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Voices: Gender-swapping characters like Doctor Who does far more good than harm

On Thursday, Conservative MP Nick Fletcher, speaking in a debate on the subject of International Men’s Day, said that young men are being driven to a life of crime because Doctor Who has ovaries now.

Well, that isn’t exactly what he said. But that’s the version that was passed around on Twitter. I can’t really blame people for focusing on that aspect of his speech. I too would like to live in a more magical world, where Covid is a distant memory and PMQs is solely about whether Eccleston or Troughton had the cooler TARDIS design.

Fletcher’s actual point was a little more nuanced. He said that the recent trend in film and television of putting women in traditionally male roles is leaving young men without strong media role models. The male characters that are left, Fletcher argues, tend to glamorise violence and crime.

I actually do sympathise with Fletcher’s position, to a degree. Supplanting male characters with women can often feel like a bit of an acquiescence to political correctness, where representation of a particular group becomes more important than the coherence or quality of the work itself.

It’s a played-out, tedious discussion; a shot across the bough in the never-ending culture wars. But it’s a fair point. Why can’t our male characters just be played by men? If representation is so important, why don’t we just make more original properties starring women?

The problem is that we don’t really live in a cultural moment that generally values originality. Of the top 20 highest grossing films of all time, 16 are either sequels, remakes, or adaptations of pre-existing properties. 18, if you count Frozen and its sequel as adaptations of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”, 19 if you count Titanic as an adaptation of a historical event, and all 20 if you consider that Avatar is just Dances With Wolves in space.

A bigger issue is the age of the material being adapted. We’re still making sequels to films that came out in the 1980s. Comic books are a multi-billion dollar industry, with multiple high-grossing films being released on material that is decades old. There’s another Spider-Man film coming out in December, and that character was created in 1962. Batman has another film coming out next year, and he predates the Second World War.

Parts of our current media landscape were put into motion by creators who lived and died long before we recognised the importance of representational equality. Many of their creations revolve around straight white males because they were created in an era where being straight, white and male was considered the default setting of humanity.

Capitalism is a juggernaut, and, as is often the case, the best we can hope for isn’t to halt it in its tracks and demand change, but instead to hope that it makes a bland gesture towards something that at least resembles social progress. Are any of us really going to march into Disney’s corporate headquarters and demand they make more original content starring women? Of course not. Most of us won’t even miss the latest Marvel movie. Sneaking under-represented groups in through the back door by using popular IPs isn’t some grand victory for the “social justice left” – it’s already a compromise. A compromise that keeps Hollywood from descending into the kind of poisonous half-baked nostalgia that men like Fletcher subscribe to.

Fletcher’s assertion that making these kinds of changes leaves young men without role models completely misses the point. If young men want representation in film and television, I’m happy to point them in the direction of the previous century’s worth of recorded media. Pop culture has been overwhelmed by male protagonists since we figured out how to capture images on film.

Star Wars’ female protagonist isn’t going to come to your house and destroy your copy of A New Hope. The fact that the 13th Doctor is played by a woman doesn’t magically erase the other 12. Those movies and TV shows will always exist, and more to the point, we’re still making them. Male protagonists aren’t banned from the table, we’ve just pulled up a few more chairs.

The real irony of Fletcher’s comments is that he proves, in a roundabout way, the exact thing the proponents of media diversity have been arguing for years: representation clearly does matter. His fears about a lack of positive, uplifting role models in TV and cinema have been the reality of disenfranchised groups for decades. Not just women, but ethnic minorities, disabled people, the gay community and trans people.

Even under the broad umbrella of “young men,” there is still minimal positive representation of working class people, or people from certain regions of the UK. I’m not saying that the next Avengersfilm should be set on a council estate in Belfast but… actually, does anybody have Kevin Feige’s phone number? I want to run something by him.

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In all seriousness, the link that Fletcher makes between violent crime and a lack of representation might be a little overstated. The purpose of media representation isn’t to inspire children to be good, it’s to make them feel like they’re a part of society. Likewise, his assertion that all young men are left with is glamorised violence is way off the mark.

If anything, recent depictions of male violence have been more nuanced and introspective than they ever were in previous decades. Gone are the days of Arnold Schwarzenegger blowing up a terrorist compound and brushing off the loss of human life with a cheap one liner. Walter White struggles with his toxic masculinity. Tony Soprano goes to therapy.

Fletcher’s worries about women taking on traditionally male roles in media are insulting, not only to people who advocate for more considerate representation, but to the young men he supposedly speaks on behalf of. He takes agency away from them by assuming that the only thing standing between them and an outbreak of looting is the fact that James Bond has a penis.

It’s a draining conversation, but it’s a conversation worth having. The gender-swapping experiment doesn’t always work, and it can sometimes feel like a hollow gesture, but it’s a gesture that does more good than it does harm. It indicates to people who might otherwise feel excluded that, whether it’s saving the world or just making themselves heard, they can do anything.