Peter Capaldi (back to camera), Jenna Coleman, and Joivan Wade appear in a 2014 episode of Doctor Who
The odds are high that the next star of Doctor Who will again be pale and male. Kris Marshall, probably best known Stateside for his bare butt in Love, Actually, seems to be the likely heir to the TARDIS. But for a moment, it appeared that Michaela Coel, star of the BBC comedy Chewing Gum and an actor of Ghanaian descent, might take over as the BBC’s most famous alien – and that would have been a big damn deal. A black female Doctor would not only prove that women can be more than Companions, but also provide a positive role model for girls of color, demonstrating ability to manifest incredible power and command respect throughout space and time. If the Doctor can look like anyone, why not a woman of color?
Why is this so important? Because representation matters: the media is a powerful influence on our sense of who we are and our understanding of the world around us. While there is a move toward greater diversity in popular culture, it’s still a movement in progress. In response to a recent episode of Doctor Who in which a black actor was cast as a Victorian-era soldier, writer Mark Gatiss commented that “obviously we try all the time to be more representational and to make everything less homogeneously white.” Obviously this is still needed: a 2014 study by the University of Southern California- Annenberg found that, of that year’s top 100 movies, not only were 73.1 percent of the characters depicted white, but of the 21 female leads or co-leads, only three were from racially underrepresented groups. This doesn’t mesh with actual demographics: the 2010 Census said that 50.8 percent of the U.S. population was female, and that 34.8 percent of Americans identified as a member of at least one racial minority. Yet this perspective is largely ignored.
It’s not saying much, therefore, to note Doctor Who’s relative diversity. Yes, the show has cast women of color before: in the 2005 season, the Doctor’s Companion was Freema Agyeman as Dr. Martha Jones; the current Companion, Pearl Mackie’s Bill Potts, is both Black and gay, a first for the role. But there’s a long way to go in establishing an egalitarian dramatic world, and the Companion remains a secondary role; progress toward offsetting years of negative media portrayals means showing a black woman in charge. Full stop. The Doctor is the linchpin of the show, its double beating heart. Companions come and go, but the Doctor (despite the succession of bodies) is constant: maybe more inquisitive or wide-eyed or vinegary at various times, but all ultimately one. Additionally, should Mackie remain, the TARDIS would boast the strong, affirming image of a Black female partnership – a positive example that is typically lacking for all women, as indicated by the film industry’s continual struggles with the Bechdel test (of the 7,000+ movies studied, only 57.4 percent have two named female characters who talk to each other about something besides a man).
This fictional possibility raises awareness about our reality. Women, particularly minority women, are still largely underrepresented in science and engineering professions. The National Science Foundation’s 2016 Science & Engineering Indicators found that only about 29 percent of STEM jobs were held by women. Of those, the 2017 Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering data found that fewer than 10 percent were held by women of color. Dr. Lynnae Quick, a planetary geologist for the Smithsonian Institute, spoke at the recent Awesome Con as part of the event’s exploration of the overlap between the worlds of pop culture and science. “I was a physics major as an undergrad,” she said. “I had one or two professors who were women, none in physics. It’s very difficult for [people] to become what they can’t see.” She talked about the importance of mentors, who were in short supply when she was starting out; she now goes out of her way to make herself visible and available to younger women. “My sister is an elementary school teacher,” she said, “so I go into her classroom.” She visits her own alma mater, Johns Hopkins, and Howard University to talk to undergrads.
The positive role model is essential as both a mirror and a window. Not only do young women need to see themselves reflected positively, but the rest of society – particularly men – need to see these depictions as well. It’s clear, based on Wonder Woman‘s recent success, that a pro-female message is one that all audiences can appreciate: more of this could promote such thinking beyond the big screen. Dr. Quick, for example, still expects to be unfairly judged. “When I walk into a room, people assume I am there for a special reason. I’m a good scientist. [But] when I go to meetings, some people won’t talk to me. So, I insulate myself by surrounding myself with people who create an atmosphere of mutual respect.” The limited voice granted to fictional women and characters of color remains frequently grounded in stereotype and damaging misperceptions. Dr. Quick spoke of the cross-over between this representation and the reality of minority representation. “I think we’ve been raised to think that scientists look a certain way,” she said. “I think it’s a bias.” Art shows us as we are and as we hope to be, both to better understand ourselves and as means of changing perceptions and biases. Stronger examples in our reflected world, such as a new generation of Doctor, help to pave the way for stronger examples in our reality, such as the STEM Ph.D.’s of tomorrow.