So Jodie Whittaker has been announced as the 13th Doctor. For those of you unfamiliar with the greatest TV show of all time, Whittaker will be the first woman to play what has traditionally been a male role and so, unsurprisingly, the bottom half of the internet has exploded with equal parts joy and vitriol.
This post isn’t altogether about Doctor Who (although for the record I’m all for a female Doctor and have nothing but good vibes towards Jodie Whittaker and the production team. Go for it!). However, reaction to the casting highlights something very important: representation is important. The last couple of years has seen a lot of controversies around representation: controversies over women-only showings of Wonder Woman, over a black Storm Trooper, over there not being enough white dudes in the trailer for a new Star Trek show. All of these stem from a status quo that’s overwhelmingly white, male and straight. While some of this is due to the age in which major entertainment franchises were born, the fact is pop culture has a representation problem.
Imagine what it’s like to never see yourself on the screen, or to always be the sidekick or the comic relief or the first person to be eaten by the zombie. Imagine all the leads being ripped white guys. Imagine being told that films starring heroes that look like you wouldn’t sell. Imagine characters that look like you always being sexualised. Imagine characters that look like you being killed just to drive forward the hero’s journey, imagine characters that look like you being omitted from playsets because someone somewhere figured that little boys wouldn’t play with a girl action figure.
Imagine being cast as the new Doctor and seeing someone comment that the show should be renamed Nurse Who.
Some are quick to write this stuff off as the stuff of ‘political correctness’, but it sends a message, a message that women aren’t important, that LGBTQ people aren’t important, that people with disabilities and people who aren’t white aren’t important, aren’t interesting enough, aren’t lucrative enough.
Imagine if Jesus kept getting portrayed with blond hair and blue eyes.
Imagine all that, and think about what’s being erased.
These are the messages that are filtering through to children, and that’s heart-breaking. You’ve only got to see the reaction of kids to meeting their heroes, or even just meeting cosplayers, to see what it means to have an awesome character that looks like you. This isn’t just disposable, meaningless entertainment, this is pop culture mythology, this is the building blocks of imagination, this is a reflection of our world, both in reality and in potentia. That’s why Leia kept showing up on placards at the Women’s March on Washington. That’s why people were crying as they got to see Wonder Woman. It’s why I want both kids and Jodie Whittaker to read this post by Susie Day.
It’s not just about representation either. It’s about seeing the heroic, the aspirational, the awesomeness of someone who doesn’t look like you. As a kid I always thought Han was the coolest; now I’m glad that Leia’s been established as a general and a leader. I’m glad that my kids can watch The Force Awakens and not comment on how none of the three new heroes are white men. I’m glad the Doctor is regenerating into a woman because the things that make the Doctor – intelligence, compassion, eccentricity and bravery – aren’t male qualities, they’re human qualities that can be embodied by anyone.
And this isn’t just about what’s on the page, on the screen. It’s about who gets to create. We need more diversity among writers and directors and actors and producers and artists. We need more perspectives to be turned into stories, we need more experiences to be documented, we need talent from all quarters to enrich the culture around us, and we need avenues to make that happen (check out Arts Emergency and We Need Diverse Books). We’re all in this together, so let’s see that echoed in our stories.
We’re the product of the stories we tell. And we need to see ourselves in those stories, and I hope a new Doctor can be another step in a journey that’s already been too hard and too long. But let’s keep working at making our stories bigger, more expansive, more diverse, more human.