Why all the fuss? It’s about time, lord

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“Twitter claimed that ‘a woman can’t be a Doctor’ and ‘it is not Nurse Who, but Doctor Who’”

By Finola Kerrigan, Reader in Marketing and Consumption at Birmingham Business School

Doctor Who fans waited with great excitement to find out who the thirteenth Doctor would be.  This long running, rebooted series has an inbuilt mechanism to deal with the problem facing many long running series, how do you sustain the series over time, when your lead actor ages or wants to move on to other things? The Doctor metamorphoses into a new body when the body is depleted. Even the Doctor does not know what form his next incarnation will take until it happens.

Up to now, the Doctor was a white man, but the thirteenth Doctor is a woman; Jodie Whittaker.  This announcement has been met with the now expected outcry from some fans, declaring this casting as a crime against the show and framing the decision as part of a lefty agenda within the BBC.  Objections on Twitter claimed that ‘a woman can’t be a Doctor’ and ‘it is not Nurse Who, but Doctor Who’, showing that old gender stereotypes still persist. While women appeared in Doctor Who, up until now, the most prominent women acted as the Doctor’s assistant.

Could the next James Bond be a woman?

Some outraged fans linked the casting of Whittaker to speculation that the next James Bond could be a woman, something that has been discussed at great length in research that I have been doing with Chloe Preece from Royal Holloway, University of London and Daragh O’Reilly from University of Sheffield on the James Bond franchise. In our research, fans retain very clear ideas regarding who should play Bond and why.

Bond purists insist that the Bond conceived of by Ian Fleming was dark haired, therefore the most recent Bond, the blonde Daniel Craig, cannot be seen as an authentic Bond.  For others, they will accept a change of hair colour, but deviations in relation to gender or skin colour are out of the question.  In contrast, Doctor Who has no predetermined race or gender, but the character just happened to be played by white men up until now. In response to the outcry that Doctor Who cannot be a woman, the Merriam-Webster dictionary tweeted “‘Doctor’ has no gender in English”.

Diversifying casting for our screens

This negative reaction to the casting of a woman as Doctor Who is not surprising when set in the context of expressions of cultural tastes more broadly.  Research I undertook while writing my recent book, Film Marketing, found a clear gender bias in online reviewing.  Walt Hickey found that TV shows aimed at women were routinely rated poorly by male reviewers on peer review platforms such as IMDB.  Equally, a study by Jahna Otterbacher found that reviews written by, or perceived to be written by woman were downgraded in terms of usefulness by platform users. What we see is that the entertainment medium can be slow to catch up with social norms, where women occupy all sorts of roles in society.

Researchers have long pointed out the problems with a lack of diverse representation on screens; the stories on screen do not represent everyday reality and in not doing so, this lack of representation can have broader negative implications.  While the focus of the casting of Jodie Whittaker as Doctor Who is on gender, broader attention needs to be paid to normalizing diverse casting across the board so that our screens reflect society more accurately.

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