One could say that the whole gory struggle of 2017 has been about women reclaiming the narrative. Ever since Hillary Clinton’s stunning loss to one of the most unreformed, troglodytic sexists ever to run for high office, women have been fighting—through venues as diverse as Women’s Marches, Maxine Waters fandom, and #MeToo—to regain our voice within the culture. It’s a heavy load. But, in the world of light entertainment, we’re getting at least some respite: Women are quite literally taking over sexist male narratives.
This week’s Doctor Who Christmas special saw the arrival of the first female Doctor, played by Broadchurch alumna Jodie Whittaker.
For those unfamiliar with the concept: The titular Doctor is a time-traveling, ageless, immortal alien who travels the galaxy, saving lives and righting wrongs. His immortality is maintained by means of “regeneration;” every time he’s injured badly enough to die, he just sort of grows a whole new body. This started as a hilariously lazy way to replace actors—William Hartnell left, Patrick Troughton showed up, and audiences were just expected to trust that it was the same guy—but it’s become key to the show’s mythology, as the Doctor’s ability to become someone else at will signifies the show’s own constantly evolving ethos.
One bit of the show, however, never did seem to evolve. No matter how many times the Doctor renewed himself, and no matter how many different personalities the show runners cooked up for him (and there have been 13 of them over the show’s 54-year run) the galaxy’s savior was always a white, male British character actor. Often a very good one! I’m a David Tennant fan myself! But still: No matter how loudly fans clamored for a Doctor of color, or a female Doctor, or both at once, the face of power was always white and male. And this became particularly galling when show runner Stephen Moffatt—who has been running the show since 2010, and who has often been criticized for his perceived sexism—flat-out admitted he intentionally kept the role male to appease sexist viewers.
“We could have replaced Matt Smith with a woman, given that his Doctor was more sexless and less of a lad,” Moffatt told the Telegraph, seemingly unaware of all the horrifying things about his idea of women this implied. (Women in power: “Sexless” at best!) However, he replaced Smith with the notably male Peter Capaldi, in part because “[this] isn’t a show exclusively for progressive liberals. This is also for people who voted Brexit. That’s not me politically at all–but we have to keep everyone on board.”
It’s perhaps no coincidence, then, that just as Whittaker joins the show, Moffatt is leaving as show runner. Her casting is being met with unmitigated joy by female fans, not just because it signals a new era, but because all the frustrating qualities fans protested in the heavily “laddish” Moffat era—casually sexist dialogue, female characters who were written as living puzzle boxes rather than people, entire plot lines centered, not around the bad-ass women who were working to save the galaxy, but around their whiny, jealous boyfriends—are presumably out the door.
Now: Some fans may well leave along with Moffatt. But that may not be a bad thing. If there’s one franchise that knows the problems of trying to keep “everyone on board,” it’s Star Wars. The intensely vitriolic backlash surrounding the series’ latest installment, The Last Jedi, is already the stuff of legend. The film, which was beloved by critics, currently has a lower fan rating than The Phantom Menace on Rotten Tomatoes. There was a viral petition asking for it to be formally struck from the canon (whose creator now says he wasn’t serious). If this is starting to sound like the backlash to 2016’s Ghostbusters reboot, well, there’s a good reason for that. According to the Huffington Post, the backlash was partly engineered by an angry alt-right man-fan who says he worked to flood Rotten Tomatoes with bot-generated negative ratings, because he wanted to emulate the backlash to Ghostbusters.
“Regarding female heroes: Did you not see everything that came out of Ghostbusters? That is why,” the enraged man-fan told HuffPo. “I’m sick and tired of men being portrayed as idiots. There was a time we ruled society and I want to see that again. That is why I voted for Donald Trump.” Specifically, he objects to the fact that “Han and Luke were written as incompetent father/mentor figures who are deadbeats, Poe is a victim of the ‘anti-mansplaining’ movement and you just know that they’ll turn the both of them gay.”
I hate to say it, but he’s got a point. The fact that the alt-right objects to the diversity of the new Star Wars universe is not new—we’ve known that ever since some demented, anonymous meme artist immortalized BB-8 as a “little cuck ball.” But this installment should make anti-feminists especially uncomfortable. Throughout The Last Jedi, male characters’ success or failure is determined by whether or not they are able to listen to women. This plays out most obviously through Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron, and his refusal to obey the female Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). But it’s in every other part of the movie as well: Kylo Ren must listen to Rey to be saved, Finn must listen to a female engineer to effectively fight the Empire, and even Luke Skywalker himself is portrayed as a cranky old man who has to have the sense bludgeoned into him by the new New Hope, Rey, before he can join the fight.
Star Wars is so big, the term “blockbuster” feels like an understatement. It’s an institution, part of the cultural firmament. Doctor Who has been a part of British pop culture for half a century. And that's precisely why these feminist revisions matter: because they shift the culture.
Of course, mere representation in front of the camera isn’t enough; we can’t stop with just casting more women, unless we’re also committed to putting women in positions of power behind the scenes. But stories this popular and enduring have a generational impact. They shape how we see the world and understand our own lives; they tell us what to expect from other people, and from ourselves. It matters if the benevolent, all-powerful being who preserves the cosmos is always a white man. It matters if the scrappy hero who arises from humble beginnings to topple an empire is never female. When our shared visions of power and heroism are exclusively male, we can’t respect, or even recognize, powerful or heroic women.
In some ways, it’s not even the fault of Star Wars or Doctor Who that they carry sexist baggage—that’s an inevitable feature of any story that has survived for decades in an intensely sexist culture. The Christmas special in which Whittaker makes her first appearance even toys with the fact that Doctorhood is seen as a sexist institution, bringing back the very first Doctor (now played by David Bradley), only to have him spend most of his time spouting horrifically backwards, 1963-era sentiments such as “[if] I hear any more language like that from you, young lady, you’re in for a jolly good smacked bottom.” Similarly, Star Wars is correcting its own legacy in The Last Jedi: One infamous compilation done by Vulture, “Women Don’t Talk Much In ‘Star Wars,’” set out to record every line spoken by a woman other than Carrie Fisher in the original trilogy. It is one minute and twenty-three seconds long. Now, wonderfully and unexpectedly, the latest installment literally revolves around the importance of heeding women’s voices. In both cases, the message is clear: Times change. Our culture has to shed its woman-hating baggage if we’re going to survive. We’re not there yet. But our stories are beginning to envision new possibilities—and, one hopes, the world may soon follow.