Are Doctor Who characters representational or realistic?

When the first lesbian companion was written into Doctor Who for the 10th Series–and a person of color at that–many saw Bill Potts as a representative character. Whether you were complaining that it was a liberal conspiracy by the BBC to push their PC agenda, or hailing the casting as an appropriate (though belated) way to diversify the regular cast to help break down the barriers of prejudice, either way, you may have believed Bill Potts was there to represent.

As one lesbian woman put it, “It wasn’t until I saw Bill on screen that I realised how significant the move was, and with it, how important representation is as a whole. I’m not talking about the BBC hitting its diversity quotas here, but how important it is to see someone like me on screen, on the show I grew up with.”

Similarly, with the recent hiring of Jodie Whittaker to play the Doctor, many have seen another way for the show to represent: now women can more easily identify with the hero of the series.

This raises an interesting question: Are characters in Doctor Who meant to be representational? Writers don’t think much like viewers, commentators, or execs. They want to create great stories, and in their experience, great stories are populated by realistic characters–not in the sense that they are ordinary, but that their motivations, desires, and personality traits coincide with what we might find in the real world. Perhaps you think that realism and representationalism do not have to be mutually exclusive, but the fact is, the more representational a character is, the less realistic, and vice versa.

Realistic characters most resemble a real-life person. A realistic character is complex. They are depicted in a very detailed way, with a host of attributes, an “identity” that sets them apart from everyone else. There is therefore less room for interpretation or for the viewers to identify with the character by attributing their own identity to that character.

A representational character, on the other hand, is more generalized, so that a greater number of people can identify with the character. Moreover, a representational character also is idealistic: if the character is a hero, only the best and most exemplary qualities will be on display, and if the character is a villain, just the worst comes out of them. If the character is too nuanced or carries too many specific attributes, the idealism breaks down, and the representation narrows considerably.

Pearl Mackie, the actor portraying Bill Potts, has seen her character as very much three-dimensional in nature. “I’m here to play one person,” she said. “I’m not here to represent the entire lesbian and gay community, and I’m not here to represent the entire ethnic minority community. I think that kind of thing can be quite dangerous as well because essentially, lumping everyone together is something that we should stay away from anyway. I just play one individual who is a lesbian and if people identify with that positively then that’s great.”

Is it possible to meet the norms of representational correctness without sacrificing the realism of a character? Yes, to a certain extent. If you don’t have a character that your fans can identify with, empathize with, or care enough about to want to learn more about them, then they won’t want to watch the show. Sure, some characters can be unappealing jerks, but the regulars need to have at least some representational characteristics. The success of Bill Potts is that, even though she is a realistic, complex character, viewers have identified with her in many ways, even those who are not lesbian or people of color. This has occurred because she has qualities a large number of people can identify with.

Nevertheless, one can go to an extreme with representation. Realistic characters need to believable, and to be believable they need personality. Quirks. Idiosyncrasies. Anything that sets them apart from a general “type.” After all, no one on this planet fits a stereotype. We all deviate in some way. Even more importantly, to be realistic a character needs to be flawed. This is especially important for protagonists. Nobody’s perfect, not even heroes. In fact, heroes are often defined by their weaknesses. Nobody is completely selfless or completely malicious. Characters who do good or evil for the sake of good or evil are flat.

A flawed character can be representational, but we can’t then expect that the character will be wholly ideal. Some people expect this from representation. Have you ever had a friend you really cared about, and you make sure everything you tell others about her presents her in a positive light? A writer can’t do this even with heroic characters. It kills the realism.

When watching and critiquing characters in Doctor Who, and how they are depicted, a beneficial approach is to ask ourselves how realistic the characters are first. Representational interpretation is valuable, but if it is the first thing on our minds, we may miss the forest for the trees, so to speak.

What is representational interpretation? Basically, it analyzes the presentation of characters in an effort to determine whether those representations are objectionable because they depict that character stereotypically or prejudicially based on their race, sexual orientation, or other category. A typical claim would be that the writing for, or portrayal of, character X perpetuates prejudicial beliefs and is therefore objectionable.

Fortunately, grotesque caricatures of “the other” are no longer acceptable in media today and have mostly disappeared. Still, there are some stereotypes that have remained: the sassy black woman, the Asian kid who is a math genius, the black man who is great at basketball, the ultra-effeminate gay man, the Latina seductress, the submissive Asian woman, the Indian who works at the 7-11, etc. Not all the stereotypes are negative, but they are still stereotypes that have been far overdone in entertainment media.

To portray individual characters in these ways is not always bad–such people exist in real life–but when only a handful of these stereotypes are used to depict diverse kinds of people, when these are the only depictions available, and when actors are typecast in these roles, we are continuing to perpetuate misunderstandings about people and the barriers of prejudice.  Stereotyping is, in fact, unrealistic, because it squashes individualistic portrayals.

Of course, attempts at political correctness can also be misguided. Simply casting minority groups into leadership roles, for example, is a kind of overcorrection. It still on its own does not constitute a genuine attempt to develop realistic, three-dimensional characters.

Our desire for sympathetic portrayals of minorities might also cause us to be unduly sensitive to anything and everything that a script imposes upon that character, so much so that we may miss the larger picture.

Prejudices can be decreased through learning about a minority group through entertainment media, especially if a person has limited personal contact with that minority group.  But prejudice is not best combatted through idealistic and unrealistic portrayals of the minority group. The important thing is not whether the character possesses certain stereotypical characteristics, but whether there is sufficient mixture with other characteristics to complicate the viewer’s impression of that minority group. In order for prejudices to be broken down, the viewer must have sufficient contact with such characters, and the portrayals of those characters must be relatively positive (i.e., they have to be at least as positive as the portrayals of the majority group characters). They do not have to be 100% positive. If they are, we have lost our realism.

In analyzing a character, we should look at the whole range of their attributes. Otherwise we could overestimate the significance of a particular scene or line of dialogue.  When a person from a minority group is cast in a role, our first thought should not be to develop a list of all the things the writers can’t do with the character, and then when the character violates one of those rules, to get upset. Our biggest concern should not be whether we or our friends are made “uncomfortable” by something a character says or has happen to them, but whether the portrayal of the character overall is helping to whittle away the audience’s prejudices.