The Swap – or, what to consider when you want to change a character’s gender

What do you think about this swap? Image from BBC.

What do you think about this swap? Image from BBC.

(Note: very slightly spoilery if you have an interest in the newest rendition of a certain classic detective.)

My husband was deeply upset with the second episode of Sherlock. Apparently there’s an extremely brief mention of a third Holmes brother in the source material, and Moffat and Gatiss have introduced this character to the new season. Just one thing, though – they’ve changed the brother into a sister.

This is the kind of thing that starts my dear husband off on a rant, as is just about every creative decision that Steven Moffat makes, especially on Doctor Who. He was extremely annoyed at Moffat’s hints that he would regenerate the Doctor as a woman, and wasn’t too happy with the Master’s reappearance as Missy. I’d attribute this more to his being a source purist than any sort of anti-female feeling (I wouldn’t have married him if he had that), but it points to an underlying question that’s relevant for writers: when to change a character’s gender, why to do it, and why you might not want to.

I don’t have much of a problem with Sherrinford Holmes being converted into a woman. There’s very little existing development of the character (according to some of the research I did, he might not have appeared in Arthur Conan Doyle’s work at all), and that gives a modern adaptation a lot more room to work. Besides, we’ve already looked at the brother-brother relationship with Sherlock and Mycroft; it would be more interesting to see how a brother-sister relationship functions (or doesn’t) in this family. That’s a decent reason to change the character’s gender – to explore new material and new inter-character dynamics.

As for Missy/The Mistress/The Master, I think there’s also some sound reason to change gender. We’ve seen the Master on and off for decades of Doctor Who, and he always comes across as basically the same: pure mustache-twirling evil. There’s only so much you can do with him, given his role as unhinged and fairly one-dimensional enemy of the Doctor. To reintroduce the character and provide some interest, something new was needed. Moffat chose to change his gender. Fair enough, in my opinion. Not so in others, but that’s fine. It still doesn’t seem to really take away from the character.

Changing the Doctor’s gender, on the other hand, seems much less necessary. I can’t see a good story-based reason to do it. It wouldn’t allow the exploration of different types of sibling relationships as in Sherlock, or add a new dimension to a sometimes flat character as in the Master. It might be presented as a way to show a woman being smart – something that would have been more powerful in past decades where the role of the Doctor’s female companions was often to be the damsel in distress – but we’ve had plenty of smart and strong female companions in recent years. Having the Doctor be a woman just to get a smart female at the TARDIS console isn’t necessary; we’ve already had smart women at the console. (“You leave the parking brake on.”) Making the Doctor a woman would come across more as showing off, a way for the writer to prove how edgy and progressive he is.

There are some different ways to look at the writer’s role but I think this one is still the best: Within the context of the story, the writer should be invisible. The writer’s goal should not be to make the reader/viewer think about how awesome the writer is, at least not during the story. Don’t do anything to the characters that’s unnecessary, just to make a point as the writer.

All this is IMHO, of course. What do you think about changing characters’ genders?

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