I have so many problems with all of this that even Jay-Z feels bad for me. This isn’t about Jodie Whittaker or Doctor Who. This isn’t even about science fiction. It is about the implications of people complaining about non-straight, non-white, non-male actors/characters cast in lead roles. Specifically, folks moaning about those lead roles that traditionally featured straight, white men. And frankly, it needs to stop.
The Base Settings Phenomenon
It all stems from a phenomenon that I call “defaultness.” What is defaultness? It’s the assumed default characteristics of any given role or occupation in pop culture/society at large. “Librarian” defaults to bespectacled middle-aged woman, while “hero” defaults to a burly, gritty male. Defaultness allowed Nintendo to engineer a legendary twist ending in Metroid that revealed Samus Aran is a woman. Defaultness is also the reason why we (at large) immediately link any character or role to how we originally perceived them, e.g. white men as many nerd culture icons like The Doctor, Superman, and James T. Kirk. The overwhelming majority of lead characters in popular culture and entertainment tend to default to white men. Not surprising. Most of the history of the Western world revolves around white men in social and political power; it is only natural that many of us default to thinking of characters as such.
Defaultness in pop culture is our status quo. Defaultness mostly goes along unnoticed until someone rocks the boat; at that point, the Internet lights up. The Doctor is only the latest in a long line of fights. Idris Elba has three such controversies to his name: his casting as Roland Deschain in 2017’s long-awaited The Dark Tower, as Norse guardian Heimdall in 2011’s Thor, and when rumors attached his name to a possible 007 reboot. Same thing happened with the 2015 Fantastic Four reboot when Michael B. Jordan claimed the role of blonde haired, blue eyed hothead Johnny Storm.
In 2016, self-proclaimed “Ghostbusters loyalists” vomited all over Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones before a trailer even debuted. When Marvel Comics introduced Miles Morales as the new Ultimate Spider-Man in 2011 and Kamala Khan as the new Ms. Marvel in 2013, reactions were outright volatile. We got the same in 2012 with Simon Baz (the first Muslim Green Lantern) and Alan Scott (retconned as the first openly gay Green Lantern). I even wrote a piece about the reaction to Mockingbird’s pro-feminism shirt in 2016.
PC SJWs Pushing Liberal Agendas
Defaultness is a form of bias. When the introduction of characters with racial, gender, and sexual diversity upsets the status quo (as described above), that necessarily means that “straight white male” is the assumed default. Any characters that differ from those descriptors are Other or Not Normal. Suddenly when things aren’t status quo, that’s when we’re apparently pushing an agenda.
Sure, Chris Chibnall was outspoken about his vision for a female Doctor. Yeah, it’s an agenda. But think on this. At 54 years old, Doctor Who changed its lead actor twelve times. Twelve times. Eleven of those casting decisions happened behind closed doors. I will bet anything that zero women, POC, and gender non-conforming actors made it past the brainstorming phase on at least ten of those “new Doctor” searches. And if that isn’t an agenda, then I don’t know what is.
When you say this stuff, we hear it. We, the non-white, non-male, non-straight, non-binary, non-default people in your life hear it. When you say anything like that, what we hear is: “This character should be a straight white man.” “When you wail about “pushing an agenda,” it sounds to us like: “The only reason why this character is now [descriptor] is because it’s in vogue to promote that. This person probably isn’t good enough to be that role anyway.” That hurts. You devalue not only the character, but also the actor and the people they represent. You might not intend to say that, but that’s how it comes across. To every last one of us.
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Dante Buccieri is the resident comic book savant of The Geek Embassy. He’s been reading comics for as long as he can remember, and now that he’s a librarian he gets to advocate for comics in libraries and get paid for it. He’s also a tabletop gaming fan, especially those that involve cards, with favorites including Sentinels of the Multiverse, Magic: The Gathering, Bang!, Smash Up, Star Realms, and 7 Wonders. Dante is a library professional at Portland Community College in Hillsboro, OR.