One of this week’s big stories is on the lighter side of news: The 13th Doctor on “Doctor Who,” the internationally popular BBC cult hit about a time- and space-traveling humanoid alien who periodically regenerates into a new body, will be played by a woman (Jodie Whittaker).
I’m a fan of “Doctor Who” and of strong female protagonists, especially in sci-fi and fantasy stories with larger-than-life themes. So why can I only muster one-and-a-half cheers for the lady Doctor? Because the toxic state of progressive cultural politics can always be counted on to spoil a good moment.
For instance, much of the reaction to the BBC’s announcement focused on an alleged sexist “tantrum” by sexist male fans about a female Doctor — in reality, a handful of social media barbs about political correctness, feminism and female physiology, mostly from trolls and sometimes from people who were spoofing sexism. New York Times op-ed contributor Lindy West concedes that it’s often pointless to “comb the internet for every flavor of bad idea,” but insists that these particular scraps from the bottom of the barrel are somehow “emblematic of our current cultural moment.” Actually, what’s far more emblematic of our cultural moment is that for every sexist comment, there are probably a hundred comments mocking misogynist “bros” and their “male tears.”
It is also emblematic of the cultural moment that the selection of a woman as the next Doctor was widely expected. There had been huge fan and media pressure on the producers to bring in a female Doctor. After Peter Capaldi was announced as the 12th Doctor in December 2013, an article on the digital culture website The Daily Dot groused that executive producer and head writer Steven Moffat (who is now leaving the show) “is happy because the BBC just let him choose another white dude as the next Doctor.” It’s almost certain that if yet another “white dude” had been chosen this time, there would have been a huge backlash — particularly since the last season repeatedly hinted at the possibility of a female Doctor. So, far from being bold or revolutionary, Whittaker was the safest choice.
This kind of pressure diminishes the value of female heroes and makes their presence look like pandering, even in the eyes of many female fans.
The politicization of art can also turn diversity into a bean-counting game in which characters are important only for their identity. Ironically, the most negative comment about the new Doctor did not come from a sexist man but from feminist culture critic Anita Sarkeesian, who tweeted that “Doctor Who” was still “OVERWHELMINGLY white” and needed to address its other issues of “representation” related to race and sexuality. (It’s hard to say how much of the show Sarkeesian has actually watched. Two of the six human companions the Doctor has had since the show’s reboot in 2005 were black, and the last one was a black lesbian.)
Finally, in this climate, it is a virtual certainty that the portrayal of the first female Doctor will be relentlessly scrutinized for sexism. The great thing about “Doctor Who” is that while its main character had almost godlike powers, he was far from perfect. In many stories, a (usually female) human had to cut him down to size when he became too arrogant; in others, he was reminded that human emotions and attachments can be more powerful than his genius-like intelligence. Try to recreate these stories with a female Doctor, and certain corners of the internet will cry misogyny.
Maybe the fans who complain that political correctness ruins everything aren’t so sexist after all.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.