Friday, December 28, 2012


Doctor Who and the Gays (and an interview with me)

My friend Nick Campbell recently interviewed me for his book blog, A Pile of Leaves. The whole chat’s in his imaginary garden, including what I think of eBooks, librarian’s perks, and how I was always a Fattypuff even when technically a Thinifer. But, being me, my answers went on a bit, so Nick edited down several of them, and there’s one that I’ve decided to publish in full here. Nick asked me:

Do you think Doctor Who is the gay man’s delight it once was? And do you have your own theory on why it was in the first place?
I’m not sure I have anything profoundly different to say about why Doctor Who was the gay man’s delight; I think it was because it was the gay boy’s delight, with its consistent appeal to the outsider and its being all about standing up to bullies of every kind. I’m sure ‘How Doctor Who appealed to me even before I knew I was gay’ has a lot in common with How Doctor Who Made Me A Liberal: the series hates prejudice and oppression, celebrates free will and non-conformity. It’s also frequently incredibly camp.

But I have a suspicion that beyond the individualist theme and intermittently camp veneer, it may just be that the Doctor has friends who are women and men, but ostentatiously doesn’t notice them sexually, let alone doesn’t shag them – not reading as ‘gay’ but being almost unique as a main character in hardly ever reading as ‘straight’. Both in being an individual rather than a ‘uniform’ and in being, seemingly, the only hero who doesn’t have a girl in every port, he was the opposite of Captain Kirk. Not that I didn’t enjoy Kirk sometimes growing up, but I never identified with him. The Doctor was someone you could identify with whoever you were, but most of all if you didn’t fit in, because he didn’t have any of the characteristics every other hero did that pushed you away if you weren’t like everyone else.

As for if it still is, you’d probably have to ask gay boys much younger than me now. I hope it still is, but both gay culture and the way the series approaches relationships has changed so much that I don’t know: it must still be as hard coming out for many, but much more mainstream for many others; there’s a lot more gayery, and positively, than there ever was; and under Russell Doctor Who suddenly was suddenly open to gay and bi characters on screen… But at the same time the Doctor was suddenly very heterosexual. Since Mr Moffat took over, we’ve become almost completely invisible again and the Ponds, while lovely, inevitably made the TARDIS crew its most thoroughly heterosexual ever. Though at the same time, the Doctor became strange and ‘other’ again, and not interested in that sort of thing (except when the lovely TARDIS came along, inevitably). So it’s a maelstrom. You need to do a survey of the under-20s!

Obviously, the contentious last paragraph – which the lovely Nick omitted – may seem a little unfair now after the return of Mr Moffat’s most popular characters, the kick-ass married lesbians (even if in the same story where the Doctor’s been described as going back to fancying a “hot chick”). But then I remember another dear friend of mine on top of Nick, Mikey Russell (you can get his very different books here and here), grappling with a Russell T Davies-era Steven Moffat story he found otherwise superb and in which Mr Moffat thought it an incredible step forward in screenwriting to come up with the groundbreaking idea of, as he himself put it, “Doctor Who Discovers Girls”:
“One of the reasons Doctor Who meant so much to me as a scared gayboy growing up in fundamentalist-choked Arkansas was that he could be a hero without showing the slightest interest in girls; in all other shows I saw back then, the male lead had to prove his worthiness to be a hero by chasing women around. So I’m glad they didn’t do this in the old series because that would have been one more slap in the face, one more statement from the world that I shouldn’t exist.”
This is something that, really, I should write a long and properly referenced article about, with qualifiers and fairness all round and studiously seeing the other point of view… But I thought instead I’d publish my instinctive answer when suddenly put on the spot, as otherwise I’d probably never get back to it. Because ever since I can remember, the Doctor’s not been like all the other men, and ever since the New Adventures, which Richard, Nick, Simon and I all separately remembered drinking in like a first snog, it had seemed that we might be starting to put flesh on our selves at last. Yet ever since The Eleventh Hour, it’s seemed increasingly that Doctor Who has the viewpoint of one straight man, and that’s that.

How is it for you?

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Being neither gay, a man, nor a Doctor Who fan before 2005, I can't really add or subtract from what you've said on that except to agree that the Doctor is dismayingly straight now.

