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."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!
"No he isn't."
"I speak horse. He's called Susan. And he wants you to respect his life choices. Hup!"
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.