British Indecencies, Left and Right — Doctor Who and Dunkirk
Whether left or right, invisible enemies are everywhere.
Quite recently, there has been a fortuitous if rough convergence of two cultural events which has allowed one, in a moment of rare clarity, to compare the hallmark behaviours of those on the right and the left in the tiresome “culture wars” that so reflect these polarised times. They both concern something culturally significant to Britain, which narrows the scope further, and allows one to really view these modern indecencies in full contrasting relief.
These are, then, the casting of Jodie Whittaker as the first female actress to play the Doctor in Britain’s best-loved sci-fi, and the “returning home” of director Christopher Nolan as he casts a host of Brits in his movie Dunkirk, which revisits the evacuation of the British expeditionary forces from the beaches of Northern France in one of the best known episodes of World War Two. Although I am loath to put a decisive triumph of the war beside a TV show that only infrequently succeeds on adult terms, to have these items as part of your cultural consciousness is probably one of the many things that make one British in 2017. And so, exacerbated as ever by the zoo of the internet, the left is called to arms against the hordes of imaginary sexists who, thanks to deep-seated disgust at seeing women cast in leading roles, express some reservations about a female Doctor. In a similar fit of righteous paranoia, up spring the right-wing defenders of our cultural heritage, ready to scream “of course there was no blacks or women, its historical!” to an audience who are all quite aware of and comfortable with that fact. This is the level of mediocrity we sink to when the people who refuse to stop and think, surfing waves of comment section gusto, spout their amplified and ill-informed piffle over the heads of fine actresses and fine directors, who, I imagine, can only clasp their heads in their hands. You won’t find any thinkers of renown, left or right, engaging in this nonsense, although you’ll certainly notice how much it is reported on. However much the Independent and Breitbart, the Guardian and the Spectator, the New Statesman and the National Review snap at each other, the truth is that most people are fine with Dunkirk and the debate over a female doctor can, believe it or not, be had without calling anyone a sexist.
To start with Jodie Whittaker then (who did, in a display of evident sense, claim to have deliberately avoided the online racket), it is worth considering how Steven Moffat, the show’s long-term executive producer, responded when, back in 2014, Helen Mirren made known that she would like to see a black, gay or female Doctor:
“I like that Helen Mirren has been saying the next doctor should be a woman.
I would like to go on record and say that the Queen should be played by a man.”
I had long since stopped caring much about Doctor Who by 2014, but I remember thinking that this response didn’t quite deserve the angry reaction that it provoked. Here we had the executive producer of Doctor Who, responding to some outsider who clearly doesn’t know much about the show and affirming that the Doctor actually does have a character- one that is male. But, in every article or comment section you care to read, this idea of character is always summarily overridden by the sole courteously expressed argument before the charges of sexism begin: “but of course the Doctor can be a woman, (s)he’s an alien who regenerates”. After that has been dealt, one is assumed to be only maintaining a position that the Doctor may have a male character because of entrenched misogyny.
There are a great many things that a shape-shifting alien in a sci-fi universe can be, not just a woman, but does this mean that anyone protesting the Doctor regenerating into, say, a tentacled Lovecraftian alien, is arguing from a place of bigotry? The truth is of course that the Doctor will never regenerate into such a creature, because, although it is “possible”, it is not in the character of the Doctor. And there is plenty besides being humanoid that characterises him; he also seems to never use firearms, always dresses eccentrically, always enjoys tea and never initiates sexual relationships (hence why Mirren was so ignorant with her call for a “gay Doctor”). None of these attributes are protected by the fictional universe, but by the character of the Doctor.
Now, despite what I have here written, none of this is intended to shut down utterly those who wish to argue that the radical change from male to female (for it is radical) would work, merely that there is a lot to base one’s scepticism on besides one’s sexism. A complete refusal to acknowledge this was evident in a New Statesman article on the casting entitled “A Very British Alien”, herein Jonn Ellidge wrote —
“Both Capaldi and Tennant were fans of the programme before they were its star; both became actors in part because they wanted to play the Doctor. It’s a lovely idea that, somewhere out there right now, there’s a little girl who might do the same.”
