On October 6th, 2011, the American medical soap Grey’s Anatomy aired the fourth episode of its eighth season, entitled “What is it About Men.” The conceit of the episode was straightforward and clever: Grey’s Anatomy, normally a show dominated by and framed in terms of its female characters, did an episode in which the female characters were all pushed to the periphery and the focus was instead on the male characters. The voiceover narration that clumsily sets up the theme for a given episode, instead of, as normal, going to title character Meredith Grey or, as occasionally the case, going to a single other character, is instead split among all of the male characters, who opine about masculinity.
This is, to be clear, a genuinely interesting take. Grey’s Anatomy is a heavily female-driven show, both for better and for worse. It passes the Bechdel test essentially every episode, which makes this episode’s unrepentant flunking of it an appreciably interesting thing. Because it is not as though this is suddenly an episode of Grey’s Anatomy that is envisioned as being “for” a male audience. This is still clearly conceptualized as women’s television, which is problematic in a number of ways, not least of all its existence as a category. All the same, the effect of “What is it About Men” is still interesting and worth highlighting: it provides a relatively rare cultural moment of the female gaze being applied to male bodies. It is first and foremost an episode about defining what masculinity is, and, crucially, defining a vision of masculinity that is desirable to women.
All of which is lead-up for the reason we care, which is that one of the major plot lines of “What is it About Men” concerns a crush at a sci-fi convention when five hundred people rushed the doors to try to be one of the first fifteen through them and thus to win a limited edition bit of Doctor Who merchandise (a plastic TARDIS signed by Russell T Davies). We should perhaps, because we are all anoraks of the most pathological sense, note that the actual TARDIS displayed was a perfectly ordinary and easily purchased toy that uses an electromagnet to make the TARDIS hover and spin over a base, and that the toy in question is clearly from the Moffat era, making the Davies signature an inexplicable anachronism. It is, in other words, seemingly written by someone who has looked Doctor Who up on the Internet as opposed to by a committed fan. (The episode also lands slightly astray on A Song of Ice and Fire, declaring a character to look like a Dothraki princess when that is at best a puzzling description, and then blithely overlooking some deeply inappropriate and stalkerish behavior in the course of that plot line. But then, valorizing completely inappropriate and abusive male behavior actually demonstrates a fairly thorough understanding of that fandom, doesn’t it?)
Nevertheless, there’s something of a cultural watershed here. If you told an American Doctor Who fan on October 6th, 2001 that a major piece of American network television would use the word “TARDIS” multiple times, it would have been unthinkable. Indeed, it would have been unthinkable in a way that nothing we’ve seen thus far in the new series quite is. It’s one thing for a Doctor Who revival to take off in the UK. But Doctor Who’s reputation in the US has never been that of a straightforward hit. This sort of cultural referencing is deeply strange. Or, at least, it would have been before 2011. But the arrival of Matt Smith and Steven Moffat led to a fundamental shift in how Doctor Who worked in the US. Specifically, it meant that Doctor Who had become something of a hit.
Part of this was simply a change in how the show was broadcast. The Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy) had broadcast seasons after they were over, sometimes months later. After an initial push that involved pairing Doctor Who with their big hit show (Battlestar Galactica), they began running it as obvious filler. It was, simply put, never a show that the Sci-Fi Channel seemed to have much faith in, and never really broke out as a result. And so when the rights to the show moved to BBC America, it was not a huge surprise that things got better, especially when BBC America started actually treating the show as a bit of serious business. For Series Five the gap between UK and US transmission fell to just two weeks, which was still long enough that Doctor Who fans who had gotten used to piracy didn’t stop. As of A Christmas Carol they actually began same-day transmission, which helped a lot. They also gave the show a solid promotional push, which, again, was quite a big thing – in fact, the first non-press screening of The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon took place in the US, at a New York City theater, where so many people were lined up for the event that they ended up turning over half the screens within the theater to a simulcast of the main theater where Moffat, Smith, Gillen, Darvill, and Kingston were doing a Q&A. All of which is to say that in 2011, Doctor Who was actually a bit of a sensation in the US. At long last, the much hoped for American breakthrough of the series had happened.
The trouble is, it wasn’t anywhere near big enough to even begin to compare to Grey’s Anatomy. To give a sense of scale, “What is it About Men” did not do particularly well as episodes of Grey’s Anatomy go, only getting 8.7 million viewers. This, however, means that it got more viewers than every episode of Series Six save for “The Impossible Astronaut,” which only just edged it out. And it means that it got around eight times as many viewers as the actual episodes of Series Six got in the United States, where, on BBC America, the show is the network’s big hit with viewing figures that tended to hover around the one million mark.
