Saturday, July 22, 2017

Is saving the universe a girl job or a boy job?

As long-term readers may recall, I'm a lifelong Doctor Who fan.  I'm basically a fan of what has become known as the 'classic series' (ie. the period between 1963 and 1989), but I've watched and enjoyed the revived series since 2005, and I was particularly pleased when Steven Moffat used the 50th anniversary in 2013 to create a 'narrative bridge' between the classic series and the new, making the two seem more like an integrated whole (in spite of the very obvious differences of format and style).

What people may not be aware of is that talk of casting a woman as the Doctor goes all the way back to the days of the classic series, and in particular to a press conference in 1980 when Tom Baker announced his resignation and mischievously wished his successor well, "whoever he or she may be".   The tabloids initially took that seriously as a possible hint that radical change was on the way, and ever since then there has been fevered speculation about a female Doctor whenever a vacancy has occurred.  Somewhere I must still have a copy of Doctor Who Magazine from early 1987, just after the excellent Colin Baker was idiotically sacked from the role for no discernible reason, containing an impassioned plea from a young reader that the Doctor must remain male.  "I'm not a sexist," he wrote, "but a female Doctor is as ridiculous as a male Miss Marple".

That eerily echoes the much-mocked arguments of the sceptics three decades on.  But is it so obviously wrong?  If the well-remunerated Derek Thompson was ever to finally stop playing Charlie in Casualty (which, yes, is still running after thirty-one years!) and if the BBC were to recast the role, nobody would think it was remotely odd if only male actors were considered.  Doctor Who's status as a make-it-up-as-you-go-on sci-fi show means that the same rules need not apply, but nevertheless I think there's at least an arguable case that, until very recently, the 'fact' that Time Lords retain the same gender throughout their life-spans had been clearly woven into the programme's 'lore' over a very, very long period, creating certain fixed expectations among viewers.  The Doctor has had thirteen incarnations so far and they've all been male.  Borusa had four and they were all male.  Romana remained female when she regenerated (and she also 'tried on' several female appearances before settling on her second incarnation).  The Master was of course always male until she suddenly wasn't a couple of years ago...and it's arguably only the acceptance and success of that innovation that made Jodie Whittaker's casting possible.

I think she's a good choice, and a new departure like this could be a shot in the arm for a long-running series which is always battling against the danger of becoming stale.  It's liberating that Doctor Who has the opportunity to do this when, say, the James Bond franchise doesn't, but in a sense that's the nub of the matter.  The only reason why changing the lead character's gender isn't self-evidently a strange thing to do is that Doctor Who is such an unusual series.  And that's why I've been so troubled by the extreme and intolerant reaction to the minority (and it is only a minority) of long-term fans of the show who are struggling to accept a woman Doctor.  Although I don't personally agree with those fans, neither do I think it's inherently daft for them to choose, if they wish, to say "we think the Doctor is a male character, just like Ken Barlow is a male character".  Instead of it simply being accepted that this is based on nurtured ideas about who a specific much-loved character that they've grown up with should be, they're all simplistically dismissed as Neanderthal sexists who are resisting proper female representation on television.  Maybe a few of them do deserve that characterisation, but believe me, if someone with an American accent was ever cast as the Doctor, the controversy over female anatomy would pale into utter insignificance.  And would that mean Doctor Who fans are anti-American?  No, of course it wouldn't.

I've tried gently making the point to a few feminists on Twitter that much of the negative reaction is Doctor Who-specific and not a rejection of on-screen gender equality, but to very little avail.  A couple of hours ago, I got a highly abusive response ("f***ing clueless") when I pointed out that "the Doctor isn't an MP, she's a fictional character".  Extraordinarily, the same person then angrily declared that "I'm done justifying myself to men. Help the cause or get out of our f***ing way."  I just think all this dogmatic shoutiness is terribly, terribly sad, and it's little wonder a dialogue of the deaf has developed as a result of it.  You're not going to gain much sympathy for your cause by effectively telling someone that their favourite TV programme has become no more than a box to be ticked on an ideological checklist.  It would be far more constructive to say (as Jodie Whittaker has done herself) that "I know this is new, but don't be scared of something new, it'll be fun".  And if you took that less confrontational approach, you might also be pleasantly surprised to find that the person you're talking to isn't the monster you assumed they are, and is actually extremely positive about female lead characters in other series.