I can’t begin to describe how ridiculous it is to be talking about the Doctor as if playing a fictional character is like holding an important political office. What is this responsibility the creators of Doctor Who have to be inspiring little girls to grow up to play a character many believe to be male (and as we have earlier shown, with good reason)? Is any young girl’s development seriously hindered by the portrayal of a male Doctor? Am I being done a great disservice by having my hopes of one day playing Wonder Woman dashed by her constant in-print and onscreen portrayal as a woman? Are any young girls really being poisoned by patriarchal oppression when they have to accept that, as women, they may never get the chance to play James Bond? What nonsense! The Doctor is a fictional character with fictional character traits, not the office of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
It is worth considering the title of Ellidge’s article: if the Doctor was played by an American actor, with an American accent and American quirks, it would very certainly annoy some fans, but is one a sexist for believing the Doctor to be male any more than Ellidge is xenophobic for believing him to British? Of course not- he may be an alien, but he’s no yank! Yet, I’ll happily say once more that perhaps the Doctor can be a woman, perhaps it will work, but nobody is a sexist for expressing doubts. Moffat later said the following regarding a female Doctor:
“We’ve been laying the possibility for an awfully long time, but you don’t cast that way. I know I’m going to get in trouble for saying that — you cast a person, you don’t cast the gender. It didn’t feel right to me, right now. I didn’t feel enough people wanted it […] Oddly enough most people who said they were dead against it — and I know I’ll get into trouble for saying this — were women. [They were] saying, ‘No, no, don’t make him a woman!”
Despite how it might seem, this doesn’t actually contradict his earlier statement. Moffat is only acknowledging that there is a debate to be had, that it may or may not work, that the right actress is needed and that it is emphatically not some urgent moral obligation to change a male character female. And yet, the New Statesman still runs articles sneering “this will annoy exactly right people” — there it is again: be quiet about it, be happy about it, or you hate women. And it isn’t annoying people feminists would like annoyed anyway; reactionary Conservative M.P. Jacob Rees-Mogg called it “exactly the right thing for them to be doing” as he dutifully went along with the consensus to avoid trouble. It is the fans who are being annoyed, he certainly doesn’t care. Incidentally, Moffat’s claim that the majority of people who didn’t want a female Doctor were women checks out entirely with my experience; my younger sister (who is the big Doctor Who nut in our house, having inherited all of my DVDs and issues of Doctor Who Magazine) thinks the decision is “crap”. Maybe it isn’t annoying exactly the right people, eh?
Thus is the debate around the casting of the capable Jodie Whittaker orientated — with the show’s fans, executive producer and even a former Doctor, Peter Davidson, being smeared as reactionary bigots standing in the way of the rectification of a historic injustice. There is an honest polite debate to be had as to whether Whittaker will be believable as the hitherto eccentric, British male character, but it’s not a debate that’s being allowed to happen by anyone commenting on the left (except me).
I don’t think there’s many people who would delight in seeing Whittaker now fall on her arse in an indictment of bad casting choices, but this recent circus is really nothing to do with her, a great actress who impresses me wildly when she claims she’s never used social media (what glowing sense!). Nor is it anything to do with those who honestly put the case for or against her. It’s all thanks to those who make Doctor Who the vehicle for their clumsy attack against straw men sexists — and unfortunately, their shrieking voices are pretty much all you can read (again, besides me). But let us pop in that Tardis now and head back to 1940, where we’ll discover the right is just as keen to tilt at windmills.
Dunkirk is something of a wet dream for some Conservative commentators. Consider Tom Rogan writing in the Washington Examiner, who one can feel bristling with pride as he squeezes in mentions of his heroic forbears –
“Of course, it was those of “Trump’s America” — middle America — that formed the forces that saved the world from the Nazis and imperial Japan. Those young men, like my grandfather from Fishers Island, New York, knew nothing of European history. But like their brothers at Dunkirk and in the skies over Britain (like my other grandfather), they saved it anyway.”
The crassness here is frightening, and the focus on historical accuracy telling. Nolan’s film has been, by a great many right-wing commentators, defended against an utterly fictitious enemy — a mass of left liberal commentators who have set out to alter history in the Stalinist/Orwellian fashion that the more paranoid of conservatives seem see round every corner.