So clearly the sort of referencing going on here is not entirely straightforward. A minority of the Grey’s Anatomy watching audience would have gotten the Doctor Who reference. And yet equally, enough would have that it was worth including in the first place. And it’s worth noting that for all that the geek culture references were handled in such a way as to flag the writers as not-we, so to speak, they pick the right two texts: Doctor Who and A Song of Ice and Fire, which are both texts from within male-dominated geek culture that actually do have sizable female fandoms.
Which is, in all of this, the significant point. It’s not just that Doctor Who broke out in the United States, but that it did so with a significant number of female fans. Again, this can’t entirely be chalked up to some simple claim like “Americans liked the Moffat era better than the Davies era,” although it is perhaps fair to say that Series Five is a bit more export-friendly than the intensely British Eccleston season was. Some of this was simply down to changing demographics in “geek culture” that had, by 2010, been under way for over a decade thanks to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, along with other shows – changes that meant that female geeks were a real and courtable audience in the first place.
But it’s also important to realize that female fandom was and is a tremendously contested thing. Even a little bit of Googling will reveal the absolutely vicious levels of misogyny that female fans suffer, from conventions with poorly (or nonexistently) enforced harassment policies, the “fake geek girl” meme, the denigration of cosplay as a form of engagement (or sexual harassment of cosplayers), and no end of other awful stuff. Which is to say that a text like Doctor Who that had, in the United States at least, not really caught on with male audiences a major part of geek culture and fandom was, in many ways, an appealing text to latch onto.
But on top of that is the fact that the Moffat era has advantages for female fans that other eras don’t. Its female characters are foregrounded differently than in the past – they more often get the good lines or the big hero moments. Amy and River are both presented as confident and charismatic. And the series engages with feminist concerns in a direct way. Yes, there’s also been a strong vein of feminist critique of the Moffat era, but this doesn’t change the underlying fact that the Moffat era caught on with female audience in the US, and that this was a key aspect of the show’s breaking out in the US. And this, in turn, explains why it was used in Grey’s Anatomy: because while it may be a comparatively minor show in the US, it’s a reference that a reasonable portion of the Grey’s Anatomy audience could be expected to appreciate, and the episode isn’t really harmed if you don’t know anything about it.
Which brings us back around to what “What is it About Men” is doing, which is exploring the question of masculinity from a female perspective. The central thread of the episode, presented with tongue firmly in cheek, is that all of the male characters acquire a desperate psychological need to help build a deck because without the opportunity to engage in manly pleasures like construction work in tight shirts they simply go to pieces. Part of this is, of course, an excuse to have the entire male cast getting to be pleasantly buff and sweaty – there is, in other words, some good old-fashioned sexualization of the male body going on here. It’s also worth noting that pounding hard nails into the soft pliant wood of the deck is a handy replacement for just letting the whole thing turn to slash fiction, which is the medium through which negotiating pop culture questions of masculinity is more regularly worked out, especially among people who know what a Dothraki princess is supposed to look like.
But the deck is just one part of a larger exploration of masculinity – one that mixes expected tropes (one of the male leads gets to deck someone) with more unexpected ones (the male geeks all get happy endings that end up treating them with pleasant dignity instead of as objects of humor). There are cute bits of subversion, such as when the angry male demand that someone “get in the car” is directed at another male character who is being fought over by two senior doctors looking for a protege. And there are moments of quiet but satisfying triumph such as an impassioned speech about how a character is an abusive ass.
Within this, there’s something appealing about Doctor Who getting referenced. The episode ends with the suggestion that the fundamental and defining aspect of masculinity, as an idealized thing, is a degree of flexibility: the ability to admit defeat and start over. It’s an overly pat wrap-up in many ways, but a useful one in an episode that has done a decent job of actually exploring multiple visions of what masculinity might be. Given this, defining masculinity in terms of flexibility and difference is appealing.
And this is particularly worth stressing in the gap between A Good Man Goes to War and Let’s Kill Hitler, given that these are the two episodes that are, in many regards, the most concerned with feminist issues, whether one takes that to be a positive or negative engagement. Inasmuch as Doctor Who is a masculine show, and with a male lead and entirely male writing staff, it’s a tough argument to say that it’s anything else, this does seem to be its vision of masculinity: an ability to change, to learn, to evolve, and get better, as the Doctor does over the course of A Good Man Goes to War when he finally changes from “go to war against the bad guys” to “help Amy heal.”
But in many ways we’re only restating something that’s long been observed about Doctor Who: that in a world full of depictions of masculine heroes, Doctor Who stands out by virtue of having a different set of values than most. And changing everything and starting over has always been among them. No wonder “What is it About Men” features Doctor Who as a plot point. In the end, it decides that Doctor Who is what it thinks men should be.
But this also serves as a useful transition for talking about American television and masculinity in another context…