An analysis of how human beings engage with a given artefact likely draws from a fundamental premise: human creations demonstrate social-material consequences. This observation does not purport to indicate a probable condition, but rather an ineluctable one—and it holds relevance, always and everywhere, for all types of artefacts. This is true of artefacts demonstrating utilitarian salience—like a spear, scythe, wrench, pencil, microwave, motor vehicle, computer, etc.—and those ostensibly centring on more aesthetic functions—like a painting, sonnet, concert, novel, play or even a television programme.
For the following argument, I discuss how a particular television series, Doctor Who, demonstrates social-material consequences for a community of fans, the Whovians. Following the recent premier of Season Eleven, many excited Whovians took to Twitter in collective celebration of Jodie Whittaker, the first woman to play the show’s leading character, The Doctor. After 55 years of men in the role, Whittaker’ casting had clear symbolic importance. But it had social-material significance, too. One Twitter comment comes to my mind as an exemplary indication of such significance.
A father tweets, “My daughter (6) told me they were playing #DoctorWho… in the playground today and she was the Doctor – that’s why last night was brilliant.” Recognizing that the child’s pretending to be the Doctor is to envision herself as the hero, we may acknowledge that she not only enacted a role of social importance, but also felt it was appropriate and desirable to do so. In other words, we confront the affective (and thereby material) implications of her having a woman role model to serve as fodder for her imagined (and real life) ambitions. Pretending to be the Doctor, this child may envision herself as not only competent, but exceptional. While playing, she perhaps recited that now iconic line from The Woman Who Fell to Earth, “When people need help, I never refuse!”
This tweet, for many, is a heart-warming indication of how parents derive joy from their children’s glee. Though it also reveals how an ostensibly silly television show about aliens, time-travel and companionship holds the power to provoke social change—i.e., to empower young girls (as well as boys) to regard themselves as capable (as potential heroes) as well as to inform a normative order about who gets to be exceptional and deserves celebration. To acknowledge this, though, is to give credence to another ineluctable implication of engaging artefacts—i.e., that such engagement is not independent of the dynamics of power and thereby holds political relevance. Media representation, after all, is an operation and reflection of power—performing and indicating a politic with respect to who has power and for whom power is denied.
The Doctor Who Universe
Doctor Who is a BBC produced science-fiction programme. It demonstrates prominent fandom the world over, but particularly so within British society. The show began in 1963 and aired until 1989. The BBC attempted to relaunch the programme in 1996 with a made-for-television Doctor Who film; however, a rebooted series did not begin airing until 2005. From that time onwards, the show has remained on the air and is still in production presently.
The unfolding story of Doctor Who centres on “the Doctor,” a humanoid time traveling alien from the fictional planet Gallifrey. The character typically travels with human companions to diverse worlds as well as into the past and future. These traveling feats occur by means of the iconic TARDIS: a sentient, time and space traversing vehicle that is paradoxically “bigger on the inside than the outside.” To all outside observers, the TARDIS appears as a police kiosk—an edifice that was normative to Britain’s public infrastructure at the time of the show’s inception. TARDIS travel is often imprecise. Consequently, the Doctor and companions may find themselves in unanticipated times or places. Also, they typically find themselves amongst and aiding peoples or persons enduring a crisis from some despotic foe (e.g., daleks, cybermen, weeping angels, etc.).
Reading this description, one may note the lack of gender pronouns. Though I recognize the political significance of gender neutral prose, I employ the practice here for another reason—which pertains to the present and historical context of Doctor Who. The show has maintained a tradition of continually recasting The Doctor after a specified segment of time. From 1963 to the present, thirteen separate lead actors have officially undertaken the role. The narrative unfolding of Doctor Who accounts for the change by enacting the Doctor’s ability to regenerate (and thereby endure a prolonged life).
With every regeneration the doctor takes on a new humanoid form as well as a new persona. (Yes! I know! Except for that time David Tennant’s Doctor regenerated in a way that maintained his form and persona. Please stop quibbling!). With respect to the enduring mythology of the show, however, the Doctor (in substantial respects) remains the same person—i.e., the doctor retains many if not most memories of past “lives” and the show intends for the audience to regard the present and “new” Doctor as “the same” Doctor(s) from past seasons. Now prior to the eleventh season, I could simply stipulate, “The Doctor and his companions….” But the current Doctor (or rather the Doctor’s current form)—as we now know—is a woman and portrayed by Jodie Whittaker.
