It’s official. English actor Jodie Whittaker will be the 13th actor, and first female, to play the Doctor in Doctor Who. Highly accomplished and already beloved by many, Whittaker is also not too famous yet – a perfect mix that means her reputation won’t overshadow the character itself.
The casting of a new lead in Doctor Who tends to always make news, but this time, Whittaker’s gender is attracting attention. The debate about the Doctor’s human (gendered) form has raged well before now, but until the announcement was actually made I think many were unsure it could happen. A casting change of this type can ruffle feathers – perhaps so much so that the audience flees the nest.
Reactions to the female lead
The most entertaining part of the announcement so far has been the online reactions. Many collated Twitter threads have already been circulated by the local and international media; showing a mixture of extreme reactions and less than gentle ribbing of those on each side of the debate.
Can a character traditionally imagined by a male actor suddenly be taken on by a female one? What does gender even mean for a creature with two hearts, the power to regenerate and experience traveling through time and space?
Whittaker herself has only made short statements so far, asserting her multifaceted position clearly. Notably, she was reported as saying of her casting:
It feels completely overwhelming, as a feminist, as a woman, as an actor, as a human, as someone who wants to continually push themselves and challenge themselves, and not be boxed in by what you’re told you can and can’t be.
It’s just a TV show – why make it political?
Once Whittaker’s comment dropped the “F” bomb (ie: feminism), the surge of online responses started to swell. Some have suggested the change will make the television show “too political”. However to suggest that television isn’t political (or shouldn’t be), does the medium and its audience an injustice. As the most accessible, most freely available media outlet in the world, television engages with politics by its very existence. As iconic television scholar and critic Raymond Williams once called it, television is both a “technology and cultural form”.
Whether we like it or not, all media representations are political. That is, they help us understand the way power works in the world. This isn’t just what we see on our screens – but just as importantly – what we don’t see. Viewers of different ages, nationalities, personality types and genders should all have the chance to see themselves every once and a while.
And the joy of the Doctor character and Doctor Who franchise is that a casting change is just that – a change, not a loss. If you still feel more represented by Tom Baker than Matt Smith, then that’s fine. No one’s lost forever – a trick that producers of the show for decades have played with as “old doctors” return in various forms.
Diversity is not just good for minorities. Doctor Who’s companions, the characters who travel with the Doctor, have increasingly been played by men. Recent male companions like Matt Lucas’ Nardole, Bernard Cribbins’ Wilf or Arthur Darvill’s Rory provided a depth for male characters that television rarely shows – featuring those who may not always want to be the focus or who may not feel the most confident.
Would a female Doctor work with a male companion? No reason why not. Or even more radical – what about two women leading the charge? Intergalactic adventures through all of time and space - all the while meeting the Bechdel Test, which measures female representation on screen. Imagine how great that would be.
So what’s next – a female James Bond?
It’s really up to the makers of the James Bond franchise to decide if the character can be played by a woman. James Bond is a fictional human man – which would make having a female actor play the part quite difficult – but not impossible.
For example, when Cate Blanchett played Bob Dylan in I’m Not There, not only did she nail it, she was nominated for an Oscar and won a Golden Globe. Traditionally “male heroes” can be done justice by incredible women, too. I’m pretty sure the actual Dylan didn’t mind too much, nor did his legacy take a hit. Clearly it’s just about getting the right woman for the job.
As a Lady Doctor myself (a PhD, so close enough to the Time Lord!) - I’d like to welcome Whittaker to the club and offer a bit of advice. The tide is turning and the loudest voices online do not always represent the most valid. But you may also have a bit of a tough ride to begin. So, here goes:
Dear Jodie,Welcome to the world of being a Lady Doctor! It’s fun, but it can also be a bit exhausting at times - mostly having to explain that your gender identity isn’t the most interesting thing about you, but also that you don’t need to apologise for it and its distinctiveness. Remember, you’re not replacing or competing, but expanding the possibilities. Good luck!