If you’ve been anywhere near the Internet recently, you’ve no doubt read that BBC fan favorite “Doctor Who” has cast Jodie Whittaker to play the thirteenth Doctor, making her the first woman to ever play the protagonist in the show’s 54-year history. The Doctor, an alien who regenerates as another humanoid being instead of dying, has “coincidentally” reappeared as a white man for the show’s duration. Whittaker, of “Broadchurch” and “Attack the Block” fame, will take on the historical mantle of first female Doctor when the show debuts its 11th season next year. You’ve probably also read — or at least expected — the various reports of male fan backlash that have been published since. Male Whovians have been taking to the Internet in droves to decry their favorite show since the announcement the weekend before Comic Con.
If this narrative sounds familiar to you, that’s probably because it happened with the “Ghostbusters” reboot. And the “Ocean’s 8” reboot. And Alamo Drafthouse’s infamous all-female “Wonder Woman” screenings. Whenever women are written or re-written into popular fictional narratives, or whenever nerd environments cater specifically to women (or any other marginalized group), a very vocal cross-section of the Internet responds as melodramatically as possible. They weep for their lost childhoods, write yet-unaired media off as unwatchable, and condemn “political correctness” to the deepest realms of hell.
This hysteria would be funnier if it had no ill effects. Instead, as male commenters on articles about female representation love to reiterate, films and TV shows by and/or about women rarely succeed, critically or financially. “Ghostbusters” lost money at the box office, despite an all-star cast and solid fanbase. In 2010, an unprecedented four of the ten Best Picture Oscar contenders featured female protagonists: “True Grit,” “Winter’s Bone,” “The Kids Are All Right,” and “Black Swan.” However, if one were to rank all ten nominees according to both critical reception (via Rotten Tomatoes score) and box office gross, three of those four female-led films would end up in the bottom five. Of the top 20 highest-ranked films of all time at Rotten Tomatoes, just 3 feature female protagonists, 6 have female screenwriters, and none are directed by women. Of the top 20 highest-grossing films ever, 3 boast a female lead, 3 are penned by women, and 1 is co-directed by a woman (Jennifer Lee, for “Frozen“). To be genre-specific, “Catwoman” and “Elektra” are the two lowest-grossing superhero films based on a major comic book. The higher-ranking “Catwoman” took in $10 million less than Nicolas Cage’s “Ghost Rider,” and more than $60 million less than Ben Affleck dud “Daredevil.”
Such a genre separation is becoming obsolete, now that 11 of the aforementioned 20 highest-grossing titles of all time are sci-fi/fantasy/superhero films. Yet when it comes to geek culture, many male fans seem to be stuck in 1980 — both in terms of how they think women should be treated, and how disenfranchised nerddom really is. Long dead are the days of “Revenge of the Nerds,” as new fan conventions spring up every year, comic books dominate the media landscape, and the tech industry takes over American business. Liking “Doctor Who” is no longer your shameful secret, it’s something you can talk about with just about anybody. In the immortal words of Ben Wyatt from “Parks and Recreation,” “nerd culture is mainstream now, so when you use the word ‘nerd’ derogatorily, it means you’re the one that’s out of the zeitgeist.”
It seems this supposed social disadvantage, coupled with garden-variety sexism, is what makes male nerd outcry so deafening. This hugely influential portion of the population believes that they are marginalized for their very popular interests. Those same people then feel they’ve earned the right to “own” said interests, for loving them when it was (apparently) uncool to do so. Add in any kind of pro-woman/otherwise socially progressive change, and it’s easy to see why so many men are convinced that their beloved titles are being warped for social justice’s sake. It’s a logically irrational reaction.
This emotional response is rooted in fear, not fact. In reality, straight white men are not the only participants in nerd culture, nerd media is in no danger whatsoever, and much of nerd media originates from socially progressive politics to begin with. Still, these naysayers register news like “a woman will lead a popular TV show for the first time in half a century” with disproportionate alarm. To them, this is an attack on their carefully constructed world, in which they are the protagonists, writers, and directors nearly all the time. Make no mistake: today, nerds have cultural power. And when powerful groups are forced to share even some of their capital with outsiders, those outsiders become a threat, no matter how innocuous their intentions. After all, the outsiders are taking something from those in power. When you’re used to seeing everything go your way, any differentiation from that norm feels like an upset.
That’s where gender comes into this equation. After all, “nerds” and “non-nerds” aren’t coherent classes of people, and they never have been. Bullying is unquestionably terrible, kids can be cruel, and adolescence is the worst, but nobody has ever faced structural oppression (job/housing discrimination, governmental prejudice, labor inequality, etc.) for being a nerd — not even in the ’80s. Nerds who lash out at progressive changes in their own culture, however, are overwhelmingly straight, white, and male. This trifecta of sociopolitical luck means that these men are used to a lot of advantage, and therefore most often threatened by any perceived attack on their social dominance. They use nerddom, and all the perceived ostracization that comes with it, as justification for their outrage.
People who are used to getting whatever they want on an institutional level perceive not getting something as something actually being taken away from them.
Regardless of their interests, however, straight, white men all hold the same advantages, and feel threatened when women, people of color, and/or LGBT people enter their spaces. If you’ve seen white people get up in arms about immigration and affirmative action, straight people feel excluded by pride, and men delude themselves into thinking women have it better, you understand this social pattern. People who are used to getting whatever they want on an institutional level perceive not getting something as something actually being taken away from them. The thirteenth Doctor slot went to a woman, so the role must have been taken from a man. Take one befuddled Redditor for example, who wrote:
“Annoying how [“Doctor Who” showrunner Chris] Chibnall said he always wanted the 13th Doctor to be a woman. It should be cast on the actor’s ability not the gender. The fact that male actors were never going to be cast even if they auditioned is poor. Same with women, it shouldn’t have a woman just because Chibnall wanted it, he should have done it on ability, either male or female.”
Aside from its outlandishness, the response to Whittaker’s casting shows how slow social progress in our media has become. If fans must ardently defend casting Whittaker — a thin, attractive blonde woman who will likely play a straight character — we’re a long way away from seeing the Doctor really deviate from the on-screen norm. Perhaps the show will continue to diversify its companions, as it did with season 10’s Bill (before writing her off), but writers may be too wary of fanning irate fans’ flames. It would be wonderful to see this show, which regularly celebrates the breadth and beauty of human life, commit to diversity despite the outcry.
If you’re a male fan who’s feeling particularly irked by this landmark “Doctor Who” announcement, it may be time to think before you act. Question where that rage/annoyance/betrayal is coming from. Is it rational? Reflexive? Would you feel the same way if a female character you liked was recast as a man?
With nerdery no longer on the cultural fringe, it’s time to let go of the mythical disenfranchised geek. Instead, let’s try to understand why all media is skewed a certain way, and do our best to break up those patterns. The shows and films we love will only improve once they evolve. We may not be able to control the natural advantages with which we’re born, but that doesn’t mean we can leverage them against those less privileged when they finally get a win. After all, if we’re all willing to be compassionate, open-minded fans and human beings, it will become clear that nothing is being taken away from us — and we certainly have nothing to lose.