out of the companion’s sexuality, just by repressing portrayals of it. Not portraying a part of the world does not mean you have a neutral attitude to that part of the world.

Which leads us nicely to the other prominent question, asked by both Colin Baker in his tweet, and by many other fans:

“Who cares?”

Stopping only briefly to point out that loudly proclaiming you don’t care about someone’s sexuality is a strange way of showing you don’t care, claiming everyone is fine with sexuality nowadays ignores the fact that homophobia, transphobia, and anti LGBT discrimination are very real things that still exist. Homophobes continue to care, loudly and angrily, and while they look a bit sad and pathetic to most of us, politicians in our supposedly enlightened western world still pass horrible policies that make the lives of ordinary LGBT people so much harder, just to win the vote those homophobes. And also because some of those homophobes are the politicians passing the laws. See Mike Pence and the Trump administration in America, who are currently in the process of dismantling the protections for LGBT people the previous government put in place.

And then, there’s another group of people who do care a lot, and have every right to. The LGBT fans of the show, who are thrilled to see someone like them as one of the lead characters in Doctor Who. I shared some reactions from Whovian Feminism and Christel Dee earlier, but here are some by more extended thoughts by a friend of ours at this, who goes by the pseudonym Sam Baker: 

“I’m incredibly over the moon over the fact that Bill is going to be an openly gay character, fully comfortable with who she is and her sexuality. And I’m also really happy that Doctor Who are going to avoid the usual ‘coming out’ story that gay characters are lumped with. It’s been overdone now, and there’s only so much angst and drama you can get out of it. 

But there’s also another reason, more personal, why I’m really happy that they’re avoiding it. For me, growing up as a sexually confused teenager, I was absolutely terrified of coming out and revealing all to my friends and family. I was terrified of admitting who I was and being open with my sexuality. Because I’d look at the types of stories gay characters got on TV (especially soaps) and I’d see how much drama and heartache was caused by these gay characters coming out. See their families torn apart, some even getting abused, thrown out etc. etc. And I was already suffering emotional (and minor physical) abuse from my Dad. And I was terrified that if I were to come out that it’d make things worse. That it’d be exactly like it was on TV. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good that gay characters were getting more focus, and stories were being told about them and that soaps and other such programs were becoming more diverse. But I think the tone of these stories were incredibly detrimental to young people (especially myself). 

It prevented me from coming out. It caused me so many years of angst, anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts. And when I did eventually come out I found out from my Dad that he was ok with it. That he loved me, supported me. And that he felt ashamed of himself that I never felt I could be open with him about it, and he wished that I had have told him sooner. 6 years. 6 YEARS I wasted being scared. All because I was terrified of the consequences, of what would happen. And really there was no need to worry. 

Which is why I think it’s great that young LGBTQ+ children will see Bill. Comfortable. Happy. Proud of who she is. No angst or drama. Just free. And this will inspire them to come out, be free to be who they really are. And I’m actually quite envious that they are getting this. But it’s exactly how it should be.

This is how LGBTQ+ people need to be represented on TV. And I’m so proud that Doctor Who are taking this route. And I hope it will open the door for more positive representation for minority characters on not just this show but television as a whole.” 

That’s who cares. Sam and so many other people like him. As they should.

Another question worth responding to, frequently asked by people who are both pleased to hear about Bill as well as those who are more resistant to the news, goes roughly as follows:

“What about Jack/ Vastra/ Jenny? Why are they claiming she’s the first?”

They’re not. To quote the original article on the BBC website:

“Gay and bisexual characters have featured in Doctor Who before, such as Captain Jack and River Song, but this is the first time the Doctor’s permanent companion has been openly gay.”

Which leads us to the fact that this is a first: while they can certainly fit the definition of “companions”, Jack, River, Vastra and Jenny are all recurring characters, not series regulars. This is the first time we’ll have an umambiguously gay co star, with their name in the title sequence, who’s set to star for a whole season. Out of the main companions in the New Series, there is Clara’s implied romance with Jane Austen, and I don’t want to erase that, but the lines that imply that romance make her sexuality so incidental that there is a layer of “plausible deniability” as to whether she’s bi. Heck, Clara’s sexuality only being slightly more than subtext is probably why most reports are calling Bill the first “openly” gay companion, which is a strange choice of phrasing for a fictional character – the creators and the media are, I suspect, tacitly acknowledging that most people can tell what they were trying to depict with Clara, but that the show could have done better. And it’s also worth acknowledging the comparative rareness of LGBT people of colour on television: LGBT characters are disproportionately represented by white people, and it’s great to see a major character in Doctor Who who cuts against that trend.

And finally, it’s worth noting that, out of all the prominent Doctor Who characters to be undeniably LGBT, Bill’s the first to come from our time. Jack and River were both from the 51st century, where their omnisexuality is apparently the norm. Vastra and Jenny are, well an interspecies lesbian couple who somehow got married in Victorian Britain.

With Bill, we’re getting a woman from the 21st century who’s openly and happily interested in women. For all that the LGBT representation New Who has given us so far has been praised for normalising non cis-het identities, that’s easily the most “normal” LGBT identities have been presented as in New Who. While Jack and River come from a time that has a more relaxed attitude to sexuality than our own, and this is shown to be a good thing, the nature of their characters do end up making LGBT identities something exotic, not from our culture. Bill provides a counterpoint to that. LGBT people aren’t just 60s spies, interspecies married lesbians, and 51st century time agents – they’re also women from our time, who attend lectures at university, and serve chips. We have, of course, had “ordinary” people from the New Series be LGBT, but they’re usually only minor characters. So it’s great to see that finally being depicted with a major lead.

“Why do they have to make everything about her sexuality?”

Once again, they’re not. In the early announcements focused on her character, Moffat and the other creators highlighted the way she will contrast to Clara by being more grounded and Earthy, and by going into the show knowing next to nothing about the Doctor Who universe: that’s what the vast majority of her promotional material has focused on. Even in the interview where Mackie mentioned Bill’s sexuality, she made it clear that this is just a part of Bill’s personality, that she is happy and comfortable with, and won’t be made a big thing of. Once again, there’s an element of heteronormativity at play here: no matter how much the show highlights other elements of Bill’s characterisation, there will always be people who pick up on the slightest reference to her having a non-normative sexuality and claim it’s the only part of her character the show focuses on. In that instance, it’s not the creators who are making everything about Bill’s sexuality.

However, while the creators haven’t given Bill’s sexuality a disproportionate focus, the one place where critics may have a point is the argument that the Media reaction has. Articles titled “New Doctor Who companion will attend university and serve chips” don’t get as much attention as those title “New Doctor Who comanion will be gay”, so the latter article gets published more often, even if most of the promotion has focused on the parts of Bill’s character that don’t include her sexuality. However, attempting to criticize the media for making too big of deal out of the announcement ignores the fact that, as this is still, on the whole, a first for Doctor Who, it is kind of natural for it to get attention in the media. The media reaction will only go away once gay representation really is a non event, which it isn’t yet. We’re getting towards a place where it should be, but we’re not there at the moment. As a result, protests of “why does it have to be such a big deal?” ultimately do nothing to stop the homophobes making a big deal out of much needed gay representation, and instead become a way of shouting down the fans who are overjoyed to see themselves being represented on screen. And frankly, no good critique of minority representation in media should result in shutting down the voices of the people being represented.

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One thought on “SCARVES AND CELERY: Extra Post – On Bill Potts, Sexuality in Doctor Who, and Fandom Reactions

  1. Pingback: ASSESSING STRESS #11: “World Enough and Time” | DoWntime

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