“I want to tell the fans not to be scared by my gender” she said, “because this is a really exciting time, and Doctor Who represents everything that’s exciting about change. The fans have lived through so many changes, and this is only a new, different one, not a fearful one.”
Cast a cursory glance across the internet and you might think her words unnecessary. The majority of fans appear to be thrilled with Chris Chibnall’s new Time Lady and while some are a little nervous about the direction the show will take under his watch, they’re respectfully holding fire and actually giving the actress the benefit of the doubt.
But you don’t have to dig too deep to find the kind of derogatory dialogue Whittaker knew she’d need to deal with before it even began. The critics are out in force and plenty of them aren’t just internet trolls but long-standing Doctor Who fans.
Initial opposition to a change of Doctor is nothing new: Matt Smith was too young, Peter Capaldi too old, and David Tennant too much “like a weasel”. So you might argue opposition to a woman is nothing special, just par for the course, another thing for a small proportion of fans to get worked up over?
It’s not, though. Grumbles about age and facial features pale in comparison to the level of vitriol being spewed by both men and women in response to Whittaker’s casting. When someone’s potential ability to perform is being defined by their genitalia, when they’re being written off simply because they’re the ‘wrong’ gender, it’s a totally different kettle of fish fingers and custard.
Just ask Noma Dumezweni, the actress who some screamed couldn’t possibly play Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and The Cursed Child because she didn’t have the right colour skin. The negative response to her casting – in the role which later won her an Olivier Award – was disgusting and rightfully called out as such.
A selection of the negative responses to Whittaker’s casting – from both male and female fans of the series – are just as disgusting in their own way. It’s not sexist to think an actor or actress is wrong for a role based on their performance or ability, but to think they’re wrong simply because you believe the role should or could NEVER be played by someone of their gender is.
Sure, you might have room to argue that plenty of iconic characters could be gender bound by their history or narrative, but The Doctor is not one of them. The idea that the character could or would regenerate into a woman – and perhaps already had as “a little girl” – is one that’s been knocking around for quite a long time now.
And if a time-travelling face-swapping personality-changing alien from a planet on the far side of the universe can’t have two hearts and two ovaries without destroying the Whoniverse then we really are in trouble.
I’ll be neither the first, nor the last to tell you that complex female characters in film and TV can be difficult to come by. There are exceptions to the rule, of course – I grew up in awe of Sarah Michelle Geller’s Buffy Summers and Kate Mulgrew’s Captain Kathryn Janeway – but, by and large, the pickings can be frustratingly slim.
That’s why I was utterly stunned when Whittaker’s eye appeared beneath the hood in that short teaser aired during the Wimbledon final. I honestly couldn’t believe – even in a time and space when I, as a girl, am supposed to believe I can do and achieve anything – that the powers that be had actually taken what many said would be too much of a risk and given a female a chance to play a character as multifaceted as The Doctor.
It shouldn’t be a risk to cast a woman in that kind of role. A woman shouldn’t have to qualify someone’s decision to give her the part she’s clearly earned fair and square, she shouldn’t have to deal with the exhaustingly unnecessary backlash.
And she shouldn’t have to say “don’t be scared by my gender” when she’s taking her rightful place behind the Tardis console.
For years now Russell T Davies, Steven Moffat and their Doctors have been telling us that Doctor Who is for everyone, regardless of race, sexuality or gender. It’s a real shame Whittaker actually had to tell people who claim to be fans not to fear that idea before her 13th Doctor proves it.