When Jodie Whittaker was first cast as the Thirteenth Doctor, some unhappy Doctor Who fans (including former Doctor Peter Davison) lamented the “loss of a role model for boys.”
Brushing past the fact that, even without the Doctor, male role models are still vastly overrepresented in almost all industries including pop culture, this statement rests on the sexist belief that women cannot be role models for boys or men. That they can’t look up to their mothers or grandmothers, to their sisters or aunts, to Nakia or Wonder Woman, to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Beyonce. It’s an unsettling reaction that only proves the need for greater gender diversity—and other forms of diversity—in our most powerful, far-reaching pop culture roles.
Thankfully, the Doctor is already on the job. During a Doctor Who press conference at San Diego Comic-Con, Jodie Whittaker was asked what message she hopes boys will get from watching her tenure as the Doctor on Who. “That it’s okay to look up to women and that that is exciting and not to be feared,” said Whittaker, without hesitation.
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“It’ll be really exciting when women aren’t treated as a genre,” Whittaker added, highlighting a vital problem: When straight, white cisgender men star in a major film or TV show, that film or TV show is expected to be seen by everyone. When anyone outside of those narrow parameters stars in a film or TV show, it is considered niche in some way, even when it has a huge budget and a major company behind it.
Not only does this pattern have a devastating effect on the kids and adults who rarely or never get to see people like them on screen in a central role, especially in our culture’s biggest, myth-making stories, but it discourages the kids and adults who often get to see people like themselves on screen from ever looking for connections to characters who look or exist differently than they do. It’s robbing them of a chance to work on a vital skill, and distancing them from the rest of humanity.
A similar discussion popped up around the press for A Wrinkle in Time. At a press conference for the movie, which is a science fiction adventure story with a girl protagonist, last March, director Ava Duvernay encouraged boys to see the film, too.
“We talk a lot about girls seeing the film,” said Duvernay, “but [Zach Galifinakis] was the first person to say, ‘This is something for boys, too. Boys need to be able to see themselves as vulnerable and themselves being able to follow a girl and not always having to be macho.”
Last year, Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins tweeted out a list compiled by a kindergarten teacher, documenting all of her kids’ reactions to Wonder Woman. It included boys, as well as girls because, of course, they, too, were affected by the release of this movie. Even if they didn’t see it, Wonder Woman had entered the pop culture sphere as one of the biggest movies of the year, and that had an effect on everyone.
The list features everything from a boy asking his parents for a Wonder Woman lunchbox to a girl who came to school with a printed list of every female superhero and her powers, and ends with this observation from the producer who sent it to Jenkins: “Consider this your friendly reminder that if this movie completely changed the way these boys and girls thought about themselves and the world in a week, imagine what the next generation will achieve if we give them more movies like Wonder Woman.”
This discussion isn’t just about gender, but about all “other”-ed identities. Another common “niche” genre in our big budget movies is films and TV shows centering on black characters and actors, such as Black Panther or Black Lightning—both of which notably have “black” in their title. We don’t call The Flash: The White Flash. The descriptor is implied because it is our mainstream culture’s default. But, as the box office results for Black Panther and the second season renewal of Black Lightning suggest, these movies are not being enjoyed just by black audiences, and they shouldn’t be.
At the same Comic-Con that saw Whittaker encouraging everyone to give a woman Doctor a chance, Black Lightning showrunner Salim Akil shared an affecting story about how, when he was young, he dressed up as his favorite character, Batman. Akil wore gloves because the mask didn’t match the color of his hands and he wanted his costume to be “authentic.”
“I never want another young black girl or black child to have to hide their skin again to be a hero. What’s beautiful is that, just today, LEGO presented us with a LEGO of Black Lightning and that will be in the culture hopefully forever.
The only other reward I’m looking for from this show… is I can’t wait for Halloween to come this year. If I can see little brown boys and little brown girls and little white boys and little white girls dressed up as Black Lightning and Thunder. I think it would be amazing for American culture.”
Akil doesn’t believe this will be good for black American culture; he believes it will be good for American culture. Because black America is not a niche.
Mainstream characters that exist outside of the parameters of straight, white male-dom are not just for the “other” demographic parameters they tick off; they are for everyone. So, if you like trippy stories about kids traveling through time and space to find their fathers, watch A Wrinkle in Time. If you like stories about superheroes trying to save their community, watch Black Lightning. If you like science fiction about aliens who travel through space and time, watch Doctor Who. It’s as simple as that.
If you’re especially lucky—yes, lucky—you might learn something about what it is like to experience the world in a way different from the way you yourself do… And I’m not just talking about having the ability to produce, control, and manipulate electricity. Seeing an “other” cast in a role or story you care about isn’t a loss; it’s a wonderful opportunity.
“Like Chris has said and we all feel,” continued Whittaker in that press conference, “this is a show for everyone. I think us three sitting here [Whittaker, as well as co-stars Mandip Gill and Tosin Cole] didn’t always have when we were growing up necessarily people on television that looked like us or, like me and Mandip, sounded like us. Not many people have our accent … I suppose that heroes don’t have to tick the same box and that, but, like Tosin said, it’s 2018 … When you’ve been thrust into a genderless role, it’s incredible, but … let’s not have this conversation in 2020, hopefully.”
Let’s not have this conversation in 2020. It’s not enough anymore for women and other underrepresented identities to be treated as niche entertainment. It never was. We all deserve better.