SCARVES: We’re back for another “DoWntime Responds”, but this time, we’re taking a different approach. Today, myself and Tibere are co-writing a response to “A Few Thoughts on Doctor Who “Role Models””, a guest article written for Doctor Who TV by Casey Riggins. Riggins makes a case against casting a female Doctor on the grounds of the importance of the Doctor being a positive male role model, in the context of Peter Davison making similar comments at a panel recently, and leaving twitter in the ensuing social media storm that followed. Unsurprisingly, none of the writers at DoWntime share the uncertainty Riggins has towards Jodie Whittaker’s casting, but more importantly, we had problems with the way Riggins makes his argument, and as such, felt a direct response was worth writing, especially as, at the time of writing this article, Doctor Who TV has yet to publish a direct response to Riggins, although the site has since hosted an article that is more positive about the casting of a female Doctor. As such, we’re going to be critical of Riggins’s specific arguments, and DWTV’s use of his platform, but we’re going to keep our criticisms to the arguments made only: we don’t want to resort to personal attacks, and don’t want our audience to do so either.
I’ve split this article into a series of subsections, each focussing on what I see as the key arguments and topics addressed in Riggins’s article, in order to working through key quotes from the essay in the order they appear in said article, writing our responses to the key quotes placed at the start of each subsection. For the sake of clarity, I’ve marked out the responses written by myself, and the responses written by Tibere.
Without further ado, let’s get started in our response to “A Few Thoughts on Doctor Who Role Models”.
On the Nature of Fandom Discourse, and the way Tone Policing works
“Now it’s [the casting of a female Doctor] actually happened and I’m still working out how to feel about it. I believed Doctor Who already had an ideal balance in terms of representing both men and women (which I’ll go into more later), and this change I think is unnecessary. I know the response of some today when they hear you aren’t automatically on board with a female Doctor is to casually throw around terms like “Bigot!”, and “Sexist!” etc. And this can be even for simply stating you’re questioning this change and might have some reservations about it.”
TIBERE: Beyond what we might say on the arguments on display in this article, I feel like the very way it frames the issue is problematic. It’s assuming a very defensive position, right from the start – “if you are not on board with Whittaker, then people are going to call you a sexist bigot”. It’s not great, as far as opening a dialogue goes, because then, if someone does find your article iffy and accidentally sexist (I’m saying accidentally because, for all the misguided stuff on display here, I’m not seeing any open bigotry), then you have your defence all prepared – a big “I told you so, #somuchforthetolerantleft”.
Really, more than anything, it betrays a deep misunderstanding of the situation – no one is saying that everyone having reservations about Whittaker is a sexist bigot. On the other hand, expressing those reservations, especially in a form that reinforces certain narratives, can enable sexism and bigotry. It creates a context in which they can thrive. People didn’t castigate Peter Davison for his “role model” comments, not directly – they were angry with him (and that they definitely includes me) because his comments are going to be quoted, to be used as an appeal to authority by less than kind people in the future. Words have weight, a careless comment can have strong consequences, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hold people accountable for what they say and how they say it.
Of course, the logical question one might ask is “how do I express my uncertainties without being insensitive or feeding into those toxic narratives?”. Well, acknowledging the importance of representation, for starters, that’s good – because I do sincerely hope that it is, for all people reading this, a fact and not something up for debate and discussion. Acknowledging that this is a victory for women and girls, for trans and non-binary people, and being happy for them, regarding what you, what this “I” that speaks, think. Seeing the positive effects that it might have and has already had before starting to express reservations. That’d be nice.
“While there are indeed some fans that actually hate the news because they might actually be sexist and maybe other ‘-ists’ you can think of, you are singling out the extremes of fandom and applying to all. Most rational fans are capable of more reasoned responses. It’s just in these current times the internet seems to be more about encouraging the “it’s us or them” mentality, often killing any rational, nuanced discourse on any subject.”
