Two days day after actress Jodie Whittaker was announced as the new Doctor in “Doctor Who” British tabloids published articles that included, apropos of nothing, nude photos of her. Whitaker, a 35-year-old actress best known for roles in “Attack the Block” and “Broadchurch,” is the first woman to play the Doctor in the entire 54-year run of BBC’s beloved sci-fi adventure series. Apparently, nude scenes she shot on the set of “Black Mirror” 6 years ago are more newsworthy than the fact that she’s making history.
While past Doctors like Matt Smith and David Tennant have done dozens of nude and semi-nude scenes in previous roles between them, never were screenshots of those scenes published right after their casting announcements.
Welcome to being a woman.
The treatment of Whitaker as compared to her male predecessors should come as no surprise. “Doctor Who,” which focuses on a centuries-old alien time traveler and his (or her) plucky companions, is an icon of nerd and fandom culture. And in some pockets of that culture, it seems that hating women is par for the course.
Amid praise for Whittaker’s casting there was a large contingent of “Doctor Who” fans who voiced their horror at the idea of a woman playing the Doctor, a being who has the special quirk of regenerating into a new body instead of dying (Whitaker is the 13th Doctor, the first being William Hartnell in 1963). Never mind the fact that, in the last decade of the new “Doctor Who” reboot (which began with Christopher Eccleston as the 9th Doctor), there have been multiple allusions to the fact that Time Lords, including the Doctor, have the propensity to regenerate into different genders. Never mind the fact that The Master, the Doctor’s arch-nemesis, regenerated into a woman ― Missy.
In some corners of nerdom (not all ― some), feminism is a dark spectre, an amorphous monster bent on destroying men and all things that men love. Jodie Whittaker’s casting is representative of that monster, even though Jodie Whittaker being cast as the Doctor isn’t even necessarily a feminist act. Regardless, just the fact of a woman entering into this territory, makes some men feel like something important ― a safe space, maybe ― is being taken away from them.
MIT professor Scott Aaronson spoke to this feeling of loss of power candidly in a 2014 blog post, explaining:
Much as I try to understand other people’s perspectives, the first reference to my ‘male privilege’ — my privilege! — is approximately where I get off the train, because it’s so alien to my actual lived experience... I suspect the thought that being a nerdy male might not make me ‘privileged’ — that it might even have put me into one of society’s least privileged classes — is completely alien to your way of seeing things. I spent my formative years — basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s — feeling not ‘entitled,’ not ‘privileged,’ but terrified.
This perspective is, in some ways, understandable. Many white male nerds feel misunderstood, powerless, rejected or ostracized, perhaps because they don’t fit a societal archetype (like the hyper-masculine alpha-male). The idea that they benefit from any kind of privilege may feel like a diminishment of their struggles. And the idea that marginalized groups like women or people of color need more representation in geek culture may seem unfair because, to them, geek culture is all they have.
I, a black woman (and lifetime fan of “Doctor Who”), can push myself to recognize, if not agree with, this perspective, so different than my own.
But even this reality doesn’t justify the intense vitriol, hostility, and denial that comes out whenever so-called “P.C. culture” encroaches on properties like “Star Wars,” “Star Trek” and “Ghostbusters.”
Like so many other female and POC sci-fi and fantasy fans, I know intimately what it’s like to feel misunderstood, powerless, rejected and ostracized for who I am. The difference here is that many of these angry white male fans have never stopped to consider that others are feeling what they’ve felt too, but in radically distinct ways.
And the tragic irony of this vitriol is that, very often, the stories these white male fans cling to as a salve from the outer world speak to issues of marginalization and oppression of the very real-life groups they rail against. As masculinity expert CJ Pascoe explained to Broadly in 2016, these men “set up gender inequality as a zero sum game — one in which gains for women, trans folks, and queer/gay/lesbian/bisexual folks mean losses for men.”
“Doctor Who” has always, especially in its more recent run which began in 2005, explored gender, sexuality and racial identity in new and interesting ways. Countless female companions including Sarah Jane Smith, Rose Tyler, Martha Jones, Donna Noble, and Amy Pond have demonstrated bravery, intelligence, and heart ― they’ve even saved the Doctor himself a few times. So why is it OK to celebrate the companions as badass time travelers who happen to be women, but not the Doctor herself?
The nude photos published by the Sun and Mail Online, are emblematic of this double standard. Jodie Whittaker is, by all evidence, a fine actress who is at the very least worth giving a chance to prove herself as Doctor. Her casting, while historic, is really just an exciting new direction for the show, designed to stave off stagnation and predictability.
But by publishing the photos, by framing Whittaker as a body and not a human being, the tabloids are perpetuating the lie that all these angry male fans have bought into ― that it isn’t possible to identify or empathize with someone that doesn’t look like them. That’s it’s OK to literally and figuratively strip them of their accomplishments and their personhood, and to distill them down to a sexual object.
But the tabloids, and the angry male (and some female) fans, are doing themselves a gross disservice. The first glimpse of Whittaker as the 13th Doctor is electric. Something about the expression on her face, the determined way in which she walks towards the TARDIS in her black, nondescript hoodie and trench, says that this Doctor is going to challenge any expectations of what we think a “female” Doctor might be.