Which I dislike not just from the perspective of a not-straight person, but from a Hartnell fan...remember when I said I like how alien he was then? One of the ways that alien-ness was retained for quite a while was in the way that human sexuality was of no apparent relevance or interest to them, and I'm sad to have lost that.

What immediately springs to my mind on the subject of Doctor Who and queerness is the outrage among my friends and their friends at the biphobia in "Asylum of the Daleks." Oswin claiming her bisexuality is "just a phase" might seem like awfully small potatoes, but it led my friend Penny to share how long she felt bad about being bi, how every message she got was about how it was "not normal, not wanted, just a phase," And it led someone else to say: When it's 2012 and JNT's run as showrunner in the 80s was more queer-positive than your own, you've got issues... HOWEVER. As a culture, we're still in the kind of place where everyone from media to family and friends are telling queer folks every day that what they're really experiencing is "just a phase," something that they'll pass through and emerge ready to settle down and be "normal". ..anybody who makes a passing reference to their bisexuality, transient or otherwise, is necessarily characterized as oversexed, flirtatious, and ostensibly depraved. (Hello, River!) This is not okay, Moffat."

As you say, gay culture (and other queer cultures) and TV culture have both moved on such a lot that it might be impossible to tell whether it's the gay man (or any queer person)'s delight, but if, just in this one microcosm of an example, bi people are this unhappy at what was probably written as a throwaway, jokey phrase, with no idea that people would react to it so powerfully), it's probably not a great sign.
Thanks, Holly! Particularly about Hartnell. But, yes, I didn’t want to just go into a screed, so I didn’t mention Asylum of the Daleks, but even all these years after people would use those words to me in my teens, it was still triggering to get “just a phase”. From logic and from what you and Penny’s linked article say, would I be right in concluding that it’s much more a constant to bi people than to gay ones, like the Manichean dividers claiming every time that a bisexual person’s in a relationship with someone of the opposite sex, ‘Oh well, there you are, then’? And River as just the more Moffatatillating rewrite of Jack…

I suppose, on top of the Moffatitillation I referenced earlier, it didn’t stick with me quite as badly as what he did to Irene Adler, being only a throwaway line rather than a whole character thrown under the hansom. Your mileage may vary on that; I get the impression this was even worse for Penny. Either way, it’s sad that carelessly wankery writing now is so actively pushing people away, and that I’m not imagining it.
From logic and from what you and Penny’s linked article say, would I be right in concluding that it’s much more a constant to bi people than to gay ones, like the Manichean dividers claiming every time that a bisexual person’s in a relationship with someone of the opposite sex, ‘Oh well, there you are, then’?

I think you would be right. A good case could be made for "it's just a phase" being the free center square in Bisexual Bingo, so often do bisexuals seem to have this one thrown at us. Particularly as it's a good example about how bis get abuse from both straight people and lesbian/gay people; straight people say it as if we're just being silly attention-seekers; they know we'll "settle down" one day in a straight relationship. Lesbian and gay people say it with smug superiority because a lot of them said they were bisexual before they said they were gay or lesbian, and they confidently assume the same thing will happen to us, even when faced with people who have happily been bi for decades. It is a really powerful phrase. And to have Moffat use it so casually, in a way that added nothing to the story and will make a lot of queer watchers squirm in uncomfortable recognition... it seems like Stephen Moffat is on the side of the biphobes who think we're all, like the Doctor, "straight really."

it didn’t stick with me quite as badly as what he did to Irene Adler, being only a throwaway line rather than a whole character thrown under the hansom. Your mileage may vary on that

Oh I agree with you, but then I detested that whole series of Sherlock so much that I've given up criticizing particular things about it.

I love the coinage "Moffatitilation" and may be guilty of stealing it. It is often noticed and lamented by me how many things he includes that would be de rigeuer for a sitcom are horribly out of place for a Time Lord. We have lots of sitcoms, Steve, but we only have this one Time Lord. Don't make him be like everything else.
Thanks for the insights, Holly, and for especially for the uncomfortably accurate last lines to both paragraphs…

On a happier note, very happy for you to nick “Moffatitilation”. I came up with it a few weeks ago and liked it, so should it suddenly spread into wider usage I would have a little glow every time I see it.
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