The men struggling to accept a female Doctor
The backlash against Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor Who has already begun – so what is it about geek culture that makes it so anti-women, asks Michael Hogan
Aconfession: I am a male Doctor Who fan, and have been ever since I hid behind the sofa during the Tom Baker era. Another confession: I’m neither swivel-eyed nor spittle-flecked with fury about this week’s casting of the first female Doctor, Broadchurch actress Jodie Whittaker. Indeed, I’m thrilled by it, hoping it will boost ratings and bring back buzz to a show that has lost its mojo in the past few years.
However, I also know that my enthusiasm for the 13th Doctor makes me a traitor to my gender – or at least to my demographic. If the past 24 hours worth of radio phone-ins and social media outpourings are anything to go by, men of a certain age have seemingly lost their minds – there have been accusations of “lefty BBC agendas” and “political correctness gone mad”. Some are so upset that they have vowed to stop watching the show that they have loved since childhood. Others have threatened to revoke their licence fee.
Many of their arguments begin with the dispiriting disclaimer: “I’m not sexist but…” One online commenter even said: “Nobody wants a Tardis full of bras.” Wait a minute. Do Whittaker’s 12 male predecessors mean that it’s currently full of Y-fronts and string vests? It’s 2017. After a dozen consecutive male Doctors, why is casting a single female still an issue, let alone such huge, divisive news?
Like many sci-fi and fantasy franchises – see Star Wars or Game Of Thrones – Doctor Who tends to attract obsessive fandom. Devotees generally weren’t the sporty, laddish alpha males at school. They’re more likely to have been hiding in the art room, tinkering in the computer lab or trading comics in the corner of the playground than roister-doistering on the sports field or behind the bike sheds. Yet, in its own way, their nerdy world is just as macho.
It’s gradually changing, but geek culture has traditionally been a boys’ club that’s often not terribly welcoming to women. Look at the controversy surrounding last month’s Wonder Woman film – surprisingly, the character’s first-ever solo movie, despite the “Amazing Amazon” being created 75 years ago. There were outrages over women-only screenings, while cinemagoers, fed an endless diet of blockbuster vehicles for characters whose names end in “man” (Super, Bat, Spider, Iron) poured vitriol on the first female superhero film for 12 years, since 2005 flop Elektra.
Similar scenes have been played out in the geeky world of gaming, after some players asked for more diversity. This sparked the deeply unpleasant “Gamergate” backlash, which saw female gamers harassed by trolls and overwhelmed by antifemale sentiment. See too last year’s all-female reboot of Ghostbusters. Its trailer become the most disliked ever on Youtube, while actress Leslie Jones was hounded off Twitter by racist and sexist abuse.
It might be lucky that Whittaker isn’t on Twitter because Doctor Who hasn’t been immune to such unsavoury scenes. Current showrunner Steven Moffat was regularly accused of sexism or misogyny, which he robustly denied. Shamefully, six years passed, between 2008 and 2014, without a single episode of Doctor Who being written by a woman. It is Moffat’s successor, Broadchurch creator Chris Chibnall, who has cast his former colleague, Whittaker.
While female fans are delighted to see themselves reflected on screen as the lead instead of the sidekick, men are finding it much harder to deal with the nature of a fictional character’s genitalia. They can comfortably get their heads around a 2000-year-old alien with two hearts travelling through the time/space continuum in a magical blue box. They’re fine with the fact that every few years, rather than dying, he regenerates into a new body. But if that body happens to be female, and it’s a woman now saving the planet, then their suspension of disbelief suddenly turns to bitter indignation.
It’s certainly not an objection based on logic. Within the show, groundwork for a female Doctor has been laid for years. Scripts have
repeatedly confirmed that it’s a biological possibility for Timelords to switch gender. In the 2015 series finale, a senior Timelord was shot, causing him to regenerate from an old white man into a younger black woman. The Doctor’s childhood frenemy and arch foe, The Master, (John Simm) morphed into Missy (Michelle Gomez) and remained every bit as brilliantly scary.
There have even been two female Doctors before, albeit both played for laughs: Joanna Lumley in a Comic Relief sketch, and Arabella Weir in an alternative universe audiobook. Speculation about the “proper” Doctor being female can be traced back to 1981, when Tom Baker departed and wished “good luck to the new Doctor, whoever he or she may be”.
Until now, though, women have spent the show’s 54-year history relegated to supporting roles: villains, mother figures, love interests or travelling companions
– increasingly feisty and smart-talking, sure, but still reduced to running down corridors, screaming at monsters, getting captured by baddies and being rescued by the Doctor, before the wise old man mansplains the mysteries of the universe to her.
So if not a logical grievance, what then? It has somehow become more of an emotional knee-jerk reaction, bound up with nostalgia and perceived ownership. Middle-aged men, regardless of political persuasion, have become strangely reactionary about certain pockets of their lives. They have a comfort zone, and God help those who venture into it. In childhood, boys are conditioned to be rough, tough and emotionally repressed – “Don’t cry like a girl”, “man up”. Meanwhile, their imaginative, roleplaying side is encouraged and becomes their outlet. Boys become fanatical, join clubs, collect memorabilia and delve deep into their favourite fictional worlds. Their heroes, therefore, become precious, all-encompassing and sacrosanct. Even the most liberal men can flinch when their youthful totems get ruffled by the winds of change. They can entertain the idea that Hillary Clinton could have
been the leader of the free world, but they wobble when confronted with a woman piloting the Tardis.
Doctor Who has long been considered a Left-leaning show, extolling the virtues of tolerance, co-operation and pacificism, so it’s ironic how certain Whovians revert to unreconstructed views. “What next?” they cry. “Jane Bond?” Well, 007’s boss became female 22 years ago, thanks to Judi Dench’s M. “A male Miss Marple?” That would be Hercule Poirot.
The charge is simply this. A female Doctor signals some sort of feminisation and takeover of a culture that men own. There’s a perception that women are spoiling things or taking something away. That this is “ours”, not “yours”. These men then see progress as a threat. Perhaps it’s a throwback to when geeks were bullied by jocks and rejected by girls at the school disco. A female Doctor has broken the inter-galactic glass ceiling and male fans fear the floor falling away from under their feet.
It’s now down to Whittaker to convince this audience otherwise. After taking the sonic screwdriver from Peter Capaldi on Christmas Day, she can expect to be judged much more harshly than previous, male Doctors – in the same way that female politicians are often held to higher standard than men are in the public sphere. A gifted and versatile actress with an underused funny side, Whittaker has the talent to prove the naysayers wrong.
I suspect that her Tardis tenure will be a pleasant surprise, and can only hope that in a year’s time Whovians won’t even believe that they were having this conversation, let alone so apoplectically. Only time (and space) will tell.
The next six: Sylvester Mccoy (1987-89), Paul Mcgann (1996), Christopher Eccleston (2005), David Tennant (2005-10), Matt Smith (2010-13) and Peter Capaldi (2013-17)
The first six: William Hartnell (1963-66), Patrick Troughton (1966-69), Jon Pertwee (1970-74), Tom Baker (1974-81), Peter Davison (1981-84) and Colin Baker (1984-86)
Feminine wiles: Jodie Whittaker is a versatile actress but can expect to be judged more harshly than predecessors