Dear Doctor Who: Sexuality is not Personality

By JanelleBelle Captain Jack Harkness, a rogue time agent and occasional companion in the BBC show Doctor Who, first crosses paths with the Doctor and becomes an important part...

By JanelleBelle

Captain Jack Harkness, a rogue time agent and occasional companion in the BBC show Doctor Who, first crosses paths with the Doctor and becomes an important part of the Whoniverse in the first season episode “The Empty Child.”  His flexible morality and mischievous sense of humor make him an excellent foil for the Doctor, who abides by a strict code of ethics.  The creation of Jack Harkness also represents a shift toward featuring explicitly queer characters on network television.  In his first episode, Jack flirts with both men and women, and the Doctor explains that humans from Jack’s time period (the 51st century) routinely partner with people of all genders and species.  From the very start, Jack is obviously and unapologetically queer, and his sexual fluidity is treated as entirely acceptable, natural even.

Men who partner with more than one gender routinely find themselves excluded from the LGBTQIA community and erased from mainstream narratives of sexuality.  The “fact” that women’s sexuality is more fluid than men’s has been repeated so frequently that it’s become common knowledge, but it is based on studies that rely solely on self-reporting (which is susceptible to societal stigma) or measures of physical arousal (which are a gross oversimplification of sexuality).  Men who identify as bisexual, pansexual, or polysexual often face this demeaning rhetoric from both straight and queer communities.  Placing a sexually fluid male character in a significant supporting role is a huge step forward for media visibility of polysexual men.  Furthermore, Jack’s queerness is accepted by all of the other characters with very little fuss or questioning.  No one tries to erase parts of his sexuality by categorizing him as straight or gay, and no one condemns his sexual activity on moral or ethical grounds.  This prevalent matter-of-fact attitude treats the existence of male polysexuality as a given and sends a powerful message to viewers.

While I enjoy the humor and unique perspective Jack adds to the show, Doctor Who‘s characterization of him as a queer man is not without problems.  Jack is primarily known for his flirtiness, charm, and queer desires.  The running joke, as seen in this link, is that Jack flirts with everyone and just can’t help himself.  The Doctor perceives him as so hypersexual that he sees virtually all of Jack’s interactions as a form of flirting. American and western European societies typically stereotype men, particularly queer men, as constantly horny and always seeking sex.  Bisexual, pansexual, and polysexual individuals face the same sort of hypersexualization.  While Jack’s sexual nature is not condemned by other characters on the show, it still reinforces harmful stereotypes that perpetuate discrimination against queer men and polysexual people of all genders.  If we had a wide variety of polysexual male characters on television, Jack’s hypersexuality could be a funny quirk in one individual, but we don’t live in that world.  In our world, the lone polysexual man in mainstream media is sexually indiscriminate and largely defined by his queerness.

Jack’s identity on the show centers on his sexuality.  Virtually every line that comes out of his mouth is steeped in sexual or queer subtext.  I love double entendres and find his lines funny, but it is problematic that his character is so one-dimensional.  The most visible polysexual man on television is seen as queer first and an individual second.  His queerness is so integrated into his personality that there is very little room for anything else.  Sexuality is not the same as personality, and I find it tiresome that the media depictions of queer people so frequently conflate the two.

JanelleBelle is a queer feminist grappling with her butch/genderfluid identities, white privilege, and Arabic grammar.  When she’s not sticking it to the white supremacist cishetero-patriarchy, she can be found knitting and talking about cats in her tiny hometown.

  • Sam

    It was my understanding that his behavior was normal for those from the 51st century. Just think about society today and how it restricts sexuality. Especially for those in the LGBTQ community. Think about, say, a straight man of today. Think about those that are flirtatious with just about any woman they see because they are honestly indiscriminate as long as they’re female. No one really bats an eye about it except to maybe judge the man about his exploits, though usually with humor. Now throw in that this man is actually quite handsome, or sexy, or whathaveyou. Now you’ve not only got a man that will legitimately flirt with any woman, but it is more often than not well received and he is fully open to bed any one of them. And no one will really scorn him for doing so. After all, what, for example, 70 something woman wouldn’t want the attention of a strapping young man that could make her feel young again? So when you take a look at Captain Jack Harkness flirting with any living thing in the known universe at a time when it’s perfectly acceptable to not have a defined sexuality it would be viewed as no more different than the hypothetical straight man I mentioned above. Of course his personality and overall demeanor confuse you and strike you as a harmful stereotype. You don’t live in a society that is accepting of such characteristics to any degree. And only because he couldn’t care less the gender/sexuality/species of those he flirts and “dances” with. Yeah, he’s seen as horny and constantly seeking sex. Have you never seen someone behave that way in real life? He’s just more open about where that sex is coming from. And what’s more, it’s as if you have focused mainly on this one aspect of his personality and have not even seen all of the others his character has to offer. Horndog? Yes. Tried and true guy when you get down to it? Hell yes.

    I’m a lesbian of the stud variety, so you can rest assured that I don’t defend his character based on a crush or attraction. Just analyzing it for what it is. 🙂

  • Emma

    While I agree with what you’re said about Jack, there are more bisexual men on Doctor Who than just Jack.

    From the new series, off the top of my head, there’s Shakespeare (his bisexuality is covered in two lines of dialogue, and then not brought up again), arguably Mickey (as he was originally intended to hook up with Jake from the Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel, and though the script was changed a lot of the implications are still there) and then the Doctor himself, who seems to lean more towards women but is also quite fond of kissing men.

    The classic series has much less by way of any kind of depiction of sexuality, including heterosexuality, but the novels that were written between 1989 and 2005 – though not usually considered canon – explore a far wider range of sexualities.

    • Emma

      Remembering a couple more:

      – one of the characters in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances is both married and having an affair with the [implicitly male] butcher, so he’s either bisexual or closeted.

      – the Master is possibly also bisexual – he’s married to a woman in The Sound of Drums/The Last of the Time Lords and though the Doctor suggests she’s a beard (Time Crash), the episode makes it pretty clear he’s sexually attracted to her. Then it’s long been speculated that the Doctor and the Master have had some sort of relationship. This is beyond the level of fanfiction; Paul Cornell (who wrote the Scream of the Shalka, and Human Nature/The Family of Blood, among other things) has said he thinks they were a couple at some point.

  • salmelo

    I’d just like to point out that he gets a lot more development and dimension in Torchwood.


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