“Every story ever told really happened. Stories are where memories go when they’re forgotten” -- Doctor Who
Stories are important. In the end, they’re all we have, and as we grow up, the stories we learn are eventually what make us who we are, and create the social norms we live in. And in this day and age, there’s no denying that the stories on TV have a huge impact.
Given the general drivel that tends to pour out of the magic box, I cannot help but celebrate that we have entered the age of the geeks - an era of television (mostly in English) that has finally left off the mediocre sitcoms and run-of-the-mill romances and focused on telling proper, fleshed-out stories, usually adapted from novels and comic books, or having roots in fantasy or science fiction.
Thankfully, this is also the age of greater representation - media is slowly being saturated with characters and actors from diverse backgrounds, and getting rid of tired old gender roles. As the success of Rey, the female protagonist from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and more recently that of Wonder Woman shows, the future generations are more than on board with the idea of heroes who aren’t white males.
Representation is important
When I was a little girl, I desperately wanted to be Kakababu, the disabled detective created in the incredible mind of Sunil Gangopadhyay, or Simba, the protagonist in Disney’s The Lion King. When you’re that young, gender (or species, for that matter) is not a construct that matters to you. But as I grew older, I learnt that it would be impossible for me to one day turn into a lion and become the king of Pride Rock. I also learnt that I couldn’t be Kakababu, because I was a girl.
It’s interesting what you get socialised into believing, without really realising it. There should be no limits to a child’s imagination, but the sad truth is that we place those limits and we learn them by heart - and one day we turn on the television hoping to find a character we can relate to, and if you’re a little girl from Bangladesh - chances are you won’t find too many
It’s interesting what you get socialised into believing, without really realising it. There should be no limits to a child’s imagination, but the sad truth is that we place those limits and we learn them by heart - and one day we turn on the television hoping to find a character we can relate to, and if you’re a little girl from Bangladesh - chances are you won’t find too many. And whether you idolise Batman or Mashrafe, I can guarantee that the barrier of sex soon becomes an unscalable one for many girls.
That is why it’s so important to see women in lead roles from a young age - not just to let girls dream big, but to show girls and boys that gender really is a social construct. Of course, there is something to say about tokenism here - there’s no point in having a woman or ethnic minority for the sake of it, or switching from James to Jane Bond, without giving them stories of their own that actually engage the audience.
Which is why no one is happier than I am that the family-friendly, British sci-fi show Doctor Who has decided to make history by choosing its first ever female lead to play the Doctor.
No plan, no weapons and nothing to lose
Just for a little context - Doctor Who first aired on the BBC in 1963 and features the Doctor, a time-travelling genius from an alien race called the Time Lords who have the unique ability to regenerate rather than die. The classic series ran till 1989, but a hugely popular reboot in 2005 has now seen it reach cult status and go worldwide. So far, 12 male actors have played the role of the Doctor, all with their own interpretations, and Jodie Whittaker will be the first female to take on the role.
Science-fiction’s ability to transform is why it is one of my favourite genres - for decades, sci-fi has paved the way to the future, ranging from light-hearted futuristic adventures to deeply philosophical contemplations of the human condition that can often be way ahead of its time. The best thing about Doctor Who is that this sci-fi show is both.
I am definitely sentimental, but in a world filled with violence, I can think of no better role model than the Doctor - an impossible hero who uses his superior intellect and charming wit to save the day, while subtly preaching an anti-war message filtered with an undying belief in humanity, hope and kindness.
My mother grew up with women who were usually the damsels in distress, heroines with the long lashes and limited lines. I grew up with women who were increasingly stronger and braver, who could fire guns, build war machines and generally kick ass. But now that I’m older, I long for my niece to have heroes who solve problems, help people and alongside being cool, are brilliant, intelligent, forgiving and kind.
The most recent run, with Peter Capaldi as the twelfth Doctor, has been lauded not only for its casting - featuring disabled, LGBT and racially diverse characters - but its messages against racism, capitalism and toxic masculinity. Given that most of the heroes that children see on TV nowadays, whether in cartoons or movie adaptations of comic books - tend to use their weapons or superpowers to fight the bad guys, I can’t stress enough on how important it is to have a hero who simply uses his brains, stays strong in his belief in nonviolence, and still manages to stay relevant in the modern era.
The backlash is exactly why we need a female Doctor
The latest story arc in Doctor Who already saw another Time Lord transform from the Master to Missy and was hugely popular. One of the original co-creators of the show, Sydney Newman, began lobbying for a female Doctor back in the mid-eighties.
The show has referred multiple times to gender being a non-issue for the Time Lords - so the vitriol pouring out from fans and media after the announcement of a female Doctor has been shocking, to say the least. It’s strange when you think about it - a story about an alien who can travel in a box through time and space and regenerate his entire body is acceptable, but his transformation into a woman isn’t.
Whether it was the “will her spaceship become a kitchen?” jokes or the slut-shaming of the actress by British tabloids - who jumped at the opportunity to print nude photos of Jodie Whittaker in a display of text-book misogyny - the downright anger and disbelief aimed at the show is once again proof of sci-fi’s ability to shock and push us into widening our horizons and challenging the status quo.
This is exactly why we need a female Doctor. My mother grew up with women who were usually the damsels in distress, heroines with the long lashes and limited lines. I grew up with women who were increasingly stronger and braver, who could fire guns, build war machines and generally kick ass. But now that I’m older, I long for my niece to have heroes who solve problems, help people and alongside being cool, are brilliant, intelligent, forgiving and kind.
Thanks to Doctor Who, now she can not only have this hero, but have him/her in a mould that doesn’t adhere to traditional gender roles. Maybe, just maybe, she will end up in a world where children can be whatever they imagine they want to be, without taking anyone’s gender, race or sexual orientation into account.
Now that’s a sci-fi future I can definitely get on board with.
Shuprova Tasneem is Deputy Editor, Weekend Tribune.