Heather Reynolds deconstructs the myth surrounding role model exclusivity in media and literature.
This summer, on July 16th, the next actor to be cast as the Doctor was announced during a minute-long short on BBC One. As always, the hype for this event was huge. The topic was trending on most social media sites hours before the announcement was made. The conversation was overrunning other hashtags, such as Wimbledon and BBC News, with fans waiting with baited breath to see who would be taking over as the star of a show with a legacy lasting over fifty years. However, through all of these posts, tweets, and hot takes, one query surfaced time and time again. Would this announcement finally see the introduction of a female Doctor?
The time for the announcement came, Jodie Whittaker was announced as the new lead of Doctor Who, and the overwhelming response was positive. The majority of fans, men and women alike, were excited about the new opportunity this presented, with many pointing out how it was about time. Considering how many other Time Lords were known to regenerate into different species, transcending gender seemed like a small step in comparison. This wasn’t even the first time the modern iteration has had a Time Lord regenerate into a body that would be perceived as a different gender, with the role of the Master being portrayed by Michelle Gomez since series eight, taking over from John Simm’s Master. By all accounts, while it is a first for the Doctor, it isn’t a big deal in the show’s canon.
“The obvious response to this is: why can young boys not see a confident woman as a role model?”
However, while many rejoiced over this new role model for young girls in popular fiction, and others felt no particular way about it, there were many viewers who held incredibly negative views about the casting. Some felt robbed of the grandfatherly nature of the Doctor, who had endeared them to the role originally, and some felt that it was too much to explain to children that the Doctor, who changed body every few series, had done it again but a bit differently. The majority of criticism received was due to young boys having one less role model to look up to. The obvious response to this is: why can’t young boys see a confident woman as a role model?
This occurs time and time again with modern fiction, where men are seen as role models for all, and women are seen as just role models for young girls. Most modern television for children has male leads, including shows that are not geared towards a specific gender, whereas female led shows are perceived as a ‘girl thing.’ According to a recent study, 57% of protagonists in children’s literature published between 1990 and 2000 are male, with only 31% of lead characters being female. The remainder are animals, of which only 1/3 are female. Books and television shows with female leads are seen as less marketable, and are more likely to be turned down by those in charge in the industry.
However, this perception that boys cannot relate to a female protagonist has little basis in reality. The majority of children, regardless of gender, will look up to and relate to the ‘good guys’ regardless of who they might be. They may relate to some more than others, like the character that wears glasses like they do, or plays soccer like they do, but gender is often the last thing on their mind when looking at an ensemble cast. Many young children who feel ostracised by their ‘nerdy’ nature find solace in characters like Matilda and Eliza Thornberry, while others get the courage to stand up for what they believe in from characters like Mulan and General Leia Organa.
“While Skulduggery is the titular character, it is Valkyrie’s story and she is the character people emote with, boys and girls alike.”
To take a more Irish example, the Skulduggery Pleasant series by Dublin-based writer, Derek Landy is geared towards those aged 11 up into their late teens. The ten book series is based around a skeleton detective who solves murders and can summon fireballs into his hands. It, by all intents and purposes, sounds like the ultimate teen boy series. However, it has one clear difference from the other books you will find in this genre. Its protagonist is a teenage girl. While Skulduggery is the titular character, it is Valkyrie’s story and she is the character people relate to, boys and girls alike.
Female role models are for everyone, not just girls, and to limit the extent of their impact is to ignore and undervalue the immense good they do to the lives of so many children and adults alike. It’s long past time to gear media towards different children, instead of targeting children based on gender, and so, really, who cares about the gender of the actor who plays the Doctor, so long as they keep the fun and whimsy of the show alive?
Doctor Who returns to screens on Christmas Day on BBC1