Doctor Who, Suffragettes and The Unbearable Whiteness of ‘Progress’

It is no doubt that there is a huge lack of well-written female characters, and a lack of representation of women, in television and film. This has come to light recently with the uproar about the casting of the new Doctor Who.

Doctor Who is a British science fiction show whose history goes back decades. The plot revolves around the main character, The Doctor, an alien from the planet Gallifrey who travels time inside of an old phone booth (it’s bigger on the inside). The show has never been free from controversy – with one of its writers, Steven Moffat, being accused of sexism.

It was announced last week that the new Doctor Who is set to be played by actress Jodie Whittaker, and under a new (and hopefully better) writer. This is a step forward, certainly, as the Doctor has always been a man. But progress for white women doesn’t always mean process for women of colour. Over the past few years we have had some amazing roles played by white women in sci-fi, but barely any played by people of colour.

This particularly stings considering white actresses like Scarlet Johansson and Tilda Swinton readily defend their roles as characters who were meant to be Asian. The pair, who acted in separate films but were both cast as Asian characters, chose to see their casting as a victory for women.

White women are keen to claim victories for “women” while taking roles meant for people of colour.

Were Northern Indian men rejoicing in the idea that they have a character in ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’ when Benedict Cumberbatch was cast as Khan?

A white woman taking a role meant to provide representation to people of colour isn’t a victory for feminism, it’s yet another demonstration that white people cannot understand inequality when it is not relevant to them. And this hasn’t simply been a matter in Hollywood, but history too.

Historically, white women have distanced themselves from people of colour.

When white women got the vote, the US government still purposefully deterred black and Native votes from the polls. It is not known how black women would have faired during the UK suffragette’s movement, but it is likely that they would have been unwelcome. Susan B Anthony has been under fire as a feminist icon for her racism. It seems that white women really do have a hard time understanding suffering that isn’t their own.

Suffragette movements had little to no focus on race, and even actively denounced and talked over people of colour.

This phenomenon is called White Feminism, and can be characterized by many things – including, but not limited to, protesting the pay gap for white women but ignoring things like the fact that black women have maintained the largest full time pay-gap in the UK, and Bangladeshi and Pakistani women currently earn 26% less than white British men in the UK (and, despite being a huge demographic of the UK, have never been represented in major characters in Doctor Who, along with East Asians).

This sort of thing isn’t a rarity. Recently, Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park from Hawaii Five-0 quit their jobs after the network refused to pay them as much as their white co-stars. Hollywood is aware of its lack of diversity, but seems almost unwilling to cast a woman or person of colour in a leading role or pay them equally.

Women of Colour are too often a joke or a rarity.

Even in content by men of colour, women of colour are seen as the butt of a joke.

And I must admit, this isn’t only a problem with shows with largely white main characters. Even films with men of colour at the forefront have a lack of women of colour. Tamil-American actor and writer Aziz Ansari has faced criticism for his view of brown women in his show Master of None.

When ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ came out in 2015, there was rejoicing due to the idea of a woman-lead, and relief that there was finally to be a black character (in a sci-fi film nonetheless) with a major speaking role. But there were no black women.

Why is it easier to create fictional races than to add actual black women into the cast of a film?

The Way Forward

Now, I will give Doctor Who some credit for having cast three amazing companions of colour, Mickey Smith, Martha Jones and Bill Potts. Potts especially was a leap forward – being the first lesbian companion on the show.

But having black co-stars is not enough.

It’s not enough to have women of colour as back-up characters. It’s not acceptable to keep not only casting roles meant for women of colour as white women, but to cast white women so exponentially more often and pretend you’re still being progressive.

We have yet to have a Doctor who isn’t white. Despite having had black men and women as potential candidates, the role has exclusively gone to white people. This is the UK, a show set in London, where only around 50% of people are white. Plus, it is about a literal alien who is in no way pressured to represent the demographics of this Earthly planet. Even if it were set in a place where 99% of the people were white, it is more difficult for people of colour to succeed in acting, be recognised for their success, and earn the same pay rate.  It is more important to make the people of colour living in the West feel represented, to invest in their success and recognition than it is to maintain the unbearable whiteness of movie casts.

Plea to all writers, directors and casting-agents: please include people of colour in your films. Include black people in your films. Include trans people of colour in your films. Include dark-skinned women of colour in your films. No more casting white women as ‘stepping stones’. No matter what universe your film is set in, there is no excuse.

Yes, I am glad the new Doctor is a woman. But no, I am not glad she is a white woman.

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For more information about how white women historically have a blind spot when it comes to people of colour, here are some resources:

“Roots: How Racism Tainted Women’s Suffrage”

“The Uncomfortable Truth About Racism and the Suffragettes”

“How Racism Split the Suffragette Movement”

To read more about white feminism at the Women’s March, and see the photo credit, look here:

“The White Feminism of the Women’s March is Still on My Mind”

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Young, mixed-race student living in Scotland. Ready to talk about racism, sex education and feminism!

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