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Why having a female Dr Who matters



It was recently announced that the thirteenth iteration of the main character in Doctor Who will be played by Jodie Whittaker. A woman.


In 2017, the casting of a white woman in a major TV role is hardly revolutionary, except that the role is the Doctor, a regenerative alien who can take on the appearance of anyone, but has for 12 iterations tended towards the persona of a quirky British white man.

The backlash to the announcement was as inevitable as it was predictable. The complaints echo the same type of comments made about Mad Max: Fury Road or the most recent Ghostbusters. Complaints of media becoming too ‘politically-correct’ and that minorities are somehow ruining or taking over franchises.

With the push for diversity in media, you make understand how to some that would feel like the case. Statistically, we know that isn’t true. While the diversity is film and TV is increasing, we are far from parity. A UCLA study showed that in Hollywood just one third of speaking characters are women and 75 per cent of crew members in American blockbuster films are male. And according to Screen Australia, only 18 per cent of Australian main characters onscreen and 12 per cent of people working in film are of not of European or Anglo-Celtic decent.

So despite the focus on diversity recently, why is there still such media imbalance? Part of this problem is systemic as its hard to break a homogeny to hire more diverse content creators and film producers. There needs to be more awareness of the bias in hiring and a willingness a chance on diverse creatives. At the beginning of the pipeline, film and television schools need to provide opportunities for diverse students. Australia has a relatively a small screen industry and with the arts are getting less and less funding, this only fuels the justification to make ‘safe’ and conservative choices in film production.

But the old adage about diversity being so niche it’s doomed to failure doesn’t seem to ring true. Films and TV shows with diverse casts have had a track record of commercial and critical success. Wonder Woman has far surpassed every other DC film in profit and Get Out, a horror film focused on race in America, made 4.5 million in the Australian box office. The Australian TV show Cleverman has been a international hit. In an increasingly diverse Australia, it’s evident that we want media to reflect the reality of the world we live in.

To be able to see representations of people like you within the media can seem like a small thing, but on an individual level the impact can be huge. My most recent example: I’ve watched most of the DC and Marvel offerings with varying levels of enthusiasm. When I watched Wonder Woman, however, it was something different. At the first real action scene, where the Amazons are fighting the Germans –– I started to cry. Nothing particularly sad was happening yet, but tears were coming anyway. Watching these women fight onscreen, I felt the strangest sense of relief. Like finally lying down after standing for so long that you had became numb to the pain.

My reaction actually wasn’t all that uncommon. Many women reported how they cried while watching the action scenes in Wonder Woman. Perhaps it’s indicative of just how starved we felt for superhero stories that centre around female experiences. Or even just non-sexualised female heroism in the action genre.


"Media acts as a reflection and confirmation of our own reality –– we are affirmed when we see experiences like our own on the screen."


Media acts as a reflection and confirmation of our own reality –– we are affirmed when we see experiences like our own on the screen, which can be so important for minority people. But engaging with stories is an exercise in empathy and we all benefit when we broaden our perspectives.

As consumers, with the all the different ways television and film are available to us, we can make the choice to watch more diverse media. Read reviews from different sources and non-traditional media outlets that emphasise diversity. Try to switch up your cinema outing with a diverse film. And support the diverse media you already do watch by recommending it to friends or posting about it online.

We shouldn’t have more diversity in media because it’s the right thing to do—though it is—but because when there are so many different ways to be human, only telling a fraction of those stories limits us all. To get down to the crux of it, having diversity in media isn’t political correctness ‘gone mad’, it’s just good storytelling.



Neve MahoneyNeve Mahoney is a student at RMIT university. She has also contributed to Australian Catholics and The Big Issue.

