The following argument is as an elaboration upon and the second part of “The Ineluctable Politics of Doctor Who: Part 1.” In that piece, I present the television series Doctor Who as an artefact with ineluctable social-material significance and political implications. In so doing, I illustrate that the ostensibly playful, inconsequential spaces that celebrate beloved objects of fan entertainment never actually enact neutral positions. The text and fan pronouncements about the text exist, incontrovertibly, as partisan acts—even when enacting an ostensibly innocuous posture that seeks to avoid or negate polemical effects.
Here, in Part 2, I address the ways in which the show may and should take responsibility for its social-material effects—which, while demonstrating relevance for a general viewing audience, hold particular import for a diverse fan community. It is on this point of fan diversity that the present discussion locates sociological significance. Surely Doctor Who fans, as a group, constitute a wide range of varying demographic orientations. Such a pronouncement seems rather evident considering the fanbase spans cross-cultural contexts.
While an analysis of the fans’ demographic differences may be revelatory and significant in its own right, I presently refrain from such an endeavour (which is beyond the scope of mere blog musings) and instead gauge the diverse opinions surrounding the induction of the show’s first woman Doctor, Jodie Whittaker. The overall response to Whittaker’s casting is largely positive. Most fans embrace the change, while a smaller subset of fans express derision for it. Though, as will become apparent in the remainder of the discussion, the whole of the fan community demonstrates substantive variations in how they either affirm or disparage the event.
While these differences of expression are by no means resolute and exclusive stances for all persons voicing them, they still illustrate a far more complex, nuanced assortment of postures than a bifurcated typology demarcating for or against can capture. Nowhere is this complexity and nuance clearer than in claims to political neutrality, which span discourses on both sides of the debate. Whovians espouse political neutrality by claiming that the Doctor Who programme should remain free from gender concerns and feminist sensibilities; however, said Whovians differ on whether or not they believe Whittaker’s casting exists as a feminist political act.
Such divergent interpretations of Whittaker-as-Doctor reveal the agency and generative-potential of fan viewership as well as obfuscate the ineluctability of political implications emerging from a beloved-fan artefact. Only by acknowledging the untenability of authorial political-neutrality can concerned subjects also recognize the futility of a politics free fandom. Whereby, I hold that fans should hold the enterprises that create, curate and profit from beloved-fan artefacts accountable for their political instantiations. The appropriate concern, then, is not whether enterprises should be political, but rather what politic they should enact and how they should the enact it.
Accordingly, one may pose the following queries. Should enterprises pander to existing fans’ nostalgic desires for maintaining narrative lineage and tradition? Or should enterprises interrogate and potentially amend the possible norms and values they engender? With that said we may now survey and consider various fan pronouncements that exist among and across diverse internet platforms.
We will begin by cataloguing “some” of the stances of disappointment—i.e., those who express dissatisfaction with the program and wish that the contents of the show were otherwise.
One persistent accusation emerging from the opposition indicates that the Doctor Who enterprise panders to discourses and campaigns that cultivate and enact progressively partisan sentiments—particularly with regards to gender politics. Individual expressions of discontent may highlight one or many of the following discursive orientations: cultural Marxism, feminism, third wave feminism, the #Metoo campaign, Social Justice initiatives, progressivism, political correctness, leftist or liberal politics, etc. Of course they also employ pejorative expressions as well—e.g., superficial hipsters, wokeness, snowflakes, feminazis, man-haters, the easily triggered, etc. As they see it, gender politics demonstrate an inappropriate presence in and influence over the show’s narrative and casting decisions in a manner that fundamentally undermines the quality and legacy of the programme.
One central example of antifeminism is youtuber Dave Cullen of The Dave Cullen Show who criticizes the narrative unfolding of Doctor Who with at least two separate videos, “The Vandalization of Doctor Who” and “Feminist Misandry Infests Doctor Who.” Through these media artefacts, he provides analysis and commentary of how the show’s dialogue repeatedly gives voice to a progressivism that—among other rebukes—routinely derogates men in a thoroughly one-sided manner. As he articulates the problem, the show’s narrative choices are a consequence of the enterprise’s attempt to “virtue signal” in response to feminist ideology and critique.
Cullen, using phrases like “feminist garbage,” enacts an oppositional rhetoric that not only negates a respect for (and thereby legitimacy of) the creative decisions of Doctor Who, but also progressive epistemologies. Consequently, the critique offered—though not necessarily unsophisticated for the context of Youtube—refrains from approximating the academic practice of measured interrogation and a scholarly disinclination toward determinism. Instead of probing a discursive logic in an effort to unearth its potential utility and apparent shortcomings, Cullen argues by assertion (at least with respect the epistemological frames he indicts). “Feminism,” within the epistemic parameters of his own narrative enactments, is simply (and thereby essentially) absent of intellectual and political worth.
