The news that the next ‘Dr Who’ will be played by a woman (specifically by British Actress Jodie Whittaker) has been met with a generally positive reception. But as a fan since I was about seven years old I have to reluctantly confess to feeling somewhat more ambivalent. It’s not that I have any problem with strong female leads. Female Sci Fi leads in the Star Wars movies ‘Rogue One’ and ‘The Force Awakens’ provided new stories and new backgrounds and were in keeping with modern expectations of strong female characters. This was entirely appropriate exactly because we were dealing with new characters and new stories. (It was not as if Anakin Skywalker – aka Darth Vader – suddenly switched gender; and even though today’s society is more ‘open’ to themes of ‘gender fluidity’, such a change would still be seen as ‘over-reaching’ by most fans).
But ‘Doctor Who’ is different from Star Wars – ‘The Force Awakens’ and ‘Rogue One’. While both franchises have a lineages going back decades, ‘Doctor Who’ stretches back more than fifty years and involves ongoing themes of both continuity and change. And since the 1960s a ‘male doctor’ has been a constant.
In an enlightened society popular culture should feature strong female and strong male characters in equal measure almost spontaneously. As well as ‘sympathetic’ female and male characters of significant depth. Though in reality: yes at first the barriers to strong women leads have had to be broken down consciously and deliberately. And this has met with sometimes unwarranted cultural resistance.
Even relatively recently we lived with the legacy of women’s treatment by some as what Simone de Beauvoir famously called ‘the second sex’. But we also have to ask ourselves: is every instance of male prominence also an instance of male privilege that must be uprooted and overturned? Can we now ‘leave any stone unturned’ when it comes to strong and traditional male leads in popular culture?; (for instance in science fiction generally and Doctor Who specifically). Is this a sign of ‘progress’? Or perhaps are we sometimes overcompensating for centuries of past male cultural dominance?
Again ‘the Doctor’ has always been played by a male actor since the 1960s. And while the writers of Doctor Who have tried to prepare the way for a female Doctor: for instance with the change of gender by traditional adversary ‘The Master’ (or ‘Missy’ in her most recent incarnation) – it still feels like ‘a bridge too far’. People like a mix of continuity and change. But a woman Doctor is perhaps too great a change. Perhaps it goes against peoples’ expectations to the point where they feel they are no longer dealing with the same character. Which could turn out to be something of a weakness for the new series.
Not everything that is ‘male’ is at the same time representative of ‘male privilege’ and hence must ‘be torn down’. Though yes, ‘Doctor Who’ originated in an era where the strong female leads of today were unthinkable by most. So indeed even Doctor Who has not escaped the history and influence of gendered power relations. But the cultural milieu which produced ‘The Force Awakens’ and ‘Rogue One’ does not need to tear down every strong and traditional male lead character in order to promote women’s cultural liberation. The battle over strong women leads in Science Fiction and Fantasy popular culture has been fought and it has been won. If anything it is the strong male leads who are becoming more the exception and less the rule.
So ideally we need to arrive at that point where strong female and male leads are produced in roughly equal measure in popular culture ‘spontaneously’ – or even ‘organically’. Where one is not seen as being a threat to the other. And where we can enjoy ‘traditionally male’ lead characters at the same time as enjoying the path-breaking, strong female leads in productions such as the more-recent Star Wars movies, and in ‘Game of Thrones’.
‘Doctor Who’ is a production where the masculinity of the lead character has been a key element for over fifty years. I enjoy and support modern productions with strong female leads. But after enjoying ‘Doctor Who’ for several decades of my life I like to feel I am still dealing with the same lead character. That has me a little uncertain about the recent announcement.