In honor of Asexual Awareness Week, I wanted to discuss asexual interpretations of the Doctor, and focus particularly on the feminist aspects of that interpretation.
Fans who primarily watch New Who may not be as aware of this, given the nature of the current show, but there are many fans of Classic Who who interpret the Doctor as an asexual character. The Doctor of the Classic series never really expressed any sexual interest in his companions, or anyone else for that matter. There are, of course, some people who dismiss that interpretation and argue that the Doctor’s lack of sexual interest was a fluke of a more prudish BBC that felt that any hint of sexuality on a children’s TV show was not proper. Yet there are numerous examples in the canon that seem to indicate that the Doctor’s lack of sexual interest was an intrinsic part of his character, rather than a BBC-enforced celibacy. One of the more popular lines that many proponents of this interpretation quote to prove the Doctor’s asexuality occurred in the Fourth Doctor serial “City of Death,” in which the Doctor says to Countess Scarlioni: “You’re a beautiful woman, probably.”
This was not a Doctor who simply chose to abstain or wasn’t attracted to any of his companions. This is a Doctor who didn’t seem to experience sexual attraction at all. Intentional or not, these lines provided many fans material that they could read into and interpret the Doctor as an asexual character.
But that was then and this is now, and the discussion over whether or not the Doctor is still an asexual character has certainly become very heated. Many fans have asked whether or not the Doctor can still be considered asexual, given the nature of the current show. John Richards, in a brilliant and surprisingly funny essay for Queers Dig Time Lords titled “The Heterosexual Agenda,” lamented the aggressive assertion of the Doctor’s heterosexuality:
Yet while it was clearly the same show, with the TARDIS, the Daleks, and a vaguely recognizable version of the theme tune, something had shifted. The Doctor was now a romantic lead, sexually available and clearly heterosexual, in a way we had never seen before. […] The Doctor’s relationships with his companions were now that- relationships […] The Doctor held hands, the Doctor kissed, and New Earth even went to the trouble to stress that the Doctor had a penis. Really? The Doctor has a penis? Was that something audiences needed to be reassured about? Had the world gone mad?
Some people still find ways to interpret this new Doctor as asexual, though not always in ways that promoted greater understanding. Current Doctor Matt Smith said during an interview with Alan Carr:
The Doc’s idea of an orgy is playing chess with an ostrich. His brain doesn’t work in that way. He would find it weird and peculiar. He finds women peculiar. He is quite asexual.
While his heart may be in the right place, Matt’s statement mischaracterized what it means to be asexual. If the Doctor is asexual wouldn’t be perplexed by one gender in particular, he simply wouldn’t experience sexual attraction. There’s also a bit of sexism inherent in that statement, as Tom Hawking explained:
The idea that the Doctor “finds women peculiar” is probably one that says more about Matt Smith than it does about the Doctor’s character — 30 years of Doctor Who history rather contradict the idea that the Doctor finds women any stranger than men, and in general he has been characterized by his enduring affection for humanity in general, regardless of gender. (It’s a revealing answer that apparently even a thousand-year-old asexual alien with a time machine, a penchant for saving the universe, and two fucking hearts would find women “peculiar” and men perfectly normal. The second sex, indeed.)
And then Steven Moffat, always a paragon of tact and understanding, angered many people when he implied that asexuals were boring:
It’s the choice of a monk, not the choice of an asexual. If he was asexual, there would be no tension in that, no fun in that – it’s someone who abstains who’s interesting.
So, yeah, there’s clearly a need to elevate the conversation about asexuality. And those of us in the fandom should also do our part as well to elevate this discussion. When discussing the new, more sexually charged Doctor Who, fans tend to praise the show’s new direction as a sign of “progress,” a victory of the more liberally minded over the prudish executives of yore. But as Nightsky, an author for Doctor Her, so eloquently put it, that tends to place the fandom in a binary of “‘prudish anoraks terrified by sex’ vs. ‘sensible adults’.”
With each passing season it seems less likely that we will ever see an asexual Doctor again, as the show tries harder to make nearly every relationship with his companion a sexual relationship. But for many fans, retaining their interpretation of the Doctor as asexual is important. They aren’t terrified of sex, and they’re not saying the Doctor is morally wrong for having sexual relationships with other people, they’re simply looking for a character to identify with.
Growing up under the Asexuality umbrella was very confusing for me. My friends assumed I was a prude, and because I had no idea what sexual attraction was supposed to feel like, I assumed I was broken. I learned how to feign the language and learn the signs in order to pass myself off as normal. I attempted to have a few intimate relationships, but when an emotional connection was lacking (as it was for those early boyfriends), so was any sexual interest in them. I assumed sexual attraction was something that would someday magically strike me and “correct” me, but that never really happened. When I finally learned to identify myself as demisexual, it was a liberating experience. There wasn’t anything wrong with me, and I didn’t need to wait for the right guy to come along and “correct” me.
At this point, I don’t think anyone really expects Doctor Who to return to the way it was in the Classic years, and in many ways we shouldn’t. We should be glad that modern Doctor Who is much more comfortable discussing sex and sexuality. But we shouldn’t present the Doctor’s new persona as a much needed “correction.” Similarly, we should leave space in the fandom for those that continue to interpret the Doctor as asexual and support them when their sexuality is mischaracterized or insulted.
Doctor Who is a big fandom, spanning all of time and space, surely there’s room for all of us.