TIBERE: Well here, we run into another problem of framing, with the writer repeating the word rational twice. Not a great rhetorical device when you want an open dialogue, that. Because it kind of implies everyone that might be angry at what you’re writing is being irrational. Plus, the word “rational” has a politically-charged history on the Internet – being originally used by the community of skeptics and atheists that eventually morphed, around 2010, into the anti-feminist vanguard led by people like Philip Mason or T.J. Kirk. Once again, I’m not saying this article is a work of right-wing anti-feminism – but it uses a rhetoric that’s not dissimilar to theirs, which contributes to normalizing their discourse, and their ideal of free-thinking rationality battling “SJW feelings” or whatever, and also to make the author look worse.
And then we reach the really thorny part – hang in tight, we’re gonna be talking ethics of free speech now. Because this article, ideologically, really rests on this idea of a free marketplace of ideas: everyone debates calmly and rationally, and those with the best critical skills and the best points triumph. Which makes no sense whatsoever, because not everyone is in the same position. The people that do not follow the status quo, that do not conform to whichever the dominant opinion is, will have to argue ten times harder. In that kind of debate, as it always does, the burden of proof will fall on those that are at a disadvantage. Of course, it is important to give compelling rebuttals, but the fact you have to constantly justify the right of your arguments to even exist while others can just sit on a trove of recuperated soundbites (because, let’s face it, there is almost no argument in this article you can’t find in thrity others) is kind of disheartening. It doesn’t feel like a meeting halfway sort of thing – because it isn’t. It’s people that have the privilege of not having to care asking others to debate them and to express themselves on their terms, and their terms only. It’s sneakily delimiting the space of what is and isn’t acceptable as an argument, of what does and doesn’t constitue debate. It erases all opinions deemed too extreme or too out of the norm. And it’s toxic as hell. Because when you put people in a situation where they have to constantly fight to justify themselves, they will eventually just stop engaging with you and deem you unworthy of their time. Outrage is a luxury, if I can quote “Thin Ice“. To educate and explain, that’s all great. But it ought to be a choice, something you decide to do, if you want to. That kind of rhetoric, on the other hand, enforces an unspoken and unfair expectation that you have to be patient and comprehensive with everyone, that you have to grin, bear it, and preach your gospel, otherwise nothing you might say has any value. It’s, to use technical terms, absolute horseshit. But sadly, it also seems to be an all too common mindset …
SCARVES: It also occurs to me that, in this quote, Riggins is basically asking people not to strawman all people who are anti-female Doctor, even though a paragraph earlier (the quote that opens this section) he was strawmanning pro-female Doctor fandom as the type of people who will “casually throw around” accusations of bigotry at people who disagree with them. The way I see it, if you want a rational, nuanced, discourse, you should hold yourself to the same standards you hold the people you’re debating to.
On Peter Davison, Misrepresentation in the Tabloid Press, and Dogpiling in Online Fandom
“Even former Doctor Peter Davison has been in trouble for his “controversial” comments, which at first merely suggested that people might want to be “encouraging, and not simply scornful, of fans who are uncertain about change”. He then was hyperbolically reported as having a “clash” with Colin Baker, where Davison dared to say he was saddened that boys might have lost a role model, to which Baker rubbished him. The reaction he received from some quarters eventually made him quit Twitter, which wasn’t a great reflection on certain Whovians it has to be said.”
SCARVES: Peter Davison was unfairly misrepresented and dogpiled on social media, and a portion of the pro-female doctor segment of fandom was culpable for that process. While I disagree with the logic behind Davison’s reservations, he certainly didn’t deserve to be on the receiving end of a fan reaction that drove him off of twitter. The tendency to dogpile people on social media is a thing that all corners of fandom need to call out when it occurs, and in this instance, that goes for the pro female Doctor fandom.
