The Role Model Issue

When Jodie Whittaker was cast as the thirteenth Doctor, fans’ reactions ranged from “Finally!” to “WTF?” Responses from other actors who have played the Doctor, however, have been almost uniformly positive. Colin Baker, the Sixth Doctor, has been perhaps the most enthusiastic in his support, and tenth Doctor David Tennant, who stars with Whittaker in the crime drama Broadchurch, has given the choice a thumbs-up as well. Ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston, normally reticent about the show and his time on it, has declared that with the casting of a Northern, working-class actress, “What could go wrong?” Yet one former Doctor has expressed reservations about the character’s regeneration into a woman — fifth Doctor Peter Davison (also the father-in-law of David Tennant), who says that he supports Whittaker yet at the same time laments the loss of a “role model for boys.”

Cue the controversy. Many fans enthusiastic about the change rose up to go after Davison with torches and pitchforks, to the extent that Davison chose to close out his Twitter account — yet more evidence that civil disagreement and debate are all but unknown in the world we now live in. Though I was never tempted to attack him (I still remember how much I loved him on All Creatures Great and Small), I admit that when I first read his complaint I dismissed it out of hand as the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard. Yet after some time to reflect, while I still disagree with him, I can almost, sorta kinda see his point. Role modeling is a complex issue, and when we speak of role models we ought to consider what is being modeled, and how.

Let us say that what’s being modeled is heroism. What are some specific tenets of heroism that we can all agree on? Courage springs to mind at once, a willingness to take risks, a refusal to rely too much or too often on someone else to solve the problems. Resourcefulness is another essential ingredient, as are resilience, an unwillingness to give up even when the temptation is strong, and kindness, a readiness to help and fight for others. The reasons Davison’s complaint seems absurd is that for centuries we’ve seen these qualities modeled almost exclusively by male characters. What heroism female characters have been called upon to show has usually taken the form of patience and endurance — passive virtues, while men have gotten to display the active ones.

We can see this in a quick overview of the iconic tales so many of us take in as children. In the myths of the ancient Greeks and Romans, which fascinated me in my younger days, male heroes abound; when women take active roles, it’s usually to cause trouble (Pandora, Medea, Clytemnestra, Helen…). King Arthur and his knights are presented as bold, chivalrous heroes, albeit a little flawed at times; the women in their orbit, with the possible exception of Isolde, are either weak or wicked. Robin Hood and his Merry Men rob from the rich to give to the poor, righting the wrongs of an oppressive government, occasionally taking time to rescue the damsel Maid Marian from danger. Some hundreds of years later, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, we have the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, and Mark Twain, full of fearless and resourceful boy heroes like Jim Hawkins, Mowgli, Tom Sawyer, and Huck Finn, characters who have stood the test of time. In this same period, many “books for girls” were published, but such works emphasized domesticity rather than adventure, and only a small handful of them (e.g. Little Women, The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables) are still read today.

What’s a young girl to do if she wants to daydream about being a hero and having adventures far from home? What I did when I was growing up, and countless others have done for years, of course — identify with male characters. Go into the backyard and pick up a good, sturdy stick, swing it like a sword, and imagine herself as the Gorgon-slaying Perseus, or the bold Sir Galahad, or Robin Hood, or even Peter Pan. Girls have had countless years of practice finding their role models in the boys and men of fiction. Boys have rarely, if ever, had to do this. So it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if the Doctor regenerates into a woman, she can no longer serve as a role model for boys.

We’ve come quite a long way in just the last three decades. With the help of such writers as Tamora Pierce, Robin McKinley, and Gail Carson Levine, we’ve come to accept that girls can be heroes, with the same active traits of courage and resourcefulness we’ve seen for so long in their male counterparts. Yet while we see more female heroes than ever before, they’re still significantly outnumbered, on both page and screen, by their male counterparts. The top ten novels on the Goodreads list “Best Fantasy Books of the 21st Century,” for example, are as follows: The Name of the Wind, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The Wise Man’s Fear, A Storm of Swords, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Mistborn: The Final Empire, The Way of Kings, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and American Gods. While several of these titles feature women in significant and interesting roles, exactly one of them — Mistborn — has a female lead who occupies the center of the action for the balance of the book. With a one-out-of-ten ratio like this, if boys and men want heroic role models, they surely wouldn’t have trouble finding them.

But here is where I come close to seeing Davison’s point. We still have plenty of male characters for a male audience to identify with, but how many are role models? How many of them mix courage and resourcefulness with kindness and decency? Harry Potter does, as do the male leads in The Way of Kings, but at a time when Marvel Comics turns Captain America, once an exemplar of sturdy and uncompromised goodness, into a Hydra agent, it’s not unreasonable to ask just what a good many male characters in SFF, especially in film and TV, are modeling. The Doctor is a role model because the character displays insight and intelligence, willingness to make hard and even heartbreaking choices, and a desire to do the right thing, the kind thing, as Peter Capaldi puts it in his most recent episode, “The Doctor Falls.” How many character like this, male or female, do we see?

I’m thrilled we’re finally getting to see this character in female guise, but I would also love to see more male leads in books, movies, and TV who do not 1) think with their lower halves, and/or 2) use violence as their first resort when solving problems. I still hope with all my heart that we’re moving toward a future in which we see role models of every gender, that anyone in the audience can look up to.



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