A TARDIS full of coats: why queer women are already costuming the first female Doctor

This post first appeared at Women Write About Comics on 23 July 2017.

Even before Jodie Whittaker pushed back Peter Capaldi’s hood to reveal herself as the first woman actor to play the Doctor, Doctor Who’s female and non-binary fans – especially those whose gender expression tacks masculine-of-centre – were already watching odds shorten on Peter Capaldi’s replacement being a different gender … and skipping ahead to what style and costume will define the ‘first female’ Doctor, or rather, the first Doctor who will be gendered female on Earth.

Under the outgoing showrunner, Steven Moffat (whose run has contained a string of problematically drawn plotlines for women), this series has primed its audience with the groundwork for a female Doctor through canonically genderfluid Time Lords and a female incarnation of the Master.

One of the excitements of seeing a woman rather than a man take the title role, which fans could start anticipating for real after the BBC aired a 50 second teaser at the end of the men’s Wimbledon final on Sunday, is imagining how Doctor Who’s costume designers will define the character through clothing, as the show has taught us with each new Doctor.

That’s all the more the case for viewers who aren’t men but have already looked to the Doctor as an example of masculinity they identify with, even when it seemed the Doctor could only ever be played by a man – and whose ways of communicating that in the real world might owe something to Doctors past as well as future.

The women typically fancast as female incarnations of the Doctor – Tamsin Greig, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Zawe Ashton – haven’t just shown in their previous roles the quirky irascibility that any Doctor needs. Their images have often also embodied a blurring of gender boundaries that it also seems to go without saying that a woman playing the Doctor would need to mediate.

Wondering what degree of masculinity or femininity Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor will express is an extra queer layer that Whittaker’s gender adds to waiting for the regeneration, just like anticipating if and on what terms Thirteen will reunite with River Song (and hoping against hope Pearl Mackie’s Bill will stay around). The duffel coat and zipped hoodie that already identifies the woman with the jaw-length blonde bob as the Doctor in Thirteen’s first wave of fan art is one of the main costumes for Capaldi’s Twelve. Thirteen’s signature style, whatever it will be, might be revealed in further publicity this year or it might be a surprise held back until Whittaker’s debut in the Doctor Who Christmas special itself. (Our first out-of-story sight of a new Doctor is no certainty at all: Matt Smith, revealed as Eleven in 2009, was announced with an indie-goth photograph outside the TARDIS that left me making sniffy remarks about the BBC copying Twilight.)

How much masculinity and how much femininity in a body that humans will read as female (who knows what genders the rest of the galaxy has seen the Doctor as), wants to present to the world is also a question that the character will be asking herself in front of the TARDIS’s infinite wardrobe.

Contrary to ‘Brian from London’, who commented on a Daily Mail article predicting a female Doctor that “Nobody wants a TARDIS full of bras,” Gallifreyan ease with genderfluidity suggests the TARDIS is full of precisely as many bras as any Doctor the TARDIS can imagine might want it to be.

Whether she knows instinctively how she wants to be perceived or whether she’s constantly figuring it out, it’ll speak to some queer women’s (and other people’s) relationship to gender expression.

After thirteen numbered regenerations and most-of-us-have-stopped-counting out-of-sequence ones, viewers know the rules: solving the mystery of the next Doctor’s personality is the first narrative move, and how they react to the changes from their past appearance, plus what outfit they assemble, will tell us–and any companions in the TARDIS–what that personality is.

Who doesn’t wish they had the run of the TARDIS’s infinite wardrobe to pick out their statement coat?

Whittaker’s Doctor, if written with enough insight, could speak to many gender-variant experiences. For transmasculine fans, this Doctor could embody what it means for the world to treat you as a woman when you aren’t; for trans women, this Doctor could stand for insistence on your womanhood (mediated through whatever gender expression you choose) when the world persists in telling you you can’t be one because it used to perceive you as a man.

While for some queer and masculine-of-centre women, the Doctor’s character has already been a point of identification for years–and Whittaker’s Doctor could get closer to embodying the reasons why than any Doctor before.

We’ll theorise about why in just a moment, but on a surface level which queer convention tells us is the expression of a deeper level: look.

If seeing Whittaker in Capaldi’s coat doesn’t guide your eye to imagine, at least for a moment, “Could those be women in the other outfits too?” before the image resolves into Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant and the rest, rest assured it will have done for some people–who were already imagining it before Whittaker was even there.

(Yes, even Nine. Especially Nine. Come on.)

Time Lords look like they belong on Earth, until a detail every human should know gives away that they don’t. So many queer experiences and intersections of our queernesses with race or dis/ability or faith, lead in the same way to us suddenly turning out not to be what somebody expected, until we’re left feeling like we must have just come down from Mars, or, why not, Gallifrey.

Each Doctor wears their out-of-placeness as proudly as their coat: the Doctor gets to be clever and brave and funny when their alien quality breaks through, and then that very strangeness saves the day.

Perhaps that’s what these identifications drill down towards–but style fixes the identification tighter, either because the Doctor embodies how you’d like to present to the world or sometimes because they’re embodying something of yours already.

Each new Doctor, deciding their signature style in the TARDIS, has had to decide what kinds of masculinity they want to evoke. The Doctor’s costume has always drawn on the figure of the dandy, even if only to reject it, but how each Doctor takes theatrical pleasure in coats, suits and ties defines each character. The lines along which each Doctor fashions themselves are the same: how dressed up versus how dressed down? How contemporary versus how Victorian?

And that neo-Victorian Doctor Who aesthetic, turned unambiguously steampunk post-reboot, reminds us: these looks do hark back to the white masculinity of a particular time and place – while the people of colour taking steampunk far beyond its origins in Victorian nostalgia still haven’t had the pleasure of watching a black or brown Doctor fighting the Daleks or confronting Earth’s and Britain’s past.

A female actor embodying the Doctor adds a third line, one of the queerest: how masculine-of-centre versus how femme?

People who aren’t men but who want the world to notice some relationship towards masculinity when it reads their gender make the same choices. While drag performers expose the artificiality of a masculine archetype through exaggeration, masculine-of-centre women and non-binary people are making their own negotiations with masculinity through everyday style: which kinds of masculinity do we want our clothes or hair to cite, and what do they bring with them?

A bow tie references the dapper upper class, or a leather jacket mid- to late 20th century rebel toughness, even as it might be being reappropriated through parody, subversion, being worn deliberately the ‘wrong’ way, or being combined with clothes, accessories or bodies it would never have belonged with when it first became iconic.

Within all these citations of different masculinities, the Doctor’s coat is the piece that makes each Doctor. Some have their signature accessories – Two’s flute, Four’s jelly babies and his scarf and hat – but, at a pinch, you could match each outfit to its Doctor just by glancing over the empty coats hanging on the TARDIS wall.

Rachel Charlton Dailey’s viral tweet – ‘This coat has FAKE pockets! ’– strikes its nerve because anyone who wants or has to buy ‘women’s’ clothes knows the thread sewn across a pocket opening, even on the most androgynously styled piece of clothing, is a tiny fabric cordon reminding you that, when it comes to the social boundaries of gender, society and capital – not you – too often still get the final say.

It also strikes its nerve because we know, in signalling how each regeneration has interpreted their personality, the coat is the Doctor’s brightest semaphore.

We know, or we expect, Whittaker’s Doctor will choose her signature coat: and we know, or we expect, Whittaker’s Doctor, gendered on Earth as a woman, will meet her own equivalent of that tiny barrier of thread.

How will the Doctor overcome it? We haven’t yet seen. But everybody wants a TARDIS full of coats.

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