Last weekend's Gallifrey One convention featured some incredible Doctor Who cosplay, including TARDIS dresses, Dalek dresses, and an army of Amy Ponds and Rose Tylers. But what really caught our eye was the "Femme Doctors."
Why do so many women want to dress up as the Doctor, rather than his many companions? And why do they create such beautifully femme versions of the Time Lord's eccentric costumes? And most of all, why doesn't the Doctor look like this on television? At Gallifrey, we went to a panel on "Crossplay" to find out more about this amazing phenomenon, and then we followed up by interviewing the panel's moderator, writer and "acafan" Courtney Stoker. Here's what she told us, plus some of our favorite photos from the event. (Sadly, nobody got a photo of the amazing Sylvester McCoy costume we saw, with a question-mark sweater dress and plaid tights. Update: Added a picture at the end!)
Top image: Hanpa_etc on Flickr
How long has this been going on?
As far as I can tell (cosplay is weirdly ephemeral, archived mostly in pictures online), the first femme Doctor cosplay debuted in 2005. But it really seems to have exploded in popularity in the Doctor Who fan community in the past 3-4 years.
Do you think it's mostly motivated by the sense that there aren't any female characters in Who who are as heroic or central as the Doctor? Is it an implied critique of the show?
Why yes, I do! I've been interviewing cosplayers, both femme and not, for the past two years. See, cosplayers are not always the most aware or conscious of their decisions. I cosplayed as a steampunk, bustled TARDIS last year at Gallifrey 2011. I was in the midst of my cosplay research, and thus thinking hard about why I was making the cosplay decisions I did. Why, for example, did I want a corset? Why a bustle? What did these choices say about my fandom and how I interpret Doctor Who? But months after I had worn the costume, I discovered that there were unplumbed depths of interpretation up my sleeve. I hadn't realized how much I connected Doctor Who, and the TARDIS in particular, with steampunk. The moral of this story is that even when a cosplayer is concerned with what her costume means, she doesn't always know. She may not be conscious of why she is making the decisions she is.
So some of the femme Doctor cosplayers I interviewed were clear about their motivations, but even the ones who were less conscious were clearly making up for what they saw as a lack of female protagonists. While there are plenty of awesome companions, there are no female heroes in Doctor Who. The companions are, definitionally, sidekicks. And femme Doctor cosplayers are very aware of this. They want to be heroes, not followers and sidekicks, however badass. And Doctor Who does not offer them a hero that matches their experience, who looks anything like them. So they invent her.
Further, I don't think femme Doctor cosplay is just a critique of the show. It's also a critique of the fan community. Nightsky, a cosplayer I met at Gallifrey 2011, told me "I do want to get my fellow fans thinking about the roles that fiction has for women, and how that has and hasn't changed since 1963. I want them to say, 'A female Doctor???!? Whaaat?' and then think about why that sounds so ridiculous, even inside their heads. [...] I want them to say, 'Impossible—she could never run to save the day dressed like that' and then think about how fashion (and, more broadly, societal expectations) hobbles women and constrains their choices of roles." Nightsky was a bit more articulate than most cosplayers I interviewed, but her sentiments were common. Femme Doctor cosplayers are often trying to critique the way the Doctor Who fan community treats gender and how that community ignores the ways that women are constrained by society, science fiction, and this show that we all love so much.
Do you think a big part of the appeal is putting a really different spin on familiar designs, and re-creating something everyone will recognize in a new way?
Absolutely. I was once asked by a science fiction fan, but non-convention-goer, "What makes an otherwise reasonable person dress like a Klingon?" And the answer is that while cosplayers are fans, they are also usually costumers, or even actors. Fans come to their cosplay with different sets of motivations: as fans, as costumers, and as actors/roleplayers. Sometimes these motivations will pull at each other. For example, a costumer might choose a costume because they love the costume or find it a challenge, while the fan in them wants to choose a character they relate to closely, even though the costume is boring or easy.
I believe the fan in femme Doctor cosplayers is critiquing the show and the fan community, relating the costume to their fandom. They will probably want to choose Doctors they relate to and love dearly, Doctors they would like to be. As costumers, however, they will often choose Doctor cosplays that inspire them creatively. They want to re-invent the character and the costume; a large motivation for costumer cosplayers is to make something beautiful and creative.
Is there a difference between wearing a screen-accurate Doctor costume on a female body, versus changing it so that it has skirts and ruffles and high heels?
There is, though I think the difference is more slight than many people imagine. There are two common types of female Doctor cosplays: crossplay and femme cosplay. Crossplay is where female cosplayers alter their bodies to "pass" as a male character. They will often bind their breasts, wear men's wigs (or cut their hair), and wear costumes cut for male bodies. Femme cosplay takes a male costume/character and reinvents it as femme, which is not merely female, but feminine. As you said, skirts, ruffles, and high heels. Some femme cosplay is less feminine, but it's difficult to do something in between femme and crossplay, because many female bodies simply can't wear a screen-accurate male cosplay without altering either the costume or their bodies.
Both crossplay and femme cosplay draw attention to gender. Women passing as men are destabilizing gender by illustrating how easy it is to perform the opposite gender, by showing that all gender performance is performance, since cosplay is fundamentally performative. Femme cosplay does the same thing: it draws attention to the performance of gender, but this time femininity. One of the ways we can tell that femme Doctor cosplayers are drawing attention to gender is the fact that most of them do not perform femininity in their real lives. They often consider themselves tomboys or not particularly feminine. Femme cosplay is not about playing around with skirts and heels and makeup, it's about emphasizing the performative nature of femininity. As women who often do not perform femininity in their daily lives, these cosplayers are familiar with how much labor goes into "looking like a woman." They know how much work femme is.
So really, crossplay and femme cosplay are not that different. Both alter their bodies, showing that no matter what gender they are playing, their bodies often don't match any ideal. While crossplayers wear binders, femme cosplayers wear corsets and heels. But their motivations are the same: they emphasize the performative nature of gender, and thus destabilize it. Women do this more because they have more to gain by destabilizing gender, being at the bottom rung of the gender hierarchy.
Does the Doctor sort of lend himself to a femme revamp, given how many frilly, ruffly, lacey outfits he's worn over the years?
I hadn't really thought of that, so I'm not sure I can give a great answer. But I would note that the Doctors most often femmed are actually not the frilly, lacey Doctors. They are the Doctors in suits. It's possible this is because so many fans relate to the most recent Doctors, and it's possible it's because costumers want a more challenging project, since making a feminine lacey costume femme is not exactly difficult.
How did you get interested in this topic?
By being a fan in graduate school. I became interested in fan studies while getting my M.A. in English, and noticed that almost no fan studies scholars were talking about cosplay. And the phenomenon is so fascinating! When I started seeing femme Doctor cosplay, I got really interested. I suspected something amazing was going on about gender, Doctor Who, and fandom, and I wanted to know what it was. And cosplayers have certainly exceeded my expectations. Their cosplay is more complex, more thoughtful, and more inventive than I ever could have imagined.