But it’s also important to point out the role of the press in stoking controversy, as that reaction didn’t come from nowhere. A quick google search of the words “Peter Davison Female Doctor” shows the following three headlines from the following major national newspaper websites:
The Telegraph: “Former Doctor Who Peter Davison says casting of woman means ‘loss of role model for boys'”
The Independent: “Doctor Who: Former Time Lords Peter Davison and Colin Baker lock horns over Jodie Whittaker casting”
Daily Mail: “Peter Davison Blasts decision to make Doctor Who a woman”
These titles come from a variety of paper types: right wing broadsheet The Telegraph, which focuses solely on Davison’s negative comments without acknowledging that his comments were broadly supportive of Whittaker. Left Wing broadsheet The I frames Davison’s good natured disagreement at a panel with Colin Baker as the two men “locking horns”, and far-right tabloid the Daily Mail frames Davison’s comments as solely negative, and far more extreme than they were. Non political entertainment news sites such as the Radio Times had similarly clickbaity headlines. Most of the sources I’ve seen do feature the Davison’s comments in full context, but almost all of them lead with headlines that make those comments seem more controversial than they are, so that they get more people visiting their websites. In short, the social media dogpiling is caused to no small extent by the manipulation of newspapers who have no investment in Davison’s comments beyond their ability to bring traffic to their website and bring in ad revenue.
So overall, I don’t actually disagree with anything Riggins has said in this section, beyond that he’s understated the role of the news media in fuelling this dogpiling, and as a result probably ends up pushing a narrative that suggests the pro-female Doctor fandom are the people who have a specific problem with harassment on social media. Instead, I just want to set out my own position for the way we as a fandom should respond to this type of reporting. We need to read articles in full, beyond the headlines, and question the way they frame the stories they report on, before responding to their contents on social media. And we need to ask ourselves whether something we say to someone over social media is something we’d be okay saying to them in real life. Then we might begin to have a workable dialogue in fandom. And we might be able to get a focus on legitimate criticisms of comments like the ones Davison made, without those legitimate criticisms being drowned out by waves of unnecessary meanness on social media.
On Male and Female Role Models
I must admit the thought of positive role models had crossed my mind too. Indeed, I can see the point where Davison was coming from, as Doctor Who was brilliant at subverting traditional male heroes by having one who didn’t just fight his foes through violence, instead using his brain the majority of the time.
TIBERE: It WAS. It isn’t anymore. Those 36 series of male heroes doing just that (not counting the dozens of books and hundred of audios)? They’re gone now. They don’t exist anymore. Males have been chased away from Doctor Who. The show has been castrated by the rusty scissors of political correctness, woe is me. God, why is the idea of a woman so threatening? It’s not going to destroy the show, you know. And fine, let’s admit it’s actually the worst PR idea ever and that it does indeed kill New Who – it won’t have damaged the 13 previous Doctors’ runs. Those will still be brilliant at subverting traditional male heroes. You will still be able to look at those for guidance, support and comfort. And now, maybe more women, trans and non-binary people will be able to do just that too. Isn’t that great? Win-win!
It’s an extremely rare breed on British TV, and TV in general actually these days where most male heroes are punching their way to victory, or worse.
While I get what Colin Baker was trying to say in his follow up to Davison in that “You don’t have to be of a gender of someone to be a role model. Can’t you be a role model as people?” This is a contradiction in itself. By that logic the Doctor as a male should still be a great role model for females too.
SCARVES: The first issue raised in this section that I want to address is the perceived “lack” of atypical male heroes for young boys. Because I do kind of want to ask people who make this argument if they watch any pop culture today. Just off the top of my head, I can name characters like Peter Parker, Newt Scamander (watch the excellent video essay Fantastic Masculinity of Newt Scamander), Steven Universe (non violence, emotional, bucks gender roles), Aang (pacifism), Harry Potter (Love being the greatest power he has), Kubo in “Kubo and the Two Strings”, and Sherlock Holmes, in both Sherlock and Elementary. With these characters, all of whom have been protagonists in their respective TV shows and films relatively recently, you have characters who do one or all of the above: provide positive representation for geeky boys, show a non violent, pacifist form of heroism, are openly emotional, with those emotions being shown to be a source of strength, and show the value and importance of intelligence. I think these types of characters are atypical, but because there a so many films and tv shows being made, even today, with male leads, there’s no lack of these atypical male protagonists to encourage young boys: boys like the quiet, shy, nerdy kid I was when growing up.