If you're aiming for greater diversity, I think it's generally best not to do it in an artificial way.  For example, when the BBC were belatedly trying to address the absence of major network dramas filmed in Scotland, they should have created a new series that organically belonged here, rather than awkwardly transplanting Waterloo Road to Inverclyde.  By the same token, if more female lead characters are required, they should in general be devised from scratch, rather than lazily saying "oh let's bring Arthur Daley back and make him a woman".  With Doctor Who it can work - but it wouldn't go amiss for us to acknowledge the obvious point that this is the exotic exception, not the rule.  And once you do acknowledge that, you can perhaps begin to empathise with the people who resent the fact that their own favourite series is the designated exception.  You don't have to agree with someone to empathise with them.

29 comments:

  1. Well said James. Been a Dr Who fan since the very beginning, although I lost interest when Colin Baker left and wasn't taken much with his predecessor either. Picked it up again with its resurgence with Eccleston and look forward to the newest Dr with interest. I genuinely can't understand the vitriol online about this - it's a TV Character, not real life.

    I also agree that we need NEW female characters and not some poor attempt at "re-discovering" the same male character as a female. I doubt this will happen though, as most TV writers seem to be too lazy to think of something genuinely new.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Indeed.
    Personally thrilled about the new doctor and consider myself a feminist. But sick to death of the so-called feminists who can read minds - they *know* a particular opinion or individual is warped and anti-woman; there's no doubt in their mind. Really dangerous stuff.
    In a similar vein, I have mixed feelings about gyrating young women in music videos, but it's a tricky area - plenty of young women have no problem viewing such things or, indeed, doing a bit of gyrating themselves occasionally at a club - but it's a grey area and I am concerned about oversexualization in popular culture etc.
    When I listened to "Blurred Lines" I thought it was about a guy being interested in a girl who was with someone else ('that man is not your maker'). Others heard 'you know you want it' and immediately concluded this was justifying rape. Really?
    So yeah, it's good to hear this blog making the case for nuance and thoughtfulness. We should never accept abuse of anyone, but life is also a big fat grey area.

    ReplyDelete
  3. "a female Doctor is as ridiculous as a male Miss Marple...." But is it so obviously wrong?"

    Yes. Miss Marple is human. Dr. Who is not, and in spite of your claim, there is nothing in the lore that says Time Lords stay the same gender.

    And since when is the existence of females 'artificial'?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not only is regenerating into a different gender not against the lore, there have been allusions to Time Lords regenerating into different genders. The Master regenerated into a woman ― Missy.

      I don't know if Jodie Whittaker will be a good or a successful Dr Who, but her gender should have nothing to do with it.

      Delete
    2. You wrote: And since when is the existence of females 'artificial'?

      Wow, you're just the epitome of the kind of kneejerk response, verging on willful misreading, that we desperately need to get away from

      Delete
    3. There were male and female Time Lords for 50 years. Then S Moffat responded to the constant whining from feminists about how much of an evil woman-hater he was by changing the Master into a comedy clown female.

      Time Lords are not shape shifting aliens. They change their appearance but not their basic physiology. That is the whole basis for the show since the first regeneration. altering that turns it into a completely different programme and nothing any cultist can say will ever change the facts.

      Delete
    4. I've always been of the opinion Missy was a mistake. Not because she was a woman, but because she was apparently the Master. The role and approach Missy had in the story far better fit the Rani.

