Jodie Whittaker: Another Female Star Tasked With Tempering Her Role
By now, it’s old news that Doctor Who’s thirteenth doctor will be a woman, played by Jodie Whittaker, who, upon the announcement, reassured fans “not to be scared of her gender.”
Expected responses ensued: disgruntled people, unhappy with the “female takeover” of movies and TV shows these days. The matriarchy is upon us, and I, for one, am shaking in my (sexy but not obviously sexy) boots.
More disturbingly to me, however, were the responses that lauded Thirteen or her potential to add some, you know, emotional delicacy to the series.
Per a piece entitled “Get a Grip, Nerds, Women Make Sci-Fi Better” on the Awl, the author writes the following.
The show is about outsmarting people and getting your way without using weapons. The Doctor is wise and good, driven by altruism and thoughtfulness. Surely a lady could pull this off even better than a man.
I’m not in disagreement with the contention that women make Sci-Fi better, but to me, it’s by sheer virtue of the fact that women exist. Period. Not that they exist as a tempering force for men’s arrogance and, I guess as the Awl implies, thoughtlessness. Yay, another scapegoat for men’s bad behavior! It’s innate.
(Plus, it’s always nice to add more women so male stars don’t have to make out with their sisters. Yes, I know Star Wars isn’t Sci-Fi. Don’t come at me, pedants.)
Putting women on this type of pedestal 1) is another sign of deeply ingrained patriarchal ideas of womanhood and 2) sets an unrealistic standard for female characters, and if, god forbid, they don’t live up to it, won’t have a prayer of paving the way for other female-starring films and television shows. (All thanks to, say it with me, “patriarchy.”)
Women are well aware of how we’re disproportionately tasked with emotional labor. We all have anecdotes of being forced to cater to the male ego, shouldering the emotional burdens of others without being asked, and being painted as a “bitch” when we don’t live up to our hostess-with-the-mostest stereotype even though we never gave any indication that we were willing or able to do so. Because, obviously, for women, nurturing is just natural.
There are female roles that let women act like men, which is what I suspect Charlize Theron’s character in Atomic Blonde will do, but that’s just more problematic stereotyping and a patronizing notion that women are allowed to act “macho” for limited and carefully calculated periods of time — often to cater to the male gaze as much as it is to “empower” women. (Gotta chip your teeth on set to prove how manly you are, I guess.) Oh yeah, and they have to be beautiful to even have the chance of getting that pass.
So here comes the argument that by having thoughtful, compassionate female characters — in keeping with, you know, women’s natural tendencies — popular culture is allowing women to carve out their own type of “role” as opposed to simply filling the shoes of the men who where in those roles before them.
That’s not so. It’s just more stereotyping under the guise of liberation.
We see this in Wonder Woman too — just to beat that dead horse. Diana is naive and must have her eyes opened by other people, and by the end of the movie, somehow maintains a “love conquers all” attitude.
The LA Times wrote:
There’s a tricky balance of humor and exposition at work here, as Diana must play the role of the unworldly naif, highly educated on the one hand yet heavily reliant on Steve’s guidance on the other. And if the specific limits of Diana’s knowledge don’t always make sense — would someone who claims to have extensively read Clio, the Greek muse of history and epic poetry, really be so ignorant of the human capacity for good and evil? — her innocence ultimately feels like a tonic, a bracing relief from the brooding psychological torment that has come to pass for character depth in the male-dominated superhero universe.
In any event, one’s reservations, whatever they may be, all but melt away in the fire of Gadot’s warm, impassioned heroics. Righteous, single-minded and unafraid to tell off the highest members of British government when they demonstrate more political calculation than valor, Diana has a demigod’s certainty and a total immunity to embarrassment.
So women have to be intellectual but ignorant of reality, opinionated and outspoken but warm, immune to embarrassment, kick-ass but upright, sexually conscious but not until we fall in love, and whatever else this article says. I’m not saying we can’t be all those things, but that pressure is absurd. I’m also not saying that women have to model themselves after “feminist” popular culture figures, but there’s no doubt that the messages they send come across as didactic for women and create expectations of women in men.
“Can’t you just be happy that women stars even exist”?
And that type of response just shows how low the bar is because while I’m happy, I’m not under the impression that much has changed below the surface.
But, hey, Thirteen could be anything under the sun at this point. The jury is still out. It’s only the response to Whittaker’s casting that draws ire from me. I won’t prematurely judge her though.
Let’s be clear though: simply adding women to films and TV shows isn’t going to cut it. We saw this in Spider-Man: Homecoming as well. The three female characters were, when distilled to their essences, no more than plot devices for male self-actualization, which Marie Claire brilliantly outlined here.
Superficiality isn’t progress, not that I think popular culture should be the litmus test for gender progress, but it often unfortunately is. Plus, even though it isn’t a great metric, it’s still indicative of what the powers-that-be expect from women and how they think we should behave.
Women aren’t acting like men when we don’t exhibit the utmost thoughtfulness, and being permitted to act like men isn’t code for progress. Don’t charge female characters with being “the bracing relief from the brooding psychological torment” and bloodlust in male ones. (That’s not a defense of violence. It’s just an example of a constraint on female roles.)
We’ve got brooding, psychological torment, too, but if we show it — god forbid — we’re probably just PMS-ing. But please, men, keep expecting us to cater to yours, all while being tough, beautiful, and intelligent. It’s totally fair.
Here’s hoping Thirteen isn’t beholden to patriarchal expectations of women. (But here’s me not holding my breath.)