Cerys Way is a recent graduate from the University of Birmingham. She studied Politics, Social Policy, and Economics, with a particular focus on social justice issues.
Time And Relative Dimension In Sexism
The recent announcement that the new Doctor will be played by a woman has generated reactions that range from the overjoyed to the downright furious. In the age of the Internet, our everyday responses have become heightened and easier to express to a wide audience, so much so that it can sometimes seem a little ridiculous how much we care about fictional characters. But I get it. Doctor Who is an establishment in British TV, and I understand why people are giving this so much attention. It’s a show that is special to many people across the world, but especially in the UK, where it spans generations of family members. The first episode of Doctor Who aired in 1963, when my dad was just one year old, and became a childhood favourite quickly. The reboot of Doctor Who in 2005 made not only made my father extremely happy, but it also meant that I too got to grow up watching the show.
From the age of ten, Saturday nights were reserved for viewings. My sisters and I would gather around the TV and watch whatever wonder the BBC had cooked up for that week, whilst my dad told us facts and commented on the new looks of monsters and villains. Watching Doctor Who made me realise the enormity of space, even fictional space, and that humanity at the end of the day is a tiny speck in the infinite construction of the universe. The Doctor, however, is not. He is a statement, a sensation, the oncoming storm, and as a nine-year-old I watched with awe as the Doctor fought for humanity and smooth-talked his way out of tricky situations. Whilst I wouldn’t change Ecclestone or Tennant for the world, I would have loved to see a woman do all those things. I would have loved to see a woman get to be powerful yet vulnerable, be in charge but still willing to listen, to sacrifice things that are important and to be considered heroic, because women rarely get to do that, and even less so do women get to see other women doing it. As a child I would have loved to see a woman in a position of authority being listened to and taken seriously in dire situations, and now maybe I will.
But, I hear you whine, the Doctor has always been a man, you can’t just switch that up now! Gallifrey wouldn’t have allowed it! It’s not fair to little boys to take away their role models!! This is just PC culture out of control again!!!
Wow, solid points.
First, all of this is fiction. Glad we cleared that up. Secondly, when has the Doctor ever cared about rules? The whole premise of the show is that the Doctor stole a TARDIS from his people, and used it to travel in time and space with a variety of companions, saving the universe from cruelty and evil. The Second Doctor was literally put on trial for interfering with other cultures, something the Time Lords forbade. It makes perfect sense then that the Doctor, and the Master for that matter, would ignore any prescribed notions of gender, social hierarchies, or rules in general, and do whatever they wanted. And even if you really want to argue that Gallifrey was a patriarchy (heads up, women do in fact still exist in patriarchal systems), the Doctor has never been one to pay attention to that kind of stuff anyway. Besides, even if there were once social norms or guidelines in place around regeneration Gallifrey doesn’t exist anymore to regulate them.
Moving on, the idea that little boys are losing a hero to look up to is ridiculous. Firstly, little boys are still welcome to look up to the Doctor if they so wish – I’m sure she’ll still be as intelligent, charming, and funny as her previous regenerations. And secondly, little boys, in particular little white boys, have an incredible variety of role models already that aren’t going anywhere soon. In 2016 women only made up 29% of protagonists in the top 100 films at the U.S. box office (Lauzen, 2017), whilst only 41% of major characters on broadcast network TV programs were women – a decline of 2% since 2010 (Lauzen, 2016). Of those women, only 29% were women of colour, showing a distinct lack of representation of diverse characters and actors. ‘Making’ the Doctor a woman helps to bridge the gap only slightly, but gives young girls something valuable for very little cost – the promise that they can be whatever they want to be. Heck, the Doctor is such a highly valued character with so much intellect and ability to command a room, it might even make men take women more seriously in general.