Other antifeminist commentaries centre specifically on Jodie’s casting as the source of (or rather a target for) fan discontent. These discursive acts contend that Jodie’s undertaking of the role represents a radical departure from the show fans grew to love and celebrate. As one Twitter user exclaims in response to Jodie’s casting, “Are you f**king kidding me you’ve ruined doctor who for me and my father in law. You might as well just cancelled the show.” Though other expressions of disappointment contend that Jodie’s presence represents the enterprise’s zenith instantiation of feminism—making the story and mythology secondary to political demonstrations and indoctrination. Likewise, there are commentaries that share this (or a similar) sentiment, but target some specific demographic or behaviour as a proxy for feminist and progressive sensibilities. One tweet plainly states, “This is just pandering to women” and another exclaims, “This is nothing but political correctness” (as quoted in Chastain 2017).
Some discursive indictments emphasize an investment in The Doctor being an archetypal male. While such speech acts often demonstrate antifeminist sentiments, they focus attention on narrative integrity and respect for the cannon. A petition to “stop making Doctor Who a SJW [social justice warrior]/PC [politically correct] show” circulating the internet (rather unsuccessfully with less than a thousand signatures) explains:
The Doctor is a well established male character. I feel that if the BBC want[s] more female leads they should create new shows instead of breaking over 50 years of tradition in Doctor Who. People today don’t have a lot of male heroes to look up to and the ones we do have have been replaced by women…. What makes this instant with Doctor Who worse is that they are changing the gender of the protagonist. Not making another Female Timelord, just taking one of the only male ones left… I’m sorry, but that is just wrong. You wouldn’t turn Spongebob into a female to get girl viewers or turn Barbie [in]to a man to get Boy fans. This is just unnecessary for the show, marketing and the plot.
Cullen (the aforementioned YouTuber) demonstrates a similar logic when he gives reason— beyond his general distaste for feminism—for his disinclination to accept the casting of a woman Doctor. While Cullen acknowledges that the Doctor Who cannon does not prohibit the story from moving in this direction, he purports that show creators made the change without a concern for the cannon or any other story centred initiative. He believes the BCC’s pandering to a pervading culture of political correctness serves as the primary impetus for The Doctor’s gender change. Though he also notes that the Doctor Who enterprise adopted and began disseminating a “progressive” agenda well before Whittaker’s casting. Such an agenda, Cullen purports, became “ramped-up” during the years of Whittaker’s predecessor, Peter Capaldi.
Gender Neutral Opposition
Some oppositional discourse suggests that indeed the casting of a woman Doctor is entirely appropriate, but gender should not be a criterion to determine such a casting. Proceeding from this ethic, they maintain that the show producers and writers should not permit or facilitate the salience of gender issues and feminist politics within the show’s narrative and advertising. Likewise, some fans contend that that the show is still enjoyable—they give voice to their intentions to remain viewers and fans—but further suggest that to do so requires that they actively ignore what they perceive to be obvious political sentiments of the show. As one YouTube user—commenting on Cullen’s “The Vandalization of Doctor Who”—declares, “As an avid Doctor Who fan, I’m just going to try to enjoy the show and just ignore the ‘wokeness.’”
For the sake of clarity, we should acknowledge that sexiest sentiments and hang-ups imbue all—and everything among and in-between—these discursive acts. While the comments offered seem to represent distinct positions of opposition, they coalesce on a general discontent with the presence of progressive gender politics within one or more aspects of the Doctor Who enterprise. Furthermore, while these ostensible subsets of opposition demonstrate distinct nuances—it would likely be a mistake for us to regard them as the definitive and precise stances of the persons who proffer them. If we examine the history of any given user’s media commentaries, after all, we may very well find that such comments, read individually, are not entirely consistent with respect to other discrete pronouncements made by said user. Perhaps the comments will demonstrate outright contradiction, or they may simply facilitate opportunities for ambiguous and ambivalent readings. In any event, discursive enactments demonstrate an agency that, in some respects, remain independent of their authorial progenitors.
