Recently, Matt Smith has announced that he’ll be leaving Dr. Who, instigating an avalanche of predictions and wish-lists about who will be the next to drive the TARDIS. For a lot of Whovians, Smith’s retirement is an opportunity to try out a new Doctor, one that might be more representative of some of the Doctor’s more under-represented fans. Some fans have even suggested a number of black, female, and (GASP!) ginger actors to play the part.
I can think of a dozen interesting choices. Tilda Swinton is by far the best idea I’ve heard for the new Doctor. Between ourselves, can we admit that she’s more fashion forward, alien, and powerful as herself than any of the Drs. Who have ever been? Helen Mirren would bring humor and depth to the part. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s name has been passed around too. He’s certainly had experience playing in sci-fi, and he’s got the whole “good guy that’s also kind of a dick” thing down.
Predictably, even the hint of casting against type has lead to the repetition of a depressingly familiar conversation, the conversation that happens any time there is a chance of changing a character’s race or gender or sexual orientation or whatever. Invariably, somebody claims that this kind of character rejiggerifying is an example of political correctness run amok, a dangerous trend in thought policing that must be stopped before it ruins the characters we love, unravels the fabric of society destroys the space-time continuum.
The more I hear people make this criticism, the more difficult it becomes for me to pretend as if there is anything to it besides an open sewer of raw bigotry.
Let me get to my point by way of a question: Which Batman is real, Bob Kane’s pipe-smoking, gun-toting character, Adam West’s campy police deputy, Frank Miller’s fascist thug, or one of the others? Which Superman is real, Siegel and Shuster’s new-deal-era working-class hero, George Reeve’s grandfatherly do-gooder, or Grant Morrison’s god among men?
The answer is that none of these are the definitive version. Each of these iterations highlights aspects of the characters we love, often adding new aspects to them as well. These become a part of the DNA of that character. For kids growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, Adam West was Batman. Adams and O’Neil’s New Look Batman didn’t “get rid” of West’s Batman (even though they tried). Instead, they added another layer to the idea of Batman. The characters we love have come to be in the telling, and in the telling the characters we love have changed.
The characters we love are not solid objects: they are constellations of ideas.
These changes have never destroyed the characters, even when they were, seemingly, fundamental. So why is that these changes are okay, and yet changing a character’s race or gender is an unforgivable assault by the forces of political correctness?
When I hear people use the term “political correctness”, I hear them describing a transparent, politically motivated attempt to normalize difference by changing nomenclature (like saying African-American instead of black), to rehabilitate the image of certain groups of people by playing them against stereotype (like having a Muslim hero when Muslims are too-often seen as terrorists) or to create artificial diversity by introducing “token” characters representing socially maligned groups (like having a black super-hero).
What strikes me is that anyone would think that these are bad things. We shouldn’t use alienating language to describe people. We shouldn’t allow stereotypes to go unchallenged. We should make art that respects that the world we live in is amazing and interesting because it is diverse.
When people say that some kinds of characters or some kinds of casting are wrong-headed because they are P.C. means that there is, on the one hand, a kind of character that one could introduce without being politically correct (i.e, “normal” characters) and on the other hand there are characters that are evidence of encroaching political correctness. That the P.C. charge is drug out when creators introduce characters of color, or women, or LGBTQ characters means that, for some, the baseline of normalcy is white, heterosexual, masculinity. This way of seeing the world is, simply put, bigotry.
When I hear the term political correctness, I hear a term that means acknowledging that we live in a world filled with all kinds of people and that they all deserve respect. It means acknowledging that people who look like me aren’t the center of the universe, and that maybe, just maybe, there are other versions of normal that might be worth knowing about. And when I hear people saying that having a woman or African-American Dr. Who is bad because it is P.C., then I hear people saying that Dr. Who is only for some kinds of fans and not for others. I hear people saying that white male fans deserve to see people like them, while women fans, LGBTQ fans, and fans of color simply don’t. Honestly, I’m tired of even pretending as if this is even a valid point and that the people making it are anything but bigots.