When news broke that Peter Capaldi’s replacement on Doctor Who would be Jodie Whittaker, an actor with lady parts, it sent shockwaves across the internet.

But, while many Whovians celebrated this historic passing of the proverbial sonic screwdriver to a woman, others expressed outrage, decrying it as the latest capitulation to political correctness.

Explanations for their disapproval vary, but perhaps the worst one I’ve heard was that the change is inorganic despite Doctor Who having possibly the most easiest in-universe explanation for any re-casting of the lead imaginable.

There does seem to be some effort being made, especially in genre fiction, to correct for the long-running lack of female representation in film and television, a problem so severe countless works fail to meet the extraordinarily low bar famously set in a comic strip by Alison Bechdel:

A character in ‘Dykes to Watch Out For’ explains the rules that later came to be known as the Bechdel test (1985).

Bechdel perhaps wasn’t aware at the time she wrote the strip that an unintended joke exists in that final panel. The entire crew of the Nostromo in the film Alien was originally written to be men. According to Director Ridley Scott: “I just had a thought. What would you think if Ripley was a woman? She would be the last one you would think would survive—she’s beautiful.”

That reasoning flies in the face of the most common assumption made by critics of Jodie Whittaker’s casting, that the choice must have been because of political correctness.

I personally have written an unproduced sci-fi web series, and one of the first decisions I made was having a female lead character, not because I feared the PC police but because I honestly want to see more diverse and interesting female characters on screen.

Actor Jodie Foster holds the distinction of having successfully won two different roles originally written for men in both Flightplan and Elysium.

When I’ve raised the question of whether James Bond could be successfully recast as a woman, even many of those generally open to character gender-swapping drew the line here because they said, unlike other examples, Bond is a character defined by his masculinity.

But I’m not so sure that’s necessarily true. Having grown up on reruns of Battlestar Galactica, I was originally appalled when I heard Dirk Benedict’s iconic, cigar-chomping, womanizing rogue Starbuck would be played by Katee Sackhoff in Ronald D. Moore’s rebooted series…until I saw what she brought to the role. According to an article in Vanity Fair, “…the creator of the popular 2004 reboot of the 1970s space saga, said he decided to make Starbuck a woman in order to skirt any Han Solo-esque associations. Making Starbuck a woman was a way of avoiding what I felt would be ’rogue pilot with a heart of gold’ cliche.”

Starbuck (Dirk Benedict) with Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) at Starbucks

Women’s studies professor Sue Brennan, who used Battlestar Galactica for a course called “Gender, Race and Sexuality in Pop Culture” at Ohio State University, told Wired the swap was a controversial one. “There was all this outrage: ‘How dare they change this very masculine renegade character. How can they translate Starbuck into a female character?‘ But the show has clearly proven that they can. Kara Thrace’s competence is maybe questioned as far as her disregard for authority but never because of her gender.” Sackhoff’s cigar-chomping, hard-drinking Starbuck has been hailed as one of the most popular and layered TV characters of the early aughts.

One Facebook friend cited the 2010 film Salt as a model for how one could imagine a female take on James Bond. Interestingly, they didn’t seem aware that Tom Cruise was originally cast as Edwin Salt, the title role in that movie. When Cruise backed out, Angelina Jolie stepped into the role as Evelyn Salt.

There’s also Rosalind Russell’s iconic Hildy in His Girl Friday. Based on the play, The Front Page, the original version centered on two men, a newspaper editor and his star reporter. When The Front Page was remade again in 1974, Jack Lemmon was now playing what many undoubtedly thought of as the Rosalind Russell role.

Ever since Katee Sackhoff’s Starbuck vastly exceeded my expectations, I’ve made an effort to remind myself to be open to radically new interpretations of iconic characters. In Shakespeare’s day, a woman even playing Juliet was unheard of. A woman wouldn’t be cast in one of his plays until 1660, 44 years after the playwright’s death.