On the other end of the Whovian political spectrum (#MakeWhovianPolticalSpectrumReal) are those Whovians who resolutely, largely or somewhat affirm the narrative and casting choices of the show. Some highlight that Doctor Who holds a sexist legacy, which requires correction via the casting of a woman Doctor as well as the incorporation and dissemination of progressive (and/or feminist) values. In a series of tweets, sociologist-fan Carlos Beck (@CarlosGBeck) provides a thorough exegesis of the gender inequity perpetually underlying the Doctor-companion relationship. Beck iterates:
The Doctor’s relations with his companions is variously asymmetrical. While this is narratively established by the fact that the Doctor is a space/time traveling E[xtra]T[errestrial], it nonetheless serves as the foundation for a series of tropes effectively organized around gender. “doctor-splaining” is only 1 mind-numbingly repetitive example in a set of these narrative devices whereby the dr, as man, is positioned to explain generally in annoyed fashion the fantastic logic of the episode’s conflict & its resolution to his companion, as woman. Another ex.[ample] being the tendency of his companions, all the most important have up to s[eason]3 been women, to soothe the Dr’s more aggressive (read:masculine) tendencies. This… is attached to & justified by the dr’s initimate knowledge of the cosmos, one his comp[anion]’s can’t master.
For Beck, as with others, the casting of a woman Doctor was long overdue and indeed, may well not go far enough.
Gender Neutral Advocacy
Yet other discourses, which advocate for Whittaker as The Doctor, suggest that Doctor Who has not and/or does not pander to progressivism, feminism or any other political sensibility. Whereby, their understanding of fan politics is such that it is a mistake to read such an agenda into the program. Responding to a denigrating tweet from a (now former) fan bemoaning Doctor Who’s gender progressivism and celebration of Jodie’s casting, many fans defended the premiere by denouncing any such political enactments within the episode. Such fans made statements to the effect of, “The episode doesn’t have an agenda! You should watch it; you may enjoy it!” Similarly, some fans suggest that while having a woman Doctor is not necessary or relevant to the show’s success or political stakes, the position of opposition to a woman Doctor lacks legitimacy. As one twitter user, responding to another user bemoaning the fact that The Doctor is now a woman, stipulated: “The Doctor does not need to be a woman. But there is no reason she shouldn’t be. And she is.” One with this understanding, then, may simply neglect to engage with or consider the political implications of The Doctor’s gender.
The Untenability of Political Neutrality
The above examples defending the Doctor Who enterprise by distancing it from political intentions and enactments demonstrate particular import in juxtaposition to the oppositional examples that indict the show for having a politic. The implicit logic undergirding all these examples, both from the side of affirmation and opposition, is that Doctor Who is not an appropriate space for political concerns—with respect to gender inequality or otherwise. Yet, as I illustrate in the first part of this two part discussion, an artefact’s political implications are ineluctable—both in the sense that an artefact demonstrates social-material consequences for users and in the (not entirely separate) sense that an artefact does not exist independently of political readings—even those readings positioned in opposition to partisan posturing.
What we are left with, then, is a circumstance in which Whovians miscategorise or neglect the relevant and appropriate debate. What, then, is an enterprise’s obligation to its diverse fanbase? Should an enterprise like Doctor Who uphold fan expectations—i.e., pander to lineage and tradition? With respect to disappointed Whovians, the circumstance is one in which a segment of fans believe that the Doctor Who programme holds a responsibility to meet their expectations. In the present moment, these fans believe that the enterprise should uphold the show’s tradition of casting men as The Doctor. With respect to how they understand the problem, the relevant ethics are rather simple. Because Loyal Whovians are in significant ways responsible for the show’s enduring success, the programme thereby owes them—or rather the programme must remain sensitive to their desires. Is it not, then, disrespectful to said fans to amend such an enduring feature of the Doctor Who story—like The Doctor’s gender?
Without even exploring the narrative justification for why a woman Doctor does not disturb the integrity of the Doctor Who mythos (trust me, it doesn’t), we may readily problematize this logic. We must contrast this ostensible obligation to traditional expectations with another apparent responsibility. Because enterprises creating, curating and profiting from beloved (fan) artefacts have ineluctable consequences (political in scope), are these enterprises not accountable for the consequences (and possible harms) they engender? With respect to the Doctor Who enterprise, a history of representational gender inequity remains complicit in normalizing differential gender privileges and burdens (see Part 1 of the discussion).
So enterprises—recognizing an obligation to (some) fans—may very well maintain a narrative unfolding indicative of the show’s past. In so doing, they could very well enact normative on-goings that pander to audience nostalgia (and prejudice)—despite the social harms that such on-goings may engender (either deliberately or by means of silence and inaction). Or the enterprises in question can glean the relevant lessons of the present socio-historical context and take responsibility for the political implications they pose to a world of onlookers. For what my opinion is worth, I prefer my beloved programmes to take a position of responsibility that furthers social equality. My Doctor is a person who will recognize the needs of those denied equal opportunity and fair treatment over the desires of those who are simply content with the way things are or were. My Doctor does not refuse help to those in need.
James Chouinard (@Jamesbc81) is a Lecturer in the School of Sociology at The Australian National University
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