In 2010, Helen Mirren put a wind up Shakespeare purists – who are even stuffier and more numerous than instinct might suggest – by starring in a film adaptation of one of my favourite plays, The Tempest, as Prospero. Or rather, as Prospera. The inevitable hand-wringing followed. Would the film still be the work Shakespeare had written with a female protagonist? The celebrations were as loud as the protestations.
I enjoyed the film. I also enjoyed Ralph Fiennes's depiction of Prospero a year later at the Haymarket Theatre Royal. Both Mirren and Fiennes were members of the Royal Shakespeare company in their time. Both are clearly sufficiently accomplished for a role such as Prospero/a. Casting Prospero as a woman inevitably changed The Tempest; sometimes enriching it by highlighting new themes and sometimes altering it beyond the familiar feel of the original. It wasn't better or worse for the casting, just different.
This week, Jodie Whittaker was announced as the 13th Doctor Who, signalling a break in a long line of male "Doctors". There was uproar – mostly from anonymous Twitter trolls and irate Daily Mail readers. Others were delighted by the progress they felt Whittaker's casting signified. A majority really couldn't care less either way. The sun rose and set as usual.
The programme is one of those that seems bizarre and cultish to the uninitiated. Real Doctor Who fans carry the canon within their hearts. They study it like a literary text. When a text or programme is so beloved, it is natural to become attached to the version which you feel best expresses the characters and concepts you love. It is perfectly possible to be a Doctor Who fan who thinks the character is best characterised by a man without being sexist. When the things we love – or loved as children – change, there is always a sense of proprietary loss and misrepresentation.
Though casting a woman in the role is certainly no bad thing, I don’t consider a female Doctor Who to be particularly indicative of progress. Representation is important – particularly to children, to whom identity politics seem to come naturally. Young girls will certainly find it easier to place themselves in the role of the Doctor within the landscape of their imaginations after seeing a woman heading up the show on screen. Nor are the naysayers really concerning – some simply think the character is truer to its original conception as a man. Some can’t imagine the Doctor as anything other than the male hero of their childhood, and yes, some are embittered, seeing Whittaker’s casting as evidence that popular culture is falling victim to large-scale feminisation. Cue hand-wringing.
As for that group of people celebrating a female Doctor Who as a symbol of increasing gender equality – they are lacking in imagination. Casting women in traditionally male roles – in roles written for men – is not real progress. It is jamming women into a male mould so that we can continue to tell old stories with old tropes while celebrating how modern and progressive we are.
While old stories are great, perhaps we should feed the appetite for more women in active or heroic roles by actually writing some new ones. Rather than depicting the best, most heroic sort of woman as a male character in a female skin, we might make progress by seeing female characters not as a facsimile with all of the traditional characteristics of male leads, but as something different. Something distinctly female. This can and has been done.
We have yet to see what the 13th Doctor Who will be like – Whittaker will certainly make the role her own and no doubt expand the beloved character of Doctor Who within the collective imagination. That's a good thing. If you don't like her as a choice, that's okay. I thought Christopher Eccleston didn't work as Doctor Who and somehow survived intact. But we can do better – let's not perpetuate the myth that a female character is most actualised in a male role.