The BBC and women

Image credit: Winter Trabex via YouTube

The Doctor Who reveal felt a little like one of those parties parents throw to reveal their baby’s gender. Except a lot of the guests were very angry, some yelled that they’d never wanted to meet the baby anyway and there was a sorry absence of pink or blue cake.

Personally, I’m hugely looking forward to Jodie Whittaker’s stint as the Doctor. I think she’s a great actress, the BBC has pointedly observed that a regenerating Time Lord is perfectly able to switch gender, and co-creator Sydney Newman made it clear back in 1986 that “At a later stage, Doctor Who should be metamorphosed into a woman.” Of course, there are inevitable objections from fans who feel a sense of loyalty to a character and don’t like the change. And I do think it’s good to remember that people can disagree with a creative decision, without wanting any less for female opportunity.

But from a gender perspective I really am glad. I think women have held a troubled place within sci-fi for far too long. Last year I read one of the earliest examples of science fiction: Margaret Cavendish’s 17th century novel, ‘The Blazing World’. The central female character develops from passive victim to a creator of new worlds of her own. It’s a lovely metaphor for what Cavendish herself was doing in the act of writing – making herself a literary world where a woman could be strong and powerful (although her female characters tend to get cross and set things on fire quite a lot.) But Cavendish’s status as female and author was problematic, and many of her readers doubted she’d written it herself. 

If we fast forward to the 20th century we find problems there too- many female sci-fi authors felt they had to hide behind male pseudonyms or they wouldn’t be read. Even Ursula Le Guin was asked by her editors to use her initials in case a female author made readers “nervous.”

So it’s partly in light of that historic gender imbalance in sci-fi that I’m looking forward to seeing a female hero take the Tardis key.

But whatever your opinion on the casting choice, some of the media response to it has undoubtedly revealed problematic attitudes: for example, the decision by The Sun and The Daily Mail to centre their articles around nude photos of Whittaker, and headline her as ‘Dalektable’. Or a tweet which complained, ‘It’s Doctor Who, not Nurse Who’, managing to overlook both female doctors and male nurses and offend just about everyone.

Still, the BBC itself came into hot water just a few days later when the gender pay gap hit headlines: two-thirds of those earning over £150,000 are male, and there’s an overall pay gap of 10%. The BBC Director General tried to defend this by reassuring us that across the UK the figure the gap is currently 18.1%- rather than excusing the BBC, surely it’s just clear that both gaps need sorting out.

Why is the Doctor such a treasured character? Perhaps it’s partly because an individual who is not limited by time and space is something of a symbol for boundless freedom: adventures at the furthest reaches of the universe, travelling back to the dinosaurs and forward to emoji-speaking robots, spinning through galaxies in an impossible blue box, the Doctor does more than we can dream or imagine. It’s about time a woman took that on.

Gender equality is important, whether we’re talking about having strong female characters in fiction, or the way women are portrayed in the media, or the salaries they’re paid. But while we’re at it, let’s keep in mind some of the infinitely larger issues about the way women are treated around the world. Some of our anger and passion deserves more important channels than BBC1. Let me urge you to get involved in standing up for freedom. Because if there’s anything Doctor Who has taught us, it’s that all the best things are even bigger on the inside.

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