And boys young boys who become fans of Doctor Who with Jodie Whittaker will also have the first twelve doctors to be that positive role model, as well as any male doctors who come after Whittaker: as if they’re sufficiently interested in the show, they’ll probably want to go back and revisit its past, as most fans do, to varying degrees. The nature of Doctor Who means that making the Doctor a character who can be played a person of any gender, rather than just one gender, can’t take anything away from anyone, only open up the character to people who may not have had that personal connection before. And ultimately, I do find it incredibly frustrating that there is a repeating pattern in popular culture that frames girls gaining something they didn’t have before – a female Doctor, a lead female Jedi, a lead female superhero, is instead being framed as boys losing something.
The second issue touched on in this section of Riggins’s article is the nature of characters being role models for different genders. Girls can be inspired by male leads, and boys can be inspired by female leads, but I think there’s a difference between being seeing a character like the Doctor as a role model, being drawn to their heroism and the ideals they represent, and seeing direct proof that someone of their gender, ethnicity, or sexuality can be like the Doctor. For fifty four years, thirty six seasons, and twelve Doctors, girls have only been able to do the former, while boys have been able to do both. It will be so valuable for girls to see, directly, that they can be like the Doctor. And it will be so valuable for boys to see that they can be inspired by the ideals she represents when she doesn’t share their gender.
I think one of the most important lessons kids can learn is that sharing something doesn’t mean they lose that thing.
On Strong Female Companions, the New Who Companion-Doctor Dynamic, and Potential Changes to this Dynamic for a Female Doctor
“I also have to bring up the something else that has been bugging me in all this. Did some suddenly forget all the wonderful companions, who have by-and-large been females? And hugely positive role models for them too. This is why I thought Doctor Who already struck the ideal balance before this change. The title of “companion” has not limited their role. While in the early classic era, the female companions were occasionally relegated to ‘screaming sidekicks’, that was rectified over the years and, now in the modern era their status is that of an absolute equal to the Doctor. In fact the female companions have been strong, independent women who are often shown to be an even stronger character than the Doctor. Is this still not enough? Or are we now devaluing their contributions over the years to make this change seem more necessary than it is?
I have some concerns about the companion role now too, and how the dynamic with a female Doctor is going to work. There is no reason why we can’t have a male companion now as the mainstay, especially as one could serve as positive role model in place of a male Doctor. The important thing is, he shouldn’t really be written any differently to a female one in terms of their power in the Doctor/companion dynamic. But I have doubts this will be the case, as instances of the male showing the same strength or greater could be perceived as “problematic” by some.
Indeed, back in 2015 Davison stated that he felt that if you reverse the roles of an “unsure and uncertain” male Doctor and “very strong” female companion you could end up with “an uncertain, fallible female Doctor with a really strong male companion,” which is “more of a stereotype than anything else.” It’s going to be very interesting to see how Chris Chibnall tackles this.”
TIBERE: The show has a main character that’s incommensurably more powerful and wiser than anyone around, and an ideological compass – and who is a male. That isn’t neutral. The fact there is a female co-lead, and a usually brilliant one, doesn’t negate the fact the power balance of Who has inherently been skewered towards maleness. Take the Tennant years – a key point in the general themes of the era is the way the companions act as a support network for the Doctor, allow him to keep his darkest, nastiest impulses at bay. It’s not a bad thing, at all. But it does make the female characters fundamentally linked to a male character’s angst. Or hell, let’s just quote the text of the show – I’m referring to “Face the Raven” here, when Clara asks the Doctor “why can’t I be like you”? Of course, it’s because he is “less breakable”, because he’s an incredible genius that can cheat death again and again – Clara wants to be the Doctor, and is like him in almost every single respect, but she still “fails” because she simply does not exist at the same level of power within the narrative. Of course, she then gets empowered to that level with “Hell Bent” and all that jazz, because Moffat realized it was a deep-rooted issue within the show.