And how quickly we forget that every casting and recasting of James Bond has been controversial? Ian Fleming himself opposed Sean Connery’s casting, preferring Cary Grant for the role. Sir Sean’s performance won Fleming over and in later books he gave 007 a partly Scots ancestry.

And, of course, audiences initially decried Daniel Craig for… other reasons.

GQ chronicles the depressing history of the quest for a black Bond. It’s also worth noting this very franchise already successfully achieved one gender swap, albeit in the smaller role of Bond’s boss, M, when Judy Dench was cast in Goldeneye. Personally, after 26 films, I honestly don’t see much point in more 007 films unless the franchise is ever-evolving to suit the times. And indeed, Bond’s in-universe fight to remain relevant has even become an explicit theme off and on since at least Goldeneye.

As a fan of genre fiction and of just good storytelling, it saddens me that Jodie Whittaker’s casting as he Doctor has stirred such enmity. I always saw science fiction as a genre that celebrates diversity and open-mindedness. The idea that one woman after a string of twelve consecutive men causes some to declare they’ll never watch the show again is troubling.

Perhaps the most consistent message in Doctor Who and just about every other science fiction or fantasy TV show and film is one of inclusion. My favorite heroes from science fiction — from the Federation of Star Trek to the Rebellion of Star Wars — never cried about the PC police spoiling their sausage parties. They viewed everyone equally and valued our “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.” Why should stories be denied the opportunity to change with the times to satisfy the nostalgia of a few? Should Juliet and Ophelia be forever played by women in accordance with Elizabethan biases?

I’ve sen people say that it’s concerning that defenders of the Jodie Whittaker decision have to tell people to give it a chance. Jodie Whittaker will inhabit the role and find ways to make it her own like every actor who’s portrayed the Doctor before. Don’t “give her a chance” just because she’s a woman; give her a chance because she earned the part like Peter Capaldi before her, and Matt Smith before him, and David Tennant, and Tom Baker many years back all the way to William Hartnell’s original.

The original Doctor was a capricious Mary Poppins fairy godmother type character who wasn’t much of a hero himself. This is just the latest in a long history of the character being reconceived. And I, for one, look forward to opening my heart to this latest two-hearted Time Lord.

  • Morse

    what hypocrisy. in the same article titled “Doctor Who-the-Hell-Cares if she’s a woman?” you complain about “not enough female characters!” and bring up an absolutely dumb and dishonest test some random butthurt feminist made.

    “As a fan of genre fiction and of just good storytelling”
    you want the reader to believe you when you call gender swapping a character for no good reason an achievement?

    “The idea that one woman after a string of twelve consecutive men causes some to declare they’ll never watch the show again is troubling.”
    your immature and weak reasoning and excuse baffles me, so would you also go behind the “Black Mamba” (kill bill) turned male?? she was a female from the beginning and that’s the way it was. her being a female for 2 movies doesn’t mean we should change the gender for the third with no good reason. do you understand how that would ruin the story, myth and immersion???

    if you’re fighting for James Bond to be a female just because you can’t stand an action hero being male and to be targeted towards men, then newsflash! you’re a misanderist. gender swapping a character for no good reason means you’re sexist, you cannot use mental gymnastics to call people who are calling you out sexist. you take something from someone because you want it for yourself, and then write articles about how they are wrong for wanting it back???

    • Ken Petti

      Hey Morse, thanks again for visiting the site.

      I think the key flaw in your argument against gender swapping characters is this phrase:
      “gender swapping a character for no good reason”

      To the contrary, I think there is actually a very good reason for gender swapping: it changes the relationship consumers (viewers/readers/fans) have with a character. After all, one of the hallmarks of a good story is characters that consumers can connect to.