It is important to note, however, even in the midst of all of this rejoicing and excitement, that Jodie Whittaker isn’t exactly the most ground-breaking choice. She’s still a comfortable middle ground between tradition and full on revolt. Her whiteness and thinness makes her seem safe, whilst at the same time allowing Doctor Who to appear slightly more forward-thinking and radical than they are actually being. Then again, there seem to be enough people who can’t handle the prospect of a white woman becoming the Doctor, let alone a person of colour. Yet the irony is that behind the scenes, Doctor Who has a history of minority representation. The original series was produced by Verity Lambert, who at the time was not only the youngest but also the only female producer at the BBC. The very first serial, The Unearthly Child, was directed by a gay, Indian born immigrant, Waris Hussein. And those weird and iconic sounds that everyone loves on the introduction music? Well you can thank Delia Derbyshire and her love of electronic composition for that. Skipping ahead to the reboot, gay showrunner Russell T Davies brought a variety of opinions and experiences to the table, and some very Welsh themed jokes that I appreciated greatly. Women and minorities have been behind Doctor Who from the very start – it’s hardly a new phenomenon!
On screen as well, Doctor Who has given us a wide range of characters. The seemingly ordinary but truly incredible Rose Tyler, a working class teen living on a council estate who was in the first interracial relationship I’d ever seen on TV. The unbelievably intelligent Martha Jones, who, despite being love sick for the Doctor, turned out to be a badass woman of colour with a medical degree and the power of UNIT behind her. Captain Jack, the pansexual and wonderfully sex positive smooth-talker, played by a real life gay man, who defied all stereotypes and literally refused to die (you can’t bury this gay). River Song, who left even the Doctor speechless with her power and wit, and is also a queer lady. Sarah Jane Smith, one of the Earth’s best journalists, who adopted multiple children and continued to protect the Earth well into her 60s. And the ever so sweet Bill Potts, working class, gay, and black, who (spoiler!) shared an onscreen kiss with her lady love in the most recent season finale. Outside of the main cast, women, queers, and people of colour have roles of power and authority, and are respected and listened to (most of the time). Don’t get me wrong, Doctor Who isn’t perfect by far – a white British man saving the universe from itself? Did someone say white saviour complex and modern day colonialism? – but Doctor Who at least tries to shows us a world where we are better than we are now, even when it shows us the present. I hope that casting a woman in the role of the Doctor marks a step forward for both Doctor Who and TV in general, and I hope that one day we have TV shows that speak to people of all backgrounds, and give all children someone to look up to.
If, on the other hand, you really are that worried about PC culture, you clearly haven’t noticed that Doctor Who has been “pushing a PC dialogue” for at least a decade. It’s what drives the show. This wonderful and ridiculous show about an alien who travels through time and space in a 1960s police telephone box, helping people in crisis and fighting evil and oppression. A show about an alien who knows that we as humans fail constantly, who sees our worst time and time again, and who has to save us from ourselves as much as from other aliens. A show about an alien who loves us anyway, who, despite everything terrible and lonely and dangerous about humankind, sees the beauty and potential that we hold. The Doctor loves us because even though we fuck up they know that we try. Doctor Who, like all good sci-fi, shows us a future where we are good and kind and united, and gives us something to strive towards. And in the end that’s what this show is really about – humanity being its best self. So, if having a female Doctor annoys or scares or angers you so much you no longer want to watch the show, go for it. You clearly haven’t been watching it properly anyway.
If you’re interested in learning more about the making of Doctor Who I highly recommend the BBC adaptation An Adventure in Space and Time.
- Lauzen, M. M. (2016) ‘Boxed In 2015-16: Women On Screen and Behind the Scenes in Television’, Centre for the Study of Women in Television & Film, http://womenintvfilm.sdsu.edu/files/2015-16-Boxed-In-Report.pdf
- Lauzen, M. M. (2017) ‘It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World: Portrayals of Female Characters in the Top 100 Films of 2016’, Centre for the Study of Women in Television & Film, http://womenintvfilm.sdsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/2016-Its-a-Mans-Celluloid-World-Report.pdf