The reality here is that the common sense assumption that leftists trying to convince people that the British Expeditionary Forces contained considerable numbers of ethnic minorities and women, and that Nolan’s film is a sinister misrepresentation, is a bit of a hard sell. Such is the jingoistic and sentimental pride evoked by the film however, that a common right-wing neurosis seems to have it cherished it as a rare example of honest Hollywood, and defended against enemies that must be invented. Rogen’s comments above confirm this, as does Nigel Farage on Twitter calling for “every young person” to watch it. James Dellingpole, the mediocre Breitbart hack who is surely now hopelessly stuck in the rut of provocation his employment there demands of him, has written not one but two articles of poorly concealed keyboard-melting rage, on the scantest of evidence, to the effect that the left is in a great collusion against the film for being too white and cis. The evidence I refer to amounts to two items (and I can find no others): a single line from an otherwise complimentary USA Today review and an article by Mehera Bonner in the women’s magazine Marie Clare which, perhaps inevitably, did make a rather cack-handed attempt to offer a feminine perspective of the very masculine film which rang rather hollow. The USA Today review line that so enraged Dellingpole read:
“The trio of timelines can be jarring as you figure out how they all fit, and the fact that there are only a couple of women and no lead actors of color may rub some the wrong way.”
That was it. I don’t go as far as the Guardian journalist Jason Wilson (who compiled several of these left-baiting reviews here) and say that this is “innocuous”, because it is a perfectly stupid thing to write, but one would agree it hardly warrants Dellingpole’s patriotic defence of the film — “defence against what?”, by the way, becomes a recurring question.
In the article against the Marie Clare article, Dellingpole concludes by advising modern women to be a little more grateful that men like those in Dunkirk have been around throughout history to save them from a sordid ruin–
“To mock these impulses — as Mehera Bonner does in her petulant, spiteful, silly little girl’s review — is to reject precisely those values which, since time immemorial, have endeavored to keep people of Bonner’s sex safe from the hostile outside forces which would rape and enslave them.”
And with that, I’m sure the reader requires no help from me to grasp the extent of the muck which Dellingpole wallows in and adds to. And here he wraps up the subject; I have no doubt that single stray line in a left-wing or feminist publication will engender a third article defending Dunkirk from non-existent feminazis but, for now, that’s about as much something as he can make from nothing.
What is clear to me and everyone I know (and everyone you know, reader) is that left and right, people enjoyed Dunkirk. You would think such a thing a cause for unity, but I like to theorize that, finally given a Hollywood film they could sentimentally cherish, the right assumed the left must be somehow out to destroy it. I refer you to the Guardian article I linked above for a fair sample of the conservative commentators itching to get a culture war started over this film, and the enemies they have invented. You will note, also, the general mediocrity of the writers, from trolls like Dellingpole (the one new right/alt-right/Trump-supporting commentator, by the way, who really does seem to hate himself) to quaffing demagogues like Farage; you won’t see a Roger Scruton or a Peter Hitchens amongst this gang (you won’t even see a Jacob Rees-Mogg). No, just as there was no-one of any note screeching “sexist” at those who legitimately questioned whether a female Doctor was a good move, the mob here inventing SJWs were decidedly unimpressive. Although there can be times, especially these days, when the fight against the totalitarian crimes of devaluing truth and inventing history seems to be much better fought on the right, this is a pathetic case of conservatives inventing the history inventors. Just as a fine actress sits beneath the shit-show clanging over her head, here a fine film plays away at the centre of a nonsense it could really do without.
It’s quite handy that such a neat comparison as I have explored in this essay has presented itself, and its certainly quite unfortunate for anyone seeking to defend the state of modern argument, at least as the popular, all-engaging, level. One could almost be tempted to argue that the beige individualist Thatcher/Reagan era that we are now seeing exploded into one of sharp polarisation did at least favour more nuance, if only insofar as the right is now poisoned by ever more extreme reactionary populism and the left is clinging to its paranoid identity politics and academic hegemony ever more tightly. Doctor Who and British war films aren’t new, but I can’t remember such indecent, loathsome racket ever colouring our enjoyment of them in this way, even within the age of the internet. Verily, our experience of culture is febrile now; left or right, you can’t budge for knocking something over.