The good, the bad and the ugly sexual politics of Missy being You Know Who on Doctor Who

Doctor Who is changing in ways it never has before, but is that a good thing? Well ...

Before we begin, if you haven't seen "Dark Water," avert your eyes because SPOILERS.

Last chance ...

So. Missy is the Master. After first debuting on the second of January 1971 one of the Doctor's greatest nemeses has done something he's never done before -- he's become a she. And though there has been talk in the past about Time Lords becoming Time Ladies, it's never officially happened with such a major character.

But is that good? I don't mean for Doctor Who -- I mean culturally and sociologically. Is having a major villain from one of the most popular family programs of the last half century swap genders good for us as a civilization? Don't laugh; I'm serious. Our entertainment, our storytelling is like a stone pitched into the pond of life -- it has ripples. And this decision to regenerate the Master will impact not just Doctor Who but other fiction and actual peoples' lives. So let's talk about it.


The Master changing genders is another step in the human race acknowledging that gender is not as simple as what a doctor says you are at birth after smacking your behind. Yes, the Master is an alien, and yes, she's not technically the first Time Lord to become a Time Lady. But we all know who the Master is, and that's a big deal. Not everyone knows a person who changes their gender presentation in real life, so the best they have is what they see on television and in film.

You might not think that children watching will be more likely to respect transgender and genderqueer people, but they will be. Just seeing that gender can, in any way, be changed will subconsciously cause kids to take on board the notion that, hey, maybe that's not so weird.

And, yes, that is a very good thing. Accepting infinite human diversity is one of the thematic goals in a lot of science fiction for a reason.

That being said ...


When the Master first returned back in the 2007 episode, "Utopia," he brought something that then showrunner Russell T Davies may or may not have intended -- sexual tension between the Doctor and the Master. Yes, it's no secret that both then-Doctor David Tennant and John Simm are easy on the eyes, but I'm not sure anyone could have expected just how many photo manipulations fans would create pairing the two actors together in very, ahem, intimate ways.

And that wasn't the first time Who fandom had ever considered the notion of the Doctor and Master pairing romantically, either. Even back in the Pertwee/Delgado days, there were fans who saw the potential. And one of those fans could very well have been the very openly gay Russell T Davies, who went on to run the show. With that in mind, it's not surprising that his involvement, plus the advent of the Internet, led to even more people seeing that the Master and the Doctor had a little of that love-hate thing going. And while it was never specifically stated, being surrounded by many other queer characters during the RTD run set a continuing precedent for there to be queer visibility on the show, which was great considering how many LGBT fans Who has had from the very beginning.

So the idea of the Doctor and the Master engaging in epic makeouts? Great! But having the Master become a woman to finally make it happen? Eh. Significantly less great. By requiring a gender change to make this pairing happen, the show is extracting some of the innate queerness of the show.

Remember when Captain Jack Harkness kissed the Ninth Doctor in "The Parting of the Ways," thus saying that, yes, the Doctor's sexuality is probably a little fluid and soldifying the notion that queer folks can play the heroes too? That's the kind of thing a groundswell of fans hoped might happen with the Master, too. But by making the Master a woman instead, we get something that borders a little on queer erasure.

On top of that, the Master forces the kiss onto the Doctor. It's very clear the Doctor wants no part of what's happening, and that's before he even knows the identity of the person who's nonconsensually snogged him.

Yes, the Master is the baddie, but we've already had enough nonconsensual smooching on the show since Moffat took over. Which segues us nicely into ...


An article about a female Doctor has been written for this very site. And I've written one, too, elsewhere. The overwhelming response to both those articles (and many others positing the same) has been clear -- THE DOCTOR CAN NEVER EVER BE A WOMAN!

And there has, to my thinking, never been a coherent argument as to why, other than "It hasn't happened before, so ...", and that's not terribly compelling. The other argument, "People will stop watching if the Doctor is a woman," is pretty ugly, too. Why would you stop watching? Because women? 

I open up that can of worms for a reason -- while some people were equally troubled by a Master-turned-Missy, many more were fine with the change. Which sounds great until you hear the reasons why. The prevailing fan reasons why the Master can be a woman but the Doctor cannot are:

  • The Master is unpredictable
  • The Master is crazy
  • The Master is evil

There's a word for when someone describes an individual as "crazy" and "evil" for changing their gender presentation -- transmisogyny. And that's effectively what's happening here.

Saying the Master is bad and crazy so he can become a she, but the Doctor is good and sane so he would never do the same, carries with it the subtext that trans people are devious tricksters, liars, people of ill will and sinister motivation. In short: They are the bad guys. That's what your brain is intuiting by saying the Master can be a she because of her nefarious character, but the Doctor cannot.

Look, I want to watch Michelle Gomez play the Master and focus on what a great job she's doing. Michelle Gomez could be the best Master ever. But instead of thinking about that, I'm distracted by the knowledge that anyone who doesn't look or act quite like the gender they were assigned at birth has very good reason to be afraid every time they walk out their front door. Because to a lot of people trans folks will never be the Doctor, only the Master. And that is more terrifying than any Cyberman attack.

So, if I'm being honest, even though I want it, even though I think Michelle Gomez is wonderful in the part, I don't think the Master being played by a woman is all good news. But it is necessary if we can ever hope to live in a world where the Master showing up is a surprise twist because she's done something genuinely shocking, which presenting as a different gender oughtn't be.

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