The Doctor, Confederate, and the echoes of history

Well, the culture wars sure came home to roost this week, didn’t they? One step forward, one step back.

First, forward! The 13th Doctor — the time- and dimension-hopping, body-regenerating protagonist of Doctor Who — is going to be a woman, and it’s damn well about time. Pun intended. Women, of course, make up slightly half of the human race, after all, and I think it’s safe to say that Gallifreyan Time Lords (and Ladies!) are similarly proportional in gender, lest there be a shortage of little Time Lords/Ladies. So the fact that it took the 14th iteration of the Doctor (there was a War Doctor between #8 and #9) to get a woman is a statistical outlier, to say the least.

Of course, there was the usual consternation from the usual benighted corners of the Internet. Apparently, you can accept a time- and dimension-hopping alien who can regenerate bodies and sounds like an Englishman, and who travels time and space in a phone booth, but you some how can’t accept that said alien might be a woman at times? And yet, this is apparently some scheme by leftists or Communists or feminists (gasp!) or whatever to subvert the world, and that the show is now DOOMED. Or that this perpetuates the marginalization of white men, who apparently were already feeling butthurt by the now-highly representational cast of the new Star Wars films.

Of course, white men have been the driving force of history in Europe for millennia, and globally for around 500 years, give or take. During that time, white men have marginalized Africans, Asians, native North and South Americans, Aboriginal Australians and everybody else on the planet, including all the women of all colors and religions. And now that women and people of color are beginning to demand — and get — more proportional representation in entertainment, this is somehow a coup against white guys?

Please. I’m a white guy, and I know first hand the kind of privileges I have compared to others. We now have a pluralistic, global society in which white men are maybe, just maybe, 10% of the total population, and yet the vast majority of people appearing on our TV screens — and our boardrooms and government — are white guys. Entertainment that centers women and people of color as protagonists is way overdue.

Jodie Whittaker is gonna be a fantastic Doctor. And she’s giving a heap of girls out there (including my daughter) a kick-ass role model. I can’t wait for her to woman-splain stuff to a bunch of guys who think they know stuff. I’m gonna make so much popcorn. And when she’s done, I hope the next Doctor is a person of color, because that’s also highly overdue.

(For a really excellent take on the new Doctor, I highly recommend Sarah Gailey’s latest on the B&N Sci-Fi & Fanasy Blog.)

Then there was the step back. The showrunners in charge of Game of Thrones, a show I love, announced that their next HBO project will be something called Confederate, in which they’ll explore an alternate history in which the South — and American slavery — survived the Civil War intact into the present day.

Man, where to begin here?

We’re at a fraught time in our nation. We have a narcissistic egomaniac as president, one who harnessed all kinds of latent racism and sexism in his bid for the highest office of the land. (The sheer number of frog memes and “Make America White Again” banners proudly displayed in the gutters of Twitter and Facebook is not the only evidence of this, y’all.) Meanwhile, we have Black Lives Matter trying to call attention to the continued, ongoing marginalization, criminalization and oppression of African-Americans that, frankly, lots of white people don’t want to face.

And now we’re gonna depict white people in the modern-day South owning black people.

Apparently, no, there will be no plantations and whips and such — they’ve said as much. I imagine in this retelling that corporations will staff factories with slave labor, that most people of means would have domestic slaves, that there would be some marginal protections for slaves, etc. And to me, that makes the concept even more insidious, because you know there’s gonna be some assholes out there who’ll be all like, “See? They live in dormitories. They get educated. This isn’t so bad!”

Kind of like when Bill O’Reilly — thank God that blowhard is off the air — said the slaves who were forced to help build the White House were treated well.

Now, every entertainment depicting difficult material will have some assholes perverting it to their twisted worldviews. I betcha a few would-be Nazis were all kinds of excited about The Man in the High Castle on TV. I still think Confederate is worse, coming at a time when we’re seeing the “well, actually” and “it’s free speech!” contingent paving the way for full-blown racism to re-enter the American conversation when it should be dead and buried.

And, of course, African-Americans are appalled. Yes, there are two African-Americans partnering with the Game of Thrones showrunners, so I have no doubt that a very nuanced take on the subject is in the works. But when African-American families around the country are struggling to have their voices heard, to combat voter suppression tactics, to not get murdered by police at exponentially higher rates than pretty much anyone else, to be simply treated with the dignity and respect that white men like me take for granted…why the hell would they want to watch themselves enslaved on television? How is that not a horrible insult?

(And yes, I get that many alternate history books have been written about the South winning the Civil War. And some of them may not have handled the issue of slavery well at all. But let’s get real — there’s a huge difference between a book sitting in a bookstore and an HBO show that’s undoubtedly going to have billboard advertising plastered all over the country and a massive following because of “from the creators of Game of Thrones.”)

The controversies surrounding both Doctor Who and Confederate really are about history — a history that marginalized women and people of color for thousands of years. The 13th Doctor represents another small step toward a world in which men and women are treated with equal respect and given equal time in the hero’s spotlight.

Confederate, on the other hand, and despite the no-doubt good intentions of its creators, may very well represent a big step backward for race in America and African-Americans’ ongoing and difficult drive for equality, dignity and respect after 250 years of slavery and another 150 years of continued discrimination after that.


Filed under Geek, Politics, Rant

2 responses to “The Doctor, Confederate, and the echoes of history

  1. While the title itself, “Dr. Who”, is certainly neutral is it canon for the Dr. to be male? white?

    If changing the character advances the story, great. But when it is done solely to advance an agenda it bothers me.

    • The canon explicitly states that a Time Lord can regenerate into a different gender. There’s no canonical reason the Doctor is male. And honestly, the story can go in so many new directions. Until now, keeping the Doctor male has kept the writers’ hands unduly tied, I believe.

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