Like it or Not, Casting is a Political Decision

Recently, Stephen Moffat has been talking about the possibility of a female Doctor again.

If you’ve heard so much as a whisper from the geeky internet over the past year, you’ll already know about the regeneration of Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor at Christmas and the preceding frenzy of opinion and speculation surrounding the casting choice by showrunner Moffat. While casting a female actor as the Twelfth Doctor had been a popular wish, championed by fans and celebrities alike, Moffat instead chose Peter Capaldi, already famous for his role as foul-mouthed spin-wizard Malcolm Tucker in The Thick Of It.

Giving a Q&A at the Hay Festival, Moffat was asked whether he would ever consider casting a woman as the Doctor. He replied, saying that he would cast the Doctor as female when it came into his head to do so, adding: “Casting is the dark arts of television. … you don’t cast for any other reason than for passion and for aesthetics. It’s not a political decision, it’s an aesthetic decision and will always be.”

Moffat’s attitude that casting is an arcane art that musn’t be queried or criticised is absolutely wrong-headed. When casting is at the unassailable whim of the showrunner, it’s impossible to raise issues about which we ought to worry. Issues like, for instance, why has a character who can canonically change their appearance and who has been recast twelve times only ever been played by white men?

The impulse to reject politics’ apparent intrusion into art is an understandable one. And, being fair to Moffat, it was under his aegis that it was finally made canon that Time Lords are capable of changing gender during regeneration, in a fan-favourite episode written by Neil Gaiman. However, if Moffat genuinely believes that casting is a matter for aesthetics and passion, one might wonder why exactly it is that he seems to find women so uninspiring.

Believe it or not, I don’t actually want to hold a gun to Moffat’s head and force him to write the Doctor the way I would personally prefer. What I would like to persuade him of, if I ever had the chance, is the vital importance of putting onscreen people beyond the able-bodied white male demographic.

Within the television industry itself, the failure to cast non-white actors in leading roles is leading to an exodus of young black talent from the UK to America, as actor and playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah has pointed out. Andy Akinwolere, ex-Blue Peter presenter, has also spoken out about the lack of black people represented on mainstream television compared to the amount of talent available. Kwei-Armah holds that there hasn’t been a black British performer to have become a household name since Lenny Henry, who hit it big in the ’90s.

When it comes to women, British television hardly fares better. Call The Midwife is a standout success – a female-centric drama with a large cast of women. Look further than that, though, and you find MerlinThe MusketeersSherlockRipper StreetBeing Human, and more – all shows that, despite their qualities, feature a small number of women compared to men, and then often in supporting roles rather than leading ones.

Returning to Doctor Who, the show features at its heart the dynamic of the male Doctor and his female companion. The Doctor, a time-travelling alien, represents the guide and teacher to the companion, who in her ordinariness acts as a relatable figure to, and sometimes an extension of, the viewer. The Doctor sweeps his companion off her feet to show her the wonders of the universe, and we are swept along with her.

Except that under Stephen Moffat, the amount of time the female companion spends speaking per episode has decreased sharply, down by 19% compared to his predecessor Russell T. Davies’ companions. There are fewer women in the show as a whole – 24% less – and their speaking time is over a third less than what it was under Rusty. It seems that while the Doctor remains the star of the show on Moffat’s watch, the roles of his female companion and other women characters have been fading fast. Could it be that in Moffat’s eyes they are just less important?

The role of the Doctor himself is one of the most compelling in television. His title invokes knowledge and authority. He is vaguely paternal, in that he is relied upon to teach the companion about the situations in which they end up, and to save the day when it all goes wonky. It’s rarely doubted that the Doctor has the power to put everything right again. He is enigmatic: by virtue of being ultimately alien he is always, in the end, just out of reach of understanding. As the agent of adventure within the narrative, he is the man with the key to the story in his pocket. It says something significant that Moffat is unable to envision a woman in this role, embodying these characteristics.

Furthermore, the Doctor is a character adored by children everywhere. So: when little girls watch Doctor Who – as we know they do, in their thousands – what effect do you think it has on them when every single Doctor they have ever known has been a man?

In 2011, children in the UK aged between four and 15 years old watched an average of just over 17 hours of television a week. Marian Wright Edelman, founder of American child advocacy group The Children’s Defense Fund, once said: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” What we see on television constitutes an integral part of our national culture and identity. What children see on television shapes the way they see the world.

When a woman character can be cast as an assistant or a companion or a love interest to the hero but not the hero themself, when BBC executives complain that black actors ought to act more typically lower-class to play characters from deprived backgrounds rather than across the class spectrum, then television is restricting the way that society at large perceives women and people of colour.

Those little girls, for instance. If they don’t see, as they grow up, women on television being knowledgeable and powerful and enigmatic and interesting, how can they know those are things they can be? How about if all little boys see are women in supporting roles – how will that shape their perception of women when they’re grown? If young black children are only shown black people in the context of poverty and crime, what do they learn? And white children, seeing the same?

The Doctor isn’t just one character but an important fragment of a trend in which the best roles on British television – the ones that people talk about and remember – belong to white men. This means that casting the role of the Doctor is a political act, one way or the other, like it or not. Choosing another white man to play the Doctor is not a neutral option. It is nothing less than a rejection of the already disenfranchised, and a vote for an unequal status quo.

I’m not saying that Stephen Moffat is a misogynist pigdog who deserves to never work in television again. I am saying that his refusal to fully own the implications of his actions as the head honcho of one of the most popular shows on television is at best short-sighted, and at worst baldly dishonest. I am also saying he needs to take a serious look at his own motivations and, yes, prejudices.

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2 thoughts on “Like it or Not, Casting is a Political Decision

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with the message of your post – unfortunately, I also believe that Moffat’s prejudices have also resulted in fundamentally bad characters. As much as I love Karen Gillan, making Amy a kissogram and from a tiny village was a bit many kissograms are there in small villages anyway? And then making Irene Adler a dominatrix in Sherlock? I think that he has almost surpassed the point of prejudiced casting when the female characters he writes seem only to feature as sexual objects.

    1. I totally get where you’re coming from. I’ve heard some thirdhand stories about Moffat being sexist as all getout behind the scenes (disclaimer: I don’t know the truth of these) and I think his prejudices come across in his writing, especially with the ‘every female character is quirky-sexy!’ thing. I also think he’s just not that good at writing relatable, realistic characters of either sex. (Personally, I loved Irene Adler from the first, but her character development throughout the episode? Not cool. Not cool at all.) I could go on for thousands and thousands of words about everything I dislike about Moffat’s seasons, but particularly the pervasive sexism.

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