The First Female Doctor: When Politics Defeats Art

Well, it’s official.

Doctor Who has finally cast a female Doctor, with today’s announcement that Broadchurch actress Jodie Whittaker has been cast as the 13th iteration of the beloved Time Lord.

It is, in my opinion, a poor decision.

As a viewer of the show, I’m disappointed on two fronts.

Let’s get the first one out of the way quickly, because it’s minor compared to the second: if you were looking at a pool of Broadchurch actresses, why on earth would you cast the fairly lacklustre (and kind of sour) Beth Latimer when you had the incredible Detective Miller right under your nose? Olivia Coleman is a spectacular actress and has truckloads of charm. At least this wouldn’t bite quite so hard if the female doctor had been a superb and compelling choice of actress.

But, of course, my main disappointment comes from the casting of a female Doctor.

What? Holden, aren’t you a soft, sensitive, artsy, hippie, a-hug-will-fix-the-whole-world kind of guy? Aren’t you a self-confessed passionate humanist, secularist, and egalitarian?

Well, of course I am. That hasn’t changed. You’ll hear me champion human rights and equality and diverse voices until the cows come home.

I think it’s really sad, however, that the discourse around representation has become so vitriolic and acidic that even sharing your point of view about one single TV show has people trying to mischaracterise your entire political spectrum of views. So many have labelled fans’ disappointment in a female Doctor as some kind of unparallelled sexism, which is nonsense. Not only is that criticism off-base for male viewers, I have lost count of how many female friends and Whovians have said they want the Doctor to remain a man.

I personally happen to really enjoy shows with female protagonists in general. The reason I come to cherish these characters is usually nothing to do with their gender and everything to do with how well-drawn they are as characters. Those who are well-drawn are among my favourites: Sydney Bristow in Alias (one of my favourite TV heroes of all time), Buffy Summers, even Gal Gadot’s incredible recent portrayal of Wonder Woman. Hell, even when they aren’t technically the hero, sometimes the female lead steals the spotlight and at times you end up liking them more than the male lead (see: Hermione Granger, some depictions of Lois Lane).

And it’s not like we can’t deal with a female Time Lord in Doctor Who. I absolutely adore River Song – not because she has a vagina, but because she is an excellent, interesting character who is portrayed wonderfully by Alex Kingston. I cared much less for Missy, at least initially: despite Michelle Gomez being a top actress, I found the character a little overdone and forced for my liking. However, by the end of the latest season I think Missy’s character had made herself rather likeable.

So, why oppose a female Doctor if you’re pro-equality and enjoy female protagonists?

It’s because this casting decision was not an artistic decision.

It was a political decision.

Or rather, this was an artistic casting decision driven by political and cultural agendas of a pretty transparent nature.

It links in with the prominent cultural trend of locating straight, white males in art – whether film, television, video games, books, you name it – and supplanting them with anything that is at least one of the following:

  • not straight
  • not male
  • not white

If any casting decision meets any of these requirements, it will be hailed as progressive and forward-thinking.

I still struggle to fathom how people actually cling to these kinds of casting decisions as social progress.

Social progress with regards to these categories would be:

  • the first black US president (check);
  • the first female US president; or
  • the first openly gay US president.

Replace “US president” with any role or office in society, and you get the idea.

Now, this kind of social progress I can wave a flag for. As I often state, I’m a humanist, a secularist, and an egalitarian. Nobody’s personal characteristics should hinder their potential or their power in our society. We are all human beings, and therefore we are all of equal value. Full stop.

What I don’t understand is people doing the Twitter equivalent of holding up a protest banner and saying “it’s time” we had a black Superman or “we need” a gay James Bond or “it’s equality” to have a female Doctor.

NEWSFLASH! Fictional characters are not an office that can be held!

This is art.

What you actually care about is representation. What you want – as, frankly, most of us do – is strong female stars; interesting black leads; nuanced gay protagonists.

I do, too. I think that would be great, and I’d be interested to see more of it.

That isn’t what’s happening here.

What’s happening here is a politically-driven assassination, deconstruction and supplanting of straight, white male characters in our Western canon of fiction.

More accurately?

A removal of the heroes, protagonists and good guys who are straight, white and male.

The villains, I notice, are quite comfortably portrayed increasingly – and in some films, exclusively – as straight, white males. (I’m looking at you, Rogue One.)

The reason I like the Doctor as a character is because he is an interesting, nuanced male hero – and those are few and far between, these days. Male heroes, plenty of them, sure. But interesting, nuanced ones? Few. Far between.

Even more rare? A male hero who does not need to resort to violence to win a battle – or a war. A male hero who uses his intelligence to overcome aggression and rashness. A male hero who does not just defeat evil with good, but fights cruelty with kindness and hate with love.

There are so few male characters like this. Perhaps the Doctor is the only one.

Not anymore, of course.

There is a big difference between creating platforms, stories and roles for diverse voices, and retooling existing characters who are cherished and loved for political point-scoring and cultural virtue-signalling.

I am in favour of the former: it is a creative and joyous process, and it is the essence of what art is all about. As a writer, it is what I seek to do: create new characters who are diverse and interesting and well-drawn. This process will typically be well received by readers, viewers and fans.

I am, however, against the latter: it is a destructive and cynical approach to making art. It takes existing, beloved characters and turns them into a gender, a skin colour or a sexual orientation. It nullifies their specialness and makes them a tool for a cultural agenda. It’s also kind of insulting in the process: it suggests that a diverse lead will crash and burn unless it supplants an existing franchise led by a straight, white male with a large fan base. This process will typically be poorly received by readers, viewers and fans.

Today’s Doctor Who casting decision is the latter. It is political, it is on some level anti-male, and moreover, it is anti-art. This is cloying, mawkish politics fucking with art in the most obnoxious and boring of ways.

The intrusion of politics into art is always bloodless and unpalatable. Whether it is modern social justice warriors’ bullying agenda on our current media or whether it is social and moral puritans from the Victorian era through to now demanding censorship of anything deemed “immoral”, the result is usually the same.

The agenda nullifies the art, makes the art submit to it, extinguishes it.

Thankfully, artists have rejected this suppression since time immemorial, and there is no reason to think this will ever change.

I am disappointed by today’s news, but I am also re-energised for my own art.

I will continue to write literature and create art that forwards and amplifies diverse, original and different characters and their voices.

I do not need to destroy anyone else’s heroes to create my own.



Author: Holden Sheppard

YA and Fantasy Author from Western Australia.

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