SCARVES: I find it hard to argue that the Doctor who gives the Pandorica speech, can speak every language in the the universe, rescues his companions and innocent bystanders from alien invasions, gets to be funny, clever, and heroic, has a really “unsure and uncertain” role compared to the ultra strong companion, simply because the companion gets to push back against his wishes, question him occasionally and exercise their own agency and heroism. The Doctor still gets the majority of “hero moments” on the show, even if the companions now get plenty of space to shine in the narrative, and the show takes time to explore their own complexity and development. While girls do get positive role models in the form of Rose, Martha, Donna, Amy, Clara, and Bill, it would probably nice for them to see that they can *also* be the character who gets the Doctor’s role in the narrative. And it may be similarly beneficial to boys to see that they can also be the type of person who fills the positive role modelled by the primary companions. Wouldn’t it be great to explicitly show kids of all genders that any type of fictional character really can be a model for the way they live their life in the real world?
And the argument that some critics may find such a dynamic problematic isn’t a good enough reason to not write it. Which, I think, is the point Riggins is trying to make when he claims a male companion to a female Doctor “shouldn’t be written any differently” to the male doctor/ female companion model that New Who has followed. He even implicitly presents the notion that some fans could find this dynamic problematic with female Doctor and a male companion as wrong headed. But then he immediately contradicts himself by using Peter Davison’s argument that a gender-swapped TADIS team following the companion-Doctor dynamic would be problematic as an appeal to authority. Basically, I’m saying his argument here… skips a couple of logical beats.
However, if the dynamic between a gender swapped TARDIS team is still something people like Peter Davison are concerned about, then I’d like to point out that I do think this could be an excellent opportunity to reconsider the role of the companion, and the structure of the TARDIS team in New Who.
Personally, I’d advocate for a three person TARDIS crew, with one male companion and one female companion, from the start for Whittaker’s Doctor, but not one with a main companion and a secondary companion: instead, a three person TARDIS team where both companions are given equal importance, similar to Barbara and Ian, would be a chance for the New Series to explore a dynamic between the main cast that hasn’t really been done since the show came back in 2005. And that would be genuinely exciting. A chance to merge the classic and New Who approaches to the role of the companion. And it’s a great example of the way the questions raised by casting a female Doctor provide answers that open up new storytelling possibilities for the show, and not unsolvable problems.
On Empowerment and Disempowerment in the way Female Leads are Cast in Popular Culture
“I think though to conclude, the greater question in this entire furore is, why aren’t the BBC creating bold new sci-fi TV shows featuring strong female leads? Iconic characters with their own, unique identity, like Wonder Women, Buffy, Ripley from Aliens, Sarah Connor from Terminator etc. Those have all been huge successes with both male and female audiences too. Shouldn’t that be what we are striving for today? The celebration of this current gender-swapping trend in the media seems to encourage the ugly notion that the only way for women to achieve success is to co-opt old male roles, not create brave new ones. And that is the most disempowering thought of it all.”
TIBERE: You quoted four characters. Yowza. Equality achieved. I’d be interested in seeing how many “strong male leads” exist, in comparison. Those must be some fascinating ratios.
But that’s not an entierly wrong point – big franchises do deserve strong, original female leads. Like, I don’t know, Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Original female character, strong badass woman, that’s great. Except of course, a large chunk of the audience thought she was a bland overpowered Mary Sue, without apparently understanding the meaning of that term or her characterization. Okay, that was a bad exemple. What about Imperator Furiosa from Max Max Fury Road? I think everyone agrees this movie is a masterpiece? Oh, actually, that’s not true, MRAs of all kinds thought it was feminist drivel destroying a classic franchise. See my point? When female characters are concerned, you’ll never do good enough. She will always be too much this, not enough that.