      Delete
    5. J R Tomlin : "there have been allusions to Time Lords regenerating into different genders"

      The phrase you've conveniently overlooked is "until very recently".

      I entirely agree with Al Skinner's response to the question you asked.

      Delete
    6. No, the allusions to Time Lords regenerating into different genders is not only very recent, and comments from the originators make it clear that was always their intent.

      I notice you 'agree with Al Skinner's response' but neither of you answer the question.

      Delete
    7. "No, the allusions to Time Lords regenerating into different genders is not only very recent, and comments from the originators make it clear that was always their intent."

      Er, what? The 'originators' of the show didn't even envisage regeneration, let alone changes of gender. Perhaps you should explain who/what you're talking about.

      "neither of you answer the question."

      The answer to your question is as follows: The premise of your question is wrong. You appear to have entirely misunderstood the blogpost. Try reading the relevant section again.

      Delete
    8. In the Ian M Banks sci-novels, humans can change gender at will. If you're bored with being a man you can become a woman, have a few children, then go back to being a man until you get bored again. Dr Who is not breaking new ground here.

      Delete
  4. Have watched Dr Who since the beginning, loved Patrick as the Doctor, can't see what the fuss is about personally. I will watch the new Doctor and judge on the merits of the storylines. Ramona was a female Time Lord and that wasn't an issue and Missy was as scary as any of the Master's previous incarnations. People can be very silly.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Romana was a female Time Lord. She regenerated into a female Time Lord. Nobody had any problems with that.
      Now The Doctor has been forced into a sex change in order to pacify a few PC crazies.

      But Missy! Isn't an answer to anything. S Moffat destroyed 50 years of history in order to appease his feminist critics. He turned the Doctor from a positive male role model into a typical simpering weak and pathetic man who has to be rescued and controlled by his female companions. Just like 99% of all the men on modern TV. Well done him and well done you for swallowing the propaganda.

      We've always been at war with Eastasia.

      If you can't see why that is wrong then you really are the problem.

      Delete
    2. James's thoughtful and reasonable post is sure bringing out the neckbeards.

      Delete
  5. Another aspect of Male life ruined. I look forward to "Loose Women" being all male.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Then it would change title to " just regular
      guys"

      Delete
  6. Dr Who woman or not would vote to retain the Union. Who would vote for the Cyber nat si men or the Daleks. Exterminate, exterminate.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. WATP FTP GSTQ RIP

      Delete
    2. You must still be oan yer maws tit impersonator.

      Delete
  7. Never been a fan of Dr Who. I prefer my sci-fi to be at least a bit realistic - no noises in the vacuum of space, no traversing light years in a few seconds, and certainly no one travelling through time in a police box.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Just all part of the bbc agenda on transgenderism.Now all the female stars want pay equality with Chris Evans,if they are true lefty liberal socialists why not take the average male wage at the bloated corporation and then redistribute,dont hold your breath too long.Some are more equal than others,its caled communism.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Women are not equal with men as they get demented every month and the week after bleed a bit. Ok give them free tampons and jam rags but no more...

      Delete
    2. State of this.

      Delete
    3. The gender pay inequality was once explained to me in this way. Men are more reliable as they don't get pregnant. If you are more reliable, you are worth more and therefore get paid more. It's simply market forces at work. Markets can't be sexist or racist or any other "ist". They simply assign a value to something dependent on how sought after it is - be it a product, service, or a person.

      Delete
  9. It's a written script. not real so suppose whatever the author wants can happen.
    Though it is hard to see how the personality we understand as Dr Who can survive the gender change.
    It was a tried with Red Dwarf, introducing a female character, but what made the series funny was they survived by accident and despite their inept characters. Introducing someone who would have been a real functioning officer didn't work for what the who was about.
    The Dr Who character had flaws that wouldn't work with how women see themselves.
    But then it is a TV series, not real life.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I remember Four Feather Falls and the puppets were on strings like the Nat sis being guided along like quaint little obedient servants..

    ReplyDelete