A woman Doctor Who was announced and the crowd went wild. The narrative goes, “Finally, a woman Doctor!” There was also much discussion about how women of color are still ignored and told to wait their turn. All valid. However, there is another conversation that is getting ignored and has been ignored for years: Trans representation in Doctor Who. Time Lords are, by their very nature, non-binary, even The Doctor.
Just because The Doctor presented as a man for years doesn’t make them any less non-binary or gender-fluid (depending on your preferred term). How we talk about The Doctor switching genders says a lot about a world who sees things in a cis gender binary. It also reflects a lot of the common misconceptions cis people still have about people who fall under the very large transgender umbrella of which non-binary people are a part.
This is a complicated piece to weave because the introduction of Time Lords as not one gender happened in very subtle ways over a long period of time. Looking at these pieces individually paints a different picture than if you were to look at what we’ve seen so far with what we know about non-binary people and how the cis world (mis)understands these issues.
Laying the Foundation for a Non-Binary Doctor Who
The foundation for this was first laid when the 10th Doctor regenerated (we’ll save the numbering debate for another day and use the most common numbering).
When we first meet this new incarnation, played by Matt Smith, The Doctor does a checklist of their body:
Legs. I’ve still got legs. Good. Arms. Hands. Ooo, fingers. Lots of fingers. Ears, yes. Eyes, two. Nose, I’ve had worse. Chin, blimey. Hair. I’m a girl!? No. No. I’m not a girl. And still not ginger.
It’s a tell that when The Doctor looks down and sees a suit or looks at their hands, gender has not yet been determined. The cis viewer probably automatically went to male. It isn’t until an Adam’s apple is felt that we have a declaration of gender.
While some people see “I’m a girl?!” as a statement of distress and “I’m not a girl”as a declaration of relief, the stage is set that it is indeed possible that after a regeneration, The Doctor could present as a woman.
One could attribute both reactions to a Time Lord who doesn’t yet want to present as a woman and has very little agency when it comes to these matters, as the ginger statement reinforces. Non-binary people’s gender can be very fluid. They may choose to present as either male or female, or androgynous; varying their appearance along a wide spectrum of expression in an attempt to express being neither, or both, by nature. But most often, they have very little agency over how the world perceives them. Most often, they are stuffed in an assigned cis gender binary.
The Doctor has little agency of their own body but the inherit nature of The Doctor’s soul is neither male nor female with their outward appearance being a crapshoot. This is the first time we begin to see non-binary representation in Doctor Who.
More Non-Binary Time Lords Are Introduced: The Corsair and Missy
In “The Doctor’s Wife” we learn about the Time Lord: The Corsair.
The mark of the Corsair. Fantastic bloke. He had that snake as a tattoo in every regeneration. Didn’t feel like himself unless he had the tattoo. Or herself, a couple of times. Ooo, she was a bad girl.
We learn a few things in these 22 seconds. We learn there are women Time Lords. Or more accurately, a Time Lord who is currently presenting as a woman. We learn that Time Lords have in fact regenerated as both genders. We learn that it may be possible for some Time Lords to have some agency when it comes to minor details about their appearance and that “male” or “female” isn’t what makes them feel like them self, but it’s other details. For a lot of Time Lords, it’s a personality trait.
While The Doctor switches up The Corsair’s pronouns to reflect the outward presentation of the time, it is clear that a binary gender isn’t part of their identity or what makes The Corsair feel like them self. The use of different pronouns was to say, “Time Lords are non-binary gender fluid beings.”
This is the second time we see more gender-fluid representative in Doctor Who.
When we are introduced to Missy in “Dark Water,” the 12th Doctor doesn’t even flinch that Missy’s presentation is now that of a woman when he becomes aware of who Missy is. The Doctor sees Missy for their innate not-very-nice (to be polite) Time Lord. The thing that shocks The Doctor is the fact that Missy is alive.
Never once is it made to be an event that this Time Lord is now presenting as a woman. It doesn’t change who they are. It doesn’t change the innate nature of this Time Lord. It’s just another body housing the essence of this Time Lord.
Moffat has even confirmed that gender is fluid on Gallifrey.
Trans People Don’t “Identify As”, We Are – A Time Lord Is Not a Man or a Woman, They Are a Being
There is a problem with saying, “The Doctor is a woman.” While we may see The Doctor using female pronouns while presenting as a woman to make things less complicated, that does not mean they are a woman.
Their soul is such that their identity is about something other than a binary gender. Time and time again, their appearance is just a shell inhabiting a soul that has characteristics that define them outside of a gender binary and allow Time Lords to recognize each other after regeneration.
For over 50 years now, we have witnessed these changes in appearances, yet it’s the same Doctor. We’ve seen Moffat lay the foundation for the gender-fluid nature of Time Lords for seven years, including direct confirmation.
Lessons and Representation in Doctor Who: Time Lords Aren’t Misgendered or Dead-Named
In “Dark Water,” The Doctor went as far as to refer to Missy using female pronoun when talking about her childhood, as it should be. The Doctor never referred to Missy as “The Master”. Missy wasn’t once a man and now she’s a woman. Rather, Missy is presenting as a woman now and is using female pronouns, therefore those are the pronouns to use while in this form, regardless of which period in the past is being referred. Missy is The Mistress and has always been.
If Missy were to suddenly regenerate and present as a man and decide that male pronouns are the pronouns to use while in that shell, that pronoun use is also retroactive. Same if a Time Lord were to use neutral pronouns.
It doesn’t matter where someone falls under the big trans umbrella, there is this pervasive need for cis people to say, “they were born X but they identify as X” or some variation of that. There is a pervasive need to talk about dead names and use incorrect pronouns when talking about before transition (social, legal, or medical) lives when the trans person was living a life that was not their real self.
If you know a trans person anywhere on the spectrum, they have always been the gender they declare when they begin their transition. It is the world who identified them as the wrong gender. It is why we say “assigned female-bodied/male-bodied at birth.” It’s something that was and continues to be forced on us.
People are assigning a wrong gender every time they use a dead name or the wrong pronoun or the assigned-at-birth gender when talking about a trans person’s past. Once a trans person has told you their name and pronoun, you are to use that from that point forward, even when talking about the “before times.” Those before times were a time of coercion, often accompanied by violence. This is not only disrespectful and a form of erasure, but it’s also a form of trans antagonism. Every time someone does this, they are taking away a trans person’s agency.
GeekDad has a gender identity and gender language primer if you’d like to expand your vocabulary and stop erasing people’s agency.
Welcoming a Non-Binary Doctor
Jodie Whittaker is a wonderful choice for The Doctor. While most people are going to continue to choose to see The Doctor as a woman now, instead of gender-fluid or non-binary being whose foundation has been building for seven years, those of us on the trans spectrum are celebrating something else.
The Doctor’s regeneration into different shells that do not dictate their innate being is very much a story of transition. While representation in Doctor Who has been problematic in a lot of areas, how Moffat dealt with this aspect of the gender realities of people in the trans umbrella was well done.
Continue to ignore the realities of a Time Lord’s gender and expression if you must. Or join us in celebrating the next logical step in The Doctor’s regeneration as the gender-fluid being Moffat said Time Lord’s are.