Monday, 17 September 2012

Doctor Who and the Transgender Horse

What else would I do on a Monday morning but write a blog post about a throwaway joke in Saturday's episode of Doctor Who?

Although I barely kept up with the last season of Doctor Who, and didn't really feel its absence, so far this time I am keeping myself interested. It's only 3 episodes in, so not much of an achievement thus far. If I get bored I'll stop watching it - autumn is full of brilliant (awful) TV to keep me entertained.

So Saturday's episode was good, I thought. I expected it to be a bit silly - remember how, last season, we had deep philosophical heart-wrenching episode followed by funny looking aliens / bow tie jokes with nary a character-development in sight? Well, I'm pretentious, and I always liked the first kind of episode better. I find the silliness of Doctor Who tiring at times. I suppose you could tell me to not watch a kids' show, but a lot of TV does the same thing. One of my favourites, New Tricks, is majorly guilty of this. I guess they're filling an odd spot: family friendly often equals lots of issues to play with and lots of masters to please. Doctor Who often chooses not to integrate silliness with seriousness in one episode, but I think perhaps I've noticed more integration in these first episodes of the new series. All three episodes have dealt with big questions, emotional turmoil and ethical dilemmas - and yet there have been plenty of jokes, both aural and visual, and a fair bit of silliness, particularly in episode two (Mitchell and Webb as cranky robot soldiers, anyone?).

But it's one particular tiny, barely noticeable joke that I want to discuss today. Take a guess? It's the transgender horse, of course!
"He's called Joshua. It's from the bible. It means the deliverer."
"No he isn't."
"I speak horse. He's called Susan. And he wants you to respect his life choices. Hup!"
I exchanged a significant look with my viewing partner. Warning: I'm about to overthink this massively, so if that kind of thing makes you roll your eyes, feel free to move on!

So, is this a transgender horse? When I was looking online for a transcript this morning I came across this opinion that no, Susan is not a transgender horse, because the Doctor still uses male pronouns. Ah, but is he misgendering the horse? Obviously the horse wouldn't have referred to itself using a pronoun, so perhaps it's the Doctor's mistake and he should have referred to the horse as "she" not "he"? The author then acknowledges the absurdity of the question:
and the ridiculousness of that very question is also why I really hate the idea of gender issues being joked about, especially through animals because yeah, even if the horse is cis *snort* it's still being really flippant with name choices that don't necessarily match up to other people's gendered expectations and that's definitely a trans* issue 
so even if the joke wasn't directly targeting trans* people, it still perpetuated the idea that asking someone to refer to you by your chosen name (and since it's a name generally associated with "the opposite sex", it hints at pronoun usage as well) is ridiculous, laughable, and a lifestyle choice.
So, ok, maybe this conversation is absurd. But that's no reason not to have it. Hell, we're so starved of any trans* visibility on our TV screens, I'll take a horse if it's on offer.

I think I disagree with dearjimmoriarty on this one. Yes, the joke is flippant. But who are we laughing with? We see the owner rolling his eyes as the Doctor gallops away, but it seems to me like we're laughing at the taken-for-granted notion that we slap names (and genders?) on our animals and assume that we've had the last word. Kind of like the mice in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy who are running experiments on the Earth, although not as fully explored of course. We laugh at the realisation that animals have 'inner lives': the joke is in the reversal. Having said that, why make the horse trans*? I do think that this is a bit of a fail, since it's clearly a case of "what's funnier than flagging up the notion that animals have their own chosen names rather than our arbitrarily applied ones? I know, it's transgender!" But don't forget that after this little exchange, which is clearly set up to be a joke, the Doctor calls the horse Susan. The joke for the audience may have been the reveal ("haha! transgender horse!") but the Doctor doesn't treat it as a joke. And the Doctor, whilst hardly the moral compass of the programme, does unfailingly sort the wheat from the chaff in terms of what's important. He always hones in on the salient point, whether it's where Oswin gets the milk from, or why there are electric street lamps, or that Amy and Rory need a little push from a social engineer to 'fix' their relationship.

It's also a kinda neat bit of commentary on the issue of names for trans* people. What do we do, but reject the name that has been chosen for us and replace it with our own choice of name? That's our real name, right? The name that we choose, that fits us, that makes us feel known when we hear it. That's more real than Joshua.

And actually, I do think it's a choice. I may not have a choice in how I feel about myself and what my gender is, but I make a choice every day to refer to myself by my chosen name and pronouns. I make a choice to ask others to do the same. Sometimes I make the choice to be strict about it, and sometimes I make the choice to let a slip go and not make a big deal out of it. Sometimes I choose to ask people to respect my pronouns, and sometimes I don't mention pronouns but make sure that they have my name right. No, I didn't say Holly. Trust me, I am making choices all day every day.

