As esteemed philosophers, The Bee Gees once said: ‘it’s only words’ and as Doctor Who begins a brand-new story now, my love, it’s more important than ever to address any imbalance in an argument or any incorrect assumption when it comes to the Thirteenth Doctor.
And perhaps the most egregious example of this has been the phrase ‘strong female character’. Heck, even the sainted David Tennant used the phrase at the Call of Duty panel at this year’s SDCC.
For you see, up till now, the Doctor could be mercurial, enigmatic, wise, intelligent, melancholic, frantic, compassionate, and brave. From now on, the Doctor will just be strong.
If we take this literally, the over-emphasis on ‘strong’ as a desirable quality in both male and female characters doesn’t really hold any water. How many male characters can you describe as purely being strong? Let’s just stick with hero characters for now – there are others who really don’t fit the strength test either but I want to focus on the role models; the characters that lead by example.
So not James Bond, no – he can also be cruel, enigmatic, manipulative, and savvy; as well as the requisite strong. Sherlock Holmes? No, not really. He has bouts of physical prowess in many of his incarnations but that sole quality of strength isn’t what he’s best recognised for. What about Indiana Jones? He possesses strength but he also has a hat!
Let’s be honest, strength is a pretty boring quality to possess – our relatives were slack jawed by the idea that a man could lift a car over his head in Action Comics #1 but now, strength is just the background, bog-standard, expecting quality we get with nearly every heroic character (let alone superheroes, how many times have you seen normal people in pop culture perform an amazing physical feat that would render a normal persons bones to dust?).
So why is strength such a desirable quality in female characters when male characters can possess a myriad of differing, contradictory qualities? Isn’t all fiction built on providing characters that are engaging and different from the norm; fiction would be a lesser place if we judged all male characters by a show of strength? So why are asking the wrong question and then desperately trying to make female characters the answer?
One such example, and it’s a personal favourite of mine, points us towards an answer. There’s a particularly tone-deaf moment of elevating the qualities of a ‘strong female character’ over any other comes from one of the best-written characters in all of telly, Agent Carter. Okay, this example comes from the movie Captain America: The First Avenger but it serves as a neat example of how far that character has come when given the space to grow on the small screen. At around the mid-point of that film, Captain America (Chris Evans) gets his head turned by a woman who appears to solely be in the film to get snogged by Captain America. Upon learning this news, Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell) takes a handgun and blasts Captain America’s prototype shield in a pique of passion. Now, we’re supposed to be enraptured by the show of strength; here’s a woman who has been wronged showing our macho hero that she’s not to be crossed but, seriously, how does she know the shield doesn’t have a fault? What would possess a professional to just open fire on the allied forces best hope of grinding Hitler’s forces back into obsolescence? Sure, he’s a super solider but Carter doesn’t even get a written warning for it. Why are we supposed to find this quality so desirable? It’s laughably wrongheaded and points towards the ridiculous lengths writers go to justify having a prominent female character be ‘one of the boys’.
It would be hilarious if wasn’t just a bit sad.
Now, hold fire, I know what you’re thinking. ‘Strong’ doesn’t necessarily mean strength. It could for instance mean ‘well-written’ and ‘resonant’ – well, I don’t think that’s true. Granted, the intention is there, and it’s honest, but both readers (all those comments about why do we need more ‘strong female characters’ take on a more absurd quality too: ‘I’m sick to death of all these professional writers, attempting to craft well written characters! That wouldn’t happen in my day!’) and writers contract that implied inference back to physical strength – it’s even more sadder than before because now female characters are side-lined as an impressive but completely superfluous extra. Sure, she also has the bog-standard, expected quality of strength but, get this, she’s also a woman! So now you have teams of characters that go: the weapons expert, the ancient God, the demolitions expert, the… woman? It’s absurd on its face. And that’s not to mention that the character will also have to carry the burden of being a mouthpiece for addressing this imbalance all while being a prime example of it. It’s lose-lose.
The largely positive response to the casting of Jodie Whittaker has come with a caveat; that Fish ‘n’ Chibs will have to be on his A game to convince the naysayers that this isn’t a stunt (‘What next! A male Wonder Woman?!’ Yeah, he’s called Superman), but we’re relying again on ‘strong female characters’ to define the terms of the argument when it’s woefully deficient.
There has been some acknowledgement of this. Just look at the BBC’s response to the complaints Jodie Whittaker casting has drawn; the press release goes out of its way not to refer to her as a ‘strong female character’ which is admirable but it then describes Whittaker in a comment curiously devoid of its originator – seriously, the Beeb are pulling all kinds of sass on you! ‘Controller of BBC Drama’ – why can’t we just call him Piers Wenger? – says there’s ‘the powerful female life force that she brings to the role’. I have no idea what that means; it sounds cool though. It seems we’ve not only hired our first female Doctor but also our first X-Men to the role of the Doctor too!
There’s something more fundamental that needs to be address and that’s ‘agency’ – the quality by which we judge characters equally. We need characters that are both strong and weak or neither; characters that are flawed and must atone or succumb to that wrong. Those are the role models we need for everyone, not just boys. We need to swap out ‘Strong female character’ for ‘characters’ – well-rounded characters that don’t have to bend over backwards to justify their existence; that have flaws and make mistakes; that can deal with and exceed our expectations. Male or female.
It’s beside the point but all the cries of boys losing a different male role model blatantly ignore all the girls who have had to project the qualities of a hero onto a different sex since minute one. The argument that, yes, Doctor Who has an abundance of well-written female characters for young girls to admire is true too, and part of the Doctor’s appeal is that he calls upon all opinions to address a problem – making him a perfect example of how a fair and equal society works… but, get this, that doesn’t change if the Doctor is now a woman. They are still going to call upon a host of well-written characters to help solve an impending crisis in a micro-model of how a utopia would work but now; it will be a female voice that chairs those conversations – with boys now expected to project the qualities of a hero onto a female character and find admiration in the male voices that aid her.
I can’t think of a more wonderful, very Doctor Who thing to do.
It behoves Fish ‘n’ Chibs to rise above the lack of nuisance in imagining a female Doctor (‘I have boobs now. Boobs are cool’) and false equivalence (‘What next Cindy-ana Jones!’) to really make his choices work. It’s a chance to redress an argument and talk in everlasting words…