The Whovian Response
Many, including myself, regard the character’s gender change as profound and exciting. The enthusiasm for and celebration of the Season Eleven premiere has much to do with the fact that the first woman Doctor follows 55 concurrent years of Doctors who were men. Whereby, the weeks and months preceding Jodie’s debut enjoyed widespread anticipation from old and new fans alike. Yet the love and enthusiasm did not span the whole of the Whovian community.
Many fans expressed derision at what they perceived to be an interpolation of trendy political sentiments in the show’s narrative and casting decisions. Such fans regarded the revelation of Jodie’s casting as the tipping point upon which the show enacted a metamorphic shift from episodic interjections of feminist sentiments to a full-on critical-feminist project (e.g., see The Cullen Show). For a contingent of fans, this perceived shift in the show’s narrative corresponded to a relational one in which said Whovians’ perpetual annoyance with the show gave way to a complete break in their fan-allegiance.
These fans then took to the internet to declare their intentions to abstain from further viewership of the programme. Subsequently, an enduring internet battle unfolded across an array of platforms with some Whovians supporting the show’s narrative and casting choices, others wholly denouncing said choices and still others occupying a plethora of ambiguous, ambivalent and approximating positions between the two extremes. In Part Two 2 I illustrate the precise nature of these debates and offer a corresponding analysis of their differential logics and implications. Presently, though, I clarify why these debates matter.
What Is at Stake?
Debates among Whovians about Whittaker’s casting centre on a few broad questions: Is the Doctor Who universe an appropriate space to address gender inequities? Is it inappropriate to imbue those cultural spaces intended to be fun (or possibly inconsequential with regard to real-world commitments) with politicized sentiments? These are indictments masquerading as inquiries and to many onlookers they are ostensibly reasonable. However, closer inspection reveals that such inquires fail to grasp a fundamental premise about cultural artefacts. They fail to demonstrate what the present text stipulates at its outset—i.e., that all cultural artefacts hold politics. We have already addressed how a given artefact’s politics are fundamentally entangled with social-material consequences and relations of power. Yet we may further explore how artefacts are also ineluctably subject to political readings.
To understand how this occurs, we must acknowledge that this particular concern implicates both authors and audiences. Most readers will readily acknowledge that authors have and will intentionally incorporate their political leanings into a text and do so in a manifest way—resolutely undermining all opportunities for ambiguous and ambivalent readings. Those who indict as well as those who champion Doctor Who as a political project assume said project to be a consequence of author intentionality. Whereby, they accept as apparent within the story’s unfolding a deliberate, unambiguous message about gender representation. I am not, here, arguing for or against the veracity of this claim; rather I give recognition to the relevance of intentional design so that I may better frame a discussion of how political readings can and will demonstrate independence from authorial aims.
With that said, we may also confront the circumstance in which authors fancy themselves as being persons without ideological objectives. They might reflect, “I’m not political. I simply enjoy making-up cool stories with interesting characters.” Such a disposition, perhaps, is one which many disappointed Whovians believe is appropriate and necessary for the creators of Doctor Who. These fans may reason, “Look, we just want to see time travel and aliens and all the fun stuff related to these things. I don’t want my favourite sci-fi stories to burden me with the ideological hang-ups of the real world.” However, even if the producers and writers heed such a call, the resulting television show will still demonstrate political relevance.
For example, a hypothetical author may attempt to resolutely position the narrative in opposition to partisan readings by crafting the text in a manner that is decisively banal, innocuous or unremarkable—i.e., in a manner that does not lay claim to political, divisive rhetoric. Yet to proffer a series of bromides and seemingly benign characterizations still demonstrates a politic in its default positioning. While such a posture refuses to state moral or ethical suppositions, it continues to imply them. An author who neglects to critically assess the world, after all, negates the importance of such evaluations (and thereby makes a claim about what should be or should remain so).
Our present conflation of neglect with negation is appropriate here, because such epistemic negligence holds real world consequences. By not questioning and challenging the everyday violence that occurs in one context or another, one permits as well as complies with said violence. The discourses articulating systemic racism and sexism illustrate this point. These prejudices are built into the fabric of everyday life. To ignore them as consequential for the life-chances of others is to remain complicit in the harms such forces engender. In short, political neutrality is an unviable position—even when engaging fun, fantastical stories (like Doctor Who) to experientially escape the real harms and concerns of lived experience.
