In July 2017, the BBC announced that Jodi Whittaker would play the next Doctor Who. As with all previous announcements about the iconic sci-fi time traveler there was intense speculation among fans. This time though it was different. A female actor was announced for the role and within a week moral panic and counter moral panic had erupted onto the internet polarising fans in relation to gender and sexuality. Moral panic is defined as a scenario, group or issue that is perceived to be a threat to the values or interests of a societal group (Cohen, S. 1972, p9). The threat in this instance from both perspectives is about whether it is deviant to cast the role with a female actor rather than male, as has been the case every other time and if so whether this deviance is justified by the social change it might cause. It was clear from posts, twitters and blogs that many of those caught up in this moral panic felt that this was a personal trouble (Natalie, M 2017) however, when looked at through sociological lenses and with sociological imagination (Mills, C., W 1959) there are deeper public issues beyond the individual at work here.
In this essay, I will explore this polarising moral panic and its origin in gender roles in male hegemonic heteronormative society. I will explore the different social constructs and gender roles at play using Connell’s (1987, p47) work on sex role theory and the ways they interact with cultural groups in digital media. I will explore the existence of deviance in sexual roles at the source of the show in 1963, as well as the construction of the key character of Doctor Who and finally the continued opportunity for social change in this current biological sex deviation. When the sociological imagination (Mills, C., W 1959) is effectively applied to science fiction real life private troubles can be given a canvas to be explored as public issues and possibly create space for this deviance to allow for social change.
Doctor Who first came to life in 1963 through the need to fill the gap between a sports program and a pop music program on BBC1. Sydney Newman the Head of Drama at the BBC and a fan of science fiction sought to keep the viewers from changing channels by creating a new show that was fun with an historical education angle. Sydney controversially appointed Verity Lambert as producer for the show. The youngest female appointment for the BBC who was reported in the Daily Mail as a “remarkably attractive young woman called Verity Lambert, who, at 28, is not only the youngest but the only female drama producer in B.B.C. TV.” (Sandilands, J. 1964-11-28). Even a cursory glance at this publication as well as the portrayal of this period in history in the docudrama “An Adventure in Space and Time” (BBC. 2014) indicates that the appointment of Verity Lambert was a clear challenge to social norms.
Reawyn Connell explores sex role theory in her book Gender and Power (1987) and draws together the body of social theory around the concept of gender roles and deviance into five points that make up a logical core to sex role theory in gender.
The first of these is a distinction between the person and the role or position they occupy and the second is the set of actions or role behaviours which are assigned to the position. Being a young attractive woman Verity Lambert’s appointment as producer posed a significant challenge to the social norms of the BBC in 1963 and would have created a vast distinction between the expectations of her as a person and that of the position she was to occupy. Those around her at the BBC, especially those who would work for her in her role as producer, might have expected her to be unable to fulfil the role as the set of actions ascribed to women in this period did not match with the assertive, passionate management role of a television producer. This picks up the second point in Connell’s sex role theory.
The next three points in Connell’s sex role theory relate to the ways the social drama is set in motion and held to its script. Verity Lambert was passively and actively opposed by co-workers who may have considered the appointment a threat to their position and power. As an aside to this the appointment of a young Indian, Waris Hussein as director triggered racial role deviance as well, however this is best saved for another essay. The norms and expectations surrounding women and those of producers did not match. This generated pressure from role senders and reference groups to conform to one at the expense of the other. The opportunity taken by Verity Lambert was to create new norms to allow her to integrate her roles. This role integration was no easy feat as people occupying counter positions would reward returning to established roles, resisting and punishing any new role integration. The creation of new roles in gender challenges existing roles and is considered deviant. This deviance is neither negative in or of itself and may be a passage to social change.
The construction of the key character of The Doctor creates opportunities for the exploration of new role in gender. In the case of the central character of Doctor Who, an alien from the planet Gallifrey presents as male in sex and gender identity by default. This has been because the role has been played by male actors and so fans have assumed that the gender of the character is male. Alice Dreger suggests in her TED talk that role expectations and norms which define actions that are appropriate for one who presents as male even if this may not be the physiological case (Dreger, A. 2010). The moral panic among viewers in this instance is caused by the concern that a male role model or hero will be lost to male viewers some way by the change in sex displayed by the character of Doctor Who. This moral panic exposes something deeper in the fans of this popular science fiction universe. To explore this complexity further Connell’s sex role theory can be applied to the role of Doctor Who.
