The Failed Orlando: Exploring the Reception of Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor

By Maja Petek | February 25, 2019

Doctor Who

The revered series Doctor Who has faced harsh criticism in its last season: it was too PC; the actors failed to match the previous cast and even the stories lacked the thrilling qualities that Whovians have come to expect from their favourite TV show. Like all previous cast choices, the announcement of Jodie Whittaker taking the reins as the 13th Doctor was met with harsh opposition. Unlike the previous actors portraying the Doctor though, the disapproval did not abate, but seemed to alienate a significant number of fans. Now that Jodie’s first series is over, a closer look can be taken into the her portrayal of the Doctor.

After every episode, the Internet was awash with reviews and opinions. While most reviewers found positive and negative aspects of each story, there were some (like the channel Bowlestrek) who completely tore apart the entire series. The criticism that particularly caught my attention was the claim that Whittaker mimicked certain personality traits of the previous Doctors. Plus,  her costume was a complete disaster. Reviewers frequently criticise the focus on gender politics both on and off screen. Yet, when taking a closer look at those critiques, it becomes obvious that the criticism does not actually concern the Doctor’s gender, but rather her representation of gender; the 13th Doctor does not seem to exhibit any characteristic stereotypically attributed to female characters.

The eccentricity of Matt Smith’s Doctor mimicked in Whittaker’s performance was seen as exaggerated and as out of place as the suspenders in her costume. The long coat iconic to the David Tennant era and the boots reminiscent of Peter Capaldi’s costume seem (according to reviews) out of place on the new, female incarnation of the Doctor. Even her choice to retain her native Yorkshire accent – the same choice both Christopher Eccleston and Peter Capaldi made – was met with disapproval. Why are those same character traits and the iconic style choices now so out of place? Is it because they are simply a copy of the old, or is it because they have been realised by a female actress? Does the audience’s perception and expectations differ with regards to a female vs. a male actor playing the same role?

To better understand those questions, I turned to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, a story of a daring nobleman transformed into a female writer and wife. The fantastical transformation taking place in the middle of the story is immediately followed by the assertion that it “did nothing whatever to alter their identity” (98). Nevertheless, it had substantial social consequences for the protagonist. Throughout the second part of the novel, Orlando questions her previously-held notions of female personality traits and women’s natural subjugation in the social order. The novel’s greatest achievement, then, is the depiction of the struggle of gender non-conformity and dramatization of the deviation from rigid gender characteristics, while retaining Orlando’s identity and individuality.

In the transformation of the Doctor, however, such pains were not taken and the male characteristics and even the dress code were simply transferred to a female character. The Doctor continues as before, embodying the same role, personality and fashion choices, without pausing to consider her new social position and the expectations of society or the viewing audience regarding her gender performance.

Therefore, Whittaker’s performance mirrors that of her male predecessors, almost disregarding her gender change, to the extent where her gender change simply does not matter. Such portrayal subverts the prototypical representation of female characters and therefore goes against the audience’s expectations of a female Doctor. In her study of gender performance, Judith Butler (185) discusses the unity of “acts, words, gestures” that mirror the “internal core or substance” of gender identity. The expected gender performance of the new female Doctor does not coincide with her sex, but matches the male identity established over the past 50 years, without considering the gender change. In staying true to the established (male) identity of the Doctor, Whittaker’s performance was thus criticised not for her flaunting her gender, but for the lack of female gender specific tropes in her portrayal of the new incarnation. The poor reception of the new Doctor embodying previously celebrated characteristics of male actors therefore show that even the supposedly gender-blind society of the 21st century has not yet shaken certain preconceived notions of gender conformity.

About Maja

I am currently studying English literature, focusing on the 19th century. My main research interest is the expression of sexuality in Victorian literature as well as the perception of homosexuality in European culture and society. I hold a degree in translation, but my passion for literature could not be ignored. On any given day, I can be found in a quiet corner with a book in hand, usually accompanied by a cup of tea.

Works Cited:

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. Routledge Classics, 2007.

Woolf, Virginia. Orlando. Edited by Brenda Lyons, Penguin Books, 1993.

Edited by Chris Jardine, Clara Ng and Ailish Woollett

Image sourced from No copyright infringement intended.

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