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:
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.”
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 Scotish 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 men in accordance with Elizabethan biases?
I’ve seen people say that it’s disconcerting 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.