A comparison in gender roles has been made by James Chapman (2014, p44) between the gender roles played by the character James Bond and that of Doctor Who. Both characters were translated to film over the same time periods, came out of British culture and changed the actors who played them but the similarities end there. James Bond is quick to aggressively end conflict with violence ready to engage sexually with female companions and remains calm and collected without any sign of weakness, regardless of the stress levels in the scene around him. Mr Bond has little distinction between the person/sex he is and the position he occupies. He follows the script assigned to him by hegemonic masculine norms and acts constantly to take a controlling dominate position, conquering his foes and seducing his friends. The society around him and the viewer rewards him for remaining true to his role with power, wealth and glory.
Doctor Who however, is constructed differently and provides an alternate role for the male gender which could be considered deviant because the actions taken by the character defy social hegemonic masculine roles and yet are provided with positive outcomes and rewards.
In contrast to James Bond, Doctor Who is passive in conflict and patiently waits for all the information and possibilities to present themselves. The Doctor rarely resorts to violence and fosters an intimate yet platonic relationship with his companions. They are willing to show their vulnerability and admit that there are things they do not know to allow space for new information to be presented.
The dominate paradigm for masculinity in western heteronormative society has been consistent with the James Bond role and many action and science fiction heroes have reinforced this gender image. This dominant role leaves those who struggle to identify with this expression of the masculine gender feeling inadequate or even ashamed of their inner identity, causing them to attempt to conform. Doctor Who provides a masculine role that allows such individuals to safely integrate the person they are, with the actions they wish to take, allowing a new set of expectations with which to align themselves. They are rewarded with positive affirmation of their natural gender roles and can gather safely with others of like mind.
It is little wonder then that these individuals identifying more readily with Doctor Who would feel threatened by the change of casting that Jodi Whittaker represents. Their moral panic is a reaction to the fear that their validation in gender identity may be stripped away from them in an attempt at new ratings and fame. The relationship between the fan and the producer/writer becomes strained when the actor appears to take the role to far away from the central facets of the character. For humans biological sex is such a central aspect and it is easy to see why this has incited a moral panic.
Is this the end of the world? Could it be that this feminist plot to take the beloved role model away from the socially awkward male may bring an end to adventures in time and space? Or is this an opportunity for further social change in this current biological sex deviation casting. I guess only time will tell. I would like to think with skilled writing and a willingness to continue to challenge social norms Doctor Who will provide a greater understanding of the spectrum of gender roles for males and females and that this may help even more individuals who may feel pressured to conform to limited norms to integrate the roles they play with the position they hold. I would encourage those who are panicked to consider what their role model Doctor Who might do if faced with such a crisis.
The deviant appointment of Verity Lambert in 1963 has been well justified by the success of the Doctor Who story over the past 53 years as well as an outstanding career in film and television production including an OBE. Her creative approach has opened opportunities for positive social change in gender roles for both men and women by creating new opportunities for both sexes to redefine gender roles and expectations. The deviance in this case then has played an important function in the liberation of both sexes to engage in the broader expression of gender roles. This allows males to explore different modes of problem solving and conflict resolution and females to engage in assertiveness and management without defaulting to masculine hegemony. The legacy of Verity Lambert suggests that the fears and concerns surrounding the casting choice of Jodi Whittaker is a further opportunity to broaden the spectrum of gender roles and to release men to explore female approaches to problem solving and conflict resolution as well as empowering young women to consider themselves as able to engage in scientific, forensic, and diplomatic roles as expressed in the character of Doctor Who. Rather than a crisis to panic over this recast could be an opportunity to express new kinds of leadership beyond the historical and current norms influenced by heteronormative gender roles.
BBC. (2014). An Adventure in Space and Time – Part 1. [Online Video]. 24 May 2014. Available from: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x1wfmek. [Accessed: 24 September 2017].
Chapman, J, 2014. Fifty Years in the TARDIS: The Historical Moments of Doctor Who. Critical Studies in Television, Volume 9, No. 1, p44.
Cohen, S. (1980) Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and the
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Connell, R., 1987. Gender and Power. Stanford University Press. p47
Dreger, A. (2010). Alice Dreger: Is anatomy destiny [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/alice_dreger_is_anatomy_destiny#t-336205 [Accessed 12 September 2017].
Meehan, Natalie . 2017. Doctor Who 13: How the World Reacted to the New, Female, Doctor. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.brandwatch.com/blog/react-doctor-who-13/. [Accessed 4 September 2017].
Sandilands, John (1964-11-28). Behind every Dalek there’s this woman. Daily Mail .
Wright, C., 1959. The sociological imagination. Oxford University Press.
Really interesting article! It helps me make sense of the fear behind a lot of those panicked “but women can’t be doctors!” posts on social media in 2017. I like how you suggest 007 as a kind of standard masculinity, but the Doctor is a possibly less toxic alternative and that’s why they have an appeal.
I’d be curious about the intersectionality article if you get to writing it. Especially people of colour in Doctor Who (never the doctor) or your Deep Faith Nine podcast which I have just discovered.