John Barrowman's 'transgender TARDIS' comment was neither sexist nor transphobic

Speaking at Comi-Con, the actor defended the decision to cast Jodie Whittaker in the traditionally male role, yet critics still find reasons to condemn him

J.j. Barnes@@judieannrose
Sunday 23 July 2017 10:34
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Barrowman appearing in a dress was subverting, not reinforcing, gender stereotypes
Barrowman appearing in a dress was subverting, not reinforcing, gender stereotypes

John Barrowman is known for his flamboyant style and propensity to embrace cosplay whole heartedly and at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con he did just that.

Dressed in a sparkly blue TARDIS dress, Barrowman addressed the recent controversy surrounding the casting of Jodie Whittaker as the thirteenth Doctor. His words about the decision were full of positivity; he spoke of how in that universe it is perfectly possible that the Doctor would regenerate in female form but also of how he supported the producers in making that choice.

By wearing attire traditionally seen as “female”, Barrowman’s statement was one of solidarity. As a man in a dress he was standing up to gender stereotypes, just as Whittaker is doing by taking on a traditionally “male” role as the Doctor.

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Some have said that to show support for a woman by wearing a dress is conforming precisely to those stereotypes that reduce women to their clothes, that for Barrowman to make this choice is actually a mockery of womanhood and ridiculing the femininity used as an excuse to restrict women.

But by preventing men from wearing dresses as they are designed for women, we are ourselves insisting on those gender norms being adhered to. If we want to dismantle the restrictions of gender, we need to break down those restraints, just as Barrowman and Whittaker have done.

Barrowman’s own description of the costume has caused further controversy.

“I totally blinged myself out!” Barrowman said of his costume. “I am the transgender Tardis!”

Members of the trans community have expressed disappointment at Barrowman’s attitude towards transgenderism, some calling the statement transphobic; the implication that being a man in a dress is all that a transwoman is, and that it is something to be freely laughed at.

But as the TARDIS is famously female, Barrowman isn’t suggesting he himself is transgender by wearing the dress, he was joking that the TARDIS is transgender because it’s on a man. Whilst perhaps a joke made in poor taste, making light of a hot button topic is a staple of comedy and to prevent that is censorship, and sets a dangerous precedent.

This week the Advertising Standards Agency released plans to tackle gender stereotypes in adverts, banning adverts that promote unhealthy images of gender roles. It will mean images of men being hapless fathers incapable of looking after the house and home will no longer be acceptable, nor will the images of women being expected to do everything in the home whilst dressed to perfection. By removing these socially constructed gender stereotypes from our viewing we will stop these attitudes from being normalised.

The concept of gender depends on conforming to sexist stereotypes and that is precisely what Barrowman’s decision to wear a dress stands against. Gender stereotypes have historically been used to prevent women from working, voting, and being respected as equal members of society. To prove that a man can still be male whilst dressed in a manner society perceives as female is a step towards freeing us from the constraints of gender roles and alleviate the pressure therein.

Gender stereotypes are regressive and demeaning to both men and women, and providing images that inspire society to ignore these stereotypes and believe in better can only be positive. If John Barrowman wearing a dress accomplishes any deconstruction of these oppressive gender norms then it is to be celebrated. One need not be a woman to wear a sparkly TARDIS dress, nor a man to be the Doctor.

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