July 18, 2017
Congratulations on Doctor Who, ladies, but stay vigilant. We’ve got a lot more work to do. pic.twitter.com/eWALnfoJ8o
— Full Frontal (@FullFrontalSamB) July 17, 2017
When the BBC announced the casting of the thirteenth Doctor in their longest running television series, Doctor Who, it was met with massive outcry from a very particular kind of nerd. This type of nerd is well-known to internet denizens across the genres of sci-fi, fantasy, and superhero comics. This nerd insists that casting a Black man to play Toby Parker fundamentally changes the story. This nerd insists that the best sci-fi is written and helmed by men. This nerd insists that a 900-year-old Time Lord who can regenerate into literally any creature would, for some reason, always choose to be a white man.
But the BBC rebuked all these nerd precepts when they cast Jodie Whittaker in the role of the thirteenth Doctor. She is the first woman to be cast as The Doctor, an iconic character of British culture and of nerdom.
Whittaker’s casting comes amid what feels like a major turn in how popular culture regards women. From Hidden Figures to Wonder Woman to The Last Jedi, women suddenly seem like they've finally gotten their due on the silver screen. Of course we're seeing more white women than women of color in starring roles, but it is an incremental sign that perhaps a tide has shifted, and that may be in large part to ongoing feminist criticism of popular culture, which has demonstrated that there exists a market for woman-driven characters and stories.
There is a feminist celebration with each new announced role for women: Daisy Ridley took on the main role in Star Wars, paired with a similar in-universe story starring Felicity Jones. Wonder Woman not only finally made it to theaters, but starred numerous high-profile actresses of the day, including House of Cards’ Robin Wright. Ava DuVernay’s forthcoming A Wrinkle in Time recasts Meg, the main character, from the white daughter in a white family to the biracial daughter of a Black woman and a white man.
But each new casting is met with a tide of harassment and threats: When a Ghostbusters reboot was announced two years ago, fanboys became enraged that women were cast in the main roles; online trolls singled out SNL's Leslie Jones, violently harassed with sexual and racist epithets and pornographic images on Twitter. And within a day of the announcement of her casting as The Doctor, the British tabloid The Sun, owned by Rupert Murdoch, was publishing nude photos of Whittaker. Every actress who takes on one of these previously male roles will almost assuredly face a massive backlash determined to undermine, shame, and threaten her livelihood.
This scorched-earth response to female casting is the natural death roll of a patriarchal power. When we had a black man in the White House, white conservative men lashed back by voting in an incompetent toddler in chief who has more fun playing with firetrucks than doing his actual job. Working toward equal representation in culture has become a two-steps-forward-one-step-back struggle: Each step, each casting, each new gain in equality, is accompanied by months (sometimes years) of harassment toward the marginalized.
While we wait for the universe to get comfortable with the idea of a woman playing The Doctor, the actresses who make these steps forward are facing endless harassment and silencing from nerd men who are extremely uncomfortable that the world no longer revolves around them. Indeed, nerd men have had over 50 years of The Doctor as a man who looks like them. Just one woman out of 13 is by no means proportional or equal representation, but to hear the nerd men talk, it is literally the end of everything they hold dear.
What this comes down to is a matter of identity politics: for nerd men who engage in harassment and vicious trolling of women cast in nerd movies, their very identity as nerds is at stake. For years, they have explained their position in society as that of the truly marginalized. It is they who are rejected because of what they choose to love; it is they who are persecuted and pushed aside because of their undying devotion to the kingdom of the nerd. Women don’t want them because women, naturally, aren’t nerds. And the dominance of white men in the nerd world is reinforced by harassing anyone who is not a white man until they leave.
Everything they hold dear, everything they understand about how their universe works is challenged by the presence of a woman in their world. These white nerd men are playing their own form of identity politics: protecting the power associated with their white maleness.
The casting of women in these previously male roles, and the cast of Black actors in previously white roles, reminds nerd men that they are rejected not because of their interests and their hobbies, but because they are assholes who use dominance and harassment to get their way. Their position in the world is lonely not because “women aren’t nerds” but because nerd women, surprise, don’t appreciate harassment and doxxing when they engage in nerd culture. And each new casting reminds them that they do not have the power they thought they did over the nerd market and nerd fandom.
The backlash of the nerd men is currently the cost of doing business as women in the world. It is a price that hangs over every casting decision, every script that gets green-lit, every directorial decision. But the more this work becomes normalized, the tinier the subset of upset nerd men will become. White men might not be able to handle the power of women, but this turn in Hollywood increasingly shows that they will need to.