by Janine Rivers
I’ve been making a lot of noise recently. Normally, elusive and enigmatic as I am, I stick to the shadows in an “Asylum of the Daleks“-esque way, my footsteps echoing inside giant statues where my enemies seek to menace me. Well, maybe not that last bit. But over the last two weeks, I think I’ve gained more followers on Tumblr than I’ve had in my life. A month ago I wasn’t even using the internet, but now it’s consumed me.
This isn’t autobiographical. Well, it isn’t very autobiographical, but I’m terrible at writing in a neutral voice. If this were an autobiographical post, it would go in my “diary”, or blog as it’s also referred to. But today I’m doing something I never thought I would, and guest-writing a whole post on DoWntime. There are reasons for that, beyond DoWntime just being brilliant – I feel like this is the right place for this particular post to go, because it brings a lot of what my lovely, far more intelligent colleagues have written into perspective. Today, I’m here to talk about Doctor Who’s male fanbase.
With that said, I’d also like to narrow that category somewhat. I won’t be making broad statements about all men, but about a much smaller portion of fans who – like us – share a common sense of purpose, and a very staunch set of ideologies. Unlike us, they’re problematic in all the worst ways. We’re problematic in good ways, like “Ghost Light” and “Smile” are. One could suggest that gender, therefore, is incidental, but I’d like to cast that idea aside before I begin. Gender is absolutely essential here: gender is what feeds into those ideologies, and their manifestations are usually in casting aspersions about gender, or rather, any gender that isn’t ‘male’.
So, where to begin?
Perhaps a better question would be: where does a love of Doctor Who begin? As we’re examining fandom, there’s got to be an origins story somewhere. Origins stories vary from person to person – for instance, as a child, I think I was drawn to the peculiarity of Doctor Who, though I can’t ever be sure what it was that enraptured me so. That’s not the story I always hear. A number of my dearest online friends, and even a portion of my real-life ones who are into Doctor Who, were seriously, relentlessly bullied as children. Sometimes that’s where a love of Doctor Who begins. The show becomes a safe space.
The people within that safe space can be broken down into two subgroups. Those don’t quite do justice to the variety of fans, but work to illustrate my point. There are the minority fans – LGBT+ people, people of colour, and women (who, of course, were once a significant minority within fandom) – and then there are the straight, white, male, cisgender fans (whom I will refer to from here as SWMC fans, because I like how that sounds, because it’s shorter, and I tend to avoid phrases like ‘cishet’ which just set those people off in the comments). Before I launch into what will inevitably be labelled as Social Justice Warrior rhetoric, I’d like to add a disclaimer that my friends are both. After all, being straight or gay, being black or white, being male or female – those categories don’t dictate your path, and I’m a firm believer in the human free will. What we see happen isn’t unavoidable. What happens is that a disappointingly vast number of SWMC fans get swept up by a movement that seems reasonable, logical, appealing. To use the language of newsreaders and politicians, they get radicalised.
But here’s the most beguiling part: they become the very people they hate.
Bullying, and I really want to emphasise this, is very often deeply rooted in gender norms and sexuality. It always has been, and still absolutely is. A fundamental part of being bullied is being told that nobody will ever love you, that you are sad, that you will be alone when everybody else is happy. For the show’s SWMC fans, that abhorrent message is reinforced by other SWMC people: we’re at the top of society, but you’re not really one of us. Except… there’s more nuance to it than that. Because put another way, the message is really this: you will never get a girlfriend, you are ugly and you are a nerd, girls don’t love nerds, they won’t care about you.
That in turn creates an image of what women are like: unattainable. As with chivalric love, women are aloof to the advances of men, except there’s no reward for slaying the dragon. And so women become embroiled in the imagery of rejection – and resultantly, they become a part of a threat. A beautiful woman is a reminder of what you will never have, of who you will never be, of the people who are ‘better’ than you.
And so the rejected SWMC fans do what bullied people always do: they find people like themselves, and they retreat to a safe space. And where do you find lonely straight white men? Usually, on Reddit and 4chan. It’s no coincidence that most internet trolls don’t get very much sex. Deep down, there’s so much insecurity in there. (I’m not saying that people who don’t have sex are insecure. It’s an incidental detail. God, there’s so much social sensitivity in this area…)
The Doctor becomes a figure of idolisation. He’s idolised in the same way a little boy idolises the Doctor: he’s seen as imbuing everything the nerd is – he’s intelligent, he’s gentle, he’s considerate, he defeats the bullies and he’s cool. He’s someone you can become without sacrificing your own sense of identity. But more to the point, the Doctor gets the girl. The Doctor gets to travel around with a beautiful young woman who admires him, who also idolises him. If the Doctor is a figure of charisma and mystery to the women who come across him, you can become that too.
This is the irresistible appeal of Doctor Who-as-wish-fulfillment for SWMC fans. It projects a reality in which you are a romantic hero, but in which you can still be clever, still be a bit of a geek, and still shy away from violence. It creates a world in which those traits are desirable to beautiful young women (because at this point, you think they aren’t in the real world). And it creates one in which your pain is fetishised. When you lose that beautiful woman to someone else, it’s your anguish that matters, and it’s your story that persists.
The story of Doctor Who is beautiful, but in this diluted form, it’s a gateway to misogyny. To keep the fantasy real, the woman must be kept in her place. The Doctor must retain all the qualities of the SWMC fan: he must be Straight, White, Male, Cis, and he must skirt around the fringes of normality. If this model is disrupted in any way, the wish-fulfillment is over, the role model is lost, and what you believe to be “reality” ends up resurfacing.
A woman Doctor is perceived as a threat. The woman becomes a figure of unattainability once more: she is better than you, and she has usurped you. At best, you are her companion. You can no longer wow her; it is on her to wow you. Having found yourself in a circle of other SWMCs, you label it with words which you don’t understand, but which sound threatening to you: feminism, political correctness, misandry. You don’t know much about these people. You just know that they’re not like you. They threaten your safe space (though you, of course, don’t call it that).
The bullies win.
The bullies win, because the bullied fail to find unity. The SWMC fans fail to recognise that minority fans are part of the very same fight. Feminists are fighting against the same set of assumptions which led to you being viewed as inadequate. LGBT+ fans are crusading against the same privileged monsters who thought that you weren’t good enough. And the bullies win, because they turn these people against themselves.
It’s the same every time. Decent young men are bullied, teased, mocked, and turn to places where they feel safe, anonymous, important. Places like YouTube comments sections and Daily Mail opinion posts. Only in that sort of safety and security is radicalisation so successful. In the one place people seem to listen to them, they think they’ve found their own road to justice. Little do they know it’s run by the same damn bullies.
In the end, it’s a cycle which I wish could be broken. If only Doctor Who’s straight, white, male, cis fans – the ones who were bullied just as much as the rest – could realise that you can still identify with the Doctor even if she’s a bit different to you, and that you can still use her as a role model because of what she does. If only they could fight what they’ve been taught and realise that women aren’t strange, alien or threatening, but are in much the same place as they are, then maybe the bullies would be beaten once and for all.
Misogyny, in the end, is fear. And standing up to it is, and always will be, an act of bravery – as well as a chance to finally grow up. Fighting oppression is a far more impressive sign of maturity than getting a girlfriend – and considering women like to be respected, you might even find one in the process.
Janine Rivers runs one of the best Who blogs out there (https://janinerivers.wordpress.com/ ), founded Doctor Who Fan-Fiction.com (http://doctorwhofanfic.weebly.com/ ), and generally is the spiritual mother of DoWntime.