Doctor Who: Have boys lost their best role model?

The next series of Doctor Who will bring us a brand new actor in the role–a woman in the lead, the first time in the program’s history. Although most of the fans and the public are thrilled and highly anticipating how Jodie Whittaker will play the part, a vocal minority have been resistant to the change. One of the reasons you might hear cited is that, with a male actor no longer playing the Doctor, boys have now lost a positive role model in their lives, and this is the downside of the decision to give the role to a female. I think it’s wise to give greater thought to this idea.

There can be no question that youths need positive influences, and heroes presented on TV are a force for good, when used in the proper way. Moreover, it is true that the Doctor was one of a few male heroes in visual entertainment that generally used his brain to solve problems instead of violence. He is a figure that consistently displays valuable attributes, who stands up for good and right and justice, and sticks up for the lesser people and the ethical treatment of the unlike. With a woman in the role, have young males lost this valuable role model? Not in the least. And here’s why:

The male version of the Doctor has not gone anywhere. ┬áIf a boy loses his father, either through death or abandonment, then yes, one can say that he has lost an important role model in his life (assuming the father was exemplary at least in some ways). The influence of that father is gone. Oh sure, there might be some old photos, letters, or videos taken of the dad, which the boy might be able to view sometimes, but the everyday interaction, the spending of quality time, the intimate conversations–those days are over. Yet it is not the same with Doctor Who. The episodes featuring a male version of the Doctor, hundreds of them, still exist. Oh yes, there may be a few missing episodes, but for the most part, a young man can watch the vast majority of those episodes any time he wishes. He just has to turn on Amazon, or Britbox, or his DVR, or pull out a DVD, and William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann, John Hurt, Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, and Peter Capaldi are right there in front of him, doing their thing exactly as before. And I mean exactly, because each time that boy watches the episode, there is no difference in what he sees from when it was first aired. For all intents and purposes, those Doctors are alive again. And my bet is that most boys have not even seen all the episodes of these Doctors, so many of the productions might be new experiences for him. It even may be that Jodi Whittaker’s time as the Doctor will be over before that boy can even finish watching the old ones. So that positive role model has not left the building.

A woman can be a role model for a boy. Role models come in all shapes and sizes, and they serve different purposes. A young person can learn from many people, and they don’t all have to be the same gender. Ask a single mother, and she will tell you. Yes, a man can certainly be a helpful and very important model for a boy, if the boy needs an example of how to be a man. But a boy does not only need to know how to be a man, he might also need to know how to be a good student in school, or an obedient child, or an industrious worker, or a kind person, or a decent human being in general. Models for those parts of his life do not need to have the same “equipment” as he does. Let’s say your son wants to be a scientist. Who might be his role models for that? Other scientists, of course. And if he wanted to be a firefighter, other firefighters would be his role models. Do those scientists and firefighters need to be men? Of course not. And the reason is because he doesn’t need a scientist to teach him how to be a man. He needs a scientist to teach him how to be a scientist.

Now, the Doctor is a great role model–no doubt about it–an exemplar as a fighter against evil, an investigator, a teacher, a student, a leader, an engineer, a helper, a thinker, a champion of the underdog, etc.–but as a man? Maybe a bit, but that certainly isn’t the primary trait that he is modeling. Saying that the Doctor needs to be male to be a role model for boys is not a far cry from saying he needs to be white to be a role model for whites. His gender, just like the color of his skin, is one of his least important characteristics, and I say this objectively, based on what the program has shown over the years, because it has never really highlighted his manhood or his skin color, other than simply showing his appearance on the screen. When has any Doctor Who script emphasized the Doctor’s maleness as important? Never, as far as I can recall. There are many girls who have cited the Doctor as a role model, even though he is male. And it’s because he provides an example in so many other ways. Should it be any more difficult the other way around? No. A female actor playing the role can still exhibit all of the Doctor’s great features, providing a positive role model for both boys and girls.

The Doctor isn’t the only role model in the program. Since 2005, two names have appeared on the opening titles of the show with regularity, the actor playing the Doctor, and the actor playing his companion. The fact is, the companion is a role model too. Guys who say the tradition of a male Doctor and a female companion should not be messed with agree. On occasion I have heard them say that the Doctor is a role model for the boys, and the female companion is the role model for the girls. Unfortunately they see no reason why young women would need to have any other role model than the companion. What this means is that, for them, the male must always be in the dominant position. He must always be the leader. The female must play the secondary role. She must be the supporter. Perhaps unwittingly, if we say that the Doctor rightly is the role model for boys and the companion the role model for girls, we also seem to be advocating the rightful position of women in subordinate roles in society in general. “Not so!” someone might argue. “Other shows can have women be dominant. I am only saying that about Doctor Who.” But you see, if you are emphasizing the need for exemplary role models in the show, then you must also believe in the example they set.

When the show returns for Series 11, there is a strong likelihood that the companion will be played by a male. If you feel that it is necessary for a role model for boys to be a man, then you should be able to see this companion as such a role model. In fact, wouldn’t you want your son to see how a man might sometimes serve in a secondary position? He may end up getting a job in which a woman is his supervisor or boss. He’ll have to get along with her and show her proper respect. Wouldn’t it be important for him to see, not only how to be a leader, but also how to be a follower? These next few years with Jodi Whittaker might be just the thing for him.

These are three strong reasons, I believe, for rejecting the notion that a positive role model will be lost for boys once a female actor takes over as the Doctor next series. Perhaps on the surface, it may have seemed like a decent and valid reason for being put off by the idea of a woman playing the part. I hope that some deeper thought on this matter will have changed your mind.