Press coverage of a female Doctor Who reveals a long way yet to go

Jodie Whittaker getting the role of the Doctor in Doctor Who after over half a century of men playing the part was undoubtedly amazing. The latest trailer for the new series has her in character breaking a glass ceiling. Yay. We know. We get it. Many of us, myself included, and I’ve been a Doctor Who fan my whole life, think it’s amazing.

However, the press coverage in recent weeks kind of stinks. Why? Because it shows a stark contrast between how male and female actors are treated. Whittaker has been largely presented well in the interviews but the accompanying photos have all been glamorous, languid shots of her in beautiful, expensive dresses accentuating her fabulous figure, her hair salon-styled, her make-up clearly not the sort of look a woman tends to have in her everyday life but might have if she’s going to a high society function or onto a catwalk. There’s not one photo that hasn’t been touched up in Photoshop. Her skin looks flawless. Her overall appearance is stunning. 

Now, I’ve seen less posed photos of Whittaker. Her skin is normal, not entirely smooth and matt. She wears everyday, functional clothes like every other woman. She is, in short,  a human being and not a doll. And all the more beautiful and real for being shown as she truly is. So, why does the BBC sanction presenting her as she has been recently? Because, depressingly, they’re going for the hoary old trope of ‘sex sells’ and now a woman’s got the role of the the Time Lord, she’s got to work it like no incarnation before her.

Let’s not look back to the classic era of the show, when women were the Doctor’s assistants and made the tea even if they were supposed to have scientific doctorates or careers in journalism. Let’s instead examine Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi, all Doctors in the modern era.

Now, of those, Tennant and Smith both had their fans thinking they were pretty, handsome and generally attractive (I think Smith is sex on a stick, as it so happens). I don’t recall any of these male actors being so groomed and powdered as Whittaker in photos. I don’t recall them being sexily posed in photos. I also don’t recall interviews with them into which topics such as partners and children were brought up each and every time. Sport, politics and their acting backgrounds were covered – you know, the stuff seen as manly, and career-focused. But you can’t read an interview with Whittaker that doesn’t reference her partner and kids.

Whittaker is a contemporary woman with a career and a family, sure, I get that it’s kind of good we know this. And we are told this repeatedly. It’s obvious, though, that a woman still has to do more, be more, than men in order to get some respect – and even then, she has to be, well, doctored in photos and has to look a very specific kind of sexy, languid, essentially feminine in the narrowest sense, in the public eye, if she is to be accepted upon entering a space previously occupied only by men. 

Undoubtedly, Whittaker is a pioneer. She is the first female Doctor in the TARDIS. The glass ceiling, though? Has she broken it? Only if it’s a ceiling in the cavernous ship the Doctor travels in. When it comes to the glass ceiling most women encounter when they have careers, I’m not sure. She’s paid the same as Capaldi was, but her announcement in the role was made around the time the scandal of BBC pay inequality hit the news. The BBC was in the middle of a very vulnerable moment. Whittaker’s pay was a focus. Yet only this week, Sandi Toksvig let it be known she’s paid 40 per cent of what Stephen Fry got for hosting QI. That’s over a year after pay inequality first became a news focus.

Change, it seems, can be instantaneous and dramatic for a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. Women from the planet Earth, however, find it happens much more slowly and requires a lot more struggle and fighting on a number of fronts. You get an acting role that was previously men-only but you’re then presented as Barbie in the glossy magazines and tabloids.

Where’s the realness? And is it true equality when a woman in the role of the Doctor has to appear youthful and pretty while the men playing the part have ranged from young to old, with only two possibly having been seen as both youthful and pretty, and not one of them could ever have been said to be stunning (in the narrowest, conventional view) examples of the male form?

None of this is Jodie Whittaker’s fault, and she’s no pawn. She is a brilliant actor and will be a fantastic Doctor. Imagine, though, a day coming when a female Doctor could be any woman at all. A female Doctor without conventional press-friendly attractiveness, older, frumpy, grumpy, messy – you know, like several of the males that have played the part. Most men and women are perfectly average and not models. The Doctor’s brilliance is in her/his mind, like it is with any of us. The Doctor doesn’t need to be good-looking to succeed – and that is a great message that’s kind of been in the show since it began.

Whittaker’s casting has broken a glass ceiling but it is only one. There are others waiting to be broken. As historic as her landing the Doctor Who role is, her presentation in the press shows us there is much more work to be done. At least we can be fairly confident that her character on screen will not be as polished as the photos. She will be the Doctor and the special effects will be for the monsters, not her skin. Her hair will not always be perfect. Her clothes, as we have already seen, will be eccentric and not gendered in so far as she’s wearing items men and women, boys and girls, could wear.

Whittaker’s Doctor: not a gender-specific piece of clothing in sight. 

Roll on October and let’s see what she can do. I can’t wait, and yet, I must…

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