Bill Potts, played by Pearl Mackie, is Doctor Who’s first out, gay companion. In fact she’s the first out, gay, female and black companion. Just laying out the Venn Diagram of her demographic characteristics has been a red rag to elements of the UK press and to some sections of fandom. Being female is conventional and unremarkable for a Doctor Who companion, but Potts’ gender becomes weaponised in culture wars when it coincides with the other categories.
Mackie’s debut was announced on BBC News, and while neither showrunner Steven Moffatt or Mackie herself made a special point of the character’s sexual orientation, BBC News made it the headline to the item. The result was the statement seemed a bit ‘louder’ than the event justified. In turn, the news audience took the announcement of the new character to also be an announcement or ‘promotion’ of her sexuality. Predictably, battle lines were drawn, with flak erupting from at least two different directions. On the one hand there was the tired old conservative mockery against encroaching enlightenment – ‘If only she were a one-legged dwarf too!’ but also complaints from people who feel the battle for equal representation in the media was won long ago. “Why make such a fuss about it?” On the surface that sounds reasonable. There’s a question that can be relied upon to occur when an LGBT Pride day happens: ‘Why do you need special day all to yourself?’ Answer: because hetero folk have the other 364. It should be an even playing field. It’s still not. Therefore, events to help define LGBT identity are necessary, and the advent of a character like that of Bill Potts still matters.
For proof of this, witness the number of people commenting on social media that Bill Potts’ sexuality was redundant because she wasn’t the first Doctor Who character to express attraction to their own gender. There’s still work to be done when people either can’t tell or won’t acknowledge the difference between gay and bisexual characters in the show. John Barrowman portrayed Captain Jack Harkness, a 51st Century character who was omnisexual, demonstrating attraction for lifeforms of any or no gender, be they male, female, insect or robot. But the mere fact of his not being exclusively heterosexual in his desires – and the fact that the actor himself identifies as gay – seems to have painted him as by default ‘gay’. In that sense, whilst Bill’s sexuality shouldn’t be ‘a big deal’, clearly for a significant section of the audience it is. What’s interesting is that some of those people are also the ones claiming too much noise was being made about the issue.
In wider society, LGBT identities are still not fully accepted, and in some ways in the past decade progress has been eroded. Even the relatively small distances traveled have been met with strong resistance. So when voices pipe up too quickly ‘this isn’t a problem any more’, it’s not really sincere. To those established in the comfort of privilege, each step forward by those with less appears giant, each gradual levelling of the pitch a seismic shift. To dismiss progress in casting diverse roles seeks to undermine these baby steps, painting them as over-compensation, and eventually as a reverse prejudice that should be fought. With heterosexuality still assumed to be the norm, a straight character’s orientation is never announced as such, just taken as read. Previous companion, Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) was implied to be bisexual. Unlike Captain Jack, though, who demonstrated his preferences straight away via the story, Clara’s sexual identity was only communicated via hints and winks to the audience. This made it more of an issue than Bill Potts simply talking about fancying a girl she meets in the canteen: it felt cautious, holding back from a possible audience reaction. By contrast, the matter-of-fact outing of Bill is the sound of someone not making a big deal of it. We will only be able to know it has stopped being an issue at all when a similar future announcement is met with universal silence.