A planned guest post for today fell through at the last minute, and Anna Wiggins graciously stepped in to deliver her thoughts on Missy and trans issues, which is not really in chronological sequence, but again, the planned post fell through. And more to the point, it's brilliant, so really, who cares about chronology. This is a blog about time travel, dammit.
Also! The fantastic folks at the Pex Lives podcast invited me on this month to talk about The Ribos Operation and Last Christmas. It was a hoot to record. I'm mostly just ranting and pontificating, but if you enjoy me spontaneously staking out excessively bold critical positions, you'll love this.
It is the summer of 1993. I am watching PBS, which is showing a weird old British sci-fi show that I enjoy watching whenever I catch it on. On screen, Romana (a character I like a lot) is trying on different bodies. It’s silly, and the Doctor is being kind of mean to her, (I don’t know to use the word sexist yet) but the idea of trying on a new body is amazing. In the most secret part of myself, I wish I could do that. I wish I could look like princess Astra.
It is the end of summer, 1998. I don’t want to be alive any more. In a couple of weeks, I will try to kill myself. I will slip outside in the middle of the night, walk several miles into the woods down trails only I know about, to a clearing I spend a lot of time hiding in. I will take the razor blade on my swiss army knife and try to cut my wrist open. But the blade won’t be sharp enough, and the pain and shock of seeing my own blood will stop me before I go too far.
I will spend the next ten years feeling like a coward. I will regret failing. I will think often about trying again.
It is April of 2010. A new friend of mine is in town, and is talking about how great the new Doctor Who is. He suggests I watch it some time. My hazy, pleasant memories of Mary Tamm and Lalla Ward help make his case, and a few weeks later I marathon series 1 with my husband. I am hooked, and catch up just after series 5 ends.
It is May 14th, 2011. The Doctor’s Wife is on TV. Neil Gaiman just used some throwaway dialogue to casually write in the possibility of time lords changing gender when they regenerate. The exact dialogue is a bit irksome, but I don’t care; this is huge and affirming and very clearly a challenge for the showrunners to live up to. I’m thrilled about this. Exactly one month ago, I legally changed my name to Anna Rose Wiggins.
It is August 4th, 2013. I am watching a live stream of the Peter Capaldi announcement. The last few weeks have been interesting for me, because this is the first regeneration I’ve been an active fan for. There’s been a lot of speculation, discussion, and debate about the possibility that the next doctor could be a woman. I don’t know whether past versions of this debate have been as heated as this, but I imagine The Doctor’s Wife certainly added fuel to the fire. I’m a little disappointed when the next Doctor proves to be some old white guy I’m not familiar with. A quick browse of IMDB suggests he’s at least going to be interesting, though.
It is August 23rd, 2014. Finally, we get to see Capaldi in action, and he doesn’t disappoint. Deep Breath is satisfying on a number of levels, but the stand-out moment for me is the introduction of Missy, who is obviously (to me) a new regeneration of the Master. Finally, an on-screen example of a Time Lord changing gender. I can’t wait for the season finale and inevitable reveal, and this immediately becomes the most engaging season of Doctor Who for me so far. The stakes are personally high for me; the parallels to trans experience are obvious, and a tone-deaf approach to this will be worse than not having done it at all. I try not to hope for too much; I’ve been disappointed too many times.
It is November 8th, 2014. I am homesick, in the middle of a 2 week work trip to California, and just watched Death in Heaven, and I’m pleasantly surprised. The parallels to transgender experience were handled with more grace than most media that is explicitly about trans people.. The Doctor avoids misgendering her, even when talking about the past. The Mistress is every bit the over-the-top scheming villain she’s always been; they don’t tone down anything, they don’t make her feel like a different character. She follows logically from John Simm’s performance. I temporarily forget how lonely and homesick I am, because I am too excited by the writing in this episode.
Over the next week or so, I come across a lot of reviews and discussions that are very critical of these episodes. There are a few arguments that stand out to me, although I don’t engage in the debates at the time.
One common argument goes something like this: “After decades of sexual tension between the Doctor and the Mistress, why is it that there is no acknowledgment of this until they become a heterosexual pairing?” And, well, that’s a good point, and ultimately it comes down to “because heteronormativity.”
But I want a better reading than that, and luckily, there’s one available. So in my own head, at least, the Mistress is, well, like me. She has always been a woman. She has secretly hoped, in the deepest part of her mind that she seldom even allows herself to look at, for a feminine body, every time she regenerated. And with a masculine body, she just doesn’t feel comfortable with sex or romance. It raises uncomfortable feelings. It is too complicated. And so she hopes, and when it does happen, she finally feels like she can express the things that have always stayed unspoken. Of course, she is still who she is, still a villain. Her affection is still reflected in a cracked mirror. But here, at least, is a partial explanation, a view into some of the pain that warped how she sees the world.
Another argument is that ‘Master’ is not necessarily a gendered title, and so there was no need for the new name. But, expanding on my little headcanon above… the thing about gender-neutral names and titles is that they still carry a whiff of ‘male by default’, and for a lot of trans women, that has bad associations. The Mistress changed her name because it felt affirming, because it was a choice that reinforced her identity. (As for the statement I’ve seen more than once, “what, are they going to call a female version of the Doctor the Nurse?” I invite anyone who thinks that to say it in front of our host’s wife. Protip: wear plate armor.)
And the last argument I want to bring up is that the Mistress’ regeneration should have reflected the lived experience of real-world trans people more; that it is unrealistic for her gender identity to conveniently line up with whatever her body’s shape is. There are a number of problems with this. If you accept my reading (and I encourage you to) then the Mistress was already feeling gender dysphoria, and this is the first regeneration where she finally feels right. This isn’t particularly reflected in the text, but at the same time, very few people had any clue I was experiencing gender dysphoria before I decided to transition. People don’t always wear everything on their sleeves, and there’s no inherent reason not to extend that to fictional characters when it makes those characters more interesting or relatable.
But even if you reject my reading, this is still a weak argument. Because regeneration has become a metaphor for the way our identities, our understanding of ourselves, change over time. And we only see glimpses of the Mistress. She isn’t the protagonist. Of course there’s a lot of context missing.
And even more than that, one of the key advantages of fantasy is that we can choose to explore things like gender identity in a somewhat idealized way. Gender dysphoria in reality is brutal, and our culture reinforces it, makes it worse, makes it deadly. I’ve seen enough of that in my life, it’s nice to have a bit of escapist fantasy. “She realized that she wanted to be a woman, and so she became one. End of story.” It gives us something to daydream about.
I find myself thinking back to my earliest memories of the show, wishing I could try on bodies like Romana. I was sad at the time, because even if I could regenerate, it didn’t seem like I could change from a boy into a girl. Missy gives me hope. Not just because she makes a female Doctor an inevitability, but because she means that somewhere, a little trans girl might watch Doctor Who and think “maybe I can do that too.” No, this plot arc won’t cure self-doubt and internalized transphobia. But it’s a step in the right direction, one piece of media that is affirming instead of critical.
And the truth is, we *can* regenerate. It takes longer, but sometimes, when the pain is twisting and cracking us, we can change our bodies until they begin to feel alright. It doesn’t undo the damage, but it can keep us from breaking completely. Time Lord technology, right here on Earth.
(This post was inspired, in part, by Chase Harvey's Properly Suppressing Your Gender Dysphoria)