Furthermore, authors who deliberately construct narratives to facilitate highly precise or exact readings (political, apolitical or otherwise) will witness the undermining of their efforts as an agentic audience demonstrates the generative power of construal—of actively observing meaning into an artefact. In other words, the audience in question “prosumes” cultural artefacts, which implies that the act of watching (and consuming) holds productive potential. For example, Whovians consume Doctor Who in a manner that produces a diverse array of experiences and political inclinations.
While some fans regard the eleventh Doctor’s relationship to long-time companion Amelia Pond as constituting an implied romance other fans regard their mutual affections—though immensely loving—as decidedly platonic. The situation is not merely one of differential or (mis)interpretation. Fans, after all, do not passively view the unfolding events of a series arc; rather, they actively will the story to take a specific form. Furthermore, prosuming Doctor Who generates fodder for fandom unity and debate—e.g., fans who celebrate the romance and those who argue about the nature of the relationship. Thus, the fans’ prosumption of the beloved artefact occurs with and through their prosumption of the community itself.
We must now consider some clarifying remarks on the point of viewer agency. Some readers might assume that the practice lends an absolute (or limitless) efficacy to viewer-consumers. One may, then, surmise that since viewers may create and curate their own meanings for a programme’s on-goings, the show’s actual decisions hold little political relevance for or influence over said viewers. Such a position, however, is fundamentally mistaken.
The extant arrangements of a story (as well as a surrounding social world) imposes limits on the generative potential of fan viewing. After all, if we accept that human perceptions of the world largely operate in and through shared social constructions, then, we must recognize that social artefacts—like televisions shows— are informative of how persons (or fans) understand and engage the world. Furthermore, a fan’s generative-viewing potential likely suffers increasing enfeeblement the more said fan credulously acquiesces to the putative logics of various dialogues and scenes. Even if we accept this hypothesis as irrefutable, however, we still must recognize that the most discerning viewers and subversive viewings inexorably draw from and make-sense of the world through the symbolic register of a larger, normative order.
With that said, we should acknowledge that a reoccurring male Doctor—typically with adoring female companions—communicates and inculcates cultural expectations about what type of persons can and should be protagonists, leaders, saviours, special and exceptional as well as what types of persons should admire, follow, acquiesce and accept the deliberations and pronouncements of others. Such expectations, then, are thoroughly shot-through with the dynamics of systemic power. Fan opposition to Whittaker as Doctor is thus an inherently political act—even among those who claim political neutrality and wish for their pop-culture to remain free from political meddling.
Of course, we would be remiss not to recognize that the history of Doctor Who does offer us strong, agentic and admirable women companions time and again—such as Sarah Jane, Martha Jones, Donna Noble and Bill Potts (among others). But admiring these characters—especially in the sense that they often have and do reflect progressive-feminist ideals—does not negate the legitimacy of observations recognizing past inequities and calls for rectification.
Sexism and gender egalitarianism as well as hegemonic standards and progressive ideals are multifaceted variables—each of which exist on a continuum. Whereby the presence of a variable on one end of the continuum does not necessitate a mutually exclusive relationship with a variable on the other end. Consequently, one may observe both sexist and gender egalitarian features within the same artefact. The history of Doctor Who, then, may have been “relatively” progressive in some respects, but not others. Keeping in mind, however, that all such observations demonstrate a contextual contingency with respect to the cultural moments in which they emerge.
With a concern for the present cultural moment, we should come to understand the multifaceted political readings among Whovians as a representative microcosm of larger debates highlighting the intersections of politics, power, and gender—e.g., the #MeToo campaign and other recent instantiations of progressivism. Wherefore, we readily acknowledge that political participation takes many forms. Disrupting hearings for a predatory SCOTUS nominee is one such example. So too, however, is a fan’s support for story arcs that position women as heroes—especially when those stories take shape through cultural artefacts as widely treasured as Doctor Who. Such an understanding becomes apparent when reflecting on the initial anecdote about a young girl pretending to be The Doctor. Re-enacting the Season Eleven premiere and the episodes to come, this little girl and others like her believe they just might save the universe.
James Chouinard (@jamesbc81) is a Lecturer in the School of Sociology at The Australian National University
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