      By changing the gender of a character, storytelling opportunities open up because of the change in dynamic of the characters relationship, both in the work and in real life. For example, a female Bond could potentially offer commentary on sexual empowerment in a culture that doesn’t encourage female-driven casual sexual relationships. A female Doctor Who might have a different relationship to their companions. Women are often portrayed as caregivers and sensitive types, but what if the new Time Lord was nothing of the sort? How would the characters in the story react to their conceptions of women being challenged by this strange, magical alien that looks like a woman, but doesn’t act “the part”? And how would the connection to the audience change? Perhaps people who wouldn’t have been interested in the story before might give it a shot. Or who knows, maybe fans find themselves connecting in new and unexpected ways.

      My point is that by changing something as relatively minor as gender, since good characters are more than their gender anyway, whole new character-driven story potential is unlocked. With this in mind, do you still think these changes are made “for no reason”?

      • Morse

        that’s the problem; a bad reason is even worse than not having one. you’re willing to ruin a character’s mythos for the sole reason of social commentary. and social commentary at what cost?
        >”it changes the relationship consumers (viewers/readers/fans) have with a character. After all, one of the hallmarks of a good story is characters that consumers can connect to.”
        that is poor reasoning to mask gender bias. any type of change can change the consumer relationship, and that is the exact definition of changing for the sake of changing; for example, would you get behind blinding a character with the reasoning being “we wanted to change the relationship with the costumers”? No, because there weren’t any reason to do so. and that is even more acceptable because it’s something that could happen rather than changing gender which is impossible in the respective universe. and i agree, consumer reception is a hellmark of a good story, but at it seems, A LOT of people are not happy with the change while the previous incarnations had very good reception with the minority of bitterness from women and feminist wanting to insert themselves in everything. and you are now willing to sacrifice that majority for the sake of the minority because of their gender which makes the gender bias obvious.

        even if you look at it from a cultural perspective, these characters are what gives young boys a person to look up to, in a time where the media is all about female empowerment. and people like you are willing to take that away because why?? why take away James Bond from guys when you can make a new character for girls? the problem is the lack of effort from your party. you don’t want to suffer the grinding and want to just jump to the results, and that is the sole reason you want to take an already famous item targeted at boys. how dare guys obsess over something and like it for themselves! am i right?
        which brings me to the point, that do you really think that female empowerment isn’t being preached enough? they are taking every and any role model a boy could have had. Thor? a girl. Wolverine? a girl. Hawkeye? a girl. Hulk? a girl. Iron Man? a girl. etc. etc. while all the female super heroes have had existed all along. not to mention all these male superheros have had female counterparts as well. they had Disney making products targeted at them and Comic books targeted at boys, now Disney is still targeted at girls while Comics and action heroes are also being forced to exclusively be targeted at them..
        again why not make an original character (like the newly introduced Atomic Blonde) instead of taking one existing and changing it to your desires at the expense of excluding the already existing fanbase?

        >”Women are often portrayed as caregivers and sensitive types” wonder why? maybe because women are biologically better caregivers and more sensitive than men? i ask you this, who’s making up the 98% of the military? fire fighters? cops? construction workers or any other masculine and physical work at that?
        the mindset you’re preaching is devoid from reality, and fiction always is rooted in reality with some exceptions made here and there. that’s why a story like Cinderella works with a Girl and Hercules with a Boy. Women are not men and Men are not women.

        >”My point is that by changing something as relatively minor as gender”
        if it’s so minor, why change it in the first place?

        so the point here is the extreme gender bias and the lack of empathy for the guys. you’re willing to take away a cultural icon from boys, ruin the mythos and any sense of immersion and storytelling, just to empower girls for a role they will most likely won’t be taking part of in their majority (since your overall goal seems to be this); and what makes it worse, in a time where boys are treated like defective girls while their issues are brushed aside almost completely and female empowerment is the most thing being preached from every corner of the mainstream media.
        for a more in depth look and analysis on similar matters like this, i would recommend “The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men” from Christina Hoff Sommers, an actual common headed second wave feminist with a real education and degree rather than made up ones…