I read recently that Peter Capaldi is leaving Doctor Who next year. Now, just like last time, there is a clarion call to cast a female doctor. It’s got me really wondering lately about how important some people think it is to cast female or non-white actors into role that, for decades, were associated with white males. It’s really become a hallmark of today’s generation, a sense that there was some latent sexism/racism in how franchises were built which must be systematically undone. It started around the time of Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, the “female Starbuck”.
I went on record to say I liked Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange. However, I have no history with the Doctor Strange franchise, so I have no reason to feel let-down by the gender-swap, and let’s face it, Tilda Swinton is less of a woman and more of an alien. She’s also an awesome actress and not just a token. But the odd thing about that decision is that it could be perceived as both progressive (Swinton being female) AND racist (Swinton being white rather than asian). Reducing a casting decision’s social acceptability based solely on ticking a gender or ethnicity box is a very lazy and limited way of approaching entertainment, and yet this is a lens through which more and more people view things.
Producers now sometimes use novelty-casting of women and minorities in longstanding white male roles as little more than a cheap promotional tactic. For instance, now that Hollywood has already mined its most recognizable heroes it needs to goose things as it moves down the food-chain. So instead of finding some traditional Fred MacMurray-looking actor to play him, they chose to simply rename Ms. Marvel. Presumably the male Captain Marvel just doesn’t exist anymore in the film universe? Kind of the equivalent of consolidating your intellectual property, I guess.
I see those who fixate on progressive recasting and those who rail against it being sort of two sides of the same coin in the sense that the level of import seems way overblown in proportion to problems out in the real world. You know, like lead in the water of Flint Michigan, global warming, mass-extinction, and the doomsday clock moving closer to midnight.
I think where I separate myself from this debate is that while yes, I do strike a cranky tone about being out-of-step with current fashion, very get-off-my-lawn, I argue pros and cons of the work based on whether I jive with the aesthetics or the story’s message resonates. If someone else prefers farting aliens in Doctor Who, that’s their prerogative. The problem is using identity politics as a way to muzzle or shame a personal preference.
People’s identities have become so interwoven with their entertainment that they feel sort of a personal attack if you don’t knee-jerk support these fashion trends otherwise be tarred with a label like racist, sexist, or old (old as an epithet ala get off my lawn).
Again, this is a gross misallocation of people’s mindshare, but even if you disregard it, there’s really no way to engage in a two-way dialogue when someone is invalidating your opinion based on the accusation that you are, in some shape or form, a bad person. It’s an ad hominem argument. The sense of anonymity and invulnerability on the internet has encouraged insults as the most effective way to argue, despite being a logical fallacy. Nevertheless, this is exactly the problem with the way people communicate today across the board. It’s a right-think attitude in which disagreement is tantamount with being evil or immoral.
Fandom always had flamewars, but it was about the merits or flaws in the work, not about denigrating the other person.
The problem is that now everyone’s essentially a fanboy or fangirl, and yet there’s no longer any sort of ground-rules about how to argue or even what is worth arguing about. Say what you want about geeks, but their debates about whether Han shot first or when the Terminator franchise jumped the shark are conducted with the same level of importance as the Lincoln Douglas debates.
The unwashed masses ultimately don’t care about the work as much as they care about how entertainment validates their sense of self. So a film like the new Captain Marvel can be unmitigated crap, but since they picked a woman, some people will treat it as some sort of forward stride for female rights, this despite the fact we now voted in an openly misogynistic president.
A while back I saw the film Fences. It’s an all-black cast and the story very much centers around the black experience in the 1950s.
Despite the fact that I am not the target demographic for the film, I was capable of watching it and engaging with the story as much as any other. I did not need to have black skin to do it. I didn’t write a review about it because ultimately the film isn’t my cup of tea by virtue of the fact that Denzel Washington’s character, despite having suffered a tough childhood, is so morally reprehensible. The acting is great and the story has the kind of dramatic twists and turns you’d expect from an adaptation of a play, but I did not feel enough compassion for his character, and that’s something I really need.
Likewise, the film getting all the accolades this year is La La Land, which features two white leads, despite the fact Ryan Gosling’s character is super into jazz. So it’s interesting to note how scattershot and inconsistent the moral outrage is on this one. I think the big reason La La Land is winning awards is nostalgia for musicals. Genre was the minority. However, there are always some who will point out the flaws.
Anyway, you’re probably wondering where I come down on the idea of a female Doctor Who…
Obviously I’m against it, not because I don’t like the idea of female time-lords, but the geek (real geek) in me rails at the idea of gender-flipping during regeneration. Also, there’s a paradox involved in executing these gender-flips. The big homerun that the blogger hit was how he excoriated the way The Master’s gender-flip was handled. There is something known as the Bechdel Test which is more about how showbiz writes for female characters rather than just the casting decision. The more progressive writing for women allows them the full range of storytelling opportunities, not just romantic or sexual scenarios. So the problem with missy is that once they had a female master, they exploited it by inserting needless Batman/Catwoman-style sexual tension between her and The Doctor. It looks like a stunt and acts like a stunt. But casual fans seem to be content with fanservice while mislabeling it as some sort of forward progress in social justice.
A more appropriate case of female characters would be Rey and Jyn in the two new Star Wars films. The writing was gender neutral and they did not insert any forced romantic subplots. Yes, the decision to go with female characters was ticking boxes, but they did not proceed to cheapen it by thrusting them into situations specifically due to their gender.
The fact of the matter is that when it comes to identity politics there will ALWAYS be an angle suitable for generating outrage. If the characters are rendered generic (which helps them pass the Bechdel Test) then they aren’t being allowed to cover ground specific to that group. But if you DO cover that ground then you will be accused of stereotyping.
I think people are searching for ways to make the world a better place. I just wish people would spend less time arguing over whether Doctor Who being a woman or black is such a monumental social justice issue and get outside and join a real demonstration.