Maybe this joke doesn't deserve too many analytical words. But in a way, I think its brevity is its power. Throwaway joke, quick laugh - and then the Doctor calls the horse Susan. As representation, it could be a lot worse.


  1. Found your blog from Amanda Marcott's coverage of this last episode. I noticed that reference as well, although I obviously didn't put as much thought into it as you did! I think it's a continuation of the Doctor acknowledging who people truly are, what they want to be called, and then respecting those choices. He does it with Stormageddon and in some way, with Oswin. With the baby, he gets that there's a lot more going on there than the parents can understand and with Oswin, he understands that even though she's a Dalek on the outside, she's truly still a human.

    1. Good point. That's exactly it - he's not quite a 'good person', he makes bad decisions and increasingly I feel he's kind of flailing around in a confused morality. But he is always kind and he does seem to accept deeper truths that aren't always obvious to those around him, or easy for them to understand. I like that about him :-)

  2. *waves hi* also here via Pandagon.
    As I recall "Asylum of the Daleks" had a trans* reference as well:
    Oswin exclaiming:"My first boyfriend was called Rory!Actually,he was called Nina...she was going through a phase..." That last bit of "going through a phase" I found to be major,major fail as well as the pronoun-switch.Also,her calling our/Amy's Rory Nina later reeked of heteronormative,sexist poo-poo.
    Looks like someone on the Who-writers' board is trying but failing to be including...

    1. Stephen Moffat wrote the first episode (with the snarky Dalek, who seemed to be a Moffat version of a Buffyverse character in a way) and I truly do not like his ideas of equality and inclusion for the most part. He stumbles a LOT.

      Toby Whithouse wrote this episode (town called mercy) and I am hoping he is more of the welcoming sort. This episode was LOADS better than the previous two so I have hope for episodes written by him (his previous writing on the show has been rather forgettable). Unfortunately, there are not many in the works. I am SO happy with how Amy Pond was written in this episode but I was also taken aback at the insinuation that only mothers can be fierce and kind women. Sometimes I just have to let the characters speak for themselves, but it is hard when the ideas form from someone's head. Moffat really has issues is what I believe. I am not looking forward to the "sexy" new companion. I just can't even.

      Regardless, this show needs more diversity among the writers. Look at Torchwood, that was a huge step in the right direction. Doctor Who continues to plod back into the 60s.

    2. Oh yes, anon, I forgot that! That made me really mad. Except I thought it was "My first boyfriend was called Rory! Actually she was called Nina ... I was going through a phase." If it's as you remember it, it's total transfail, if it's as I remember it, it's bi-fail! And yes, calling Rory Nina was gross. Haha, it's funny because he's really a man and it's shameful to be called a woman's name! Nice work all round.

      Nat, I liked Amy's part in this episode too. Poor Amy really gets the short end of the stick an awful lot. But agreed, the fierce mother thing: bit of an epic cliche. Do you remember 'The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe'? That episode had me grinding my teeth throughout. And I'm with you on the new sexy companion, too. Sigh. It's just that it's so unbelievably boring. Oh look, the new companion is young, beautiful, feisty, smart and went through a "bisexual phase". How original.

  3. (here via Feministe)

    I took it as intended to be supportive for one very particular reason -- the female name used was "Susan". The name of the Doctor's adored granddaughter, first companion on the show, and who left in this very dramatic scene where he was not especially respecting her life choices -- he locked her out of the TARDIS so that she wouldn't have to choose between traveling with him and staying with the man she'd fallen in love with. So there's that, which isn't going to be obvious to new-series fans, but the writers all know the backstory.

    1. Oh that's a really nice thought. I didn't know that - I'm a new-series fan - but it definitely adds something to the possible interpretations.

  4. One of my followers pointed me here. Wasn't expecting anyone from outside tumblr to find my blog! *waves* You've got a lot of really well-thought-out points here, even if we disagree, so thank you for sharing them.

    1. *hi!* Would it be good etiquette to let someone know if I'm responding to/interacting with their thoughts? It didn't occur to me to do so but perhaps I should.

      Thanks for reading, and thanks for your blog!

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  7. Remember, "Laughs at everything, it's funny". Doctor doesn't make fun of lifestylers or transgender people. He makes fun of horse's owner who gave horse ridiculous name based on non-existent "purpose", thus making choice for horse. The "name is a promise" and Doctor had _chosen_ name Doctor instead of his old name.