Topic tags: Neve Mahoney, Doctor How, Jody Whittaker



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Existing comments

Maybe the backlash has something to do with the destruction of the romance in fairy tales, Neve. Little Bo Peep is a girl, Robin Hood is a boy, The Doctor is a man and Wonder Woman is a woman. Why destroy the fictional, entertaining romance of storytelling on the flawed basis of gender equality? I recall the Jesuit parish priest, Fr Shaw, at St Ignatius, Toowong, Qld, illustrating the problems of political correctness accompanying the birth of the pill in the 1960s by quoting the nursery rhyme, Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water/ Jill the dill forgot the pill and came back with a daughter. Rather spoilt the nursery rhyme, but oh so topical at the time.

john frawley | 27 July 2017  

Whatever happened to "Xena, Warrior Princess"? Sound like time for a comeback?

Peter | 27 July 2017  

I have no problem with the next doctor being a woman. I look forward to seeing how the journey goes. However I might raise a couple of issues. One, in response to your last paragraph, that there are so many ways to be human. I would read the line from your first. "The Doctor is a regenerative Alien". He /she is not human. Two, the Doctor has always seemed rather androgynous to me,so I actually wonder what impact this will have and what the point, apart from giving everyone a turn, is

geoff | 27 July 2017  

Surely the appointment of a female Dr Who is invalid, because there were no female Dr Whos present at The Last Supper.

Bruce Stafford | 27 July 2017  

"Whatever happened to "Xena, Warrior Princess"?" Why aren't Xena and Wonder Woman politically incorrect because they show a lot of flesh? The Bionic Woman (the original series and a short-lived remake, both of which, regrettably, did not enjoy a long innings) are more in line with the Jodie Whittaker Dr Who where women are attractively but not sexually dressed.

Roy Chen Yee | 27 July 2017  

Peter, don`t you mean Cavi: The Warrior Prince.

Per | 27 July 2017  

Don't worry about a backlash. Let's embrace the change. Having a female Doctor opens up a lot of possibilities for story line developments. I'm looking forward to how it will work. There was a comedy spoof of Doctor Who some years ago where the Doctor was Rowan Atkinson, who regenerated into Hugh Grant, who regenerated into Jim Broadbent, who regenerated into Joanna Lumley. It ended with the Doctor and the Master going off together. Who knows what will happen now.

Brett | 27 July 2017  

Gal Gadot, an extremely statuesque and athletic woman, who, incidentally, served in the IDF, playing Wonder Woman would certainly make many women feel less disempowered. Not much chance for middle aged Terrence Tubb, short; myopic; flabby and nonathletic to compete in any way. It is interesting how much we pin on fictional characters such as Dr Who. Will she have a bumbling, incompetent male Companion whilst she provides a positive role model for young women? One of the things which worries me is that we seem to lack the sense of complimentary roles in our Cine and TV Palace of Dreams. Real life is not that exclusive. Lois Lane can save Superman. Better if it's with brains.

Edward Fido | 27 July 2017  

Surely writers of fiction remain free to do as they choose with their characters.

GPJ | 28 July 2017  

Nice one, Neve!

Dr Michael Furtado | 28 July 2017  

An alien (Galifreyan) who regenerates scientifically speaking works with the matter it starts with...xy chromosomes so this latest Dr is bad sci-fi. Laws of physics rule throughout the galaxies so I object to Dr Who being a woman on the grounds that it is bad sci-fi to have the regenerative process be independent of the raw material it occurs with as regeneration is not reincarnation after all and good sci-fi writing doesn't dishonour scientific principles but extends them. It is beyond the pale and incredible on these grounds whereas another Gallifreyan (female) on the scene on their own Targen (similar to a Tardis but modified by her) would have created far more interaction, sharing of experiences/ learnings, tension, rejoining of forces...more interest and intricacy - What journeys has she been on, why have they not crossed paths before etc etc ? She could be DR WHOM.

Gordana Martinovich | 30 July 2017  

For all the good intent, I fear that a number of issues are being conflated in this article. Two of them are "gender equality" and the role of media in reflecting the human condition. I must say I am puzzled as to why you cried at the action scene of the Amazons fighting the Germans, when you say media affirms us when we see experiences like our own on the screen - which part of your own experience was affirmed from those action scenes? And as someone has already noted, Dr Who is science fiction/fantasy involving a non-human. As for political correctness, I hear of a likely film series of "Jane Bond", and I would be interested to hear your reaction to that.

Dennis | 30 July 2017  

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