And of course, there’s the fact that producing stories ABOUT women (and not just starring women) will generally require female personel behind the camera, female directors and writers – and there’s this tiny little thing call sexism in the film industry? It’s tiny. Tiny tiny tiny. So just going “well just create your own stories!” is a ridiculous answer. If you don’t have a clear plan to make more female-led movies happen, you should not touch that argument with a ten-foot pole – and of course, note that we’re, once again, back to this assumption that you can just create stories like that, that if they’re good they will necessarily find an audience, because marketplace of ideas and all that. It doesn’t work that way.
And of course, it all seems to lead to a rather “separate but equal” vision of fiction – the boys need to have their franchises, and the girls their own, and you don’t mix them. You know, I’m not saying there is not a need for some entierly female-driven and female-oriented spaces on the entertainment market, but 1) male-dominated franchises have a colossal head start in terms of influence, and you can’t just counter-balance their infuence and cultural impact by wishing really hard and with a ton of good will, and 2) a lot of those big franchises, Who included … Well, they have no reason to be centered around male characters in the first place. Which leads us, of course, to the gender-swapping argument. Take Who. What is fundamentally male about the Doctor? You know, forgetting the fact that the Time Lords flexibility when it comes to gender is part of the show’s canon, as stated in “The Doctor’s Wife” and “World Enough and Time” – what are the Doctor’s typically masculine traits that will just be lost in the Capaldi-Whittaker transition? If you’re able to answer that, congratulations, you are a better writer than Steven Moffat, who declared himself he hadn’t found any.
It reminds me of the whole Ghostbusters debacle, where that exact same argument – seriously, every damn word – was used. Is ghost-busting an exclusively male activity? I mean, you can try to justify that. MRA (and actual insane person) Davis Aurini tried, and it basically sounded like “well, the original movie is about friends opening a small business, and entrepreneurship is a fundamentally male quality”. Which, I hope we can agree on, is bullshit. So, really, at the end, the casting of Whittaker is not women being forced into men’s roles in a feeble attempt to artificially empower them – because Who never was a male space, and the Doctor’s maleness is based on nothing bar the gender of the actors that played them. It’s simply truly expressing the non-conformity and genderlessness at the heart of the show in explicit terms rather than subtext.
SCARVES: I think Riggins’ article is flawed in several ways. It recycles tired arguments, without adding anything particularly new to them. It strawmans the position of fans who are excited for a female Doctor, shows some notable hypocrisies and uses a circular, self justifying logic to make some of its points. But it is useful to respond to, as it indicates key themes of the female Doctor debate, and the state of fandom as Whittaker takes over from Capaldi as the Doctor.
But I’d like to finish with some thoughts on the Doctor Who TV, and how, as the biggest online Doctor Who fansite, it operates as a forum for fandom debate. Personally, I feel that if DWTV is determined to maintain his site’s role as a neutral forum that presents all sides of a given debate regarding Doctor Who, this specific issue feels like a topic where you should run a pro female doctor article alongside an article that is negative about, or skeptical concerning, a female Doctor at the same time, rather than sharing a negative article first, and having it as the only opinion piece on your site discussing the issue for four days before you publish a more positive article (Ryan Monty’s “Trepidation is Understandable, but Give the 13th Doctor a Chance“). I suspect it’s probably the case that DWTV simply published the first thing submitted to the site, and is probably prepared to publish any responses submitted to his site. But I’d question whether that approach to hosting discussion of this particular issue is the best one to take, or even necessary in this situation.
Because coming from a prominent fan site that claims to be neutral, regardless of editorial opinion, I think having an article that is is mostly negative about the casting of a female Doctor be the first, and, for four days, only, opinion shared on your platform regarding said casting takes a certain position, and more importantly I think it undermines Jodie Whittaker, who deserves to be given a fair chance by Doctor Who fandom. And for what it’s worth, I think DWTV probably wants to give Whittaker a fair chance, in spite of his reservations. Which is why I think he should question whether his personal opinions are affecting the way he’s framing the debate on his site.